Saturday, December 31, 2011

outfoxed

I never quite "got" the Fox Movie Channel.

Considering how many titles must be in the Fox library, the same ones kept popping up again and again - and only a precious few were letterboxed, usually the more recent titles. "April Love"? Forget it.

Anyway, this halfhearted attempt to celebrate the films of Twentieth Century-Fox has been altered.

Very recently (and quietly), the Fox Movie Channel was reduced to daytime programming exclusively, with the remainder of the schedule handed over, piggyback-style, to something called FXM, or the FX Movie Channel, which is devoted to, well, mall movies. And, unlike the now-limited Fox Movie Channel, FXM airs with "limited commercial breaks."

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

the smile

You'll get no argument from me. Michel Hazanavicius’s novelty film, "The Artist," is an artful charmer but it's little more than that, taking its inspiration from such Tinseltown chestnuts as "A Star Is Born" and "Singin' in the Rain" as it tracks the downward spiral of fictional silent film fave George Valentin following his willful refusal to make talkies.

And that's it.

It's difficult to get fully invested in George's plight because, unlike Jean Hagan's Lina Lamont in "Singin' in the Rain," the problem apparently isn't a horrible speaking voice. He just doesn't want to be seen talking on film.

Why? Well, because he doesn't believe in it.

Anyway, getting engaged in the life of someone who willfully sabotages his own career is hardly worth the time. Frankly, it makes no sense.

The one element that does engage us - or me, at least - is star Jean Dujardin as George. Dujardin is a terrifically magnetic actor, but it's his wide smile that's irresistible and that attracts us - a smile made for CinemaScope. The fact is, when Dujardin is on screen, you can't take your eyes off him. He's a real Movie Star. This is masterful casting. And playing Esther Blodgett to his Norman Maine, Bérénice Bejo is pitch-perfect as an ingénue who lives up to her name - Peppy Miller.

Now, on to other things...

The film's composer Ludovic Bource (or perhaps Hazanavicius himself) has appropriated a huge hunk of music from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) - namely, Bernard Hermann's extended Love Suite - for the middle section of the film. I'm referring to the 10-minute sequence (spoiler alert!) in which (1) Dujardin spots himself in the reflection of a store window, (2) finds all his belongings that Bejo clandestinely purchased at the auction and then (3) goes home to commit suicide, a sequence that crosscuts to a frantic Bejo driving through L.A. hoping to rescue him.

Hermann's music receives the usual perfunctory, miniscule mention in the end credits, which doesn't seem nearly enough. And exacerbating the situation, the title "Vertigo" isn't invoked at all for some curious reason.

I believe that it can be safely assumed that Bource will be a major contender for a scoring Oscar - and will be the presumed winner, given that the film is literally wall-to-wall music. His score is very good, but the fact is, the most impressive piece of music in "The Artist" was written by...

Bernard Hermann.

It's likely that most viewers (and perhaps even some uninformed Academy voters) will not be aware of this; I don't think any critic has mentioned it so far. I wonder if, should he win the Oscar, Bource will mention Hermann's contribution to the film. I'm a little disappointed that the Hitchcock and Hermann estates would allow such an appropriation without more prominent screen credit: Hermann should be mentioned in the opening credits - below, or parathentical to, Bource's credit.

Any opinions on this? Share!

Addendum: After writing this, I learned that several others concur with me regarding the use of the Hermann music in the film, including one of the stars of "Vertigo," Kim Novak. Here's what Anne Thompson has to say on the matter of Novak's protest.

retrofuturism

David Fincher has demonstrated his penchant for transcending conventions, as evidenced by his filmography - "Fight Club" (1999), "Panic Room" (2002), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), "The Social Network" (2010) and his unoffical policier trilogy, "Se7en" (1995), "Zodiac" (2006) and now an English-language remake of the Swedish sensation, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

An adaptation of the inaugural book in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium” trilogy and, less directly, Niels Arden Oplev's first 2009 film version of the book, Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" looms as a shrewd commingling of up-to-minute, kick-ass grrrl outlawism and the core idea from Dashiell Hammett's "Thin Man" creation.

Despite the new paint job with its modern look, Fincher's hugely atmospheric film is driven by two characters who hark back to Nick and Nora Charles in their taste for righteousness and antiauthoritarianism.

