Friday, December 30, 2016

a postscript

I've been remiss. I forgot to mention among the references to Jacques Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochfort" in my essay on Damien Chazelle's ”La La Land” that there is a wonderful documentary made by Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25").  The film, which I saw back in 1993 at the Mill Valley Film Festival, details the return of some of the film's stars, including Catherine Deneuve, and crew to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later. It's an especially poignant documentary, given that three principals involved in the film - Demy, Gene Kelly and Deneuve's sister, Françoise Dorléac - were all long gone by the time of the tribute.

Monday, December 26, 2016

an "occasional musical" and its clueless admirers

Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate ©
 Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform for Damien Chazelle's camera

Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is an odd film of significant charm and flashes of brilliance. It is being sold, rather bravely, as a musical and I reference its courage because the musical genre hasn't been appreciated, understood or desired, for several decades now, by the moviegoing public or even critics (who one would expect to have open, adventurous minds).

Actually, it should be noted that "La La Land" is a musical occasionally.  Sometimes, it remembers that it's a song-and-dance film and, at other times, it seems to forget.  That's part of its laid-back, unrushed, fizzy charm. And this curious quality - seemingly both deliberate and dreamy - is what makes it uncommon among modern films, musical or otherwise.

Chazelle works with only six songs here - which seems like barely enough to carry a self-promoted "musical" - but he's creative with them, playfully extending two or three into lengthy productions while limiting others with a scratch-pad casualness and brevity. Sometimes, only a few bars are sung.

His film has been embraced almost unanimously by the critics, deservedly so, but for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself.  It's been compared by more than one reviewer to "Singin' in the Rain," which is odd given that the two films have little in common apart from the fact that they both contain song and dance performed against a movietown backdrop.

"Singin' in the Rain," co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and released by MGM in 1952, has become the easy, rather convenient go-to musical for contemporary critics, even though one suspects that these same critics probably would have dismissed it as inconsequential in '52.

Also: "La La Land" can't be realistically compared to any American musical because, well, it isn't really American.  It's French (although spoken and sung in English, of course).  It's inspiration is the work of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, its specific template clearly being Demy's 1967 creamy sundae-of-a-musical, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort"), featuring songs by Michel Legrand. Both move to a light, lilting jazz score, and "La La Land" also pays homage to Legrand with orchestrations that are lush with violins, flutes, accordians, concertinas and xzylophones.

The music (even the background mood music) in Chazelle's film swirls, unlike that of any other American movie musical within memory. Justin Hurwitz composed the Legrand-like music for "La La Land" and Ben Pasek and Justin Paul contributed the film's quick, clever conversational lyrics.

The French musical is something of an acquired taste, not always easy to consume and enjoy. "The Young Girls of Rochfort," a rare exception, goes down relatively easy, but I always found Demy's much-admired 1964 film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"), a challenge to sit through.  Although "La La Land" follows the contours of its inspirations, it has none of the archness of its French counterparts.

Somehow, Chazelle manages to surmount that problem (although certain moviegoers, especially non-fans of the musical, may still be annoyed). 

His sprawling opening number, "Another Day of Sun," choreographed by Mandy Moore on the Los Angeles I-405 Freeway and performed by an ensemble of 100 singers and dancers, seems gratuitous and unrelated to the film that follows, but it is absolutely crucial to setting its tone:

We're not in Los Angeles anymore, Toto.  We're in Rochfort.

The plot that kicks in is about two show-business careerists who meet cute (well, sort of) on the 405, and the film then seesaws back and forth between the ambitions of the girl, a hopeful actress named Mia (Emma Stone), and those of the boy, a frustrated musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), while also fooling around with chronology as it also goes back and forth in time.

To make ends meet, Mia works as a barista in the café on the Warner Bros. backlot, where one the buildings has the word "Parapluies" written on it, a reference of course to "Les parapluies de Cherbourg," whose plot is echoed in Mia and Sebastian's knotty relationship.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling complement each other perfectly, with Stone playing it hyper with raw nerves showing and Gosling shielding his character's insecurities with self-aware cool. And so, given these character dynamics, it makes sense musically that Mia nervously flirts with a song or belts it out, as in her showstopper "Audition" ("The Fools Who Dream"), while Sebastian simply croons, lightly and quietly, flirting with his songs in a different way, as he does with "City of Stars," the reprise of which is sort of a musical doodle. Both songs are sung live; others are lip-synced.

"La La Land" doesn't completely ignore the American film musical, memorably quoting two. Sebastian's scenes performing in various small, dimly-lighted, smokey clubs subtly evoke the moment when Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (Warner Bros., 1955), while an elaborate, painterly fantasy sequence late in the movie reimagines what can only be the dream ballet in the Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly collaboration, "An American in Paris" (MGM, 1951).


All of the film, but especially the fantasy sequence, has been given a luscious glow by cinematographer Linus Sandgrew. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane commented, "It looks so delicious that I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to watch it or lick it." Sandgrew employed the old CinemaScope process for this oaccasion and Los Angeles has never looked more inviting. I feel precisely the same way about the movie itself.

FYI: Catherine Deneuve stars in three of Jacques Demy's musicals.  In addition to the aforementioned  "Les parapluies de Cherbourg" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (which also starred Deneuve's late sister, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly), there's 1970's "Donkey Skin" ("Peau d'âne").  Demy also directed Yves Montand in 1988's marvelously titled backstage musical, "Three Tickets for the 26th" ("Trois places pour le 26").


Notes in Passing: Given the role that Warner Bros. plays in the film (Nicholas Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause" is also referenced), it's a bit of a surprise that Warners didn't snap up the film's distribution rights.

Lionsgate is releasing "La La Land."

Also, two - count 'em - two soundtrack albums from "La La Land" have been released - one devoted to the film's song score and one to its background music.  This isn't a first, however. David Byrne's new-style film musical from three decades ago, ”True Stories” (Warner Bros., 1986), also had an album of mood music and another with songs.

The latter, however, was not from the soundtrack. All the songs on it are performed by Byrne and The Talking Heads. The actor-singers in the film included John Goodman and Annie McEnroe. Byrne's film remains new-style even 30 years later.  It's terrific and worth seeking out.  That said,  I'm still waiting for an authentic soundtrack album from it.

Well, one can hope, right?

