Monday, November 22, 2010

cinema obscura: Joseph Sargent's "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970)

Joseph Sargent - born Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente (albeit in Jersey City) - has been a hugely neglected filmmaker, something of an adjustable wrench among directors, given that he can handle just about any genre effortlessly and without narcissistically stamping his name on it.

He tends to disappear within his subject matter, as evidenced by his output: The original (and superior) "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), Burt Reynolds' pleasing "White Lightning" (1973), the solid war flick "The Hell with Heroes" (1968), Gregory Peck's "MacArthur" (1977), Susan Anton's underrated "Goldengirl" (1979), the Robert Blake-Dyan Cannon lark "Coast to Coast" (1980), plus several impressive TV films - "Hustling" (1975) with Lee Remick and Jill Clayburgh, the incredibly popular "Sunshine" (1973) with Cristina Raines and the ahead-of-its-time "The Man" (1972) with James Earl Jones as the first black President. "The Man," adapted by Rod Serling from Irving Wallace's novel, was detoured into theaters before actually playing on network TV.

But my favorite Sargent film remains 1970's juicy "Colossus: The Forbin Project," a title that has always been available on home entertainment but is honored here because, despite enthusiastic reviews, this fine movie has never been given its due - by either its studio or the viewing public.

Adapted by filmmaker James Bridges from D.F. Jones novel, the preternaturally observant movie details - in an immensely entertaining fashion - how a sophisticated compter, named Colossus, designed ostensibly to control the country's nuclear defense network, goes berserk with power, turning on its creator, Dr. Charles Forbin, and joining forces with its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, to become a single Super Power bent on taking over the world from humans. The film is creepy and witty.

Eric Braeden is commanding as Dr. Forbin in a performance that should have led to bigger and better things. For one, Braeden would have made a terrific 007. Instead, this fine actor has enjoyed a length, lucrative run as the willfully evil patriach, Victor Newman, on NBC's excellent daytime drama, "The Young and the Restless." Smart Susan Clark, as the thinking man's love interest, and Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as the Kennedy-like President of the United States provide atypically combative support as each one spars with Braeden over his beloved demon child.

Universal, alas, exhibited limited interest in the film which had the working title "Colossus" in production, was released initially as "The Forbin Project" and then as "Colossus: The Forbin Project" for a half-hearted rerelease.

Funny thing, all three titles are fine.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

façade: Debra Winger

With perhaps the faintest of fanfare, the singular and much-missed Debra Winger has returned, yet again, from self-imposed exile.

She's currently, and rather comfortably, ensconced in the role of Frances, a difficult, messed-up actress in HBO's endlessly fascintating omnibus series on the highs and lows of psychoanalysis, "In Treatment," where she sits across from, and spars with, Gabriel Byrne, her co-star from Stephen Gyllenhaal's "A Dangerous Woman" (1993). Winger is riveting as a character she understands and plays perhaps a bit too well.

The "In Treatment" gig is, by my count, Winger's fourth attempted comeback, following a lead role in her husband Arliss Howard's unfortunate "Big Bad Love" (2001), supporting roles in a couple fairly bad throwaway titles ("Radio" and "Eulogy") and a thankless, surprisingly unmemorable turn in Jonathan Demme's overrated "Rachel Getting Married" (2008). Her last film, prior to this tentative output, was Billy Crystal's joyless (and slightly narcissistic) romcom "Forget Paris" in 1995. That's when she seemed to officially call it quits and walked away.

Actually, it's never been clear if Winger walked away from her career or if her career walked away from her - a career that started auspiciously in 1980 with James Bridges' "Urban Cowboy," followed by Taylor Hackford's "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) and James L. Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" (1983), all for Paramount Pictures.

A huge talent known equally for her precision and also, fairly or unfairly, for her "tempestuousness" (Shirley MacLaine's word), Winger seemed to select films not on the basis or quality of the material, but rather on the filmmakers involved. In her prime, she worked with an eclectic and impressive group of filmmakers - and, well, not always on their best projects: Alan Rudolph ("Made in Heaven"), Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Sheltering Sky"), Richard Pearce ("Leap of Faith"), Costa-Gavras ("Betrayed"), Bob Rafelson ("Black Widow"), Karel Reisz ("Everybody Wins"), Richard Attenborough ("Shadowland") and, to a lesser degree, David S. Ward ("Cannery Row"), Ivan Reitman ("Legal Eagles"), Glenn Gordon Caron ("Wilder Napalm") and the aforementioned Gyllenhaal.

