Saturday, August 29, 2009

Miyazaki's shimmering "Ponyo"/"Gake no Ue no Ponyo" - bliss made simple

Miyazaki's eponymous little heroine and Sōsuke conjur up simplified bliss in the mesmerizing "Ponyo"
Hayao Miyazaki's latest work, like Disney's "The Little Mermaid," is based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable of a sentient fish that wants to be fully human. The difference, of course, is that in "Ponyo" ("Gake no Ue no Ponyo"), Miyazaki's eccentric creativity is in top form. It is at once more over-the-top and yet more simple than Disney's "The Little Mermaid," although both employ the same, soothing pastel color palette.

There's a strong sense of serenity here, which is of course derived from the affecting Anderson story but also largely from Miyazaki's child-like hand-drawn animation. The story remains essentially the same: A willful little fish - named Brunhilda, but renamed Ponyo by Miyazaki's young hero, Sōsuke, who rescues it - is determined to remain landbound, even though the pull of the sea is great. Assimilation is never easy. It has to be earned. And one of the more humbling features of "Ponyo" is how hard its plucky little heroine works towards that goal.
(Ponyo's name, according to Wikipedia, is based on Miyazaki's idea of what a "soft, squishy softness" sounds like when touched.)

Some of Miyazaki's past films have been released here in both their original Japanese versions and their American-language adaptations. So far, only the John Lassiter-supervised version of "Ponyo" is available here, although it's difficult to quibble when the vocal talent is so extraordinary. Noah Lindsay Cyrus and Frankie Jonas enrich Miyazaki's visuals with their astute line readings as Ponyo and Sōsuke, respectively, but it's Tina Fey who anchors the film with her expressive turn as Sōsuke's working mom.

Of course, they are all inspired by Miyazaki who, apart from his inimitable visuals, makes excellent use of a series of quirky ambient sounds, as well as Joe Hisaishi's music - a major score that not only keeps the film always moving but often soaring.

If there's a soundtrack album from this movie, I want it. Now.

"Ponyo" is simply bliss made simple.

cinema obscura: François Girard's "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993)

The compelling Boston-born, Canadian-based actor Colm Feore received a rare showcasing in his best role to date in "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993), the inventively fragmented bio-documentary by François Girard about the famed piano prodigy. Girard's formidable accomplishment is that his film works as a mediation on the distance between the physical sensation of the man's art and the memory of him.

Gould was noted for his interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which consists of 32 short pieces of music. Inspired by this, Girard's wholly original film (co-written with actor-filmmaker Don McKellar) offers 32 impressions of Gould which range from interviews with people who knew him to short recreations of aspects of his life, plus some odds and ends. Unlike most biopics, this one doesn't aim to be definitive or conclusive, but leaves the viewer with a vague sense that there is no resolution. Which is exactly what makes it unique.

But Gould comes evasively to life in this ingenious, near-surreal take, thanks largely to Feore's shimmering, anchoring performance.

Lee's "Taking Woodstock" - no takers

The surprisingly tepid response from both the critics and public to Ang Lee's sauntering, most companionable "Taking Woodstock" probably has less to do with the movie itself than with the legendary event that it documents and celebrates in a shrewdly peripheral way - 1969's Woodstock Music & Art Fair, staged on a dairy farm and immodestly billed as "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music."

Certain people have become sick of hearing about it. So, you know, guilt by association.

Frankly, for a while now, I've had this hunch that people have had it up to here with any boomer milestone and, by extension, with most things that apply to the 1970s, movies included - and perhaps with good reason.

It's become an over-mythologized decade.

Perhaps Sam Adams put it best in his terse review of the 2003 documentary, "A Decade Under the Influcence" in Philadelphia's City Paper. "About as much fun, and as informative, as hearing your gramps reminisce about the good old days," Sam wrote of the doc that goes on and on about the wonderfulness of '70s flicks, spinning his new perspective.

Not everyone easily buys into the '70s hype - and the most revered Woodstock is one of the casulties of this mindset. But don't penalize Lee's new film. It's thick with sun and good cheer. Really.

Note in Passing: The cross-dressing role that star Liev Schreiber plays in "Taking Woodstock" brings the actor full circle. He also played a cross dresser in his very first feature, Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts" (1994).

Now you know.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

cinema obscura: Martin Rosen's "Watership Down" (1978)

Martin Rosen...

Whenever cinéastes invoke the word animation, the name Martin Rosen rarely comes up. You know the drill. Disney, of course. Chuck Jones. Hayao Miyazaki. Frank Tashlin. Ub Iwerks. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. The usual suspects. Never Martin Rosen. Who's he, anyway?

Rosen made only three films - one feature, "Stacking" (1987), and prior to that, two extraordinary animations, both based on books of serious animal advocacy by Richard Adams: "Watership Down" in 1978 and "The Plague Dogs" in 1982, a disturbing duet that is even less for children than Miyazaki's works. While Miyazaki films contain elements that might placate children, Rosen's animations sting without compromise.