Finally, a delayed added postscript: I've been remiss. I forgot to mention the wonderful documentary made by Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25") - which details the remaining cast (including Deneuve) and crew of "The Young Girls of Rochfort" returning to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

indelible moment: "Scrooge" (1970)

One of the most delightfully perverse moments in movie-musical history is performed early on in "Scrooge," Ronald Neame's 1970 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with songs by Leslie Bricusse.

In it, Albert Finney, so obviously relishing the role of Ebenezer, lurches through the streets of London, scowling at passersby and declaring in rhyme (courtesy of Bricusse's intricate, socially incorrect wordplay): 

"Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men
Reaping rich rewards
Contaminating everything they see
Corrupting honest men like me!"

"Humbug! Poppycock! Balderdash! Bah!," Finney/Scrooge declares before breaking into Bricusse's marvelously demented song, "I Hate People," whose lyric sounds even more deranged when seen on paper. Or in this case, on computer screen.  Happy Holidays?  Indeed. Here goes...

"I hate people!
I hate people!
People are despicable creatures
Loathesome, inexplicable creatures
Good-for-nothing, kickable creatures
I hate people!
I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses
Gulping ale from indolent glasses
I hate people!
I detest them!
I deplore them!
Fools who have no money but spend it
Get in debt, then try to end it
Beg me on their knees to befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them
Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of no interest to me
I hate people!
I loathe people!
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see
Little wonder I hate people
And I don't care if they hate ... me!"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Philly's Own!

Did you know that Bradley Cooper was born in Philadelphia and grew up nearby in Jenkintown and Rydal?  Or that Tina Fey is from Upper Darby? Or that Kevin Bacon's name should always be prefaced by ... Philly's Own?

Well, you would if you live in Philadelphia or anywhere close to the place because the paper of record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, has become obsessed with pointing out such information, ad infinitum, in reviews, interviews or any other pieces of scintillating journalism involving a celebrity with a local connection, even if the connection is tenuous. Aubrey Plaza is from Wilmington. Taylor Swift is from Wyomissing.  And Will Smith and Lee Daniels and David Lynch and Seth Green are all ... Philly's Own!

Why, I'm sure Meryl Streep even crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge once. That counts, right? I mean, she would qualify even though she's from, well, Summit, New Jersey. Jersey is a suburb of Philadelphia, isn't it?

I know, I know - I'm being snarky.  But I just don't understand this brand of unbridled pride. Do the paper's readers really care and do they have to be informed, over and over again, that Cooper was born in Philadelphia?

Lately, the Inky (as it is know locally) has been especially keen on promoting the local connection of "Ardmore's (and Friends Central's) own Benj Pasek" who penned the lyrics with his writing partner Justin Paul for the six songs in Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," yet the latest attempt to revive that eternally misunderstood genre, the movie musical.

Every piece - and there have been several of them - have referenced this.  The connection has been shoehorned even into wire stories written by non-Inquirer reporters. And exacerbating this rather tacky bit of hometown chauvinism is the fact that the person who wrote the music for "La La Land" is never mentioned.  That would be Justin Hurwitz who (no surprise) isn't from Philadelphia and who attended Harvard (with his friend Chazelle), rather than the University of Pennsylvania. Bad form.

For the sake of full disclosure, I hasten to note that my second newspaper job was in Philadelphia.  It is more than 30 years since I worked there but even then, there was this outsized pride in the place.  Case in point: When Grace Kelly died, it wasn't enough to run an obit or an appreciation.  No, there had to be a separate pullout - about a dozen pages celebrating a movie star who made only a handful of films, half of them negligible, and who was competent at best as an actress. But she was Philly royalty, see?

And then there's "Rocky," a solid little film that has been transformed locally into a work of art as significant as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

An editor - a carpetbagger brought in from out of town to tweak the features section - once theorized that the incessant bragging was probably the result of Philadelphia being situated between Washington, D.C. and New York in more ways than one - that there was this desperate need to either call attention to itself or forever live in the shadows of N.Y. and D.C.

So, is this kind of horn-blowing a part of New Journalism or is Philly unique?  I'm not sure.  It may be routine in other cities as well.  I don't regularly access the sites to papers in Boston or Chicago, for example.  However, I do know I've never seen "hometown references" in either The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post.  And when I worked in Northern California, I certainly was not expected to mention that Tom Hanks was a local boy in any of my reviews of his films.

But I am more than aware that Kat Dennings is from Bryn Mawr, and that Alan Goldberg (creator of TV's "The Goldbergs") is from Jenkintown and that, yes, Blythe Danner and Bob Saget are also two of  ... Philly's Own!

Compulsively so.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

reducing "hairspray" to a limp, joyless spritz

The bad timing and general pointlessness of NBC's unnecessary live production of the musical comedy "Hairspray" was exacerbated by arch, curiously lax staging.  More about the bad timing later.  More about the show's lethargy now.  This "Hairspray" was as middle-aged as the extras hired to play high-school students in the background and the dances.

It takes a lot of dubious, misguided decisions to level what should be a surefire show but NBC managed to check off just about all of them. Which is odd, given that the network got off to such a spectacular start with its 2013 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," a production which honored the show as originally written, restoring two fine numbers that were excised from the Disney-fied 1965 TODD-AO film.

But the success of "The Sound of Music" cornered the network into a rather rigid "family friendly" formula - musicals that appeal to kids, teens and their parents exclusively.  There's no place here for something like "Sweet Charity" or a Sondheim work.  Instead, we got the deadly "Peter Pan" in 2014 (a production that, seemingly, has impacted the career of its miscast star, Allison Williams) and a forgettable version of "The Wiz" in 2015.  What's next for the kids?  "Oliver!"? Yet another "Annie"?

Predictably, the announced production for 2017 will be "Bye Bye Birdie," a (teen-driven) show that has already been the basis of an inferior but wildly popular 1963 film version and an especially terrific 1995 TV version.

There's an expression for this - can you say creative bankruptcy?

In the meantime, the Fox network entered the picture earlier this year and raised the bar considerably with a jaw-droppingly excellent version of "Grease" performed before a live audience (a conceit that NBC appropriated for "Hairspray") and with a youthful enthusiasm that's been glaringly absent from the (again, middle-aged) NBC musicals.

