Tuesday, March 31, 2009

to hell and back

“Vicktory to the Underdog: Hell and Back,” an exceptional new documentary by famed tattoo artist Brandon Bond, was the centerpiece attraction of The Great Pit Ball, a fundraiser held in Las Vegas on 14 March and devoted to educating the public about the Pit Bull, a breed that has been stereotyped and demonized by society and, of course, made infamous and sympathetic (for the first time) by the Michael Vick case.

Hence, the title.

Recruited by the Georgia SPCA, which helped rescue the Vick dogs, and working in conjunction with Tia Maria Torres of the Villalobos (Ca.) Rescue Center, Bond was able to film the rescue but he was not able to use any of the footage until a gag order was lifted - until now.

The resulting film was presented along with a silent auction, a dinner and a rock concert, in Vegas (that's Clint Eastwood and wife, Dina, right, at the event posing with Pixie Acia) to benefit Villalobos. And all proceeds from the sale of the DVD of "Vicktory to the Underdog" will also go help and support the Pit Bull which, as a dog trained to fight, is systematically tortured on a daily basis, both physically and mentally, and, in the case of the females, subjected to forcible and repeated breeding.

"Pit bulls face so many adversaries," Bond says, "that we want people to see how they really are and stop treating them so unfairly.”

Among the many injustices is the breed-specific legislation of some states that arbitrarily causes the death of thousands of innocent dogs.

Frankly, it's the canine equivalent of racial profiling.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Marley & Lucy

Ever the contrarian, I spent most of the recent holiday movie season uninvolved. I could care less about Kate Winslet's naked pursuit of her very own Oscar (Surprise! She won!) or Sean Penn's shrewdly narcissistic performance in a movie that is little more than a high-rent TV biopic.

Much more appealing to me were two titles with pedigrees of a different sort. David Frankel's "Marley and Me" and Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" come from different ends of the cinema spectrum and would seem to be strikingly dissimilar. Ah, but look closer. Yes, both are about dogs - about Labrador retrievers in particular - but, more to the point, both deal with the wordless affection and trust that animals can (and do) bring to relationships, qualities of which humans are only vaguely aware.

And usually when it's too late.

"Marley and Me," of course, is a family-friendly mainstream film adapted from the John Grogan best-seller. It's a movie that was ready-made for the cineplex at your local mall and, as such, was immeditately - and hastily - dismissed by the critics. Too bad. There's more than what meets the eye here. Frankel, ably abetted by his game stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, apparently was not interested in doodling some mindless romp here, but was driven by something more serious, commenting in subtle ways on the profound relationship that a person can have with an animal in general and with a companion pet in particular. (That's Wilson and Aniston, above, with canine co-star Clyde in a scene from the film.)

It's a family film but a superior one, alternately endearing and disturbing as it shows scenes of family life, wherein a pet - first a little puppy, then a hulking giant - is always there, usually on the periphery of the action but, somehow, crucial to the action. His presence, casually taken for granted, is felt only when he is gone. Suddenly, life has ... changed. Sad.

"Marley and Me" earns its tears, largely because Frankel has given his film a generous exposition that's alive with many acute observations and details. And in Wilson and Aniston, he has two vanity-free pros who have chemistry to spare and play out their individual and shared foibles in a natural (and good-natured) style that would have been appreciated by Hollywood and critics of an earlier era. No pretensions here.

Much smaller and spare, Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" is essentially a one-character piece about a young homeless woman named Wendy - Michelle Williams in a performance of aching stillness - headed from Indiana to Alaska in her Honda Accord with her dog Lucy in tow.

She's looking for work - and a new life.

The car breaks down in Oregon and Lucy is left stranded when Wendy is arrested for shoplifting.

All this happens early on and, again, Reichardt presents the loss of a dog as something of a quiet, unexpected tragedy. Wrenchingly, Wendy spends the rest of the film trying to find Lucy. (Incidentally, Lucy, above with Williams, is director Reichardt's dog.)

"Wendy and Lucy" is the kind of movie instinctively disliked my most moviegoers because "nothing happens in it." True. But you could say the same thing about Hitchcock's "Vertigo," in which Jimmy Stewart trails Kim Novak up and down the streets of San Francisco ad infinitum. These are movies that one reads - i.e., studies. You don't simply watch them.

No, you observe them - and learn.

The film is an acting exercise for Williams, whose performance inexplicably went under the radar during the recent awards season. Her work here is noteworthy for its simplicity, beauty and innocence.

She is a pleasure to watch.

Both "Marley and Me" and "Wendy and Lucy" are new on DVD. I can't wait to see each one again. And again. I wish I could say the same about "Milk," "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Wrestler."

But I can't.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Maurice Jarre, 1924-2009

The great Maurice Jarre, who passed at age 84 today, started his movie career in 1952, composing a whopping 164 film and TV scores.

