Saturday, March 28, 2015

the cinéphilic circle jerk



Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," Rob Marshall's "Chicago," John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love," Paul Haggis' "Crash" and Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire."

These estimable films, all Oscar winners, have something else in common.  They've all been the easy targets of the members of what I call "The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk" (CCJ).  Much like the late, unlamented Mr. Blackwell, these guys - and, yes, they are all male - used to materialize only during the movies' awards season, coming out of their parents' basements or childhood bedrooms to attack those films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had foolishly honored with Oscars.

The very thought of this offended them, and although none of these grown men was ever employed as a working professional critic, each one found an online forum, many forums, on which to express their utter outrage.

Those films singled out for extermination by The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk are subjected to ridicule so intense that the way these guys carry on, one would think the group was declaring war on something the approximate size of the United States. They behave like schoolyard bullies - perhaps because they were once the victims of schoolyard bullies themselves.

Frankly, there's nothing much wrong with the films singled out, but The CCJ members become so inconsolably angry about whatever regard these titles receive that they lose all sense of magnitude and rationale.

The movie that best represents a CCJ's target is Haggis' "Crash" - the worst!, according to its panick-y members.

The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk isn't exactly new.

It's been around for ages (I just never had a name for it), although its members seem to have multiplied like rabbits in the past decade or so. Its beginnings can be charted back to the advent of Siskel and Ebert who, for better or worse, brought film criticism out of the closet, so to speak.

Before Gene and Roger hit it big on television, only a rare breed of moviegoer actually read reviews and even fewer thought about critics.  And those thoughts were usually negative and hostile:  A movie critic was a mean-spirited, miserable human being deserving of his/her misery.

But Siskel and Ebert popularized the form and indirectly inspired their viewers to become armchair critics.  Like that famous Marshall McLuhan sequence from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," these days, one can no longer go anywhere without hearing some guy (again, it's always a guy) proudly, arrogantly pontificating his uneducated, mundane view of movies.
 
And as they've multiplied, they've also highjacked a few estimable and essential movie sites. Suddenly, the CCJ had an audience - an audience of other Js - to soak up their lame pontifications.  To demonstrate their credentials, they often self-consciously invoke the names of Kael, Sarris, Agee and Thomson, while also demonstrating (inadvertently) they have learned absolutely nothing from Kael, Sarris, Agee and Thomson.  They've simply read the same critiques that many of us have read.

Lately, some CCJ's members who have never worked as critics or had a single byline in a newspaper or a magazine, identify themselves as film historians which, I guess, gives the desired impression of credibility.

And, please, don't get me started on the creepy narcissism that has infested many movie sites and the CCJ members who patronize them. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

cinema obscura: a robert preston double-bill


Preston with his wife Catherine Craig

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," the fabulous Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version - a performance which should have earned him at least an Oscar nomination but didn't.

But the Meredith Willson musical did provide him with an awesome second act.  Preston went on to do the fine work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough" Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two Blake Edwards titles, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B."

But, today, I am more interested in the two titles that bookended his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two plays, both films apparently now lost.
Delbert Mann's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960)

There are those who thought that the great playwright William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film, "The Stripper" and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge played the small role of of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Teresa Wright, Pat Hingle and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 Warner Bros. film, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, starred Preston in the Pat Hingle role, along with Dorothy McGuire (above with Preston)  and Eve Arden, taking the Wright and Heckart parts, along with Angela Lansbury and a young Shirley Knight, an Oscar nominee for her performance.

Preston was great as always in this and in ... "All the Way Home." 

Alex Segal's "All the Way Home" (1963)

This piece has something of a legendary history. Based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family," it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The play examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal, starred Preston as the father, Jean Simmons as his wife (above with Preston and Michael Kearney, below with Preston), Pat Hingle as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role played on Broadway by John Megna, a child actor best known for his role as Dill in the film, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Philip H. Reisman Jr. did the adaptation for this most affecting film.

"All the Way Home" was also filmed twice for televison - first in 1971 with Fred Coe direcing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle in a teleplay adaptation by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann, starred William Hurt, Sally Field and Ned Beatty. Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. (Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.)


