Monday, April 28, 2008

mainstream, independent and misunderstood

How could the critics in 1958 so misread Hitchcock's

Well, the initial failure of "Vertigo," followed by a belated about-face by the opinion makers, isn't exactly an isolated incident in film history. If you haven't noticed, those Hollywood flops that are invariably promoted to masterwork status all have one thing in common - a shared thread, so to speak. None of them fits the industry's definition of a mainstream film. And that's because, well, they aren't.

For years, before the Hollywood studios co-opted the independent film scene, setting up shop with a bunch of boutique divisions, the indies coexisted side-by-side with, if somewhat in the shadow of, the big mainstream movies.

There have always been independent films. It's not as if they suddenly sprang to life with the emergence of Steven Soderbergh or, going back in time, with either John Sayles or John Cassavetes, or still further back, with Orson Welles. They've always been there, lurking on the fringes of the business, generally ignored.

But there was a time - in the late 1950s and early '60s - when some of the majors tried their hands at films that had the contours of the independents. Released wide, they seemed to confuse both audiences and critics alike, doing underwhelming business and generating indifferent reviews, to put it mildly. No one "got" them. They were derided and ultimately "dismissed," in all senses of that word.

Hitchcock's "Veritgo," for all intents and purposes, was an independent film. True, it's a sizable, glossy film, made by a major Hollywood director with major Hollywood stars, but it has the soul and the constitution of a smaller maverick movie. Paramount, which released it, didn't have a specialty divison at the time - there was no Paramount Vantage - and the studio, more or less, threw the film into the marketplace recklessly. It wasn't prepared to handle this kind of movie, and the critics and the public certainly weren't prepared to watch it.

And so, it failed. It was doomed to in 1958.

"Vertigo" would be followed in the next few years by films that shared its kinds of artistry and ambition and that would suffer the same demoralizing fate - Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Robert Rossen's "Lilith," Joseph Losey's "Boom!," George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck," Arthur Penn's "Mickey One" and Hitchcock's "Marnie," more or less a companion film to "Vertigo." You have to hand it to Hitch. He may have been burned by his "Vertigo" experience, but that didn't stop him from trying to duplicate it.

Anyway, all of them - "The Misfits," "A Countess from Hong Kong" and "Mickey One" - were met with indifference, sometimes even contempt. Remember Bosley Crowther's infamous pan of Penn's arty "Bonnie and Clyde"? There were a handful of critics who, after dismissing the film, went back and re-evalutated it in a more positive light after it caught on with the public.

In 1967, 20th Century-Fox foolishly opened Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" at the Radio City Music Hall, probably because the film stars Audrey Hepburn and the studio reasoned that all Hepburn films are supposed to play Radio City. Well, the movie didn't last there very long. It had one of the legendary theater's shortest runs. It looked as if "Two for the Road" would become one of those films, like "The Misfits" and "A Countess from Hong Kong," that studios were too embarrassed to discuss and were proned to hide. But something happened. Someone at Fox must have realized what Donen was attempting with the film. It was given a second chance, reopening a week later at the Plaza Theater, decidedly an art house, where it enjoyed a long, healthy run.

And where it was understood.

Most of these films were eventually rediscovered and, seen in a new light, re-evaluated. With both "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Two for the Road," the vindication was almost immediate. With "Vertigo," it took longer. Much longer. It was a slower process. But it did happen, perhaps because time finally caught up with its astute, deep-seated psychology and its cinematic dreaminess - two qualities that underline Hitchcock's intensely personal statement on the fear of falling, the fear of falling ... in love.

"Vertigo" may be the definitive art film - and "The Misfits" and "Two for the Road" and "Marnie" are right up there with it.

By the late '60s, the climate had changed in Hollywood. It became the New Hollywood - at least for a while - and the studios, audiences and critics were more receptive to what I like to call Mainstream Art Films. "Easy Rider." "Medium Cool." "Midnight Cowboy." "Diary of a Mad Housewife." "Five Easy Pieces." "Play It as It Lays." All from major studios. All independent-minded.

But this new policy didn't help Terry Gilliam's much-abused "Brazil," which Universal seemed to willfully misunderstand.

With their aforementioned boutique divisions, the studios have now solved the problem of their in-house art films. Still, one has to wonder about those films today that the critics and audiences are failing to "get." What contemporary masterpieces are there that will receive their delayed recognition only after being underestimated?

