Tuesday, November 29, 2011

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "Garbo Talks" (1984)

When Sidney Lumet passed last April, the assorted appreciations rhapsodized predictably about his hard-edged New York dramas devoted to the city's outsiders, misfits and miscreants. But nary a word about his three comedies - "Bye Bye Braverman" (1968), "Just Tell Me What You Want" (1980) and, most atypical of all, "Garbo Talks" (1984).

"Bye Bye Braverman" and, to a larger extent, "Just Tell Me What You Want," were admittedly singled out by my friend and colleague Carrie Rickey in her Flickgrrl post for The Philadelphia Inquirer, but both are every bit as rough around the edges as Lumet's dramas. He was a pop-New York virtuoso. The genial, sentimental "Garbo Talks," however, was a real departure for Lumet (not unlike his film version of the musical "The Wiz") in that he suddenly came upon new-found softness and warmth in the familiar haunts of the city.

The premise is a mere wisp. A dutiful son is determined to make his dying mother's final dream come true - namely, to meet Greta Garbo.

I know, I know. On paper, it sounds awful. But in the hands of Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver, as mother and son, it's irresistible.

Carrie Fisher rings in as Silver's wife, from whom he becomes estranged during his single-minded search, and a very desirable Catherine Hicks (who enjoyed a brief movie career and deserved better) is the dream woman who joins him on his adventure. Such New York fixtures as Howard Da Silva, Dorothy Loudon, Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, Richard B. Shull and Michael Lombard make appearances that add color.

And, best of all, there's musical-comedy legend Betty Comden, that Garbo lookalike, as The Face herself. Uncredited, natch.

"Garbo Talks" receives a rare screening on Turner Classic Movies at 3:45 a.m. (est) on Thursday, December 1st. Worth watching. Worth recording.

Monday, November 28, 2011

humbling

At once exhilarating and graceful, Martin Scorsese's masterful "Hugo" takes one by surprise - and aback - despite its maker's credentials.

The skill on display in this so-called "family film" is underlined by the audacious camerawork of Scorsese's new house cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson who, starting with the film's initial sequence, pulls us in, embracing us and whirling us along. It's a dizzying, delerious journey (which helps the modern 3-D process realize its potential), seen from a child's point of view but not necessarily a journey for children.

"Hugo" may have a young protagonist, embodied by the excellent Asa Butterfield as a kid who lives within the innards of the complicated clockworks of a Parisian train station, but its soul is old.

No, this is not a "family film" (unless it's a family of particularly sophisticated children). Scorsese uses little Hugo, the hero of Brian Selznick's source book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” as an excuse to conjur up a lovelorn, movie-fed daydream about the humble beginnings of film via the revolutionary vision of Georges Méliès (played here with an aching sadness by Ben Kingsley).

A film that does not condescend or compromise, "Hugo" remains faithful to its own vision - one that's quiet but intense. Blessed with a remarkable ingénue performance by the preternaturally gifted Chloë Grace Moretz and an atypically dimensional one by Sacha Baron Cohen, "Hugo" looms as a touchstone of films in the new millenium.

Note in Passing: Scorsese quotes other films and filmmakers here, but unobrustively. I was particularly taken by the scenes in which young Hugo views the conversations shared by the characters played by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths from a distance - in his clocktower. Like James Stewart spying on his neighbors in Hitchcock's "Rear Window," Hugo hears only heavily gestured mumbles, muttering and half-sentences.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

the "south pacific" conundrum

My friend Paul reminded me of a curious movie moment that I had safely tucked away in the recesses of my mind.

It involves Joshua Logan's lavish 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific."

Twenty years after the original roadshow release of the film, another friend, the New York exhibitor Ralph Donnelly, programed the film as part of a roadshow-musical revival when he was booking Broadway's Warner Cinerama theater. It was a rare print, Ralph told me, that he acquired from the people overseeing the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. ("South Pacific" was made independently by the Magna Theater Corporation and was only distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox.) Alas, Ralph's print was not in Todd-AO but in standard 70mm. Still, it was the original roadshow version, Ralph promised.

