Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kusama-Cody's Post-"Carrie" Horror Feminism

A game Fox works beyond the call of duty for unworthy material and inept filmmakers
The Karyn Kusama-Diablo Cody collaboration, "Jennifer's Body" is a better idea than it is a movie. It's a decided disappointment.

But not in the usual way.

Going in, I really didn't have much faith in either Kusama (the director of the overrated "Girlfight") or Cody (media darling and screenwriter of the wildly overrated "Juno") - that either of them would have the stuff to pull off a teen-girl horror flick that updates/upends Brian DePalma's "Carrie" (1976). But at the very least, I expected the movie to be fun and that Cody (né Brook Busey) would deliver her patented snarkiness.

But the film is no fun at all, Cody's predicatably glib dialogue notwithstanding. And it isn't frightening - or intimidating, interesting, involving or any other "i" word. What it is - if you want an "i" word - is inept. It's inept on just about every level, despite a very game performance by Megan Fox who, as a teen man-eater (literally), works off her shapely behind for Kusama and Cody, and an especially grounded turn by Amanda Seyfried, who provides poor, unfortunate "Jennifer's Body" with its only touch of (dare I say it?) professionalism.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Elio Petri's precient "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" (1970)

I think it's about time for a major revival of Elio Petri's compelling 1970 policier, "Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion"/"Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto," a film whose adline read, "When you're a big man in the big city, can you get away with murder?"
Bolkan and Volontè command in Petri's film

Or perhaps a remake. There was a time, a few years ago, when Al Pacino was reportedly interested in doing an American remake of Petri's precient film, taking on the role so memorably played by the great Gian Maria Volontè. Volontè essayed an arrogant homicide detective known as Il Dottore, a bully who murders his mistress (the equally great Florinda Bolkan) as a lark - to prove that he can do it and get away with it, even though he deliberately (and wittily) planted an array of clues that incrimiante him, and only him, for the crime.

Il Dottore was something of a singular character back in 1970 but since then, bullies of his ilk have become more ubiquitous and pravalent in 2009, and society not only tolerates them but, for some bizarre reason, seems to celebrate them. Case in point: the Roman Polanski situation and the response of his misguided acolytes within the film industry.

Writer extraordinaire Steve Lopez says it best in his column today in The Los Angeles Times in which he opines on "legal scholars" (Lopez's words) Harvey Weinstein and Debra Winger who have come out as Polanski defenders. He also singles out Martin Scorsese and David Lynch among those movie power players "who have put their names on a petition calling for Polanski to be freed immediately."

The question is, would these celebs rush to sign a petition if the wanted man wasn't Roman Polanski but a mere plumber or, gasp, a Republican? No, they'd be too busy promoting themselves. Weinstein has commented that Polanski has "already done his time."

Really. In Paris?

Il Dottore
Hey, Harvey, Roman Polanski isn't the victim here. Get a grip. What's more, he's being hunted for a crime for which he already pleaded guilty. Admittedly, however, at this late juncture, his recent arrest seems to have less to do with a 30-year-old heinous crime than with what seems like a personal vendetta being waged by Los Angeles county prosecutors. The crime itself, alas, is almost coincidental - an afterthought, a footnote. Which may explain why MSSRS Scorsese and Weinstein are all riled up.

Still, this blind loyalty, based on something as tenuous as a shared profession, amounts to fuzzy thinking at its worst. It's exactly like the misguided priorities of those in the black media who have refused to take a tough stand on Michael Vick, or even bother to address his ugly acts.

Getting Away With It.

That's the new status symbol among the rich and famous and, like Volontè's indelible Il Dottore, the rich and famous flaunt their disregard for the law or even common decency. They deliberately plant clues, a la Petri's film, that the rest of the rich and famous blithely chooses to ignore.

the unbeliever

At least, Jack could have said that he actually "slept" with MM and it wouldn't have been completely false
All hail John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer who, in today's installement of the paper's lively Sideshow gossip column, had the cahones to challenge the delusions of grandeur of a former superstar.

The ever-entertaining Tony Curtis, who is offering pre-orders of autographed copies of his upcoming tome, "The Making of Some Like it Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie," now claims (apparently, in the book) that Marilyn, as Timpane so wittily puts it, "miscarried a pregnancy that he (Curtis) helped happen."

Say what? I clearly remember Curtis spending a good part of the past half century, dissing Monroe, with whom is co-starred in the aforementioned "Some Like It Hot" - and often tossing off the highly quotable remark that kissing her was "like kissing Adolf Hitler."

Curtis kissed Hitler?

"If you write a memoir, guess you got to say wild and outlandish things about the dead to sell copies," Timpane casually tosses off himself within the venerable Inky. Anyway, Curtis who likened MM to an alpha Nazi, now reveals he not only had an affair with her but fathered her miscarried child. I don't believe him. I'm not saying that he's, well, an exaggerator - just that I don't believe a single word he says on this particular matter.

I've had the same reaction to Ann-Margret's curiously belated admission that she and Elvis had a thing going and Shirley MacLaine's revelation that she and Robert Mitchum were once an item. I ... don't ... believe ... it.