If the consummate, immediate goal is to attract young audiences, a degree of youthfulness is an obvious necessity.  Instead, "Hairspray Live" (as it is officially titled) delivered about 2¼ hours of forced fun.

I can't readily comprehend the reason for NBC's "Hairspray," as the material was the basis of Adam Shankman's exceptionally good film version (the definitive "Hairspray") which played cineplexes as recently as 2007 - a production that benefited strongly from Leslie Dixon's textbook example of exactly how to adapt a cartoon-like play into a credible movie.

Adhering close to the stage book, "Hairspray Live" seemed rickety, devoid of the kind of solid foundation that supported the '07 film, something which affected its performances which were scattered all over the place.

On paper, the peerless Kristen Chenoweth (a musical comedy treasure) and the ever-reliable Martin Short (who can do anything) both seemed letter-perfect for their roles, but performances which should have worked with ease were undermind by either the TV script or simply bad direction.

Jennifer Hudson, strangely cast as the mother of a high-school student (she looked younger than her TV son), has a knockout singing voice but precious little "presence"in this production and even less of the kind of powerhouse personality that her role required.  She also has the disadvantage of being compared to Queen Latifah who nailed the role in the Shankman film. Whatever, her performance lacked a necessary heft.

Having seen Harvey Fierstein in the stage version of "Hairspray" - and having a rocking good time watching him - I anticipated the same fun.  But it became clear that the kind of broad playing that marked Fierstein's stage performance works well only in the artificial setting of a theater.  It can't hold up under the close, relentless scrutiny of a camera.

There's a reason why Carol Channing was never considered for the films of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and 'Hello, Dolly!" or Ethel Merman for the movie version of "Gypsy." It would have been too much.  (Full Disclosure: I'm seriously dating myself here, but as a kid, I saw Merman in the original production and, yes, even on stage, she was too much.)

Anyway, in retrospect, John Travolta's decision to eschew even a hint of camp in his performance in the theatrical film was an astute one.

Then there's Maddie Baillio, the newcomer selected for the lead role that was played with such effortless pluck and sincerity by Nikki Blonsky opposite Travolta.  Baillio has a fine voice but, as an actress, she is (how can I put this?) - well - fairly vacant.  And while Hudson seemed too young for her role, Baillio looked too old to play a teenager.  But then just about every teenager in this production looked too old.  I have to ask: Why not cast the show with real teenagers?  There are certainly plenty of them out there.

An unctous Darren Criss was brought in to serve as on-screen host, an assignment that Mario Lopez pulled off so handily for Fox's "Grease Live."  Despite his yelping and fawning, Criss was an unconvincing cheerleader.

On the plus side, there was Ariana Grande who exhibited impressive restraint, grace and a sense of team spirit in a good but frankly supporting role; Garrett Clayton, who brought a fascinating sexual ambiguity to the role of a high-school heart-throb, and best of all, Dove Cameron, who managed to make her mean girl both loathsome and button-cute.

Cameron is a naturally witty actress. Get this woman a lead role already!

On the production side, the choreography by the estimable Jerry Mitchell was a decided disappointment, surprisingly rigid and jerky, rather than what the show's breezy score would inspire - liberating and free-flowing.

As for NBC's timing in airing "Hairspray," that was unavoidable, since these shows are announced and go into pre-production a full year before airing. For all its frivolity, "Hairspray" is an ardent plea for diversity, with the dance floor used as a level playing field for people of all color.  It indicts the racism which has been revived in recent years and has become disturbingly rampant in the past few months.  Compared to the racist venom and bile that have become routine in society and regularly covered by the media (always in lip-smacking detail), the crucial message behind "Hairspray" now seems weak, facile and, sadly, a little futile.  It's like using a pretty little pink Band-Aid to try and cover an ugly, festering sore.

That said, I have to admit that I was amused by the ads for some vintage products (Nilla Wafers!) that are rarely advertised on TV these days. A very clever touch. Also, the telecast restored a familiar line borrowed from another show, "Gypsy," that wasn't used in the Shankman-Dixon film - "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," given a famously iconic reading by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film of "Gypsy" and spoken in this production by Ariana Grande. (There's another "Gypsy" line quoted in one of "Hairspray's" lyrics - "Momma's gotta let go!," from the rousing "Rose's Turn" finale).

Note in Passing: During the telecast, NBC promoted its next live musical - "Bye Bye Birdie," starring Jennifer Lopez (although it sounded like it used Ann-Margret's voice singing the title song written for the awful '63 movie).  This seemed way too premature.  Anything can happen in a year. It reminded me of the 2004 Tony Awards telecast.  Nicole Kidman was a presenter and the announcer introduced her as "the star of the upcoming film of 'The Producers'."  Well, when "The Producers" went into production a few months later, it was without Nicole Kidman.  She dropped out and Universal lost one of its big selling/marketing points.  Uma Thurman, almost as big a star as Kidman, came in and took over the role.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a feline critic reviews hitchcock's "psycho"


Found this marvelous little piece on You Tube, credited to RM Videos.  I've no idea if it was staged or altered or if the darling little cat is even watching "Psycho" or the election coverage at the time of the posting.

Doesn't matter. It's purrfect. (Sorry about that.)
 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

façade: richard fleischer

Although never fully appreciated in his lifetime, filmmaker Richard Fleischer does have a loyal cult following. And with good reason.

Actually several good reasons. And they are ... "The Narrow Margin" and "The Happy Time" (both 1952), "Violent Saturday" and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (both 1955), "The Vikings" (1958), "Compulsion and "These Thousand Hills" (both 1959), "Barabbas" (1962), "The Boston Strangler" (1968), "10 Rillington Place" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973) "Mandingo" (1965) and "Tough Enough" (1983).

Fleischer, of the famed Fleischer dynasty ("Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Koko the Clown"), directed about 50 films in his lifetime, most of which tended to come in under the radar, despite their accomplishments, and were given left-handed references at best by the critics during his lifetime.

He died at age 90 in 2006, about six months before Robert Altman passed.  But Fleischer never commanded attention as an auteur, as Altman did.  At the time of their deaths, my mind was filled with elusive thoughts about how much I admired (and perhaps overrated) Altman when I was a young Turk - and how I too often took Fleischer for granted as so many other critics had.

That could be because Fleischer didn't make the same movie over and over again, à la Altman.

