Friday, July 18, 2008

Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957)

Jack Lemmon turned in one of his finest, most assured and confident and also most unheralded performances in 1957's ”Operation Mad Ball,” Richard Quine's long-lost military farce that will be receiving a rare showing on Turner Classics at 8 a.m. (est) on Saturday, July 19th.

To date, Sony has yet to release this minor gem on any home entertainment format, although it was reported recently on "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia," Dave Kehr's lively blog, that both it and "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), also directed by Quine, would be part of an upcoming boxed set devoted to Lemmon.

"Mad Ball," written by Jed Harris, Blake Edwards and Arthur Carter (adapted from Carter's play), is something of a '50s Playboy cartoon that can't be maintained as a single-frame strip and comes hilariously to life - what with the usual barracks of horny guys quietly lusting after female officers who are enticingly buttoned up in their regulation uniforms.

Lemmon plays Pvt. Hogan, the incorrigible schemer who hatches a plan to bring the men and (willing) women together at an illegal military bash to end all illegal military bashes. It's an ensemble piece with perfectly cast ensemble performers but, still, Lemmon manages to take center stage and command it but without ever really hogging it.

His Pvt. Hogan plays like a natural extention of his Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts" (1955), coated with a nice knowing swagger and a little more maturity. Actually, Hogan plays like a combination of Pulver and Roberts and I've a hunch that Lemmon planned it just that way.

His smooth delivery of the unexpectedly literate dialogue and witty banter (you can see Edwards's fingerprints on most of the quips) may be better than his line readings in even "The Apartment." This is Lemmon during his naturalist period, with no finicky bits of business to get in the way.

And his remarkable rapport and generosity with the cast around him only hightlights his - and the film's - naturalism.

Look for memorable bits by then-newcomers Dick York, William Hickey, William Leslie, James Darren, Roger Smith, Paul Picerni, L. Q. Jones, David McMahon, Sheridan Comerate and Dick Crockett (director Quine's right-hand man off screen and frequent co-star in his films) as the various guys in awe of Hogan's assorted shameless cons.

Ernie Kovacs, in a terrific film debut (and the first of three films that he made with Quine and Lemmon), makes a fastideous villain as Hogan's rigid nemesis; the always-reliable Arthur O'Connell is the camp's endearingly befuddled commander; Kathryn Grant (Crosby) supplies the sweet love interest, and Jeanne Manet, a wonderful, little-know French actress who disappeared from the screen far too soon, is outstanding as Madame LaFour, the cynical French woman who provides Hogan with a location for his mad ball - for a price.

And then there's Mickey Rooney, running, jumping and dancing all over the place as a hipster soldier (and York's cousin) who talks like a '50s beat poet way ahead of his time. The film is set in 1945.

In many ways, "Operation Mad Ball" is the '50s precursor to Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970), boasting the same amount of irreverent, dark humor. The only difference is that it uses Coke in lieu of blood for one of the film's funny visual gags. (You have to see the film to get it.)

I mean, here is a military comedy that, not unlike "M*A*S*H," locates humor in the word "coagulate."

Note in Passing: The title song performed over the film's opening credits was composed by Fred Karger with lyrics by director Quine. It is sung by an uncredited Sammy Davis, Jr.

(Artwork: A newspaper display ad for Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" and the usual studio publicity shots - standard for that era - of stars Lemmon, Kovacs, Grant and O'Connell)

the contrarian: "Mamma Mia!"

There's been a silent campaign for the past two decades or so to kill off - or at least, demonize - the film musical, and critics, whether they want to take ownership or not, have been complicit in this subversion with reviews alternately condescending, snarky and almost willfully ignorant.

These qualities have dominated the hilariously predictable initial reviews of Hollywood's newest musical, the ABBA-inspired "Mamma Mia!" It's been amusing to read some of the more representative reviews. (see Note in Passing below) On average, they've ranged from the begrudgingly favorable (i.e., those critics who had fun with the movie but don't want to necessarily admit it) to begrudingly unfavorable (those critics who resent they even had to sit through it, let alone had to actually write about it).

