Wednesday, December 31, 2014

not the usual suspects. unannotated. unalphabetized. unapologetic.

 Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss in McDowell's "The One I Love"
  • "Nightcrawler" (Dan Gilroy)
  • "Boyhood" (Richard Linklater)
  • "Inherent Vice" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • "Snowpiercer" (Bong-Joon Ho)
  • "The One I Love" (Charlie McDowell)
  • "Big Eyes" (Tim Burton)
  • "Men, Women & Children" (Jason Reitman)
  • "The Lunchbox"/"Dabba" (Ritesh Batra)
  • "Bad Words" (Jason Bateman)
  • "Gone Girl"(David Fincher)
  • "The Skeleton Twins" (Craig Johnson)
  • "The Babadook" (Jennifer Kent)
  • "Laggies"(Lynn Shelton)/"Begin Again" (John Carney)

the dubious future of movies

 Credit: Grantland

 "This would be an apt place for me to deviate into a gravelly 'Gran Torino' old-man rant about the permanently arrested, riskless nature of our culture — how everything in modern major moviedom is now derived from material meant for children or adolescents and aimed at adults desperate to remain in that state well into chronological maturity. But that’s not new."

So writes Mark Harris in his brilliant, lengthy essay for Grantland, "The Birdcage," a detailed dissection of "Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchise movies."  The eye-opening graphs above and below, published by Grantland to accompany Harris' fastidious piece, provide us with a disturbing preview of what's to come at our local cineplex.

Harris's essay itself is even more jaw-dropping.

Grantland printed "The Birdcage" on December 16.  Yesterday, only a mere two weeks later, Variety ran an article by Brent Lang, its senior film and media reporter, which pretty much validates Harris's salient point.

"‘Star Wars’ Beats ‘Avengers 2′ for Most Anticipated Film of 2015," published by Variety on December 30, reveals the results of a Fandango survey, announcing that the most eagerly awaited movie would not be the new James Bond opus, neither the "Jurrasic Park" or "Mission: Impossible" sequel, not “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” but - drum roll, please - "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  Which is a surprise, given that the last couple "Star Wars" flicks have been depressingly mediocre and conventional.

But never underestimate the pull of those adolescent adults.  Fanboys rule.

Happy New Year!

 Credit: Grantland

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

the contrarian

A pronouncement.

There are possibly more bad movie critics than there are bad movies.

An exaggeration?

I think not.  But I do know that I wish Pauline Kael was still around to prick the delusional balloons of opinions that current critics and would-be critics pass among one another as if those shared assessements were irrefutable, the final word on exactly what's good or not about movies.

I miss her decisive/devisive voice from Great Barrington.

The original contrarian, Pauline would approach films in two different ways.  If she favored a movie, she would make sure that her opinion got out there first, efficiently influencing lesser educated, unsure reviewers.

Who followed like sheep every time.

But if she disliked a particular movie, she'd wait and, when enough time had gone by and enough praise had been doled out by those aforementioned reviewers, Pauline would stage a surprise attack, deflating the foolish, premature enthusiasm and wising up those who dared to air it.

Based on her unpredictable track record, I've a hunch that possibly, just possibly, she would have preferred Ridley Scott's "The Counsellor" (2013) to Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014), that she would have reserved judgment, unlike her peers, on Benedict Cumberbatch, and that she might have chided Chris Rock for trying to be Woody Allen when he is so much better at being Chris Rock.  But what I'd really like to read is what she would have written about Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence."  Any guesses?  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

façade: forgotten '50s femmes

Patricia Owens and Barbara Rush with Pat Hingle in Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment" (1957)

Actresses of the 1950s-'60s.

It's a subject that fascinates me.

But beyond Liz and Marilyn, who pretty much ruled the roost in the day, there was a whole collection of second- and third-tier actresses who offered a wide diversity between the Imperial Brunette and Hot Blonde.