He is perhaps best known for his work for director David Lean - "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Doctor Zhivago" (1965) in particular. But my own hands-down favorite Jarre score was the tinkling, harpsichord-dominated piece that he wrote for William Wyler's "The Collector" (1965).

Totally singular.

"The Collector" is followed - but not too closely - by his music for two Georges Franju's titles, "Les Yeux sans visage"/"Eyes Without a Face" (1960) and "Judex" (1963); René Clément's seriously underrated "Paris brûle-t-il?"/"Is Paris Burning?" (1966), and Karel Reisz' fab "Isadora"/"The Loves of Isadora" (1968), the biopic starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Speaking of the Clément film, is any movie moment more blissfully euphoric than Jarre's swoony "Paris Waltz" played over that movie's finale as it turns from black-&-white into color? I can't think of one.

Jarre composed his final feature-film score - for Hugh Hudson's "I Dream of Africa" - in 2000. I'd like to think that he's out there, somewhere, with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Georges Delerue, Basil Poledouris, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Bernard Hermann, comparing notes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Cockeyed Optimist on Josh Logan's "South Pacific" (1958)

Glenn Kinney signs in with wide eyes - very wide - on the very wide-screen "South Pacific"
"Bali Hai. It may call you" is the title of a wonderful March 26th post delivered by Glenn Kinney on his essential site, Some Cam Running.

Check it out.

In the meantime, I have my own SP story. Theories invited. Here goes...

Back in the late 1970s when he was booking films for RKO in New York, the late Ralph Donnelly staged a roadshow-musical series at the Cinerama on Broadway. He managed to unearth an original Todd-AO print of "Oklahoma!" from the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization - and it was scarily gorgeous. Scary because the huge, huge figures on the screen looked so incredibly lifelike. I remember the dream ballet, backed by Oliver Smith's expansive, haunting set, being particularly striking.

Difficult to shake.

Ralph couldn't locate "South Pacific" in Todd-AO for the engagement, but he did find a 65mm roadshow print that had Spanish subtitles. What was curious about this print was that it was a slightly different version of the movie: The chronology of its opening scenes were closer to the play. This version opened with the Emile and Nellie scene (and the songs "Cockeyed Optimist" and "Some Enchanted Evening") and then segued into the seabee numbers ("Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame"). The aerial stuff involving John Kerr and Tom Laughlin that connected them were alternate shots of what we've become used to seeing over the years.

A year or so ago, when Fox Home Entertainment released the two-disc "South Pacific" that included the 170-minute "roadshow version," I was hoping that it would be this scrambled version that Ralph screened at the Cinerama. It wasn't. I can't explain why the print I saw all those many years ago had a different opening - except that, perhaps, at one time, Josh Logan entertained the idea of keeping the film closer to the play and prepared and tested two versions. (I've a hunch that Paul Osborn's original shooting script opened with the Emile-Nellie sequence.)

What confounds me is how Spanish-speaking countries obviously saw a different version than we did - or is this the version that originally opened at the Rivoli in '58 and played for a while before being replaced with the film that's been most widely seen for the past 50 years.

Again, any theories out there?

BTW, I also have this soft spot for Logan as a director of film. For reasons that I can't entirely explain, I tend to like all of his stuff.

"Tall Story," anyone?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"All it takes is no talent..."

From a display ad for "Duplicity":

A really smart, slick, cool espionage movie"
In the musical "Gypsy," when it's suggested to the young Gypsy Rose Lee that she consider stripping," she replies, "I don't have any talent."

To which her unofficial mentor, Tessie Tura, replies, "You think they have?," pointing to other strippers. "All you need to have is no talent."

Arthur Laurents wrote the line in 1959 and Leonard Spielgass retained it for the 1962 film of "Gypsy." Fifty years later, it efficiently sums up what happened to film criticism in the last few years. Those newspapers that haven't closed have opted to lay off their movie critics. Unfortunately, it seems as if it's been only the good ones that that been shown the door.

What we're left with are the no-talents - the toxic, ambitious hangers-on.

I'm happy to no longer be a member of the club. I dropped out a few years ago while I was still young enough to enjoy my life - get it back, actually - and long before the current newsprint crisis (which must be terribly difficult to witness from the confines of a newsroom) took hold.

It's also nice to see films selectively and leisurely, without deadlines.

Anyway, about the hangers-on... These are people whose idea of "critiquing" movies is to write/say, "ABSOLUTELY SEE IT."

But, wait. Almost anyone can say "ABSOLUTELY SEE IT," right?

All it takes is ... no talent.

This is nothing new.

Pauline Kael predicted the trend way back in 1971 when she wrote in her fabulous essay, "Notes of Hearts and Minds": "To be a movie critic, no training or background is necessary; 'too much' interest in movies may be a disqualification." Well, folks, the good people have been disqualified.

