Sunday, August 21, 2011

superior

Franco bonds, believably, with Serkis' Caesar
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Rupert Wyatt's socially aware, achingly humane update of the venerable Fox franchise, is a supreme reminder never to assume. I mean, who thought that this seemingly well-worn series could be rehabilitated in such a clever, sophisticated way?

Wyatt and his scenarists Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver surmounted this challenge by honoring the soul of Pierre Boulle's original French novel, "La planète des singes," while bringing a timeless modernity to the piece.

The Biritsh filmmaker has also contrasted the free-wheeling '60s of the original film with the unfortunate conformist mentality that pervades the so-called New Millenium, giving this update a '50s aftertaste.

James Franco is utterly convincing as a San Francisco scientist/idealist, with both a mission and an agenda, who is experimenting on chimps to find a cure for the Alzheimer's disease that afflicts his father (John Lithgow). And Wyatt brings a certain element to his film, one essential to all films, that has fallen in disrepair in recent years - namely, exposition.

He takes his time creating the timeline that will take baby Caesar, a chimp from Franco's high-tech pharmaceutical headquarters (named Gen-Sys), to his home where Caesar bonds with his father, to the animal refuge which is anything but. Here, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" becomes a shrewd take on the prison-film genre, and the innocent, loving Caesar (brilliantly played by a digitally costumed Andy Serkis) becomes a hardened inmate. Think Eastwood in Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz."

All of this plays as a commantary/allegory on the fate of all captive animals, including those who we think are comfortably domesticated.

The film's big setpiece is a standoff between Caesar and his fellow escapees and gun-toting authorities on the expansive Golden Gate Bridge (there's never any question which species is the superior one) - a huge action scene amidst a film that's largely spoken. The dialogue penned by Jaffa and Silver is often quick, alert and literate, but there's one word here, a mere monosylable, that speaks volumes. Memorably.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

the corner

Every bit of news that comes out of Hollywood about song-and-dance films (we really can't call them musicals anymore) is bad news...

An unecessary remake of "Gypsy," starring the wildly age-inappropriate Barbra Streisand, who will be 70 in April, as Momma Rose (she'll probably be 72, if and when the film ever gets made)...

Willow Smith as "Annie," its score presumably to be fortified with an anachronistic hiphop sound...

Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Damn Yankees," a project announced so long ago that it might actually be dead now...

Hugh Jackman's threats to remake "Carousel," which is both a musical and a period piece, two genres not exactly beloved among contemporary moviegoers...

A planned filming of "Miss Saigon," which seems a tad dated and inconsequential now...

And, the final nail in the coffin, Justin Beiber's fantasy of doing a reboot of "Grease" with Myley Cyrus.

On the horizon, of course, is the remake of "Footloose," which, if you go by its trailer, now looks like an action film.

Now comes the breathless announcement that Lionsgate has greenlit a remake of the late Emile Ardolino's "Dirty Dancing" (1987).

In her blog, Flickgrrl," for The Philadelphia Inquirer, my friend Carrie Rickey wrote, "'Dirty Dancing' is like 'The Godfather.' It's a classic and you don't mess with it or otherwise try to improve, rethink, or update it." And besides, asked Carrie, "How do you take Eleanor Bergstein's autobiographical story and transpose it to another period?"

The most obvious answer is, You do it anyway.

Clearly, the motivation for this latest Bad Idea is to film two physically attractive, personality-free young actors gyrating aggressively to the original movie's jukebox score (again, fortified with new beats) and ignore the little narrative curlicues that made the original somewhat original.

To elaborate on my response to Carrie's post, while “Dirty Dancing” is not a masterwork like “The Godfather,” it is definitely a populist classic – a film embraced by the average moviegoer, not necessarily the cinéphile.

What people forget - and what Carrie brings to light - is that the film was a shrewd period piece (set in 1962, I believe) and that it had a pervasive Jewishness (Kellerman's Lodge!) that gave it its backbone and color.

The original film was about more than just class differences. It wasn't that simple.

I’m sure these two elements will be discarded in the remake. Only the dancing will remain intact and I’ve a sick feeling that Baby and Johnny (so wonderfully immortalized by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, pictured) might even be gyrating to entirely different songs in the reboot.

One other thing: The new film won’t have the invaluable Jack Weston as Max Kellerman; Jerry Orbach as Baby's bigoted doctor father or Kelly Bishop as her sexy mother; the terrific Jane Brucker as her princess-sister Lisa, or Lonny Price as the unctuous Neil Kellerman, "the catch of the county" - all of them so crucial to the singular ethnicity of what everyone thinks of as just “a great dance movie.”