If you read between the lines, your basic review - tantamount to an exercise in self-aggrandizement - essentially claims, "Cool people don't like ABBA and, hey, I'm way too cool, you know."

Well, coolness be damned. I liked it. Of course, I like film musicals in general but not the ones that have been deemed "acceptable."

Full disclosure: I think (a) "West Side Story" is unwatchable, (b) "Cabaret" is excruciating, (c) "The Sound of Music" should be "put in a vault" (to borrow a favorite phrase from Disney Home Entertainment), and (d) that anything created by the late Bob Fosse is irritatingly mannered.

Now that I've all but destroyed my credibility, let me say this about "Mamma Mia!" It's a hugely satisfying hodgepodge of old Hollywood staples and conventions, taking a plotline reminiscent of the 1968 Melvin Frank-Gina Lollobrigida comedy, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," adding a middle-aged Gidget to the mix (named Donna and played by the very game and pert Meryl Streep, seemingly in tribute to pert Sandra Dee) and giving it the giddiness of the grand "let's-put-on-a-show" movie-musical tradition. Only in this case, it's a wedding that's put on, not a show.

Got that?

As an added bonus, there's the gorgeous scenery (Kastani Beach, Greece), those songs (that dare you not to bob and smile), that cast (having the kind of fun that's contagious) and the joy of discovering a talented new star (Amanda Seyfried, who shrewdly plays Streep's daughter Sophie as a kid who's more mature and stable than her mother).

So, what's not to like? Just about the perfect summer movie, "Mamma Mia!" is like taking a tiny vacation.

But, hey, I way too uncool, you know.

Note in Passing: Looking for a reason - any reason - to dislike the film, the always scintillating A.O. Scott of The New York Times came up with a whopper. Picking at nits, he writes:

"A song lyric refers to the 'time of the Flower Power.' (Surely you remember the Flower Power!) But Sophie sure doesn’t look 40. At one point, Harry recalls the Johnny Rotten T-shirt he had back when he knew Donna, which is 10 years closer to the mark but still about 10 years off."

Jeez, it's only a musical, Tony, and a rather frivolous one at that.

(Artwork: The always remarkable Streep goes diva in "Mamma Mia!," and Scott of the NY Times)

Monday, July 14, 2008

cinema obscura: Mervyn LeRoy's "A Majority of One" (1961) sighted!

Toward the end of his directing career, Mervyn LeRoy created something of a comfortable cottage industry, directing the movie versions of Broadway hits for Jack Warner, starting with Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen's "Mr. Roberts" (1955), in which he took over for John Ford when Ford became ill.

Then came Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed" (1956), Ira Levin's "No Time for Sergeants" (1958), Leonard Spigelgass' "A Majority of One" (1961), Arthur Laurents' "Gypsy" (1962) and Jean Kerr's ”Mary, Mary” (1963).

"A Majority of One" airs Tuesday, July 15th at 10 p.m. (est) as part of Turner's on-going trubute to Rosalind Russell, following an 8 p.m. (est) screening of Joshua Logan's "Picnic" (1955).

Spigelgass' play about middle-aged love, was directed by the legendary Dore Schary and ran for 556 performances. Russell stars in the film with Alec Guinness and it's safe to say that both are pretty much cast against type in the roles created on stage by Gertrude Berg and Cedric Hardwicke.

Russell plays Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow urged by her daughter (played by Madlyn Rhue ) to venture beyond her native Brooklyn and travel ... to Japan. Japan! Mrs. Jacoby's only son died during World War II fighting the Japanese. Begrudgingly, she goes and falls in with Mr. Asano (Guiness), a widower who is ... Japanese. Their shared attraction and cultural differences both exhilarate and frighten them. Exacerbating this are the societal pressures, which will be frequent and likely to be harsh.