And that's how we've ended up with "critics" who brainlessly chirp - and who are gleefully quoted in the ads as chirping - "ABSOLUTELY SEE IT."

All caps, natch.

WBshop.com: Norman Taurog's "Room for One More" (1952)

Variety ad for trade-show screening of "Room for One More" in 1952
Wait! It's lost no more.

On 1 June, 2008, I devoted an essay to the following plea for the DVD release of Cary Grant's "Room for One More."

Grant made a lot of films in his lifetime and perhaps the only one that stands as a truly lost movie is Norman Taurog's charming 1952 family comedy, "Room for One More," which teamed Grant with his adorable wife at the time, Betsy Drake.

Based on a memoir by Anne Perrot Rose, with a screenplay written by Rose and her husband Jack, the film warmly chronicles what happens when the independent-thinking Anne (played by Drake in the film) decides to add to her family by fostering a troubled teenage girl (Iris Mann) and an embittered little boy with braces on his legs (Clifford Tatum Jr.) - much to the chagrin of "Poppy" (Grant), as the Rose's three biological children (George Winslow, Gay Gordon and Malcolm Cassell) call their father.

Given the recent popularity of such large-family remakes as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Yours, Mine and Ours" (both pretty bad), it's surprising that Warners has not only ignored this property but inexplicably buried it. When the film went into syndication in the 1960s, it was given a new title, "The Easy Way," so as not to confuse it with the Warners TV series adapted from it in 1962 (starring Peggy McCay and Andrew Duggan in the Drake and Grant roles). The series lasted only one season but the film has been saddled with the replacement title ever since.

It has never been released on home entertainment in any form and now it's even disappeared from television. It was last broadcast on Turner Classics several years ago - with "The Easy Way" superimposed over the original title in the credits.

"Room for One More" is an effortless mix of comedy and pathos, incredibly warm and poignant. Drake in particular shines with her brusk line-readings. It's evident to me that the sporty British tomgirl persona that Julie Andrews and Emma Thompson both exhibit comes directly from Drake. She was the template for this screen type. Andrews even appropriated Drake's "look" for "The Sound of Music."

As for Grant, he was always great with children on screen, as evidenced by "Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House," "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and "Houseboat" - and he's, well, entirely "Cary Grant" here.

Incidentally, Drake came up with the idea for "Houseboat" and wrote the original screenplay, but by the time the film was made, she was no longer Mrs. Grant; the script was rewritten and recast with Sophia Loren.

If there's you can track down "Room for One More," by all means, do. See it and savor it. Hopefully, Warners will find it on some studio shelf, where it's been long forgotten, dust it off and release it on DVD.

So it went. The post elicited these these comments, which were heartening and gave me some hope for the film.

Well, good news. Warner Home Entertainment's new DVD initiative, WBshop.com, consists of 150 titles just like "Room for One More" - films that have evaded all forms of home entertainment. Lucky for me - for us - Grant's little domestic comedy is among the 150, each of which can be purchased for $19.95. Currently, the first 115 tiles are available and you can check out exactly which ones are listed on the ClassiFlix site.

For more information on this exciting experiment, take time to peruse the following links:

1. Susan King's piece in The Los Angeles Times.

2. The conversation about the project with Warners' George Feltenstein (SVP Catalog Marketing), Ronnee Sass (VP Publicity & Promotion) and Janet Keller (Manager of Publicity) on the Home Theater Forum.

3. Plus several musings by The New York Post's invaluable, indefatiguable Lou Luminick on his eponymous movie site, dated March 23, March 23, March 24, and March 25.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dick Flick Comes of Age

Paul Rudd, the leading male ingénue of the new (or, rather, rehabilitated) genre, The Bromance
I love you, man.

I'm talking about my unguarded affection for that blossoming genre, The Bromance - formerly, The Dick Flick. While The Chick Flick has become stuck in a rut, living up (or down?) to its dubious rep as foolish female entertainment, The Dick Flick (its male counterpart) has evolved, outgrowing its original moniker. It's no longer The Dick Flick.

New and improved - and ever improving - it is now The Bromance. I've no idea if this is what auteur Judd Apatow had in mind when he came up with this seemingly cockeyed idea, but he's owed a deep bow of gratitude. There are precious few pleasurable reasons to go to the movies these days and the recurring Bromance flick is one of them. Actually, the trend started with Adam McKay's hilarious "Anchorman - The Legend of Ron Burgundy" in 2004, starring McKay's male muse, indespensible Will Ferrell.

I've a hunch that the success of "Anchorman" was Apatow's inspiration, leading directly to his own modern classic, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" in 2005, and continuing with a constant dribble of male-oriented comedies either directed, produced, written, inspired or sheparded by Apatow.

To reiterate, I love you, man.

