Tuesday, July 31, 2007

George Ratliff's "Joshua"

Considering how kid-centric society has become, it came as no surprise whatsover that George Ratliff's brilliant "Joshua" lasted little more than a week in most markets.

What's been thoroughly unexpected, however, is that fact that (1) it managed to get made in the first place and then (2) was picked up for distribution by one of the mini-majors, the ever enterprising and daring Fox Searchlight.

Pitched as a sophisticated horror film, along the lines of "The Exorcist" and "The Bad Seed," Ratliff's film is much more than that - an unforgiving, staunchly unapologetic look at how a child (played by the preternaturally gifted Jeremy Kogan) systematically ruins the lives of his parents.

To say that "Joshua" is not child-friendly is an understatement. The title character's malevolent relationship with his mother and father is precisely what drives the film - and it's also exactly what doomed it at the box-office.

The lesson to be learned from the dubious horror films of 2007 is that while audiences will sit still for (and even enjoy) torture flicks, they won't put up with an unpopular, disturbing social statement, no matter how serious and well-executed it is.

Profoundly moving, "Joshua" is decidedly not a tidy little chiller made for the cineplexs. Heck, even the art-house crowd couldn't handle it. Nevertheless, it remains one of the best - and certainly one of the most audacious - films of the year, and its stars, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, as the sacrificed parents, both turn in performances that can only be described as, well, major.

(Artwork: Jacob Kogan as the malevolent title character views an eerie video image of his mother, Vera Farmiga, in Fox Searchlight's brilliant "Joshua")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry Dean Sighting!

There's a one-time screening tomorrow, July 26th (1 p.m., est; 10 a.m., pst), of Frank Tashlin's 1963 comedy with Danny Kaye, "The Man from the Diner's Club."

It's a rare Tashlin flick shot in black-&-white instead of color, but the usual cartoon shenanigans prevail. Among the comic joys here is a bit by no less than Harry Dean Stanton - billed as Dean Stanton as he was in those days - as a poetry-spouting beatnik. (And that's how his character is billed.)

Here's a chance to see something that you never thought you'd see - Tashlin directing Stanton. Check it out. And enjoy.

(Artwork: Clever "notebook" publicity tie-in for Frank Tashlin's "The Man from the Diner's Club," from Columbia in 1963)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

the contrarian: Blake Edwards' "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)

I've come to realize belatedly that I really don't like "Breakfast at Tiffany's." For the longest time, I thought I did. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because I am so fond of Blake Edwards, its director, or because Audrey Hepburn, its star, was so singular and always so appealing.

It's a strange film - not really a comedy, not really a drama - and while the part of party girl Holly Golightly became Hepburn's signature role, she is wildly miscast in the film. The fact that, after nearly 50 years, people are still so beguiled by her in it says more about Hepburn's star power than the performance herself.

Aside from Hepburn, George Peppard makes a uniquely unpleasant leading man, and, in a performance that was something of a racist disaster even way back in 1961, Mickey Rooney is simply unwatchable.

If there's one aspect about "Breakfast at Tiffany's" that has repeatedly seduced me over the years, it's the film's gorgeous opening credits - Hepburn, dressed in diamonds and Givanchy, sipping coffee from a cardboard container and eating a Danish as she strolls outside Tiffany's on a curiously vacant Fifth avenue at dawn, while Henry Mancini's haunting "Moon River" softly plays on the soundtrack. Magic.

I can watch the film's titles over and over again. But the movie itself, I've come to discover, I can take or leave.


(Artwork: Poster from Paramount's "Breakfast at Tiffany's")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Momma's talkin' loud, Momma's got the stuff, Momma's ... gettin' old - "Gypsy" Casting 1

There's yet another production of "Gypsy" in the works - this one being produced at New York's City Center under the auspices of Encores! and starring the great Patti Lupone as Rose, better known as Momma Rose in the musical. (Actually, the character is called Madame Rose throughout the show but, somehow, Momma Rose is the moniker that has stuck.)

I hasten to mention that "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite musical and I am very proprietary, possessive and, yes, opinionated about it. Also, I think that Lupone is the crown jewel of the modern musical theater. But I have a problem - and an opinion.

Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s? I mean, the show spans only about 10 years or so, starting when Rose's two young daughters are 7 and 9 at best. Shouldn't the character be 30ish or maybe a little younger?
Imagine how revelatory - and different - it would be with a younger, youthful, vibrant performer in the role. But this has never happened.

