Saturday, November 29, 2008

sans thumbs: Roger Ebert Explains It All for You

A friend recently commented that she missed Roger Ebert. Say what? Roger may no longer be giving oral criticism on the tube, but he remains as vital as ever on the pages - and the web site - of The Chicago Sun Times.

Case in point: His lively and important essay of November 26th, titled "Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!," a must-read for all serious moviegoers.

Roger writes:

"The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip..."

Frankly, I also miss seeing Robert on the television, although I'm less sentimental about his newly retired Thumbs Up!/Down! rating system. I've no idea how Roger felt deep down about the thumb rating system that he and the late Gene Siskel popularized but, between us, I always thought of it as the bane of modern movie criticism. Way too simplitic.

I'd much rather savor Rogers words. Check out that essay and you'll see that I mean.

(Artwork: Roger, seemingly without his pesky, ubiquitous thumbs)

Friday, November 28, 2008

façade: Vince Vaughn

As unlikely as it seems, Vince Vaughn has made two family-friendly holiday films in about as many years.

This year, it's first-timer Seth Gordon's "Four Christmases" which, I am happy to report, is not nearly as sappy or as pandering as David Dobkins' missed opportunity, "Fred Claus" (2007).

In fact, for a good part of its running time, "Four Christmases" is delightfully, willfully unhealthy - anti-family to the hilt and bracingly anarchic. Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a happily isolated couple - isolated in San Francisco, no less, safely away from their awful relatives and unctous spawn - who are forced to visit their divorced, respective parents (and the parents' new mates) on Christmas day.

The film reaches some kind of delirious high when Robert Duvall as Vaughn's low-life father, refusing to have a professional install his new satallite dish (an unwanted gift from Vince), commenting, "I don't want some pedaphile coming in here and touching my underwear" - a line that Duvall manges to say with a straight face. His wry delivery of it is matched by the sequence in which Witherspoon gleefully hurls aside, one by one, a collection of brats who have been terrorizing her.

Unfortunately, as soon as Witherspoon and Vaughn announce that they don't like or want kids, you know exactly how this movie will end. In order to wise them up, "Four Christmases" turns, yes, sappy and pandering during its cowardly, unwatchable fade-out moments.

A sad waste.

But we're really here to discuss Vaughn today.

There seems to be this general assumption that ever since this antic, hyper actor enjoyed his breakthrough role in 1996's "Swingers" that he's pretty much played the same, glib, hugely affable character in just about all of his films ever since then. I'm thinking of such titles as "Old School," "Dodgeball" and, of course, "The Wedding Crashers."

It's been easy to forget that after "Swingers," Vaughn changed direction, appearing in a string of serious, now-forgotten movies, among them:

-"A Cool, Dry Place," a "Kramer Versus Kramer"-esque father-son drama co-starring Joey Lauren Adams and Monica Potter.

-"The Locusts," a piece of hothouse erotica, talky a la Tennessee Williams, with Kate Capshaw, Jeremy Davies, Ashley Judd and Paul Rudd.

-"Clay Pigeons," a dark comedic thriller with Joaquin Phoenix.

-"Return to Paradise," another thriller, romantic but upsetting, co-starring Anne Heche, Vera Farmiga and, again, Joaquin Phoenix.

-"The Cell," the Jennifer Lopez horror-fantasy and...

-"Psycho," the Gus Van Sant remake, with Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Viggo Mortensen and, again, Anne Heche.

These films were all made within a three-year period, 1997-2000, before Vaughn returned - triumphantly - to comedy.

He has become the screen's preeminent hipster doofus.

Speaking of remakes, given Vaughn's penchant for talking a blue streak with razor-edge timing, he'd be perefect for the Cary Grant role in "His Girl Friday" and the Robert Preston part in "The Music Man."

I mean, the boy was made to sing "Trouble."

(Artwork: Vaughn, with Witherspoon, in "Four Christmases," and an atypically moody portrait shot of the funnyman during his dramatic phase)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

cinema obscura: Robert Mulligan's "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965)

Thanks to Daryl Chin for alerting me to the fact that Natalie Wood's nearly impossible-to-see "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) - produced by Alan J. Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan from Gavin Lambert's novel - will be part of a Warner Home Entertainment boxed-set devoted to Wood.

Due to be released in February, the other titles in the set include remastered versions of Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) and Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962), both longtime VHS and DVD staples, along with such new titles as Gordon Douglas' "Bombers B-52" (1957), in which Wood played opposite her "Gypsy" co-star, Karl Malden, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.; Richard Quine's version of the Helen Gurley Brown tome, "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), which had a solitary showing on
Turner Classics about a year ago, and Joseph Pevney's "Cash McCall" (1960), which also recently turned up for a single viewing on Turner.

"Inside Daisy Clover" is one of those films which divides movie buffs, beloved by some and detested by others. There's no doubt that it's an acquired taste, thanks largely to Wood's bravely quirky, potentially audience-alienating performance in the title role - that of a 1930s teen starlet nurtured and then devoured by Hollywood's monolithic studio system - one Swan Studios, run by a truly frightening Christopher Plummer (a role played the same year he did "The Sound of Music").

Warners, which produced the film, probably saw it as another variation on its Garland version of "A Star Is Born" (1954), what with its pseudo-musical contours that allowed for occasional musical numbers for Wood. But the Pakula-Mulligan team ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with the Proper Stranger," Up the Down Staircase" and
"Baby, the Rain Must Fall")clearly had something altogether different in mind, bringing a quirky, sing-song quality to the movie that its detractors saw as dubious filmmaking. The fact is they were expeerimenting here, aiming for their film to have the same unstable quality that afflicts its troubled heroine and her daffy, unmotherly guardian, a card shark self-named The Dealer (Ruth Gordon).