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

character counts: barbara nichols

Barbara Nichols (1929-1976) - Our all-time favorite brassy, sassy, big-mouthed '50s blonde, hands-down
 
character counts - This is a new recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors, addressing them by their names.  Which too few of us know, even dedicated cinéphiles.

One of the fleeting pleasures of watching '50s movies is the occasional date with Barbara Nichols, not so much one of the many blonde bombshells (and Marilyn-wannabes) who drifted, rather languidly, throughout the decade but a first-rate supporting performer and team player. Fox had its CinemaScope trademark blonde, Monroe, in its stable (keeping Sheree North and Jayne Manfield on hold for whenever MM acted up) and Columbia had Judy Holliday and Kim Novak playing different degrees of blonde and dumb. But on the fringe, working free-lance, were such names as Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Britain's Diana Dors and ...

Barbara Nichols.

Of the bunch, Nichols came across as the toughest and most likable. She was the Damon Runyon blonde - brassy, sassy and resplendent with her Brooklyn accent - among the more machine-tooled bottle blondes.

Her big year was 1957 when she played the poignant role of Rita in Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," the wise-cracking Gladys Bump in George Sidney's "Pal Joey" and Poopsie in Stanley Donen and George Abbott's "The Pajama Game." Other roles came - Philip Dunne's "Ten North Frederick" (1958) with Gary Cooper; Raoul Walsh's "The Naked and the Dead" (also '58) with Aldo Ray; Sidney Lumet's "That Kind of Woman" (1959) with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter, and Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960), with Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and fellow bomshell Lansing (playing her sister, no less), along with bits with Robert Cummings (and Lansing again) on "The Bob Cummings Show"/"Love That Bob" sitcom.

Her scratchy, chalk-on-a-blackboard voice fueled these films and made most of them memorable, but sexpots, like dancers, usually don't age well. By the 1960s, Nichols was left with guest roles on TV series, although she had something of a personal triumph on Broadway in Ray Evans-Jay Livingston's "Let It Ride," starring George Gobel and Sam Levene - a 1961 musical version of Mervyn LeRoy's 1936 film, "Three Men on a Horse," in which Levene recreated his original role.

She died young - at age 46 - in 1976.
Nichols with Janet Leigh (center, natch) and Joi Lansing in Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960)

Friday, March 13, 2015

façade: charlton heston, farceur?


 
"On screen, Mr. Heston parted the Red Sea in 'The Ten Commandments,' drove the Moors from Spain in 'El Cid,' painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy,' baptized Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' and gave him a drink of water in 'Ben-Hur.'

"And on the seventh day, Mr. Heston did not rest."


-Carrie Rickey

I can't top that. Frankly, I have nothing to add to what Carrie wrote.

Except for one observation.

In his long, 50-year Hollywood career, Heston made a lot of films, close to 100 (not counting his television appearances), but they were heavily dramatic and most of them period/costume pieces - Biblical epics, Westerns and such.


But to the best of my knowledge, Heston has only only two - count 'em - two comedies on his resumé: Jerry Hopper's "The Private War of Major Benson" (1955) and Melville Shavelson's "The Pigeon That Took Rome" (1962) and, in both, he played military men.

In "The Private War of Major Benson," he's a career soldier given a choice after mouthing off once too often to higher-ups: He will be drummed out of the Army, or he can keep his stripes if he takes command of - and shapes up - the ROTC program at a boys' academy. The Universal film, which was remade as Damon Wayan's "Major Payne" in 1995, would have been better suited to the talents of Glenn Ford.


"The Pigeon That Took Rome" cast Heston as another American soldier, this one behind Italian lines in World War II, who uses carrier pigeons fitted with messages to communicate the movements of the Germans - and who grows more and more in love with the daughter of the local family with which he's residing.

The ever-reliable Harry Guardino co-starred, handling most of the film's comedy, and Elsa Martinelli was Heston's love interest, whose father (Salvatore Baccaloni) fouls things up by cooking the pigeons for a family dinner.