Altman's chatty ensemble films all began to seem like undisguised variations on each other, while each Fleischer film, even the disposable, inferior ones, showcased the filmmaker's knack for trying different things, different genres - to change and keep growing.

I mean, Altman's "Nashville" and "A Prairie Home Companion" may have been separated by 30 years, but they could have been made back-to-back. (I like them both, however, and think that "Prairie" is an especially effective rumination on death.)

But enough about Altman. I am here to praise Richard Fleischer - and not at the expense of another filmmaker - and reminisce about all the joy he gave me.

A Richard Fleischer Film Festival would be incomplete without such idiosyncratic titles as "The Girl in the Red Swing" with Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit, "These Thousand Hills" (1959), a fine Western with Don Murray and Lee Remick, "The Last Run" (1971), a crime flick with George C. Scott; the nifty "Soylent Green, "The Incredible Sarah" (1976) with Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Massey as Victorien Sardou, and "Tough Enough," an engaging Dennis Quaid boxing film.

And in a league by itself is Fleischer's sublime anti-Biblical epic, "Barabbas," with the perfectly cast Anthony Quinn in the title role.

If I had to pick what I think is the best Fleischer, it would be "10 Rillington Place," the third side of Fleischer's first-rate crime trilogy that also includes "Compulsion" (1959) and "The Boston Strangler" (1968), both equally fine films. But for what it's worth, "Rillington" is my hands-down favorite Fleischer.

One of those rare crime thrillers that is not only frightening but genuinely unnerving and disturbing, Fleischer's movie stars Richard Attenborough in a thoroughly creepy performance as John Christie, a muderer who posed as a doctor, performing illegal abortions and going a step further by drugging, raping and then strangling his patients. He murdered eight women in London between 1940 and 1953.

John Hurt (and never did a name fit an actor so well) matches Attenborough every step of the way in a sadly wrenching performance as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie's victims, who is falsely accused of killing his wife (Judy Geeson) - while Christie stands by and watches his arrest.

"10 Rillington Place"is an award-worthy film.

And yet the only Fleischer title nominated for a best picture Oscar was, of all things, the original movie musical "Dr. Dolittle" (1967). Fleischer himself was not nominated. (Herbert Ross staged the musical numbers for him.) He was the only director of the five nominated films that year not to get a nod; his slot went to Richard Brooks for "In Cold Blood," which was not nominated for best picture that year.


Actually, "Dr. Dolittle" is much better than its unfairly tainted reputation suggests. The film expresses an urgently empathetic regard for animals and boasts a tricky, literate song score by Leslie Bricusse, one of whose numbers posits the nifty observation that "a veterinarian should be a vegetarian." And his "When I Look In Your Eyes" is one of the most affecting, heart-breaking love songs to grace any movie musical.

And given that title star Rex Harrison (pictured above with a game co-star) had already taught linguistics to a guttersnipe in "My Fair Lady," it seemed like a natural progression for him to ply his skills on ... animals.

For more on this unhearalded filmmaker, check out Dave Kehr's astute New York Times essay, "In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away," which was timed to coincide with a Fleischer tribute at New York's Film Forum in 2008.

Friday, November 04, 2016

indelible moment: Donen's "The Little Prince"

In the mid-1970s, Stanley Donen teamed up with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe - you know, the guys who did "My Fair Lady" - for a musical film based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry beloved gem, "The Little Prince"/"Le Petit Prince." The film was troubled given that the casting of The Pilot - Frank Sinatra, Gene Hackman, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Richard Burton were all suggested - proved gnawingly elusive.

Reliable Richard Kiley would play the role.

The resulting film ran a trim 88 minutes which was considered perfect in some quarters and suspect in others. Studio intervention? Hmmm. Donna McKechnie's role as The Rose seemed particularly truncated. But, overall, the movie is a tiny gem. Donen got it right, particularly in his casting of Bob Fosse as The Snake and, truly inspired, Gene Wilder as The Fox.

The film's stand-out moment is also the book's: It comes when Wilder, with his champagne-colored, fluffy hair and dressed in a handsome auburn suit, scurries about and stops in a field of wheat to intone:


                "It's only with the heart that one can see clearly.
                     What's essential, is invisible to the eye."

Lovely. And, yes, indelible.

Friday, October 28, 2016

the donald is no bill mckay...

...but he's errily like Crocker Jarman

Bill McKay, of course, is the young politician played by Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie's superbly harsh (and accurate) political farce, "The Candidate"  (1972), and Crocker Jarman, so smoothly played by Don Porter, is the entitled (and monied) incumbent McKay hopes to unseat.

And does.

Of course, Croker Jarman isn't the lead character in "The Candidate" and Donald Trump is unlikely to welcome the idea of being a supporting character in any movie, especially one directed by Oliver Stone.  I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Oliver Stone has yet to not announce any film devoted to Trump, so why do I think such a prospect is a sure thing?

Because it's irresistible, that's why.

So while I eagerly await a Stone movie titled "Trump" or "The Donald" or "Trump Fights Back" (the most ubiquitous newspaper headline of the past few weeks) or perhaps simply "H" (for huge), I'll concentrate on films and characters already available that are, well, Trump-esque. Here goes...


Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd" - This Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg classic remains absolutely prescient in its depiction of someone who, having become drunk on his status of being an unexpected media sensation, turns to politics in his quest for power.  No one can top Andy Griffin as this character, but I'm willing to see someone try. 

Gladys Glover in "It Should Happen to You" - Judy Holliday, perfect as a curiously ambitious, vacant young woman with no discernable talent of any kind, who becomes The Symbol of Nothing.  Say no more.

Chance in "Being There" - Peter Sellers, atypically restrained, as an idiot who speaks gibberish that everyone is ready to read as pure genius.

Raymond Shaw in "The Manchurian Candidate" - Laurence Harvey excelled as an outsider programmed to destroy a political party - only he destroys the wrong (the right?) one in the end.  His clueless acolytes, meanwhile, robotically chant, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" - OK, this one requires singing - or at least speak-singing as perfected by Robert Preston in both the stage and film versions of this musical.  Hill is a natural-born con man who twists facts and tells outright lies to convince less astute people that "There's trouble - right here in (fill in any place of your choice)!"

