Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Perry's sublime "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970), a rare sighting

Carrie Snodgress, singular and great in Frank Perry's inexplicably neglected "Diary of a Mad Housewife"
Last 22 November, I dedicated a post to the late, great Carrie Snodgress, linked to two of her most affecting performances - in John Badham's superb 1971 TV film, "The Impatient Heart," and Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," her compelling breakthrough on the big screen in 1970.

Well, Perry's long-neglected film is also the subject of an excellent Essential Cinema essay by Rob Christopher on the Chicagoist site, timed to coincide with a 35mm screening of the film on 7 May at 7 p.m. at the University of Chicago as part of its Doc Films series.

Thanks to Rob for alerting me about this rare showing of a singular film.

If I could, I'd be there.

Here's hoping that everyone in Chicago supports it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

cinema obscura: Ted Brenner's "Run Home Slow" (1965)

A grindhouse original, but where to start?

First, an admission: I saw this film only once, when I was a kid. "Run Home Slow," the first and only film directed by Ted Brenner, had the distinction of playing on The Late, Late Show on a Philadelphia TV station at the exact same time as its opening in a Philly grindhouse.

That has to be a first.

I remember it - vaguely - as being either truly awful or truly visionary, in an Alejandro Jodorowsky sort of way. What I do recall clearly is the outlandish, quite insane lead performance of Mercedes McCambridge, doing her patented Mercedes McCambridge thing (read: a retread of her performances from Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" and George Stevens' "Giant") as a tough cow-woman bent on revenge. She plays Nell Hagan, the scary matriarch in a family of dim-witted men who are on a mindless quest to avenge the hanging death of their ruthless father. mcCambridge stumbles around here in a Method Actor daze, mouthing monologues of mysticism and in a way that's equally deranged and entertaining - and that prompts one to want to re-evaluate her admired performances as Emma Small (in "Guitar") and the curiously named Luz Benedict (in "Giant").

Linda Gaye Scott, a young starlet at the time and reportedly an heiress to the Scott Paper Company, is on hand as a Hagan cousin who gets cozy with Nell's two brothers (even though they are blood relatives) but is largely on hand to take Nell's driving abuse.

This is a midnight movie that never found its niche.

Shot in black and white in a truly creepy, shadowy style by Lewis Guinn and scored by Frank Zappa - yes, that Frank Zappa - "Run Home Slow" may not be good but, once seen, it is not easily forgotten.

I offer myself as testament of that. In fact, I'd like to see it again.

Sick, right?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The movie year. 2009. so far. not good. for grown-ups.

About a month ago, the box-office tally for the March 20-22 weekend produced a lot of dropped jaws among dedicated movie analysts.

Somehow, the seemingly surefire Julia Roberts-Clive Owen romp, "Duplicity," failed to make the coveted Number One slot, upstaged by a standard-issue Nicolas Cage nonentity titled "Knowing."

Adding to the oddity of it all is the fact that the Cage film appeared to come out of nowhere, whereas the trailer for "Duplicity" seemed to be unreeling in the cineplexes for months prior to its opening.

What went wrong? A lot of wags blamed Roberts, the cads, jumping to the conclusion that her star powers has dimmed. Even the women on "The View" weighed in, suggesting that Roberts' relatively new status as a mom turns off the male audience core that once lusted after her.

Personally, I think the trailer for "Duplicity" made the movie look - how shall I put this? - intricate. A tad too intricate for today's modern attention-deficit audience. Meanwhile, the nakedly adolescent "Knowing" came across as a movie you could, well, sleep through and still "get." Earlier in the year, Owen's "The International," decidedly a film for adults, barely made a blip on the box-office radar. It was here and yet it's wasn't.

It's the weekend of April 17-19. Zak Efron's "17 Again," a generic rehash, also takes movie-watchers by surprise, outdistancing Russell Crowe's sly and superb "State of Play" by several millions. Score one for the kids.


