Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Importance of Being Robert

Familiarity breeds contempt, the old adage goes.

I believe wholeheartedly in old adages. Even when one rubs me the wrong way and I try to disprove it, the adage usually wins. Still, there have been rare exceptions.

This occured to me about ten years ago, when I was still a full-time professional movie critic. I watched both the Turner Classics and American Movie Classics cable channels as a matter of course and became aware of just how effective Robert Osborne and Bob Dorian were as movie hosts, respectively. Both were courtly, low-keyed and about as far away from overbearing as a TV host could get. I never tired of them. In this case, familiarly bred comfort - a soothing, lulling comfort.

Well, as every movie buff knows, something bizarre happened at American Classics. The programming changed, and then Dorian left, followed by the equally affable Nick Clooney, both replaced by a younger face who exhibited little interest in movies and even less in their history.

That left just Osborne.

Since 1994, Osborne has hosted TCM's films - and has virtually been the face of the cable channel - with a pleasing mix of civility, subtle authority, a humane sense of humor and a keen knack for knowing the difference between opinion and fact. He has never confused the two.

As an interviewer, he's exhibited an invaulable ability to broach uncomfortable situations and to ask tough questions without seeming intrusive or obnoxious. And he has made his guests feel welcome without resorting to the kind of fawning that has made James Lipton (of "Inside the Actor's Studio") so difficult to watch.

Osborne is not afraid to say something negative. Even the best films and performers have flaws. But he manages to convey this without the slightest hint of mean-spiritedness.

Of course, carrying a cable channel just about solo (despite occasional co-hosts) can take its toll and, frankly, at times, the idea of "All Robert, All the Time" can get to be a bit much. So, the addition of Ben Mankiewicz to the Turner slate a few years ago, was a good move.

An authentic child of the film industry, Mankiewicz is as breezy and nonchalant as Osborne is reserved and urbane, and he brings a refreshing young-Hollywood-guy-about-town to his hosting job. When he cuts loose out of the studio, getting behind the wheel of a vintage red Mustange convertible, Mankiewicz conjurs up the fleeting appeal of L.A.'s sunny ambience.

The movies that Turner shows should be enough, and they usually are. But you occasionally need a guide, someone to welcome you and take you on a tour.

Turner Classics lucked out with Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz. They get the job done, with a seeming effortless ease and a genuine respect for the medium they're covering and celebrating.

Familiarity? Absolutely. And that's good.

(Artwork: Bob and Ben of TCM)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, May 27, 2007

cinema obscura: Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" (1975)

Criminally maligned - and mostly by people who haven't even bothered to see it - Peter Bogdanovich's sublime homage to the '30s film musical, "At Long Last Love," is ripe for a little rediscovery and some decided re-evaluation.

But this is unlikely to happen, given that its releasing studio, 20th Century-Fox, has kept the film buried and off home entertainment for more than three decades now. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Fox recently saw fit to give Walter Lang's rather embarrassing "Can-Can" (1960) the deLuxe, two-disc DVD treatment.

Driven by a rich Cole Porter score (of familiar standards and melodies more esoteric) and filled with an affable cast of good sports - Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn, Dulio Del Prete, Eileen Brennan, John Hillerman and Mildred Natwick as playboy Reynolds' dowager mother - the film is a classic still waiting to be discovered.

Bogdanovich was arguably at his most creative on this movie, filming it in color but designing it largely in black-and-white, so that the only colors in the film are his actors' skin tones. He also enlisted his cast of game, nonprofessional singers to perform their songs live, every one of them, and despite the hasty assumptions that were made at the time of the film's release, the singing is fine here - more than fine actually, given that Shepherd, Kahn and Del Prete all sport trained voices, while Reynolds affects a soothing Dean Martin-style croon.

To complement the stress-free singing, choreographer Rita Abrams kept her dance routines light and easy-going. The result is that the dancing here has the off-the-cuff, scratch-pad casualness of the in-between numbers in the Astaire-Rogers films. The film doesn't feel choreographed.