"A Majority of One" is one of three consecutive films responsible for making Russell a pariah among New York's Broadway community. She was the theater's darling when she was on the boards in "Wonderful Town" and "Auntie Mame," but all that goodwill was lost when it was perceived she was "stealing" roles that belonged to other actresses.

In 1962, following "A Majority of One," Russell took on Jessica Tandy's role in Daniel Mann’s film of the Peter Shaffer play, “Five Finger Exercise,” followed the same year by LeRoy's filmization of "Gypsy," in which she dared to take on Ethel Merman's role as Madam Rose.

Much of the bad press surrounding "Gypsy" at the time of its release, reporedly orchestrated by the vitriolic New York gossip columnist Dorothy Killgalen, had nothing to do with the completed film and everything to do with Russell's participation in it.

"Gypsy" is also included in Turner's current tribute, airing Tuesday, July 29th at 10:30 p.m. (est), but alas, "Five Finger Exercise" isn't. Also missing is one of Roz's great oddities, the movie version of Arthur Kopit's “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad,” directed by a former young actor who appeared with her in the film of "My Sister Eileen" - Richard Quine.

Maybe next time.

Note in Passing: Two very good late-career LeRoy films that have become just about impossible to see but are worth tracking down are ”Home Before Dark” (1958) and ”Wake Me When It’s Over” (1961).

(Artwork: Poster art for LeRoy's "A Majority of One"; Rox in various poses as Mrs. Jacoby, and the poster for Leonard Spigelgass' original play)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

observations, rants, complaints, ruminations, pesky questions, and rude opinions & comments

Viewpoint: Gillian Armstrong's "DeathDefyingActs," starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, opened in New York yesterday with a postage-stamp size display ad in The New York Times and a review of some brevity by one of the Times' second-string critics.

It is the most recent example of a film by estimable filmmakers and actors to be given the bum's rush in an overcrowded movie market.

Another example is the Aaron Eckhart-Elizabeth Banks comedy, "Meet Bill" (directed by Bernie Goldmann and Melisa Wallack), which opened in Philadelphia recently, with no display ads in the leading newspapers and no advance screening. It played without ever being reviewed and was gone in a week. The DVD was just released. (Looming as an example of either good or bad timing - take your pick - Banks is also currently in the new Eddie Murphy film, "Meet Dave.")

These titles were preceded by Paul Schrader's "The Walker," starring Woody Harrelson, Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas and, together again for the first time since "Nashville" (and again playing husband and wife), Lily Tomlin and Ned Beatty and by newcomer Christopher N. Rowley "Bonneville," with Jessica Lange, Joan Allen and Kathy Bates, both of which received token, half-hearted openings in limited markets - like New York and Los Angeles exclusively.

Meanwhile, Amy Heckerling's "I Could Never Be Your Woman," which teams Michelle Pfeiffer with Paul Rudd, went directly to DVD, bypassing theaters altogether. Jeez, time was when a Name Star opened a film.

Times have changed. Apparently.
* * *

Pesky Question #1: IFC's recent screenings of Bob Rafelson's 1990 wonder, "Mountains of the Moon," had me wondering.

In the past year or so, there's been a rebirth of interest in the career of the late, great Hal Ashby, with both critics and filmmakers taking turns at honoring the director. And when Altman died in November of 2006, the film/criticism community seemed to go into a period of mass mourning.


But what about someone like Rafelson who is still very much alive, although he's been largely inactive of late? His last theatrically-released feature film was 1996's "Blood and Wine" with Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez. (Does 2002's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't "The House on Turk Street," Samuel L.Jackson, actually count?)

Bob Rafelson is a man who, along with Ashby and Altman, helped develop and define America's fleeting New Wave of filmmaking in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Give the man some attention already!