For me, Tony Scott's "Domino" - his 2005 film about the alleged adventures of the late Laurence Harvey's daughter, starring Keira Knightly as the titular Domino Harvey - comes immediately to mind.

I'd like to think that Scott's hastily maligned, bracingly adventurous film will finally, triumphantly, stand the test of time. Just like "Vertigo"

Note in Passing: The Sundance Channel will telecast Losey's "Boom!," starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noel Coward on Saturday morning, May 3rd at 6 (est). It's a Universal film and apparently the studio made a deal with Sundance to broadcast titles that, by all accounts, Universal could care less about. All of them are Mainstream Arts films, such as Frank Perry's "Play It as It Lays," which was telecast on Sundance today and will be repeated at 7 p.m. (est) on Saturday, May 10th; George Roy Hill's "Slaughterhouse-Five"; James Bridges' "September 30th, 1955," and Charles Jarrott's "Mary, Queen of Scots," with the dynamic acting duo, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, being telecast Sunday, May 4th at 6:45 a.m. (est).

(Artwork: Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which confounded audiences in 1958; Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Huston's "The Misfits," and poster art for Losey's "Boom!" and of Keira Knightley as Tony Scott's "Domino")

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

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Operation Mad Ball" Sighting

It's Turner to the rescue.

Richard Quine's delightfully anarchic and long-lost
"Operation Mad Ball,"
the Jack Lemmon comedy never released on home entertainment by its maker, Columbia Pictures, will be broadcast on Saturday, July 19th at 8 a.m. (est).

This is great news, given that, inexplicably, neither "Operation Mad Ball" (1957) nor "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), also directed by Quine and starring Lemmon, was included in the deal that Turner struck last year with Sony to broadcast 500 Columbia titles from the 1950s and '60s. I use the word inexplicable because Sony managed to include the likes of "The Flying Fontaines" (1959) and "The New Interns" (1964) in the agreement.

A Turner rep explains the sudden turnaround this way: "While 'Operation Mad Ball' and 'The Notorious Landlady' weren’t part of the Columbia deal, we do have access to the films for our air through Sony."

So the good news is that "Operation Mad Ball" will see the light of day again. And hopefully, the next step will be a long-overdue DVD release.

The not-so-good news is that there is no air date for "The Notorious Landlady." So far.

Keep your fingers crossed.

(Artwork: Arthur O'Connell, Jack Lemmon, Kathryn Grant/Crosby and Ernie Kovacs in a publicity shot for Richard Quine's "Operation Mad Ball")

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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, April 24, 2008

cinema obscura: Two Lost Lemmons

Jack Lemmon, unfortunately, spent the first ten years of his film career as a contract player at Columbia Pictures which, of course, is now in the hands of Sony.

Why “unfortunately”? Well, because, if he had apprenticed at almost any other studio – say, Fox, Warner Bros. or Universal – there undoubtedly would have been at least one boxed DVD set, perhaps two, of his work in the marketplace by now.

But Sony, which arguably has the least resourceful home-entertainment division, has done virtually nothing with Lemmon’s Columbia work, so much so that the idea of a boxed set devoted to Jack Lemmon seems a little absurd at this time.

Of the 14 titles that Lemmon made for Columbia under his original contract, only five have made it to DVD – Richard Quine’s “My Sister Eileen” (1955), Delmer Daves’ “Cowboy” (1958), Quine’s “Bell, Book & Candle” (1958) and his “It Happened to Jane” (1959), and, oddly enough, Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961).

These five, of course, had previous lives on VHS, along with five others - Jack’s debut film, George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You” (1954), as well as H.C. Potter’s “Three for the Show” (1955), Robert Parrish’s “Fire Down Below” (1957) and the two titles that Jack made back-to-back for David Swift, “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” (1963) and “Good Neighbor Sam” (1964). These five are not available on DVD.

That leaves four Lemmon/Columbia titles that have remained naggingly elusive in terms of home entertainment, willfully ignored by the studio ever since the video revolution began in the early 1970s.

Missing are Mark Robson’s still contemporary “Phffft!” (1954), based on a witty script by George Axelrod, and “You Can’t Run Away from It” (1956) Dick Powell’s quasi-musical remake of “It Happened One Night.” But at least these two surfaced on Turner Classics in the past new months.

