Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"No Sex Please, We're ... American"

When I was gainfully employed as a professional movie critic, I would invariably receive a phone call for an adult identified as a parent asking about the content of a certain movie.

Also invariably, that parent would be concerned about only the sexual content of the film, especially nudity and, to a lesser degree and by extension, language.

Whenever I would ask if they were concerned about violence, they weren't.

In short, no sex please, we're American.

Historically, this attitude makes perfect sense if you think about it.

This country, after all, was founded by, to put it bluntly, a bunch of violent puritans - seriously sexually repressed people who had no problem picking up a gun and blowing the head off someone.

This attitude was imprinted on our country more than two hundred years ago and it still prevails.

Perhaps this explains why the parents who sit on the board of the Motion Picture Association of America, like most Americans, are more uptight about nudity and simulated sex in movies than they are about grotesque, wholesale violence.

It also explains why, politically-speaking, this country gets more upset by a sexual indiscretion than with war.

It's sick, yes, but it's what makes America ... America.

(Artwork: Charles Bronson, oui. Bridget Bardot, non!)

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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, August 26, 2007

cinema obscura - Four Filmed Plays, All Lost

Four plays. Four movies based on them. There was a time when the studios relied on the Broadway theater to supply it with its prestige productions - films not meant to make money but to win awards and to impress. You know, win Oscars. But these four are largely forgotten now.

When you're a prestige film and fail to win awards, you generally fall through the cracks, fated for oblivion.

Today, let's pretend we're in New York during the late 1950s and early '60s - the theater district's golden era - seeing something at the Belasco or Music Box theater.

George Roy Hill's "Toys in the Attic" (1963)

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

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

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

The movie itself is a talky to-do - but what talk! - about an unusually dysfunctional and repressed family unraveling. In short, a wonderful afternoon at the theater.

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. Actor's heaven. Again, 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 film version, directed by Alex Segal, starred Robert Preston as the father, Jean Simmons as his wife, 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 played Aunt Hannah.

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 Eileen Heckart, Pat Hingle and Teresa Wright. 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 film, directed by Delbert Mann (again) from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, starred Robert Preston (again) in the Pat Hingle role, along with Dorothy McGuire, Eve Arden, Angela Lansbury and a young Shirley Knight, an Oscar nominee. Preston, great as always, did this between his stage and film appearances in "The Music Man." He had a great second act, thanks to the success of the musical, giving memorable turns in such titles as "Junior Bonner," "Child's Play," the aforementioned "All the Way Home," "Semi-Tough" and "Mame."

Delbert Mann's "Middle of the Night" (1959)

Paddy Chayefsky's tender play about a young woman looking for a father figure, opened on Broadway on February 8th, 1956 and starred Edward G. Robinson (who won a Tony Award for his performance) and a young actress named Gena Rowlands. It was adapted from a teleplay that Chayefsky wrote for NBC's Philco Television Playhouse that was performed on September 19th, 1954. E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint starred for director Delbert Mann (yes, again) in the TV version.

When Columbia purchased the film rights in 1959, Chayefsky was part of the package, writing the adaptation of his play and, to his credit, he did not tone down the Jewishness of the male lead character to accomodate either Fredric March who played the part or the audience of the day.

The ubiquitous Mann once again directed, eliciting unusually subtle performances from both March and Kim Novak as a widower businessman and the much younger secretary with whom he falls in love, deciding against everyone's wishes to marry her.

"Middle of the Night," voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 National Board of Review, has never been released on home entertainment.

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

(Artwork: From top. Wendy Hiller, Dean Martin and Geraldine Page in "Toys in the Attic"; Robert Preston and Jean Simmons in "All the Way Home," and poster art for both "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and "Middle of the Night")

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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

Friday, August 24, 2007

cinema obscura: Sundance Discovery! "Polly Maggoo" Airs! Plus More!

The Sundance Channel continues to air Universal titles that Universal apparently doesn't care about. Alan Alda's "The Four Seasons" was one of the recent survivors, for example.

Anyway, check on George Roy Hill's masterwork, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972), faithfully based on the Kurt Vonnegut book, at 7 p.m. (est) pm Friday, August 31st.

George Miller's "Lorenzo's Oil" (1992), an intelligent sick-child film featuring affecting performances by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, airs at 8 a.m. (est) Saturday, September 1st, followed by Allan Winton King's 1981 Canadian film, "Silence of the North", starring Ellen Burstyn, at 12:30 p.m.(est).

The film verison of the stylized Luis Valdez Broadway musical "Zoot Suite" (1981) , starring Edward James Olmos, Tyne Daly and most of the Broadway cast, pops up at 2 p.m. (est) on Thursday, September 6th. It's difficult to believe that Universal even made this film.