The extraordinary "Watership Down" follows the journey of a band of rabbits, but we are a long way from Disney's Thumper. Little bunnies. Cute, yes. But in the world documented by Adams, matters are harsh. It's life-and-death as Fiver and Hazel, rabbit siblings, abandon their Sandleford warren to avoid destruction and death as envisioned by Fiver. Their destination: Watership Down. And while their journey is treacherous, "Watership Down" doesn't offer much surcease: Their new home is neighbored by a police state. No, not for children.

Rosen's film of "Watership Down," released by AVCO-Embassy, was a huge critical hit in its time, a distinction helped by the fact that Disney was at an all-time low. The public was accepting but less enthusiastic, not surprisingly.

"Watership Down," about small creatures trying to upset the natural balance in order to live in harmony with it, complements its mythical/realistic storyline with brilliantly colored, richly textured backgrounds and a treasure chest of characters. Rosen reached astonishing new heights here with the animation form.

Four years later, Rosen tried to recreate his success with his adaptation of another bracing Adams book, but "The Plague Dogs," an unapologetic downer about a pair of dogs that escape from an animal-experimentation center and are relentlessly hunted down, was even more grim and was barely released at all by AVCO-Embassy.

Anyone seen it?

Rosen's star vocal talent in both films was John Hurt (an appropriate name, considering the subject matters of this duo), and other notable British actors were also involved: Nigel Hawthorne, Patrick Stewart, Ralph Richardon, Joss Ackland, Denholm Elliott and Harry Andrews.

Serious stuff, indeed.

Note in Passing: Rosen produced Joyce Chopra's very dark "Smooth Talk" in 1985, and was a co-producer on Ken Russell's "Women in Love" (1969). He was also attached to a little-know Eric ("Hot Millions") Till film, 1968's "A Great Big Thing," starring Reni Santoni and Paul Sand.

Monday, August 24, 2009

they're he-e-r-e!

Since no one has bothered to mention it, I will.

It's become increasingly obvious that the Villains du Jour are Russians. I've lost count of the films in which Russians disrupt and destroy.

Perhaps the most bizarre use of Russian villainy is employed in Sophie Barthes' game but ultimately disappointing new indie film, "Cold Souls."

Paul Giamatti, every inch a good sport, plays a neurotic version of himself as an actor who resorts to "storing" his soul in order to conquer depression, uncertainty and overall insecurity and while in New York appearing in a downtown production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."

Not surprisingly, the Russian underground appropriates Giamatti's soul (which is played by a chick pea!) and gives it to a Russian soap actress, the spoiled wife of the main soul-snatching thug.

She's under the impression that she has Al Pacino's soul - so she's atypically happy, behaving in a larky, decidely non-Russian way.

Like most indie films these days, this one sounds better on paper than it is in performance. But the evil Russians are boffo as usual.

My advice: Just say "Nyet!"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds"

Formidable character, formidable actor: Christoph Waltz as the disturbingly alluring Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's masterful "Inglourious Basterds"
Perhaps the movie critics who are losing their jobs right and left these days are no great loss. Harsh? Perhaps. But has there ever been a time when reviewers seemed so hopelessly hamhanded?

A case in point: The seemingly willful clueless response to Quentin Tarantino's vigorously accomplished "Inglourious Basterds." For some bizarre reason, Tarantino's film has been put under a miscroscope (as no other recent film has) by a handful of critics, so busy nitpicking about trivia that they've literally missed the larger picture. A good picture.

The carping has reached such a ridiculous pitch the usually even-keeled Dave Kehr felt compelled to challenge one of the Tarantino-bashers on his popular movie site: "I don’t think Tarantino puts any of his critical faculties aside when he’s assembling one of his elegantly convoluted narratives. He’s a master orchestrator of audience expectations — of knowing when to fulfill them and when to frustrate them."

Elegant is certainly the operative word for "Basterds" which opens with a stunning sequence in which the director takes his time and lets his actors involve us in a long, contentious conversation and the feeling of dread that it naturally reflects. His sumptuous use of music, Robert Richardson's handsome cinematography and an ensemble cast which produces no missteps hardly prepare us for Tarantino's one inarugable triumph here - the crucial casting of a commanding actor named Christoph Waltz whose Nazi character mesmerizes as much as he taunts and frightens.

This is a real movie. Those few critics don't know what they're missing.

Their loss.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

façade: Thomas Jane

Thomas Jane, the definition of a Late Bloomer, is channeling William Holden, circa 1955, in HBO's "Hung"
It's rather remarkable to think that Thomas Jane has been making films for about 25 years now but in the past few months has become something of an overnight sensation as the hapless hero of "Hung," HBO's latest (and very good) envelope-pushing series.

The show's title is terse, to the point and wildly accurate.

For some reason, stardom has eluded Jane. He's appeared in good films (Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line") and bad films (Roger Kumble's "The Sweetest Thing" and John Duigan's "Molly"), but no one paid much attention.