The estimable co-stars include Robert Redford in one of his earlier roles as a closeted actor; Roddy McDowall as a callous, officious studio type, and Katharine Bard, a fine actress who died young in one of her rare film roles. (Redford was cast at the suggestion of Wood; a year later, they effectively reteamed in Sydney Pollack's "This Property Is Condemned," based on a Tennessee Williams play. Wood would also play walk-ons in two later Redford films, "Downhill Racer" and "The Candidate.")

The film, fashioned as a "movie" film, isn't the least bit sentitmental, least of all about Hollywood, although it brims with compassion. It's not always likable, but for me, thanks to the extraordinary Wood, "Inside Daisy Clover" works as an out-of-control life force, unstoppable.

I always thought of Mulligan's film as a companion piece to a work that came three years later in 1968, Robert Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare" starring Kim Novak and Peter Finch in roles not too dissimilar to the ones played by Wood and Plummer in "Inside Daisy Clover."

Note in Passing: "Inside Daisy Clover" came up on Dave Kehr's blog recently as part of a discussion about Universal's new Gregory Peck collection. (Peck, of course, made "To Kill a Mockingbird" for Mulligan.) Junko Yasutani, a regular on Dave's site, lists "Daisy Clover," along with a few other Mulligan titles - "Love with the Proper Stranger," "The Nickle Ride" and "The Other" - as "all good movies," while Stephen Bowie couldn't disagree more, flatly stating that "'Inside Daisy Clover' is excruciating." As I said, an acquired taste.

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

(Artwork: Two views of Natalie Wood as Gavin Lambert's Daisy Clover; poster art from the film)

Friday, November 14, 2008

The American New Wave, 1989-2009

For all intents and purposes, the modern American New Wave in filmmaking - perhaps better known as the Indie Movement - took root at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival where Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" efficiently disarmed everyone and set a new, more lucrative standard for independent filmmaking.

Soderbergh's effort was that rare film that actually lived up to its clever, oh-so-provocative, attention-grabbing title.

True, America already had a history of independent filmmaking, especially visible in the the 1950s and '60s, but it was a conspicuously spotty one. Frank Perry and John Sayles made small, pleasing strides, while the Mirisch Brothers did autonomous alt flicks with major filmmakers for a major studio, United Artists. And, of course, there was John Cassavetes, who managed to straddle both worlds, two cinematic climates.

For the past 20 years, independent film - and by extension the assorted film festivals that showcase it - soared, both predictably co-opted and compromised by mainstream Hollywood. The films themselves were a novelty; the festivals, well, just another studio marketing tool.

But all good things come to an end. Miramax, the trendiest mini-major of the era, isn't what it used to be and its founders, the Weinstein Brothers, seem much less high-profile and less influential these days. One by one, the majors have dismantled their boutiques which specialized in, well, specialized movies, and films festivals have grown so ubiquitous and so hulking that most of what they now invariably screen is, frankly, crap.

Which brings us back to The Sundance Film Festival, which takes up residence in Park City, Utah.

Much has been written in the past year or so about how its cinematic glow has dimmed and how studios repeatedly get burned trying to outbid one another for films that play well in a festival setting but are usually dead on arrival in art houses. Two outright Sundance successes, and only two, come to mind - Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) and Jason Reitman's "Juno" (2007), both picked up and distributed by Fox Searchlight, the one studio subsidiary that hasn't lost its way.

Or its glow.

Sundance 2009 is busy preparing for its annual festivities (15-25 January, 2009) and the studios and some of the press, still in denial, are scurrying to participate. All of this despite California's Proposition 8.

As you are probably aware, Proposition 8, known variously also as the Limit on Marriage Amendment or the California Marriage Protection Act, won in California, overturning a state Supreme Court ruling that permitted gay marriage. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, reportedly invested heavily in support of the proposition, urging California Mormons to get involved.

Some of the opponents of Proposition 8 - count me in - have suggested boycotting Utah in general and, because it is supported by the California-based studios, The Sundance Film Festival in particular. Sound idea?

Or fuzzy thinking?

You decide.

Maybe this would be a good time for The Sundance Film Festival to take a break, regroup and retool. It runs the risk of being left behind - I mean, given that the American New Wave appears to be dead, stone cold dead.


(Artwork: Park City, Utah, the location of The Sundance Film Festival)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

cinema obscura: Delbert Mann's "The Outsider" (1962)

The young Native American actor Adam Beach was praised for his performance as Ira Hamilton Hayes in Clint Eastwood's recent "Flags of Our Fathers"(2006).

However, Beach was preceded in the role by the equally good Tony Curtis in the Delbert Mann film, "The Outsider," released by Universal in 1962 and yet another title that has not had an official home-entertainment incarnation in any format whatsoever. (There have been bootlegged VHS copies of it floating around, however.)

Hayes was the Puma Indian who attracted unsolicited attention and brief fame because he was one of the men who helped erect the American flag at Iwo Jima, an event that ultimately unraveled his life (if you are to believe the films about him.) William Bradford Huie and Stewart Stern wrote the screenplay for Mann's film, which is a solid little gem worth seeking out.

