Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack - filmmaker, actor, a nice man


Good, gray Sydney Pollack is gone.

As one of Hollywood's most reliable mainstream filmmakers, Pollack made movies that the critics gently embraced - perhaps rarely with the enthusiasm they brought to, say, a Robert Altman film but also never with the rancor or sarcasm that greeted the efforts of Pollack's other peers.

He was respected and, more to the point, liked.

The difference between Pollack and other contemporary filmmakers - the secret of his shining success - had everything to do with Pollock's affable public persona both as an occasional film actor and as a ubiquitous representative of the industry he so clearly appreciated and loved.

Pollack was more than a filmmaker. For all intents and purposes, he operated as a one-man film advocacy program - directing films, producing and nurturing the work of other filmmakers, acting in movies and showing up at festivals and on TV specials to celebrate his medium.

Pollack was so smoothly good in his assorted movie performances (his most recent, and last, as Patrick Dempsey's father in "Made of Honor") that his absence was felt whenever his character wasn't on screen.

And on the small screen, he brought style - a mature, solid style - and a refreshing modesty to his appearances on any generic movie awards show (take your pick), that most obnoxious of modern movie accessories.

Meanwhile, in his role as executive producer, he supported the work of filmmakers as varied as Steven Soderbergh, Jez Butterworth, Peter Howitt, George Clooney, Steven Zaillian, Alan Rudolph, Kenneth Branagh, Ira Sachs, Philip Haas and, of course, the late Anthony Minghella, with whom he partnered in the Mirage film production company. Tellingly, Minghella preceded his friend in death just last March 18.

I trust that it's safe to say that Sydney Pollack had taste.

He flourished during the '70s Golden Age, a time when there was the Big Four - Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen - and then ... everyone else, which included Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky, Alan J. Pakula and his former partner, Robert Mulligan, Peter Bogdanovich and Pollack. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seemed to be in a different arena altogether, sneakily plotting the return of The Big Studio Film, while former actors such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were starting to make their marks as auteurs behind the camera.

As a filmmaker, Pollack specialized in prestige think films starring Hollywood's top icons. He churned out a dazzling array of them, eventually winning Oscars as director and producer in 1985 for the Redford-Meryl Streep epic romance, "Out of Africa." Even then, modesty prevailed. He continually downplayed his prowess as a filmmaker, aware that someone like Robert Altman was perhaps more adventurous.

If I were to put together my own mini-Sydney Pollack film festival, I'd have to include "This Property Is Condemned" (1966), "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), "The Yakuza" (1974), "Absence of Malice" (1981), two of his comedies "The Electric Horseman" (1979) and "Tootsie" (1982) and at least two films in which he excelled as an actor - Woody Allen's harrowing "Husbands and Wives" (1992), which has the bonus of Judy Davis, and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999).

Regarding his acting, Pollack was also memorable in roles on television - particularlty as Warren Feldman on "The Sopranos" and as George Truman, Will's father, on "Will and Grace." He was even better as himself when he hosted Turner Classics' "The Essentials."

Pollack's final films as a director were released back in 2005 - one which pretty much defined his artistic interests, the topical/melodramatic "The Interpreter," with Sean Penn and Nicol Kidman, and one that was unusual for him, the documentary, "Sketches of Frank Gehry."

Yes, he slowed down. Dave Kehr best explains this on his blog: "If his work declined in the 90s, it was because the pool of viable stars was beginning to dry up — imagine beginning your career with Lancaster and Mitchum, and finishing it with Cruise and Ford" (Ford being Harrison Ford).

That says it all.

As a producer, Pollack is currently represented by Jay Roach's film for HBO, "Recount." And at the time of his death, he was producing Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," adapted by David Hare from the Bernhard Schlink novel and starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and playwright Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," with Anna Paquin and Matt Damon.

Yes, I'll miss his films. But more than that, I'll miss the man, particulary his familiar, suede-smooth voice. I can see why so many actors shined under Pollack's direction and why so many wanted to work with him - in his role as either director or producer. He conveyed a quiet, reassuring, genuinely masculine strength. Working with him, an actor must have felt, well, safe. I know I always felt that way, whether watching one of his movies or simply listening to Sydney Pollack talk about them.

Note in Passing: Turner Classics will devote the evening of Monday, June 2nd to a mini-Sydney Pollack Movie Marathon, screening his first feature, "The Slender Thread" at 8 p.m. (est), followed by "THree Days of the Condor" at 10 p.m. and "Jeremiah Johnson" at 2 a.m. At midnight, Turner will present Pollack's final interview, conducted by former movie critic Elvis Mitchell.

(Artwork: Sydney Pollack as I will always remember him - smiling and accessible)

Mike Judge's Strangled Masterwork



















Belatedly, I come to "Idiocracy," the singular Mike Judge 2006 comedy that, for some bizarre and hugely masochistic reason, 20th Century-Fox decided to sacrifice. The mistreated movie opened in so few markets in '06, that, for all intents and purposes, it never really opened.