His best shot seemed to be Renny Harlin's wonderfully absurd action film, 1999's "Deep Blue Sea," which may have been about a medical team inexplicably fighting off sharks but also boasted the eclectic cast of Saffron Burrows, LL Cool J, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Aida Turturro and ... Jane. I loved it. But it wasn't meant to be.

Ten years late, Jane is now proving his mettle as Ray Drecker, high-school coach and accidental stud, and watching Jane tear into the role brings to mind a young William Holden. In fact, Jane seems to be channeling Holden's Hal Carter character from Josh Logan's "Picnic" here, as he engages in fake bravado and pathetic strutting, while failing to conceal a deep-seated insecurity. And he's abetted by the very fine Jane Adams and Anne Heche. (Adams' appearance is a hoot: She looks like a Roz Chast creation.) Anyway, Jane's turns in a subtle, quietly complex performance, week in and week out. Perhaps, it's a new beginning.

Jane has just finished directing his first feature, "Dark Country," and his leading man is a hot one - you guess it! - Thomas Jane.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

dual-system 3-D! Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate"

Thanks to 3-D, Ann put the Miller in MGM's
"Kiss Me, Kate," based on the Cole Porter stage musical
San Fancisco's Castro Theatre - one of the last great movie havens for buffs in this country - has provided me with more than one unforgettable movie moment, the most memorable of which was a packed-theater screening of the 1996 restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Nothing touches it.

But coming close were a pair of '50s 3-D films, shown in the dual system, that my wife and I caught there just before we left the West Coast - Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" (1954) and George Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate" (1953). It was fascinating to see how Hitch's use of 3-D brought out the claustrophobia of his boxy sets in "Murder" and how Sidney and company used the medium to sock across the musical numbers in "Kate," making them more vital that usual. Yes, memorable.

Well, ten years later, The Castro is screening both "Murder" and "Kate" again, along with Andre De Toth's "House of Wax" (1953) and John Brahm's "The Mad Magician" (also '53), for showings set for Friday, 14 August - Tuesday, 18 August ("House" on 14 & 15 August, "Murder" on 16 August, "Kate on 17 August, and "Magician" on 18 August).

If I was going to travel 3,000 miles back there for one title, it would be "Kiss Me, Kate," which for me is the best movie that Sidney, a real hit-or-miss director, ever made. He (and Ann-Margret) loused up "Bye, Bye Birdie," which inexplicably was a huge hit, but he did masterly work on the underrated and forgotten "Half a Sixpence." Sidney also helmed "An Evening with Frank Sinatra" - or, rather, "Pal Joey."

Unlike most MGM adapations of stage musicals, Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate" wasn't truncated the way, say, "On the Town" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" were by the studio. Perhaps Metro had to too high a regard for Cole Porter to mess around with it. Porter's grand score is just about intact, and the choreography by Hermes Pan (with an uncredited assist from Bob Fosse, one of the costars in the film) makes sure that the twirling dancers seem to be kicking their way off the screen. Ann Miller is even more Ann Miller in 3-D, if you know what I mean.

The cast includes Kathryn Grayson (in her best film role); Howard Keel (always an unusually masculine presence in musicals); good sports Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, and the talented dancers Jeanne Coyne, Carol Haney, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van and Fosse.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

empty cans

I love Joe and Mika, I really do, but for my sanity, I had to end the ... relationship
It didn't take long at all. I went cold turkey. I woke up one morning and just decided that I couldn't take MSNBC anymore.

I had become addicted during the Primary, see, and started the new year devoting just about every waking hour to watching Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski (my favorite!) and Willie Geist; David Shuster and Tamron Hall; Norah O'Donnell; Ed Schultz; Erin Burnett; Chris Matthews; Mike Barnicle; Dylan Rattigan; Lawrence O'Donnell; Keith Olberman, and Rachel Maddow. I sat there and watched them talk and talk and talk.

Actually, they don't talk. They repeat. Ad infinitum.

I'm a die-hard Democrat and MSNBC is largely liberal and I liked what everyone had to say. At first. Then, I noticed something: While I liked what they had to say, I didn't exactly like the way they often said it.

I stopped watching Olberman first. His willful immaturity, supposedly a liberal antidote to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, became annoying and then embarrassing. He seemed to enjoy lowering himself to their dubious level and apparently was becoming quite popular and wealthy doing so.

Next to go was Rachel Maddow. Her smug snarkiness started to grate - that and the weird faces she makes. Her intelligence is obvious but, after a while, she seemed only a smidgen more mature than Keith.

Talking heads. Heads? Hardly. I can think of another word to use.

Chris Matthews was fun - for a while. But once it became apparent that he loves the sound of his own voice, to the point of often not letting his guests get in a single word, I found myself yelling at the TV screen.

"Shut up, Chris!"

I was becoming grouchy and weird, so I tuned out.

That left Joe Scarborough, who probably has the best (and certainly the most entertaining) news show on the air. Joe's a conservative, but a reasonable one. He is atypically civil for a Republican and not at all mean-spirited. But, then, when you least expect it, he ... turns. Scary.