Much more problematic - disturbing, actually - is the exact whereabouts of two of Jack’s best comedies, both made in collaboration with director Richard Quine – “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), a military romp, co-written by Blake Edwards, that remains the ‘50s precursor to “M*A*S*H,” and the sly and sophisticated “The Notorious Landlady” (1962), adapted from a Margery Sharp short story by Edwards and Larry Gelbart.

These two (1) have never been on video in any format, (2) have not been on laser, (3) are not on DVD, (4) are not part of the 500-title package of Columbia titles recently leased to Turner by Sony and, unless I’m wrong, (5) haven’t been in TV syndication for at least a decade.

My befuddled, monosyllabic response to all this is: Why?

I started asking questions about them – directly to people who work/worked for Sony – about three years ago, and have yet to receive a straight answer.

Among the Sony reps I contacted were Marc Rashba, John Reina, Clint Culpepper, Fritz Friedman and former home-division head, Ben Feingold, who reportedly was responsible for all those Three Stooges shorts that have been so lovingly transferred to DVD by the company. None of them responded to my inquiry, much worse than being given the run-around.

The one Sony person who came through with anything resembling information is Grover Crisp, who worked on the recent restoration of Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” for Sony.

In an email dated August 19, 2005, Crisp wrote:

“The only thing, unfortunately, that I cannot confirm is if and when these two titles will be released on DVD. I will look to see if they are on next year's schedule and get back to you. However, I can assure you that both these films have been recently restored, have new prints available, have been transferred to HD, etc., and are available and not at all lost. They are in great shape.”

Sounds good, right? But that was nearly three years ago and, frankly, what good is the restoration of “Operation Mad Ball” and “The Notorious Landlady” if no one can see either?

These two titles are especially worthy and have great credentials. "Operation Mad Ball," which Edwards wrote in tandem with Jed Harris and Arthur Carter, co-stars Ernie Kovacs (in his first film), Mickey Rooney and Arthur O'Connell. "The Notorious Landlady," which Edwards co-wrote with Gelbart (TV's "M*A*S*H" and Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"), co-stars Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Estelle Winwood, Lionel Jeffries, Maxwell Reed and Phileppa Bevans. Edwards and Gelbart came up with an unusually witty, literate script for "Landlady," which received particularly enthusiastic reviews from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times and The New Yorker's Edith Oliver.

BTW, Quine, a house director at Columbia, guided Lemmon through five titles there – “My Sister Eileen,” “Operation Mad Ball,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “It Happened to Jane” and“The Notorious Landlady.” (Another Lemmon-Quine collaboration, 1965’s “How to Murder Your Wife," was made for UA.)

Lemmon and Quine more than warrant a boxed-set of their work at Columbia. Billy Wilder may have been the director who put Jack Lemmon on the map, but Quine was also an important recurring thread throughout his life and career. (Both Wilder and Quine, incidentally, served as Jack’s best men when he married Felicia Farr in Paris in 1962.)

Also, before there was the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau/Billy Wilder triumverate, there was the Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine teaming – in “Operation Madball,” “Bell, Book and Candle” and “It Happened to Jane.” You could say that Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine anticipated Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder.

For that matter, Kovacs himself also deserves more DVD exposure. I'm amazed that, considering the recent interest in Kovacs' TV and stand-up work, most of his films have yet to be committed to any form of home entertaiment – and, again, he made quite a few for Columbia. (An aside: While we were working on my book on Lemmon, Jack told me that Harry Foster Malone, the villain that Kovacs plays in “It Happened to Jane,” was based directly on Columbia head, Harry Cohn, who died while the trio was making "Bell, Book and Candle" at Columbia the year before. Kovacs even affected Cohns' look, cosmetically, for his wicked impersonation, donning a bald plate for the film.)

There's no doubt that the home-entertainment divisions of the studios are in desperate need of film advocates - knowledgable people who are willing to fight for deserving titles that are being casually overlooked.

Finally, about a year ago, for some bizarre reason, “The Notorious Landlady” was revived in Paris. That occasion gave me some hope that a DVD would be on the way. No such luck.

But wait. A DVD of the film has recently surfaced and is available through Movies Unlimited. A friend who works there verified this but hastened to add that it’s a non-Sony DVD being distributed by an outside company.

Apparently, “The Notorious Landlady” has lapsed into public-domain purgatory. And my quess is that “Operation Mad Ball” is right there alongside it.

I promptly contacted David Bishop, the current head of Sony Home Entertainment, and received – you guessed it – no response.