As a working critic, I never fully trusted the movie studios, particularly whenever one of them would try to elicit sympathy from reviewers because the poor studio was stuck with a really bad film.

While my colleagues would buy into the studio line that an unscreened film was a pathetic loser, I generally suspected that politics was afoot. You know, the filmmaker in question probably inadvertantly insulted a studio executive and, as a consequence, his/her film was being punished.

It never ceases to amaze me how a studio can release 10 consecutive lousy films and then single out one of them as the bad apple in the bunch. A case in point: Fox, the major that sidetracked "Idiocracy," also released - and with much fanfare - the depressingly mediocre (and eminently forgettable) "John Tucker Must Die" the same year.

It's a fact: Every studio that tries to "hide" a film from the critics has two or three hyped titles that are much, much worse. It's a little creepy to think that a lot of executives are overpaid to make such dubious decisions.

But let's get back to Judge's "Idiocracy," a spot-on indictment of the seemingly willful stupidity of some Americans. In it, Luke Wilson gamely plays a likably dim-witted guy who participates as a guinea pig in a top-secret Pentagon program studying ... hibernation. When he wakes up 500 years in the future, Wilson's Joe Bowers is the smartest guy in the room.

This is the New America where being literate and articulate are equated with being gay. In fact, much of the recent idiot election talk about dreaded "elitism" could have come directly from Judge's prescient movie. (It's been demoralizing to watch as the two Democratic hopefuls vying for the Presidency dumbed themselves down for working-class America.)

There isn't one joke in "Idiocracy" that is not funny or that fails to nail its target. The film is brilliant. But, apparently, it disturbed some studio suit - or some befogged focus group recruited by said suit.

I have two questions:

1. Didn't someone at Fox read Judge's script before the studio greenlighted the project? Certainly, someone there was aware of the movie's incendiary, blatantly unpatriotic contents.

2. Would the same exact film have been sacrificed if, instead of B-lister Wilson, it starred, say, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey or Steve Carell? I think the answer to that question is obvious. OK, here's a loaded question: Would "Idiocracy" have been so disparaged by its own studio if it came with the currently beloved "Judd Apatow" imprimateur?

For what it's worth, "Idiocracy" dwells in the same deliciously deranged universe as Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack," the Farrellys' "Kingpin" and Judge's own "Office Space." The film is hilarious, hands-down.

But the bigger joke here is 20th Century-Fox which, apparently, still exists in the 20th century - literally.

One final thing... Judge has been remarkably quiet about the fate of his modest masterwork, and there has been some speculation about whether he was complicit in the direct-to-DVD treatment of "Idiocracy." Was it planned all along for the film to be premeditated as another home-entertaiment cult hit, along the lines of "Office Space"? Who knows? But "Idiocracy" seems to have turned into just that.

Note in Passing: Check out Rob Walker's wonderful New York Times magazine piece, titled, "This Joke’s for You" about not only the product placement in "Idiocracy," but also a product it has inspired - Brawndo, “the Thirst Mutilator.”

(Artwork: Luke Wilson, so dim and so wonderful in Judge's "Idiocracy")

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"The Notorious Landlady" Surfaces!


That's Jack Lemmon jumping for joy. Actually, it's a shot from the climatic (and hilarious) foot chase from Richard Quine's long-missing 1962 comic gem, "The Notorious Landlady."

But I'd like to think Jack is jumping for joy over that fact that Turner Classics has come to the film's rescue, scheduling it for a 2 p.m. showing (est) on Tuesday, August 12th, as part of an all-day Kim Novak marathon.

A second lost Lemmon-Quine comedy, 1957's "Operation Mad Ball," had previously been scheduled by Turner for a showing on Saturday, July 19th at 8 a.m. (est). Neither title has ever been released on home entertainment in any form.

I was alerted to the "Landlady" broadcast by a fellow fan of the film, named John, who's from Ohio and who wrote in:

"I share your love of 'The Notorious Landlady.' I saw this film at the Valley Drive-In theatre in Newark, Ohio. It was the first feature of a four-film 'Dusk to Dawn' showcase. We stayed through all four films. Following 'The Notorious Landlady' was 'Ride the High Country' with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, 'Claudelle Inglish' with Diane McBain and Arthur Kennedy and 'Satan Never Sleeps' with William Holden and Clifton Webb. I can't wait to see it again."

Wow. "Claudelle Inglish" with Diane McBain. Another lost title.

John went on to share drive-in memories that made me particularly nostalgic:

"I saved all of the old flyers that our two local drive-ins issued. I have most of them from 1962 up until they stopped printing them around 1971 or so. I'm able to look through them and remember what films I saw.

"We went to two other 'Dusk to Dawn' specials around that time. The first was 'Spencer's Mountain' with Henry Fonda and Maureen O' Hara, 'The Thrill of It All' with Doris Day and James Garner, Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' and 'Gidget Goes to Rome.'