Note in Passing: Other lost Curtis films from the same era include
Richard Quine's "Sex and the Single Girl" and Vincent Minnelli's "Goodbye, Charlie" (both also from 1964), two lively little sex comedies, with Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds as Tony's leading ladies, respectively, and also "40 Pounds of Trouble" (1962), Norman Jewison's charming take on Damon Runyon's "Little Miss Marker," and Michael Anderson's "Wild and Wonderful" (1964), which paired Curtis with his then-wife Christine Kaufmann in a wry story of a jealous pet poodle; and Good luck finding any of them - both of which were covered here on March 7th.

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

(Artwork: Poster for Universal's "The Outsider")

Saturday, November 08, 2008



The lynch-mob mentality is nothing new to America and, arguably, it was perfected in Hollywood, where mean-spirited people routinely make audience-friendly movies. Seems a tad contradictory, right?

Well, that's show biz, kid. And politics. Yes, now people with pretensions of running the country have adopted Hollywood's "mean girls" spirit.

Part One: Flashback

Norma Jean Baker, an ambitious puppy, came to Hollywood in the late 1940s, and was snapped up by the suits at Twentieth Century-Fox, who renamed her Marilyn Monroe and groomed her for stardom.

Hollywood created Marilyn, exploited her for a little more than 10 years and then set out to destroy her when she exhibited she had a mind.

I've no idea if, when Monroe died of an overdose on August 5th, 1962, it was intentional or accidental, but I am convinced that she was murdered.

By Hollywood. By the studio system.

Part Two: Flashforward
It's August, 2008 and John McCain, the Republican running for President of the United States, takes everyone by surprise when he selects a seeming unknown, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, as his vice president - although it became increasingly clear not only that Palin was actually choosen by certain higher-ups, strategists, in the McCain campaign, but also that she wasn't exactly an unknown entity. She was well-known by a group of influential conservatives pundits, whom she aggressively courted.

An aside: I had an immediate, near-visceral dislike of Palin who, at turns, came across as such dubious movie characters as Tracy Flick ("Election") and Lonesome Rhodes ("A Face in the Crowd"). She seemed jaw-droppingly unqualified and this first impression was exacerbated by the venom she casually spewed about Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

And unlike most people, I don't perceive Palin as a modern woman. Quite the contrary, I find her rather retro, almost creepily so.

When McCain lost the election, without missing a beat, his camp - allegedly unbeknownst to him - set out make Palin the scapegoat.

Like Monroe, she was created by an evil system, exploited by it and then cruelly abandoned by it. She was on her own now.

Consequently, I've gone from a Palin detractor to a Palin sympathizer.

There's no doubt that Palin was complicit in all of this. But to put it bluntly, she's getting a raw deal - a very raw deal - from the very people, overpaid morons, who mindlessly foisted her on us in the first place.

Part Three: Flipflop

I never expected much from Sarah Palin but I did expect more from Rachel Maddow.

My decision to flipflop was prompted by Maddow, the MSNBC pundit who, up until about 9:30 p.m. (est) last night, I admired and enjoyed. I liked the way she thinks. She's smart, savvy, quick and sarcastic. Hey, what can I say? I'm a die-hard liberal.

But, frankly, her coverage on Friday of Palin's sad attempts to defend herself against a huge machine which includes the McCain campaign, probably McCain himself and the carnivorous media (and, by extention, Maddow herself) was outright disgusting. Hands-down. No argument.

It was the first time that I could say Rachel Maddow was toxic.

Of all the people who covered the election, Maddow came across as the most sensible and fair-minded. Certainly, she would see that the villain of the piece is not Palin but the monolith that is the McCain campaign. But no.

Gloating and glib, in a piece titled "The Annotated Palin," Maddow took it on herself to dissect - literally dissect - every sentence in Palin's response to the McCain cowards (probably men) who have set out to destroy her professionally because their hopeless candidate didn't win (a failure that, by the way, has the potential to damage their careers along the way).

Maddow played right into their hands. Her schtick went on for a good six or seven minutes and, as a male feminist, I found it appalling.

I can't decide who's worse - the anonymous McCain person leaking all the anti-Palin stuff to the press or the media which continues to spread the possibly fake (and possibly libelous/slanderous) tips so eagerly. Of course, it's been assumed it's a woman within the McCain camp doing all the spilling - thereby setting woman against woman. Very nice, guys.

And very typical, too.

Anyway, as Palin talked, Maddow gleefully dissected. And we didn't just get her voiceover. No, we were treated to shots of Maddow in the upper left corner of the screen making her trendily snarky facial expressions. Only this time, it looked more as if she was having an extended seizure.

I felt like I was back in Junior High. Depressing.

And the sad fact - something missing on Maddow - is that Palin spoke this time with absolute clarity. There was nothing wrong with what she said.

Very unattractive, Rachel, and very much beneath you. Go back and look at that ugly segment. If you're still happy with it, congratulations. You'll have a career as imposing as, say, Bill O'Reilly's and Rush Limbaugh's.

A dubious aspiration indeed.

Note in Passing: At one point during the election campaign, one of Joe Scarborough's guests astutely opined that Sarah Palin possibly didn't work well with "handlers" probably because she was used to running her career on her own, mom and pop-style, with her husband, Todd.

She has certainly proven this to be right in the past couple of days, as she set out to defend herself. From where I sit, she's better when she, and only she, is in complete control of herself. My Question is, how on earth can she possibly pursue a national office - and run a major campaign for one - if she prefers going solitary, eschewing handlers?

Seems problematic.

(Artwork: Marilyn, Sarah and Rachel who - what? - just doesn't get it)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

cinema obscura: George Gallo's "My Mom's New Boyfriend" (2008)

Meg Ryan, meet Michelle Pfeiffer.