"At Long Last Love" is clearly an attempt to impersonate the movies of Fred and Ginger, with Bogdanovich affecting the unobtrusive directorial style that George Stevens and Mark Sandrich brought to the dancing team's films. It is decidedly old-fashioned in its artificiality, but "At Long Last Love" is also post-modernist, mixing in a neo-realist musical style pioneered by both Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. It's a daring experiment that works - again, despite what you've heard.

Curiously, several versions of the film exist. Under the gun to get "At Long Last Love" out in the summer of 1975, Bogdanovich delivered a print clocking in at 118 minutes. Following the disasterous critical reaction, the film was cut down to 105 minutes. Two versions of it, in fact, played Radio City Music Hall. The film that opened there was not the same movie that closed. (Regarding the critical reaction, I hasten to add that there were/are several reputable critics who actually like "At Long Last Love.")

The syndicated TV version is even shorter, although it reinstates some fleeting, charming musical bits that were originally cut for time. The 16mm version of the film, which runs roughly 130 minutes, presents "At Long Last Love" in its most complete form and includes the two numbers that originally opened the film - a terrific "Down in the Depths" by Kahn and Del Prete's "Tomorrow." (As conceived, each of the four lead characters had an introductory song, although Kahn's and Del Prete's were excised just before the film's release.) Still missing, however, is Mildred Natwick's "Kate the Great" number.

Given that Fox has no interest in the film, it would be great if it handed it over to Criterion, so that Bogdanovich could put together a definitive archival edition.

If only.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Original artwork for Fox's "At Long Last Love")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, May 26, 2007

façade: John Wayne @ 100 Years

If he were still with us, John Wayne would turn 100 today. But the fact is, he never left us, thanks to those indelible, iconic images preserved on film and thanks especially to the popularity of home entertainment.

Wayne was arguably the first "film personality," someone known more for his presence than for his acting ability. In fact, despite the fact that he made classic films under the tutelege of some of our greatest filmmakers, Wayne was largely unappreciated as an actor, a situation that was exacerated by his politics in general and by his involvement in the incedinary "The Green Berets" in particular.

It wasn't until he made Henry Hathaway's "True Grit" (for which he won an Oscar) and, later, Don Siegel's "The Shootist," that Wayne was finally, belatedly, appreciated for the companionable, lived-in quality of his acting. He was finally on par with Gary Cooper, who was always considered more of an actor but less of a film force.

And so, in celebration of Wayne's birth, your own personal, at-home film festival is advised. At the top of the list, I'd recommend, Howard Hawks' "Red River," John Ford's "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Allan Dwan's "The Sands of Iwo Jima," Ford's "The Quiet Man," Howard Hawks' rousing "Rio Bravo," Ford's seminal "The Searchers" aand the aforementioned "The Shootist." (I was never a fan of "True Grit.") On the lighter side, go with Hathaway's North to Alaska" and Hawks' "Hatari!"

Savor Wayne and learn why film acting is such a singular, near-intangible accomplishment. The good ones - you can't catch acting for a second. They just are. And so it was - is - with John Wayne.

(Artwork: An atypical view of The Duke, on vacation in Acapulco in 1959 and looking strikingly different, thanks to Phil Stern's camera lens)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Monday, May 21, 2007

Roman Polanski Says It All On the Croisette

According to a report from the Associated Press, Roman Polanski abruptly exited a news conference at this year's Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, but not before giving a collection of movie journalists a long overdue lecture on how to do their job which, in the scheme of things would seem rather unnecessary, given that their job is wildly easy and pretty cushy.

When the moderator announced that there were only two minutes left of the interview session, Polanski, 73, took the microphone and said, "It's a shame to have such poor questions, such empty questions. And I think that it's really the computer which has brought you down to this level. You're no longer interested in what's going on in the cinema.” He then suggested that they all go have some lunch.

All that I can add to Polanski’s terse disapproval is, “Bravo!” However, I’m uncertain that it’s fair to blame computer technology for the near-willful stupidity that has taken place within movie journalism. Yes, computers have made movie writers lazy, what with the ease of the cut-and-paste function and the instant research, but the dumbing down process started years ago.