The last time I watched, the good Joe had unexpectedly left the room and the bad Joe had taken over completely. It made me nervous and upset.

It ruined the day for me. So I stopped watching. Altogether.

I'm happier now.

Ephron's "Julie & Julia" - the foodie bores

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Nora Ephron's beloved "Julie & Julia": Is this PBS or "I Love Lucy"?
There's this scene in "Julie & Julia."

"Isn't she adorable?," the immobilized Julie Powell (Amy Adams) asks her husband (Chris Messina) while watching an antique black-&-white PBS episode of Julia Child (Meryl Streep) cooking on-air and goofing off.

Huh? There are a lot of words to describe Julia Child, but "adorable" - writer-director Nora Ephron's word of choice - isn't the one that comes immediately to mind. "Strange" would fit. "Curious" is another politcally-correct way to put it. Ephron has been on talk shows of late to hype her movie and to advance the propaganda that Julia Child "changed things" (largely through her inordinant use of butter). But the fact is, she became a cooking pehnomenom not because she was a great cook but because she was good television. She was a "character" in every sense of the word. Strange. Curious. Graham Kerr was another cooking oddity of the era (circa the 1970s). He was also good television, and I'm confident that there were a lot of much better chefs who resented all the fawning attention that these two "characters" commanded and received. (Susan Boyle, who actually kind of resembles Child, is the latest example of this craze, only she makes beautiful music, instead of beautiful food.)

But no one fawns like Ephron, a self-proclaimed foodie if not a very good film writer or director. (She is, however, a great writer of short stories.) Her film, which has been receiving knee-jerk love letters from critics, is facile, slapdash and terribly repetitive. Once the conceit is introduced - a dual-biopic of Child and Powell, the young woman inspired and shaped by Child, and the ever-so-slight parallel of their lives - it is repeated over and over again ad nauseum. The first 20 minutes or so of "Julia & Julia" are brisk and breezy, but then tedium sets in and it becomes tiresome.

To call it episodic would be high praise. Ephron's pacing of her material makes it feel like a season's worth of memorable moments from a popular sitcom that have been edited down and strung together. This is most glaring in the extended sequence that recounts Julia Child dealing with sexism at Le Cordon Bleu and promptly showing up all the men there. It's like something out of an old "I Love Lucy" episode. (Remember the one set on the chocolate-candy assembly line? That's it.)

Serious bits are infrequently tossed in as if Ephron were seasoning a stew with extra salt. We learn that Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), Julia's husband, was brought up before Senator Joe McCarthy on unAmerican activities, but all the panel asks him is if he's a homosexual. Then, it's dropped. Later, when she learns that her sister Dorothy (the invaluable Jane Lynch) is pregnant, the heretofore doltish Julia breaks down in Paul's arms sobbing, implying that she could never have children of her own.

But wait!

The film makes it clear that Julia Child was a virgin until she was 40 and married late in life. And the movie also makes a big deal about Julia and Paul's active sex life (supposedly, intercourse every day after lunch - yeah, right), but what we see on screen makes us wonder if their relationship was really just a marriage of convenience. Hmmm...

Julie, meanwhile, works - unhappily - for a bureaucratic goverment office set up after 9/11 to deal with inquiries and complaints. She's too good for this job, see, even though she's the only empathetic one in her office. Again, more padding. For good measure, Ephron tosses in a couple gratuitous jokes against the Republicans and they are so low that they even bothered me, and I'm a diehard liberal Democrat.

As for the performances, Streep has, predictably, received most of the acclaim - nay, make that all of it - but Adams is actually better, simply by virtue of the fact that she (1) struggles with lesser material and (2) is playing a genuine human being.

Streep resorts to a shameless impersonation. The ham in this film isn't on the table. It's a naked parody, but it's not completely Streep's fault: Julia Child was a caricature who doesn't inspired much, if any, subtlety.

Still, Ephron does her star a hugh disservice by including Dan Aykroyd's own impersonation of Child from one of his old "Saturday Night Live" sketches (above), which is every bit as good as what Streep is doing.

He might even be somewhat ... better. Blasphemy!

"Julie & Julia" is a companionable film, easy to watch, but it's also a missed opportunity, its supporters too love-struck to notice.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Chuck Lorre's Hawksian "The Big Bang Theory"

Barbara Stanwyck and her nerdy professors in Howard Hawks' irresistible "Ball of Fire" (1942)
On the surface, Chuck Lorre's darling of a sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," would appear to be the heir apparant to Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks," the short-lived 1999 sitcom on which Judd Apatow famously worked as a writer. But, actually, Lorre's show comes from a much-sturdier pedigree.

Consider it an updated take on Howard Hawks' eminently playful 1942 comedy, "Ball of Fire" (from an original screenplay credited to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who borrowed from the "Snow White and Seven Dwarfs" fable), which offerd up a brassy Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a burlesque dancer who falls in with eight bookish professors assembling a dictionary of slang. (One of them is Gary Cooper, younger and more attractive, but no less proper and nerdy; the other seven are played by studio stalwarts Richard Haydn, O.Z. Whitehead, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Oscar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey and Aubrey Mather.)