I've loved them all, although my favorites, in addition to "Virgin" and "Anchorman," remain David Dobkins' "The Wedding Crashers," David Wain's "Role Models," Dennis Dugan's "Don't Mess with the Zohan" and McKay's epic, "Talladega Nights - The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." The ragtag (and growing) list includes two titles in which Apatow literally liberated the penis, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"; "Superbad"; "Stepbrothers"; "Knocked Up"; "Pineapple Express," and Luke and Andrew Wilson's little-seen "The Wendell Baker Story."

While either Ferrell, Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson have anchored these titles, the inarugable step-out star of them has been affable Paul Rudd, a talented performer who always seemed too slight to be either a leading man or a dramatic actor (although he is clearly capable of being both). He's just this shy of being "the new Jack Lemmon."

But, let's face it, no one writes Jack Lemmon roles anymore.

After passing time in a series of pleasant roles in pleasant films ("Clueless," "The Object of Affection," a TV version of "The Great Gatsby," in which he played Nick Carraway), Rudd suddenly started to come into his own in titles such as "Anchorman," "The 40-Yeaer-Old Virgin," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and most especially in "Role Models" and John Hamburg's current "I Love You, Man," both deliriously funny and surprisingly astute in their observations of men.

Rudd has yet to co-star with his ideal leading lady, Zooey Deschanel, but he does have great chemistry with the delectable Rashida Jones (above) in "I Love You, Man." He was made to be one half of a screen team.

Someone, anyone, please pair this guy up with Deschanel or Jones again.

BTW, Jones, an alumnus of "The Office," is the daughter of Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones. (That's Rashida, left, with her mom Peggy.)

Meanwhile, The Chick Flick continues to degenerate. Thanks to the "Sex and the City" influence (or curse?), your typical "woman's film" is now preoccupied with expensive shoes, gargantuan weddings and questionable values. The genre reached its nadir with the remake of "The Women" and the god-awful "Bride Wars."

In what has become a disturbing new trend, Hollywood now likes to think of - and portray - women as happy idiots, and the grown women who are patronizing these movies, and who should know better, somehow seem ...


Monday, March 23, 2009

sleep well, sweet girl

Liam Neeson and Vanessa Redgrave at St. Peter's Cemetary in Lithgow, New York, the burial place of Natasha Richardson, his wife and her daughter

Sunday, March 22, 2009

façade: Denis O'Hare

Denis Patrick Seamus O'Hare, character actor extraordinare
An adjustable wrench is defined as an essential tool that can be shifted in size to fit and tighten any nut or bolt. AKA, the adjustable spanner.

That description also applies to a club of reliable character actors, among whom Denis O'Hare is the latest member. A staple of the Broadway stage - he played Oscar to Christina Applegate's Charity Hope Valentine in the recent revival of Cy Coleman's "Sweet Charity" (see photo below) - O'Hare has seemingly become a ubiquitous face in one new movie after another, most currently in Tony Gilroy's twisty "Duplicity."

This may be O'Hare's breakthrough role in movies. As Duke Monahan, he is alternately playful, untrustworthy and always a pleasure to watch - all of this considering that he holds the screen against such hugely watchable performers as stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

What can I say? Preston Sturges would have loved him.

Recent O'Hare performances have included a homophobic, anti-gay senator in "Milk," two Angelina Jolie vehicles, "A Might Heart" and "The Changling," a pediatrician in "Baby Mama," one of Ryan Gosling's more disreputable teaching colleagues in "Half Nelson" and assorted roles in "Charlie Wilson's War," "Garden State," "21 Grams," "Michael Clayton" and Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," his first major movie.

As a singer, O'Hare also got to play Prince Dauntless opposite Tracy Ullman in the 2005 TV movie of "Once Upon a Matress."

He's built up quite an impressive filmography in a relatively short amount of time. I'm looking forward to seeing more of him - and more often.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"The Smile" Does a "Comeback"

Julia's Back and Clive's Got Her - But Back from What?
"Nine years between star vehicles is an eternity in Hollywood, but in Julia Roberts' case, 'Duplicity' is more than worth the wait." --Lou Lumenick

I love Lou Lumenick but I don't know what he means when he writes that Roberts has been gone for nine years. According to Lou, the last Roberts film of any consequence was her Oscar-winning "Erin Brockovich" (2000).

But since then, Roberts has appeared in 13 films and several of them - "The Mexican" and "America's Sweethearts" (both 2001), "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003), "Closer" (2004) and "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007) - were lead roles. She also lent her talents to three films by her "Erin Brockovich" director, Steven Soderbergh ("Full Frontal," Ocean's Eleven" and Ocean's Twelve"), and two animated voiceovers ("The Ant Bully" and "Charlotte's Web"). I don't know about you but that seems like more work than the last three "best actress" Oscar winners (Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet) combined. Julia's comeback?

Come on, she's never been away.

As far as "Duplicity" is concerned, I loved it. But I'm glad I'm not reviewing professsionally anymore because I would have to pretend - the way every other working critic has - that I even remotely understood it.

