Saturday, March 31, 2012

turner in april - bravo!

Star of the Month: Doris Day

Turner has me in its hold this month. The mere idea of a weeklong Doris Day marathon is catnip for me. Every night during the first week of April, starting at 8 p.m. each night, we get Doris and only Doris.

Turner will be screening 28 titles - including two with Rod Taylor and two with James Garner - but the biggest attraction for me will be its showing of David Miller’s “Midnight Lace” (1960), which for some bizarre reason has evaded DVD release to date, on April 4 @ 8 p.m. Charles Vidor’s “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955) - airing @ 8 p.m. on April 6 - runs a close second in the must-see category.

If I had to pick one night, however, for my Doris binge, it would be April 5. Starting @ 8 p.m., Turner serves up: Charles Walters’ “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960) (to be encored on April 17 @ 12:45 p.m.); Norman Jewison’s “The Thrill of It All” (1963); Frank Tashlin’s “The Glass Bottom Boat” (1966); Richard Quine’s “It Happened to Jane” (1959), and David Butler’s “April in Paris” (1952).

Conspicuously missing are George Seaton's “Teacher’s Pet” (1958), which has always been a Turner staple, and Stanley Donen and George Abbott's “The Pajama Game” (1957), which features one of Day's most feminist performances and, oddly, has never been on the Turner menu. Tragic.

Cinema obscura
George Roy Hill’s “Toys in the Attic” (1963) April 2 @ 5 a.m.:

Lillian Hellman's play about two spinster sisters who have been supporting their loser brother through several failed business ventures opened February 25th, 1960 at the Hudson Theatre and ran for 456 performances. Maureen Stapleton and Irene Worth played the sisters; Jason Robards was their brother, and Rochelle Oliver played his young wife.

Arthur Penn directed.

The 1963 film version starred Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller as sisters Carrie and Anna Berniers, respectively; Dean Martin as their brother Julian, and Yvette Mimieux as his bride. The great Gene Tierney played the role that won Anne Revere as Tony for the stage version.

James Poe adapted the Hellman play for director George Roy Hill, helming his second film here, following his 1962 debut with the adapation of another play - "Period of Adjustment," the Tennessee Williams comedy he directed on Broadway (and which is screening on a day devoted to Williams film adaptations; see Façade directly below). Hill's next film was 1964's delightful "The World of Henry Orient" (which Hill would eventually direct as a stage musical, "Henry, Sweet, Henry") and, of course, he became a major player with 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"Toys in the Attic" is a talky to-do - but what talk! - about an unusually dysfunctional and repressed family unraveling. In short, a wonderful afternoon at the theater.

Also:

Joshua Logan’s “Tall Story” (1960) April 4 @ 4:45 p.m.

George Marshall’s “The Happy Thieves” (1962) April 7 @ 2 a.m.

Henry Koster’s “A Man Called Peter”(1955) April 9 @ 4:15 a.m.

John Brahm’s “Hot Rods to Hell” (1967) April 18 @ 4:30p.m.

Bert I. Gordon’s “Picture Mommy Dead” (1966) April 25 @ 4:45 p.m.

Leslie Kardos’ “The Strip”(1951) April 27 @ 6:30p.m.

Jay Levey’s “UHF” (1989) Aprill 28 @ 4 a.m.

Façade

Tennessee Williams / April 26, starting @ 6 a.m.:

John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana” (1964)

George Roy Hill’s “Period of Adjustment” (1962)

Richard Brooks’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958)

Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” (1956)

Tennessee Williams receives arguably his best screen adaptation ever in Richard Brooks’ version of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Paul Newman as hustler Chance Wayne, a scam artist who returns to his hometown with desperate, aging movie queen Alexandra Del Lago - played by Geraldine Page - in tow. Chance Wayne and Alexandra Del Lago - what marvelous names!

Newman and Page reprised their Broadway roles for Brooks' adaptation. Ed Begley won an Oscar for his performance as the town boss.

Rita Hayworth / April 6, starting @ 8 p.m.:

Charles Vidor’s “Gilda”(1946)

Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948)

Robert Rosen’s “They Came to Cordura” (1959)

Charles Vidor’s ”The Lady in Question” (1940)

Vincent Sherman’s ”Affair in Trinidad” (1952)

Stanley Donen / April 13, starting @ 6 a.m.:

“On the Town” (1949)

“Royal Wedding”(1951)

“Fearless Fagan” (1952)

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1953)

“It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955)

“Bedazzled” (1967)

Barbra Streisand / April 24, starting @ 8 p.m.:

Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were” (1973)

William Wyler’s ”Funny Girl” (1968)

Streisand's “The Prince of Tides” (1991)

Herbert Ross’ “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970) and “Funny Lady” (1975)

Peter Yates’ “For Pete’s Sake” (1974)

Jean Simmons / April 17,starting @ 4:45 p.m.