What about Hillary, you say?  Well, she's a much less flamboyant, easy-to-spoof figure.  But given that we live in a political culture obsessed with equal time, I'll toss you this one:

Tracy Flick in "Election" - And, yes, Stone can recruit Reese Witherspoon to reprise her role.

Note in Passing:  I'm disheartened to share the information that (1) James Stewart reportedly was offered the role of Crocker Jarman in "The Candidate" and turned it down and that (2) James Stewart reportedly turned it down because it reflected poorly on conservative politicians.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

doris & gig & shirley & dean

There are screen teams - and then there are screen teams.

My interest is in those teams who haven't been aknowledged as teams.

Per se.

Let's take Doris Day, as an example. She is most identified with Rock Hudson, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson and James Garner but she actually appeared in more films with ... Gig Young:

-Gordon Douglas's "Young at Heart" (1954)

-George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet" (1958)

-Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love" (1958)

-Delbert Mann's "That Touch of Mink" (1962).

These four titles would make a nice, tidy Saturday-afternoon film festival.


Then there's Shirley MacLaine, most closely linked with Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon.

Her most frequent co-star, however, was Dean Martin who shared seven - count 'em - seven films with her:

-Frank Tashlin's "Artists and Models" (1955)

-Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running" (1958)

-Joseph Anthony's "Career" (1959)

-Lewis Milestone's "Ocean's Eleven" (1960)

-Joseph Anthony's "All in a Night's Work" (1961)

-J. Lee Thompson's "What a Way to Go!" (1964)

-Hal Needham's "Cannonball Run 2" (1984).

And, oh yes, Shirley and Gig teamed up in Charles Walters' "Ask Any Girl" (1959).

From top to bottom:
Doris Day and Clark Gable prop up Gig Young in George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet"; Young and Elisabeth Fraser surprise Day and Richard Widmark in Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love"; Shirley and Dean team in "All in a Night's Work" and "Career," both directed by Joseph Anthony

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

indelible moment: "Sometimes a Great Notion"


Richard Jaekel's heartbreaking drowning/death in the 1972 film directed by and co-starring Paul Newman. Utterly unforgettable.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"


Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success"of 1957 is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played by the always surprising Martin Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

indelible moment: Jane Russell and the Olypmic Team in Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"


There have been a lot of great numbers in movie musicals but few have become as controversial as Jane Russell's "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" from Howard Hawks' 1953 loose adaptation of the Joseph Fields-Anita Loos 1949 stage play, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Jule Style and Leo Robin wrote the show's music and lyrics but this is not one of their compositions. It was an addition to the film version and Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson wrote it.  The song itself isn't that memorable. It's the staging of it that makes it soar - athletic, acrobatic choreography by the inimitable Jack Cole, with an Olympic team of bathing suit-clad men twirling, flexing, kicking, wrestling, somersaulting, diving and doing splits and other gymnastic feats as Russell makes advances to them.

I've no idea what reaction, if any, the number stirred back in '53 but for the past couple decades, it's been viewed as a wildly homoerotic spectacle, largely because of the skimpy bathing suits worn by Cole's dance troupe.

Skimpy?  Not really.  It was the norm for men to wear such bathing suits (and even Speedos) in the 1950s and '60s.  I've taken to calling those suits The Steve McQueen because the late actor was frequently seen wearing one. (That's Steve, to your left, posing with his first wife Neile Adams in 1963 and wearing a typical '60s bathing suit, much like those in the film.)

It's only in the past decade or so that, for some reason, guys have started wearing what looks like Bermuda Shorts with a 9" inseam for swimming and even for playing professional basketball.  (The new basketball gear, which resembles a short skirt, looks nothing like what Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore in their heyday.) Anyway, it's easy to see why the suits worn in the "Blondes" number cause culture shock these days.

BTW, the bald actor (below) playing the coach at the beginning of "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" is no actor but choreographer Cole. The "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" number was modeled after The Gladiators, a dance suite that Cole did with Rod Alexander and George Martin.
Note in Passing: John Branch wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's The New York Times that posits the theory that one of the appeals of watching the Olympics this year was the opportunity to see more skin and form-fitting gear as the contestants did their thing.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

cinema obscura: George Seaton's "Little Boy Lost" (1953)

George Seaton's hugely affecting "Little Boy Lost," one of the most impressive and personal films in star Bing Crosby's screen career, remains lost.  It is one of several black-&-white Paramount titles from the 1950s that have remained neglected on some shelf at the studio.


Shot on location in Paris in 1953 with a gritty feel for the place, Seaton's film - based on a novel of the same title by Marghanita Laski - is a wartime drama of dislocation, loss and regret, all of which are summed up in Crosby's poignant performance as Bill Wainwright, a star journalist - a major American correspondent (think Edward R. Murrow) stationed in Paris during World War II.

While there, he meets a singer Lisa Garret, played by Nicole Maurey, and they marry and have a son, named Jean.

Bill's work takes him to Dunkirk for a long stretch and, when he returns to Paris, neither his wife nor his little boy (Christian Fourcade) is there. Lisa has been murdered by the Nazis and Jean is homeless, stranded somewhere. Perhaps in an orphanage. After a stressful seach, that's exactly where Bill finds Jean but too much time has gone by.  He's uncertain if this Jean is his son or another sad little lost boy.

This remains a question that haunts Bill, one exacerbated by his grief over the loss of his wife. The boy needs a family.  Bill needs a son.  Does it matter that this little boy may not be his?  Writer-director Seaton is sensitive to this idea and his movie's resolution of it is entirely satisfying without ever pandering or being contrived.

 "Little Lost Boy" earns its tears.

And it certainly helps that the film feels more like a European production than a shiny big-studio effort - a quality that Seaton, as writer-director, brought to another compelling WW 2 film from Parmount, 1962's "The Counterfeit Traitor," starring William Holden and Lili Palmer.

Note in Passing: Crosby and Maury would be romantically teamed again seven years later in Blake Edwards' campus lark, "High Time" of 1960.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

eurotrash, american-style

Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures ©

I come, belatedly, to Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups" and Angelina Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" largely because it was impossible to see either of them in a theater.  Both received rather minimal, perfunctory, almost invisible releases, with scant publicity, and both were quickly whisked away by their handlers when no one showed up. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Both films are rather embarrassing and take a lot of patience, but neither is without a certain solipsistic charm. I rather like both because each one seemed to challenge/ignore Big Studio dictums about what would sell and what would play.  I doubt that either one was shown to a preview audience of moviegoers ruined by CGI superhero flicks. Still, neither is very good.