Most of these films tanked, boxoffice-wise, a problem exacerbated when the Oscar nominations also stopped mounting. (Winger's been nominated three times.) A performer can be temperamental and difficult for only so long - as long as the performer delivers, either at the boxoffice or during the awards season. Otherwise, career problems start mounting.

"Forget Paris" was Winger's nadir.

The Reiner film was a long way from her best, most adventuous work, which wasn't for legends such as Bertolucci or Rafelson or Reisz, but for Bridges and Caron.

Caron's "Wilder Napalm" (1993) which co-stars Dennis Quaid and where she met Howard, may be the least-seen of Winger's work - an oddball/screwball comedy about uneasy brothers, the circus, pyrokinesis, pryomania, wacky names and Winger's vibrant screen presence.

Quaid and Howard play Wallace and Wilder Foudroyant, siblings who in childhood were able to start fires with their minds.

Following an unfortunate accident, Wilder manges quit the habit, cold turkey, settling down and marrying the enticing Vida (Winger). Not Wallace, however. as Biff the Clown, he continues on as a one-man circus act. When Wallace shows up in town with his traveling circus, he discovers that he and Vida have something in common. She's something of a pyromaniac, see?

The shameless Wallace intones at one point, "Once you've had a clown, you never go back.""Wilder Naplam" (which was half-heartedly released by TriStar) is a bit too quirky to wholeheartedly recommend but, for me, it's a guilty pleasure. Plus it has Winger in a role very much made for her.

The film brilliantly showcases that great honking voice of hers, those deep, black eyes that seem to stare and pierce and, of course, that mane of dark, unruly hair - hair that aches to be touched.

Still, Winger did her best screen work for the late James Bridges - and vice versa.
Bridges, of course, put Winger on the map in 1980 when he tapped her to replace Sissy Spacek in "Urban Cowboy." (Spacek, who was to be reunited with her "Carrie" co-star, John Travolta, in the film, had to drop out, and in tribute to her, the character was named Sissy.)

Winger was quite a presence in that film - again, with that head of wild hair - and an acting style to match her look.

She was revelatory.

Two years later, the director and star reteamed in 1982 for what turned out to be a troubled film, the mistreated and underrated "Mike's Murder," in which Winger turned in one of her very best performances. Too bad so few people saw it.

The film has quite a history, a bumpy one. Bridges wrote the story - of a lonely young woman whose life changes after a man with whom she shared a one-night-stand dies violently - with Winger in mind.

It was shot during the summer of 1982 but not released, and in altered form, until spring of 1984.

And it's probably safe to assume that the huge popularity of Winger's subsequent film, the Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment," prompted its distributor to finally get it into the marketplace. (BTW, Winger was also a replacement for Spacek in "Terms of Endearment.")

Even in its much-altered release form, it plays like a love letter to Winger. Pauline Kael caught up with the film belatedly but wrote about it with much admiration, singling out Winger "in a superb, full-scale starring performance." Kael also commented on Winger's "thick, long, loose hair and deep, sensual beauty" in the film, Bridges' "original and daring" touches on the film and Warner Bros, the studio that "buried it."

Reportedly, the murder in the film was tied to the film industry in its original form, but by the time it was released, after several months on the shelf and after many revisions, "Mike's Murder" now indicted the recording industry. Also rumor has it that Bridges originally conveived - and edited - the film so that his story played backward. This was a risky approach, way ahead of its time. Claude Lelouch had told his story of "The Crook" chronologically scrambled in 1971, but this was different. It would take another couple decades before the conceit would be accepted, as evidenced by the success of both Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and, to a lesser degree, Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" (both from 2002).

In 1982, however, the studio got nervous and promptly shelved the film. Apparently, a preview of the first version was booed by audiences in San Jose, and Warner Bros. and the indie that produced it, The Ladd Company, refused to distribute the movie unless changes and cuts were made.

In 1983, Warners/Ladd decided to re-edit "Mike's Murder" in chronological order and release it - like "Wilder Napalm," just barely.

One other thing: They also rescored it. "Mike's Murder" originally had a terrific song score by Joe Jackson - which was recorded and released while the film was still shelved - but it was junked in favor of something more conventional by John Barry. (Jackson's songs were reduced to bits of music heard in the background, always on a radio.) Jackson's soundtrack went on to become a best-seller, while Berry's score was never recorded or released.

