Sunday, January 31, 2010

cinema obscura: Chantal Akerman's "A Couch in New York"/"Un divan à New York" (1996)

Dave Kehr devotes a lot of ink in his latest New York Times' DVD column to Criterion Collection/Eclipse's “Chantal Akerman in the Seventies,” which offers five films by the estimable Belgian director. In tandem, his column and most essential blog jogged my memory a bit, reminding me of a charming Akerman film that tends to come in under the radar.

The movie is 1996's "A Couch in New York"/"Un divan à New York" which is essentially a superior version of Nancy Meyers' "The Holiday," predating the Meyers romcom by 10 years. You know, the one about two people who switch residences - in the case of the Akerman film, Juliette Binoche, a Parisian woman feeling pressured by all the men in her life, and William Hurt, a New York psychotherapist tired of his patients and their problems.

So, they swap places - and, by extension, lives. Yes, both also become involved in the other person's life, with Binoche actually counseling Hurt's patients and Hurt being pursued by one of Binoche's jealous boyfrinds. When he finally gets fed up, Hurt moves back to New York, meets up with Binoche and, to paraphrase the old song, something gives.

What sounds like a generic, formulaic sitcom turns into something quite magical in Akerman's hands. She deftly targets the hapless transfer of people to different places as something not just playful but potentially unstable and dangerous. Relationships usually take one into uncharted territorty and that's what Akerman toys with so cynically here.

What makes her two difficult people seem so wrong for each other is exactly what makes them so exactly perfect for one another.

Not surprisingly, "A Couch in New York" has the kind of foreign fizz that's an acquired taste, especially for American audiences who are too easily put off by anything even remotely alien. The film may be Akerman's most accessible and commerical to date, but its distinctive technique is pure Chantal, resplendent with tiny bits of business and hugely observant.

Monday, January 25, 2010

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" (1962)

Is rough-hewn Vallone in love with niece Lawrence or her boyfriend Sorel in "A View from the Bridge"?
As I opined in a previous post, the movie year 1962 was a great one, arguably the best - better than 1939 - with dozens of notable filmmakers working with a liberating freedom. One of them was Sidney Lumet, who devoted himself to adaptations of two legendary plays.

Most film aficionados admire the fidelity of Lumet's film of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night," but few are even aware of his now largely forgotten version of Arthur Miller's hothouse drama, "A View from the Bridge," also from '62.
Vallone, Lawrence and Stapleton make up Arthur Miller's uneasy Brooklyn family.
Frankly, it also slipped my mind until I read Ben Brantley's review of Gregory Mosher’s latest New York revival, headlined by Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht, in today's New York Times.

They have the roles played by Raf Vallone, Carol Lawrence and Maureen Stapleton, respectively, in Lumet's film version. Very much an international production, Lumet's "A View from the Bridge," which cleaves closely to Miller's play, was a French-Italian co-production made in two versions - one spoken in English, the other a French-language version.

Vallone plays Eddie Carbone, an Italian longshoreman who lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, unhappily married to Stapleton's Beatrice. Eddie is really in love with Catherine, the 18-year-old niece who he and Beatrice have raised since childhood, but he is too artless to be fully aware of either his deeply suppressed feelings for Catherine or his casual rejection of Beatrice. And there might be something else going with Eddie.

Carol Lawrence, fresh from the stage production of "West Side Story," made her film debut under Lumet's direction and, to the best of my knowledge, Catherine remains her only big-screen role. She tested for the film of WSS but, of course, that role went to Natalie Wood.

She's a lovely presence here and Michel Kelber's stark black-&-white cinematography seems to love her pale, soft skin and regal cheekbones.

Eddie faces a crisis when he agrees to help two of Beatrice's cousins enter the country illegally, particularly when Catherine is attracted one of them, the handsome Rodolpho (played by the French actor Jean Sorel).