In this case, it's disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by a soulful Daniel Craig) and punk computer hacker Lisbeth (Rooney Mara, most mesmerizing), an abused young woman whose need for vengeance dovetils with Mikael's assignment to track down "a killer of women."

Withdrawn, never making eye contact and telegraphing a hurt that is palatable, Rooney Mara is a revelation in the sheer solipsism of her performance. Her Lisbeth personifies a term that has been applied to someone else on our cultural scene - she is very much The Other.

Which means she is singular.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

blood sport

"Carnage," Roman Polanski's sinewy adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play, "Le dieu du carnage," is a cozily evil little acting exercise whose four characters amuse as they struggle, without a hint of success, with civility.

Two sets of parents are brought together in the handsome Brooklyn apartment of one of the couples to iron out the differences which brought their respective sons into a schoolyard fracus. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a rather rigid left-wing stereotype whose son suffered a dental injury, wants to document the incident in writing - with the help, of course, of her rough-hewn husband Michael (John C. Reilly), who claims he was "forced to dress as a liberal" for the occasion, and the parents of the other child, The Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz and Nancy (Kate Winslet).

Matters don't go well.

The guarded defensiveness that each one initially exhibits eventually disintegrates into an afternoon of blame and accusation, hilariously so.

Given that one of my (many) editors once referred to me as "evil" (a charge that fit but for reasons that will go unexplained here), I relished the verbal bloodletting that trivializes the couples' misguided intentions.

Co-scripters Polanski and Reza, working from Michael Katims' English language adaptation, provide their actors with one juicy moment after another. Foster's pinched, brittle persona, in particular, is exploited to the hilt under Polanski's direction, while Waltz, a standout here, absolutely nails his unctous careerist. Winslet turns in a shrewdly witty performance as the most reasonable and most sensitive of the group. The only wink link is Reilly who can't redeem the bore he's playing.

And through no fault of his own: It's a poorly written character.

These roles in New York were played by Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini (as The Longstreets) and Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels (as The Cowans). Ralph Fiennes played Alan in the British production, and Isabelle Huppert created the role of Penelope (who was actually named Veronica on Broadway and Véronique in France) in the original French version.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

flipflop

Sometimes we outgrow films and filmmakers, even those we adore.

At least, I did - and still do. As a working critic, this often put me at odds with some of my colleagues who, from my perspective, harbored a blind loyalty to their favorites. This may sound harsh, but there's really no place for loyalty in film criticism. Only hardcore honesty.

Case in point: Robert Altman. As a young pup, I lapped up, devoured, memorized and repeatedly viewed his films. I couldn't get enough of "Brewster McCloud" (1970). But as I aged, we grew apart. I became less titillated by Altman's penchant for overlapping dialogue, cluttered mise-en-scène and trendy contempt for his characters - a cinematic style that reached its nadir (for me, at least) with 1978's nasty "A Wedding," which has become something of a staple on the Fox Movie Channel.

But there are contemporaries who still swoon at the mention of his name and, when I'm in their company, I know to keep my mouth shut about Altman and about my own sacrilegious flipflopping tendencies.

Even guilty pleasures can become less, well, pleasurable.

Taking inventory recently of my home entertainment collection and purging, I finally tossed out my DVD copy of Randall Kleiser's "Grease," a loud, rather unwholesome movie musical - also from '78 (if that means anything) - that, for some unaccountable reason, I once thought of as engaging and fun but that I now find mirthless and unwatchable.

As I placed it in a giveaway bin, I remembered the enthusiastic review I wrote in 1978 and also realized that, almost unconsciously, I had slowly evolved - or should that be "devolved"? - into an avowed flipflopper.

Throwing away "Grease" felt cathartic, liberating and healthy.

There were no regrets or rancor.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

of consequence

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved.

TEN PLUS

1. Hugo

2. Margaret

3. The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

5. Shame

6. The Descendants

7. Higher Ground

8. Young Adult

9. Margin Call

10. A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann)


THE OTHERS...

The Artist

Carnage

In Time

Love Crime (Crime d'amour)

Drive

Midnight in Paris

Salvation Boulevard

Win Win

J. Edgar

Contagion

The Lincoln Lawyer

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Just Go with It

Super 8

Brighton Rock

Magic Trip

Twelve Thirty

Everything Must Go



THE TALENT...