This was major because "South Pacific" initially ran 171 minutes when it premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York and, shortly thereafter, was trimmed to 157 minutes (following the scathing reviews) for the roadshow presentations throughout the rest of the country. For years, the 171-minute running time persisted in details about the film, even though it was displaced by the 157-minute version.

Well, the print that Ralph screened was the shorter 157-minute version. However, it was special in another way. This version, which was made for the Mexico run and had Spanish subtitles, hewed closer to the play, which immediately introduced the Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush characters and opened with the back-to-back "Twin Soliloquies" and "Some Enchanted Evening" numbers, followed a scene later by the Seabees' "Bloody Mary."

Every version of "South Pacific" that I've seen - the roadshow and general release versions and the assorted home-entertaiment presentations - has opened with the "Bloody Mary" number.

Given that Ralph presented a 70mm print of the film and not the Todd-AO version, my hunch is that he had a preview print that was prepared for the Spanish-speaking market and that, by the time the film opened, the chronology of the opening numbers was changed. Commercially, I guess, it made more sense to open the film with the rousing (and witty) "Bloody Mary" than with the somber classic, "Some Enchanted Evening."

Anyway, when I bought the two-disc DVD of "S.P." a few years ago, I was hoping that the advertised roadshow version on one of the discs might be the one we saw back in '78, plus the missing footage. It indeed turned out to be the 171-minute version (which includes mostly deleted dialogue scenes, all of them seemingly involving Ray Walston's Luther Billis) but it didn't have the alternate opening that screened at the Warner Cinerama.

By the way, Ralph was able to secure an original Todd-AO version of R-&-H's "Oklahoma!" for his series, a print which was a-mazing, so eerie in its clarity that the figures on the screen looked lifelike - only magnified a thousand times over, of course.

Paul's reminder of that screening of "South Pacific" makes we wonder if that rare Mexican print still exists, if it is still in the archives of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. I hope so.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

false negative

Simon Curtis's "My Week with Marilyn," a minor film backed by a major marketing campaign, requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

First, one has to believe author Colin Clark's claim that he spent one (relatively) wild week with Marilyn Monroe while she was filming "The Prince and the Showgirl" in London and he was working as a production assistant on the film.

With just about everyone connected with the film now deceased, who's around to challenge his boast?

Secondly, there's Michelle Williams, an actress who has been very good on occasion but whose sole credentials for playing Monroe are that she's female and blonde.

To the film's credit, it is not entirely reverential of its central icon. In many ways, it ventures into risky "Mommie Dearest" territory. The Marilyn here is in touch with her own naked feelings but oblivous to the feelings of others, almost to the point of casual sadism.

And her work on "The Prince and the Showgirl" is so painfully awful, at least as portrayed here, that one spends the film wondering exactly what was so special about her or why anyone would put up with her.

A very odd movie.

Friday, November 25, 2011

doris, janis & jean

Happily, Charles Walters' generally overlooked 1960 comedy, "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," has become something of a Turner Classics staple. The MGM film pops up with some frequency - more recently at 6 p.m. (est) tonight - and becomes more watchable with each viewing.

Based on the book of the same title by the late Jean Kerr, who was, of course, the wife of the great New York Times theater critic, Walter Kerr, the film slyly fictionalizes her adventures as the wife of an influential critic and benefits strongly from the offbeat teaming of Doris Day and David Niven in the roles of Jean and Walter, here named Kate and Larry Mackay.

The titantic supporting structure of the film is Day who turns in one of her most naturalistic, effortless performances (this film was wedged between her roles in 1959's "Pillow Talk" and 1960's "Midnight Lace") and her chemistry with the always game, smoothly professional Niven is singular.

And for a filmic soufflé, the movie astutely suggests the essence of criticism, which can be heady and dark. (It isn't long before Larry is cracking cruel, snarky jokes in print and Kate is wondering if he made up his mind beforehand about how he'd respond to a play he just panned.)