He interfers not only by reporting Rodolpho and his brother Marco (Raymond Pellegrin, very good) to the immigration department, but by also accusing Rodolpho of being a homosexual. The film's big scene - a cause célèbre at the time - has a desperate Eddie planting a big, wet kiss on Rodolpho to prove his point about the young man's sexuality. By this point, "A View from the Bridge" has gone haywire. I mean, is Eddie still lusting for Catherine or is he now really interesed in Rodolpho?

On stage, "A View from the Bridge" was not a popular success. It ran for only 148 performances in 1955. But the critics liked it. Movie critics were decidely more divided in 1962, with Dwight MacDonald praising it and Pauline Kael accusing it of being a lame, would-be Greek tragedy.

Distributed in America by Continental Releasing, Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" is now virtually impossible to see, a truly lost film.
Sorel's tentative relationship with Lawrence incites a repressed, jealous and ultimately explosive Vallone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

isn't it time...?

...for Meryl Streep to play Pauline Kael in a biopic?
Dave Kehr gamely suggests the working title, "Andy and Pauline." But who on earth would play Kael-nemesis Andrew Sarris? Any suggestions?

Speaking of Streep, in a night awash in really arch acceptance speeches, Streep's at the Golden Globes left me a tad confused. Winning for her performance in Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia," Streep started out by checking out presenter Colin Farrell furtively and then making a crack about wishing her name was T-Bone - T-Bone Streep.

So far, so good.

"In my career, I’ve played so many extraordinary women that I’m getting mistaken for one, ... I secretly got to pay hommage to my own personal, not-so-famous hero – that’s my mother.

This is where the confusion came in - for me, at least,

"A lot of the people in this room knew my mother. She had a real joy in living...She just had no patience for gloom and doom. I’m not like that. I come to Golden Globes weekend and I am really honestly in conflict about how to have my happy movie self in the face of everything that I’m aware of in the real world. That’s when, I hear my mother’s voice: 'Partners in Health – shoot some money to Partners in Health. Put the dress on, put on a smile and just be damn grateful you have the dollars to help.'"

I took this - or mistook it, as the case is - for Streep granting herself permission to forget what's going on our there (read: Haiti) and to let the champagne and kudos flow. Wrong! As my friend Carrie Rickey has gently reminded me, Partners in Health is a relief organization and this was Streep's subtle way of expressly acknowledging the situation in Haiti.

Obviously, it was too subtle for me. Apologies all around, folks.

Friday, January 15, 2010

façade: richard quine, beyond columbia

Directing Lemmon and Novak in "Landlady"

Quine at work
Richard Quine never settled. Even as a house director at Columbia, where he was largely assigned work during the 1950s, he summoned an uneasy, idiosyncratic personal touch that made him a closeted auteur. Back then, he came in under the radar and, in some cinema circles, still does.

But he's a favorite of this site, not only because he coaxed the best, least mannered screen work out of Jack Lemmon (sorry, Messrs Wilder and Edwards), but precisely because his style was so uneasy and idiosyncratic - apparently, much like the complex, troubled man himself.

Lately, much has been written about Quine's work at Columbia. His name is invoked regularly on Dave Kehr's essential site, and he was the subject of "Richard Quine at Columbia," a mini-retrospective presented by the film arm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August of 2008.

His three main connections at Columbia were Lemmon (whose screen test was directed by Quine), studio head Harry Cohn (who put Quine under contract following Quine's years as an actor there) and Kim Novak (entrusted to Quine by Cohn to groom into an actress and a star).

Novak was Quine's muse-cum-fiancée, and when they made 1960's "Strangers When We Meet," a superior soap opera whose plot revolves around a swank Malibu home being designed for a writer, Columbia displayed its respect for Quine - and also support for his relationship with Novak - by building a real house for the film, which was to be given to them after shooting as a wedding present. But the couple part ways during the shoot and much of the anxiety in Novak's performance (her best) could directly stem from the real-life break-up.

Quine made his directing debut in tandem with William Asher on 1948's "Leather Gloves," whose cast included a young actor named ... Blake Edwards, and many of his Columbia films were made in collaboration with Edwards. Quine and Edwards, for example, wrote the script for the 1955 musical remake of "My Sister Eileen." (Perhaps not coincidentally, Quine had an acting role in Columbia's original 1942 version of "My Eileen Sister," playing along side Rosalind Russell.)