I did a little research and here are the ages of the assorted actresses when they played Rose:

-Patti Lupone, age 58 (new 2007 Encores! production)

-Patti Lupone, age 57 (2006 Ravinia Festival production)

-Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

-Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

-Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

-Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

-Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production)

-Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1974 London production, followed by the first Broadway revival)

-Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

-Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

-Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

-Betty Hutton, age 40 (1961 National Tour)

Joanne Worley, Mary McCarty and Gisele MacKenzie have also played in productions of the show, Worley opposite Aundrey Landers as Louise/Gypsy. Somehow the role has evaded such powerhouses as Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and Liza Minnelli - and Stockard Channing, someone who I've always thought would be absolutely terrific in the part.

Anyway, given the contours of the show and its age requirement, who would you cast as Momma Rose/Madam Rose? Let me know. And be adventurous.

(Artwork: Poster art from the various productions of "Gypsy")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Brad Bird's "Ratatouille"

Pixar, abetted by the talented Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles"), outdistances and outdoes itself with "Ratatouille," a bizarrely eccentric, richly inventive and altogether droll piece of computer animation. Would it be redundant - or too premature - to also call it the best film of the year? So what. It is.

An affecting tale about a rat named Remy who is something of a foodie, "Ratatouille" has a plot with classic contours, as Remy - clearly a fish out of water - rescuing a business where rats are persona non grata.

A restaurant. Named Gusteau's. In Paris. France. No Less.

The most divine creation here is the acerbic, acidic food critic, wittily named Anton Ego and intoned flawlessly by Peter O'Toole. Anton is the Addison DeWitt of animated characters. You get the picture.

"Ratatouille," for all its new-age animated bravura, also exhibits an awareness of the genre's history. The sequence in which the rats prepare the crucial meal at Gusteau's is clearly a clever reference to the mice making Cinderella's dress in another Disney film from an earlier era.

(Artwork: Remy the rat and rival chefs/potential lovers Linguini and Colette are among the affable characters in Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up"

I wish I could jump on the bandwagon of critics who have been tripping over their own feet in an effort to out-praise each other when it comes to Judd Apatow and his critical darling, “Knocked Up,” and it’s not as if I haven’t tried. But I just don’t get it.

From where I sit, “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s sophomore effort as a director, is a modest, companionable, surprisingly endearing little film. No more, no less. I saw it, enjoyed it and and then got on with my life, letting the film evaporate from the recesses of my mind. At this point, it’s a dim memory, unlike Apatow’s first film, 2006’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which still echoes in my mind with it low comedy and big heart.

It’s apparent – to me, at least - that Apatow was aiming for the same results and, to be honest, he nearly matches his first success. But “Knocked Up” is more raunchy and less poignant than it’s predecessor. In fact, it isn’t touching at all. It also has a leading man, Seth Rogan, who is a good deal less appealing and charismatic than “Virgin’s” Steve Carell, and at 129 minutes, there’s a certain straining here and a lot of dead spots.

But for some reason, the critics have felt obliged to exalt Apatow. The very credible Andrew Sarris actually compared him to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder in his review in The New York Observer. I realize that anyone who cares about the future of movies – critics, film buffs, even studio executives - is desperate to find a new filmic hero, someone with all the answers and remedies for what ails current movies, but isn’t it a tad premature and hasty to elevate Apatow after only two films?

Not that “Knocked Up” doesn’t have its excellent spots, chief of which is Katharine Heigl, who turns in an empathetic, fully formed performance as the female lead.

As for the material here – about a guy forced into maturity by a woman’s unexpected pregnancy - I preferred it back in 1963 when Robert Mulligan directed Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in “Love with the Proper Stranger,” a more naturalistic, affecting treatment of the subject which is often even more witty than “Knocked Up.”

(Artwork: Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in "Knocked Up"; Poster art for "Love with the Proper Stranger")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

cinema obscura: Bridges' "September 30, 1955" (1978)

VCR Alert: The Sundance Channel screens James Bridges' "September 30, 1955" (1978) on July 10 and 11.

Bridges left only a handful of films that he directed when he died at age 57 in 1993 and, in a matter of full disclosure, I like them all - even the imperfect "Perfect."

Following the success of his breakthrough movie, "The Paper Chase" (his second), Bridges did what most shrewd and resourceful filmmakers do. He used his newly-found clout to make the kind of intensely personal movie that he might not get a chance to do later in his career.

The film was "September 30, 1955 - originally titled 9/30/55 - an evocative autobiographical exercise in which Bridges nakedly exposed what movies and movie stars can mean to people, particularly those stranded in middle American. Particuarly to one Jimmy Bridges.