The film is a little reminiscent of the military comedy that Jack Lemmon made with Richard Quine in 1957, "Operation Mad Ball," and in fact would have been a better fit with Lemmon.

That's not an original opinion. At the time of the release of "The Pigeon That Took Rome," Heston himself opined that it would have been better with Lemmon.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

cronenberg's brilliant mash-up...

credit: moveorama magazine

At the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, where she won the Best Actress award for her performance in "Still Alice," Julianne Moore referenced some of the unorthodox films she's made in her acceptance/thank-you speech.

"I also wish to thank my professional partners  - the people who have supported every weird choice I’ve ever made,” she smiled.

The audience laughed, thinking she was joking.  After all, at first glance, Moore seems to have exhibited unstinting good taste in her choice of roles, films and directors. But that's not entirely true.  And she wasn't kidding.

Moore has made quite a few curious career decisions, appearing in titles that one would not readily associate with her but that, from where I sit, have made her a stronger, more interesting, more complete actress.

I'll detail some of these choices in a bit, but first, her latest curiosity commands too much attention to be kept waiting: David Cronenberg's brilliant (but difficult-to-recommend) "Maps to the Stars," a delirious mash-up of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "All About Eve" in its delineation of show business in general and moviemaking in particular.

Coming on the heels of "Still Alice" (one of those inspirational art-house films lacquered in good taste but essentially "trivial," as The New Yorker's Richard Brody nailed it), "Maps to the Stars" diabolically creates a shot of culture shock and calls on Moore to give her bravest performance.

Cronenberg is in full enfant terrible mode here, with his game star doing a delicious variation on Bette Davis' Baby Jane Hudson as Havana Segrand, a desperate, washed-up film actress whose frustration with her moribund career has left her a bit more than unhinged and without any boundaries.

While Robert Aldrich's Jane Hudson, a forgotten film star (by way of the Orpheum circuit) built up a competitive resentment of her more successful sister, Blanche, Havana is obsessed with her iconic mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon, in flashbacks) - and with starring in a sort of remake of one of the mother's beloved classics.

Both Jane and Havana have tired of living in the shadow of a more talented relative. In Havana's case, the "remake" is actually a movie about the making of her mother's hit - with Havana playing her mother.

 credit: focus world

"Maps to the Stars" veers into "All About Eve" territory when Havana decides she needs a "chore whore" and hires the weirdly innocent Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), who gets the job after "meeting" Carrie Fisher on Twitter.  Weiss' Eve Harrington ultimately unleashes Havana's vindictive Margo Channing personality, prompting bad behavior that Moore plays to the hilt. Moore is nothing less than complicit with Cronenberg's deranged vision here and plays one particularly memorable sequence atop a toilet where Havana is battling constipation (replete with the usual rude sounds) as she barks a list of needs (including a laxative) to Agatha.

The scene ends with Moore, fanning the air: "It smells in here!"
                                                                                                
As if this much toxicity isn't enough, Cronenberg ups the ante by introducing Agatha's estranged - and very strange - family.  There's her younger brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), the beastly 13-year-old star of the franchised “Bad Babysitter” sensation; their father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack, extraordinarily creepy), a self-help healer/quack, and his sister-wife, Christina (Olivia Williams).  Yes, Stafford and Christina are indeed siblings.  This gruesome twosome, along with Havana's long-gone mother who sexually abused her as a child, symbolize the insidious incestuousness, in its many forms, that permeates the movie biz.

The representatives of show business that loiter in "Maps to the Stars" are decidedly not as lovable as the flawed denizens of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" - and it's become rather apparent that neither movie people nor movie critics are ready to accept Cronenberg's film, which was designed to provoke discomfort, as easily as they embraced Iñárritu's. 