But the big news is the dual debut of two long-lost French titles - Jean
-Luc Godard's 1972 "Tout Va Bien" ("All Is Good") and expatriate American filmmaker William Klein's 1966 "Que êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?" ("Who Are You, Polly Magoo?").

"Tout Va Bien," airing on Thursday, August 30th at 11:15 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. (est), was something of an art-house and festival event in '72, pairing the still-militant and social-conscious Jane Fonda with French workhorse Yves Montand in a talky, pretentious, ultimately disappointing polemic about a workers' strike at a slaughterhouse in Paris.

Fonda and Montand play a married couple - she's a reporter, he directs commerials - who find themselves trapped in the meat factory where a lot of preachy soul-searching about class takes place. You stay with it because it's Godard, Fonda and Montand, but "Tout Va Bien" (released on DVD by Criterion in 2005) is decidedly minor. There's a reason why it's been largely forgotten.

"Polly Magoo," meanwhile, directed by former fashion photographer William Klein and featuring a score by Michel Legrand, is a lively curio about the Swinging Sixties, French-style, and the fashion industry.

Airing Saturday, September 1st at 8 p.m. (est), it is colorful, fun and almost depressingly date but definitely worth the watch, especially for the late, great Grayson Hall who plays the editor of Voguehere and is allegedly doing a wicked variation on Diana Vreeland (Klein's old boss), seemingly by way of Kay Thompson (shades of "Funny Face" here).

Co-starring French stalwarts Jean Rochefort, Sami Frey and Philippe Noiret. The unknown, untrained Dorothy MacGowan plays the titual Polly. She's fab, but it was her first and last film.

The film all but evaporated until it showed up for two screenings at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1997. This is its first America broadcast.

Note in Passing: As a filmmaker, Klein is perhaps best remembered for his stirring 1969 Muhammad Ali documentary, "Fly Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee."

(Artwork: Dorothy MacGowan as Polly Maggoo/Polly Magoo, and friends, in William Klein's seemingly lost French novelty)

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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

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "The Nanny Diaries"

"The Nanny Diaries." The critics rave:

"The Funniest Film of the Year!"
-Jack Egan, BTL News

"The Freshest, Funniest, Most Purely Enjoyable Movie of the Season!"
-Milan Paurich, ABC-TV

"The Intelligent Comedy You've Been Waiting For!"Roger Friedman,

Huh? It's supposed to be a comedy?

On the other hand, in his review in The New York Times, Stephen Holden says, "The storytelling is rushed and sloppy." Of the film's star, Scarlette Johansson, Holden comments, rather astutely, "Ms. Johansson’s Annie, who narrates the movie in a glum, plodding voice, is a leaden screen presence, devoid of charm and humor. With her heavy-lidded eyes and plump lips, Ms. Johansson may smolder invitingly in certain roles, but 'The Nanny Diaries' is the latest in a string of films that suggest that this somnolent actress confuses sullen attitudinizing with acting."

Meanwhile, over at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Steven Rea wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. "It's really a painful reminder of everything the film adaptation of 'The Devil Wears Prada' is, and 'The Nanny Diaries' is not."

Rea's headline writer is even more succinct:

"For 'Nanny Diaries,' the word is 'dull'"

How's that for a money quote?

(Artwork: Scarlett Johansson and Nicholas Reese Art in "The Nanny Diaries," and critics Stephen Holden of The New York Times and Steven Rea 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

Jack Warner, Please Come Home!

Where are Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer when you need them? It seems the Hollywood culture, if you can call it that, has gone to rot since the demise of the bad old studio system, a time when the imposing movie moguls treated their companies as one giant rigid patriarchy. They were unforgiving father figures who ruled with iron fists and made sure that their charges were always in line.

A Linsday Lohan would have been taken under wing, groomed for stardom with hand-picked roles and taught public etiquette, especially whenever in the vicinity of the press.

Mouthing off would have been out of the question. Which brings us to Jamie Foxx. If you had the interest - or the stomach for it - you might have tuned in "Access Hollywood" last night to watch as Foxx impulsively defended the ugly dog-fighting extra-curricular activities of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who recently pleaded guilty to the charges.

It was not a pretty sight - Foxx's defense of the indefensible, not the dog-fighting charges.

Glib and self-consciously cool as ever, Foxx took time out from “The Foxxhole,” his weekly show on Sirius Satellite Radio show, to talk to "Access Hollywood’s" Shaun Robinson about the situation.