"The final one we went to was made up of 'Days of Wine and Roses' with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, 'Captain Newman M.D.' with Gregory Peck and Tony Curtis, 'A Gathering of Eagles' with Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor and '40 Pounds of Trouble' with Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. That's a lot of movies for one admission price."

Who says movies are better than ever? Those marathons sound like heaven to me, especially at a drive-in venue. Drive-ins were great for families, who could make all the noise they wanted without disturbing anyone; for young couples who wanted a little privacy and for movie buffs who wanted to discuss the film while it was in progress (again, without disturbing anyone else).

But back to "The Notorious Landlady," a tight and tidy mix of Hitchcock hommage and comic sophistication, boasting a particularly literate script co-written by Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart ("A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and TV's "M*A*S*H"), based on a short story by Britain's Margery Sharp that originally appeared in Collier's magazine (under the title "The Notorious Tenant"), the February 3rd, 1956 issue.

Aside from Lemmon and Novak, the top-flight cast includes Fred Astaire, Lionel Jeffries, Estelle Winwood, Maxwell Reed and Phileppa Bevans. George Duning handled the score which makes good use of George and Ira Gershwin's "A Foggy Day" (fitting for the London settng) and strains from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" for the chase finale.

BTW, the day that Turner has set aside for Novak drives home the point that she has a most interesting filmography. Also screening on August 12th are George Sidney's "The Eddie Duchin Story" and "Jeanne Eagles," Mark Robson's "Phffft!" (also with Lemmon), Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid," Delbert Mann's "Middle of the Night," Robert Aldrich's camp classic, "The Legend of Lylah Clare," Quine's "Strangers When We Meet" and "Pushover," Phil Karlson's "Five Agaist the House," Ken Hughes' "Of Human Bondage" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," natch.

All that's missing are Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle," Sidney's "Pal Joey," Otto Preminger's "The Man with the Golden Arm" and Joshua Logan's "Picnic."

Novak is long overdue for a tribute, preferrably at Lincoln Center. She worked with a lot of great filmmakers and must have tons of stories.

As for "The Notorious Landlady," hopefully, it's next stop will be on DVD.

(Artwork: Lemmon in the climatic chase scene in Quine's long-missing "The Notorious Landlady"; Lemmon between takes with Novak, and Lemmon and Novak in a publicity shot for the film)

seductions in the dark: Claude Lelouch's “Roman de gare": A seductive, compulsively watchable cat-and-mouse game


You're in for a treat.

Claude Lelouch, arguably France's most playful filmmaker (even at age 70), has rebounded from his "La Comédie Humaine" trilogy, an aborted but honorable failure, with a nifty cat-and-mouse game called "Roman de gare" ("Crossed Tracks"). His accomplice here is the great French icon Fanny Ardant who plays Judith Ralitzer, a novelist who writes insanely popular whodunits and seems to be every bit as disreputable as the lethal con men populating her books. There’s every likelihood that her books are actually ghost written by a notorious serial killer, The Magician, called that because he regales his victims with magic tricks before dispatching them. Meanwhile, there’s a suspicious character, Louis (the deadpan and delightful Dominique Pinon), who has just picked up a stranded woman named Huguette (Audrey Dana) whom he entertains with … magic tricks. Is Louis The Magician or is he Ralitzer’s secretary, as he claims? Whatever, he comes in handy. Huguette is en route to visit her parents, see, specifically to introduce them to her new boyfriend Paul. But she just broke up with him on the road. That’s why she’s stranded.

So, she enlists Louis to impersonate Paul.

Lelouch directs with much confidence here, taking a seemingly slim story and convoluting it into an enteraining confusion, and Ardant abets him as the imperious superstar novelist. As for her latest story, she could be either writing it, appropriating it or living it - or possibly all three.

Spoken in French with English subtitles, naturelment.

(Artwork: The French poster for Lelouch's “Roman de gare"/“Crossed Tracks”; and the filmmaker himself)

Killing the Souls of Movie Critics


A lot has been written recently about movie critics who are dropping like flies - and, by extention, the demise of film criticism in general, which is the much bigger issue.

Variety's Anne Thompson has written most eloquently on the subject, devoting pieces to critics in general and to Premiere.Com's Glenn Kenny in particular

And, back in April, the Salt Lake Tribune's movie critic, Sean P. Means, compiled a list of 28 movie critics bought out or fired this year (including Newsweek's David Ansen) in a piece cleverly titled The Departed

What hasn't been noted is that movie critics have been dying a slow death for a couple decades now, thanks to Hollywood's shrewd penchant for making movies that are viritually unreviewable (not to say, unwatchable) and the news media's insistance on fluff-and-commerce pieces that, frankly, are soul-killers for critics.