"The Big Bang Theory" casts the talented comedienne Kaley Cuoco (formerly of "8 Simple Rules... for Dating My Teenage Daughter") as Penny, a starving actress/waitress whose walk-up apartment is across from one shared by two brilliant but socially retarded physicists, played by Jim Parsons (an Emmy nominee this year) and Johnny Galecki. (There are two more endearing nerds on hand - Simon Helberg, hilarious as a would-be Jewish womanizer, and Kunal Nayyar, plus Sara Gilbert as an acidic colleague; alas, there is no Gary Cooper equivalent here.)

Both shows, each brilliantly written, are about game women tying to get uptight men to loosen up, and "The Big Bang Theory" is every bit as literate, sophisticated and genuinely funny as "Ball of Fire." Luckily, it has found more success than "Freaks and Geeks": "The Big Bang Theory," aired every Monday at 9:30 p.m. (est) on CBS, is now in its third season.
Kaley Cuoco and her nerdy professors in Chuck Lorre's irresistible "The Big Bang Theory" (2009)

cinema obscura: J. Lee Thompson's "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!" (1965)

No one would ever mistake "John Goldfarb, Please Come One," director J. Lee Thompson's second film in a row with Shirley MacLaine, for a good movie. In fact, its only claim to fame during its brief life in theaters during the spring of 1965, was that it was threatened with a lawsuit by Notre Dame for defaming the school in general and its football players in particular.

It's a mess but it's an eccentric mess - and it's certainly better than the previous Thompson-MacLaine pairing, "What a Way to Go!," a bloated, conventional dud (and vanity production for MacLaine) from the year before. I mean you have to love a film that conjurs up a buffoonish CIA Chief and names him Heinous Overreach (played by the great Fred Clark).

The plot, concocted by no less than William Peter Blatty, involves a dim-witted U-2 pilot for the USAF, nicknamed Wrong Way Goldfarb (played by a miscast Richard Crenna in his first major film role following years on television), en route to the USSR on a spy mission. A former Notre Dame football star, Wrong Way crashs in a mythical Arabian country called Fawzia. He is apprehended and held captive by King Fawz (Peter Ustinov), who happens to be a football-obsessed tyrant and who wants Goldfarb to organize a local team for him.

MacLaine plays a mouthy reporter on assignment in Fawzia for Strife magazine, unwittingly ending up in Fawz' harem and in Wrong Way's arms.

The supporting cast consists of such ace character actors as Jim Backus, Harry Mogan, Richard Deacon, Scott Brady, David Lewis, Jackie Coogan, Chalres Lane, Leon Askin, Jerome Cowan, Milton Frome, the great Wilfred Hyde-White and Clark.

Yes, the film is awful, but this cast is compulsively watchable.

Keep an eye out for the young Jerry Orbach. While it's impossib le to track down "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!" on home entertainment, the Fox Movie Channel will air it Thursday, 27 August at 4:00 p.m. (est).

Oh, yes, John Williams' score for the film, never recorded, was released belatedly in 2007 in a limited-edition CD. Shirley MacLaine, ever the good sport, honks out the title song.

By the way, Blatty reportedly got the idea for "The Exorcist" while making "Goldfarb." Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeil character in that film is said to have been modeled on MacLaine, a dubious tribute of sorts.

Note in Passing: Blatty adapted "Goldfarb" into a new musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Michael Garin, Robert Hipkens, and Erik Frandsen, choreography by Jennifer Schmermund and Anahid Sofian, and direction by Jeffrey Lewonczyk. It was staged for four performances only in August of 2007 at The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

cinema obscura: Tashlin Times Two

Leslie Parrish (right) toasts Tom Ewell and Sheree North in Frank Tashlin's elusive "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts," airing on the Fox Channel this month
The incomparable Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) began his professional life as a cartoonist/animator and when he branched out and started working with humans, he animated them, too. Hilariously so. And he brought a cartoonish quality to the one subject that connects most of his films.


It was the 1950s and the Playboy philosophy was just beginning its reign of terror - and Tashlin's wide-screen comedies exposed the era's accepted penchant for leering (the filmmaker essentially fetishized it) for what it was. Junevile and unattractive and funny as hell.

The Fox Movie Channel unearths two of Tashlin's forgotten treasures this month, starting with two screenings of 1956's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" scheduled for 14 August at 9:30a.m. and 30 August at 9:30 a.m. Tom Ewell plays his patented creepy middle-aged, middle-class wolf inexplicably married to a military babe - the wonderful Sheree North - and much of the film is about his relentless ploys to get her discharged. The film is as unstable as its noxious hero, wildly incorrect and guiltily pleasurable in spite of itself.