Thursday, August 04, 2011

love, lucy

When Warner Bros. purchased the screen rights to Jerry Herman's musical version of "Auntie Mame" in 1971, it was made clear from the getgo that the show's original star, Angela Lansbury, would not be starring.

I interviewed Lansbury in December of that year - in conjunction with Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" - and asked for her take on the matter and about the then-recently announced casting of Lucille Ball as "Mame." Lansbury, ever the pro, took it in stride, explaining that Warners planned to make an inexpensive version of the show and that most of the film's budget would be invested in its star's salary.

The studio needed not just a big star, but an icon.

Rosalind Russell, meanwhile, the original Auntie Mame and a contemporary of Lucille Ball, questioned her friend's age.

Roz opined that maybe Cher would have been a more appropriate choice.

Well, it took nearly three years for "Mame" to finally premiere at Radio City Music Hall (on 27 March, 1974). In the interim, when the film was still in production, I wrote a column about Lucy's big comeback: "Mame" - being filmed by Gene Saks, who also directed it on stage - would be her first movie in 6 years, following Melville Shavelson's "Yours, Mine and Ours" in 1968. It would also be Lucy's final film.

About a week after the column ran, this note arrived in the mail.

Would it be too much of a cliché for me to confess that I love Lucy?

Note in Passing: On Saturday, 6 August, the day that would have been Lucille Ball's 100th birthday, Turner Classic Movies will screen 14 of her films over a 12-hour period, starting at 6 a.m. (est) and The Hallmark Channel will air an "I Love Lucy" marathon all day weekend. Can't wait.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

quirky working title


The above still from "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," directed by Edward Zwick from the David Mamet play of the same title, was included in the summer preview press kit distributed by TriStar Pictures in 1986.

However, by the time the film was actually released that July, the studio got cold feet and retitled the film with the generic moniker, "About Last Night."

It always seemed too good to be true that TriStar would retain the work's original, edgier title.

In the meantime, I have a Kris Kritofferson autographed shooting script for a Michael Cimino film titled "The Jackson County War" which, of course, became "Heaven's Gate" (1980). And let's not forget that Billy Wilder's "Ace in a Hole" (1951) became "The Big Carnival" in Paramount's desperate attempt to rescue it from box-office failure. Which brings me to the point of this post - namely, those films that underwent a title change and rarely for the good. I've come up with a few others that originally had singular titles that were vetoed in favor of the nondescript. Feel free to share others that come into mind. Here goes:

Sir Carol Reed's "Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian" (1970), starring Anthony Quinn and based on the Clair Huffaker novel, became the more politically-correct "Flap."

Norman Taurog's Cary Grant/Betsy Drake vehicle, "Room for One More," (1951) became "The Easy Way" for its TV syndication when Warner Bros. decided to spin the film into a sitcom in 1961. That new title stuck, even after the series was long forgotten. The original title returned when Warner Archives put the film on DVD.

Paul Mazursky's "Jerry Saved from Drowning" (1986) became "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

Sidney Lumet's Brando-infused "Orpheus Descending" (1960) became "The Fugitive Kind."

Joseph Losey's "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" (1968) - like "Orpheus Descending," by way of Tennessee Williams - became "Boom!"

Edouard Molinaro's "I Won't Dance" (1984), with the much-missed Kristy McNichol, became "Just the Way You Are."

Tony Bill's "The Baboon Heart" (1993), with Marisa Tomei and Christian Slater, became "Untamed Heart."

Peter Yates' "The Janitor Doesn't Dance" (1981), starring William Hurt as the janitor and Sigourney Weaver as a reporter, became "Eyewitness."

Robert Aldrich's remake of "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" (1971) became "The Grissom Gang."

Howard Zeiff's sweet-natured "Born Jaundiced" (1991) became "My Girl."

Robert Altman's "The Presbyterian Church Wager" (1971) became "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

Altman's "Brewster McCloud and His Sexy Flying Machine" (1970) was simplied to "Brewster McCloud."

Altman's all-star "Prêt-à-Porter" (1994) was translated to "Ready to Wear."

Joan Micklin Silver's "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (1979) became "Head Over Heels," only to be retitled back to "Chilly Scenes of Winter."

Andrew Bergman's "Cop Gives Waitress Two Million Dollar Tip" (1994), with Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage, became "It Could Happen to You."