I'm not necessarily thinking of Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day and Natalie Wood and Shirley MacLaine and Janet Leigh - or Lee Remick and and Piper Laurie and Joanne Woodward and Jean Simmons, although I love them all. Fact is, they all enjoyed star spots during their careers.

And while the era's "newcomers" - Hope Lange, Millie Perkins, Diane Baker and Suzy Parker - may not have become major players, people did know who they were. No, my fascination is with the fleeting stars. Not Grace Kelly, who had a brief but vibrant career, but someone like Vera Miles who was once deemed Kelly's natural successor. It never happened. And there are the ill-fated - the actresses who died too young - such as Diane Varsi and Inger Stevens, both singular and both talented.

No, my fascination is with actresses who were "almost stars," who worked unobtrusively as contract players, often in lead roles and usually in B movies, but who, for some bizarre reason, represent the real quintessential female stars of their era. The names Mary Murphy, Nancy Gates, Mala Powers, Colleen Gray, Dianne Foster, Karen Sharpe, Betsy Palmer, Elaine Stewart and Diane Brewster may not mean anything to you, but they do to me. They were great. All of them.

But even here, there was a pecking order - certain actresses who stood out more than others, even in secondary roles in secondary pictures.

Julie Adams (then Julia) and a bad blind date in Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954)
First and foremost, there was the gorgeous and woefully overlooked Barbara Rush, who played in the occasional comedy ("Oh Men! Oh Women!" and "Come Blow Your Horn") but largely specialized in socially-conscious soap operas (Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment," Daniel Petrie's "The Bramble Bush," Vincent Sherman's "The Young Philadelphians" and Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet") where she brought a distinct artistry to her reliably tremulous line-readings. When Rush cried, which was often, I cried along with her.

The equally beautiful Julie Adams had a bit more of an up personality, which made her game for creature flicks, the most famous of which is Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). She always had a sparkle in her eyes and she clicked with leading men as diverse as Richard Denning, George Nader, Charlton Heston and Francis the Talking Mule. Adams made a wildly memorable comeback, thanks to Dennis Hopper, in "The Last Movie" (1971), where she proved she was made for the counter-culture. As far as I'm concerned she's the Mrs. Robinson who should have been.

The lovely Delores Michaels, meanwhile, appeared in only 11 films but made a lasting impression on me. A Hitchcock blonde who got away before Hitch could discover her, I remember Michaels (pictured right) fondly for Henry Levin's "April Love" (1957), Edward Dmytryk's "Warlock" (1959), James Clavell's "Five Gates to Hell" (1959) and James B. Clark's "One Foot in Hell" (1961).

Slender, sculptured and icy (but in a good way), the German-born Dana Wynter (née, Dagmar Wynter) will forever be associated with Don Siegel's sublime pod movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"(1956), in which her character Becky Driscoll seemed to be a vague semblence of herself to begin with. Her best role - her best showcase, at least - was probably in Henry Koster's "Fräulein," which also starred the aforementioned Delores Michaels and which borrowed from her German heritage, but Wynter, always the strong, supportive woman, also shined in Richard Brooks's "Something of Value" (1957) opposite Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier, Michael Anderson's "Shake Hands with the Devil" (1959), with Jimmy Cagney, and even Melville Shavelson's "On the Double" (1960), a Danny Kaye vehicle. There are many, many more. Wynter (pictured below) enjoyed a most productive career.

Patricia Owens, another Delores Michaels co-star (in "Five Gates to Hell"), also teamed with Rush (in "No Down Payment"), but she is perhaps best known for her role - and her scream - in Kurt Neumann's original "The Fly" (1955), a seminal film in my life. So I have a soft spot for this very attractive woman.

Owens enjoyed some good roles, particularly in Joshua Logan's "Sayonara" (1957), starring as Marlon Brando's uptight financée, and in Richard Fleischer's "Ten Thousand Hills" (1959), an excellent Western also starring Don Murray, Lee Remick, Albert Dekker, Stuart Whitman and Richard Egen. There was a skill and shyness about Owens that made her perfect for the sexually-suppressed '50s and '60s, but she was very good at hinting, largely with her beautiful eyes.