One of Ryan's more recent efforts, George Gallo's "My Mom's New Boyfriend" (which has a 2008 release date stamped on it), quietly surfaces on the Lifetime channel at 9 p.m., on Saturday, November 8th, and without ever having played theatrically in the United States.

The dubious journey of this sort-of romantic comedy, which also stars the estimable Antonio Banderas, Selma Blair and Colin Hanks, echoes what happened earlier this year with Pfeiffer's direct-to-DVD "I Could Never Be Your Woman," which was directed by Amy Heckerling and co-star Paul Rudd. The Lifetime playdate is timed to coincide with the film's DVD release. "My Mom's New Boyfriend" also had a splattering of European engagements - in such places as Turkey, Greece, Poland and Coatia.

What's going on here? Direct-to-DVD is not exactly a new phenomenom, at least for borderline titles with B- and C-list actors. But it's difficult to a handle on the idea of films starring performers of the caliber of Meg Ryan and Michelle Pfeiffer bypassing theaters for home entertainment.

This is not necessarily a judgment of the films' respective qualities (or lack thereof); more often than not, tricky, convoluted financing is usually the reason for films like "My Mom's New Boyfriend" and "I Could Never Be Your Woman" slipping through the cracks.

"My Mom's New Boyfriend" starts out light - detailing what happens when a young FBI agent (Hanks) is assigned to scrutinize his own mother Ryan) when she takes up with a shady guy (Banderas) - and grows more serious in tone (when mom starts to feel betrayed by people on all sides). Blair (as Hanks' fiancée) and Ryan share snappy repartee that keep matters frothy as the film itself morphs into something else.

The title "My Mom's New Boyfriend" makes this sound like a family-friendly film about a tween trying to sabotage his/her mom's new relationship. Prior to release on DVD (and on Lifetime), it was alternately titled "Homeland Security," "More Than You Know" and "My Spy." All lousy.

Note in Passing: Back in the early '90s, Gallo directed "Trapped in Paradise," with Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, and "29th Street," with Danny Aiello, Anthony LaPaglia and Lainie Kazan.

Where's he been?

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

(Artwork: Dustjacket art for the new DVD release of "My Mom's New Boyfriend")

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

cinema obscura: Blake Edwards' "High Time" (1960)

A predecessor to the Rodney Dangerfield-Alan Metter collaboration "Back to School" (1986), Blake Edwards' jaunty, enjoyable "High Time" (1960), based on a story by Garson Kanin, gets a rare showing on HBO Signature at 6:15 a.m. (est) on Saturday, November 8th.

Bing Crosby plays a widower and successful restaurateur who decides, at age 51, to finally get a college education, also electing to live in a dorm with the rest of the guys - much to the chagrin of his grown son and daughter (Nina Shipman and Angus Duncan, respectively).

After a bumpy start, he assimilates into campus life, making fast friends with fellow students Tuesday Weld, Richard Beymer, Fabian, Patrick Adiarte, Jimmy Boyd and Yvonne Craig - and finding some satisfying middle-aged love the second time around (cue for the Henry Mancini song of the same title) with French teacher Professor Gautier (Nicole Maurey).

Gavin MacLeod, who would have a memorable part in Edwards' "The Party" (1968), as well as "Operation Petticoat" (1959), has a role here as one of the college's professors.

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

(Artwork: Tuesday Weld and Fabian; Bing Crosby with Richard Beymer and Weld))

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

pesky question: "The Birds Redux"

Yeah, but who will be playing Suzanne Pleshette?

The remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" that Dave Kehr referred to on his blog several months ago is still active - unfortunately.

Yes, friends, Hollywood is still creatively bankrupt. Apparently, no one can think up original ideas anymore. And it's been asked before but here goes: If Hollywood is so bent on doing remakes, why doesn't it pursue older films that don't fully work, rather than those movies that do?
And why does the place always tackle the classics?

Anyway, checking out its status on IMDb, I learned that Naomi Watts is still the only star on board (in the Tippi Hedren role, natch) and that Martin Campbell is the latest director attached to it. Nothing on who will be playing the Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy roles, although I'm sure it doen't matter, given that the computer-generated avians will probably be the focus, getting preferential treatment.

But what caught my attention is that no fewer than six - count 'em - six writers are working on it. Six. The original needed only Evan Hunter. Six writers working on an adaptation of Daphne De Maurier's short story.

Why on earth would such miminalist material need six writers? Any one out there have any theories?

And wanna bet that De Maurier's short story will be barely recognizable?

Note in Passing: The original Hitchcock film airs on Turner Classics at 2 p.m. (est) on Sunday (October 26th).

(Artwork: The attack begins, Pleshette and Hendren in the original version of "The Birds," and Hedren in the throes of an attack)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (1959)

Disney's most sumptuous "Sleeping Beauty," directed by Clyde Geronimi - summarily/hastily underrated and dismissed when it was first released in 1959 - is back (well, on disc, at least) in all its Super Technirama 70 glory.

With its magnificent villainess, Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley), and songs set to lilting Tchaikovsky melodies, it remains one of my very favorite Disney animations, if not my all-time favorite.

Check out the astute comments on Disney's new "Sleeping Beauty" discs by Dave Kehr in his DVD column in The New York Times.
(Artwork: Widescreen images from "Sleeping Beauty")

Saturday, October 11, 2008

cinema obscura: René Clement's "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain" (1969)

The Charles Bronson film, "Rider on the Rain," is hardly remembered these days. But even less known is its original French version, "Le Passager de la Pluie."

Say what?