Working outside the axis of the Columbia lot on North Gower, Quine's work took on a different dimension. Early on, he did the Tony Curtis-Gene Nelson musical, "So This Is Paris" (1955) for Universal, but his extracurricular professional life really started in earnest in 1960 when he directed William Holden and Nancy Kawn in the film version of the Paul Osborn play, "The World of Suzie Wong" for Ray Stark and Paramount.

After directing Lemmon and Novak in "The Notorious Landlady" in 1962, Quine dove into three back-to-back comedies - "Paris - When It Sizzles" (1964), "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964) and "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), for Paramount, Warner Bros. and United Artists, respectfully.

He returned to Columbia in '65 to direct Stella Stevens in the addiction drama, "Synanon," done verité-style; segued into Warners' "Hotel" in '67 and, the same year, had a reunion with Roz Russell directing her in his hugely idiosyncratic version of the Arthur Kopit play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," for Paramount.

In 1969-1970, he did two solid Richard Widmark films - "A Talent for Loving" for Paramount" and "The Moonshine War" for MGM - neither getting much of a studio push. Quine's last two films, both disposable Peter Sellers vehicles, were Universal's "The Prisoner Zenda" (1979) and Warners' "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" (1980), which he started but never completed. Piers Haggard receives credit for "Fu Manchu."

Nine years later, Richard Quine would commit suicide by shooting himself, tired of waiting for offers to direct the kinds of films he wanted to make. Perhaps the kind he made his original home base, Columbia.

Quine did his best work there. He may have been that rare filmmaker who worked best as a hired hand, a contract director.

The standout among his final films is an unsung gem that is reminiscent of his "Pushover"/"Drive a Crooked Road" days working for Cohn. "W," a tidy thriller that Quine made in 1974 for Cinerama Releasing, fell through the cracks the minute it was released. It was barely noticed.

As he did with Kim Novak 20 years earlier, Quine nudged a credible, often appealing performance from Twiggy, cast as a woman hounded by a serial killer whose sole clue is the letter W left at the scene of each crime. It was her second film, following Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" in 1971, and her sincerity at trying to give a valid performance is palpable.

I can't recall another performer who tried so hard to be so good - and much of Twiggy's drive here, I surmise, comes from having Richard Quine - and, yes, his uneasy, idiosyncratic touch - behind her.

BTW, "W" is available on DVD - but not as "W." It's been retitled for the occasion ... "I Want Her Dead." Yeesh.

Note in Passing: Richard Quine, the young actor, can be seen as Howard in S. Sylvan Simon's incredibly charming "The Cockeyed Miracle" (1946), in which he romantically pursues Audrey Totter. It airs on Turner Classic Movies at 6:30 a.m. (est.) on 20 January; it's Audrey Totter day on Turner. Frank Morgan, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway, Gladys Cooper and a very young Marshall Thompson round out Simon's game, happy cast.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

brainy & beautiful

"Brainy & beautiful" could refer either to James Cameron's sublime "Avatar" or to its equally exquisite star, Zoë Saldaña.

Actually, it applies to both.

I came to Cameron's achievement belatedly and, frankly, with few expectations. And it is an achievement - a love story, a war flick and a message film, a plea on behalf of the environment, all wrapped in a green-hued, extraordinarily handsome package. Eye Candy for grown-ups.

Cameron's gentle tirade is about Pandora - a stand-in for the Garden of Eden or maybe Oz (take your pick) - and the ravaging of its resources by a private military company, a la Blackwater, that charges in and, with a sense of entitlement, brutally pushes aside the inconvenient indigenous population. (Cameron wittily names its chief resource Unobtainium.)

Pandora's natives, the amazonian, blue-skinned Na’vi, are beautifully embodied by Saldaña in a bracing, impassioned performance that handily brusts through Cameron's tricky "motion capture" technique.