The ace supporting cast includes Jack Weston, Richard Haydn, Patsy Kelly, Spring Byington, the invaluable Carmen Phillips and ... Janis Paige, who here comes full circle with Day.

Paige and Day first appeared together in Day's debut film under her Warner contract, Michael Curtiz' 1948 "Romance on the High Seas." Six years later, in 1954, Paige starred on Broadway as feisty Babe Williams in the Jerry Rose-Richard Adler musical, "The Pajama Game," playing opposite John Raitt. Day, of course, was recruited by Jack Warner to play the same role, also opposite Raitt, in his 1957 film version, directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott.

Three years later, Day and Paige were together again in "Daisies."

Getting back to Jean Kerr, her life as a writer of books and plays and as the wife of a drama critic was also chronicled in Don Weis' 1963 comedy "Critic's Choice" (also for Warners), with Bob Hope as a theater critic whose wife, played by Lucille Ball, decides to write her own play.

"Critic's Choice" is based, in turn, on the 1960 Ira Levin stage comedy which was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Henry Fonda in the role of the critic.

The ever-resourceful programmers at TCM were cleverly enough to pair "Critic's Choice" with "Please Don't Eat the Daisie" on November 6th. To complete this "Jean Kerr package," they might have gone all the way and added "Mary, Mary," Mervyn LeRoy's film version of the 1960 hit play by Kerr that inspired Levin to pen "Critic's Choice."

In his Friday, October 25, 1963 review, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote of the Warner film:

"Obviously, Mervyn LeRoy did a little bit more than merely place his camera in the Helen Hayes Theater and shoot a straight running photograph of a performance of 'Mary, Mary' to get a film of the Jean Kerr comedy. But you would hardly be able to tell it from the rigidly setbound quality of his film version of the long-run stage play, which came to the (Radio City) Music Hall yesterday."

That just about says it all. Rarely has a film of a play been as faithful as LeRoy's film version of Kerr's urbane comedy, which was the most acclaimed stage farce of its time. As Crowther indicated, the work of LeRoy's art director John Beckman and set decorator Ralph S. Hurst borrows heavily from the play's celebrated designer, Oliver Smith. Debbie Reynolds took over Barbara Bel Geddes's stage role, but the play's leading men, Barry Nelson and Michael Rennie, were back on that familiar set.

Yes, the film - about a divorced couple brought together for income tax purposes - is stagebound, but that's what I find wonderful about it. I like the idea of being transported back to the Helen Hayes Theater in 1960. LeRoy's movie perfectly approximates the joy of attending a matinee performance of a stylish, sophisticated comedy.

Anway, next time around, TCM, a Jean Kerr triple-bill is in order.

Note in Passing: Whoever writes the film capsules for The New York Times these days misidentifies the source of "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," crediting it as being based on "Jean Kerr's play."

This is The New York Times, folks.

façade: Janis Paige

Cocktails and flirting - Paige uses both on Bob Hope in Jack Arnold's "Bachelor in Paradise" (1961)
In terms the the Hollywood-&-Vine axis, the irrepressible Janis Paige was a B star and a co-star. Yeah, maybe on paper. But in reality, on the big screen, whatever film she was in, she commanded as only a Star can.

Her filmography is varied and lengthy but in her most entertaining performances, Paige played randy women of a certain age with va-va-voom in her eyes and a chilled Martini in hand - her hair seeming red even when it was blonde: Charles Walters' "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960) and Jack Arnold's "Bachelor in Paradise" (1961). For me, she's always been a hands-down pleasure to watch and I get an added kick from Paige being a fellow Virgo. We share the same birthday!

For all intents and purposes, she had what I call the Kay Thompson role in Rouben Mamoulian's film of Cole Porter's "Silk Stockings" (1975). Surely you remember her one big scene, belting out and dancing with antic glee with Fred Astaire in the "Stereophonic Sound" number (choreographed by Hermès Pan, with an assisst from Eugene Loring). She was no substitute here. In "Silk Stockings," Paige pretty much out-Thompsons Thompson.