“It’s a cultural thing, I think,” Foxx said. “Most brothers didn’t know that, you know. I used to see dogs fighting in the neighborhood all the time. I didn’t know that was Fed time. So, Mike probably just didn’t read his handbook on what not to do as a black star.”

Ah, just one superstar to another.

I love how Foxx mangles the word "cultural" in his rationale.

What Foxx doesn't understand is that dog-fighting is just the tip of the iceberg. What precedes it is even more loathsome.

Female dogs are literally bred to death, birthing puppies, which come into this world foolishly wanting only to be cared for. They are brutalized instead. They are strapped to treadmills for hours walking and running. They are starved and taught to despise their own species. When they don't preform, they are beaten. When they fail, they are "executed" - hung or drowned.

I can't understand how anyone can do this, but how any African-American man can participate in such activies is even more jaw-dropping, given that his ancestors probably experienced the exact same inhuman treatment. I hope this isn’t taken as a facile anology, as it certainly isn't meant to offend. Nevertheless, I find the irony of this case both sad and disturbing.

Vick certainly isn't strapped for cash. His alleged actions have much more to do with an irrational need to be cruel than it does with naked greed.

So much for the notion of man’s best friend, right? End of diatribe.

That said, Jack Warner, please come home! Hollywood needs you. Badly.

(Artwork: Jack Warner, right, with Max Reinhardt and Hal Wallis; Jamie Foxx; and Foxx with Michael Vick inset on "Access Hollywood")

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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, August 22, 2007

Greg Mottola's "Superbad"

Greg Mottola's "Superbad" represents the latest step in the canonization of Judd Apatow who, in this case, served as producer.

The talented Mottola ("The Daytrippers") may be the film's nominal director, but its auteur is the equally talented Apatow. His fingerprints - as well as remnants from the two films he directed, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" - are all over the project.

Wildly overrated (as was "Knocked Up"), "Superbad" is essentially "American Graffiti Redux," another breezy lark about all-night teen cruising and carousing - only the material's been updated with the usual grotesque humor.

A boffo beginning and terrific ending bookend a mercilessly dull middle patch in which the film's two teen heroes (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera), in a quest for booze for a party, fall in with two truly bizarre cops (Seth Rogan and Bill Hader, both unfunny) and the school's Über-nerd (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, hilarious).

There's a subversive element at work, one that will probably go over the head of the film's target audience, in that Hill's character is a kid who hasn't quite figured out yet that he's gay but who has a major penis fixation and a male-crush on his best friend (Cera).

Consequently, "Superbad" has a sweet side, operating as a kind of romance about unrequited love. Its ending is particularly wistful and sad, especially given all the comic chaos that preceded it.

Hill, Cera and Mintz-Plasse turn in amazingly assured, observant performances which would merit Oscar nominations if the Academy of Arts and Sciences wasn't so pretentious and ageist. And they are matched by the pitch-perfect young actresses here - Martha MacIsaac, Emma Stone and Aviva.

(Artwork: Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in "Superbad")

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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: Randall Kleiser's "Grease" (1978)

"Grease" is back on Broadway. For better or worse. Which makes me wonder...

Why did I ever like this movie? I should be embarrassed.

When it opened during the summer of 1978, it received reviews that were either unfavorable or grudgingly favorable. Me? I raved.

But multiple viewings later, I can barely get through it. It's either a case of familiarlity breeding contempt or an indication that I wised up. Whatever it is, "Grease" has joined the ranks of film musicals that I wish would just go away -"West Side Story" (truly unwatchable these days), "The Sound of Music" (sickening) and "Cabaret" (always a fluke in my opinion).

True, "Grease" has a couple of transporting musical numbers ("Summer Dreams" and "You're the One That I Want!"), one genuine showstopper (Stockard Channing's "There Are Worse Things I Can Do") and one knock-out bravura moment (the big dance in the gym), thanks to ace choreographer Patricia Birch. But the catch is, you have to sit through 110 minutes of the truly painful mugging of the overaged performers playing the 'T Birds and the Pink Ladies.

You also have to deal with the ugly plot about messed-up peer pressure in which the leading lady (sweet Olive Newton-John) has to slut herself up in order to win acceptance from its smarmy hero (John Travolta, not as irresistlble here as legend would imply) and Rydell High's lowlifes. Why would some parents encourage their kids to watch such soul-killing stuff? But, indeed, during "Grease's" near-30-year reign of terror, that's just what they did.

Check out two reviews of the new "Grease" revival:
Howard Shapiro in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Ben Brantley in The New York Times.