When director René Clement and Bronson got together in 1969 to film a disturbing thriller about rape, they elected to film each scene twice -- first in French (with Bronson speaking French) and then in English. The film is "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain." Both versions were released in the United states - the French version in New York and the English-language version, well, everywhere else.

Today, only the English language version prevails. The French is even difficult to find in France. So why doesn't some resourceful DVD genius put out a two-disc version of the film with both languages represented?

Certainly René Clement - who also directed "Forbidden Games" and "Plein Soleil" ("Purple Noon"), among other French-language classics - deserves it.

BTW, the script was written by Sebastien Japrisot, one of the great French mystery writers.

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

(Artwork: Posters for the respective French and American releases of "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain," distributed in America by AVCO-Embassy)

Friday, October 10, 2008

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" (1972) and John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo" (1971)

Effectively buried by the Chucky franchise, Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" was the second film produced by stage hand David Merrick under his contract with Paramount Pictures. (His first was Robert Redford's "The Great Gatsby.") Merrick, who also produced the Robert Marasco play that starred Pat Hingle, Fritz Weaver and Ken Howard, had recruited Marlon Brando, James Mason and Beau Bridges, respectively, to play the lead roles.

Brando, his career at a low point (remember, this was prior to his "Godfather" comeback), balked when he realized Mason had more lines and bolted the production. Merrick, true to form, sued Brando, bringing in Robert Preston, then enjoying a post-"Music Man" career revival, to take over the role. Preston also starred in "Junior Bonner" for Sam Peckinpah the same year.

Marasco's play, adapted here by Leon Prochnik, is a tingly to-do set at an all-boys Catholic boarding school where two teachers - one, played by Preston, popular with the boys, and the other, played by Mason, despised by them - are engaged in a nasty feud that seems to have brought out the darker side of the school in unsettling ways. Suddenly, violence overtakes the student body. Caught between the two teachers - and caught up in the rampant sadism overtaking the school - is its new gym instructor (Bridges), a former student there.

This is by no means a great film - it is clearly second-tier Lumet - but the filmmaker effectively creates a creepy ambience and Mason, Bridges and particularly Preston do wonders with their roles. All in all, it works as an unnerving provocation. Its bizarre disappearance from the movie landscape is hardly deserved.

Working as a companion film to Lumet's movie - and working more successfully in general - is John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo," made a year earlier, also by Paramount, and also based on a play (by Gilles Cooper) and also set in a boys' school where mayhem reigns.

David Hemmings plays a new teacher who comes to suspect that the man he replaced was murdered by the students, with escalating paranoia and mistrust taking over.

Mackenzie, who would go on to direct "The Last Good Friday," "The Honorary Consul" and "The Fourth Protocol," oversees everything with a chilly precision that Hitchcock would appreciate. Mackenzie takes familiar material and reinvents the form with a disconcerting jump-cut style that effectively keeps us on edge and with luscious and scenic cinematography.

The film's unusual title, incidentally, refers to the last three names on Hemmings' daily role call. Of course, the Zigo of the title could be a left-handed trubute to French filmmaker Jean Vigo who directed the grand-daddy of all malevolent boys-school thrillers - "Zero for Conduct"/"Le Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège"(1933).

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

(Artwork: Poster art from Paramount's "Child's Play" and "Unman, Wittering and Zigo"; still shot of Robert Preston in "Child's Play")

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Who Is Sarah Palin?

OK, here's a new parlor game, inspired by the recent debate between the vice presidential nominees and the various "folkisms" (is that even a word?) and the ubiquitous winks that Republican nominee Sarah Palin affected for the occasion:

Which movie character best represents Governor Palin?...

Tracy Flick
Alexander Payne's
"Election" (1999)

Suzanne Stone Maretto
Gus Van Sant's
"To Die For" (1995)

"Lonesome" Rhodes
Elia Kazan's
"A Face in the Crowd" (1957)
Raymond Shaw
John Frankenheimer's
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

Marge Gunderson
The Coen Brothers'
"Fargo" (1996)

Suggestions? Complaints? Feel free to disagree, participate or comment.

(Artwork: Sarah and her would-be interpretors - Reese, Nicole, Andy, Laurence and Francis)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

cinema obscura: Mervyn LeRoy's "Home Before Dark" (1958)

A shameless, obscenely entertaining guilty pleasure, "Home Before Dark" is a tangy, campy soap opera in which director Mervyn LeRoy out-Sirks Douglas Sirk. This handsome 1958 Warner Bros. film deserves the success - and the following - that Sirk's "Imitation of Life" enjoyed a year later. Instead, it has fallen into oblivion. Who knows what happened? Perhaps, at 136 minutes, the film was a tad too long to be fully companionable for audiences. Too long? Personally, I wouldn't sacrifice a minute.

Or perhaps Joseph F. Biroc's handsome black-and-white cinematography put off people who were expecting Technicolored glamour. Or maybe, Jean Simmons, its leading lady, was more of an actress than a Star, unlike "Imitation of Life's" Lana Turner who clearly relished the high-camp theatricality of Sirk's piece.

The skeletal plot, written by Eileen and Robert Bassing (based on a novel by Eileen), is also something of a heartbreaker, with Simmons cast as Charlotte, a woman unwanted by her pretentious husband Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), who conspires with her stepmother Inez (Mabel Albertson) and stepsister Joan (Rhonda Fleming) to steal Charlotte's inheritance from her father. Charlotte is especially fragile, having just been released from a state mental facility in Massachusetts - and it becomes clear what drove her there. Exacerbating matters, her husband is having an affair with the stepsister.