The film is a heartfelt reminder of how we are sustained through life by movies and their icons. Richard Thomas, as Bridges' on-screen surrogate, named Jimmy J, plays an artless, impressionable young man driven to distraction when he hears of the death of his movie idol, James Dean. Thomas, who turns in a truly daring performance here, often bordering on the deranged, is supported by an ace cast - Tom Hulce, Dennis Quaid, Lisa Blount, Dennis Christopher and the appealing Deborah Benson.

Universal, not knowing what to do with what was clearly an art film, basically dumped "September 30, 1955, with scant advertising.

For the record, Bridges' other directorial efforts include two of my favorites, "Urban Cowboy" and the truncated "Mike's Murder"; "The Baby Maker," his first film, and "Bright Lights, Big City," his last.

Note in Passing: Leonard Rosenmann, who scored the Dean films, "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause," composed the music here for Bridges. A nice circuity to that.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Richard Thomas in James Bridges' " September 30, 1955")

The "Sex and the City" Movie

I'm very happy that Kim Cattrall was able, as reported, to negotiate a salary commensurate with Sarah Jessica Parker's, thereby opening the door for a long-proposed film version of the phenomenally successful HBO series, "Sex and the City."

After all Parker and Cattrall were the two ingredients that sustained the show for so many years, with Parker creating a genuinely fully-fleshed character, warts and all, and Cattrall locating a subtle pathos inside her character's flamboyant randiness. Both actresses were eminently watchable, making co-stars Cynthia Nixon (abrasively annoying) and Kristin Davis (a whiney drag) just about negligible and just about unnecessary.

I look forward to savoring the Parker-Cattrall chemistry again, but ... in what?

With the actresses - and, presumably, the characters - now into their 40s and 50s, exactly what will this film examine and confront? The material can't be what it was 10 years ago and, if the makers do try to recreate their winning formular, the results could be grotesque.

Besides, wasn't this film done by James Ivory in 1989? Back then it was called "Slaves of New York," based on the tome by Tama Janowitz (the Candance Bushnell of her day). Back then, Bernadette Peters played the Carrie Bradshaw role.

"Slaves of New York"? What happened to that film?

Note in Passing: I favor the popular suspicion that "Sex and the City" is really about four gay men (the same theory that still haunts "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"). With that in mind, perhaps the film could only work now if it were played that way - or, at least, in drag.

(Artwork: Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall in an episode of HBO's "Sex and the City"; artwork for James Ivory's "Slaves of New York")

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A.O. Scott on "License to Wed"

Unfortunate films tend to bring out a critic's sense of humor and this is especially true of The New York Times' A.O. Scott in his delicious critique of Robin Williams' new comedy, "License to Wed." Here's a sampling from his July 3rd review:

"... I will confess that the only thing that kept me watching 'License to Wed' until the end (apart from being paid to do so) was the faith, perhaps misplaced, that I will not see a worse movie this year."

Catch the rest of Tony's review and have a good time.

(Artwork: Film critic A.O. Scott of The New York Times)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Carrie Rickey on "Evening"

Witty and succinct as always, Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer perfectly sums up the problem with the new all-star "Evening" in no fewer than 18 - count 'em - 18 words. Here's the opening graph from her June 29th review of the film:

"'Evening' might be the most shocking waste of natural resources since the despoiling of the Amazon rain forest."

Check out Carrie's review in its entirety and savor the remainder of what she had to say about this prestige misfire.

(Artwork: Film critic Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Edward Yang, 1947-2007

Filmmaker Edward Yang, ne Te-Chang Yang, one of the leading forces in the Taiwanese New Wave, died from colon cancer on June 29 in Los Angeles, his adopted city.

He is survived by:
-- "That Day On The Beach" (1983)
-- "Taipei Story" (1984)
-- "The Terrorizer" (1986)
-- "A Brighter Summer Day" (1991)
-- "A Confucian Confusion" (1995)
-- "Mahjong" (1996)
-- and the exquisite "Yi Yi" (2000).

At his death, Yang was in preproduction on a planned animated film, "The Wind." Hopefully, his partner in the project, Jackie Chan, will guide the work to its completion and with Yang's vision for it.

But if his three-hour masterwork, "Yi Yi" turns out to be his last, that's ok. Frankly, I can't think of anything, any film, better.

To paraphrase a line from "Mr. Roberts," thanks for the movies, Mr. Yang, thanks for everything.

(Artwork: Poster art for the French release of Yang's "Yi Yi")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com