Tuesday and Terry, together at last, in Tashlin's antic "Bachelor Flat," also on Fox this month
Fox also dusts off Tashlin's 1962 farce, "Bachelor Flat," for two screenings this month - 17 August at 2 p.m. (preceded at noon by Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It") and 29 August at 6 a.m. Terry-Thomas is in prime form here as displaced Britisher, a professorial paleontologist who teaches in in alien Southern California and who is wildly attractive to women - an inadvertent ladies men whose life comes to consist of colliding females.

Tashlin's here also cast includes Celeste Holm (as T-T's fiancée), and Tuesday Weld and Richard Beymer who had starrred two years earlier for Blake Edwards in another breezy Fox comedy, "High Time" (1960), all in the above photo/left.

And speaking of Tashlin, too few of his breezy comedies from the the 1950s and early '60s have made it to home entertainment in any form. Sure, it's relatively easy to see his two Jayne Mansfield flicks, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "The Girl Can't Help It," and "Artists and Models" (1955), with Martin and Lewis and Shirley MacLaine. But what about the many others? Aside from "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" and "Bachelor Flat," also missing are "Susan Slept Here" (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds; "Say One for Me" (1959), again with Debbie Reynolds, this time with Bing Crosby and Robert Wagner, and "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) with Danny Kaye and Cara Williams.

Release them, I say!

turner this month - bravo!

Jennie Linden is the center of everyone's attention - Ann Firbank (from left), Richard Attenborough, Ian Holm, Lee Remick and Clive Revill - in Dick Clement's 1970 film version of the acerbic Iris Murdoch novel and play, "A Severed Head," adapted by Frederic Raphael. It airs 4:15 a.m. 1 September, on TCM
It's August. That means "Summer Under the Stars" on Turner Classic Movies, an annual event when each day of the month is devoted the trajectory of a single star's career, the lows as well as the highs.

Here's a glimpse at what I will be checking out (all times are est):

1 august: Henry Fonda, a quinessential American personality, is a good choice to kick off this year's actor-centric marathon, and an opening-day triple bill is a must-see afternoon treat (including two tense political dramas) - Franklin J. Schaffner's sly, fluid "The Best Man"(1964, at 1:30 p.m.), based on the 1960 Gore Vidal play and featuring a bang-up ensemble cast; Otto Preminger's edgy, still-astonishing "Advise and Consent" (1962, at 3:30 p.m.), based on Allen Drury's 1959 Pulitizer Prize-winning novel and Loring Mandel's 1960 stage adapatation and boasting an even more impressive ensemble cast (as well as a taboo-shattering gay-bar scene that still stings and disturbs), and Alfred Hitchcock's wrenching "The Wrong Man" (1956, at 6 p.m.), a rare fling into real-life drama, inspired by the troubling "Manny" Balestrero case.

2 august: Good, gray James Mason, although always appreciated, seemed to operate below the radar, particularly during the 1950s and '60s when his consistently accomplished, flawless performances were a given. (Glenn Ford and David Niven were members of the same club of outsiders, although Niven was rewarded with an Oscar.) Mason is the prime reason to tolerate George Cukor's elephantine quasi-musical/soap opera, "A Star Is Born" (1954, at 2 p.m.), propping up a trembly, narcissistic Judy Garland, and he adds a slithery sinisterness to Hitchcock's compulsively watchable "North by Northwest" (1959, at 10 p.m.), contrasting sharply with another good, gray Brit - Cary Grant.

3 august: I've a soft spot for Marion Davies whose reputation was gratuitously tarnished and ability diminished by that spiteful, self-important cad, Orson Welles, in "Citizen Kane," but she was a first-rate actress and a beguiling screen presence. Check out Edmund Goulding's fabulous "Blondie of the Follies" (1932, at 1:45 p.m.). Her affection for her character here is central to Davies' fully-realized performance.
Shawn and Coburn at war in Blake Edwards' "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?," airing 4 August on TCM.
4 august: James Coburn day, lots of good stuff but one title here stands out - "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (1966, at 6 p.m.). For the occasion, I'll quote Dave Kehr from his 2008 DVD review: "Directed by Blake Edwards from a screenplay by William Peter Blatty, this 1966 antiwar farce, made as things were heating up in Vietnam, is one of the most ingeniously constructed American comedies, a brilliantly sustained series of plot reversals, inverted identities and reconfigured values." The inimitable Aldo Ray and Dick Shawn co-star with Jimmy Coburn.

6 august: Judy Garland = Anathema. You get the picture. But I am amused by her in Charles Walters' enjoyably peppy and happy "Summer Stock" (1950, at 6 p.m.), one of those irresistible "let's put on a show in the barn" musicals that MGM regularly churned out. Amusing because it's a hoot to see Judy go through the motions of being an artless farmer who, overnight, becomes, well, Judy Garland! Throughout most of the film, she looks relatively normal, but for the "Get Happy" number - shot several months after principal photography, after she had slimmed down - she turns miraculously into a sophisticated glamour puss. Yes, amusing.

The presence of Gene Kelly definitely helps here.