Jon Avnet's hugely poplular "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" (1991), based on the book by Fannie Flagg, was reduced to "Fried Green Tomatoes."

George Cukor's Judy Holliday gem, "A Name for Herself" (1954), became "It Should Happen to You."

Finally, there's a film whose re-title I prefer. Jonathan Demme's "Citizen Band" (1977) was momentarily changed to "Handle with Care."
Two other perfectly fine titles, meanwhile, were preserved at the 11th hour. Gilbert Cates' "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970) was slated to be retitled "Strangers" (replete with a title song sung by Roy Clark) and William Wyler's film version of the Lillian Helman play, "The Children's Hour" (1961), almost became "The Infamous." (When Wyler earlier filmed "The Children's Hour" in 1936, the title was changed to "These Three." )

And this just in! Roman Polanski has shortened the title of his upcoming film version of "God of Carnage" to ... "Carnage."

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Two with Joanne Woodward

As usual, Turner Classic Movies turns its August schedule over to its daily star tributes - better known as "Summer Under the Stars."

I'm particularly interested in the star celebrated on 16-17 August - Joanne Woodward - largely because Woodward is an unsung gem among Hollywood's acting fraternity but also because two certain Woodward films - long lost - will be showcased.
They are titles that have been celebrated here in my on-going Cinema Obscura essays - Martin Ritt's "The Sound and the Fury" (1959), airing at 10 p.m. (est) on 16 August, and Paul Newman's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972), slotted at 2 a.m. on 17 August. I can't wait. These are two Fox titles that don't even show up on the Fox Movie Channel anymore. Go figure. Both are worth checking out, as are some of Woodward's other titles - Leo McCarey's "Rally 'Round the Flag Boys," Ritt's "Paris Blues," Fielder Cook's "A Big Hand for the Little Lady," Irvin Kershner's "A Fine Madness," Gilbert Cates' "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," Burt Reynolds' "The End," Stuart Rosenberg's "The Drowning Pool," Gerd Oswald's "A Kiss Before Dying" and, of course, Newman's "Rachel, Rachel."

Other Star nights that I'll be checking out are Shirley MacLaine (10 August), Debbie Reynolds (19 August), Montgomery Clift (20 August), Cary Grant (21 August), Peter Lawford (26 August), Carole Lombard (28 August), Anne Francis (29 August) and Howard Keel (30 August).

façade: Diane Varsi


Mark Robson's 1957 film version of Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place" was a huge popular and critical hit in its day, surprisingly so, and I'm convinced that most of its credbility can be traced to its two appealing young ingenués - Hope Lange who played Selena Cross and, especially, Diane Varsi, who starred as Allison MacKenzie.

Diane Varsi. Yes, Diane Varsi. What a singular actress, perhaps too singular for American moviegoers. Certainly too good for American moviegoers.

Varsi, who died in virtual anonymity of respiratory failure in 1992, made her last film appearance more than 30 years ago with a small role in Kathleen Quinlan's 1977 movie, "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Although she received an Oscar nomination for "Peyton Place," Varsi made it difficult for her home studio, 20th Century-Fox, to cast her in subsequent productions because she was essentially ahead of her time - a maverick and rebel with an off-kilter personality and a penchant for off-beat, sing-song line-readings.

But she managed to work for Fox, giving good performances in the Gary Cooper-Suzy Parker film, "Ten North Frederick" (based on the John O'Hara story), directed by Philip Dunne; the Don Murray Western, "From Hell to Texas" (aka, "Man Hunt"), directed by Henry Hathaway, and Richard Fleishcer's fine film on the Leopold-Loeb case, "Compulsion," starring Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman. But by 1959, a mere two years later, her Hollywood career was dead. A decade later, she surfaced in a series of anti-social/protest films, including "Sweet Love, Bitter" (with Dick Gregory and, again, Murray); Two Shelley Winters films, "Wild in the Streets" and "Bloody Mama" (the latter a Ma Barker flick with a young Robert DeNiro); the intriuging crime-spree film, "Killers Three" (with Dick Clark and Robert Walker, Jr.), and Dalton Trumbo's anti-war saga, "Johnny Got His Gun" (starring Timothy Bottoms).

Then, she disappeared again, returning briefly in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden."

Diana Varsi's slight filmmography is as idiosyncratic as the actress herself, not unlike another curious personality from a decade later, Mimsy Farmer. One of a kind, again too good for the marketplace