Robert Wise’s “Until They Sail” (1957)

Lloyd Bacon’s “She Couldn’t Say No” (1954)

Hope Lange / April 29, starting @ 8 p.m.:

Mark Robson’s ”Peyton Place” (1957)

David Swift’s “Love Is a Ball”(1962), one of two films that Lange made with her then-lover Glenn Ford (the other being Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles"); "Love Is a Ball" was made under the title "The Grand Duke and Mr. Prim."

Shirley MacLaine / April 24, starting @ 11:30 a.m.:

Robert Wise’s “Two for the Seesaw” (1962)

Charles Walters’ “Two Loves” (1961), which is also a cinema obscura.

Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running” (1958)

Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960)

seductions in the dark

A trio of idiosyncratic winners airs on April 10, starting @ 10:15 p.m.:

Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” (1960), compulsively creepy and complusively watchable.

Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter” (1971)

Bruce Robinson’s “Withnail & I” (1987)

magnificent obsessions

David Greene’s “Godspell” (973) April 8 @ 7:30 a.m.:

David Greene's refreshingly miminalist 1973 film version of John Michael Tebelak's Carnegie-Mellon student project/off-Broadway curiosity, "Godspell," is airing as Turner Classic Movies' Easter morning special and it remains as youthful and fresh as ever, even though it is now, unbelievably, 39-years-old. (Other Turner holiday fare for the day ranges from Charles Walters' quaint tuner, "Easter Parade," to Richard Fleischer's arty epic, "Barabbas.")

"Godspell," which was the "Glee" of its day, is Tebelak's witty take on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, fortified by a remarkable score by Stephen Schwartz, and its in-your-face religiosity remains as charming - and as charmingly inoffensive - as it was back in '73. (Did I say "witty"? Yes. Remember, the Canadian production featured such Second City stalwarts as Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin.)

Even though time, strangely enough, has not aged "Godspell, the film is now tinged with a certain melancholy, largely because so many of its contributors are now gone. Greene died in 2003 after directing some 80 projects, including two of my favorite Guilty Pleasures, "The People Next Door" (1970), which he had previously directed for television, and "Hard Country" (1981) which introduced Kim Basinger in a smashing early role.

Tebelak passed in 1985 at the age of 36.

Arguably sadder, however, is the realization of the fading of the movie's most companionable young cast. The commanding David Haskell, who plays John the Baptist and Judas and seemed to come with such promise, died of brain cancer in 2000, his career sadly cut short; the versatile Lynn Thigpen died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003; Jeffrey Mylett died of AIDS in 1986, and Merrell Jackson, so sweet in his heart-rending version of ""All Good Gifts," died young in 1991 of undisclosed causes.

All but one of the surviving cast members seemingly left show business after the film, the exception being Victor Garber, who plays the film's most ethereal Jesus and who has become one of our more reliable and recognizable characters actors. Incidentally, this role was played on Broadway by Don Scardino who is now a producer and the house director of NBC's "30 Rock" and by, yes, Jeremy Irons in the 1973 London production that played the Wyndham Theatre. (The role of Jesus was created off-Broadway by Stephen Nathan, who went on to do the films "The First Nudie Musical" and "You Light Up My Life" and who is now a producer-writer, mostly in television.)

This time out, in addition to Schwartz's most hummable score, savor the inventive choreography of Sammy Bayes, particularly his rousing staging of Thigpen's "Bless the Lord" number, and the hands-down show-stopper, "All for the Best," which culminates atop the World Trade Center, which was under construction at the time. More melancholy.

Thirty-nine years. A lifetime.

Also:

Alan J.bPakula’s ”The Sterile Cuckoo” (1969) April 13 @ 2 a.m. (with a most affecting Liza)

Paul Wendkos’ “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) Apri 17 @ 9:45p.m. (Love it!)