(Artwork: Signed shooting script for "Grease," and critics Howard Shapiro, left, and Ben Brantley, right)

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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

Oliver Hirschbiegel's "The Invasion"

The timing couldn't be more, well, timely for Oliver Hirschbiegel's bizarrely maligned "The Invasion," the latest incarnation of novelist Jack Finney's great (and obviously endurable) story, "The Body Snatchers."

From where I sit, Finney's material is surefire because I've enjoyed and admired all four film versions of his story - Don Siegel's 1956 classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (shot in glorious black-&-white), Philip Kaufman's new-age 1978 version (making the most of an atmospheric San Francisco and the Bay Area in general) and Abel Ferrara's game 1993 film, "Body Snatchers" (with its surprisingly effect teen twist).

The new version stars Nicole Kidman, in fine form (and looking great again) as a psychoanalyst intend on making sure that she and her son (Jackson Bond) evade the vague, conformity-inspired terror that's overtaking America. Hirschbiegel's take on the material is subtly political, commenting ever so slyly on the apathy and indifference - and the lack of empathy and compassion - that have taken over since 9/11, as well as the sense of entitlement and complacency of the zombies who have fallen in line.

The new film's exposition is brilliant and its use of a child as a major player, which could have been a disaster, manages to work in its favor, adding to the suspense. A middle stretch, set in an abandoned pharmacy, runs on longer than it should, and the happy ending seems like a cop-out.

But wait... Wikipedia reports: "Although the 1956 film version is faithful to much of the story, the novel includes several episodes and scenes that have never been filmed. Finney also clarifies details of the duplicate's life cycle: they live only five years, and they cannot sexually reproduce; consequently, if unstopped, they will turn Earth into a dead planet and move on to the next world ... Unlike the first three film adaptations, the novel contained the optimistic ending." So, the relatively happy ending of the new film, an ending which seems a little off-putting because it contrasts with the others, is truer to Finney's vision.

The reviews of "The Invasion" have been annnoying, given that they seem distracted by what allegedly went on behind the scenes while it was being made.

In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes:

"The producer Joel Silver has said that 'The Invasion' was partly redone by the Wachowski brothers (the credited screenwriter is David Kajganich) and that, at some point during production, the directing chores were handed over to their sometime collaborator, James McTeigue, who performed the same duties on the almost equally moribund 'V for Vendetta.' (The original director here, Oliver Hirschbiegel, retains credit.)"

So we're not really certain who is responsible for what. Still, the thing works.

Finney original serialized "The Body Snatchers" for Colliers Magazine in 1954, before turning it into a novel in 1955. His 1963 novel, "Good Neighbor Sam," was the basis for the charming 1964 Jack Lemmon comedy of the same title, directed by David Swift.

(Artwork: Nicole Kidman, embracing Dsniel Craig, in "The Invasion")

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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: Philip Dunne's "Blue Denim" (1959)

I had been planning to showcase Philip Dunne's 1959 social-issue drama, "Blue Denim," as a Cinema Obscura but a fabulous site titled Ciné Classics, powered by two bloggers who call themselves Bacall and Bogart, beat me to the punch.

So by all means, check out Ciné Classics and, in particular, Bacall's take on "Blue Denim" that ran on August 14th.

All that I can add is that the film - about an unexpected teen pregnancy and talk of an abortion - is at once dated and still relevant. Carol Lynley, poised somewhere between Sandra Dee and Tuesday Weld (they were the young blonde triumverate of the era), is the troubled heroine, Janet; Brandon De Wilde is Arthur, the boy who got her pregnant, and MacDonald Carey is her father.

The film, shot in black-&-white and scope, has never been on home video but pops up occasionally on both the Fox Movie Channel and American Film Classics.

Dunne was a prolific screenwriter who also directed the Elvis Presley drama, "Wild in the Country" (1961) and both "In Love and War" and "Ten North Frederick" (in 1958). The latter, starring Gary Cooper, Diane Varsi and Suzy Parker, is a definite Cinema Obscura candidate.

Lynley, incidentally, originally played Janet on Broadway, opposite Warren Berlinger as Arthur. The play, by James Leo Herlihy(author of "Midnight Cowboy") and William Noble opened at the Playhouse Theater in New York (following a tryout in New Haven, Conn.) on February 27th, 1958 and ran for 166 performances. It was a moderate success. Chester Morris topbilled in the Macdonald Carey role as the father and Joshua Logan directed the production.

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

(Artwork: Carol Lynley recreated her Broadway role in "Blue Denim," with Brandon De Wilde)

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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: "Paul Giamatti Selects": Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud" (1970)

It isn't on DVD yet, there are still a few laser discs of it floating around, but on Monday, August 27th, you can see Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud" (1970) the way it was supposed to be seen - in scope and with an audience.