The moral of this disturbing tale:
Julia Roberts was hastily blamed for "Duplicity" not living up to its dollar-sign expectations. It had nothing to do with her status as star or mom.

If you go back and examine the Top Spot (the only place that counts these days) for each movie weekend, you'll notice that, with the possible exception of "He's Just Not That into You," it's been littered with films for kids and/or childlike adults, starting with "Paul Blart, Mall Cop," the year's first official hit. It spent two weeks in the Number One slot.

This hit list also includes: "Friday the 13th" and "Madea Goes to Jail" (both also the dominant films for two weeks in a row), "Race to Witch Mountain," "Monsters Vs. Aliens," "Taken," "Watchmen," "Fast and Furious" and ... drum roll, please ... "Hannah Montana: The Movie."

Maturity, seemingly, is out. Maybe not so seemingly. So is sophistication.

Brainless is in.

Note in Passing:
The weekend that "17 Again" opened, I happened upon Scott Mantz's enthusiastic review of the Efron film on "Access Hollywood." He also had a few positive words to say about "State of Play" but only in passing. (The focus of Mantz's piece was really "17 Again.") He ultimately commented that he couldn't get completely behind "State of Play" because - I'm paraphrasing him now - "you had to pay attention to it too much."

I'm afriad that says it all.

The End.

Monday, April 13, 2009

when funny isn't really funny

Farris and Rogan in "Observe and Report" - Judy Holliday and Walter Matthau for the New Millennium?
Seth Rogan turns in something of a major performance in Jody Hill's "Observe and Report," playing a character nearly as messed up as the movie surrounding him. This is unexpected and yet it really isn't.

Rogan came to movies a fully-formed character actor, despite mentor Judd Apatow's misguided attempt to foist him on us a leading man in "Knocked Up." He's a budding Walter Matthau and, from where I sit, he and Jonah Hill are ready for a Gen-X update of "The Odd Couple."

Jody Hill, meanwhile, is a filmmaker with a lot of great ideas rattling around his head, the best of which was to see the sublime Anna Farris as the new-age Judy Holliday and cast her opposite Rogan.

Hopefully, Rogan's next film will be advertized as "Rogan's Back ... and Farris's Got Him." I could watch these two forever.

But, oy, then there's this movie. Wait 'til you see it.

"Observe and Report" is the kind of "comedy" (I'm going to sound very old now) that expects us to laugh at characters and situations that aren't remotely funny. And I guess that we do laugh. Nervously.

"Observe and Report" has attracted the kind of reviews in which the critic in question has felt obliged to call the film "funny" but with some kind of modification. My favorite: "Numbingly funny." (I won't identify the critic.)

Personally, I'd opt for "squirmingly funny."

Since I retired as a working critic, I am fond of commenting to my wife after just about every other movie I see, "I liked it but I have absolutely nothing to say about it." I mean, take "The Reader" as a case in point. Prestige film, right? Yet, I would find it living hell to have to write about it.

But "Observe and Report" is one of those seemingly nothing movies that makes me feel terminally opinionated. In it, Rogan plays an all-too-familiar modern male figure suffering from what I call testosterone poisoning. Rogan's Ronnie Barnhardt is a pathetic, self-deluded loser who uses his expendable position as security chief at the depressingly typical Forest Ridge Mall to run roughshod over people - mostly other workers at the mall, most minority workers. Almost immediately, "Observe and Report" positions itelf as an edgy social comedy/social commentary.

And, initially, it works on that level. But the problem here is that (1) there is only one character who is even remotely sympathetic (a sweet woman named Nell, played by Collette Wolfe) and (2) Hill has little else but contempt for these characters (sweet Nell included). Even Ronnie's mother (Celia Weston) with whom he still lives, doesn't get off here. She's a flatout drunk who brags that she's "f****d" all of Ronnie's friends.

After a while, as the worthless Ronnie abuses a series of equally worthless victims, the film becomes, well, squirmingly funny.

