Saturday, February 27, 2010

uncredited/unOscared

When a performer decides to pass on taking credit for a performance in a film, does that performer also relinquish the opportunity to vie for an Oscar - or any other award for that matter? My friend Carrie Rickey, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is of the opinion that, like the writing arm of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one has to have official screen credit in order to qualify.

I'm asking because Colin Farrell turns in yet another accomplished, albeit uncredited, performance in Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart" - one so good that he seems to effortlessly command the film every time he's own screen. For what it's worth, I think Farrell's is the outstandting performance in "Crazy Heart," not Jeff Bridges'. But that's just me.

Past "no screen credit" performances that were stand include a couple from two Sidney Pollack films - Bill Murray's wry turn in "Tootsie" (1982) and Gene Hackman's solid craftsmanship in "The Firm" (1993).

But getting back to Farrell, he continues to astound.

His work in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) and Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" (2008) is among the best of any actor in recent years. He received screen credit for both but, alas, no nominations
.

cinema obscura: George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" (1988/1993)

If, as suspected, both Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock walk off with the best actor and actress Oscars on Sunday, 7 March, do you think some resourceful rep-house programmer will think to quickly book a film that they made together some seventeen years ago?

Bridges played the creepy psychotic who arbitrarily snatches Bullock away from Keifer Sutherland, burying her alive, in "The Vanishing," George Sluizer's 1993 American remake of his own 1988 Dutch film, the by-far superior "Spoorloos." The crime is carried out as a heartless, methodical experiment. The point isn't necessarily to torture the Bullock character but to observe Sutherland as he squirms in helplessness.

However, what seemed like a thing of sadistic beauty in the European version comes across a tad too literal in the American remake, even though the two films are virtually carbon copies of each other. It's amazing how subtitles can camouflage the vulgar, disguising it as artistry.

Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his "Funny Games" (1997/2007) suffered from the same disasterous disconnect.

Nevertheless, Bridges, Bullock (in the film's smallest role), Sutherland and Nancy Travis (a woefully underused actress who appears here as a woman who tries to assist Sutherland in his search) are all in fine form.

Hopefully, if "The Vanishing" does enterprisingly reappear after the Oscars, it should be presented in tandem with "Spoorloos." Ideally.

Note in Passing: Coincidentally, the American remake will receive a series of showings on the Fox Movie Channel - 8 March at 10 p.m. (est), 9 March at 2 a.m., 27 March at 8 and 10 p.m., 28 March at midnight, 12 April at 10 p.m. and 20 April at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

cosmopolitan composition

Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" is a companionable thriller of some intellectual weight, elegantly bathed by cinematographer Pawel Edelman in the same soft blue of a Sapphire Gin bottle and ever-so-subtly driven by Alexandre Desplat's tinkly score. This is Hitchcock - updated, yes, but not at all compromised.

Ewan McGregor (above & below) is first-rate as the titular writer recruited to ghost the memoirs of a former British prime minister, essayed by an even better Pierce Brosnan, game as always. Of course, dangerous secrets and threats are uncovered.

Polanski nudges a superior cast - Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, the odd couple of Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach and, oh, particularly Olivia Williams - towards seemless ensemble performances.

The haunting chill of this singlar, enigmatic film stays with you.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sarah Palin & The Gladys Glover Connection

A while back when she first came on the scene, the ever-fascinating Sarah Palin inspired me to ruminate on which movie character she resembled the most - Tracy Flick in "Election," "Lonesome" Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd," Suzanne Stone Maretto in "To Die For," Marge Gunderson in "Fargo" or Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate."

Well, I missed the most obvious - Gladys Glover, the marvelous Judy Holliday creation in George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You!" (1954). As conjured up by the preternaturally astute Garson Kanin, Gladys is a nobody who desperately wants to be a somebody - no ... matter ... what.

And succeeds she does - if only as a symbol of ... nothing.

As for Palin in the here and now, I love how "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarland kept low and let Palin and her clone Bristol mouth off about his show's edgy Down syndrome episode before - ta-da! - announcing that Andrea Fay Friedman, the main vocal talent in the episode, is an actress who has Down syndrome herself, and that the show was supported by Gail Williamson, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles. How's that working fer ya, Sarah?

Monday, February 15, 2010

cinema obscura: Irving Reis' "Dancing in the Dark" (1949)

Adolphe Menjou, Betsy Drake and Mark Stevens in Reis' drama-with-music, "Dancing in the Dark" (1949)
Fans of film musicals seem to concur on only a half dozen titles as truly great, and Vincente Minnelli's 1953 "The Band Wagon," adapted from the 1931 Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz
stage revue, is one of them.