Top Leads

Michael Fassbender/Shame

Charlize Theron/Young Adult


Top Support

Armie Hammer/J. Edgar

Shailene Woodley/The Descendants


THE OTHERS...

Jean Dujardin & Uggie/The Artist

Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Hesher

Stellan Skarsgård/A Somewhat Gentle Man

Anna Paquin & Jeannie Berlin/Margaret

Viggo Mortensen/A Dangerous Method

Daniel Craig & Rooney Mara/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

George Clooney/The Descendants

Chloë Grace Moretz & Asa Butterfield/Hugo

Elizabeth Olsen/Martha Marcy May Marlene

Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer/The Help

Leonardo DiCaprio/J. Edgar

Brad Pitt/Moneyball & The Tree of Life

Vera Farmiga/Higher Ground

Ryan Gosling/Drive, The Ides of March & Crazy, Stupid, Love

Owen Wilson & Michael Sheen/Midnight in Paris

Brendon Gleeson/The Guard

Melissa McCarthy/Bridemaids

Matthew McConaughey/The Lincoln Lawyer

Emma Stone/The Help, Friends with Benefits & Crazy, Stupid, Love

© 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

the "other" medium


Morning Joe (MSNBC)

Pan Am (ABC)

The Middle (ABC)

Revenge (ABC)

Enlightened (HBO)

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Ringer (CW)

Two Broke Girls (CBS)

Prime Suspect (NBC)

Keeping Up with the Kardashians (E!)

Friday, December 16, 2011

dark holiday

Bridges and Jones shine in an atypical holiday movie.
Every Christmas, my wife and I treat ourselves to a double-bill of two of our favorite films, titles which are only peripherally related to the holiday.

Our matinee is Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" and our evening program is Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle." Perhaps not coincidentally, both were major year-end holiday releases in 1958.

We never divert.

But if we did, I'd suggest two other titles are are far removed from the usual suspects - you know, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

First, there would be Tim Burton’s exquisite “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), one of the best film musicals of recent years that clearly prepared Burton for the task of taking on Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” - and almost as triumpantly. Like the Sondheim classic, "Nightmare" boasts a major song score by Danny Elfman, gloriously symphonic and gloriously idiosyncratic.

The combination of Elfman's songs, Burton's strangely appealing little characters and director Henry Selick's wonderous stop-motion animation combine to make "The Nightmare Before Christmas" compulsively watchable.

Then there's Daniel Petrie's superior 1969 TV film, "Silent Night, Lonely Light." The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote the lovely play on which Patrie's movie is based - about two lonely people who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

On stage, "Silent Night" was directed by Peter Glenville with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes in the leads and Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann in support. It opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was immediately snapped up for filming by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
No, the film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night" was not made for theaters. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving.

Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) take over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles (and would subsequently be reteamed in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" the same year); Carrie Snodgress plays the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman show up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.

It's a wrenching work that, for some bizarre reason, is never telecast during the holiday season and is available only on out-of-print VHS tapes.

Sad

Monday, December 12, 2011

cinema obscura: two with don johnson

Don Johnson is one of those effortless actors who rarely, if ever, attracts praise. His softshoe performances, more often than not expended on worthless films, have battled against the distraction of his tabloid life.

His signature role remains one that he played on TV - as Detective "Sonny" Crockett on the TV series, "Miami Vice" (1984-1990) - although he was much more commanding in the Paul Newman role in the 1985 TV adaptation of "The Long Hot Summer," playing alongside Judith Ivey, Jason Robards, Cybill Shepherd and Ava Gardner.

His film career has been largely negligible.

But for one brief moment, he shined in two too-little-seen films that should have jumpstarted a life on the big screen.

"Sweet Hearts Dance" - a 1989 effort by writen by playwright Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond") and directed by Robert Greenwald (who also helmed "Xanadu" and who now makes excellent liberal-leaning political documentaries) - is a lovely, mournful little film about disillusionment, about being young but not as young as you once were and realizing that time has passed while you're still waiting. Waiting for what? For something, anything - for your life to get started.

That's what hits Johnson's character, Wiley Boon, and to a lesser extent his best friend, Sam (Jeff Daniels). Wiley has everything that has evaded Sam - a wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids - and Sam can't understand why Wiley is so unhappy. Sam, on the other hand, is self-aware. He knows what ails him - and Adie (Elizabeth Perkins), a new teacher in town, just might make a difference in his life. We get two duets here.