The dubious moral of all of this: People are crap.

Note in Passing: In real-life, Ronnie wouldn't be even remotely amusing. There's an on-going case in Riverside, Ca. regarding a lost puppy named Karley (right) that was being returned to its owners by a neighbor when another neighbor - a gung-ho, take-charge, authoritarian firefighter - stepped in and took over, only to eventually beat the puppy to death when it didn't want to go with him. Karley suffered a cracked skull in three places; her nasal cavity and ear canal were crushed, and she lost an eye. She had to be euthanized. Check out this sad case on Justice4Karley.

No, a man like Ronnie Barnhardt is no laughing matter.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

cinema obscura: Mervyn LeRoy's "Mary, Mary" (1963) / Jean Kerr on Film

In his Friday, October 25, 1963 review, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:

"Obviously, Mervyn LeRoy did a little bit more than merely place his camera in the Helen Hayes Theater and shoot a straight running photograph of a performance of 'Mary, Mary' to get a film of the Jean Kerr comedy. But you would hardly be able to tell it from the rigidly setbound quality of his film version of the long-run stage play, which came to the (Radio City) Music Hall yesterday."

That just about says it all. Rarely has a film of a play been as faithful as LeRoy's film version of Kerr's urbane comedy, which was the most celebrated stage farce of its time. As Crowther indicated, the work of LeRoy's art director John Beckman and set decorator Ralph S. Hurst borrows heavily from the play's famed designer, Oliver Smith. Debbie Reynolds took over Barbara Bel Geddes's stage role, but the play's leading men, Barry Nelson and Michael Rennie, were back on that familiar set.

Yes, the film - about a divorced couple brought together for income tax purposes - is stagebound, but that's not necessarily bad. I like the idea of being transported back to the Helen Hayes Theater in 1960. The film perfectly approximates the joy of attending a matinee performance of a stylish, sophisticated comedy.

Warners' apprehension about releasing it to DVD is unfortunate, but "Mary, Mary" is not alone: Another LeRoy take on a play - his 1961 film verion of Leonard Spielgass' "A Majority of One" - has also been missing for years. How about releasing them on disc as a double bill?

Jean Kerr, who wrote "Mary, Mary," was of course the wife of the Times' great theater critic, Walter Kerr, and her adventures as the wife of a critic has been the subject of two other films - Charles Walters' bubbly "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960), with Doris Day and David Niven as Jean's and Walter's on-screen surrogages, and Don Weis' "Critic's Choice," the film version of the 1960 Ira Levin stage comedy with Bob Hope as a theater critic whose wife, played by Lucille Ball, writes her own play.

By the way, Otto Preminger directed the original play and Henry Fonda played the role of the critic. "Critic's Choice" is new to DVD.

Artwork: Poster art for "Mary, Mary," "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" and "Critic's Choice," all connected by the late playwright Jean Kerr

Getting back to Debbie Reynolds, she has more than her share of lost movies. Among those missing from home entertainment formats are these made within a five-year period in the early 1960s: Frank Tashlin's "Say One for Me" (1959), George Marshall's "The Gazebo" and "It Started with a Kiss" (both 1959), Robert Mulligan's "The Rat Race" (1960), George Seaton's "The Pleasure of His Company" (1961), Gower Champion's "My Six Loves" (1963) and Vincente Minnelli's "Goodbye, Charlie" (1964). (Sounds like Debbie should get busy on her DVD titles.)

Reynolds' "The Mating Game," also directed by Marshall in '59, is one of the titles at long last being made available through,. Yes, Reynolds and Marshall made three - count 'em - three titles in 1959.

Note in Passing: Some Reynolds trivia... Her co-star in both "The Rat Race" and "Goodbye, Charlie" is Tony Curtis. Glenn Ford is her leading man in both "The Gazebo" and "It Started with a Kiss."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

turner this month - bravo!