Her lead film roles usually cast Paige opposite Jack Carson or Dennis Morgan, again in B movies. True stardom came on stage in 1954 when she appeared as Babe Williams, the in-your-face head of a labor union's grivance committee in the Rose-Adler musical, "The Pajama Game," playing opposite John Raitt. When Warner Bros. bought the film rights for the show, Jack Warner was intent on casting the entire Broadway cast to reprise their roles, except for a major name in one of the two leads.

It was a crap shoot - literally - if either Paige or Raitt would be in the film. Frank Sinatra was approached for the Raitt role - he would have played opposite Paige - but he declined. Enter Doris Day, who accepted the female lead and played opposite Raitt in the 1957 film.

Oddly enough, Paige had starred with Day in the latter's first film, Michael Curtiz' 1948 "Romance on the High Seas," and went on to appear with her in the aforementioned "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," in which they played rivals.

In 1963, Paige got another lead role in a big Broadway musical - Meredith Willson's "Here's Love," based on "Miracle on 34th Street," in which Paige played the part originated by Maureen O'Hara. But on screen during these years, the '60s, the actress rarely got to stray from her fun-gal roles - until Hall Bartlett did give her the opportunity to do a variation on this archetype in his 1963 psychodrama, "The Caretakers," in which Paige played an aging prostitute undergoing a serious meltdown.

Bartlett showcased Paige and the critics, who rather casually dismissed the film, singled her out. Like Janis, it remains a guilty pleasure.

Inarguably.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

bad "art"

Cannes, an annual filmic exposition living on dusty credentials, has a penchant for honoring movies and performances that eventually, inevitably, slide into oblivion by the time Oscar season rolls around.

This year, the festival showcased "Melancholia," a bit of addlepated provocation/pretension by Lars von Trier, who's described in some quarters as an enfant terrible of cinema - and who, complicitly, works to accomodate this pseudo-flattering profile by behaving that way.

Me? I see von Trier, who functions more as a poseur than an actual filmmaker, as a brilliant crackpot. That said, in "Melancholia," which runs about two hours longer than it should, he juxtaposes one person's immobilizing depression (apparently his own) with the end of the world as exacted by an angry planet named - ta-da! - Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst, a pleasing but lightweight actress way in over her head here, is von Trier's on-screen surrogate as he works out his problems in a public forum. Not surprisingly, she won the best actress award at Cannes. Which means she won't be nominated for an Oscar. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Dunst's sister (even though they look nothing alike, not even remotely), is seemingly better as the seemingly well-balanced sibling.

Seemingly.

Thank heaven for a movie-saving Stellan Skarsgård, who enlivens the film's painfully prolonged opening wedding sequence with a performance that underlines that "Melancholia" isn't an art film but a parody of one.

Manuel Alberto Claro is responsible for the relentless hand-held camera work which doesn't so much capture the sensation of depression as it approximates what it feels like to be in hell.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

the new money

For some bizarre reason, Andrew Niccol's prescient "In Time" came in under the radar, despite its urgent timeliness and first-rate storytelling.

The film is a scifi allegory for the current economic woes, only it isn't money problems that nag the country's population. It's time - which is running out. Money is nothing here. Time is the new commodity, with people bartering, stealing and losing time as, well, time runs out. It's a clever premise and Niccol ("Gattaca" and "Simone") pulls it off with verve and with a very slight bow to Hitchcock. I sense that the filmmaker used Hitch's "North by Northwest" as a template for the chase that ensues.

Justin Timberlake is terrifically twitchy and anguished as a guy living on borrowed time who takes up with a woman who fairly drips in timely wealth - played by Amanda Seyfried with her trademark anime eyes and a Louise Brooks bob. Cillian Murphy is the "timekeeper" on their trail as they steal time, Bonnie & Clyde-style, and give it away, and Olivia Wilde has an amusing, yet poignant bit, as Timberlake's eternally young mother, who stopped aging at 25 and knows her time is up soon.

"In Time" deals with timeless movie conventions with a smart modernity.

Note in Passing: Kudos to The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and The New Yorker’s Bruce Diones for seeing the value in this otherwise critically undervalued film.