But Minnelli's film is predated by another version of the Schwartz-Dietz show - Irving Reis' 1949 "Dancing in the Dark," not available on home entertainment but receiving a rare screening on the Fox Movie Channel at 8 a.m. on Friday, 19 February.
Both films, coincidentally or not, scuttled George S. Kaufman and Dietz's stage "book" which was actually a series of skits. Each retained only the score, inventing new narratives which - again, coincidentally or not - are strikingly similiar.

For "Dancing in the Dark," writers Mary C. McCall Jr., Marion Turk and Jay Dratler came up with a plot about a has-been actor (William Powell) hired by Fox's studio head (Adolph Menjou) to coach a newcomer (Betsy Drake) in a big budget musical called "Bandwagon." For Minnelli's version, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green (with an uncredited assist Alan Jay Lerner) conjured up the story of a washed-up song-and-dance man (Fred Astaire who starred in the original revue with his sister, Adele) recruited to make a comeback in a musical of "Faust" being helmed by a pretentious snob (Jack Buchanan).

While Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" is a glossy, flashy musical, pure MGM through and through, Reis' "Dancing in the Dark" is more of a muted drama with the songs discreetly woven in more or less as strands.

There's never any question which is the better film.
Fred Astaire, accompanied by Leroy Daniels, in Michael Kidd's bracing "Shine on Your Shoes" routine, a number that was not in the original Broadway revue (but from another Dietz-Schwartz-Kaufman stage revue, 1932's "Flying Colors")

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

cinema obscura: Bill Guttentag's "Live!" (2007)

No one plays hungry restlessness better than Mendes
One modern Cinema Obscura that I always wanted to see is Bill Guttentag's "Live!," which, to the best of my knowledge, never received a U.S. theatrical release between its Tribeca Film Festival screening on 28 April 2007 and its under-the-radar DVD release on 1 December, 2009.

Guttentag, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (2003's "Twin Towers"), made his fiction-film debut with "Live!" and, on paper, it sounds like a compelling doozy, mockumentary-style, with the always game Eva Mendes vamping as a network's cynical president of prime-time programming who comes up with an idea for the ultimate reality series - a weekly game of Russian Roulette, wherein contestants vie for $5 million.

With loaded guns.

Live.

On-air.

I can't imagine any other actress, besides Mendes, who could pull off as premise as ballsy and deranged as this one.

"America's ever-elastic appetite for assimilating what was once offensive, rendering it both acceptable and profitable, gets a mostly deft satirical workout in 'Live!' Playing like 'Man Bites Dog' meets 'Network' retooled for the current media climate, well-cast venture from Oscar-winning docu vet Bill Guttentag incorporates its lacerating commentary about reality TV and fame into a suspenseful fake-docu format..."

So wrote Lisa Nesselson in her 1 October, 2007 review in
Variety

Guttentag's large cast also includes David Krumholtz as an eager young documentary filmmaker (and possible stand-in for the director), Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Missi Pyle, Andre Braugher, Paul Michael Glaser, Charlotte Ross, Katie Cassidy, Rob Brown and Jay Hernandez.

"Live!" will receive a rare screening at the ever-enterprising
Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CA. at 7 p.m. on Sunday, 7 March. Guttentag, who also directed the recent "Soundtrack for a Revolution" documentary, will be present to introduce and discuss his film. Wish I could be there.

Friday, February 05, 2010

cinema obscura: Tony Richardson's "A Death in Canaan" (1978)

This superior television movie, based on the 1976 Joan Barthel best-seller, is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the estimable Tony Richardson. The solid acting ensemble includes such reliables as Brian Dennehy, Kenneth McMillan, Conchata Ferrell, Jacqueline Brooks, Charles Haid, Charles Hallahan, Tom Atkins, Bonnie Bartlett and Paul Clemens in his first role as Peter Reilly, a New Canaan, Conn. teenager who found his mother's mutilated body and was charged with her murder.
Dustcover art from Joan Barthel's Book, "A Death in Canaan," published by Dutton in 1976)
Based on a true story, "A Death in Canaan" follows Powers, playing Barthel, as she tries to document the investigation of the 1973 case and the hands-on involvement of the townspeople, friends and neighbors of the solitary, fatherless Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of neerve, insecurity and charm. Clemens, incidentally, is the son of veteran actress Eleanor Parker. Around the same time, he also appeared in another fine lost film, Jerome Hellman's "Promises in the Dark" (1979), starring Marsha Mason, Kathleen Beller, Ned Beatty, Susan Clark and Michael Brandon.

Profoundly moving, "A Death in Canaan" is enhanced by Richardson's subtle direction of an exceptional cast.

The movie, now very difficult to see, was originally made for a 150-minute time slot, including commercials. One of its most recent - and last - TV airings was more than five years ago on the Lifetime channel, which inexplicably edited it down for a 120-minute time period.