7 august: Call in sick. Do anything to spend the day with Glenn Ford. It starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 6 a.m. I know I'll be there for the George Marshall duo, "It Started with a Kiss" (1959; at 9 a.m.) and "Cry for Happy" (1961, at 11 a.m.); Vincente Minnelli's "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963, at 1 p.m.); Charles Vidor's seminal "Gilda" (1946; at 8 p.m.); Delmer Daves' "3:10 to Yuma" 1957, at 11:30 p.m.); Burt Kennedy's "The Rounders" (1965, at 1:15 p.m., 8 august); Phil Karlson's "A Time for Killing" (1967, at 2:45 a.m.) and Lee H. Katzin's "Heaven with a Gun" (1969, at 4:15 p.m.), with Carolyn Jones, an actress who deserves to be remembered, and Barbara Hershey.

9 august: Cary Grant. All day. Bliss. Like spending a day snoozing - and dreaming only nice things.

10 august: Late-career Dirk Bogarde today - with the estimable actor showcased in Joseph Losey's perverse "The Servent" (1963, at 9:30 p.m.); Jack Clayton's difficult-to-see "Our Mother's House" (1967, at 1130 p.m.), with good performances by Pamela Franklin and Martin Lester; John Schlesinger's "Darling" (1965, at 1:30 a.m., 11 august), and Lewis Gilbert's "Damn the Defiant!" (1962, at 4 a.m.).

13 august: It's Gloria Grahame Day. Where to start? Well, I plan to tune in for Vincente Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952, at 6 p.m.) and stay through Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place" (1950, at 8 p.m.), Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat" (1953, at 9:45 p.m.) and Minnelli's "The Cobweb" (1955, at 2:15 a.m., 14 august). Graham is grand/

15 august: There was always an elusive, fleeting quality about Deborah Kerr, a feature that wasn't successfully conquered until she made Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" (1953, at 10:15 p.m.). But nevertheless she triumphed over and over again in such titles as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943, at 2:30 p.m.), Minnelli's "Tea and Sympathy" (1956, at 5:30 p.m.) and especially Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember" 91957, at 8 p.m.). Turner is also airing a new title to me - Norman Taurog's "Please Believe Me" (1950, at 4:30 a.m. 16 august), co-starring Peter Lawford, Mark Stevens and Robert Walker.

Jennifer Jones, teaching - and with with Robert Stack and Biff Elliot, in a memorable scene from Henry Koster's sentimental "Good Morning, Miss Dove," airing on Turner Classic movies on 18 August.
17 august: Make a point of watching (or recording) an early morning screening of Jennifer Jones in Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955, at 1:30 a.m., 18 august), a sentimental, inspirational fable, a la "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," which was a huge 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 (see photo above). A most touching film, rarely cloying.

20 august: Both Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were known to be hugely competitive actresses who not only fought with studios but also with other actresses who threatened them. This may well explain why I am not exactly a fan of either one (although their respective acting tics also have a lot to do with my lack of enthusiasm). One of Davis's many nemises is the singular Miriam Hopkins, a talent who Davis regularly sandbagged. One could see why. Hopkins was great.

If you have any doubt, keep your eye on her acting duets with Davis in Edmund Goulding's "The Old Maid" (1939, at 12:15 p.m.) and Vincent Sherman's "Old Acquaintance" 91943, at 2 p.m.) - and, of course, schedule William Wyler's "These Three" (1936, at 2:45 p.m.)

Hopkins is also a standout in Wyler's remake of "These Three" - "The Children's Hour" (1961, at 10 a.m. 11 august).
Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas touch but don't connect in Gilbert Cates' fine father-son drama, "I Never Sang for My Father," airing on 21 August.
21 august: Gene Hackman packed it in after "Welcome to Mooseport" (2004) and quietly retired. Turner reminds us of exactly what we lost. He's great in every film in this line-up, starting with Burt Balaban's "Mad Dog Coll" (1961, at 6 a.m.), co-starring Jerry Orbach and Brooke Hayward (daughter of Leland Hayward and first wife of Dennis Hopper). I have a keen interest in seeing Gordon Flemying's "The Split" (1968, at 7:30 a.m.) again, as well as Woody Allen's "Another Woman" (1988, at 4:30 p.m.) Also on hand to savor: Robert Rossen's troubling "Lilith" (1964, at 6 p.m.); Arthur Penn's post-studio system classic, "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967, at 8 p.m.), Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974, at 10 p.m.) and, of course, Gilbert Cates' acute distillation of familial tensions, "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970, at 2:30 p.m.).