LeRoy masterfully exploits the juiciness of his material, taking it into camp when necessary, such as the delicious sequence in which, Charlotte, more unstable than usual, has her hair done up like Joan's platinum 'do, buys a dress that Joan would wear and generally makes a fool of herself at a dinner party - all to impress Arnold and win his love.

Simmons, who gives a quiet, relatively simple performance considering the material, won the New York Film Critics award for this top-notch, seriously neglected film that has never been made available in any format. Bring it back already.

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

(Artwork: Studio publicity shot of Jean Simmons in Warner Bros.' "Home Before Dark")

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What's with HBO?

Can anyone out there please explain why HBO, the premiere cable channel, doesn't show any of its feature films in wide screen? Never. Ever.

Yes, it shows its own original films letterboxed in wide screen.

And it shows its original series, such as "The Sopranos," in wide screen. Even Bill Maher and Bryant Gumble.

Their theatrical trailers are shown in wide screen, but not the films themselves.


Does anyone know? Can anyone explain this bizarre inconsistency? If so, share.

Enlighten me.

(Artwork: It isn't TV, it's HBO)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gidget Goes Washington

"............Hey, what's so tough about running the country?............"

For better or worse - probably worse - we live in a celebrity-conscious country with a particular communal, unhealthy weakness for Movie Stars.

Our obsessions are dictated by a media which force feed us a controlled diet restricted to one personality, usually to the exclusion of others.

Case in Point: Twenty years ago, Tom Cruise was the Chosen One, singled out from among an auspicious group of young actors, many of them much more accomplished than Cruise. Today, it's Shia LaBeouf, whose exact appeal actually confounds me even more than Cruise's.

The process has to be relentless because the public, way too easily distracted, eventually gets bored. But you also run the risk of overkill.

All of this is in preamble to commenting on the state of politics in general and the current election in particular, a situation wherein the power of "personality" has somehow managed to trump important issues.

Less than two weeks ago, opinion-makers were preoccupied with the impossible chic of Barak Obama. Now, we have a popular new flavor - one Sarah Palin - popular at least with the scoop-driven media.

To be perfectly honest, I really have no idea at all what the public actually thinks of Sarah Palin - does anyone? - only what the pervasive, intrusive, repetitive pundits/opportunists at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have to say.

Right now, she's being marketed to a fare-thee-well - like a movie star. Her party has shrewdly given her an exclusive air, making it about as difficult for the press to get to her as, say, Angelina Jolie. Two weeks ago, very few people even knew who she was; now she's on the cover of Time.

And she already has her own action figure. The machine seems to be moving faster than ususal.

A Star Is Born. Overnight.

The question is, will the public permit itself to be manipulated by the media noisemakers once again, follow suit on cue and obediently, and eagerly, queue up at the box office - er, I mean voting booth?

Only time will tell, but for what it's worth, I purposely avoided using a shot of Palin here because, frankly, she already bores me. Overkill.

(Artwork: Sandra Dee, left, Mary LaRoche and Arthur O'Connell as Sarah and The McCains)

Friday, September 05, 2008

life, documented: God Backwards Is Dog

If there is a God - and at this point in my life, I seriously doubt that there is - how can He (or She) explain the likes of Michael Vick and the animals at his notorious dogfighting compound?

I'm not talking about the four-legged animals that were routinely exposed to horrors there, but to the alleged humans that performed these horrors on innocent creatures - babies, really - on a daily basis.

The picture above is of Georgia, a female pit bull that was rescued from Vick's disgusting Bad Newz Kennels by members of Best Friends Animal Society, who are profiled tonight (at 9 p.m., est.) in Darcy Dennett's new documentary, "Saving the Michael Vick Dogs," airing as a two-hour episode of National Geographic's DogTown series.

Doesn't Georgia have wonderful, trusting eyes?

She was forcibly bred on a daily basis, with her tormentors using what Vick called "rape stands" to keep the females stationary while they were being... Well, you know. Georgia also had all of her teeth pulled, presumably by a professional vet (and reprehensible human being) so that she would not bite the males sexually mauling her.

Yes, the ugly idea of dogfighting is just the tip of a really treacherous iceberg. What precedes it is truly grotesque and has rarely been documented - until now. This is a story that even Oprah, an avowed dog-lover, ignored.

These poor, unsuspecting creatures, unlucky to be adopted by animal abusers, were enslaved and tormented 24/7 for their fights - in genuinely horrific training programs. I've always been rather disturbed by the arbitrariness of animals' fates - some end up as pampered pets, some as food. In the case of dogs, they can be fortunate enough to become someone's companion - Man's Best Friend - or arbitrarily (there's that word again) condemned as cheap cash cows for the greedy and inhumane.

The females, like Georgia, are literally bred to death producing puppies that are then (1) strapped onto treadmills for hours at a time, (2) conditioned to hate their own species, (3) starved for days at a time and (4) punished in unspeakable ways when they fail to "perform."

And other animals – cats, kittens, puppies and other dogs – are sacrificed as "training bait."

I think it’s safe to assume that these animals weren't cuddled or played with, or walked, brushed or even patted on the head. Instead, they have their ears cut off, probably while still conscious. And then, as we've read, they are "executed" via hanging, drowning, body slams and worse when they are no longer useful – i.e., profitable.

I can’t even begin to imagine the constant stress that all these animals experience during their short, sad lives. It still goes on - in other "kennels." And I truly believe these poor animals are driven insane by this treatment.