And while I'm at it, whatever happened to the career of Rafelson's dashing "Mountains" star, Patrick Bergin who played Richard Francis Burton in the film and who seemed positioned to become a major star along the lines of Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell?

Just asking.

* * *

Pesky Question #2: Another filmmaker who was crucial to 1970s moviemaking and who is now largely ignored is Paul Mazursky. Like Ashby, he made a handful of films in the '70s that remain indelible and invaluable, two of which are almost impossible to see these days.

When The Film Society of Lincoln Center paid a rare tribute to Mazursky in May of 2007, these two titles were missing for the schedule - 1971's inside eccentricity on modern filmmaking, "Alex in Wonderland," and the unjustly underrated "Willie & Phil" Mazurksy's 1980 take on Truffaut's "Jules et Jim."

"Alex in Wonderland" had Donald Sutherland contributing a memorably solipsistic performance and "Willie and Phil" arguably offered Michael Ontkean, Margot Kidder and the late Ray Sharkey their best roles on film.

* * *

Speaking of Turner, its recent showing of Victor Fleming's 1941 horror classic, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," starring Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman, drove home the point just how marginalized and limiting movies have become. There was a time, after all, when horror wasn't necessarily the lowly step-child of the movie industry, exisiting only to meet box-office demands and provide work for C-level actors. It was once the stuff of substance and prestige.

But thanks to decades of destructive marketing techniques, Hollywood has learned to hastily discard genre after genre (not just the horror film), successfully disenfranchising just about all moviegoers from everything except films for guys - namenly action films and beer-keg comedies, both now slavishly computer generated.

Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth"/"El Laberinto del fauno" of 2006 promised something more for the genre. Maybe del Toro still can legitimize horror once again. Maybe in Europe. But here?

* * *

Complaint: The latest incarnation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific" on Broadway is just a gnawing reminder of how the piece has always been oddly cast - and of the one big missed opportunity in terms of casting.

To date, the character of French planter Emile de Becque has been played by everyone but a Frenchman. On stage, Enzio Pinza created the role. Italian. The London production has Wilbur Evans. British. The 1958 film version starred Rossano Brazzi. Italian. The 2001 TV version featured Rade Sherbedzija. Croatian. The 2001 London revival starred Philip Quast. Australian. The 2005 Carnegie Hall concert version gave us Brian Stokes Mitchell. African-American. And the currrent Broadway revival stars Paulo Szot. Brazilian.

The one person truly made for the role (in my opinion) and who never played it (to the best of my recollection) is the late Yves Montand.

On, well, one can dream, right?

(Artwork: Bacall and in Schrader's "The Walker"; Pfeiffer and Rudd in Heckerling's "I Could Never Be Your Woman"; Allen, in the back seat, with Bates and Lange, at the wheel, in "Bonneville"; display ad for Mazursky's "Alex in Wonderland"; the writer-director, left, with his then-partner and co-writer Larry Tucker and Sutherland on the set of "Alex," and Yves)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

cinema obscura: Steve DeJarnatt’s "Miracle Mile" (1989)

Whatever happened to Steve DeJarnatt?

His second film, 1989’s "Miracle Mile" - his follow-up to his first film, "Cherry 2000" of 1987 - is a very special movie, drop-dead beautiful and with an intense sense of style that's matched by its excellent, legendary script.

DeJarnatt's original screenplay was written way back in 1978 and chosen in 1983 by American Film magazine as "one of the 10 best unmade scripts." Its originality and lack of compromise frightened Hollywood, I suppose, and so DeJarnatt spent the next 10 years working on other people's movies.

He made his directorial debut with the much-touted premiere episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" revival - "The Man From the South," starring John Huston, Melanie Griffith, Steven Bauer and Tippi Hedren - and then made his big-screen bow directing Griffith in "Cherry 2000" (which was never released theatrically by Orion).

In the meantime, he persisted and finally persuaded John Daly of Hemdale to let him make "Miracle Mile." And his small movie is just about perfect.