Maybe I should start a rumor about me and, say, (fill in the blank here with the name of any deceased film actress, preferrably born after 1950).

cinema obscura: Daniel Mann's "Five Finger Exercise" (1962)

A very needy Maximilian Schell begs his employers Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins to give him a second chance in Daniel Mann's film version of Peter Shaffer's stage play, "Five Finger Exercise"
Yet another of the many black-&-white Columbia films from the 1950s and '60s ignored by Sony's home entertainment division for decades is Daniel Mann's 1962 film version of the Peter Shaffer play, "Five Finger Exercise," adapted for the screen by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The backdrop for the film is America (instead of Great Britain, the locale in the play), but that's not the only change introduced here by Goodrich, Hackett and Mann, all of whom toned down the uncomfortable erotic undercurrent of Shaffer's play. Still, there's enough queasiness here to make the piece compelling and definitely worth another look.

Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins play a well-heeled couple who hire a German transplant (Maximilliam Shell, fresh off his Oscar win for "Judgment at Nuremberg") to tutor their teenage daugher (Annette Gorman, in her first and last film role), much to the chagrin of their son (Richard Beymer, fresh off "West Side Story") who has a thing for mom and resents the attention she lavishes on the handsome, rakish German.

The film - the material - never had a chance at being great as a film, given the concessions made to the censors at the time, but it's another example of a well-made movie version of a pedigreed play.

"Five Finger Excerise" 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 construed Russell was "stealing" roles that belonged to other actresses.

In 1961, she took on Gertrude Berg's role in Mervyn LeRoy's film of the Leonard Spigelgass comedy, "A Majority of One" (opposite Alec Guinness), followed in 1962 by "Five Finger Exercise," in which she played the role originated by Jessica Tandy, and by LeRoy's film of "Gypsy," in which she dared to do Ethel Merman's role.

Poster art for the Broadway production of "A Majority of One"

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 - and her recent history.

"Five Finger Exercise," incidentally, tried out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before debuting in New York on December 2nd, 1959 at the Music Box Theatre, running for 337 performances. Aside from Tandy, the play starred Roland Culver (in the Hawkins role), Brian Bedford, Michael Bryant and Juliet Mills (as the ingénue). Sir John Guilgud directed. The play was produced by The Playwrights' Company, headed by Frederick Brisson - the husband, of course, of Rosalind Russell.

Was there any doubt she'd play the role in the film?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

cinema obscura: Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers" (1984)


Coyote! He's Blue, the lanky, not-exactly-sensitive artist
Five years before Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" took Sundance by storm in 1989, officially kicking off the New American Indie Wave, there were two provocative "in-between" films that, well, sadly fell through the cracks. By "in-between," I'm referring to those identity-crisis movies that are neither studio titles nor strictly independent ventures. There's something mainstream about them and yet they really aren't mainstream.

The titles in question, both released in 1984, are Alan Rudolph's "Choose Me," which opens with Jan Kiesser's "swoony cinematography" (Pauline Kael's expression) following along with Lesley Ann Warren's sensual movements as she sashays down a noir street, and Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers," a provocative piece about something that's seemingly impossible - namely, true friendship among men.

I'm less concerned with "Choose Me," because Rudolph went on to have something of a career (albeit in the shadow of his mentor, Robert Altman) and, therefore, his films are remembered. Well, sort of.

Roth, on the other hand, made a detour into TV and pretty much stayed there, his most impressive title being the HBO movie, "Baja Oklahoma" (1988), adapted by Dan Jenkins from his novel and starring Warren and Julia Roberts, compelling as mother and daughter. Peter Coyote, who co-starred, is also one of Roth's two male leads in "Heartbreakers."

Coyote is Blue, a lanky, overgrown boy who obsenstibly works as an artist but is not commercially successful at it. He's the kind of guy who easily attracts women, but Blue stuck with one women who finally could no longer take his rampant immaturity and left. Nick Mancuso is Eli, a driven, successful business man (he's largely in the "son business) and experienced womanizer. Women are drawn to him, too.

These are an odd pair to be friends but this is the kind of situation where one guy fills in the blanks of the other.

Their supposed friendship is tested when a new woman - France's Carol Laure (from Bertrand Blier's "Préparez vos mouchoirs"/"Get Out Your Handkerchiefs") - comes on the scene, and both respond to her.

Roth, who made one small impressive feature prior to this ("The Boss's Son," starring Asher Brauner as a possibly autobiographical character named ... Bobby Rose), economically conveys the competitiveness between the two men in an early gym scene where they stand in front of a mirror, both shirtless, sizing up each other's chests.

The supporting cast includes Kathryn Harrold, Max Gail, George Morfogen and the invaluable Carol Wayne, excellent here. The great Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography; Tangerine Dream the music. It's troubling that this fine film remains virtually unknown.
Mancuso! He's Eli, the killer-businessman, utterly driven

Note in Passing: Roth's "Heartbreakers" is not to be confused with David Mirkin's 2001 comedy, "Heartbreakers," starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee and Gene Hackman.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

façade: Aaron Eckhart

Aaron Eckhart is a throwback - a real Movie Star
Last summer, I stood by dumbfounded and helpless as everyone else predictably rushed to praise Heath Ledger's compelling posthumous performance in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight."

I liked Ledger, too, but frankly, Aaron Eckhart was much more impressive as Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face). In fact, I thought it was his film. Still do. It certainly wasn't Christian Bale's film. Oddly enough.

Eckhart has been in movies in full force for about a dozen years now. Following a couple roles in TV movies and one in something called "Slaughter of Innocents," he had his first starring role in mentor Neil LaBute's lacerating 1997 film, "In the Company of Men," playing a business cad who might have been the inspiration for AMC's hit series, "Mad Men."

He followed that a year later in LaBute's wonderful ensemble drama, "Your Friends and Neighbors," taking on heft for his role as a conflicted husband - one of the few times that the gain (or loss) of an incredible amount of weight served the film, not just the actor-in-question's PR ploys.