I, for one, think that movie reviewers should review movies, period. There are certainly enough films being churned out today to keep critics busy. Critic-curator-multimedia artist Daryl Chin recently wrote to
Flickgrrl, the movie blog of Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey, offering this jaw-dropping tally: in excess of 650 films opened in New York city in 2007. "That said," Chin adds, "only about one-fifth of those movies will make it out of the big-city indie spots."

Yes, your average movie critic can be kept quite busy these days reviewing films exclusively.

What your average movie critic shouldn't be doing are those soul-killing chores that any features intern can knock out - namely inane lists ("The Top Ten Biblical Epics of all Time!"), seasonal previews ("New 'Indiana Jones' Is the One to Watch This Summer!"), pieces on how much the latest joyless blockbuster has taken in ("'Fill in the Blank)' Joins the Billion-Dollar Club!"), Oscar predictions - does any self-respecting movie critic really care who or what wins an Oscar? - and, yes, even Ten Best Lists.

Those lists are especially annoying because they are delivered at the year-end, a particularly busy time for movie critics - and on deadline, no less - with the top ten often, and understandably, selected in haste.

Speaking from experience, a month after every Ten Best list that I've ever written, I was always disappointed, regretting my picks and wishing I could go back to make upward or downward adjutments.

It's a nonsensical exercise and it prevents critics from doing the necessary - namely, taking time to just think.

One other thing: I'm not sure it's completely healthy for movie critics to do interviews - to get cozy with people they are paid to critique. Actually, it's dangerous. Trust me, jawing with a star or a filmmaker can be very seductive - self-aggrandizing for the critic.

So it's no surprise that I alienated more than one editor on more than one occasion with my rigid views on what a movie critic should do (review only) and shouldn't do (frankly, nothing else).

Which brings me to Andy and Larry Wachowski's "Speed Racer," a film that fails in such an elemental way that it boggles the mind. Here is a movie worthy of genuinely serious criticism, which your average newspaper editor definitely would not want. A serious analysis of "Speed Racer"? I mean, it's a cartoon, right? A live-action animé.

And so, it's tempting for even a good critic to go on automatic pilot for something like the Wachowski film, writing a disposable review of a depressingly disposable movie, often for purpose of self-preservation.

Soul-killing.

Note in Passing: Come June 29th, it will be a year since Joel Siegel died, and by all appearances, "Good Morning, America," the ABC show for which he reviewed movies, has made no effort to replace him. Oddly enough, I've a hunch that Siegel would liked "Speed Racer."

(Artwork: Emile Hirsh in Andy and Larry Wachowski's "Speed Racer")

Monday, May 12, 2008

cinema obscura: Two with Jennifer Jones


The achingly beautiful Jennifer Jones was an enticing combination of the enigmatic and the sensual.

Typically, Hollywood really didn't know what to do with someone whose appeal was starkly natural - who didn't seem manufactured along the lines of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford (and I say that as someone with an unbound admiration for all three actresses, particuarly the much-maligned Crawford).

And so it is no surprise that during her all-too-brief, 30-year screen career, Jones performed in the shadows of Davis, Hepburn and Crawford - both as an actress and a media darling. She made three films as Phylis Isley before breaking through as Jennifer Jones in the title role in her beloved Henry King's 1943 "The Song of Bernadette."

Jones retired in 1974, after appearing in John Guillermin's swanky disaster epic, "The Towering Inferno." She's the exact kind of neglected icon to which this site is dedicated. Frankly, I've grown weary of the decades of buzz (sustained over the years by critics and historians who should know better) about David, Hepburn and Crawford.

Correcting this oversight is ever-resourceful Film Society of Lincoln Center which, beginning May 16th and continuing through May 24th, will screen a program at the Walter Reade Theater (65th Street at Amsterdam) titled "Saints and Sinner: The Tempestuous Career of Jennifer Jones," featuring twelve of her films, both the hits and the criminally neglected.

It's the latter that interests me, two titles in particular, both from Fox - neither of which is available on home entertainment.

There will be two screenings of Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955), a sentimental, inspirational fable, a la "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," that was an audience favorite in the '50s. Like "Chips," Koster's film is about a dedicated teacher (Jones in the title role) whose precision and perfectionism are mistaken for rigidity and coldness.

Jones takes the character from youth to old age and few scenes are as memorable as the ones detailing Miss Dove's retirement or the emblematic, heart-stopping moment when two of her former students, now adults, gallantly carry Miss Dove in a way that pays tribute to her regal bearing. Most touching. "Good Morning, Miss Dove," being screened May 18th at 4:30 p.m. and again on May 23rd at 6 p.m., softly delineates how emotional attachments aren't always played out in the same way.

Henry King, as stated, oversaw Jones in her first major film role in "The Song of Bernadette," directed her in one of phenomenally popular films, "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," with William Holden, and in a movie that was to be his last - the 1962 adapation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," filmed with much fidelity to the book.