Dennett's documentary profiles Georgia and three other unfortunate, traumatized dogs that Best Friends is trying to rehabilitate.

The odd thing - what's so touching - is how forgiving these animals are, how gentle they are. I find it hard to wrap my mind around a God who would put these innocents at the mercy of thugs.

As Anita Gates points out in her excellent review in The New York Times today, it is unlikely that Vick needed the money brought in by this cruel, dubious business. He made millions tossing a ball. He had it made.

No, this is simply a matter of pure, mean-spirited cruelty for the sake of cruelty - cruelty almost gleefully executed. And that a black man, whose ancestors more than likely experienced approximately what Vick's dog endured, would participate in this torture is truly mind-blowing.

Vick, still serving his 23 months in prison, apologized to the kids he let down. He never bothered apologizing to the animals he casually abused.

So much for Man’s Best Friend, right?

Note in Passing: Check out the hugely affecting Peace for Dogs video. Sweet. Not at all graphic.

(Artwork: Two views of Georgia, saved from a life of forced breeding and other assorted daily cruelties in the documentary, "Saving the Michael Vick Dogs," presented as part of National geographic's "Dogtown" series; two dogs tear apart Vick - only in effigy unfortunately)

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Old movies, because of what they are, serve as their own documentations. If one is curious about a certain title – or about a performance in it – there’s no reason to resort to archival materials or to research what was written about the film at the time of its release.

As wonderful as it is to peruse the vintage reviews of critics Stanley Kaufmann, Pauline Kael, James Agee, Manny Farber, Dwight MacDonald, Graham Greene and Andrew Sarris, the fact is, one simply has to look at the movie itself, first-hand, to form an educated opinion.

Thank God for film.

With theater, it’s different. Until recently, stage productions were not preserved on film or video (and most contemporary shows, for some bizarre, short-sighted reason, still aren’t). A reputedly legendary theater performance would die when the show folded and, consequently, all that’s left of stage hits from 50 or so years ago – Broadway’s celebrated Golden Era – are the dim memories of the remaining few people who saw them.

I bring up this contrast because, in a depressingly routine piece in today’s New York Times, titled “Singing! Dancing! Adapting! Stumbling!,” second-string theater critic Charles Isherwood continues the legend of just how great Ethel Merman was in the original 1959 production of “Gypsy.”

Isherwood flat out states that it was a “fatal” decision not to cast Merman in a film version of the show – “fatal” being an awfully dramatic adjective even for an excitable theater critic to bandy about so freely.

But wait.

Exactly how does Isherwood know that Merman was great? Is he basing his opinion solely on the creaky old Columbia original-cast recording? He certainly didn’t see the original 1959 production. He couldn’t have: My references show Isherwood being born in 1964, five years after “Gypsy” opened and closed on Broadway. (Ben Brantley, the Times' chief theater critic, was only five when "Gypsy" opened.) No, Isherwood's comment is based strictly on Broadway folklore, dusty opinions handed down from generation to generation and most likely distorted with each passing.

It’s hearsay - hearsay written with authority, albeit empty authority. And I’m not sure that hearsay, repeating an old opinion, has a valid place in an essay trying to pass itself off as original critical analysis.

Hearsay comes cheap.
At the risk of seriously dating myself here, I happened to actually see the original Broadway production of “Gypsy” – it was my first Broadway show – and have memories of Merman as a loud, forceful singer but a rather indifferent, aggressive, although not-altogether-unpleasant actress.

For some reason, the word “overrated” comes to mind.

Except for a few solipsistic theater types, I doubt if anyone seriously thinks that Merman could have carried a film of “Gypsy.” I’d be willing to wager that even Ethel herself was realistic enough to know that it would never happen, her film work being generally uneventful up to that time.

Exacerbating this matter, the Times TV section ran the following unsigned opinion when Turner Classics recently aired Warners’ 1962 version of “Gypsy”: “Russell can’t touch Broadway’s Merman.” Wanna bet that this anonymous Times writer didn’t see the original stage production either?

Hearsay. It’s all hearsay. And it’s ... worthless.

Much more worthwhile would be an analysis of why "Gypsy" has never been particularly popular with the general public. True, critics and theater aficionados love it, and gay men adore it, but the fact remains that it has never enjoyed a long run in any of its various incarnations.

Even such lesser shows as "Beatlemania" and 1989's all-but-forgotten "Grand Hotel" had longer runs. The public likes "Gypsy" alright but it also seems to keep it at arm's length, rather cautiously. Let's just say that, to Middle America, it's no "Phantom of the Opera."

The Russell referred to in that Times TV quote is, of course, Rosalind Russell, who gave a nuanced, fully-realized performance in the film. In a way, the Times is right, in spite of itself: Russell can’t touch Merman. That’s because she’s way ahead of Merman in the role. Russell’s better.

To paraphrase what I said earlier, we can’t go back and evaluate Merman’s performance. We can only read tattered, yellowed old reviews. But Russell’s performance on film – and on video and DVD – speaks for itself. It’s there to see and to savor. We don’t need hearsay.

We can see for ourselves that she's actually very good in the film.

Incidentally, Russell, who sang in “Wonderful Town” on Broadway just a few years earlier, couldn’t meet the demands of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score, and the great Lisa Kirk was brought in to dub most of the songs. The vocal match-up remains uncanny. And one more thing: The late, husky-voiced Kirk, with her driving, razor-sharp delivery, is inarguably the definitive interpreter of the Styne-Sondheim songs – better than Merman and, yes, way better than (dare I say it?) Patti Lupone.