I personally declared a moratorium on group interviews and round robins about 20 years ago when I realized just how demoralizing and embarrassing it was to sit there and listen to one fawning, inane question after another.

Exacerbating matters was the fact that when someone dared to ask a serious, potentially compromising question, it was usually followed by panicky glares not just from the filmmaker being interviewed but also from their handlers and resident flaks and the other film writers.

This reaction from the latter group is emblematic of the fan mentality that has critics buying into studio frenzy about the latest summer blockbuster which, invariably, usually proves to be a dud.

During one of my last interviews, I was literally ostracized during the process by an actress who got upset when I asked why the original director of her film, the late John Berry, was fired. She promptly iced me out and went on to answer burning questions about her relationship with her then-boyfriend, who wrote the film in question, and about why she changed her trademark hairstyle. Instead of writing an interview, I reported on the whole situation. Sweet revenge.

Anyway, there are precious few places to read serious film interviews. Maybe only in Film Comment. Beyond that, I come up empty. Sad.

(Artwork: Portrait shot of a young Roman Polanski; it's reassuring to report that at age 73, he's still scrappy)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Peyton Reed's "The Break-Up"

This is one of those perfectly fine films which was critically penalized because of what went on behind the scenes - namely, the off-screen break-up of star Jennifer Aniston and her husband Brad Pitt and her eventual/alleged hook-up with her co-star, Vince Vaughn.

Too bad because what the critics missed while making bad, prurient jokes about celeb hijinks is an uncompromising, often harsh but very accurate examination of a relationship unraveling. In this comedy, the "jokes" hurt. They're unusually brutal.

It's impressive that the astute script was written by two men, Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick, because they're created an amazingly empatheic role for Aniston who tears into it as if it were a raw slab of meat. Her performance here is auspiciou, as she registers disappointment and frustration in counterpoint to Vaughn's glib, unfeeling self-entitlement. The guy definitely comes off worse here.

The actual scene in which the pair breaks up - and extended arguement played out in real time - is arguably the best screen writing done last year. That scene alone, which runs about ten minutes, can stand on its own as a complete, self-contained movie.

Definitely worth a second look, now that the tabloid dust has settled.

(Artwork: Still shot of Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston in Universal's "The Break-Up")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Donen's "Staircase" Sighted!

Good news.

This just came in from poster Daryl Chin:

"Staircase" alert! TCM will be showing "Staircase" in June as part of their focus on gays in Hollywood cinema series. (Other movies include "The Fox", "The Boys in the Band", "Advise and Consent", as well as a number of pre-code rarities.)

Actually, "Staircase" airs on Turner at 8 p.m. (5 p.m., pst) on Wednesday, June 27, followed by "The Fox", "The Boys in the Band" and, best of all, "The Killing of Sister George." My advice: Stay up all night - or tape.

(Artwork: Poster art from "Staircase")

Matt Prigg on "Dreamgirls"

Cheers to Matt Prigg of The Philadelphia Weekly for his concise analysis of why "Dreamgirls" fails as the so-called triumph of the film musical:

"How many times does this bombastic, glibly self-satisfied dissection of the Supremes actually feature characters just breaking into song? Not on a stage, not in a recording studio - just breaking into song like it's the most natural thing in the world, as characters are wont to do in movie musicals? Hint: Think low."

No, "Dreamgirls" is a triumph of the anti-musical, not the musical. I, for one, am tired of Bill Condon's timid, hugely overrated approach to the genre.

If you're going to make a musical, make a musical.

(Artwork: DVD dustjacket cover of "Dreamgirls")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983) with Kevin Costner

In all it's various home-entertainment incarnations - on Beta, VHS, LaserDisc and DVD - Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983) has never materialized with Kevin Costner's footage, which of course was cut prior to the film's initial release. Why? Why not reinstate it or at least include it as a chapter-stop feature?

(Artwork: Dustjacket art for the DVD of Sony's "The Big Chill")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Friday, May 04, 2007

turner this month - bravo!

Note: This is a regular monthly feature, highlighting, well, the highlights on Turner Classics' schedule. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film. Say no more.