Kinji Fukasaku’s “The Green Slime” April 21 @ 3:30 a.m. (which is exactly as its title implies)

grand illusions

Be sure to pencil in three really nifty musicals - Leslie Kardos’ “Small Town Girl”(1953), April 12 @ 9:15 a.m.; Stanley Donen’s “Give a Girl a Break”(1953), April 13 @ 12:30 p.m., and Jean Negulesco’s “Daddy Long Legs” (1955) April 20 @ midnight - as well as a genuine curiosity, Robert Parrish’s turgid “Fire Down Below”(1957) April 24 @ 6 a.m., with Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and, yes, Jack Lemmon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

tilda, rachael & Will

It's getting to the point that there are precious few current films worth seeing, let along discussing. The title of Glenn Kenny's inspired non-review of Gary Ross's "The Hunger Games" says it all: "From Hunger." (But exactly why is everyone else so excited about this movie which, it seems to me, is a triumph of marketing, not filmmaking?)

Anyway, three titles, about which no one seems to care, are worth recommending nevertheless.

First, there's Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a deliciously demented film with Tilda Swinton as the mother of an evil spawn - an awful teenage son who goes berserk and traps a bunch of kids in the school gym (à la "Carrie") and kills them with his bow and arrows (à la "The Hunger Games").

The film, which traces the steps of Kevin from screaming infant to obstinant toddler to aforementioned awful teen - is being sold as a social statement on disturbed kids waiting to explode but it's really a horror film about the hazards of breeding. Question: Did Swinton receive an Oscar nomination for this? Who remembers? Who cares? Still, she deserved one. Next up is Robbie Pickering’s raggy "Natural Selection," about Linda, a barren Christian woman whose hypocrite husband piously refuses to have recreational sex with her (ah, there Rick Santorum!) but has no problem jerking off to religious pornos at the local sperm bank.

When the prig has a stroke during an ejaculation, his betrayed wife finds out about her hubby's favorite pasttime - and the fact that he sired at least one nameless kid, a boy who is now a grown man. Linda decides to track down the kid and what follows is a road film of self-discovery, self-fulfillment and, yes, sexual awakening.

"Natural Selection" is anchored by a game, resourceful performance by Rachael Harris, a terrific, intelligent comedic actress who usually plays shrews ("The Hangover") or moms ("Diary of a Wimpy Kid").

Get this woman a major role already! Matt Piedmont's "Casa de mi Padre" is an amiable curiosity - a Will Ferrell lark spoken entirely en español (with some made-up malapropisms tossed in for extra laughs). The publicity for film - about a land barron, his two sons (Diego Luna is the good son; Ferrell is the stupid one, natch) and a vicious drug dealer (Gael García Bernal) - likens it to a telenovela, but it's actually closer to a cheezy Grade-Z Mexican import.

Best gag: A title tells us that it was filmed in "MexicoScope."

It's great fun, even while it's winding down. But who on earth will bother to see it? Perhaps that's why Lionsgate gave it a less pushy opening than it accorded ... "The Hunger Games."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

cinema obscura: Charles Lane's "Sidewalk Stories" (1989)

Critics, like a lot of other people, have very short memories, although most of them would avidly debate that notion.

Case in point: When Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" was released with much (aggressive) fanfare last fall, critics greeted this novelty - a silent film photographed in black & white - as a refreshing revelation.

Of course, Gene Kelly and Jackie Gleason attempted a similar conceit way back in 1962 with "Gigot" - although Kelly's film was shot in color.

More recently (well, 1989), there was a tiny film by African American filmmaker Charles Lane - the silent "Sidewalk Stories," a disarming Chaplinesque tale (read: "The Kid") of an artist (played by Lane) who decides to raise a toddler after her father is murdered.

Released by Palm Pictures, "Sidewalk Stories" was championed by critics for its commingling of modest virtures and cinematic daring, but has since fallen into oblivion, becoming a forgotten film. The very critics who praised it in '89 had no idea it was even made by the time they were being seduced by "The Artist" and its ironically loud marketing campaign. Lane's film was televised by PBS and on cable television in the 1990s and saw limited exposure on VHS, but is currently ... unavailable.

Edie Falco, Tom Hoover and Darnell Williams are seen in early roles in a cast that was as unknown as them at the time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

lost moment: José Ferrer's "State Fair" (1962)

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) swoons as Bing croons


When Walter Lang filmed Rodgers and Hammerstein's original movie musical, "State Fair," in 1945, he came up with the clever idea for the first reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring."

Jeanne Crain (singing voice dubbed by Louanne Hogan), as the film's young heroine Margy Frake, is in a deep funk and, sitting on a porch swing looking forlorn, is momentarily revived when she hears/imagines the voices of Ronald Coleman, Charles Boyer and Bing Crosby whispering sweet nothings to her. Cute, although it's never been clarified if the voices are those of the real actors or impersonators.