Much like Paul Thomas Anderson's willfully quirky "Inherent Vice" of last year, "Maps to the Stars" is not for the middlebrow, meaning the majority of moviegoers and movie critics among us.  But who cares about the majority?  These are two of the most exciting and vital movies in ages.
credit: nicole rivelli/cinedigm © 2013

Now, back to the singular Julianne Moore and those "weird" choices she referenced at the SAG awards. Starting with the most recent, they are...
  • "Seventh Son" - Nonsense about a line of seven sons whose fate is to protect their hamlet from evil spirits.  It reunited Moore with her "Big Lebowski" co-star, Jeff Bridges
  • "The Hungar Games: Mockingjay (Part One) -  In which Moore plays the President.  Part two is imminent.
  • "Non-Stop" - One of Liam Neeson's old-guy avenger flicks.
  • "Carrie" - Kimberly Pierce's bizarrely bad remake of the Brian DePalma classic.  With Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz in the leads, it seemed perfect - on paper.
  • "The English Teacher" - A fine, if minor, little film about Moore's educator in an uneasy relationship with a former student, a failed playwright. The ace supporting cast includes reliable Greg Kinnear (above with Moore), Nathan Lane, Jessica Hecht, John Hodgman and Norbert Leo Butz.
  • "6 Souls" - Moore as a psychologist tending to a patient with multiple personalities, some of whom have been murder victims. Directed by Mårlind & Stein.
  • "Next"- A Nicolas Cage vehicle with the star as a Las Vegas magician-physic who teams with the FBI to prevent a terrorist attack.
  • "Freedomland" - An actioner that teams Moore with Samuel L. Jackson.
  • "Hannibal" - A "class" horror film, given its pedigree (star Anthony Hopkins, director Ridley Scott, writers David Mamet and Steve Zallian), that made barely a blip.
  • "Assassins" - In which director Richard Donner wedged Moore between Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas.
  • "Nine Months" - A John Hughes remake (directed by Chris Colombus) of a French comedy which pairs Moore with Hugh Grant.
  • "Roommates" - With an aged Peter Falk as an irascible old coot.
  • "The Ladies Man." A Tim Meadows comedy.
  • "Body of Evidence" - The Madonna film.
Weird choices?  Perhaps.  But no one can accuse Julianne Moore of being an elitist. And then there are those estimable titles which, for whatever reason, don't bring Julianne Moore to mind -"Don Jon,"  "The Fugitive," "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," "I'm Not There," "Laws of Attraction," "Surviving Picasso" and "An Ideal Husband."

The films that we do associate with Moore - and there are dozens - far outweigh those that the star herself describes as "weird."

Weird?  No, the word to use is "adventurous." 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

cherbourg vs. les miz

When Tom Hooper’s film of the cult pop opera, ”Les Misérables,”opened in 2012, much was made of the fact that all the singing was done "live," no pre-recording or subsequent lip-syncing by his game cast.

But Hooper really had no other option.  Except for a few lines of dialogue here and there, the film was near-literally all-singing.  His movie - or rather its players - could not withstand 158 minutes of lip-syncing.

Hooper's decision to have his cast sing everything "live" was praised not only as gutsy, but also as a first.  Not true.  Film musicals in the 1930s routinely had "live" singing, and as late as 1975, Peter Bogdanovich had his ”At Long Last Love” cast do the same thing for the film's entirety.

Doris Day sang all her songs live in 1957's "The Pajama Game" and, in 1962, Mervyn LeRoy shot two back-to-back ”Gypsy” numbers "live" - Rosalind Russell's "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" (one of the few songs in the film in which Russell did her own singing) and Natalie Wood's "Little Lamb" (a song that was later recorded for the film's soundtrack album).

As impressive as this is, more awesome is what director Jacques Demy achieved in 1964 with "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"). Like "Les Miz," Demy's film is all-singing.  But none of it was done "live."  The songs were all pre-recorded, which meant that Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo and company had to lip-sync every scene. I can't imagine the process being anything less than arch and cumbersome.

Of course, Demy's film isn't bloated.  It runs a trim 91 minutes. Perhaps also at 91 minutes, "Les Miz" would have been pre-recorded, too.

Demy passed in 1990 and I've no idea if his approach to filming "Cherbourg" has ever been documented in an interview.  Perhaps this information is buried in some old edition of Cahiers du cinema. 

It's something I'd like to read.

"Cherbourg."  "Les Miz."   Both are all-singing features (with scattered dialogue) and classic movies. But which one was more difficult to film?

Any opinions?