Jones, with her penchant for conveying uncontrolled, tempestuous passion, was born to play Nicole Diver, who meets her better half, Dick (Jason Robards, Jr., in one of his first screen roles), in a sanitarium.

This role and this story, which spans decades, cannot be played small, and Jones doesn't even try, using her actorly mannerisms to perfection. The supporting cast - and what a cast - includes Tom Ewell, Joan Fontaine and Jill St. John, and Bernard Hermann contributed another one of his great scores.

"Tender Is the Night," which runs 146 minutes, screens on May 22nd only, at 8 p.m.

The Film Society's Jones program will overlap with one dedicated to the singular Charles Boyer, the rare Frenchman who made an effortless and successful transition into American films. Ernst Lubitsch's divine "Cluny Brown" (1946), which of course co-stars Jones and Boyer, will be screened at 6:15 p.m. on May 16th and at 4:40 p.m. on May 24th.

Critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris will introduce the film at the May 16th screening. The Boyer program runs from May 2rd to May 27th, also at the Walter Reade.

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

(Artwork: Jennifer Jones in one of her more popular roles - with William Holden in Henry King's "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" - in CinemaScope; teaching students in Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove" and sharing a scene, a memorable one, with Robert Stack and Biff Elliot in the same film; Jones with Jason Robards in King's "Tender Is the Night," and Robards with Jill St.John in the same film)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How "Home Entertainment" Ruined Movies


Not too long ago, I was having lunch with my friend, Carrie Rickey, movie critic
for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I asked her a question which, up until that point, had merely been an elusive thought - a thought that had been nagging me for a few years.

"Why is it," I asked, "that I find it more special to watch 'Vertigo' when it's shown on Turner Classics than to watch my DVD of it?"

Fact is, I've never watched my DVD of "Vertigo," even though I made a point of rushing out to buy a copy as soon as Tower Video (remember Tower Video?) had it in stock.

Carrie's theory is that it's a holdover from the moviegoing experience itself, which limits to a degree where and when we can see a movie. The fact is, Turner Classics has replaced the neighborhood rep house, recreating the experience of seeing a specific title at a specific time. And, by doing so, it makes a film that is fully accessible on DVD seem, well, almost rare. And special again.

Movies are not difficult to see anymore and, frankly, I'm not sure that's a good thing.

When "Vertigo" was first released, I was a kid. I'm not sure I undersood the film - in fact, I'm fairly certain that I didn't - but I loved it nevertheless. It played at my neighborhood theater for only three or four days. (Back then, two new films opened every week - one on Sunday and then one on Wednesday.) I had to see it whenever I could because, once it was gone, it was gone for good. I think I saw it at least three times during its engagement; I know I sat through it twice in one day.

It may have been committed to memory but it was still missed once it left our theater.

I wouldn't encounter it again until many years later when it popped up on television. Each TV showing, sometimes spaced years apart, became an occasion for a party. Friends would join me, even if it was on The Late, Late Show, and we'd indulge ourselves in bad food and good Hitchcock.

Occasionally, I'd venture to New York to see a revival showing of it at the Thalia or the Waverly.

It was difficult to see. A fact which made it precious. My inability to see "Vertigo" whenever I wanted somehow made it even more special.

By the mid-1970s, things changed. I didn't have much time for friends - or family - because my new friend was my Betamax, which was inevitably replaced by a VCR. On any given night, and certainly every weekend, I could be found locked away in my little apartment with - what?- five television sets, three video recorders and 547 videotapes which contained, by my count, 1,064 movie titles.

The problem was, I taped films but I didn't necessarily look at them. Once I had "Vertigo" on tape, I stopped watching it because, well, it was always there. It was suddenly accessible. It was right there in my bookcase. Now, I could watch it whenever I wanted to. But I didn't.

I eventually purchased a studio-produced VHS of "Vertigo," which traveled from apartment to apartment, from house to house, until I ran out to buy the aforementioned DVD of it. Which, as I've said, I've also never watched.

I only see "Vertigo" now when it's on Turner - which actually is often, given that it's a staple of the cable network.

With a kind of perfect circuity, I pencil it on my calendar whenever I see it listed in the Turner Classics guide, blocking out the afternoon or night when it's being televised. My wife and I open wine - from Northern California's wine country, which is apt - and eat popcorn. Sometimes we share Scotch and thick steaks, just as James Stewart and Kim Novak do at Ernie's in the movie.

"Vertigo" has remained one of my special films - no thanks to home entertainment and the video/DVD revolution.

Now, anyone want my unopened DVD? Cheap.

(Artwork: Vintage lobby card for Hitchcock's "Vertigo," featuring Stewart and Novak in an intimate moment.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

seductions in the dark: Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" - The $100-Million Iraq War Movie


Jon Favreau, bless him, has been able to accomplish what no other contemporary filmmaker has been able to do, not even a master of Brian DePalma's stature.