Both are also rather difficult to decipher.

Malick's is typical of the disposable "art" that he has been churning out for decades.  His first - and best - film, "Badlands" (1973) remains an oddity because it comes with such clarity and with a conventional narrative.  His second film, on the other hand - "Days of Heaven" - was a still life committed to film featuring actors who were not required to act.  That film, released in 1978, has served as a template for his oeuvre ever since.

In "Knight of Cups," Christian Bale stumbles around a very appealing Los Angeles and neighboring places in a fog for two hours.  Again, there's no acting, per se, even though the film has a huge cast - Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jason Clarke, Nick Offerman, Kevin Corrigan, Ryan O'Neal, Clifton Collins Jr., Dane DeHann, Fabio (!), Joe Manganiello and, if you blink you'll miss her, Cherry Jones.

Odd. Actors want to be in a Malick film even if they do nothing.

A paid vacation, I guess.

I had no idea what was going on.  The dialogue is either mumbled or muted.  Then, it hit me.  "Knight of Cups" is Malick's variation on Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," with Bale playing the same cynical, disillusioned character as Marcello Mastroianni did in Fellini's 1960 art-house epic. The trouble is, this kind of storytelling plays better with subtitles.

Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" is also a foreign-film wannabe. In this case, she's aping Claude Lelouch.  One makes the connection almost immediately, thanks to Gabriel Yared's Gallic music score and shots of Joie-Pitt (who wrote, as well as directed the film) cruising around the south of France in a benumbed state with her husband, Brad Pitt, behind the wheel of a swank little roadster.  Très charmant!

Anyway, something is clearly wrong with this marriage.  There are vague references to a dead baby or child and, when both become obsessed with the newlyweds (forever having intercourse) in the hotel room next to theirs, I half expected the film to turn into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966).  But Jolie-Pitt isn't playful enough to investigate that possiblity.

Instead, it turns into a rather bland domestic drama about a wife who thinks her husband drinks too much (and why wouldn't he?) while, self-deluded, she drinks just a much.  But I liked Jolie-Pitt's distracted, woozy performance here.  She's like a zombie here - not unlike Delphine Seyrig in  Harry Kümel's "Daughter of Darkness" (1971).

Both "Knight of Cups" and "By the Sea" are hugely amusing, albeit it's clear their makers didn't have that intention at all.

credit: Universal Pictures ©

Monday, August 29, 2016

cinema obscura: Robert Enders' "Stevie" (1978)

Jackson with Washbourne, wearing the flowered dress that Jackson's Stevie wittily describes as "they all came up."

Robert Enders' endearing "Stevie" (1978), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his West End stage play, is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt (who remains agreeably nameless throughout).

Yes, the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because Enders (a novice filmmaker at the time who worked largely as a producer) fills his movie with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.

Through all the talk we come to know Stevie and her emotional problems.

Intimately.

All of this is staged in a cozy cottage designed by John Lageu and photographed by Freddie Young with an eye for the prevading warmth of the central relationship and Stevie's work.

There's a third character on the periphery - Freddy, a close friend played on stage by Peter Eyre and in the film by Alec McGowen - as well a Stevie as a child (Emma Louise Fox) who appears in flashbacks, moments that were only spoken about on stage. The addition of the flashbacks, as well as a narrator for the film (courtesy of Trevor Howard's marvelously sonorous intonations), are the only filmic compromises made by Enders, whose fidelity to the piece's frail nature is remarkable and admirable.

"Stevie" remains the only film directed by Enders, who died in 2007. His film was picked up for American distribution by First Artists, a fledgling company which had a short life in the late 1970s and which had little faith in "Stevie." It opened the film for two weeks in Los Angeles in 1978 and then promptly shelved it. Two years later, when First Artists was long gone, Enders bought back his film and opened it on the East Coast in 1980, where it was a huge hit with the critics and art-house patrons.

Other limited engagements in other cities followed.

It was made available on home entertainment in Great Britain, but never here. "Stevie" remains a lost film.

Note in Passing: Because of her film's irregular release pattern, Jackson never received the Oscar nomination that she so fully deserved. But the Golden Globes honored her and Washbourne in 1979 and both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave the best actress and supporting actress awards to Jackson and Washbourne in 1981. Washbourne, who died in 1988 at age 84, was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 1978 as supporting actress.
* * *

"Not Waving but Drowning"

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

"Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning."


-Stevie Smith

Sunday, August 21, 2016

delusional soulmates

I've long been fascinated by the vagaries of film distribution - how some movies seem to emerge at the right time, commenting on a current situation, although it could have never been planned that way.

That occurred to me while watching Stephen Frears' hugely entertaining biopic of "Florence Foster Jenkins," a society matron whose love of classical music compelled her to attempt a late career as an opera singer, even though she had no real talent for it.  Meryl Streep - in another of her seemingly effortless bravura performances - plays Florence with both deep humor and compassionate dignity, and Hugh Grant - in a great, revelatory performance (arguably the best male performance of the year) - plays the husband who both encourages Florence in her futile fantasy and protects her from whatever harshness that might suppress that beloved fantasy.

The movie is about a delusional person being enabled by the people around her and I made the connection to Donald Trump whose current quest for presidency is also being nurtured by the people around him.  There are obvious differences between Florence and Donald, to be sure, but their delusions are similar, as are the enablers taking care of them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

cinema obscura: Richard Benner's "Happy Birthday, Gemini" (1980)

The late Richard Benner, who died in 1990, was a promising Canadian filmmaker who, for reasons unknown, directed only three movies.

He broke through in 1977 with the hugely entertaining "Outrageous!," a drag-queen farce driven by fine-tuned, yet comic, turns by the cross-dressing Craig Russell (who also died in 1990), the fetching Hollis McLaren, reliable Helen Shaver and the cult filmmaker Allan Moyle ("Pump Up the Volume" and "Empire Records"). A decade later, Benner made the less-successful sequel, "Too Outrageous!," and that was that.

End of film career; onward to TV, which also lasted only briefly.