Other roles came - one with Thomas Jane and Paula Marshall in Skip Woods' little-seen "Thursday," another in John Duigan's studio-compromised "Molly," starring Elisabeth Shue in the title role (and Jane again). He also worked for Oliver Stone on "Any Given Sunday."

And then came Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," opposite Julia Roberts. Blockbuster! Career-maker. This is it!


Well, it wasn't exactly a breakthrough role, but it made Eckhart bankable by association and, after doing two more titles for LaBute ("Nurse Betty," with Renée Zellweger, and "Posession," with Gwyneth Paltrow), he's worked steadily and reliably in a pleasing selection of films. I love his post-"Erin Brockovich" filmography.

Here goes:

Sean Penn's "The Pledge" with Jack Nicholson; Ron Howard's "The Missing" with Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones; John Woo's "Paycheck" with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman; Hans Canosa's "Conversations with Other Women" with Helena Bonham Carter; Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking" with Maria Bello; Brian DePalma's "The Black Dahlia" with Josh Harnett and Scarlett Johansson; Scott Hicks' "Mostly Martha" remake, "No Reservations" with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Brandon Camp's current "Love Happens."

Meanwhile, Joshua Michael Stern's "Never Was," is a lost film from 2005, also toplined by Ian McKellen, Jessica Lange, Nick Nolte, William Hurt, Michael Moriarty, Brittany Murphy, Vera Farmiga, Alan Cumming and Cynthia Stevenson. I won't burden you with a synopsis because, with that list of players, who cares? It's available on DVD.

Upcoming is John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," based on the David Lindsay-Abaire play about a couple whose young son dies in an accident, upending their lives and marriage. The material - which reads like prime Oscar bait - pairs Eckhart with Nicole Kidman (in the role played on stage to great acclaim by Cynthia Nixon); that's them in the still below.

Who knows. "Rabbit Hole" may be Eckhart's "Heath Ledger moment."

"Love Happens," seriously

For reasons of commerce exclusively, Brandon Camp's debut film, Love Happens," is being sold as a Jennifer Aniston romcom.

Far from it. It's an Aaron Eckhart dramedy.

Jennifer Aniston may be the most generous screen performer today, something her callous detractors willfully refuse to acknowledge. She was a team player in "He's Just Not That Into You," she indulged a dog (actually many of them) and the dog-eyed Owen Wilson in "Marley and Me" and she stepped back and let the incorrigible Steve Zahn, at long last, have his moment in the spotlight in "Management."

And in each film, she was terrific herself, her role in "Management" possibly being the most fascinating woman's part this year, bar none.

As for "Love Happens," she hands the material - about a self-help guru, newly widowed, who has to learn to help himself - over to Eckhart. Aniston is essentially playing a part that's in support to his star turn here.

It's a serious film. There's nothing romantic or comedic about it. And it works because Eckhart is so commanding as a deeply flawed man. His scenes with Martin Sheen, playing his character's grieving father-in-law, incited my imagination.

I could just see these two as father and son in a remake of "I Never Sang for My Father," played nearly 40 years ago by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman for director Gilbert Cates. And, come to think of it, Aniston would be great in the sister role originally played by Estelle Parsons. I can dream, can't I?

Note in Passing: Kim Morgan defends Jennifer Aniston. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Patrick Swayze, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009), an atypical star, is survived by ... memories. Many of them
Patrick Swayze was one of those reliable actors easily taken for granted, largely because he was reluctant to grandstand and demand attention.

And whenever it came his way - attention, that is - he was gracious and accomodating. Patrick Swayze was an atypical movie star - he actually appreciated his success, shared it and never exploited it.

For the longest time, he existed only out of the corner of my eyes and his early screen performances - in titles such as "The Outsiders," "Grandview, U.S.A." and the delirious "Red Dawn" - barely registered with me.

But Swayze became a quick "friend" shortly after my wife and I relocated to Northern California when I was hired to review there for McClatchy. Our first movie experience there was Swayze's "Dirty Dancing," seen on a lazy late-summer afternoon at the now-gone Capitol Theatre on Watt Avenue in Sacramento. Consequently, it is difficult for me to remember "Dirty Dancing" without also remembering the Capitol and sharing popcorn with my wife. The movie, brand new at the time, had a salicious title, promising something adult and cutting-edge, but it was willfully old-fashioned - welcoming. It was a nice start. I felt at home.
Swayze as Johnny Castle and Jennifer Grey as Frances "Baby" Houseman in Emile Ardolino's seminal, old-fashioned "Dirty Dancing" (1987)
Swayze seemed to work fleetingly on screen after that and, given that his choices were somewhat eclectic, I assume that this was by design. He went from the hugely romantic "Ghost" to the guilty pleasures of the over-the-top "Road House," from the surfer heist flick "Point Break" to the esoteric "City of Joy," from "Donnie Darko" to ... "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," my personal favorite Swayze title.

And why wouldn't I love it? Swayze, putting the finishing touches on his eye make-up as flamboyant cross-dressing entertainer Vida Boheme, checks himself out in the mirror and then invokes a line from "Gypsy":

"Ready or not ... here comes Mama!"

Swayze makes the most of Douglas Carter Beane's campy dialogue in Beeban Kidron's film, especially when he counsels neophyte John Leguizamo, as Chi-Chi Rodriguez, where not to walk: "Not in direct light, dear!

Later his Vida offers this sage advice to Wesley Snipes' Noxeema Jackson: "Oh, sweet pea. Now, you listen to your Auntie Vida. I want you to believe in yourself, imagine good things and moisturize. I cannot stress this enough."