Anyway, flashforward to 1962 and the remake of "State Fair" - or perhaps 1961, when the film was actually made. José Ferrer is directing the remake and Pamela Tiffin (singing voice dubbed by Anita Gordon) is now playing Margy.

While the film was still in production, there were reports that Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra would be making cameo appearances. The assumption, for anyone familiar with the material, was that they would be involved with Tiffin in the reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring."

Well, the film opens in 1962 and there is no reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring." Hence, there's no Frank, Cary and Jimmy. What happened?

Was the reported sequence ever actually filmed?

The only clue to its possible existence is a shot of Tiffin in the end credits in a scene that is not in the finished film. In it, she is laying on her bed looking kinda swoony. My hunch is that it is in preamble to the reprise with Cary, Jimmy and Frank.

And by extension, my hunch is also that the scene was indeed filmed and, for some bizarre reason, was dropped.

My question is ... why?

Given that Ferrer is long gone, only Pamela Tiffin can provide insight into the mystery.


Margy Frake (Pamela Tiffin) swoons as Frank croons (maybe)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

humble beginnings on shubert alley

Very few plays make it onto film these days, and even fewer stage musicals.

But there was a time when the studios depended seriously on Broadway as a source for its prestige productions. (There's been a curious flipflop in the past two decades with the B movie - action films and action comedies - now being given the lavish adornments once reserved for message/Oscar films exclusively.) Hollywood had such an unquenchable need to film plays that even stage productions that were flops and folded quickly (but were not necessarily bad) quickly became movies.

To name a few...

"Little Murders"

Written by the popular acerbic cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the very dark "Little Murders" opened at the Booth Theater on April 18th, 1967, playing a total of seven performances. The play starred singer Barbara Cook (in a decidedly non-singing role) and Elliott Gould, just before he hit Hollywood with William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Feiffer comically chronicled what happens when a gung-ho all-American girl brings an inarguably unAmerican guy (a self-described "apathist" who photographs dog excrement for a living) home to meet her family - an oblivious mother, a father embarrassed by his name (it's Carroll) and a brother who wants to be a woman, played by Ruth White, John Randolph and David Steinberg, respectively. Exacerbating the tension are such modern travials as power outages, a garbage strike and serial murders.

Heyward Hale Broun, Phil Leeds and Dick Schaal rounded out the cast, under the direction of George Sherman.

A subsequent 1969 staging at the Circle in the Square also starred Gould and Steinberg, along with Linda Lavin, Vincent Gardenia and Donald Sutherland in the role of a hippie cleric.

Gould, of course, recreated his role for the 1971 film, which was gamely directed by Alan Arkin who also assumed the role of the quickly uncoiling detective investigating the murders. The wonderful Marcia Rodd (and exactly what happened to her?) is a standout in the Cook role of Patsy; Elizabeth Wilson and an encoring Gardenia play her parents and Jon Korkes her brother, and Sutherland was back on board as the minister.



"The Seven Descents of Myrtle"/"Last of the Mobile Hotshots"


Tennessee Williams' "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" had a tryout at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and opened March 27th, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast consisting of Estelle Parsons, Harry Gaurdino and Brian Bedford, under the direction of José Quintero.

OK, here goes: Williams' play is about Lot (Bedford), a tubercular, impotent transvestite who has taken a wife named Myrtle (Parsons) who, in turn, is a prostitute and former showgirl, the sole survivor of the Five Memphis Hot Shots. Myrtle lives to nurse Lot back to health but Lot cares only about stealing the family property from his multiracial half-brother, Chicken (Guardino).

Naturally, Chicken is attracted to Myrtle.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle" closed after 29 performances.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1970 film version, which was retitled "Last of the Mobile Hotshots" and was one of the few prestige films of that era to be rated X by the MPAA. Lynn Redgrave starred as Myrtle, James Coburn as Lot (renamed Jeb actually for the film), and Robert Hooks as Chicken.

The film was made in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana, but forget the scenery. All that counted here was the idea of James Coburn playing a transvestite.
"A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper"

William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," which opened December 7th, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and closed after 25 performances, remains Warren Beatty's only Broadway appearance. His co-stars were dancer Carol Haney (in a decidedly undancing performance), Betty Field, Robert Webber, James O'Rear, Margaret Braidwood and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

Daniel Mann directed.