Jack Lemmon deserves better from the company that discovered him, put him in movies and sold him as "A Guy You're Gonna Like." But Sony is too busy to worry about the likes of Jack Lemmon. Word is that it is working busily on restoring one of David Lean's lesser titles, "A Passage to India." I'm sure that - what? - at least a half dozen movie freaks out there are clamoring for that one.

Now you know why the word "elitism" has taken on less-than-flattering connotations lately.

A case of studio elitism? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's just plain old apathy. Maybe no one there cares.


1. There are two other films that Lemmon made for Columbia years after his contract there expired – Clive Donner’s film of the Murray Schisgal play, “Luv” (1967), who made it to video but not DVD, and James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” (1979) which is available on DVD.

2. As you'll see if you check out the responses here, both "It Should Happen to You" and "Fire Down Below" were once available on DVD, but apparently only fleetingly. Neither seems to be around any longer, not even, unbelievably, "It Should Happen to You," a minor classic.

3. And to Dave Kehr for his wonderful site and for being so supportive of other film sites.

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

(Artwork: Jack Lemmon in his early days at Columbia; a quote ad from a 1962 copy of The New York Times for "The Notorious Landlady," an ad for "Operation Mad Ball," the ad for the French 2007 revival of "The Notorious Landlady" and a shot of Lemmon in his later years.)

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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

"Baby Mama" Makes Do-Do

As good as a movie year that 2007 was, that's how disappointing 2008 has become.

An in less than six months.

An excellent case in point - and an even better representative of the year as it's shaping up (or down) to be - is the Tine Fey-Amy Poehler sitcom, "Baby Mama," which on paper at least sounds promising.

The idea of Fey playing an uptight, brittle, self-involved careerist and Poehler essaying the role of the rather overaged surrogate inexplicably selected by Fey to carry her spawn makes the mind go crazy with rude, evil, near-abberant and hilarious thoughts.

But there's nothing remotely rude, evil, abberant or hilarious in this happy-face movie. The two stars bring none of the edge that we've come to associate with them to the proceedings but instead make themselves fully accessible to the gloomy kid-centric obsession that seems to drive every PG- and PG-13-rated film these days. Yes, children are our future, but do they have to be the future of movies as well? Seems that way.

First-time filmmaker Michael McCullers keeps everything impersonal and bland, so as not to offend the stroller moms who are clearly his target audience.

His hastily executed final scenes make no sense whatsoever and require even more suspension of disbelief than the rest of his film. For example, why would the narrative bring Poehler close and cozy with Romany Malco's doorman and then drop their potential romance by fade-out?

Instead, Poehler somehow ends up back with her loser, white-trash boyfriend (a game Dax Shepard). Hey, but at least he's white, see?

This abrupt, seemingly 11th-hour about-face has "focus group" written all over it. But let's face it. "Baby Mama" was made for focus groups.

Not us.

Like most of this year's films.

(Artwork: Fey and Poehler in the compromised "Baby Mama")

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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, April 20, 2008

Judd Apatow's Dick Flicks

I've been waiting around for the marketing guy - I assume it was a guy - who coined the loathsome expression, Chick Flick, to come up with a comparable companion term for male-oriented films.

Now that Judd Apatow has successfully created a cottage industry making romantic comedies about lovelorn, but still manly men, the time has come. I'm tired of waiting. I'm stepping in and arbitrarily declaring that such Apatow-made and/or -sanctioned hits as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Superbad," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and the latest, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," officially constitute a new sub-genre - ta-da! - the Dick Flick.

Remarkably, none of these films has been bad. They've ranged from excellent ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") to fine-but-overrated ("Knocked Up") to smoothly, if uneventfully first-rate ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). Apatow, a genuine auteur, has his formula down to a science. His movies have offered us a gallery of guys who don't talk like guys at all, but rather like glib, highly efficient comedy writers, and do so in a way that's alternately entertaining and instructive but never intimidating. Apatow's universe is populated with guys the way they should be but rarely ever are in real life. Laugh and learn, each film seems to advise.

This is especially true of the shrewdly seductive "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," directed by Nicholas Stoller and anchored by an appealing (and wholly unexpected) screen presence named Jason Segel, who is something of a watered-down, less smarmy Vince Vaughn. (Nothing against Vince Vaughn here; he's terrific.) As a brokenhearted guy trying to shake the title character, Segel makes jokes that are wistful but never mean-spirited, cries often, curses only occasionally and gamely exposes his large, fleshy body in the bookend scenes that open and close the film.