Kidron's ace supporting cast includes Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Chris Penn, Arliss Howard, Melinda Dillon, Beth Grant and Alice Drummond, but all that matters is Swayze, cheerfully risk-taking and very game as Miss Vida Boheme.
Swayze (with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo), in arugably his best performance, as Vida Boheme in Beeban Kidron's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995)

cinema obscura: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971)

Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971) was something of a sensation in its day.

It was sold as - as described by critic as - a "quasi-documentary." But, point in fact, "Hellstrom" was the first faux documentary as we know it today - although not a comedic one such as Albert Brooks' "Real Life" (1979) and Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) which came later.

Lawrence Pressman had his best screen role as the fictional Dr. Hellstrom, an esteemed entomologist who provides us with vivid illustrations delineating the silent war that insects have declared on humankind. Pressman is brilliant, alternately attractive and scary, drawing us in with his accessible, unsettling lecture and graphics - and handily instilling fear in the audience. "Microsomos," the 1996 French documentary by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, would appropriate - and exploit - many of the ideas here but in a less frightening, more artful way.

Still, Green and Spiegel's film remains compulsively watchable.

Despite its "faux" status, "The Hellstrom Chronicle" was the winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Documentary, beating out Marcel Ophul's towering "The Sorrow and the Pity." And that's approximately when the cinéphiles' collective love affair with it came to an abrupt end. It was then demonized, ostracized and forgotten, subsequently relegated to only left-handed references.

That's when its title is invoked at all.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

façade: Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis, with her straight-forward, angular good looks and rather statuesque personality, played willful heroines, briefly, in the 1970s and '80s. Less intimidating than, say, Sigourney Weaver and less girlish than Julia Roberts, she pretty much fell through the studio cracks.

I suppose she was yet another example of a promising talent who, for some bizarre reason, befuddled Hollywood.

But like her mom, Janet Leigh, Curtis was a team player and did what Hollywood handed her, much in the spirit of an old contract player. She was particularly playful opposite Dan Aykroyd in two films - John Landis' "Trading Place" (1983) and Howard Zieff's "My Girl" (1991).

She gamely overcame the stigma of initiating her film career in 1978 with seven - count 'em - seven back-to-back horror flicks. Here goes: "Halloween," "The Fog," "Prom Night," "Terror Train," "Roadgames" (not strictly a horror flick), "Halloween II" and "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." I guess all those titles seemed like a good idea at the time.

But then came good roles in the aforementioned "Trading Places," Robert M. Young's "Dominick and Eugene" (1987), Charles Crichton's "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), Steve Rash's "Queens Logic" (1990) and Kathryn Bigelow's "Blue Steel" (also '90). Bigelow's film should have been her way to break out of genre films and into starring roles in the major league.

Bigelow handcrafted for Curtis an archetypal role that the actress seemed to instinctively understand. Cast as Megan Turner, a rookie cop who stops a robbery in progress, killing the supposed bad guy (Tom Sizemore) but actually set up by the film's resident psycho/stalker (Ron Silver), Curtis perhaps brought her experience as an actress manipulated by the Hollywood system to the role of a professional woman unsure of who exactly to trust. Magan is an obsessive character and Curtis turns in an appropriately obsessive performance - a fully realized performance.

It is an engaged yet compellingly reserved acting triumph, beautifully modulated and underlined by Curtis' impeccable line readings.

Both she and her director, clearly in perfect concert with each other, seem to be working here through the professional delusions that each one had experienced. It's odd that "Blue Steel" is rarely invoked in references to either Bigelow or Curtis, but it remains something of a major, if unacknowledged, accomplishment in feminist filmmmaking.

Curtis had a few other roles that seemed worthy of her talent but that, inexplicably, led to nowhere - opposite John Travolta in James Bridges' "Perfect" (1985), a reviled film that may be ripe for reevaluation, and Diane Kurys' "A Man in Love" (1987), which my friend, Carrie Rickey, once wittily retitled "A Man in Love with Himself," a wicked reference to title star Peter Coyote's narcissistic lead performance.

Curtis' last great role was opposite Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush in 2001 - in "The Tailor of Panama," John Boorman's first-rate adaptation of the John le Carré novel. In it, she was mature, relaxed with herself and as sexy as ever. I doubt if even Streep could have done a better job.

Renée's One and Only

Renée Zellweger channels Lana Turner in Richard Loncraine's utterly disarming "My One and Only"
A few weeks ago, Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer devoted one of the posts on her Flickgrrl blog to considering whether or not Renée Zellweger has hit "that bad age" for an actress.

We've seen it happen to such prolific and seemingly youthful actresses as Sissy Spacek and Sally Field whose careers (on the big screen, at least) stopped with a thud once they reached ... "that bad age." Insidious.

It's not pleasant to watch, but to answer Carrie's question, I really don't see that happening to Zellweger, who turned 40 this year. She's always been a singular, idiosyncratic actress, an acquired taste for some, who has made some compelling, sometimes risky career decisions.

As a result, her filmography, while not as mainstream or filled with high-profile hits as, say, Julia Roberts, is endlessly fascinating.

And her last few films, which may seem unmemorable for some, have frankly provided me with the few lasting movie experiences that I've had recently. What's more, she's had terrific roles in each, arguably the only truly original female roles in movies these days.