With his shrewdly-made - and very well-made - new film, "Iron Man," Favreau has conjured up the first movie about the on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the private contractors and profitteering that drive them, that moviegoers not only are willing sit through but are actually clamoring to see.

Favreau's film opened to $100.8 million in ticket sales over the weekend.

Unlike other CG-driven films, "Iron Man" is serious (rather than just somber), intelligent (instead of just glib) and leisurely-paced. Credited scenarists Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have provided Favreau with material whose first hour is actually devoted to detailed exposition and character delineation. They've also penned some crackling, hugely literate dialogue.

As a result, the remarkable Robert Downey, Jr. is able to Method-Act his way into the role of filthy-rich (and often soddened) entrepreneur Tony Stark, whose Fortune 500 company, Stark Enterprises , provides the United States military (and, by extention, its enemies) with high-tech weaponry used in New Age wars.

That is, until Tony's own body is left wracked by his inventions and he is suddenly stricken with pangs of conscience.

Tony reinvents himself as Iron Man, the ultimate lethal weapon, as he mutters monologues and dialogue about the "accountability" of people in power. Sound familiar?

"Iron Man" may have the hard, handsome appearance of the super-hero flick, but there's a subtext here that's decidedly political.

Gwyneth Paltrow is an unexpected and refreshing presence as Pepper Potts, Tony's efficient but womanly assistant, and a near unrecognizable Jeff Bridges seems to be channeling Fred Thompson in the role of Obadiah Stane, Tony's duplicitious, hawk-like older partner. (I have no doubt that, had this film been made a decade ago, Thompson himself would have played this role.)

Favreau, who has come a long way as a filmmaker since "Made" (2001) and "Elf" (2003), two modest hits, has quite simply given us the best film of the year to date. That may not mean much to you, but the only other films this year that I've come even remotely close to admiring are Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges," George Clooney's "Leatherheads" and Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream."

What can I say? It's been that kind of year. For me, at least.

(Artwork: Robert Downey, Jr. as Marvel Comcis' Tony Stark, aka Iron Man; and his ever-maturing director, Favreau)

Monday, May 05, 2008

second to none: Minnelli's "Some Came Running"


Say what?

The New York Times' Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek collaborated on an entertaining DVD preview, "For Air-Conditioned Living Rooms," in Sunday's special Summer Movie Preview section and, while everyone's opinions on film are more or less valid, I feel compelled to challenge something that Taylor wrote.

Taylor covers Warner Home Entertainment's new, five-disc "Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years" (one of four boxed collections devoted to Sinatra that Warner is releasing this season) and declares: "'The Tender Trap' and 'The Man With the Golden Arm' are the most interesting films in the collection." I like both films, especially compared to two other titles in the set, "None But the Brave" and "Marriage on the Rocks."

However, the fifth title in the collection is Vincente Minnelli's sublime "Some Came Running," a version of the James Jones novel that is full of Minnelli's lyrical touches and observational wit and ensemble playing that remains unmatched.

Sinatra, arguably the '50s' reigning acting auteur of male alienation, is in his prime here, playing a fascinating anti-hero battling the rigors of self-recrimination. And he's ably backed by Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Leora Dana, Connie Gilchrist, Larry Gates, Steven Peck, Betty Lou Keim, John Brennan and the singular Carmen Philips. Not a single bad performance among them.

"Some Came Running," a fully-realized work, is clearly the crown jewel in this set.

Inarguably.

Note in Passing: "Some Came Running" will be aired by Turner on Thursday, May 22 at 4:45 a.m. (est) as part of its on-going Sinatra salute this month.

(Artwork: Sinatra and co-star Shirley MacLaine in a typical vintage studio publicity shot for Minnelli's "Some Came Running")

Thursday, May 01, 2008

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.




As celebrated as Frank Sinatra had been in his life, he was also somewhat underrated. It was simply a matter of a performer being so good at so many things that some people, even those who should have known better, took him for granted - because he made it look so very easy.

This shortsightedness should be remedied as Turner Classics devotes its schedule on Sunday and Wednesday nights this month not only to Sinatra movies but also to Sinatra concerts. Get ready to be impressed.

Maybe even for the first time.

May 1: The month kicks off with an early-morning screening of Walter Forde’s British-made “Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt,” the umpteenth version of Brandon Thomas’ durable play, “Charley’s Aunt.” For fun, stay tuned for Frank Capra’s remake of his “Lady for a Day” - “Pocketful of Miracles,” which feels like a musical without music – and Blake Edwards’ efficient, highly creepy “Experiment in Terror,” in which Glenn Ford feverishly tries to stop psycho Ross Martin from literally breathing down Lee Remick’s neck.