22 August: Sterling Hayden - what a great name! - gets his day, and we get Nicholas Ray's bizarre "Johnny Guitar" (1954, at 4 p.m.), a sort of feminist/lesbian Western with Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge going at each other; John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950, at 8 p.m.), with that adjustable-wrench-of-an-actress Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern and of course a very young Marilyn Monroe, and Irvin Kershner's "Loving" (1970, at 4:30 a.m., 23 august), a compelling, beautifully judged psychodrama that transcends its late '60s influcences.
Leslie Parrish and Laurence Harvey in John Frankenheimer's juicy "The Manchurian Candidate," which has a 23 August playdate.
23 august: Angela Lansbury has a great filmography and 24 hours simply are too few to do it justice. But Turner has come up with a pleasing selection, starting with George Sidney's "The Harvey Girls" (1946, at 6 a.m.) and ending with Albert Lewin's intriguing "Season of Passion" (1959, at 4 a.m. on 24 august), co-starring Ernest Borgnine, John Mills and Anne Baxter. In-between, pencil in here two Frankenheimer titles, "All Fall Down" and "The Manchurian Candidate" (both from 1962, airing at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively); Vincente Minnelli's "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958, 4:15 p.m.); the short version of Robert Stevenson's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971, at 6 p.m.), her breakthrough film, "Gaslight" by George Cukor (1944, at 8 p.m.) and John Guillermin's "Death on the Nile" (1978, at 11:30 p.m.).

Fred & Kim together at last in Delbert Mann's "Middle of the Night" from Paddy Chayefsky
24 august: Thirteen films starring Fredric March. Watch them all. But pay special heed to Delbert Mann's affectingly dark May-December romance, "Middle of the Night" (1959, at 1:30 a.m., 25 august), based on the Paddy Cahyefsky play and starring an unadorned Kim Novak. (Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands had the roles on stage.)

26 august:
Whether or not you're into Yul Brynner, you might want to catch Terence Young's "Triple Cross" (1967, at 3:30 p.m.), with Romy Schneider and Christopher Plummer; the twins "Westworld" and "Futureworld" (1973 & 1976, at 12:45 and 2:15 a.m., 27 august) and the career-making/career-killing "The King and I" by Walter Lang (1956, at 8 p.m.).

27 august: Ida Lupino worked steadily and always with fine precision and without the self-importance that made some of her contemporaries unbearable, bad company. The studio system seemed to take her for granted and, at a certain point, she turned to directing. Even off-screen, you could somehow see her. She was indeliable and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with her again with her "The Bigamist" (1953, at 10 a.m.), Anatole Litvak's "Out of the Fog" (1941, at 11:30 a.m.), Lewis Seiler's "Women's Prison" (1955, at 2:30 p.m.), Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife" (1955, at 4 p.m.), Vincent Sherman's "The Hard Way" (1942, at 10 p.m.) and Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" (1972, at 4 a.m., 28 august), in which she showed she never changed.

She was still Ida.
Dave Hirsh & Ginnie Moorehead of "Some Came Running"
28 august: Sinatra. Goes down like Scotch. Has he ever been bad? I think not. Today, I'll watch Minnelli's belated classic, "Some Came Running" (1958; at 8 p.m.) and Charles Walter's "The Tender Trap" (1955, at 12:30 a.m., 29 august) -
with Scotch.

29 august: Turner gives us Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" (1962, at 8 p.m.) and Blake Edwards' "The Party" (1968, at 4:15 p.m., 30 august), two of his greatest performances. But there are also a handful of lesser-known titles - Jack Arnold's "The Mouse That Roared" (1959, at 7:30 a.m.); Anthony Asquith's "The Millionairess" (1961, at 11 a.m.); John Guillerman's "Waltz of the Toreadors" (1962, at 11 p.m.), featuring a bravura turn by Margaret Leighton, and Roy Boulting's "There's a Girl in My Soup" (1970, at 2:30 a.m., 30 august), an early Goldie Hawn vehicle from her Mike Frankovich/Columbia days.

31 august: A day for sublime Claire Bloom and, of course, it includes Robert Wise's "The Haunting" (1963, at 10 p.m.), with Bloom and Julie Harris teamed effectively. With Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn.

But my main interest here is the film she made in England with Lee Remick and Richard Attenborough - Dick Clement's movie of the Iris Murdoch novel and play, "A Severed Head" (1971, at 4:15 a.m., 1 September), a trip-y piece about the daisy chain relationships of a husband and wife who are equally unfaithful to each other.

Remick is married to Ian Holm but wants to be with Attenborough, while Holm has a secret thing going on with the much younger Jennie Linden, who played one of the two female leads, along with Glenda Jackson, in Ken Russell's "Women in Love." (And whatever happened to her?) Then there's Attenborough's provocateur-sister, played by Bloom, who taught the Linden character at Oxford and decides to wise up Remick about Holm's infidelity. Bloom further confuses things with a genuinely radical turn by introducing Clive Revill to Linden, hoping that sparks fly.

And they do.

"A Severed Head" is free-flowing, pliable and light - and should be seen, if only for Bloom's and Remick's dryly comedic performances and their respective beauty. They're both gorgeous here. By the way, the Broadway production of "A Severed Head," staged in 1964, was a troubled, notable flop. Original stars Joan Fontaine, Elliott Reid and Lee Grant were all replaced during a tryout at Philadelphia's Forrest Theater. A young Jessica Walter was in the production (in the Linden role).