There was her turn as writer Beatrix Potter Chris Noonan's neglected "Miss Potter" (2006), her newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton in George Clooney's charming (and also neglected) "Leatherheads" (2008), her sly, wicked vamping as the duplicitous Allie French in Ed Harris' equally provocative "Appaloosa" (also '08) and her near-perfect hommage to Doris Day as corporate hot-shot Lucy Hill in Jonas Elmer's "New in Town" (2009), which was - you guessed it! - neglected.

These were all juicy roles and Zellweger was alarmingly precise and spot-on in each one - as she is in Richard Loncraine's delicious "My One and Only," an old-fashioned entertainment that combines two irresistible genres - the road movie with the romp about a kid's outrageous mother/aunt/grandmother (take your pick). It's part "Auntie Mame," part "Travels with My Aunt" and part "Imitation of Life."

Zellweger clearly had her choice of how to play runaway wife and mother Anne Deveraux (based on Anne Hamilton Spalding, mother of actor George Hamilton). Would she go with Rosalind Russell or Maggie Smith or Lana Turner? Well, Lana wins. And the satisfying result is a restrained comedic performance that's lulled by pathos and a certain tenderness - and tinged with a retro glamour-puss alure. The bottom line is that it's an authentic depiction of the way stars once behaved in movies.

Lana definitely would have approved.
Mark Rendall and Logan Lerman (in the role of the young George Hamilton), playing brothers, keep up with and complement Renée, their on-screen mother

Friday, September 04, 2009

Mike Judge's Jack Lemmon Movie

Ben Affleck plays Ernie Kovacs to Jason Bateman's Jack Lemmon in Mike Judge's retro "Extract"

Mike Judge's third film, "Extract," is something of a willful departure from his previous comedy triumphs - 1999's "Office Space," a comic tonic for anyone who despises workplace authority (count me in), and 2006's "Idiocracy," an aggressively subversive gift for those of us made impatient with the stupidity that's encouraged and rewarded by the people who run the country (I'm in again). I like the way Judge thinks.

"Extract" is no less angry but its relatively sunny retro quality is likely to throw off people, even those who are paid to be observant and astute - yes, the critics.

Watching star Jason Bateman as the befuddled owner of an flavor extract plant, trying to juggle disgruntled workers, a disinterested wife, a tempting new employee, the promising sale of his company and a potential lawsuit, I was transported easily back to the 1960s when Jack Lemmon would inarguably have been its star.

"Extract" is a sex comedy, circa 1964 (not 2009), a film that, one day, will make a nifty double-bill with Lemmon's "Good Neighbor Sam," if some resourceful rep house programmer gets the idea.

Instead of Dorothy Provine and Romy Schneider as the put-upon hero's wife and sex fantasy, respectively, we get Kristen Wiig and Mila Kunis driving Bateman to comic distraction in different ways. David Koechner steals scenes as the neighbor from suburban hell (Robert Q. Lewis had the role in "Sam"), and Ben Affleck is something of a scruffy revelation, playing Ernie Kovacs to Bateman's Lemmon, always ready to offer unsolicited, untrustworthy advice. Affleck is a welcome presence whenever he's on screen - when he's off, you miss him - and his scenes with Bateman have the natural ping-pong rhythm of buddies bonding.

Such modern supporting stalwarts as J.K. Simmons, Beth Grant and Clifton Collins, Jr. add to the pleasing ensemble.

"Extract" probably won't win Judge any new fans - and may disappoint the ones he already has - but it's an accomplished, soothing reminder of a time when sex comedies were ... innocent.

Lemmon as good neighbor Sam

façade: Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges does his best W.C. Fields opposite border collie Devon in HBO's otherwise unwatchable "A Dog Year," directed by George LaVoo
Jeff Bridges has appeared in 65 feature films to date and has four Oscar nominations to his credit. Therefore, according to logic, to say that he's underappreciated or overlooked makes no sense at all, right?

So why exactly do I feel he's underappreciated and overlooked?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it's because, like the actors of whom he is so reminiscent - Robert Mitchum and Sterling Hayden - Bridges is a character actor/leading man hybrid. And hybrids have this tendency to confuse studio executives and the public alike, sneaking in under the radar with killer performances that only critics and buffs seem to "get."

The leading man roles now in his past, Bridges has relaxed his way into an eclectic assortment of roles in a compelling array of movie choices. He's worked on eccentric projects for eccentric filmmakers (Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" and Larry Charles' "Masked and Anonymous"), cult films (Michael Traeger's "The Amateurs," aka "The Moguls"), blockbusters (Jon Favreau's "Iron Man"), art films (Tod Williams' "The Door in the Floor"), teen flicks (Jessica Bendinger's "Stick It") and mainstream Oscar bait (Gary Ross' "Seabiscuit"). I'm impressed but I've a hunch that, in Hollywood, such careeer crisscrossing is considered social suicide.

And like Mitchum and Hayden, Bridges is something of an adjustable wrench as an actor. Most recently, he turned in a suitably disagreeable performance in a disgreeable HBO movie, "A Dog Year" (based on one of Jon Katz's dog books). He played the role of a toxic writer the only way it could be played - as if he'd rather not be in the film. Strangely, it worked.

I imagine Mitchum or Hayden in the same exact cranky performance.

cinema obscura: Muriel Box's "Rattle of a Simple Man" (1964)


Charles Dyer, who wrote the stage and screen versions of "Staircase," adapted his 1963 play "Rattle of a Simple Man" for the estimable director Muriel Box. Now long forgotten, both his play and its 1964 screen version work as the '60s predecessor to Judd Apatow's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," dealing as it does with a pathetically inexperienced middle-aged man.
Diane Cilento plays with Harry H. Corbett's rattle in Muriel Box's British sex comedy
The title always struck me as playfully sexual.