I’m curious. What do you think of critics clinging to hearsay in reviews, giving the impression of having seen something that they, well, haven't?

It’s a habit I personally find hugely deceptive and vaguely disreputable.

But critics do it all the time. I mean, Peter Bogdanovich’s exquisite "At Long Last Love" is usually damned by people who haven’t seen it, who have only heard about it - although it does have a loyal following.

Note in Passing: BTW, the Times piece that inspired this post is one of those journalism perennials - in this case, a critic’s self-debate about the pros and cons of stage musicals and their film versions.

Am I imagining things or is this the umpteenth time that New York’s paper of record has wasted precious news space on this subject? It seems every time a new film musical is released, this standard piece is hauled out.

Anyway, reading it – or trying to read it – I was reminded of a weary old whore tired of using the same dated tricks on her johns. Flailing around for a hook this time out, the Times uses the occasion to trash, once again, the new movie version of “Mamma Mia!,” one of its film critics already having had a go at it. But the Times isn’t alone here. No, critics in general have been disproportionately enraged by "Mamma Mia!"

With their noted attention to (easily-manipulated) minutia and with all the subtlety and pettiness of schoolyard bullies, America's diminished and diminishing movie critics have ganged up on this harmless, purely pleasurable film as if they were engaged in a personal fight with something the approximate size of - oh, let's see - the U.S. government.

You know, there's a reason why critics have been traditionally stereotyped as miserable people deserving of their misery.

(Artwork: We only have dimmed memories - and old photos - of Merman in "Gypsy"; Russell, with a little help from Lisa Kirk, performs the seminal "Rose's Turn" at the conclusion of the 1962 film version)

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Notorious Landlady" Returns!

I'm back from self-imposed limbo, feeling better and eager to share thoughts on overlooked movies - starting with Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady," heroically rescued from oblivion by Turner Classics which airs it at 2 p.m. (est) on Tuesday, August 12th.

Here is Jack Lemmon in a selection of shots bounding through the air in the film's climatic and wonderful chase sequence, which Quine and composer George Duning set to selections from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance."

Makes me want to fly, too. Enjoy!
The End.

(Artwork: Jack Be Nimble - Lemmon at work on his own stuntwork in "The Notorious Landlady")

Friday, July 18, 2008

Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957)

Jack Lemmon turned in one of his finest, most assured and confident and also most unheralded performances in 1957's ”Operation Mad Ball,” Richard Quine's long-lost military farce that will be receiving a rare showing on Turner Classics at 8 a.m. (est) on Saturday, July 19th.

To date, Sony has yet to release this minor gem on any home entertainment format, although it was reported recently on "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia," Dave Kehr's lively blog, that both it and "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), also directed by Quine, would be part of an upcoming boxed set devoted to Lemmon.

"Mad Ball," written by Jed Harris, Blake Edwards and Arthur Carter (adapted from Carter's play), is something of a '50s Playboy cartoon that can't be maintained as a single-frame strip and comes hilariously to life - what with the usual barracks of horny guys quietly lusting after female officers who are enticingly buttoned up in their regulation uniforms.

Lemmon plays Pvt. Hogan, the incorrigible schemer who hatches a plan to bring the men and (willing) women together at an illegal military bash to end all illegal military bashes. It's an ensemble piece with perfectly cast ensemble performers but, still, Lemmon manages to take center stage and command it but without ever really hogging it.

His Pvt. Hogan plays like a natural extention of his Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts" (1955), coated with a nice knowing swagger and a little more maturity. Actually, Hogan plays like a combination of Pulver and Roberts and I've a hunch that Lemmon planned it just that way.

His smooth delivery of the unexpectedly literate dialogue and witty banter (you can see Edwards's fingerprints on most of the quips) may be better than his line readings in even "The Apartment." This is Lemmon during his naturalist period, with no finicky bits of business to get in the way.

And his remarkable rapport and generosity with the cast around him only hightlights his - and the film's - naturalism.

Look for memorable bits by then-newcomers Dick York, William Hickey, William Leslie, James Darren, Roger Smith, Paul Picerni, L. Q. Jones, David McMahon, Sheridan Comerate and Dick Crockett (director Quine's right-hand man off screen and frequent co-star in his films) as the various guys in awe of Hogan's assorted shameless cons.

Ernie Kovacs, in a terrific film debut (and the first of three films that he made with Quine and Lemmon), makes a fastideous villain as Hogan's rigid nemesis; the always-reliable Arthur O'Connell is the camp's endearingly befuddled commander; Kathryn Grant (Crosby) supplies the sweet love interest, and Jeanne Manet, a wonderful, little-know French actress who disappeared from the screen far too soon, is outstanding as Madame LaFour, the cynical French woman who provides Hogan with a location for his mad ball - for a price.

And then there's Mickey Rooney, running, jumping and dancing all over the place as a hipster soldier (and York's cousin) who talks like a '50s beat poet way ahead of his time. The film is set in 1945.

In many ways, "Operation Mad Ball" is the '50s precursor to Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970), boasting the same amount of irreverent, dark humor. The only difference is that it uses Coke in lieu of blood for one of the film's funny visual gags. (You have to see the film to get it.)

I mean, here is a military comedy that, not unlike "M*A*S*H," locates humor in the word "coagulate."

Note in Passing: The title song performed over the film's opening credits was composed by Fred Karger with lyrics by director Quine. It is sung by an uncredited Sammy Davis, Jr.

(Artwork: A newspaper display ad for Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" and the usual studio publicity shots - standard for that era - of stars Lemmon, Kovacs, Grant and O'Connell)