The Arthur Hiller cult film, "The Tiger Makes Out," written by Murray Schisgal and starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, gets a rare showing this month.
Times flies when you're having fun. As difficult as it is to believe, Turner Classic Movies turns 15 this year. Happy Birthday! Or would that be Happy Anniversary? Who knows? So it's apt that Turner opens this month with a dual birthday celebration for MGM musical cohorts, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell, both of whom were born on 1 April.

You know, one thing is certain: It's difficult to image - or even remember - what life was like before TCM. Oh wait, I know ... We used to be able to see old movies in theaters - in rep houses - or on college campuses.

But the video revolution put an end to all of that.

So, thank God for Turner Classics. Actually, the word "classics" is a misnomer because Turner's expansive library and free-thinking taste in film makes room for the sleeper, the cult film and the flop as well.

Let's start off with the latter - three musicals that were extremely popular in their day, much to my chagrin. They aren't flops in anyone else's eyes but mine. These views are strictly contrarian. So here goes.

All times, incidentally, are Eastern Time.

The dubious song-and-dance triumverate consists of Charles Walter's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," George Sidney's "Bye, Bye Birdie" (that's star Janet Leigh above) and William Wyler's "Funny Girl."

"The Unsinkable Molly Brown," airing 3 p.m. on 1 April, is the usual MGM watering-down of a Broadway hit. (Metro only seemed to care about its original screen musicals.) Composer Meredith Willson, coming off Warners' hugely faithful film version of "The Music Man," must have suffered some kind of culture shock when he saw what Metro did to his "Molly," excising most of his sophisticated score.

Director Walters reportedly resisted Debbie Reynolds for the role of Molly, even though the role was made for her and even though she successfully starred for him in "The Tender Trap." Walters wanted Shirley MacLaine, who acted for him in "Ask Any Girl" and "Two Loves." But Debbie (above with leading man Harve Presnell) persisted and won the role, while MacLaine ended up doing J. Lee Thompson's "What a Way to Go!," an ever worse movie (from a Comden-Green script, no less).

What's confounding about the movie Molly Brown is how genuinely dislikable she is - alternately grasping and petulant, as she panders to nouveau-riche Americans and condescends to European royalty.

By the end of the film, I wanted her to, well, sink.

This is Debbie Reynolds' favorite role?

"Bye, Bye Birdie," being shown at 1 a.m. 30 April, has unfortunately become a new Turner staple. This is Sidney's Mickey Mouse version of a stage musical that was quite acerbic. The seemingly lovelorn Sidney quite literally turned his movie over to the grotesquely miscast Ann-Margret, sealing its fate as a particularly feeble adaptation of a stage musical.

Incidentally, in its new TV ads, Walmart has appropriated a singularly insipid song from the score, "How Lovely to be a Woman," which, from where I sit, is in a three-way tie with "I Feel Pretty" (from "West Side Story") and "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (from "Flower Drum Song") as the best example of the Broadway sexism that was rampant during the late 1950s.

Last and certainly least, there's "Funny Girl," inexplicably picked by Alec Baldwin as a TCM Essential and airing at 8 p.m., 25 April. The play itself was Jule Styne's half-hearted attempt to rehash his "Gypsy" success, and while Barbra Streisand may have been mesmerizing in the play, on screen, she is overbearing and also extremely bad at lip-syncing her songs. (Her words and mouth are rarely together during the "Don't Rain on My Parade" number.) Sure, she can sing, but for lip-syncing, she should have studied Natalie Wood's precision in "West Side Story."

Getting back to Debbie, you'd to well to check out Curtis Harrington's difficult-to-see "Baby Jane" imitation - "What's the Matter with Helen?" - with Reynolds and, yes, Shelley Winters as two Mama Roses with murder in their shared past. It shows at 5:15 p.m. on 1 April.

Turner devotes a night to three hilarious mockumentaries, the highlight of which is Albert Brooks' trailblazing "American Family" spoof, "Real Life," at 9:30 p.m. 4 April. It is bookended by Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" and Christopher Guest's "Best in Show."