This tiny ensemble settles in nicely under Greenwald's direction, with Johnson in particular exhibiting strong innocence and innocent strength.

His is a solid performance.

In 1991, Johnson teamed with his then-wife Melanie Griffin for "Paradise," Mary Agnes Donoghue's evocative American remake of Jean-Lopu Hubert's 1987 French rural film, "Le Grand Chemin" ("The Grand Highway"). Hubert's fragile material travels well to America under Donoghue's careful, sensitive direction, which honors elements otherwise abandoned by the American film industry - namely, attention to people and the common issues and crises in their lives.

Johnson and Griffin play a childless couple whose young son died two years earlier and whose lives are disrupted, blissfully, by the arrival of a little boy (Elijah Wood), a friend's son who has come to spend the summer with them in the wetlands of South Carolina. (A very young Thora Birch, in her film debut, charms as a local kid who befriends Wood).

Johnson summons a natural honesty and candidness that provide the supporting titanic structure for Griffin's major performance - a great piece of film acting by Melanie, well worth checking out.

Much of what happens in "Paradise" is moodily emotional and internal, which may explain why the film came in under the radar when it was initially released - and why it is now, sadly, a lost movie.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

the guiltiest

"Morning Joe," the compulsively watchable political coffeklatch hosted every morning by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC, is without exception my favorite television show.

But I have one minor quibble and it involves the Kardashians, of all people. On a recurring basis, Mika gratuitously bashes the Kardashian shows, without giving the slightest indiction that she's ever actually watched the show. Her misguided superior 'tude towards the Kardashians seems to be based on hearsay and buzz - which makes her opinion, well, worthless. Because it really isn't an opinion, see? It's just snark.

Joe occasionally goes a step further. In order to inflate his own importance, he'll comment that the people who watch his show and who read The New York Times - you know, smart people - aren't the people who watch the Kardashians.

Say what?

Well, here's one person who watches both "Morning Joe" and E!'s "Keeping up with the Kardashians" (and its assorted off-shoots). Does that make me a different kind of ignoramus, Joe? And is it necessary to pump yourself up by denegrating something else?

The Kardashian shows are the most misunderstood programs on TV. They're not reality shows, pre se, but very shrewd sitcoms - better than the beloved, overrated "Modern Family." They're fast, funny and smart - the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures. And Kris Jenner outsoars the mother of all stage mothers, "Gypsy's" Momma Rose. She's a force of nature.

Alas, the only people who don't like the Ks seem to be those, like Mika and Joe, who have never seen an episode. If they did, they'd be hooked.

Anyway, I wouldn't think of missing my daily helping of "Morning Joe" any more than I would deprive myself of my nightly Kardashian fix. So there!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

cinema obscura: George Cukor's "The Chapman Report" (1962)

Long unavailable on home entertainment, George Cukor's "The Chapman Report" of 1962 is rescued from oblivion by - you got it! - Turner Classic Movies, which has scheduled it for an early screening on Wednesday, December 21 - at 7:15 a.m. (est) and 4:15 a.m. (pacific time).

A mischievious, willfully sordid take on Kinsey's findings, this guilty pleasure offers up four text-book case examples of sexually dysfunctional women before concluding, despite everything that preceded its fade-out scene, American women are indeed sexually healthy. Talk about having it both ways - titillating the men in the audience and appeasing the women.

Not surprisingly, Cukor has four terrific actresses taking his cues here - Shelley Winters as a bored housewife who momentarily entertains the idea of running off with another man; Jane Fonda as a young widow who has lost interest in sex; Claire Bloom as a nymphomaniac who is punished via a gang rape for her avid interest in sex, and Glynis Johns as an arty type who finds that testosterone is responsible not only for a man's physical perfections but also for his brutish qualities.

The reliable Andrew Duggan plays the titular Dr. Chapman, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., a Warner contract player wasted by Warners in largely TV roles, plays his assistant, a thoughtful guy who doesn't believe Fonda is frigid and wants to prove it. Camp doesn't get any better than this.

Jane Fonda and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in scenes from the film

The other token men here are played by Harold J. Stone (Winters' husband) and Ray Danton (as her lover), and John Dehner (Johns' husband) and another Warner contract player, Ty Hardin (as her fleeting interest).

I don't know about you, but I'd like to see "The Chapman Report" again.
One of these days.