Frankly, I have no idea whatsoever what this film is about or what goes on it in. But the combination of Roberts and Clive Owen, the first-rate supporting cast, the glamorous locations and Kevin Thompson's glossy-magazine production design makes Tony Gilroy's film hugely watchable.

You'll be reading a lot about Julia and Clive, so I'll devoted myself to the superb cast of actors that surround them and make them look great.

There's Paul Giamatti (who starred with Owen in "Shoot 'Em Up") and Carrie Preston (the only other female in the film), both of whom were in Roberts' "My Best Friend's Wedding"; Tom Wilkinson, who appeared with Giamatti in HBO's "John Adams"; the great stage actress Kathleen Chalfant (the original star of "Wit"); ace filmmaker Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent" and "The Visitor"), above, and Denis O'Hare, a Broadway staple who is quickly becoming a film staple. But more about the ubiquitous O'Hare later.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson (1963-2009)

"She was so beautiful. I still look at that movie and I can't believe it. It still makes me cry, the beauty of it. I could go on and on — in that white fur hooded thing, when she comes through the forest for the first time. You've never seen anything so beautiful!".
-the late Natasha Richardson, on seeing her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, for the first time in Joshua Logan's 1967 screen version of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot," the moment that convinced her she wanted to be an actress.
Like mom.
Natasha Richardson was not the kind of actress about whom people obsessed but she was very much the kind of actress whose talent we took for granted. She was always, effortlessly, excellent and she transported us only when she was on screen (or stage), not off. Her private life was, well, private, despite a high-profile marriage to Liam Neeson and the royal lineage of being Vanessa Redgrave's daughter.

Consequently - sadly - we might have slighted her, not giving her the attention and regard that she so richly deserved. But all that's changed in the last 24 hours. News of her disturbing death has sent a rush of memories through my mind, with forgotten films and performances suddenly haunting my thoughts, enriching them.

Suddenly, I realized that one of my dream remakes is now lost forever - "The Quiet Man," with Liam in the John Wayne role (ready-made for Neeson) and Natasha in the Maureen O'Hara part. Oh, well...
"There's so much more to say about the sylphlike actress with the dazzling smile and talent," my friend Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquire writes so eloquently on her blog, FLICKgrrl, "the voice like ginger and grit, the young woman who emerged from the towering shadow of her prodigiously gifted grandfather and mother and blazed her own path, about the devoted wife and mother, and about her shape-shifting ability to be patrician, slatternly, insecure and confident - sometimes all at once."

"...the voice like ginger and grit..."

That line says it all, a perfect approximation of Richardson's most distinctive feature, her voice - like her mom's, only less honeyed.

Perusing her filmography, I realize an at-home Natasha Richardson Film Festival is in order. If we are of the same mind and you are contemplating your own mini-retrospective, consider these twelve essential titles:

--Pat O'Connor's "A Month in the Country" (1987)

--Paul Schrader's "Patty Hearst" (1988)

--Volker Schlöndorff's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990)

--Paul Schrader's "The Comfort of Strangers" (1990)

--John Irvin's "Widow's Peak" (1994)

--Nancy Meyers' "The Parent Trap" (1998)

--Paddy Breathnach's "Blow Dry" (2001)

--Ethan Hawk's "Chelsea Walls" (2001)

--Jordan Brady's "Waking Up in Reno" (2002)

--David Mackenzie's "Asylum" (2005)

--James Ivory's "The White Countess" (2005)

--Lajos Koltai's "Evening" (2007).

In "The White Countess," Richardson had a rare opportunity to appear with both her mother and her aunt, Lynn Redgrave. Her final film, an Emma Roberts vehicle titled "Wild Child," was scheduled to be released here in 2008. It's played just about everywhere else in the world but has thus far evaded the United States.

Among Richard's memorable stage turns are "The Seagull" (in the same role that her mother once played), "Anna Christie" (with Neeson), the Sam Mendes revival of "Cabaret," the Broadway production of "Closer," the Roundabout revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the recent staged reading of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," in which she appeared (in the role of Desiree Armfeldt) with her mother, Victor Garber, Christine Baranski, Marc Kudisch, Jill Paice, Steven Pasquale, Alexandra Socha, and Kendra Kassebaum for one performance only last 12 January.
And according to the New York Post, Sondheim was eager to have Redgrave and Richardson share the stage again for the first full revival of the Broadway show, which had been tentatively scheduled for 2010.

A missed opportunity, regretfully.

Note in Passing: In his otherwise fine appreciation in The New York Times, writer Bruce Weber writes that the role of Sally Bowles played by Richardson in the hit 1998 revival of "Cabaret" was "created" by Liza Minnelli. Not so - not so by a long shot. Jill Haworth created Sally in the original stage production of "Cabaret," and before her, Julie Harris played the role in both the stage and film versions of "I Am the Camera." Minnelli, of course, was in the big-screen version of the material, which was Fosse-ized to death for the occasion.