Anyway, I've become obsessed with the idea of seeing "Mike's Murder" in its original incarnation, but with Bridges now gone, that's not very likely. (Also lost is the expanded version of "Urban Cowboy" that Bridges prepared the film's debut on network television. It was shown only once in that form - with about 15 minutes of extra footage added - but has seemingly disappeared. Paramount never bothered to put the extended version into syndication or include it any videos or DVDs of the film.)

"Mike's Murder" had been released on Beta only - one of those forgotten titles, until Warner Archives came to its rescue and released it on DVD just recently.

Note in Passing: Read Variety's review of "Mike's Murder", published Sunday, January, 1st, 1984.

Monday, November 01, 2010

turner classic movies. november. 2010.

Whether Ava Gardner was a great or even good actress is an issue that's still being debated among cinéphiles, but what's inarguable is that she was a genuine Movie Star. And she's Turner's Star of the Month in November with 42 - count 'em - 42 Gardner titles on tap for screenings every Thursday during the month.

I, for one, will be glued to the screen for showings of Robert Siodmak's "The Killers" (1946) and Albert Lewin's "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" (1951), both being shown back-to-back on 4 November, starting at 8; Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) at 10 p.m. on 11 November; Henry Koster's difficult-to-see "The Naked Maja" (1959), with Anthony Franciosa as the Spanish painter Goya, at 8 p.m. on 18 November, and John Huston's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" (1964), screening at 8 p.m. on 25 November.

You can also catch Gardner in George Sidney's remake of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical version of Edna Ferber's "Show Boat." Gardner plays Julie, a black chanteuse passing for white, and while Annette Warren dubbed her singing voice in the finished movie, Gardner was allowed to sing her two songs herself on the MGM soundtrack album.

Here's a quick selection of titles to pencil in on your screening calendar:

2 November: A double-bill with Burt Lancaster - Alexander Mackendrick's
"Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) and "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) by John Frankenheimer, starting at 1:45 p.m.

Thanks to the raw performances of Lancaster and Tony Curtis, the Mackendrick film mesmerizes despite the silly plot point of Lancaster's obsession with his screen sister. And John Sayles' baseball history, "Eight Men Out" (1988), toplined by John Cusack, airs at 11:45 p.m.

3 November: The color version of Peter Bogdanovich's flawed but well-meaning "Nickelodeon" (1976), with Burt Reynolds and Ryan and Tatum O'Neal participating as inadvertent pioneers in the early days of filmmmaking. It screens at 11:15 p.m. 4 November: The late Howard Zeiff was a maker of TV commercials who came to filmmaking belatedly and briefly. He had nine titles to his credit, starting with 1973's quirky "Slither" (a personal favorite of mine), before he died in 2009 at age 82.
Others include the phenomenally popular "Private Benjamin, "House Calls," "The Main Event" and the endearing "My Girl (which unfortunately was not allowed by the studio to retain its original title, "Born Jaundiced"). Zeiff's masterwork, however, remains the criminally underseen "Hearts of the West" (1975), about the making of low-budget Westerns in the 1930s. The evocative, atmospheric film, which airs at 2:45 a.m., has the dream cast of Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin and (pictured above) Blythe Danner and Andy Griffith.
6 November: Late-night sorcery, starting at 2 a.m., with two Liz Taylor/Joe Losey collaborations, both from 1968 - "Secret Ceremony," also featuring crazed work by Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum, and "Boom!," based on the failed Tennessee Williams' play, "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," with Taylor playing Flora Goforth opposite Richard Burton and Noel Coward. Tallulah Bankhead had the role on stage - opposite Tab Hunter.

7 November: The newly restored version of Fritz Lang's legendary "Metroplis" (1927), with 25 added minutes (but still, at 154 minutes, incomplete), debuts at 8 p.m., followed by "Metroplois Refound" a 2010 documentary on the restoration.

9 November: Bill Forsyth's endearing "Local Hero" (1983), with Burt Lancaster in a late-career role as a gruff executive at large in a picture-postcard pretty Scottish village, a la "Brigadoon" - which airs on Turner Classic Movies at 8:15 a.m. on 14 November.
12 November:
"Tea for Two," David Butler's embattled 1950 film version of the Broadway musical "No, No Nanette," screens at 8 p.m. The title card that reads
"screenplay by Harry Clork" has a magenta blotch below it obscuring the words,
"suggested by the play 'No, No Nanette' by Frank Mandel." It's been 60 years and the issue - whatever it is - has yet to be resolved.