Its plot revolves around Lila (Haney), a sensitive, aging showgirl for a series of shows staged by a Madame Olga. When she gets dumped by the thieving Rick (played by Robert Webber in play and film) and is left stranded in the small town where she grew up, she moves in with her neighbor (Field) whose son she used to babysit. That role was written by Inge especially for the young Warren Beatty who would go on to star for Inge in "Splendor in the Grass" on screen. For the 1963 film, directed by Franklin J. Schafner in his debut, Joanne Woodward (in arguably her finest, if least heralded, performance) and Richard Beymer play the Haney/Beatty roles, with Pollard also recreating their stage roles. The rest of the cast includes Claire Trevor (in for Betty Field), Carol Lynley, Louis Nye and ... Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga.
"Silent Night, Lonely Night"
The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote this lovely play about two lonely people - played by Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes - who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

The play, directed by Peter Glenville and co-starring Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann, opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was snapped up immediately by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
The film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night," directed by Daniel Petrie, was not made for theaters, but for TV. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving. Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) took over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles, Carrie Snodgress played the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman showed up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.
"My Sweet Charlie"

David Westheimer's play "My Sweet Charlie" - a study in race relations - opened in tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia on November 8th, 1966 before moving to New York's Longacre Theater onn December 6th, 1966, where it closed after 31 performances.

The actor Howard Da Silva ("They Live By Night," "The Great Gatsby," "The Blue Dahlia," "The Lost Weekend" and "1776" among many other films) directed a cast that included Louis Gossett, Jr. in the title role, Bonnie Bedelia, John Randolph and Sarah Cunningham. Gossett's Charlie Roberts is a black New York lawyer accused - falsely - of murder in a small Texas town. He finds a vacant house where he hides out and this is where he meets Marlene (Bedelia), an artless, uneducated young woman who has been shunned by her father for being pregnant.

They become allies and unlikely friends.

The 1971 TV film version, also produced by Universal, was adapted by the then-hot team of William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by the great Lamont Johnson on location in Port Bolivar, Texas.

"My Sweet Charlie" was hugely popular as a film, thanks in large part to the affecting lead performances of Al Freeman, Jr. and Patty Duke. Ford Rainey took over the Randolph role.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

indelible moment: "The Graduate" (1967)

It's 1967. The movie is Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's novel.

Dustin Hoffman, as recent graduate Benjamin Braddock, is talking with Elisabeth Frazer, as Joanne, a friend of his parents, when they are interrupted by Mr. McQuire, played by Walter Brooke.

Mr. McQuire's one-word recommendation to Benjamin brought gales of laughter in theaters - and still does, even though that word has proven to be eerily prophetic.

Joanne: "What are you going to do now?"
Ben: "I was going to go upstairs for a minute."
Joanne: "I mean with your future - your life."
Ben: "That's a little bit hard to say."
Mr. McGuire: (interrupting them) "Ben."
Benjamin: (to Joanne) "Excuse me."
Benjamin: (turning away from Joanne) "Mr. McGuire!"
Mr. McGuire: "Ben."
Benjamin: (voice trailing off) "Mr. McGuire."
Mr.McGuire: "Come with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. Excuse us, Joanne?"
Joanne: "Of course."

(pause)

Mr. McGuire: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr.McGuire: "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
Ben: "Yes, I will."
Mr. McGuire: "Enough said. That's a deal."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Trig, I've a feeling we're not in Wasilla any more"


"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm
After They've Seen Paree..."

Much has been written about Jay Roach's hugely entertaining HBO movie, "Game Change" (based on the book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin), with more than one critic noting its skeletal resemblence to "Pygmalion"/"My Fair Lady" as it reenacts the tireless efforts of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign team to groom and cajole a rural guttersnipe into a plausible Vice Presidential candidate.

Others have likened the process to "Frankenstein."

But the above lyric - written by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis (with music by Walter Donaldson) back in 1918 - is a more concise description of what happened to Sarah Palin when she was snatched from relative obscurity and redefined for political stardom on the vast national stage.

And once she tasted the forbidden fruit, there was no going back.

Julianne Moore's uncanny portrayal of Palin goes beyond her impersonation of the ambitious public woman who we all came to know from her campaigning on camera. Much more impressive are the private moments in which Moore rather empathetically delineates Palin's transformation from an eager-to-please team player to an exploited puppet to a resentful rebel to an angry, empowered narcissist.

To paraphrase a popular movie line, "Nobody puts Sarah in a corner."

Once she's been showcased, pampered and spoiled by the process, there was no way that Sarah Palin would go away, no matter how ill-equipped she was intellectually or emotionally to handle the challenge.