That's if you're in the New York area.

The Bam Rose Cinemas, at 30 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, continues its intriguing "Paul Giamatti Selects" series with three showings of Altman's counterculture classic at 4:40, 6:50 and 9:15 p.m. on the 27th.

"Brewster" is my favorite Altman film, although I'm not sure I can explain why. I saw it at a point in my life when it somehow meant something. I guess it basically says that non-conforminty kills and, for a non-comformist, that's a commanding, provocative notion hard to shake.

See it. If you can.

(Artwork: Bud Cort, Altman's Brewster, soars in scope)

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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, August 08, 2007

Julie Delpy's "2 Days in Paris"

Already a critics' darling and a probable audience favorite, Julie Delpy's directorial debut, "2 Days in Paris," is at once companionable and challenging, and like most worthwhile films these days, also is both derivative and original.

Delpy clearly quotes other films and filmmakers here - most notably Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer - but adds a little shading here and there and a few curlicues that make the material her own. What we have here is the experience of seeing other movies through Delpy's eyes and the view is great.

The title tells all. French photographer Marion (played by Delpy herself) and American interior designer Jack (Adam Goldberg, Delpy's former main squeeze) are en route back to their New York home following a disappointing trip to Venice, stopping off in Paris first for a couple days to visit Marion's eccentric family. Deux jours. Two days too many.

Marion's parents (played by Delpy's real-life parents) are a test enough for Jack, but then there's a series of unplanned, impromptu meetings with Marion's old boyfriends. Misunderstandings abound. Or are they misunderstandings? Arguments become more frequent and sex becomes just about impossible.

It doesn't help that Jack is wildly neurotic or that Marion is frustratingly nonplussed about everything.

Delpy creates a convincing atmosphere of suspicion and doubt and, unlike her American counterparts, never gives in to the temptation of sentiment or sentimentality.

Bracing. That's the best way to describe Julie Delpy's unique vision.

(Artwork: Director Delpy and leading man Adam Goldberg in "2 Days in Paris")

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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

Food Films Vs. Food Commercials

Food films have become one of the more popular sub-genres and it's easy to see why. The food on screen - whether in Scott Hicks' recent "No Reservaations" or even in an animation such as Brad Bird's "Ratatouille" - is so eye- (in addition to palate-)pleasing.

OK, so why does food look so ghastly on TV commercials, most of them done in ghastly primary coloring so that the food on screen "looks as if Walt Disney threw up" (to quote a line from Burt Reynolds' "The End")?

Really,whether it's Denny's "extreme grand slam breakfast" (dominated by an ugly array of reds, oranges and yellows) or Pizza Hut's new "buffalo chicken pizza," replete with ranch dressing for dipping, it looks pretty, well, inedible.

I mean, who eats this stuff? More to the point, who would watch these commercials and even want to go to these restaurants? For me, they all serve as a good argument for a vegan diet.

These commercials are starving for some good filmmaking. Pun intended.

(Artwork: Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zita-Jones in Scott Hicks' "No Reervations")

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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

façade: Chevy Chase, then and now

While recently watching Harold Ramis' 1980 comedy classic, "Caddyshack," I was struck by the then-young Chevy Chase's striking resemblance to George W. Bush during The President's own days as a young buck. Even Chase's line readings and vocal cadences in the film have a striking familiarity.

Fast forward 27 years and suddenly Chevy Chase resembles ... Dick Cheney.

If you have any doubts, compare and contrast...

Artwork: Chevy Chase, before and after)

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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

critical quackery: Camille Paglia's "Art movies: R.I.P."

Recommended Reading on Salon.Com ... The inimitable Camille Paglia waxes on about Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni (among other things):

"When Antonioni's plotless 'L'Avventura' was shown at Harpur, the entire theater emptied within a half-hour -- except for the front row of me and my friends, transfixed by the aquiline profile of a very anxious Monica Vitti, her blond locks tossed this way and that, as she searched a desolate Italian island for her capriciously absent friend. When I saw Bergman's 'Persona' at its first release in New York in 1967, I felt that it was the electrifying summation of everything I had ever pondered about Western gender and identity. The title of my doctoral dissertation and first book, 'Sexual Personae,' was an explicit homage to Bergman. On a British lecture tour for the National Film Theatre in 1999, I asked to sleep with 'Persona' -- whose five reels, like holy icons, rested in two silver cans next to my bed..."

For more, check out Paglia's "Art movies: R.I.P."