She seemed to bring a sensual longing to each of her roles, even the disposable ones, comparable to what Kim Novak did so magnificently in Quine's "Strangers When We Meet." It's a role that Owens could have played blindfolded, but, alas, she didn't have the star power.

Unerringly proper, Martha Hyer did not play likable women. She specialized in standoffish, often snobbish women and yet, thanks to her personal nuances, her women were never completely dislikable. Hyer made sure we understood her characters - their flaws and the psychology behind them.

She expertly plied her trade in such diverse films as Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running" (1958), Melville Shavelson's "Houseboat" (1958), Jean Negulesco's "The Best of Everything" (1959), Jack Webb's "The Last Time I Saw Archie" (1961), Frank Tashlin's "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) and Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966), all in a short amount of time. At quick glance, Hyer was an enigma, but she really wasn't. A closer look shows her women were flesh-and-blood.

Well, they're my picks. Let me know if I left anyone out.
So is she or isn't she? A pod, that is. Dana Wynter in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) with staunch, stalwart Kevin McCarthy

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

cinema obscura: Lamont Johnson's "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981)

In her New Yorker review of Lamont Johnson's sublime "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981), Pauline Kael commented on Amanda Plummer's screen debut as being "scarily brilliant."

That was enough to whet the appetites of all cinéphiles - and also end Plummer's promising film career. No one wanted a starlet who was "scarily brilliant," least of all audiences in the early 1980s.

The similarly brilliant Kristy McNichol was also a victim of the times, although perhaps for additional reasons. Anyway, Plummer never had much of a film career. Our loss, indeed.

"Cattle Annie and Little Britches" is an eccentric little saddle-soap saga about two teenagers, 19th-century variety, in thrall of outlaws. Times haven't changed. I suppose that anarchic musicians have been contempoary outlaws for the past 50 years or so.

The girls, in this case, are Plummer's Cattle Annie and Diane Lane's Jenny, who is dubbed "Little Britches" by the leader of Doolin-Dalton gang, Bill Doolin himself - played by Burt Lancaster, no less.

In what is clearly a teenage girl's wet dream, sagebrush-style, Cattle Annie and Little Britches play a crucial role in helping Doolin-Dalton gang save Bill from jail time before being sent off to a reformatory themselves.

This is essentially "The World of Henry Orient," only with horses, and it's irresistible.

The supporting cast includes Rod Steiger, John Savage and, of course, Scott Glenn, but the real driving force here is director Lamont Johnson, who paid his dues doing TV movies (including the fine televison film version of the play, "My Sweet Charlie") before seguing into films with such titles as "The Mackenzie Break" (1970), "A Gunfight" (1971), Jeff Bridges' "The Last American Hero" (1973) and "Somebody Killed Her Husband" (1978), starring Farrah and Bridges and criminally underrated.

Johnson passed on October 24, 2010 at 88.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

façade: aldo ray

The husky-voiced, thick-necked Aldo Ray, née Aldo DaRe, was one of the more atypical, fascinating leading men of the 1950s.

He had his only conventional leading-man role opposite Judy Holliday in his offical debut film, George Cukor's affecting "The Marrying Kind" (1952), in which he was introduced (oddly) as "Judy's life of love." 

Prior to Cukor's film, he acted as Aldo DeRa in two 1951 films, David Miller's "Saturday's Hero" and Mickey Rooney's "My True Story."

Although he starred in another Cukor film, 1952's "Pat and Mike," and in Alexander Hall's "Let's Do It Again" (1953), he never really caught on as a leading man or a light actor, despite his considerable talent.

Aldo Ray, who passed in 1991, was way too aggressively masculine, burly and no-nonsense - intimidating actually - for romantic comedies.

Or for romance in general.