Turner Classics celebrates both Marlon Brando and the Cannes Film Festival this month with two original documentaries - the two-part "Brando" (being shown May 1 and 2), which will be accompanied, natch, by a slew of Brando titles, and Richard Schickel's "Bienvenue Cannes," which will be complemented by several international films that played the revered but tacky film fete, everything from "The Cranes Are Flying" to "Lili."

Beyond these two TCM events, here are a few other assorted titles scheduled this month that I highly recommend:

Today (May 4): "Green Mansions." A curiously strange film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, written by playwright Robert Anderson and directed by Mel Ferrer. It's not particularly good, but not easy to shake either.

May 8: "Alice Adams." George Stevens directs Katharine Hepburn in one of her earlier signature roles, as Booth Tarkington's edgily ambitious heroine.

May 10: "Dancing Lady." Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in a light dancical in which Crawford looks especially young and vulnerable and especially attractive. She's kind of heavy footed as a dancer, but a good sport. A real divertissement.

May 12: "The Naked and the Dead." Raoul Walsh's lurid adaptation of Norman Mailer's lurid war novel was a minor sensation in its day. Aldo Ray and Barbara Nichols, both inimitable, are a hoot together. Good trash.

May 13: "A Raisin in the Sun." Daniel Petrie directs Sidney Poitier and his Broadway co-stars in this faithful version of the Lorraine Hansbury play. The late, great Diana Sands shines as Poitier's incorrigible younger sister.

May 14: "Angel Face." A must-see. Under Otto Preminger's sterling direction, Jean Simmons is wicked fun in the title role of a killer femme and sleepy eyed Robert Mitchum is as sexually intimidating as always.

May 17: "Lili." A one-song musical. Honest. It was "The Sound of Music" of the 1950s - only better.

May 18: "Electra Glide in Blue." One of the overlooked gems of the New Wave in American filmmaking of the 1970s. It's on late but worth taping.

May 24: "The Glass-Bottom Boat." Frank Tashlin directs Doris Day in a breezy romp; "Boys' Night Out." Doris Day-type '60s sex comedy, only with Kim Novak who flirts memorably with James Garner, Howard Duff, Howard Morris and the wonderful Tony Randall.

May 26: "A Face in the Crowd." Elia Kazan's ever-topical media film, from Budd Schulberg's adaptation of his story, "The Arkansas Traveler." Terrific cast.

May 27: "Houseboat." Cary Grant was always great with kids and this is one of his best family-friendly comedies. Now, will someone please show "Room for One More"?

May 29: "The Facts of Life." Lucille Ball and Bob Hope in an atypically adult - and surprisingly randy - comedy about infidelity. Someone should unearth their "Critic's Choice" one day. (Hint, hint.)

May 31: "His Girl Friday." Peerlessly wordy comedy with Cary and Roz. Say no more.

Check your local starting times.

Note in Passing: "Lonely Are the Brave," David Miller's evocative modern Western, already aired (on May 1), but fear not. Turner shows it quite often. It stars Kirk Douglas and is reportedly Douglas' personal favorite film.

(Artwork: Aldo Ray bares it all in Raoul Walsh's difficult-to-see "The Naked and the Dead" on TCM this month.)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

façade: Sigourney Weaver

In Jake Kasdan's modestly entertaining and insightful "The TV Set," Sigourney Weaver's soulless network boss gets off a few zingers worth repeating. Here's a sampling:

On originality: "Truthfully, 'origninality' scares me a little."

On what doesn't constitute sex appeal on TV: "You can't buld a TV show around a theater actor with bad hair and a beard."

On what sells on TV: "Sex will always beat disgusting food on TV."

On her hit reality series, "Slut Wars": "If you can;t sell 14 sluts in the Caribbean, you've got problems."

On why she went with a certain actress for a new series: "She doens't let her cuteness get in the way of her hotness."

On why she passed on another actress for the same role: "I think she has fake breasts and, over time,the audience will feel that."

What's so funny is that it all sounds so real.

(Artwork: Sigourney Weaver in all her glory)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com