14 November: Dennis Hopper, who died May 29, had one of his first lead, carry-the-film roles in Curtis Harrington's "Night Tide" (1961), being screened at 8 p.m.

15 November: Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue" (1953), airing at 7:30 a.m., is noted mostly as an envelope-pushing, production code-defying comedy largely because its repeated use of the phrase "professional virgin" among its dialogue. But, for me, it stands out as the only film to fully exploit the charm of its female lead, Maggie McNamara - as said "professional virgin." It's a role that McNamara plays as if she were the thinking man's Debbie Reynolds. (One could eaasly see Deb in the role.) David Niven (above with Maggie) and William Holden co-starred.

McNamara, sadly, had a brief career. A year after "The Moon Is Blue," she made Jean Negulesco's wildly popular "Three Coins in the Fountain" and then Philip Dunne's "Prince of Players" (1955), in which she played Edwin Booth's wife opposite Richard Burton. ("Players" pops up regularly on the Fox Movie Channel.) Her next, fourth and last film role would come ten years later with a bit part in Preminger's "The Cardinal" (1963).

And that was it.

She would die 15 years later, working as a typist. I've no idea what happened. It's never been documented. But she deserved better.

20 November: Sir Carol Reed fetishizes not only the body of delectable Gina Lollobrigida in his sensational "Trapeze" (1956) but also the muscled bods of his two male stars, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, both of whom wear skin-tight, leaving-little-to-the-imagination leotards as trapeze artists touring Europe. It's difficult to imagine any modern male star taking such risks. Remember, for "300," Gerard Butler and company had to have their torsos computer-enhanced.

21 November: A good day for moviewatching... Mervyn LeRoy directs Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra in "The Devil at Four O'Clock" (1961), airing at 3:30 a.m.; Ronald Reagan tries out a musical with Virginia Mayo in Buce Humberstone's "She's Working Her Way Through College" (1952), at noon; Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue play parent-bullied lovers in Delmer Daves' iconic "A Summer Place" (1959) at 2 p.m. and, topping the day, Cary Grant and Betsy Drake charm in two titles - Norman Taurog's recently unearthed "Room for One More" (1952) and Don Hartman's "Every Girl Should Get Married" (1949), shown back-to-back starting at 8. (That's Cary above on the set of "Room for One More.")

22 November: Two fluff comedies air starting at 3 p.m. - Delbert Mann's "That Touch of Mink" (1962), the film that started the unwelcomed "Doris Day is a virgin" joke (no thanks to Oscar Lavant), and Curtis Bernhardt's "Kisses for My President" (1964), with Polly Bergen as the Commander in Chief and Fred MacMurray as the First Man.

26 November: Two late Ava Garden titles, starting at midnight. - Terence Young's historical drama "Mayerling" (1968), starring Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif, and John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972), with Paul Newman. La Gardner plays Lily Langtree here.

Much, much later in the day - and into the wee hours of 27 November - there are back-to-back screenings of Gillo Pontecorvo's "Burn!" (1969), with Marlon Brando; Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978), with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard; Miachael Laughlin's "Strange Behavior" (1981) with Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher and Dan Shor, and Alan Rudolph's sublime, shot-in-Memphis "Remember My Name" (1978), with Geraldine Chaplin cast as a tough, edgy, very quirky woman (newly out of jail), Tony Perkins (cast here with his wife Berry Berenson) as the man she stalks, and the songs of Alberta Hunter. Don't miss it. It all starts at 10:45 p.m.

27 November: Sit down in front of your at 8 p.m. and prepare to sit there through 7 a.m. the next morning. Turner has planned an all-night party, featuring a bunch of singing mamas - George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954), with Judy; William Wyler's "Funny Girl" (1968), with Barbra; Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962) with Roz (above in "Rose's Turn"), and Charles Vidor's "Love Me Or Leave Me" (1955), with Doris.

28 November: St. John Legh Clowes' terrific "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" (1948), a white-knuckle kidnap drama about a snatched heiress that was remade by Robert Aldrich in 1971 as "The Grissom Gang."

29 November: Vintage Mitchum! Peter Yates' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a melancholy policier in which Mitchum not only excels as an aging thug turned police informer but also generously shares the screen with a very good Peter Boyle and Richard Jordan. Next up: December!