To invoke another movie, her journey was like "The Wizard of Oz," but without the "There's no place like home" coda. She traveled to Oz, and despite the uncertainty and discomfort of the trip, she liked it there.

All of this is conveyed in Julianne Moore's remarkable performance - a portrayal that's at once funny, affectionate, defiant, enervating and poignant. She so fully inhabits this character and explains her in such a precise way that we see Sarah Palin differently for the first time.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Jen & Jen

"Everybody's named Barbara," George Segal comments in Robert Altman's "California Split" (1974), in which Altman playfully named serveral female characters Barbara - you know, just like in real life.

Well to paraphrase, everybody's named ... Jennifer. At least in movies. There's Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Grey, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jennifer Beals, Jennifer Coolidge, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Finnegan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jennifer Tilly and the greatest Jennifer of all - Aniston.

And then there's Jennifer Westfeldt.

Thanks to vagaries of movie release schedules, both Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Westfeldt have two new movies in release. Both are comedies. Both are very good comedies. And both are quite observant.

In David Wain's genuinely hilarious "Wanderlust," Aniston is paired breezily with Paul Rudd as a New York career couple who, victimized by the economic downturn and strapped for cash, hit the road, ending up in a commune that seems to have wandered in from a '60s film.

At last, a hands-down funny comedy, and one without the huffing, puffing shock value of "The Hangover" and "Bridesmaids." Not that "Wanderlust" is prim, but much of what's wonderful about it are its alert one-liners, nifty visual gags, the chemistry of its cast, the sublime comic timing of Aniston and the irreplaceable Rudd's Lemmon-esque turn.

Aniston has very good taste in leading men - Rudd (here and in "The Object of My Affection" and on TV's "Friends"), Jason Bateman ("The Switch"), Steve Zahn ("Management"), Vince Vaughn ("The Break Up"), Aaron Eckhart ("Love Happens"), Ron Livingston ("Office Space"), Owen Wilson ("Marley and Me"), Clive Owen ("Derailed"), Mark Wahlberg ("Rock Star"), Jake Gyllenhaal ("The Good Girl"), Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Costner ("Rumor Has It") and Ben Affleck ("He's Just Not That Into You").

Westfeldt's "Friends with Children," meanwhile - which the hyphenate performer wrote, directed and stars in - in a most companionable romcom about two BFFs (Adam Scott and Westfeldt) who decide to have a baby but without the complications messing up the lives of their couple-ly friends (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, and Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd).

Each one plans to live separately from the other - she in a relationship with Ed Burns, he with Megan Fox. But life, as they say, gets in the way.

Westfeldt and Scott end up with a bigger mess than their friends in this relationship comedy that's more solid and more vulnerable than most.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

cinema obscura: Amy Heckerling's "Loser" (2000)

Homage alert!

Amy Heckerling's 2000 romantic comedy, "Loser," came and went without making much of an impression.

But this shaggy little film is not without its fascination. Although no one would admit it at the time of its release, "Loser" is a rather transparent tracing-over of Billy Wiilder's "The Apartment." The similarities are striking and to writer-director Heckerling's credit, she pulls off the conceit in an amazingly clever way.

The skeletal plots are identical: Nerdy guy has a crush on a woman who likes him but who, in turn, has a crush on an authority figure who's taking advantage of her. In "The Apartment," these characters are played, respectively, by Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

In "Loser," their counterparts are Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari and Greg Kinnear. Wilder's film takes place within the confines of an insurance company; Heckerling's on a college campus.

Beyond its basic plotline, there are several scenes in "Loser" that echo Wilder's film:

(1) In "The Apartment," Shirley MacLaine stands up Jack Lemmon at a performance of "The Music Man." In "Loser," Jason Biggs is stood up by Suvari at a rock concert.

(2) In "The Apartment," a good doctor pumps a suicidal MacLaine's stomach and gives a warning to Lemmon, who pretends to be her boyfriend. In "Loser," a good doctor pumps a suicidal Suvari's stomach and gives a warning to Biggs who pretends to be Suvari's boyfriend.

(3) In "The Apartment," Lemmon's unsavory superiors party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards. In "Loser," Bigg's unsavory roommates party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards.

(4) In "The Apartment," MacLaine stays at Lemmon's place to recuperate and he offers to cook for her. In "Loser," Suvari stays at Biggs' place and he offers to cook for her.