In-between his two Russell farces, however, Benner made his best, most assured film - 1980's "Happy Birthday, Gemini," based on the Albert Innaurato stage comedy that was simply titled "Gemini" when it was staged off-Broadway twice within a year - first by Playwrights Horizons in December 1976 and then by the Circle Repertory in March 1977 - and again on Broadway in May 1977. To call Innaurato's piece "audience-friendly" was an understatment. It was irresistible, playing a whopping 1,819 performances on Broadway. Sigourney Weaver, Danny Aiello and Robert Picardo were among the cast in its various stage incarnations.

In those days, a successful stage comedy was automatically snapped up for the screen (not any more!) and when United Artists decided to film it, the project was handed to Benner on the basis of "Outrageous!"

Essentially a backyard comedy, set among row houses in South Philadelphia, "Happy Birthday, Gemini" revolves around the 21st birthday celebration of one Francis Geminiani - played on stage by Picardo and in the film by Alan Rosenberg - a gay kid who had the misfortune to grow up in a rough-hewn neighborhood. An antic comedy of manners ensues as various friends, relatives and neighbors crowd their way in, making a lot of arm-flailing, neurosis-revealing commotion.

These include Francis's father, Nick (Robert Viharo), and his girlfriend, Lucille (Rita Moreno); next-door neighbor Bunny Weinberger (Madeline Kahn) and her obese son Herschel (Timothy Jenkins), and Francis's classmates from Harvard, the twins Judith Hastings (Sarah Holcomb) and Randy Hastings (David Marshall Grant). It's like this - Sarah has a crush on Francis, who in turn has a crush on Randy.

Blessed with this pleasing cast, Benner almost effortlessly whipped up a most companionable film. The three young leads, all new at the time, are especially good. Rosenberg and Grant both went on to have modest acting careers in film and television, with Grant branching off into producing and writing and Rosenberg occasionally directing for TV. But one has to grieve the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Holcomb, who debuted in 1978 in "Animal House," had a commanding dramatic role in "Walk Proud" a year later, and was most fetching in "Caddyshack," made in 1980, the same year as "Gemini." Four films in three years and then ... nothing.  She apparently dropped out.  Where is Sarah Holcolmb? A major loss.

Anchoring the film with appropriately diva-like performances are Moreno and the late Kahn, both old pros whose bravura work here should have elevated Benner's pleasing little comedy to near-classic status. As a film, it certainly deserved as large an audience as its stage source attracted.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

façade: Judy Holliday

Judy and Dino played the Radio City Music Hall during the summer of 1960
The Museum of Modern Art remembers what Columbia Pictures (now enveloped by Sony) seems to have regrettably forgotten, namely that Judy Holliday was terrific - and bracingly idiosyncratic for a Movie Star.

Holliday was one of several companionable blondes who played and flirted with audiences during the 1950s.  No two were alike.  There was Marilyn, of course, the child-woman.  And Kim, the haunted blonde.  (No need for last names here, right?)  And Jayne and Mamie and Sheree, the latter brought in by Fox executives to keep Marilyn in line, a toxic decision that limited the talented Sheree North's career.  And then there was Judy, who was less sexualized than the others and, because of that, more accessible.

She also reflected a complicated comic styling, bringing affecting pathos to dialogue meant to be funny. Her singular line readings took her characters precariously close to being pathetic but her uncanny timing rescued her women, keeping their dignity intact and revealing them to be actually kind of smart.

No ditz she.

As a star, Holliday enjoyed a brief two-decade career, which ended prematurely in 1965.  She was 43 and she succumbed to breast cancer. Twenty years earlier, she replaced Jean Arthur during the out-of-town tryouts of the Garson Kanin comedy, "Born Yesterday" and subsequently starred in the 1950 Columbia Pictures film version, winning an Oscar.  As well as a Columbia contract.

The studio's head, Harry Cohn, initially had no interest in casting the untested Holliday in the film but Kanin and the film's director George Cukor convinced Cohn by first casting her in another collaboration.

That would be MGM's "Adam's Rib."

It was ingenious plan.  It worked. Holliday's scant film career consists of six Columbia titles bookended by two Metro films - Cukor and Kanin's aforementioned "Adam's Rib" in 1949 and Vincente Minnelli 's "Bells Are Ringing," based on the hit 1956 stage musical she headlined at the height of her stardom. The film version, released in 1960, was her final movie.

It is also her only film shot in color.  Judy Holliday was a black-&-white leading lady and the six films she made for Columbia come with a gray, overcast appeal, most of them filmed (or located) in a woozy New York of another time, a city that paired well with Holliday's distracted personality.

Given that she made only a half-dozen films for Columbia, it's disappointing that Sony has yet to combine those titles in a boxed DVD/BluRay set.  But for the time being, there's MoMA's Modern Matinees: Summer with Judy Holliday (curated by Anne Morra), which has been running since late July and continues through August 31st .

Judy & Jack Lemmon & New York in "It Should Happen to You"

At Columbia, between 1950 and 1956, Holliday worked with the venerable Cukor three times ("Born Yesterday," the prescient farce "It Should Happen to You" and the excellent dramedy "The Marrying Kind"); twice with Richard Quine, arguably Columbia's best house director ("The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life"), and Mark Robson (the eternally modern and sophisticated - and criminally underrated - "Phffft!").

"Bells Are Ringing," already presented on July 27th, screens again at Moma on August 12that 1:30 p.m.  I hope to be there.  It would be great to see this Minnelli musical on a big screen again.

It's a fascinating movie because one can sense that Minnelli was aware of changing moviegoer tastes and that, sadly, screen musicals were no longer a welcomed treat.  As an act of accommodation, Minnelli made some shrewd changes in the Adolph Green-Betty Condom-Jule Styne material (note his filming of the "I Met a Girl" number" and his reinvention of "Mu-Cha-Cha"), creating a new-style movie musical for its time.

I just wish Vincente had filmed it in black-&-white. You know, for Judy.

Who, by the way, had an IQ of 172. No ditz she.

Note in Passing:  While all of Holliday's Columbia films were shot in black-&-white, the final scene of Quine's "The Solid Gold Cadillac" was photographed in color, to accentuate the glittering title vehicle.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

woody reimages billy's "the apartment" - sort of

Woody Allen conferring with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in glorious color) on "Café Society" - and 56 years earlier ... 