Anthony Perkins takes center stage on 6 April, starting at 6 a.m. with "The Actress," followed by "Green Mansions," "Psycho," "Goodbye Again," "Five Miles to Midnight" and, ending at 3:45 p.m., "The Trial." I'm in for the day.

William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" gets a double-airing - at 8 a.m. 7 April and at 6 p.m. 24 April - and while it's always rewarding to watch stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in arguably their finest performances, this time keep an eye on those great old dames, Fay Bainter and Miriam Hopkins. Bainter, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, gives a Grande Dame performance that's riveting. When she screams, "Silence, child!," you listen. Hopkins, meanwhile, is a hoot as an narcissistic, deluded diva who casually helps destroy her niece's life.

James Garner (above with Hepburn and MacLaine), making his first film outside of the Warner Bros. TV-&-film factory ("Maverick," "Darby's Rangers" and "Up Periscope") , is the very credible male lead here.

TCM, meanwhile, is incredible. It never misses a trick, often paying tribute to filmmakers that even diehard buffs have overlooked and forgotten. Case in point: On 8 April, starting at 8 p.m., with "The Little Fugitive," Turner will screen some of the films of the wonderful husband-wife team of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin (often with an assist by Ray Ashley) - true renaissance artists whose strong independent style and raw verité approach to filmmaking (and in Ruth's case, still photography) predated the French New Wave. Two other titles by this powerfully influential team include "Lovers and Lollipops" and "Weddings and Babies," both excellent and both accompanied by a couple of compelling, must-see documentaries - one on Morris and one devoted to Ruth.

Critics seem to forget, but Arthur Hiller mades some very edgy comedies during the mid- to late-1960s, with 1967's "The Tiger Makes Out," based on a screenplay by Murray Schisgal, possibly his most eccentric. Husband-and-wife team, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, fresh off of Schisgal's Broadway comedy, "Luv," star in this fractured tale of a demented postal worker, with delusions of grandeur, who hatches a kidnapping plot, hoping to ensnare a beautiful woman.

Broadway stalwarts Rae Allen, Bob Disney, David Burns and Sudie Bond co-star. "The Tiger Makes Out," airing at 4:45 a.m. 10 April, joins such other Hiller comedies as "The Hospital," "Popi," "The Wheeler Dealers," "The Out-of-Towners," "The Americanization of Emily," "The In-Laws" and "The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder" as representing a very defininte, very New York period in American fim comedy. Hiller's "Popi," starring Alan Arkin and Rita Moreno, will air on Turner in May.

The always unexpected Richard Fleischer crafts a different kind of Biblical epic - an anti-Biblical epic, if you will - with 1962's commanding "Barabbas," starring the perfectly cast Anthony Quinn in the title role. A brooding, disturbing film, it airs 4:30 p.m., 12 April.

Alternately sentimental and cynical, Michael Pressman's "Those Lips, Those Eyes," being shown at 12 a.m. on 14 April, is a minor classic that has been waiting nearly 30 years to be discovered. Released in 1980, the film is set in the world of summer stock, giving it a lulling, luxuriant ambience, and stars Frank Langella as a has-been ham who nevertheless exercises a certain hold over wide-eyed newcomers Tom Hulce and Glynnis O'Connor. (And whatever happened to her?) For theater freaks, there are scenes and songs from lots of familiar shows here.

Pressman, meanwhile, was a promising filmmaker who debuted with the 1976 B-movie, "The Great Texas Dynamite Chase" and, later, made "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" and the gang film, "Boulevard Nights." "Those Lips, Those Eyes" was his fourth theatrical film (he also made "Like Mom, Like Me," with Linda Lavin and Kristy MacNichol, for TV) and he went on to do Richard Pryor's "Some Kind of Hero" and Dan Aykroyd's "Doctor Detroit," before seguing into TV work. By the way, Pressman's "Boulevard Nights" will be screened by Turner in May.