On stage, the piece starred Edward Mulhare as the 40-year-old virgin and Tammy Grimes as the game woman who rescues him from his innocence/repression. (A very young George Segal played a supporting role on stage.)

That's a good cast, but I can hardly imagine it topping the film version's stars - Harry H. Corbett and the delectable Diane Cilento (who, at the time of the film's release, was best known for her supporting role in Tony Richardson's "Tom Jones" and also as Mrs. Sean Connery).

Percy (Corbett) is out with his soccer friend in London for the Cup Final and they end up in the company of a prostitute named Cyrenne (Cilento). Percy's friends are clearly aware that he is sexually inexperienced and, via a drunken bet and in attempt to make a fool of him, nudge Percy towards spending the night with Cyrenne.

What follows is a dialogue film, essentially set in one room, in which Percy and Cyrenne spar and get to know each other. Will she lure him into bed? Will he win his bet? Meanwhile, their on-going conversation is juxtaposed with scenes of his buddies getting progressively drunk.

Much like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the film is harsh and sweet, and Cilento is a revelation. But the film clearly belongs to Corbett, an endearing actor who starred in "Crooks and Coronets" (1969) and "Steptoe and Son" (1972) and died in 1982.

Muriel Box, the film's director, was one of the most productive female filmmakers her in day, perhaps best remembered for the sublime 1955 farce, "Simon and Laura," starring Peter Finch and Kay Kendall, an incomparable duo, as husband-wife actors who agree to do a daily BBC television show because they need the money (shades of reality TV), and "Subway in the Sky" (1959) with a very good Van Johnson as a military doctor in Berlin falsely accused of illegal dealing in drugs. Hildegard Knef co-starred.

Note in Passing: The stage version of "Rattle of a Simple Man" opened at the Booth Theater in New York on April 17, 1963.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

turner this month - bravo!

A messed up Shirley Knight (brilliant!) exploits a vulnerable James Caan (exceptional!) in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" (riveting!). Avec Duvall.
Turner Classic Movies drives into autumn with a smash month devoted to every possible area of movies - silents, imports, titles from or inspired by The Telluride Film Festival, movies with scores by Bernard Hermann, movies directed by J. Lee Thompson and Phil Karlson, movies picked by Richard Lewis and movies with Claude Rains, Stephen Boyd, Harry Belafonte, Donna Reed, Sabu and Mia Farrow. And lots of Vincinte Minnelli (yeah! ) scattered throughout. So who needs a life anyway?

The month opens - auspiciously, in my opinion - on 1 September with a 7:30 a.m. showing (all times are est) of Ted Tetzlaff's modest gem, "The Window," a tight and tidy little thriller featuring a preternaturally shrewd performance by a young Bobby Driscoll (it gets an encore performance on 21 September) - followed later at 8 p.m. by a quintet of classics featuring scores by Bernard Hermann - "Hangover Square," "The Devil and Daniel Webster," "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "On Dangerous Ground."

Every Wednesday at prime-time hours, starting on 2 September, will be devoted to Claude Rains, kicking off with such staples as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Casablanca," "Mr. Skeffington" and "Notorious."

Two reliable actresses from the 1950s - Diane Brewster and Carolyn Jones - have good roles in Michael Curtiz's "The Man in the Net," a little-known Alan Ladd drama that Turner will show at noon on 3 September.

J. Lee Thompson rarely gets his due but he did direct "Tiger Bay," the original "Cape Fear" and "The Guns of Navarone," which is being screened at 8 p.m. in Turner's tribute to him on 5 September. It will be followed by "I Aim at the Stars," "Taras Bulba" and the underrated Sherman Bros. musical, "Huckleberry Finn."

Mia Farrow, who receives a block of time later in the month showcasing five of her performances, is especially affecting in Woody Allen's fastidiously-made but deceptively dark "The Purple Rose of Cairo," airing at 6:30 p.m. in 6 September. She plyas Celia, a downtrodden, Depression-era housewife/film buff whose life is ruined by movies. Jeff Daniels, who replaced Michael Keaton early in the the production of the film, turns in a game performance in the dual role of both a movie star named Tom Baxter and the character he plays in film called "The Purple Rose of Cairo" - a twosome who turn Cecilia's life inside-out and upside-down for the most facile reasons.

Later that night at 10 p.m., check on the color version of Peter Bogdanovich's good natured "Nickelodeon," which transports Burt Ryenolds and Ryan O'Neal (and us) into the silent film era.

Screening at 6 a.m. on 7 September is the not-to-be-missed Cecil B. DeMille film, "The Godless Girl," a 1929 consideration of atheism and, at 3:45 p.m., "Park Row," a gripping newspaper drama that teams maverick director Samuel Fuller with maverick actor Gene Evans.
Telluride! Inarugably the best film festival. Ever.
The addictive Telluride Film Festival - the most intimate and manageable of all film festivals - is held every Labor Day weekend and for the occasion this year, Telluride's guest director, Alexander Payne, selected 15 titles to air on 7 & 8 September that bare some connection to the fete. These films either played Telluride or reflect the festival's spirit.

Worth catching, back-to-back on 8 September, are Francis Ford Coppola's ahead-of-its-time "The Rain People" (at 2 a.m.), about a runaway housewife, and Sam Peckinpah's companionable "Junior Bonner" (4 a.m.), a family drama with a rodeo backdrop. Both films are hugely watchable, each boasting a perfect ensemble of actors in indelible performances.