... Billy Wilder conferring with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (in glorious black-&-white) on "The Apartment."  The connection?

In the hugely entertaining and affectionate “Café Society,” his 52nd or 53rd  film as a director (but who's counting?), Woody Allen addresses the element that has traditionally anchored Hollywood - the Jewish moguls.

Originally from the East Coast and only fitfully transplanted to the intoxicating, night-blooming jasmine environs of Los Angeles, these men influenced (and lived vicariously through) the movies that they produced.

Driven by a dream cast of largely young, contemporary actors, “Café Society” is another cleverly-drawn ensemble original by Allen but one with a teasing touch of déjà vu, honoring an earlier film and filmmaker.

But more about that later. 

Jesse Eisenberg (in the requisite Allen role) plays Bobby Dorfman, a nebbish who leaves the Bronx for the land of Oz.  That would be 1930s Hollywood, where his uncle, Phil Stern - played by the chameleon Steve Carell - is an agent-cum-producer who drops the names of stars like Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, and may even hang out with them.

Phil, his mother's brother, makes Bobby his gofer and puts him in the hands of his assistant, Vonnie (short for Veronica) - the ever-remarkable Kristen Stewart who looks absolutely fabulous in her vintage wardrobe (by Suzy Benzinger) and demonstrates the best slouch since Joan Crawford.

This is where Allen stops and, in a major plot point, pays homage to ... Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."  In Wilder's 1960 film, Jack Lemmon develops a crush on Shirley MacLaine, unaware that she is having an affair with his married boss, Fred MacMurray.  Here, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, unaware that her character is having an affair with his married uncle.

In "The Apartment," a cracked mirror in a compact exposes the affair.  In “Café Society," it's a piece of memorabilia - a love letter from Rudolph Valentino that Vonnie has given to Phil on the anniversary of their affair.

Like Lemmon's C.C. Baxter in "The Apartment," Bobby is devastated by his discovery but, unlike Lemmon's character, he elects to move on - and back to New York. This is one time when Woody Allen is actually more cynical than Billy Wilder:  Allen lets the philanderer get the girl.

Not surprisingly, like the Wilder film, “Café Society's" denouement takes place on New Year's Eve. What comes in-between Bobby's discovery and Allen's finale is what distinguishes “Café Society" from "The Apartment."

Another woman - another Veronica - comes into Bobby's life, and she and Bobby's criminal brother guide the film's Act Two, now ensconced in New York, away from the Wilder movie and back to Woody territory.

Blake Lively, every inch a Movie Star here (the critic Richard Brody has astutely commented that she is "perhaps the great melodramatic actress of the current time"), plays the new Veronica, a gorgeous divorcée who is a bit more seasoned than Vonnie and sees something in Bobby that Vonnie perhaps willfully disregarded. They marry and Bobby goes on to run a Bronx nightclub (called Café Society, after the famed Greenwich Village spot) for his brother Ben (a thug gleefully played by Corey Stoll, who is quickly establishing himself as the era's most versatile character actor).

Other cast members that make “Café Society" a most companionable film include Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby and Ben's hilariously stereotypical parents; Sari Lennick as their sister Evelyn and Stephen Kunken as her husband, Leonard; Parker Posey and Paul Schneider as a couple of New York swells who take a liking to Bobby (and set him up with the second Veronica); Anna Camp as an unlucky prostitute, and Sheryl Lee as Phil Stern's wife.  There isn't a single misstep among this cast.

 Note in Passsing: “Café Society" isn't the first film to honor "The Apartment." Amy Heckerling's ”Loser” got there first back in 2000.

Stewart plays Shirley MacLaine to Eisenberg's Jack Lemmon.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" (1975)

20th Century-Fox's "Lucky Lady" (1975) seemed to have everything going for it. A script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of "American Graffiti" (1973) fame, a legendary director (Stanely Donen) and a cast including one major box-office draw (that would be Burt Reynolds), a respected actor (Gene Hackman in an atypical comedy role) and the era's resident lovable kook (Liza Minnelli, newly Oscared at the time).

It was to be Fox's B.H.E. - Big Holiday Entertainment. (It was a Christmas release.) But it turned out to be Fox's Big Holiday Embarrassment.

What went wrong? The plot - about a trio of unlikely rum-runners (Burt, Gene and Liza) - sounded like it could be a pleasing romp, particularly with that cast. Plus Huyck-Katz added the titilation of Minnelli going back and forth between Reynolds and Hackman, romantically, with coy hints of ménage à trois doings (coy enough to avoid an R rating, natch).

Actually, now that I think about it, none of this sounds very good at all. In performance, the film is forced, with everyone pretending to have a blast and Minnelli, in particular, irritating in her trademarked giggly/jittery way.

Two additional endings were filmed when Fox became understandably anxious over the original in which the film takes a jarringly tragic turn with Hackman and Reynolds ending up dead and Minnelli ending up alone.

In the early 1980s, the Fox syndicated self-promotional show, "That's Hollywood," included this footage in an episode on outtakes.

The sequence is haunting and painterly as Hackman and Reynolds are gunned down on a beach, with the waves pushing their dead bodies towards a traumatized, immobolized Minnelli who walks, zombie-like, towards the shore.

It's a sobering, fatalistic moment but one has to ask what it had to do with what preceded it. What on earth were Donen, Huyck and Katz thinking? Not surprisingly, Fox (which presumably approved the original script) demanded a happy ending. Donen shot two - one in which the three characters are still together in old age (see out-of-focus photo below) and the one which went into the release print, where everything turns out rosy and the implied ménage à trois continues uninterrupted. The End.

Hackman came through the ordeal essentially unscathed, while the ever productive Reynolds didn't have a care in the world as he had churned out three other titles that year (John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," Peter Bogdanovich's ”At Long Last Love” and Robert Aldrich's "Hustle"). He operated as an old-style studio star.

But the film effectively ended the film careers of Donen, Minnelli and Huyck and Katz, who would go on to write a negligible sequel to "American Graffiti" and the notorious "Howard the Duck" (1986).

"Lucky Lady," reportedly never released on any home entertainment format, had disappeared until the Fox Movie Channel started airing it (and in wide screen, no less) when it was still screening vintage titles from the Fox library.

Not a good film but, for some bizarre reason, worth catching. If you can.