DeJarnatt's plot is a boy-meets-girl romance that's threatened to be aborted by a nuclear catastrophe. And the situation that cleverly sets it all in motion is what happens when the wrong person answers a phone.

Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a traveling jazz musician (he plays the trombone) - single and shy - who meets the woman of his dreams in a natural history museum near the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A.

Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) is a waitress who works the night shift at Johnnie's Coffee Shop, a 24-hour diner in the Park Brea district. (The movie's title comes from the famous strip along Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard that connects the preserved fossils of the tar pits to the area's contemporary skyscrapers.)

Anyway, they make plans for a big date - at one in the morning, after Julie gets off from work. Well, Harry gets there three hours late - Julie, brokenhearted, is long gone, having headed home to sleep off her depression, with the help of some pills. How Harry manages to stand her up provides a good example of the movie's details and ricocheting quality: He's on the balcony of his apartment, smoking, when he flicks away his butt. A pigeon picks it up and takes it to the electrical wire where it's nesting. A fire breaks out, blacking out Harry's apartment and thereby cutting off his alarm clock.

So he's three hours late.

Harry is about to call Julie on the pay phone outside Johnnie's when ... it rings: The voice on the other end is calling from a North Dakota missile silo. He's hysterical and has obviously misdialed. He wanted to talk to his father, to apologize for something and to warn him that the base's warhead has been locked into countdown: "We shoot our wad in 50 minutes!" Then there's the sound of a gunshot and another voice comes on: "Forget everything you just heard."

In a scene reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock's "The Birds," Harry tries to tell Johnnie's motley assortment of night crawlers (a transvestite, two truck drivers and a yuppie stockbroker named Landa, who is speed-reading "Gravity's Rainbow") what's about to happen. Is it real or a sick joke?

Landa (Denise Crosby, granddaughter of Bing), who happens to know the right people, makes a phone call and learns that a state of readiness is in the works. Incredibly, she lines up a helicopter to transport everyone there - and some others (including "Tom and Jane") - to the South Pole, where the air apparently will be clear of radioactivity. But if he's only got a little time left, Harry wants to spend it with Julie and embarks on a romantic chase to find her.

When he does, DeJarnatt comes up with another zany touch: Julie is still in a deep sleep, zonked out, and so Harry just plops her in a shopping cart and races through a deserted, very noir-ish L.A. in the dead of night.

"Miracle Mile," with its ripe camera work (courtesy of Holland's Theo Van de Sande), is over-the-top filmmaking, all twisty and quirky and bizarrely funny - like a fever dream. And visually, it's like a love poem to a very special time - the hours between darkness and dawn, as neon signs blink on and off and the morning light gradually seeps through buildings and alleys.

The film, released briefly on VHS, has gone full circle and is now forgotten or only half-remembered. As the line from Ernest Dowson's poem goes (I'm paraphrasing), it emerged from a misty dream, for a while, and then closed, within a dream.

Try finding it.

Oh, yes, to answer my initial question, Steve DeJarnatt eventually segued into television. He never made another feature after "Miracle Mile."

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

(Artwork: Poster art for "Miracle Mile"; Anthony Edwards in a scene from the film, and the real Miracle Mile, the strip along Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard that connects the preserved fossils of the tar pits to the area's contemporary skyscrapers)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

façade: Jane Lynch

One of the few reasons to go to the movies these days - one of the very few reasons - is the inventively comic Jane Lynch, a most companionable on-screen friend who brightens every film she's in and whose dry, intelligent presence is seriously missed when she skips a scene.

Arguably, one of the more indelibly insane moments in contemporary farce came when Lynch propositioned Steve Carell, playing her character's employee in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," asking with her usual casual, off-the-cuff directness, "Andy, ever heard the term, 'f--- buddy'?"

For her reading of that line alone, Lynch fully deserves the Artistic Achievement Award for Acting that she'll be receiving on Saturday, July 12th at The 14th Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which runs in Philly from July 10th to July 22nd.