May 2: Only a filmmaker as secure and original as Eric Till would have cast Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith, an eclectic duo if there ever was one, in “Hot Millions,” adding the acerbic Bob Newhart for good measure. Then there are two with Bing – “High Society, in which he gets to croon (memorably) with Frank S., and the very fine “The Country Girl,” in which he gives arguably his best performance ever as an alcoholic, duplicitous actor being given a second chance. Grace Kelly won the Oscar as his put-on wife here and, although Judy Garland’s blindly loyal fans may disagree, Kelly deserved the award. (Garland was nominated the same year for George Cukor’s elephantine downer, “A Star Is Born.”) “The Country Girl” is currently on Broadway with Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher (in the Bill Holden role).

May 3: “Marnie” – Hitchcock’s sexiest film, thanks to the commanding, studly presence of Sean Connery and the little-girl wispiness of Tippi Hedren. Plus John Huston’s garish, colorful, never boring “Moulin Rouge.”

May 4: More Hitch and Tippi: “The Birds.” Plus the two Shirleys (Booth and MacLaine) in Joseph Anthony’s version of Thorton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” Novak and Douglas steaming things up, most memorably, in Quine’s “Strangers When We Meet,” “Torch Song,” with classic Joan Crawford, and the Mervyn LeRoy-Sinatra tolerance short, “The House I Live In.”

May 6: Two by Pressburger-Powell - “I Know Where I’m Going,” with Wendy Hiller and “Age of Consent,” teaming Helen Mirren, in her first film, with James Mason. Delmer Daves directs Sinatra opposite Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood in “Kings Go Forth.

May 8: “Never So Few.” Sinatra. Directed by John Sturges. Backed by Gina Lollobrigida and Steve McQueen. Plus “None But the Brave.” Sinatra. Directed by Sinatra.

May 9: Annie Potts makes a delightful, eccentric presence as an offbeat young prostitute in Matthew Robbin’s unfairly overlooked
“Corvette Summer.”
Tennessee Williams receives arguably his best screen adaptation ever in Richard Brooks’ version of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Paul Newman as hustler Chance Wayne and Geraldine Page as desperate, aging movie star Alexandra Del Lago. Newman also pops up in Robert Wise’s “Until They Sail,” in which Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie and (in her screen debut) Sandra Dee play Australian sisters. Plus Ranald MacDouglall’s “The World, The Flesh and The Devil,” in which only Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer survive a nuclear disaster.

May 10: “Trapeze,” seedy fun and Eurotrash ambience with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, all provocatively dressed in skin-tight leotards. Directed by Sir Carol Reed.

May 12: Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” receives rather arch screen treatment at the hands of Joseph L.Mankiewicz but, you know, I’m starting to think the problem is the material itself. No one speaks with contractions here and it becomes annoying after the first ten minutes. Sinatra is really in his element here, but oddly enough, he’s upstaged by non-singers Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons who are surprisingly good and vocally fine. Plus Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.”

May 13: Curtis Bernhardt’s “The Merry Widow,” with Lana Turner; the first version of “Enchanted April,” by Harry Beaumont, and Dennis Morgan and Eleanor Parker in Delmer Daves' “The Very Thought of You.”

May 14: Wallow in Stanely Donen’s sophisticated “Indiscreet,” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, plus two Sinatra comedies, Charles Walters’ popular “The Tender Trap,” with the top-notch cast of David Wayne, Debbie Reynolds and Celeste Holm, and Jack Donohue’s difficult-to-see “Marriage on the Rocks,” co-starring Deborah Kerr and Dean Martin. Meanwhile, Doris and Rock rock in “Lover Come Back.”

May 15: Sinatra’s “High Society,” also directed by Walters, gets a repeat showing, followed by Stanley Kramer’s misguided “The Pride and the Passion,” with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, and Frank Capra’s endearing “A Hole in the Head,” which offers up Edward G.Robinson and Thelma Ritter as Sinatra’s brother and sister-in-law and Carolyn Jones and Eleanor Parker as his love interests.

May 15: “Dirty Dingus Magee” by Burt Kennedy. This was supposed to be Sinatra’s last film. It’s not good. Luckily, he followed it up with a first-rate TV movie, “Contract on Cherry Street,” and the theatrical film, “The First Deadly Sin,” opposite Faye Dunaway. Much better. Plus Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.”

May 16: Peter Hyam’s compelling “Capricorn One,” about a faked shuttle launch to Mars. Two with Henry Fonda, directed by Burt Kennedy – the comedy “The Rounders,” co-starring Glenn Ford, and the very dark “Welcome to Hard Times,” with Janice Rule.

May 17: “The Hunger,” Tony Scott’s very chic vampire romp with David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

May 18: “The Party,” Blake Edwards’ antic (and hilarious) farce about a party unwittingly sabotaged by Peter Sellers’ dense Indian actor. (Can anyone else see this as a remake with Steve Carrell?) Plus John Rich’s “Boeing Boeing,” the Tony Cyrtis-Jerry Lewis comedy based on the British stage farce that’s back on Broadway; George Marshall’s “The Mating Game,” in which perennial second banana Tony Randall gets to play leading man opposite Debbie Reynolds, and George Sidney’s revamped version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey,” with Sinatra playing Sinatra and San Francisco as itself. Plus Hayworth, Novak and a fab score.