Arch Oboler's "The Twonky," starring Hans Conreid, is an idiosyncratic curiousity about a college professor whose new-fangled gadget - his TV set - suddenly comes alive and takes over his life, dominating him.

Catch it at 2 p.m. on 15 April.

The ever-underrated Katharine Ross gets her own night on 18 April, starting at 8 p.m. with George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," followed by Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" and blacklisted Abrahma Polonsky's "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here" (which also features her "Butch Cassidy" co-star, Robert Redford).

Blake Edwards was hired to direct the film version of Harry Kurnitz's stage comedy,
"A Shot in the Dark," which starred Walter Matthau and Julie Harris on Broadway, while he was working on "The Pink Panther." He had so much fun with Peter Sellers on "Panther" that Edwards decided to slightly rewrite the Kurnitz play, inserting Sellers' Inspector Clouseau character into the hip, manic action.

Sophia Loren was originally scheduled to play the female lead but dropped out, as did Romy Schneider, Loren's first replacement. A very game Elke Sommer was Sellers' eventual co-star. "A Shot in the Dark," a very funny film (often better than "Panther"), airs at 8 p.m. on 19 April.

Ralph Nelson's "Requiem for a Heavyweight," based on Rod Serling's much-filmed teleplay, shows up at 6 p.m. on 21 April. Pencil it in and savor the performances (and the fascinating contrasting acting styles) of Anthony Quinn, Julie Harris, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney.

Ross Hunter was an actor before he turned to producing and he is amusingly cast opposite the delightful Judy Canova in "Louisiana Hay Ride," directed by Charles Burton. Turner shows it at 9:30 p.m., 22 April

Carol Burnett, already a TV staple, made her feature-film debut in Danial Mann's Dino comedy,
"Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?," and her outsized performance in the 1963 film pretty much stalled her movie career for about 10 years. (She would resurface in 1972 in Martin Ritt's pseudo-serious "Pete 'n' Tillie," with Walter Matthau.) Elizabeth Montgomery popped up here and in William Asher's "Johnny Cool" (also a '63 release) before heading to her "Bewitched" success. An appealing actress, she was probably too small for the big screen. Dino? He's hugely companionable as always. Watch him and the girls (including Jill St. John) at 10 p.m. on 23 April.

Highly recommended: Jay Sandrich's delightful update of the screwball comedy, "Seems Like Old Times," starring the letter-perfect trio of Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase and Charles Grodin. Neglected for almost 30 years now, this one deserves your attention. Howard Hawks would approve. Catch it at 10 p.m. on 24 April. (BTW, 1980 was a banner year for Hawn; she also make Howard Zeiff's "Private Benjamin.")

Someone at the New York Times who probably works on the features copy desk and occasinally write movie capsules once complained that Clint Eastwood
"sings like a moose" in Joshua Logan's "Paint Your Wagon" (2 p.m., 25 April). Not so. Think about it: If Clint has such a soothing speaking voice, how can his singing voice sound like a moose? The hasty Times writer probably confused Eastwood with his co-star Lee Marvin who does sound like a moose - and is supposed to. Clint, on the other, gives near-definitive readings to his renditions of Lerner and Loewe's "I Still See Elisa" and "I Talk To The Trees." For the record, Eastwood has also sung in "Honkytonk Man," "Any Which Way You Can" and "Gran Torino." So there.

Now what can we do to get the Times to correct that pesky gaffe?

David Butler's 1950 "Tea for Two," starring Doris Day, Gordon MacRae and Gene Nelson, is the third screen version of Vincent Youmans' 1924 Broadway chestnut, "No, No Nanette." Why the title change? Why no mention of Youmans's show in the opening credits? Get the inside scoop from Lou Lumenick's essential site. Meanwhile, see the film at 2 p.m. on 26 April. And, yes, that's the inimitable S.Z. ("Cuddles") Sakall, above, spying on Doris Day and Gordon MacRae in a scene from the film.