(5) At the conclusion of "The Apartment," Fred MacMurray complains to MacLaine how Lemmon "threw that big, fat promotion in my face." At the conclusion of "Loser," Greg Kinnear complains how Biggs' threw a big "A grade" back in his face.

(6) Both films end with the heroine finally wising up and rushing back to the hero's apartment/animal hospital quarters for a happy ending.

At the time of the film's release, Heckerling, who happened to adapt Jane Austen's "Emma," with tremendous success, into 1995's "Clueless," was quoted as saying that the similarities were coincidental.

Perhaps.

And perhaps Wilder, who was still alive at the time, gave his blessing. After all, he was something of a mentor to Heckerling, having signed her application for membership in the Directors Guild of America.

Bottom line: There's absolutely nothing wrong with paying homage. It happens all the time in movies. Anyway, "Loser," whose title unfortunately proved to be prophetic at the box office, clearly deserves a second look - and perhaps in tandem with - back-to-back with - "The Apartment."

Thursday, March 01, 2012

turner this month - bravo!

Star of the Month: Karl Malden

The actor with the trademark bulbous nose and a deceptive versatility is delivered his due during March on Turner Classic Movies.

Twenty-five Karl Malden titles will be screened, with the centerpiece attraction being (of course) his Oscar-winning turn in Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) being shown on March 14 @ 8 p.m. Of interest: "Streetcar" will be immediately preceded at 6:15 p.m. by Mike Hodges’ irresistible ”Pulp” (1972), co-starring Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney and, yes, Lizabeth Scott.

March 7th offers a particularly good Malden line-up, beginning @ 8 p.m. with King Vidor’s “Ruby Gentry” (1952), followed by Delmer Daves' “Parrish” (1961), Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll” (1956) and Paul Henried’s “Dead Ringer” (1964), one of those tempting Bette Davis "twin" films.

And Ronald Neame’s “Meteor” (1979) - one of several films that Malden made with Natalie Wood - airs on March 22 @ 5:15 a.m.

Speaking of Wood, she has the title role in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Gypsy” (1962) - screening on March 28 @8 p.m. - in which Malden got to sing (and Sondheim, no less) until some post-preview editing turned his character Herbie into a non-singing role. Both Wood and Malden are the only performers who managed to flesh out characters that, in every stage production of Arthur Laurents' libretto, remain sketchy at best.

Incidentally, there have been many theories about why "Together, Whereever We Go" was excised from the final film and why "You'll Never Get Away from Me" was shortened - both of which featured Malden singing. But Mervyn LeRoy told me that at the New York preview for the film, the audience laughed whenever Malden opened his mouth to sing.

Hence, the decision to edit.

There was nothing wrong with Malden's singing voice; in fact, it was much better than Jack Klugman's. (Klugman originated the role of Herbie on Broadway.) At least, Malden could carry a melody. The problem was the audience. For some reason, which I can't explain, audiences become uncomfortable and derisive when confronted by a musical performance by a personality not known for singing. Clint Eastwood, who has a fine voice, faced this prejudice when he did "Paint Your Wagon," and more recently, the snide remarks flew when Pierce Brosnan sang in "Mamma Mia."

I love Brosnan's voice in that film. He sounds like an old rocker. More to the point, he sounds like Pierce Brosnan. Anyway, Malden's songs were cut/shortened simply because the audience couldn't handle the idea of Malden singing. At least, they exist in outtakes and on the soundtrack CD.

Oy, Roz!

Rosalind Russell's definitive reading of Madame Rose dominates "Gypsy." Rose was one of three plum stage roles that Roz inherited (some would say "stole") from actresses who played them to some acclaim on stage. She made the three films consecutively over a two-year period.

The other two are also being screened on Turner this month - Mervyn LeRoy’s “A Majority of One” (1961) on March 1 @ 5:30 p.m., and Daniel Mann’s “Five Finger Exercise” (1962) on March 23 @ 1 a.m.

Russell succeeded Ethel Merman, Gertrude Berg and Jessica Tandy, respectively, in these parts and, consequently, became persona non grata among theater types (despite her popular turns on Broadway in "Wonderful Town" and "Auntie Mame"). The only bit of dubious casting among this trio is "Majority," in which Roz played a Jewish widow to Alec Guinness's Japanese businessman. One could almost rationalize Russell being cast as Mrs. Jacoby, but why not get Sessue Hayakawa, hot off David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," to play Koichi Asano?