"Avatar" is topical, political and empathetic. Technically, it is intimidating - particuarly in Imax 3-D - but, narratively, it is genuinely humbling.

cinema obscura: James L. Brooks' "I'll Do Anything" (1994) - The Musical Version

James L. Brooks' notorious musical-turned-romantic comedy is a DVD candidate in its orignal form, something that has evaded the work.

For more than 15 years now.

You remember. The film started life as a full-fledged original musical, featuring
nine songs written by Prince, Sinead O'Connor and Carole King, with choreography by Broadway's Twyla Tharp, but when test audiences complained that some of the musical numbers interfered with the movie, Brooks methodically started to remove them, one by one.

By the time he got through, all of the songs were gone, except for a snippet of one King song sung by little Whittni Wright in the movie.

The weird thing is, "I'll Do Anything," which stars Nick Nolte (in photo below), is all about Hollywood and its test screenings, and how principles are sacrificed for the bottom line - namely to please audiences. In short, the film ironically turned into exactly what it's about.

Brooks apparently has closely guarded the deleted songs, making sure no one sees or hears them, although the laser disc version of the movie included a "making of" documentary which provides glimpses of co-stars Albert Brooks and Julie Kavner performing.

Back on February, 20th, 1994, the reliable Chris Willman wrote an article for The Los Angeles Times, titled "Princely Bootleg: Some People'll Do Anything to Hear These Songs," about bootleg CDs of the soundtrack songs from "I'll Do Anything" that were making the rounds at the time.

Willman wrote:

"Albert Brooks croons two songs: 'I'll Do Anything' (lyric: 'What good is a captain if he ain't got a crew / What good is a me if I AIN'T . . . GOT . . . A YOU!') and 'There Is Lonely.' Brooks' singing voice has been described charitably as gravitating toward the Jimmy Durante or Tom Waits end of the gravelly scale, and less charitably as an Oscar the Grouch affectation.

"There are two more torturous tunes that draw the greatest winces from illicit listeners. One is Julie Kavner's 'My Little Pill,' a sort of update of 'Mother's Little Helper' related to the truncated drug subplot, and recited in a maddeningly childlike sing-song voice. The other is Whittni Wright's rendition of Sinead O'Connor's mopey 'This Lonely Life' that won't have anyone comparing her to the other singing Whitney."

Apparently, Prince wrote something called "Wow!," for which Willman printed the lyric in its entirety. Not good. Still, I'd give anything to see and hear Nolte's singing debut on a song called "Be My Mirror."

Maybe one day...

Friday, January 08, 2010

façade: Edmund Goulding

Barrie Chase, one of the
stars of Goulding's "Mardi Gras," in her strip routine
In my previous piece on "Mardi Gras," I neglected to mention that the Pat Boone ensemble musical, airing on the Fox Movie Channel at 2 p.m. (est.) on 13 January, was the final film of its director, Edmund Goulding.

The film was released in November, 1958 and the London-born Goulding died a year later in December, 1959 of suicide.

He was was 68.

An actor/playwright/director on the London stage, Goulding came to Hollywood as a writer and eventually segued into direction. His novel, "Fury," was made into a film by Henry King, with Goulding writing the adaptation himself. It was his 22nd writing assignment in Hollywood.

Goulding's first film as a director was 1925's "Sun-Up." His second film, made the same year, was the incredibly popular "Sally, Irene and Mary." Something of an adjustible wrench as a filmmaker, Goulding directed 41 films, including Garbo's "Anna Karenina," Marion Davies' "Blondie of the Follies," the back-to back Davis films "The Old Maid" and "Dark Victory," MGM's all-star "Grand Hotel," the Eleanor Parker remake of "Of Human Bondage," Dorothy McGuire's "Claudia," Tyrone Power's terrific "Nighmare Alley," "The Razor's Edge" with Power and Gene Tierney, and finally...

"Mardi Gras."


Elvis was born 75 years ago today in Tupelo, Mississippi.

To celebrate, both Turner Classic Movie and the Fox Movie Channel have scheduled a cross-section of his films.