(Artwork: Caricature of's Camille Paglia)

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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

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Roger Ebert - The First Forty Years

Roger Ebert, inarugably America's most prolific, popular and dedicated movie critic, has been slowing inching his way back into action following a dibilitating bout with jaw cancer and the multiple surgeries required as treatment.

His transitional critiques, posted on his website,, have been short but no less engaging than an Ebert review in full throttle. They've been a reminder of what we've missed.

It's important to note that , during this period, Roger celebrated two milestones that have been largely overshadowed by his recuperation.

On June 18th, Roger turned 65, and of perhaps greater significance, last April 2nd marked the 40th anniversary of the date that he was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times. His first review for the Sun-Times was of "In Like Flint," published April 10, 1967.

For a glimpse of Early Ebert - for a portrait of the film critic as a young man - you might want to peruse his reviews of such '67 titles as "Hombre," "The Happening," "Hurry Sundown," "El Dorado," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Persona" and "The Graduate."

They will whet your appetite for more Ebert musings on movies because, as Roger himself said on his anniversary with the Sun-Times, "Forty years is not enough."

I, for one, can't wait.

Note in Passing: As far as longevity, Roger is in sound company. Richard Schickel, age 74, has been reviewing for Time magazine for 34 years now; David Ansen, 62, has been with Newsweek magazine for 30 years, and Richard Corliss, 63, also at Time, has reviewed there for 22 years. Roger's equal is limited to Gene Shalit, 75, who recently celebrated his 40 years with NBC's The Today Show, and they are both topped only by the venerable Stanley Kaufmann, who is 90 and has served as film critic for The New Republic for ... 49 years.

(Artwork: Critic and film enthusiast Roger Ebert)

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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

well put

Wow! Did he actually say that?

Brian Lowry, ace TV columnist for Variety, had this to say about the apparently shocked reactions of many reporters to the rampant nudity and graphic sex scenes in some upcoming cable shows, previewed during the recent TV Critics' Summer Tour:

The "alarm shouldn't be taken too seriously, inasmuch as some of the critics give the impression they haven't gotten laid since the Reagan administration." (Variety, July 26-August 5 issue)

(Artwork: Brian Lowry of Variety)

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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

McCarey's "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" (1958)

I had been planning to devote a "lost film" essay to Leo McCarey's jaunty 1958 comedy of manners and sex, "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!," when Fox Home Video, perhaps tapping into my dreams, unexpectedly released this long-unseen minor gem on DVD. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the McCarey film has been on home entertainment in any format.

Which is strange, considering that it is an absolutely affable little farce with something of a pedigree cast. The very estimable Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, each taking a rare stab at comedy, head a cast that also includes the very bewitching Joan Collins, the indispensible Jack Carson (was he ever bad or less than entertaining?) and the two young leads from the old "Dobie Gillis" TV series which was airing at the time - Tuesday Weld (cast here as Comfort Goodpasture, no less) and Dwayne Hickman.

Based on the popular book by Max Shulman, adapted for the occasion by McCarey, Claude Binyon and an uncredited George Axelrod, "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" is set in Putnam's Landing, Conn., where budding suburban activist Grace Bannerman (Woodward) lures her husband Harry (Newman) into a scheme to upset the U.S. Army's plans to set up a missile base in their town.

Made at a time when Doris Day was busy at Universal making her sex comedies and Debbie Reynolds was doing the same at MGM, "Rally" offered Woodward a similar chance to cut loose in a role that calls for her to be alternately brainy and scattered. She pulls it off naturally, mixing intelligence with zaniness, as if Day and Reynolds were looking over her shoulder offering some sage screwball advice.

Collins, ever game, has fun as the resident femme fatale of Putnum's Landing, the saucy Angela Hoffa, and Tuesday Weld is jailbait fun as the incorrigible Miss Goodpasture.

"Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" is being released in tandem with three other titles that Collins made for Fox - Richard L. Breen's "Stopover Tokyo," co-starring Robert Wagner; Henry Hathaway's "Seven Thieves," with Rod Steiger and Eli Wallach, and the essential "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Ray Milland and Farley Granger. Also in the set is Bob MacNaught's independent film, "Sea Wife," which pairs Collins with Richard Burton.

Of that group, "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" is a must-see, a lavishly gaudy biopic/exposé which casts Collins as Evelyn Nesbitt and Milland as Stanford White, setting them adrift in the famous turn-of-the-century sex scandal. It's silly, irresistible fun, and the film looks positively gorgeous with all sorts of colors going berserk in wide-screen CinemaScope.

"Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" and the other individual titles in the Joan Collins set sell for $19.98 each; the entire boxed set is $49.98.