May 19: Doris Day joins Sinatra in Gordon Douglas “Young at Heart,” a quasi-musical remake of “Four Daughters.” Two of our best pop singers ever – for the first and only time – on screen together. The wonderful supporting cast includes Gig Young and Elisabeth Fraser, who would join Day in Gene Kelly’s “Tunnel of Love,” Robert Keith, Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Malone, Alan Hale, Jr. and Lonny Chapman.

May 20: A must-see: Ken Loach’s revolutionary 1966 British TV film, “Cathy Come Home,” with Carol White and Ray Brooks as a young married couple whose life together spirals downward as lost jobs and strained finances lead them down the nowhere path of homelessness. Loach, a social advocate, had previously directed the TV version of “Up the Junction,” which dealt head-on with abortion. (It was subsequently adapted into a 1968 film by Peter Collinson with Suzy Kendall.) His is a verité style that never stoops to theatricality. “Cathy Come Home” is harsh and tough to watch. But you must.

Plus, a day with Jimmy Stewart – two by Hitchcock, “Vertigo” and “Rear Window,” Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” and Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder.”

May 21: Frank and his Rat Pack/The Clan in Lewis Milestone's accidental classic,
“Ocean’s Eleven.”

It may be only so-so, but it's cool as hell. Plus "Sergeant's Three," the Rat Pack version of "Gunga Din." John Sturges directed.

May 22: Frank and company also got together for the disposable “4 for Texas,” directed by Robert Aldrich of all people. And the masterwork of the Sinatra film collection - Vincente Minnelli's compulsively watchable “Some Came Running,” in which there isn't a single bad performance. Frank is especially first-rate here.

May 23: Spielberg's notorious flop, “1941,” is actually pretty good - in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" sort of way. The USO dance sequence is a standout and implies that the film itself should have been a musical. Jack Lemmon shows up in two of his more entertaining films - Richard Quine's “My Sister Eileen,” with a pleasing Jue Styne-Leo Robin score and early Bob Fosse choreography (before it became terminally mannered), and Arthur Hiller's “The Out-of-Towners,” with Sandy Dennis, surprisingly, in peak comic form. This film, hastily dismissed, has grown with age.

May 27: Curious Cliff Robertson line-up - David Swift's “The Interns,” with an all-star, no star cast; Peter Tewkesbury's “Sunday in New York,” with Rod Taylor in the role Robert Redford created on stage; Alexander Singer's Lana Turner soap, “Love Has Many Faces” and Robert Aldrich's atmospheric “Autumn Leaves” with a fine Joan Crawford.


May 28: Don't miss Don Siegel's hard-hitting “The Line-Up,” which inspired the TV series and stars Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in rare leading roles, and Robert Parrish's terrific "The Mob," with Broderick Crawford and Richard Kiley. More from Parrish - “Duffy," with James Coburn as a gentleman crook. James Fox and James Mason co-star. The surefire Sinatra line-up, all dramatic, includes Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” Frankenheimer's “The Manchurian Candidate” and Kramer's “Not as a Stranger.” Frank's train scene with Janet Leigh in "The Manchurian Candidate" is a piece of superb, subtle screen acting.

May 29: Sinatra compellingly cast as a would-be presidential assassin in Lewis Allen's “Suddenly.”

May 30: Two by Roy Ward Baker - John Gregson in a drama of family and alcoholism, “Jacqueline,” and “The Singer Not the Song,” about a priest trying to bring religion to a small town. Dirk Bogarde, Jon Mills and Mylene Demongeot star. Plus, Mark Robson's “The Seventh Victim,” in which Kim Hunter, out to locate her sister, falls in with satanists.

And that's it. I've just one, final question: Where is the Don McQuire Western, "Johnny Concho" among Sinatra's films? It hasn't been seen in ages, which is too bad as Sinatra rather convincingly plays a sniveling coward living in the shadow of his brother, a notorious killer, and throwing his weight around because of his sibling's intimidating reputation.

(Artwork: Definitive Sinatra; Remick and Ford in "Experiment in Terror," Connery in "Marnie," Novak and Douglas in "Strangers When We Meet," Newman and Page in "Sweet Bird of Youth," Newman and Simmons in "Until They Sail," Bergman and Grant in "Indiscreet," Hayworth, Sinata and Novak pose for a publicity still for "Pal Joey," Day and Sinatra on a lobby card for "Young at Heart," Brooks and White in "Cathy Come Home," the courtyard set for Hitchcock's "Rear Window," Novak is transformed in "Vertigo," a New Yorker magazine ad for "My Sister Eileen's" engagement at Gotham's now-shuttered Victoria Theater, and Betty Garrett, Lemmon and Janet Leigh in the film itself)