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))