The many views of Natasha - as we will remember her; with Liam; poster art for "Patty Hearst"; with Robert Duvall in "The Handmaid's Tale"; the poster for the Roundabout Theatre revival of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," opposite John C. Reilly; with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, following the 12 January staged reading of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music"; Sondheim applauding at the curtain call; in a scene from "Asylum"; with her mother in "Evening," and as a child (below) with Vanessa and little sister Joley.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

façade: Jack Soo

The hugely entertaining and much-missed Jack Soo (1917-1979) steps back into the spotlight, receiving a long-overdue tribute, when The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival screens Jeff Adachi's new documentary, "You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" 2:30 p.m. today, 15 March, at the Kabuki Theatre in Japantown.

The festival's program notes (by Nani Ratnawati) refer to Soo's spirit as "alive and unyielding, in spite of the discrimination of his time," and that pretty much sums up his appeal and explains the inspirational quality hidden beneath his enjoyable broad-stroke comedy.

Adachi, San Francisco's Public Defender since 2002, dabbles in filmmaking on the side, having previously made the 2006 documentary, "The Slanted Screen," which, in a brisk 60 minutes, covers the various images of Asian men on screen, from Sessue Hayakawa to Harold and Kumar.

The advocate/filmmaker became fasincated by Soo when he discovered that the actor was born Goro Suzuki - to Japanese parents - despite his Chinese-sounding stage name. For years, Broadway legend has passed along the rumor that it was Gene Kelly who personally suggested Soo's name change when he directed him in the supporting role of Frankie Wing in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway.

There was already on Suzuki in the cast - Pat Suzuki who originated the role of Linda Low - and, besides, the Chinese-centric musical needed more Chinese in the cast. But Adachi's research found that Suzuki had actually changed his name to Soo much earlier - in order to secure work during the 1940s. The ploy worked. Soo became a staple of the nightclub circuit during and after World War II. In fact, he was famously billed in San Francisco's Chinatown as "China's funniest comedian."

Prior to his name change, Soo entertained inmates in a Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah with jokes and songs.

The Oakland native's big break came not in the stage version of "Flower Drum Song," but in Ross Hunter's 1961 film version, directed by Henry Koster who recruited Soo and upped him to the show's second male lead, Sammy Fong. Soo rewarded Ross and Koster by playing - and singing - the role as a hipster, in the ring-a-ding-ding style of Dean Martin.

Soo's Sammy Fong remains one of the film musical's most memorable characters. One could hardly imagine anyone else in the role. (Larry Blyden played it on stage; Blyden's wife, Carol Haney, choreographed.)

On screen, both big and small, he also starred in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Green Berets," "Valentine's Day" and, of course, "Barney Miller," the hit sitcom he was doing when he succombed to cancer.

Adachi's film features archival photographs of Soo's life and career and testimonials and remembrances by past acting partners, including Nancy Kwan (of "Flower Drum Song"), old friends, fans and his daughter.

"You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" gets an encore screening at the SFIAAFF at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 March. Jeff Adachi will appear in person at both screenings.

Note in Passing: Adachi's "The Slanted Screen" is worth checking out. The film contains more than 50 film clips of depictions of Asian American male characters from Hollywood films, spanning nearly a century. It asks why and how stereotypic portrayals continue to persist, and why the roles for Asian American men are diminishing while the Asian American population is increasing. Interviewees include actors Mako, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, James Shigeta, Dustin Nguyen, Will Yun Lee, Phillip Rhee, Tzi Ma, comedian Bobby Lee, producer Terence Chang, casting director Heidi Levitt and directors Gene Cajayon and Eric Byler.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Herbert Ross' "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969)

"It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!" -George Costanza (Jason Alexander) defending his birthday gift of theatre tickets to a "lavish Broadway musical" to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) on "Seinfeld"
It's no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I love film musicals.

The musical - inarguably - is the definitive movie genre, encompassing as it does every possible craft and art, and I personally resent the shabby treatment that it's received at the hands of people who don't understand it, don't want to understand it and don't have the capacity to appreciate it.


Over the past 50 years or so, the film musical has been abandoned, ridiculed, mindlessly associated with gay men almost exclusively, and half-heartedly - and almost begrudgingly - appropriated by insincere filmmakers who just don't get it. And exacerbating matters, critics who should know better, have operated like bullies, waiting around the corner to sabotage and bludgeon any attempt at reviving the form.

These are professionals who have convinced themselves that the last great musical was Donen-Kelly's fabulous "Singin' in the Rain," who have embraced abberations that are esssentially anti-musicals ("Cabaret," "Moulin Rouge!") and who have exhibited little patience with either the joyful "traditional" film-musical format or those scattered titles that have attempted to redefine and experiment with the genre.