Cinema Obscura

There are ten - count 'em - ten rather obscure titles popping up on Turner during the month, the most curious being Paul Wendkos’ guilty pleasure, “Angel Baby” (1961), screening on March 7 @ 4 p.m., which introduced the wonderful Salomé Jens ("Miss Salomé Jens" in the end credits) as a beautiful, (ahem) sexy and very committed rural evangelist being exploited by greedy promoters and slandered by rivals.

Made a year after Richard Brooks' much richer "Elmer Gantry," Wendkos' film plays like its poor country cousin (with a touch of Anthony Mann's "God's Little Acre"), but has much to recommend it, largely its cast. In addition, to Jens, there's George Hamilton, Joan Blondell (playing a typical Blondell role late in life), Henry Jones and a mostly shirtless Burt Reynolds as a macho hick named Hoke who tries to have his way with Jens with the line, "You're so nice and sweet. I swear you give me torments!"

The one misslip in the cast is Mercedes McCambridge, who gives the same damn one-note performance that she gave in every film.

Other unearthed obscurities showing this month include...

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Tout va bien” (1972) / March 10 @ 12:30 a.m.

William Wellman’s “Lafayette Escadrille” (1958) / March 12 @ 6:15 p.m.

Vittorio De Sica’s “A Place for Lovers” (1969) / March 13 @ 6:30p.m.

Michael Anderson’s”Shake Hands with the Devil” (1959) / March 17 @ 12:15 p.m.

Henry Levin’s “Come Fly with Me” (1963) / March 15 @ 6:15 a.m.

Henry Koster’s “The Naked Maja” (1959) / March 20 @ 2 p.m.

Bud Yorkin’s “Never Too Late” (1965)/ March 25 @ 10a.m.

Herbert B. Leonard’s “Going Home” (1971) / March 28 @4 a.m.

And Eric Till’s “Hot Millions” (1968) / March 29 @ 6:15 a.m.

Seductions in the Dark

Or cult films. Noel Black’s “Pretty Poison,” a film that critics fought to save back in 1968, is pretty much a template for cult movies, and its star, Tuesday Weld, could be their poster girl. She made many, the most delirious of which is George Axelrod's insane "Lord Love a Duck," in which she and Roddy MacDowell played high school students.

Here, Weld and Tony Perkins, who were also to be paired again in Frank Perry's "Play It As It Lays" in 1972, make an effortlessly - deliciously - treacherous and sociopathic duo. “Pretty Poison" plays on March 8 @ 10:15 p.m. And here's a few more titles with cult followings:

Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man” (1980) / March 12 @ 4 a.m.

Bryan Forbes’ ”Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964) / March 20 @2:30 a.m.

Delmer Daves’ “The Hanging Tree” (1959) / March 21 @ 10:15 p.m.

J. Lee Thompson’s ”Cape Fear”(1962) / March 27 @8 p.m.

And Richard Thorpe’s "new age" musical lark, “Athena” (1954) / March 29 @ 1p.m.

Grand Illusions

Yes, the grand illusion - British style. The British New Wave. There's a March 26th marathon, beginning @ 8 p.m. with Ken Loach's “Kes” (1970), followed John Schlesinger’s ”Darling” (1965), Jack Clayton’s “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964) and two by Richard Lester - “The Knack - And How to Get It” (1965) and, best of all ”Petulia” (1968).

Façade

The inimitable Clifton Webb, who played smart, snarky men of uncloseted sexual persausion, is the subject of a great kid-unfriendly double-bill on March 11th. Henry Levin’s “Mr. Scoutmaster” (1953), which pits the impossibly erudite actor against the precocious George "Foghorn" Winslow, kicks it off, beginning @ 12:30 a.m. and followed by Walter Lang’s “Sitting Pretty” (1948), which pits him against the snide, nasally Richard Haydn.

And Jerry Lewis gets a workout on March 16th with five back-to-back films, beginning @ 10 a.m. with Hal Walker’s “At War with the Army” (1950), followed by George Marshall’s ”Hook, Line and Sinker” (1969), Jerry Paris’ ”Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lover the River” (1967) and two directed by Lewis himself, “The Big Mouth” (1967) and “Three on a Couch” (1966).

Magnificent Obsessions

This line-up on Friday, March 23rd, beginning @ 10 a.m., is reason enough to get an early start on the weekend and call in sick. Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) gets things started, followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959) and two more by Preminger - “Advise & Consent” (1962) and "Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965).

Finally, my favorite film actor, Jack Lemmon, is represented by one of my least-favorite Jack Lemmon movies - Blake Edwards’ strenously unfunny “The Great Race” (1965), showing on March 2 @ 8 a.m. Sorry, Jack.