Shirley Knight had her best film role in "The Rain People," a part which Daryl Chin told me was originally intended for Elizabeth Hartman, who starred for Coppola in "You're a Big Boy Now" and was a favorite of the director's. Coppola apparently also wanted Hartman for the Diane Keaton role in "The Godfather" films, but Hartman had emotional problems that cut her career short. She died at 44 by suicide in 1987.

Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimieux make a charming duo in Alex Segal's "Joy in the Morning," airing at 4 p.m. on 8 September and receiving an encore showing on 23 September at 2:45 a.m.
Aldo Ray - they don't build actors like him anymore
Two a.m. on 9 September. Mark down that time and date and catch Raoul Walsh's lurid adaptation of Norman Mailer's lurid war novel, "The Naked and the Dead," which was something of a minor sensation in its day. Aldo Ray (currently being celebrated in Quentin Tarantino's terrific "Inglourious Bastereds) and Barbara Nichols, both inimitable, are a hoot together. Good, testosterone-drenched trash. During more reasonable hours on 9 September, you have your pick of Nicholas Ray's "They Drive by Night" (6 a.m.), John Berry's "Tension" (9:30 a.m.), John Sturges' "Mystery Street" (7:45 a.m.), Tay Garnett's "Cause of Alarm" (2 p.m.), Richard Fleischer's "The Narrow Margin" (3:30 p.m.) and Fritz Lang's "While the City Sleeps" (4:45 p.m.). Best of all is a littel-known film by Seth Holt titled "Nowhere to Go," a 1958 gem that creatively pairs George Nader with Maggie Smith and throws in Bernard Lee for good measure. Oh, just take the day off.

The career of Hermann, who wrote the score for "The Naked and the Dead," is further celebrated on 8 September, starting at 8 p.m., with "Five Fingers," "The Snow of Kilimanjaro, "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef" and "The Three Worlds of Gulliver."
Hermann scores

Turner devotes several hours to a few of the films made by Sabu, starting at 8 p.m. The same day, Robert Stevenson's "Old Yeller," made for Disney, sensitively illustrates what an animal tale could be when animal tales weren't so frivolous or completely kid-centric. It begins airing at 5:45 a.m. - so be prepared to start the day crying.

To cheer up, make sure to watch Allan Dwan's antic "Brewster's Millions," starring the affable Dennis O'Keefe and airing at 9:45 p.m. on 11 September. Commanding Joanne Woodward is the focus on 12 September, starting with a screening at 8 p.m. of Martin Ritt's "The Long Hot Summer," followed by her Oscar-winner "The Three Faces of Eve," "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," "Count Three and Pray" and ending with "Paris Blues," another Ritt title.

Bud Yorkin's
"Divorce, American Style," starring Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke, is now more than 40 years old, but it remains as astutely observant and contemporary as ever. If anything, this scathing comedy, airing at 6 p.m. on 13 September, has improved with age.

A bit of trivia: Take note of the funny sequence which Reynolds and Van Dyke share with their respective divorce lawyers, played by Shelley Berman and Dick Gautier - both of whom had a history with Van Dyke at the time. Berman and Van Dyke had appeared on Broadway with Nancy Walker and Bert Lahr in the 1959 musical revue, "The Boys Against the Girls," and, a year later, Gautier played the title role in Van Dyke's musical hit, "Bye, Bye Birdie." (For some bizarre reason, Columbia didn't recruit the witty Gautier to recreate his stage role for its film of "Birdie," giving it instead to a gyrating blank named Jesse Pearson.)

Glenn Ford and Hope Lange were a momentary couple in the early 1960, making two films together - Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles" in 1961 and David Swift's 1962 "Love Is a Ball" (originally titled "The Grand Duke and Mr. Pimm"), which airs at 4:15 a.m. on 14 September.

King Vidor's epic "Solomon and Sheba," playing at 3:45 p.m. on 14 September, stars Yul Brynner as Solomon, the role that was started by Tyrone Power, who died on set of a heart attack. This being a United Artists film, none of the footage of Power was retained. Gina Lollobrigida co-stars as Sheba.

The film versions of two Broadway comedies get early-morning slots on 15 September. Herb Ross's "The Owl and the Pussycat" stars Barbra Srtreisand and George Segal in roles played on stage by Diana Sands and Alan Alda. It airs at 3:30 a.m. Immediately following: Steve McQueen and Brigid Bazlen take over for Tom Poston and Suzanne Pleshette in "The Honeymoon Machine," Richard Thorpe's adaptation of "The Golden Fleecing." Meanwhile, at 6:45 a.m., Robert Montgomery is a bohemian artist and Roz Russell a society dame in George Fitzmaurice's "Live, Love and Learn."

More Bernard Hermann, starting at 8 p.m. on 15 September with a trio of Hitchcock scores - "The Trouble with Harry," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo." Hitch's "Rich and Strange," about a young couple who are just that, pops up at 7:15 a.m. on 16 September. A day later, at 10 p.m. on 17 September, Crawford and McCambridge go at each other in Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar."
Get more out of life - See a movie with Richard Lewis
On 18 September, Harry Belafonte is showcased in Otto Preminger's "Carmen Jones," Sidney Poitier's "Buck and the Preacher" and Jan Kadar's "The Angel Levine," co-starring Zero Mostel.

It all starts at 8 p.m.

Another by Marty Ritt: "The Great White Hope," James Earl Jones' breakthrough film, gets a showing at 6 p.m. on 19 September. Based on the play in which Jones also appeared, it is appropriately stagebound. If you want something looser, try the inimitable cinema verité of Ken Loach - "Kes," the stark, affecting tale of a young man is transported from his dreary life whenever he works with his pet falcon. See it at 3 a.m. on 20 September.