(Artwork: Poster art for Fox's "Rally, 'Round the Flag, Boys")

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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

Ready or Not, Here Comes Momma! - "Gypsy" Casting 2

OK, in my July 4th post, "Gypsy": Momma's talkin' loud, Momma's got the stuff, Momma's ... gettin' old, I complained about how, traditionally, the role of stage mother Madame Rose in "Gypsy" has been cast with an actress well into her 50s.

Why? 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," I wondered aloud, "with a younger, youthful, vibrant performer in the role."

But who?

Well, I finally came up with the perfect choice.

My candidate for Rose is the right age (37), and has the right bearing, attitude and stature for the role. She's tall and imperious. She's been a force both on-screen and off, intimidating and often in overdrive. Plus, she has the kind of husky, powerful voice for which the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim songs were made.

With that said, my pick (drum roll, please) is ... Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Think about it. It could work. A real movie star in the role. It would be worth the price of admission just to see and hear Zeta-Jones belt her way through "Rose's Turn."

I can dream, can't I?

(Artwork: The indomitable Catherine Zeta-Jones, made to play the indomitable Madame Rose in "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

cinema obscura: John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" (2005)

OK, so musicals are still being gratuitously osctracized by both studios and audiences, but does that really explain why John Turturro's third outting as a director, 2005's "Romance & Cigarettes" remains shelved and virtually unseen (despite a few token festival appearances)?

I mean, the cast alone is to die for: Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi, Kate Winslet, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Walken, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard, Tonya Pinkins, Amy Sedaris, Aida Turturro and the great Barbara Sukowa.

The film could stink and yet every living, breathing movie buff would want to see it.

Still, for some reason, when Sony purchased MGM/UA a couple of years ago and took over their libraries, "Romance & Cigarettes" was pushed aside.

Is it bad? Or is it politics? Unlike most of my colleagues, I don't necessarily buy into the studio rationale that an unscreened or unreleased film is automatically a bad one. I suspect it's always a matter of politics, especially when you look at the list of losers that the studios routinely release month-in, month-out. I mean, did Turturro offend someone at Sony? Did he step on the wrong toes? And exactly where have executive producers Joel and Ethan Cohen been while the film's been languishing, collecting dust and aging?

On paper, "Romance & Cigarettes" sounds irresistible, a new-style movie musical about the eternal triangle, with Sarandon as a wife who discovers a love poem that her husband, played by Gandolfini, wrote to his paramour, Winslet. When Sarandon and her children gang up on Gandolfini, the actor reportedly takes to the streets, singing "Lonely Is a Man Without Love," backed by a chorus of welders, electricians and sanitation workers. That scene is either awful or great, although I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. This I want to see.

Turturro has called his film "a down-and-dirty musical love story" in which familiar standards by Tom Jones, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen, among others, are juxtaposed with graphic, jokey dialogue about sex. Variety, in its review, described "Romance & Cigarettes" as having a "loose, jazzy feel." Winslet gets to sing Elvis Presley's "Trouble" and Walken warbles Jones' "Delilah."

Hell, release it already!

Note in Passing: I've been told by a reliable source that there are tentative plans to open "Romance & Cigarettes" in a one-theater, four-wall deal for sometime in early September. We'll see.

(Artwork: Still shots of Susan Sarandon - singing her heart out - and Sarandon with James Gandolfini in John Turturro's neglected "Romance & Cigarettes")

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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, August 01, 2007


Hallelujah! At long last, we have a new movie musical that really is a movie musical - an unabashed, unapologetic movie musical that nearly jumps off the screen and challenges all of your silly hang-ups about movie musicals.

Did I manage to mention that Adam Shankman's "Hairspray," made under the invaluable aegis of producers Neal Meron and Craig Zadan, is a movie musical?

Meron and Zadan have eased up to this triumphant moment with a handful of network TV musicals and, of course, finally revived the musical on screen big time with the Oscar-winning "Chicago" (2002), directed by Rob Marshall. An aside: Baz Lurhmann's "Moulin Rouge" (2001) doesn't count. As wonderful as it is, it is too much of an abberation, and along with Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" (1972), something of an anti-musical.

Still, as fine and divine as "Chicago" is, it is surpassed by "Hairspray," if only because "Hairspray" is not the least bit timid or ashamed of being a musical. Bill Condon, who adapted "Chicago" for the screen, as well as the recent "Dreamgirls" (2006), has perfected the knack for backing into his material's musical numbers. In "Chicago," he made singing on screen acceptable by conceiving the numbers as fantasy moments; in "Dreamgirls," the songs are performed either on stage or in a recording studio or dressing room, thereby making them more appropriate for people who are embarrassed by musicals.