Male frontal nudity apparently is Apatow's cause celebré. He thinks it's long overdue for the much-protected, far-too-respected men on screen to be as exploited as much and as often as women have been since the year One. I agree. My problem is that I'm not sure that Apatow is the man to do it, considering that his target audience - 20-something guys - is the least likely to be interested in seeing other men nekkid. Too threatening.

Plus the actors who make up Apatow's resident company aren't exactly fantasy figures. That is, they're not the movie hunks that the few women in his audience would be interested in seeing undressed.

Right now, all Apatow has succeeded in proving is that, unlike the female form, the male body is more utilitarian than beautiful.

But at least it's a start.

Note in Passing: One Apatow talent that has been just about completely overlooked by the media is his keen eye for women. To date, his films have given us such appealing women as Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Fischer, Katherine Heigl, Leslie Mann, Amy Adams, Leslie Bibb and, in "Sarah Marshall," Kristen Bell and the wildly attractive Mila Kunis, who has the dark good looks of a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as Zeta-Jones' soft, sonorous voice. Thank you, Mr. Apatow.

(Artwork: Affable auteur Judd Apatow bares it all for manhood)

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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, April 13, 2008

critical quackery: A.O. Scott Rambles

I hate to sound snarky, but I don't quite understand the point of A.O. Scott's piece today in The New York Times. I know that it was positioned as an essay on the return of Roger Ebert to print criticism - and also, circuitously, on the state of modern film criticism in general. (Unless you haven't heard, it's going through a disturbing upheaval.)

Nevertheless, these two points never congealed. I've no idea how the article was pitched but it emerged in print as a formless hybrid - an unreadable mishmash which, in the end, said absolutely nothing.

I am more than a little appalled at the amount of space alotted to it by the Times. That kind of newspaper space - which underlines the "importance" of the piece (an importance which, frankly, just wasn't there) - is precious in these sad days of fading dailies.

And it's difficult to fathom that this sloppy, indulgent essay actually passed through a series of editors at the Times.

Any thoughts?

(Artwork: The New York Times' A.O. Scott)

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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, April 10, 2008

The Curious Clout of Edward Norton

Brooks Barnes wrote an interesting piece today on Universal's upcoming Marvel Comics film, "The Incredible Hulk," for The New York Times.

Now that I'm comfortably retired from full-time reviewing, I could care less about movies such as "The Incredible Hulk." No, what fascinated me about the article is what Barnes wrote about the film's star, Edward Norton:

"Mr. Norton and Marvel, which has the right of final approval on the film, have sparred in recent weeks over trims, among other issues, said studio executives involved, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak publicly. Mr. Norton — who was hired to rewrite the script along with playing the lead — has made it clear he won’t cooperate with publicity plans if he’s not happy with the final product, these people said.

"A spokeswoman for Mr. Norton said he had no comment. (David) Maisel (chairman of Marvel Studios) brushed off the friction as par for the course.

“'When you get to this point in the process, there are always lots of passionate discussions,' he said. 'Edward is very passionate. He is as passionate about the Hulk as we are.' (For those unaccustomed to Hollywood speak, 'very passionate' roughly translates to a seven on the 'he’s a difficult person' scale.)"

This isn't the first time that Edward Norton has made waves during a production, either rewriting or re-editing films (or both), and while I fully appreciate his prodigious talent as an actor, I also can't help wondering why studios sit still for it.

I mean, think about it: It's not as if Norton is a huge box-office star, along the lines of Tom Cruise, guaranteeing the studios big opening weekends. (Heck, even Tom Cruise isn't Tom Cruise anymore.) I'm not sure there is anyone who rushes out to see a movie because Edward Norton is in it.

And it isn't as if Norton has the credibility of being an Oscar winner. He's been nominated twice - the second time almost ten years ago - but he has no golden statue to give him the leverage you'd think he'd need in order to rewrite and re-edit films.

And he certainly isn't a wildly charismatic performer, a la George Clooney who everyone seems to like, or even a vaguely threatening one like Sean Penn. Fact is, we have no idea of what Edward Norton's off-screen personality is like.

And, finally, he is not the stuff of celebrity gossip. Fans don't hang on his every word and no one knows who he's currently dating - and, more to the point, no one seems to care.

So, I repeat my question: Exactly why do the studios seem so intimidated? Am I missing something?

If you have any ideas/theories, share.

(Artwork: The persuasive Edward Norton)

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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