Turner's line-up - which runs all day long - consists mostly of the throwaway stuff that Presley made for MGM, with the exception of Norman Taurog's "Blue Hawaii," a 1961 Paramount release that TCM is airing at 4:30 p.m. (est). The other near-interchangable titles include two by actor-dancer Gene Nelson, "Kissin' Cousins" (1964) and "Harum Scarum" (1965); John Rich's "Roustabout" (1964), co-starring Barbara Stanwyck; Boris Segal's "Girl Happy" (1965), a bastardization of the old musical; two more by Taurog - "Spinout" (1966)and "Speedway" (1968) - and, of course, George Sidney's dependably awful "Viva Las Vegas" (1964).

Richard Thorpe's "Jailhouse Rock" (1957) caps the day with a midnight screening. This film has a reputation greater than it deserves; its only notable element is the clever staging of the title number.

Two Elvis docs complete the Turner's full-bodied schedule.

Fox Movie Channel, meanwhile, airs two of The King's better efforts, both made for Twentieth Century-Fox - Philip Dunne's "Wild in the Country" (1961), which teams Elvis with three very good leading ladies, Hope Lange, Millie Perkins and Tuesday Weld, in a script by no less than Clifford Odets, and Don Siegel's "Flaming Star" (1960), a Western co-starring the great Delores Del Rio. They air at 2 and 4 p.m. (est.), respectively.

Unfortunately, Elvis' best films aren't represented.

Missing are Michael Curtiz's "King Creole" (1958), based on the Harold Robbins novel and starring Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones and Delores Hart; Gordon Douglas' charming "Follow That Dream" (1962), with Arthur O'Connell, Anne Helm and Joanna Moore (Tatum O'Neal's mother), and Phil Karlson's remake of "Kid Galahad" (1962), toplined by Gig Young, Lola Albright, Joan Blackman, Robert Emhardt and Charles Bronson.

The most glaring omission is Elvis' debut film, Robert D. Webb's "Love Me Tender" (1956), which offered The King his ideal leading lady.

Debra Paget.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

cinema obscura: Sir Carol Reed's "The Public Eye" (1972) and Brian G. Hutton's "The Pad (and How to Use it)" (1966)

In 1964, two delightful one-act plays by Peter Shaffer opened on Broadway, titled "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear."

Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Shaffer also wrote "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Five Finger Exercise," all plays eventually made into movies.

Universal, which was busy in those days scouting Broadway productions, immediately snapped up the film rights to "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear" and then didn't know what to do with two one-act comedies. Both were eventually made into very pleasing, if little-seen movies.

"The Private Ear" was filmed by Brian G. Hutton in 1966 and retitled "The Pad and How to Use it" - a title inspired a little too obviously by Richard Lester's successful "The Knack and How to Get It."

It's thin but appealing plot - about a shy man who finally has the nerve to approach a woman while at a concert, only to lose her to his more dashing friend - provided material in which the film's young stars: Britain's Brian Bedford as the nerd, James Farentino (above) as the dashing hunk and especially Julie Sommars as the girl - truly excelled.

Essentially a glorified TV movie that was released, albeit briefly, to theaters, "The Pad and How to Use It" deserves to be rescued and seen.

"The Public Eye," finally filmed in 1972, had better luck.

Well, sort of.

It was adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself and directed by the estimable Sir Carol Reed.

In it, a dull British banker named Charles (played by Michael Jayston) hires Julian Cristo (Topol), an odd, eccentric private detective, to follow his American wife, Belinda (Mia Farrow, above), whom he suspects is cheating on him. (The film was titled "Follow Me" in all other countries, except the United States, which honored Shaffer's original title.) When Belinda becomes aware that she is being followed, she's flattered by the attention and starts to play games with her potential paramour. The private eye figures everything out - that the wife isn't unfaithful at all, but merely looking for something that her husband isn't providing - but that she's getting from him.

"The Public Eye" made it into theaters - but just barely. Universal opened in unannounced and without any advance critics' screenings.