Hollywood lost its way when it attempted to make film musicals for people who don't like film musicals. It was futile because these audiences would balk no matter how cautiously on-screen singing was presented. In the meantime, the studios alienated those fans who do like musicals.

With "Hairspray," it found its way back and, for once, gets it right. The people who made this film instinctively know that the best way to introduce a song on screen is to jump right into it. And that's what "Hairspray" does, it immediately opens with the big production number, "Good Morning, Baltimore!" It wastes no time. No timid tiptoing here: It grabs you by the collar and dares you not to have fun.

Shankman's accomplished direction (and, for that matter, his choreography) has raised a few eyebrows, with most critics citing his unwatchable previous film, "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" (2005). What they conveniently overlook is the fact that Shankman also directed "The Wedding Planner" (2001), a tidy, appealing little comedy that actually moved like a musical - a musical without songs, so to speak.

His exultant choreography here, which is virtually non-stop, is equalled by his assured direction. It speaks well of Shankeman's ability that there is not one weak performance in "Hairspray." Everyone shines - newcomers Nikki Blonsky, Zak Efron and Elijah Kelly, veterans Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and Allison Janney and familiar faces James Marsden and Amanda Bynes, both of whom prove to be revelations here. This film has been wonderfully, adventurously cast, which is not something you could say about the film versions of either "The Producers" (2005) and "Phantom of the Opera" (2004).

And then there is John Travolta in the cross-dressing role of Edna, the mother of the film's young heroine. Travolta's game turn here has been the film's one point of controversy and has also been identified in some quarters as the movie's only weak link. That's because Travolta doesn't really play the role in drag, even though he's been made up as a woman. This Edna is not a broad charicature, a la Divine who played in the original John Waters 1988 movie, or Harvey Fierstein, who played the role on stage.

Travolta attempts to humanize the character, bring a sad poignancy and sweetness to Edna. A.O. Scott put it best in his review of the film in The New York Times when he wrote that Travolta's is "the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film."

Unlike Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick whose staleness was mangified by the film version of "The Producers," Travolta brings a newness, a sense of wide-eyed discovery to "Hairspray." And thank you to Adam Shankman, Craiz Zadan and Neal Meron for supporting this most wonderful experiment. It works.

And a word about Pfeiffer: Is it me or is she channeling Constance Towers, circa 1963, in "Hairspray"? Everytime she came on screen, impure thoughts of "The Naked Kiss" invaded my mind.

Note in Passing: There were several references to the Styne-Sondheim musical, "Gypsy," in the stage version of "Hairspray." But only one is retrain in the film version. During "Welcome to the Sixties!," Travolta sings, "Momma's gotta let go," a direct quote from "Rose's Turn."

But missing from Leslie Dixon's otherwise fine adapation of the Thomas Meehan-Mark O'Donnell book for the stage musical are two rather witty references to "Gypsy." There was a point on stage when Fierstein, playing Edna, shouts, "For me, For Me, FOR ME!," which of course closes the song, "Rose's Turn."

Also, when Prudy Pingleton sees her daughter all sexed-up for the dance contest and disapproves, Penny declares, "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," a line immortalized by Natalie Wood in the 1962 version of "Gypsy."

Great stuff and, given that Meron and Zadan are "Gypsy" devotees, the deletions surprised me.

(Artwork: Poster art from "Hairspray"; Travolta, dancing it up with Blonsky and Walken in two production numbers from the film; film musical auteurs Neal Meron and Craig Zadan, and Pfeiffer channeling ... Constance Towers)

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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

Steve Buscemi in "Interview"

Having been in journalism far too long for it to be healthy - and now blessedly free of it - I've come to embrace a no-nonsense, perhaps cynical view of the profession and the needy souls who populate it.

Case in point: Long before the advent of the personal computer, I worked from home because, frankly, I've always found newsrooms to be somewhat toxic.

Also, ever since I disengaged myself from the profession, I now see journalists in a new, unflattering light - a view that Steve Buscemi somehow, miraculously, nails in his new film "Interview," in which he plays a self-involved newspaperman who, at the outset, rather casually (and cruelly) announces to his subject (played by the always-fascinating Sienna Miller) that he'd rather be doing anything than interviewing her.

It's difficult to explain his arrogant behavior with any clarity or accuracy; I suggest you see the film.

Nevertheless, it handily sums what something that I once said to my wife: "Show me a journalist who isn't self-important and I'll show you a dead journalist."

Well done, Steve.

(Artwork: Steve Buscemi, director/star of "Interview")

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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