Since breaking through playing Carol Brady in the stage spoof, "The Real Live Brady Bunch" in the early '90s, Lynch has moved on become a staple ensembled performer in the film comedies of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow. She has literally a dozen upcoming film appearances - no kidding! (check out IMDb) - due out between now and 2009, culminating with her role (as the third lead) along side Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Nora Ephron's "Julia & Julia." Can't wait.

Can't wait also for someone - anyone - to pick up the second season of the wildly funny 2006 improvised series, “Lovespring International” (that played for one season on Lifetime, of all places), in which Lynch headed a cast of assorted mixed nuts as Victoria Ratchford, the owner of a pathetic Tarzana, Ca. dating agency. And where is the DVD of the first season?

Finally, as an out actress and activist, Lynch has participated in two gay-oriented documentaries, Lisa Ades and Lesli Klainberg's "Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema" of 2006 and Daniel Andries and Alexandra Silets's upcoming "Out & Proud in Chicago," which she narrates.

(Artwork: The companionable Jane Lynch)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

façade: Bill Holden

Pauline Kael dubbed Cary Grant as "The Man from Dream City," and to a certain extent, William Holden was a product of the same place, only perhaps a tad more accessible and a good deal more leathery.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is currently exploring the many sides of Holden - his leading man dreaminess, his everyman accessibility and the way he turned leading roles into rough-hewn character parts - in a substantial tribute that plays at the Walter Reade Theater (65th Street at Amsterdam) through July 15th.

Yes, the usual suspects are on hand - the debut film, "Golden Boy," the humbling "Our Town," the Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kawi," the Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch"), the Edwards ("S.O.B."), the Wilders ("Sunset Blvd," Sabrina" and "Stalag 17"), "Network" and the very essential, hugely arousing "Picnic," with Kim you-know-who.

But so are "The Lion" (the Jack Cardiff film which apparently was very personal to Holden, an avowed wildlife perservationist) and "Breezy" (the underrated Clint Eastwood film with Kay Lenz, equally underrated) and "The Key" (Sir Carol Reed's stark take mortality) and the terrific "The Counterfeil Traitor" (George Seaton's compulsively watchable wartime drama co-starring the greeat, envaluable Lili Palmer).

Best of all, there's Wilder's forgotten "Fedora," based on the book by Thomas Tyron, which Holden and Wilder use as a vehicle to hauntingly recall "Sunset Blvd." in particular and old Hollywood in general. It's exquisitely decrepit and, once seen, impossible to shake.

(Artwork: Vintage Holden, a classic)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

the movie year. 2008. so far. unannotated.

Here are - to date - my personal film favorites for the first half of 2008.

THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR: (Drum roll, please!)

* "In Bruges" (Martin McDonagh, Great Britain/Belgium)

And listed in no particular order, the rest:

* "The Visitor" (Tom McCarthy, United States)

* "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"/"4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile" (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

* "Cassandra’s Dream" (Woody Allen, Great Britain/United States/France)

* "Redbelt"(David Mamet, United States)

* "Love Songs"/"Les Chansons d'amour" (Christophe Honoré, France)

* "Iron Man" (Jon Favreau, United States)

* "Savage Grace" (Tom Kalin, United States/France/Spain)

* "You Don’t Mess with the Zohan" (Dennis Dugan, United States)

* "Roman de Gare" (Claude Lelouch, France)

* "Noise" (Henry Bean, United States)

* "The Bank Job" (Roger Donaldson, Great Britain)

As for as other specifics and details, I'll pass - except to single out Colin Farrell as the year's best actor for his flawless, equally committed back-to-back work in "Cassandra's Dream" and "In Bruges."

Now, on with the rest of the year...

(Artwork: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in the year's best film, "In Bruges," and the comic/brooding Farrell, the year's best actor)