On 21 September, you can watch David Niven slum in Michael Gordon's "The Impossible Years" (based on a play that starred Alan King), at 6 a.m., and then pull up a chair as comic Richard Lewis sits down at 8 p.m. with Robert Osborne to discuss his four picks of the night - Buster Keaeton's "Sherlock, Jr.," Charles Keisner's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (starring Keaton), Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" and Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove."

"North by Northwest." Hitchcock & Grant. At 8 p.m. on 22 September. Got that?

Ben Mankiewicz has great taste
Weekend Turner host Ben Mankiewicz offers up his monthly pick on 23 September - Hitchcock's "Marnie," at 12:30 a.m. I salute Ben. If I had to pick only one Hitchcock film that I could keep in my DVD collection it would be “Marnie” – hands-down. I know Grace Kelly was Hitch’s intended star here, but Tippi Hedren turns in a revelatory, intricate performance that has grown in restrospect as a damaged woman caught in a destructive cycle. This time around, listen to the sad, child-like voice Hedren affects whenever she regresses into her past. Sean Connery is the empathetic man who takes the time to understand her.

Christine Edzard's two-part "Little Dorrit" project will be aired later on 23 September - with "Nobody's Fault" showing at noon and "Little Dorrit's Story" at 3 p.m.

Mitchum's the man on 24 September, overlapping with Minnelli - Vincente, that is. Starting at 7:45 a.m., you can see Bob in "Thunder Road," "Young Billy Young" and Minnelli's commandingly tense "Home from the Hill," which takes us right into two more Minnelli titles - "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" and the great "Two Weeks in Another Town."
You can't go wrong with a Phil Karlson film. They're rough-edged and endlessly fascinating. Turner serves up four on 25 September, starging at 8 p.m. with "Scandal Sheet," "The Phenix City Story," "The Brothers Rico" and "Ladies of the Chorus."

Minnelli (again) worked with CinemaScope for the first time with "Brigadoon," showing at 10 a.m. on 27 September and, in order to use the process, had to film his musical on an MGM soundstage, rather than on locaton as he had planned and wanted to. Later in the day: Richard Quine's cult fave, "Strangers When We Meet" at 2 p.m.

Before there were the virile Irish actors Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne, there was Stephen Boyd, who died young, but made an indelible impression in "The Bravodos," "The Best of Everything, "Jumbo" and "Ben-Hur," the latter kicking of a mini-tribute to the late actor on 26 September. It starts at 8 p.m. and is followed by "Genghis Khan," "The Beasts of Marseilles" and "Abandon Ship!" Roberto Rossellini's "Flowers of St. Francis" and Anatole Litvak's "Goodbye Again" are on tap for early-morning screenings (2 a.m., anyone?) on 28 September, a day which then devotes itself to six titles with Donna Reed - and five with Mia Farrow.
Farrow's titles, which start unreeling at 8 p.m., include two by Woody Allen, "Alice" and "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," Richard Fleischer's "See No Evil," John Guillermin's "Death on the Nile" and ... Anthony Mann's long-lost "A Dandy in Aspic," his final movie, airing at 1:30 a.m. on 29 September.















Farrow & Harvey, Together - in "A Dandy in Aspic"
Quite atypical for Mann, "A Dandy in Aspic" is a Cold War thriller with a mod touch. Mann died while the film was still in production and receives sole credit, although the film's very game star, Laurence Harvey, completed the film for Mann. The nifty plot, based by Derek Marlowe on his novel, casts Harvey as Alexander Eberlin, a secret Russian double agent chosen by the British Secret Service to track down another double agent who is working for the Russians and is responsible for the deaths of three British spies. Actually, the Russian double agent that Eberlin is ordered to assassinate is ... Eberlin himself. As it goes on, the movie becomes as convoluted as it is moody, a perfect example of the subgenre of films about British intelligence in the late 1960s and early '70s that tried to deflate the silly glamour of the Bond flicks. Sidney Lumet's "A Deadly Affair" with James Mason and Simone Signoret, and Martin Ritt's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," with Richard Burton, Oskar Werner and Claire Bloom, were two other dour, dead-serious spy films.

Farrow, in her prime, plays a trendy British photographer who becomes involved with Eberlin, and the ace supporting cast includes Harry Andrews, Per Oscarsson, the veteran Lionel Stander, a very young Peter Cook and Calvin Lockhart and the great Tom Courtenay, but the film is both driven and anchored by Harvey, as brooding here as he was in Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."
The estimable Christopher Challis did the cinematography; Quincy Jones composed the ga-roovy score and Pierre Cardin (who else?) dressed Farrow. (BTW, there was a rare screening of "A Dandy in Aspic," yete another lost Columbia film, by the American Cinemathique in Los Angeles in January, 2008. It was shown on a double-bill with the aforementioned "A Deady Affair" at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater.)

I can't think of a better way to spend a midweek evening than in the company of Francois Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau who memorably collaborated on the sublime "The Bride Wore Black"/"La Mariee Etait en Noir," scheduled for 8 p.m. on 29 September.






Brooding Frank and wistful Shirley in Minnelli's
"...Some Came Running"






End the month on 30 September with late, late night screenings of Brian DePalma's "Obsession" and Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," starting at midnight, and Minnelli's pitch-perfect "...Some Came Running," penciled in for 3:45 p.m. that day. The end to a perfect TCM month.