All of this is in preamble to honoring Herbert Ross' overlooked 1969 musical remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" which popped up on Turner Classic Movies yesterday (in its roadshow incarnation, natch) and which is a fine example of a veteran musical showman experimenting with the form with incredible style and sensitivity.

In its day, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was an attempt to stand apart from the "Hello, Dollys" of the era, opting instead for a lean, clean simplicity and sophistication that might make it more palatable for moviegoers who, jaded by big-studio bigness, were turning towards something different, less predictable, more artful.

Based, of course, on James Hilton's 1934 novel (also the source of the 1939 Sam Wood film with Robert Donat and Greer Garson), "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" is an incredibly sad tale of a man, a reserved teacher at a boys' boarding school, who was fated to be alone. For one brief moment, a woman comes into his life, igniting it, but her presence proves to be wrenchingly brief. Mr. Chips' life ends the way it began - in solitude.

Hilton aptly described his tale as "a long short story."

Ross's vision of this fable is elegiac, warm and pervasively mournful - qualities that are brilliantly abetted by Leslie Bricusse's romantically yearning songs, scored here to perfection by John Williams.

Not all of the songs are sung outright; in fact, most of them are moodily presented as thoughts. We hear what the characters are thinking - and they think in song. Ross did his own choreography for the film, which he wisely kept sparse, and he was assisted by his wife Nora Kaye.

In the lead roles, Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark are respectively introverted and extroverted. O'Toole brings immense dignity and feeling to his reading of Terence Rattigan's dialogue and Bricusse's lyrics.

Clark, meanwhile, demonstrates that she was made to be a leading screen soubrette. Alas, that never happened. "Chips" and Francis Ford Coppola's version of "Finian's Rainbow" (1968) are the only two major studio film musicals that she made. Another missed opportunity.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kate Who?

Why is Kate Winslet a major star and Natascha McElhone isn't?

Ah, the enternal question. For me.

As a working critic, I was always out-of-step with my readers and their tastes. What I liked, they hated. And vice versa. The people for whom I worked never seemed to mind, and neither did I. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was invigorated by the on-going disagreements.

One particularly contentious area involved who the public would embrace as the Star of the Moment. And it still is.

In the 1980s, for example, I wasted a good part of my life trying to figure out why Julie Roberts was quickly becoming a major star and not Ione Skye. There seemed to be little difference between them, physically, although from where I sat, Julia had the brighter smile and Skye had the bigger talent. But what do I know? (An aside: I learned to appreciate and love Julia.)

Then there was Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise, the moderately talented actor who was guided to superstardom by major players in Hollywood.

Why not Matt Dillon, the superior actor?

Which brings me to Natascha McElhone and, alas, Kate Winslet. Look, I like Kate Winslet. Who doesn't? But she was far from the actress of 2008. No, that distinction would go to either Melissa Leo or Michelle Williams.

But, hey, thanks to a certain little number titled "Titanic," both critics and moviegoers love Kate Winslet.

Nevertheless, I think that anything in recent years that starred Kate Winslet would have been immeasurably better with Natascha McElhone, a handsome, eminently desirable actress still waiting to be discovered by inkstained critics and mall moviegoers alike. Again, feel free to disagree.

Monday, March 09, 2009

cinema obscura: Martin Ritt's "The Sound and the Fury" (1958)

The long-running rumors of a planned remake of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" lend a certain urgency to this particular post.

By all means, check out Martin Ritt's splendid 1959 version of the material - that's if you can locate it, of course.

"The Sound and the Fury" was Ritt's second excursion into Faulkner territory. The year before, in 1958, he made the hugely entertaining and hugely popular "The Long, Hot Summer," Fox's hothouse title for Faulkner's "The Hamlet." Both films were adapted by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch and starred Joanne Woodward.

"The Sound and the Fury" paired Woodward with Yul Brynner (sporting a wig for the performance) and featured searing supporting work by the great Margaret Leighton, Jack Warden in his best screen performance ever, the singular character actor with that imposing voice, Albert Dekker, a young Stuart Whitman and the invaluable Ethel Waters.

The inspiration for any number of dysfunctional Southern-family films, Faulkner's work revolves around the troubled Compson clan, headed by the cruel Jason (Brynner), who is not actually a Compson by birth and who has a contentious relationship with his "niece" Quentin (Woodward), feeling rebellious and unloved after being abandoned by her mother Caddy (Leighton). Ritt's film is not entirely faithful to Faulkner's troubling and troublesome book but it fairly drips with decaying-south ambience and with first-rate performances. (Ritt was always wonderful with actors.)

Leighton and Warden, as the backwards Benjy, take the acting honors here, even though Brynner and Woodward are the emotional center of this fine work, and few scenes are as aching as Caddy's return home after a 17-year absence, with Leighton reaching out to Warden, both made affectingly mute by the stirring occasion.

One is tempted to look away from its raw intimacy.