Ray's career-defining roles were in perhaps two Raoul Walsh war epics, "Battle Cry" (1955) and "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), and in two by Anthony Mann, "Men in War" (1957) and "God's Little Acre" (1958).

This limited but pleasing display of his work provides a rare opportunity to become familiar with a criminally neglected actor.

Monday, December 01, 2014

neil and craig's excellent adventure

Allison Williams - More Diane Keaton than Peter Pan
Neil and Craig would be Neil Meron and Craig Zadan who, beyond other endeavors, are committed to keeping the film musical alive, whether it's in movie theaters or on television.  Bless them.

They've been obsessed with this project for at least two decades now and, arguably, their most commanding triumph was the live telecast of "The Sound of Music" on NBC in 2013.  Fooling all skeptics, that telecast, starring a game Carrie Underwood, was a ratings sensation.  It's something that NBC would like to repeat with the Meron/Zadan-produced "Peter Pan," which the network will air - again, live - Thursday night.

Of course, show business being show business, it will not be enough if the ratings for "Peter Pan" equals those for "The Sound of Music."  It has to top them.  That seems to be the expectation behind the relentless promotion for "Peter Pan" that's been laced through all of NBC's prime-time shows for the past two weeks or so.

My hunch is that "Pan" will come close to "Music," in terms of ratings, but won't overtake or even equal it.

For one thing, there's the source material.  "The Sound of Music" has become something of a religious experience for most Americans.  They can't get enough of it.  The original 1965 film opened to mixed reviews but it went on to win an Oscar (as best picture, among others) and it has grown in stature in the past 50 years.  Just ask the management of San Francisco's Castro Theater where the sing-along "Sound of Music" is screened regularly - and regularly brings in enthusiastic crowds.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, is a Broadway antique which means little, if anything, to modern audiences.

Then, there's the stars.  Carrie Underwood, who toplined NBC's "Sound of Music," has a huge -and hugely loyal - following.  And it didn't hurt that Meron and Zadan were shrewd enough to cast "True Blood's" Stephen Moyer (for sex appeal) opposite Underwood.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, has Allison Williams in the lead, an appealing actress known largely, and only, for her role on HBO's "Girls."  And her leading man is Christopher Walken, one of our top character actors but certainly not one to lure in a sizable audience.

Back in January of 2014, Robert Greenblatt, the director of entertainment for NBC, opined that his dream Peter Pan was Mylie Cyrus.  I agree.  She has the right bearing and the right voice (read: husky).  But, reportedly, Cyrus wasn't interested and it didn't help that a bunch of yahoos got on the internet to protest the idea.  All in all, a missed opportunity.

Allison Williams, for anyone who has seen her on "Girls," is ready to carry on the Diane Keaton tradition.  She's a charming, edgy light comedienne.  From the few clips I've seen of her as Peter, she comes across as a Valley Girl in drag.  And, unlike Cyrus, her singing voice is decidedly feminine.

Finally, there's the uncertain future of NBC's live musicals.  The network has painted itself into a corner, given that it's become rather painfully apparent that all primetime musicals must be "family friendly."

I say this based on the web's first two efforts and the reported third, which will be "The Music Man" (a property that Meron and Zadan have already brought to TV in 2003 with a miscast Matthew Broderick in the the lead role).  Who on earth will be tapped to play Professor Howard Hill this time around?  It has to be a pop-culture personality, that's for sure.  Maybe Seth MacFarlane, who can sing and who, perhaps not coincidentally, hosted one of the Meron/Zadan-produced Oscar shows.

But after "The Music Man," what's left? "Annie" will be back in movie theaters soon (and Meron/Zadan already did a TV version of that chestnut).  Disney certainly wouldn't permit anyone but ABC to produce any of its properties. So "The Lion King" and "Newsies" are out.  Maybe "The King and I."  That's family-friendly.  Or perhaps "Oliver!"

Beyond that, I can't think of too many musicals that are suitable for mom, dad and the kids.