Ritt's is a complex version of a complex book, long overdue for a DVD release by Fox.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

façade: Alec Baldwin

Has anyone morphed as dramatically as Alec Baldwin has?

Twenty years ago, I would have bet the rent money that he would be the next big thing in movies. Bigger than, say, Tom Cruise.

Which isn't saying much, I know, given Cruise's modest skills as an actor, his ordinary looks and dull personality.

Baldwin, on the other hand, seemed to have it all, not the least of which was an intimidating acting talent. He soared in supporting roles in high-profile movies for major filmmakers in the late 1980s - John Hughes' "She's Having a Baby," Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio," Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," Mike Nichols' "Working Girl," Jim McBride's "Great Balls of Fire," Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob," Woody Allen's "Alice" and Amos Kollek's "Forever Lulu."

He was working his way to becoming the new - the next - William Holden.

Baldwin had his defining role in George Armitage's neglected "Miami Blue," met Kim Basinger on Jerry Rees' "The Marrying Man," recreated his stage role in Norman René's "Prelude to a Kiss" and had a couple meaty roles in Brian Gibson's "The Juror" and Harold Becker's "Malice." But there apparently were anger issues and when he lost the franchise that started with John McTiernan's "The Hunt for Red October," the bottom fell out.

Baldwin's last truly great film role/performance was in James Foley's "Glengary Glen Ross" in 1992 - 17 years ago. Most of his film work since then has been in supporting roles. His William Holden days are long gone. (Now, couldn't you just see Baldwin in remakes of those two Wilders, "Stalag 17" or "Sunset Boulevard"?) He's put on weight and has evolved instead into the new ... Lawrence Tierney. Not such a bad thing. Tierney was great. But Baldwin is no longer leading man material.

It all ended too soon.

Alec Baldwin is still a pleasure to watch, although I'm not really that enamored of the roles that have won him Oscar nominations and Emmy awards in recent years. Jack Donaghy, the cloying "30 Rock" character that has brought him his biggest success to date, is a highly resistible performance for me. For an actor this talented, it's slumming.

No, I still harbor dreams of Alec Baldwin getting his one, big, juicy, starring role in a film. My fantasy comeback for Baldwin - and Debra Winger, for that matter - would be a remake of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Yes, Baldwin and Winger as George and Martha. And how about Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon as Nick and Honey?

Maybe Mike Nichols, who helmed Baldwin in "Working Girl," would want to direct again. Hey, a person can dream, can't he?

In the meantime, the ubiquitous Alec has joined forces with Robert Osborne as the new co-host of Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials," starting 7 March with the Marx Bros.' "A Night at the Opera" (1935). Not to be a contrarian, but I'd love to debate Alec on the so-called merits of two of his picks - William Wyler's "Funny Girl" and John G. Avildsen's "Rocky."

Also, another Baldwin pick, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," was remade by Baldwin (his directorial debut) in 2001, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, but it wasn't released until 2004 - under the new title, "Shortcut to Happiness" and with a fake director's credit, "Harry Kirkpatrick."

It should be interesting to see if Baldwin discusses this with Osborne on "The Essentials." Anyway, here's the rest of his "Essentials" schedule:

March 14 – Rocky (1976)

March 21 – Cat Ballou (1965)

March 28 – Ben-Hur (1959)

April 4 – Take the Money and Run (1969)

April 11 – Saboteur (1942)

April 18 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

April 25 – Funny Girl (1968)

May 2 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

May 9 – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

May 16 – The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

May 23 – Battleground (1949)

May 30 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

June 6 – The Letter (1940)

June 13 – The Fortune Cookie (1966)

June 20 – Random Harvest (1942)

June 27 – Notorious (1946)

July 4 – The Mouse that Roared (1959)

July 11 – Tom Jones (1963)

July 18 – A Night at the Opera (1935)

July 25 – Rocky (1976)

Aug. 1 – The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Aug. 8 – An Affair to Remember (1957)

Aug. 15 – The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Aug. 22 – Lolita (1962)

Aug. 29 – The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Sept. 5 – The Long Hot Summer (1958)

Sept. 12 – Wuthering Heights (1939)

Sept. 19 – Ben-Hur (1959)

Sept. 26 – Saboteur (1942)

Oct. 3 – Funny Girl (1968)

Oct. 10 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Oct. 17 – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Oct. 24 – The Letter (1940)

Oct. 31 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Nov. 7 – Take the Money and Run (1969)

Nov. 14 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Nov. 21 – Tom Jones (1963)

Nov. 28 – The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Dec. 5 – Random Harvest (1942)

Dec. 12 – The Mouse that Roared (1959)

Dec. 19 – The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Dec. 26 – The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Jan. 2 – Lolita (1962)

Jan. 9 – Notorious (1946)

Jan. 16 – Battleground (1949)

Jan. 23 – The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Jan. 30 – Wuthering Heights (1939)