Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kusama-Cody's Post-"Carrie" Horror Feminism

A game Fox works beyond the call of duty for unworthy material and inept filmmakers
The Karyn Kusama-Diablo Cody collaboration, "Jennifer's Body" is a better idea than it is a movie. It's a decided disappointment.

But not in the usual way.

Going in, I really didn't have much faith in either Kusama (the director of the overrated "Girlfight") or Cody (media darling and screenwriter of the wildly overrated "Juno") - that either of them would have the stuff to pull off a teen-girl horror flick that updates/upends Brian DePalma's "Carrie" (1976). But at the very least, I expected the movie to be fun and that Cody (né Brook Busey) would deliver her patented snarkiness.

But the film is no fun at all, Cody's predicatably glib dialogue notwithstanding. And it isn't frightening - or intimidating, interesting, involving or any other "i" word. What it is - if you want an "i" word - is inept. It's inept on just about every level, despite a very game performance by Megan Fox who, as a teen man-eater (literally), works off her shapely behind for Kusama and Cody, and an especially grounded turn by Amanda Seyfried, who provides poor, unfortunate "Jennifer's Body" with its only touch of (dare I say it?) professionalism.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

the unbeliever

At least, Jack could have said that he actually "slept" with MM and it wouldn't have been completely false
All hail John Timpane of The Philadelphia Inquirer who, in today's installement of the paper's lively Sideshow gossip column, had the cahones to challenge the delusions of grandeur of a former superstar.

The ever-entertaining Tony Curtis, who is offering pre-orders of autographed copies of his upcoming tome, "The Making of Some Like it Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie," now claims (apparently, in the book) that Marilyn, as Timpane so wittily puts it, "miscarried a pregnancy that he (Curtis) helped happen."

Say what? I clearly remember Curtis spending a good part of the past half century, dissing Monroe, with whom is co-starred in the aforementioned "Some Like It Hot" - and often tossing off the highly quotable remark that kissing her was "like kissing Adolf Hitler."

Curtis kissed Hitler?

"If you write a memoir, guess you got to say wild and outlandish things about the dead to sell copies," Timpane casually tosses off himself within the venerable Inky. Anyway, Curtis who likened MM to an alpha Nazi, now reveals he not only had an affair with her but fathered her miscarried child. I don't believe him. I'm not saying that he's, well, an exaggerator - just that I don't believe a single word he says on this particular matter.

I've had the same reaction to Ann-Margret's curiously belated admission that she and Elvis had a thing going and Shirley MacLaine's revelation that she and Robert Mitchum were once an item. I ... don't ... believe ... it.

Maybe I should start a rumor about me and, say, (fill in the blank here with the name of any deceased film actress, preferrably born after 1950).

cinema obscura: Daniel Mann's "Five Finger Exercise" (1962)

A very needy Maximilian Schell begs his employers Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins to give him a second chance in Daniel Mann's film version of Peter Shaffer's stage play, "Five Finger Exercise"
Yet another of the many black-&-white Columbia films from the 1950s and '60s ignored by Sony's home entertainment division for decades is Daniel Mann's 1962 film version of the Peter Shaffer play, "Five Finger Exercise," adapted for the screen by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The backdrop for the film is America (instead of Great Britain, the locale in the play), but that's not the only change introduced here by Goodrich, Hackett and Mann, all of whom toned down the uncomfortable erotic undercurrent of Shaffer's play. Still, there's enough queasiness here to make the piece compelling and definitely worth another look.

Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins play a well-heeled couple who hire a German transplant (Maximilliam Shell, fresh off his Oscar win for "Judgment at Nuremberg") to tutor their teenage daugher (Annette Gorman, in her first and last film role), much to the chagrin of their son (Richard Beymer, fresh off "West Side Story") who has a thing for mom and resents the attention she lavishes on the handsome, rakish German.

The film - the material - never had a chance at being great as a film, given the concessions made to the censors at the time, but it's another example of a well-made movie version of a pedigreed play.

"Five Finger Excerise" is one of three consecutive films responsible for making Russell a pariah among New York's Broadway community. She was the theater's darling when she was on the boards in "Wonderful Town" and "Auntie Mame," but all that goodwill was lost when it was construed Russell was "stealing" roles that belonged to other actresses.

In 1961, she took on Gertrude Berg's role in Mervyn LeRoy's film of the Leonard Spigelgass comedy, "A Majority of One" (opposite Alec Guinness), followed in 1962 by "Five Finger Exercise," in which she played the role originated by Jessica Tandy, and by LeRoy's film of "Gypsy," in which she dared to do Ethel Merman's role.

Poster art for the Broadway production of "A Majority of One"

Much of the bad press surrounding "Gypsy" at the time of its release, reporedly orchestrated by the vitriolic New York gossip columnist Dorothy Killgalen, had nothing to do with the completed film and everything to do with Russell's participation in it - and her recent history.

"Five Finger Exercise," incidentally, tried out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before debuting in New York on December 2nd, 1959 at the Music Box Theatre, running for 337 performances. Aside from Tandy, the play starred Roland Culver (in the Hawkins role), Brian Bedford, Michael Bryant and Juliet Mills (as the ingénue). Sir John Guilgud directed. The play was produced by The Playwrights' Company, headed by Frederick Brisson - the husband, of course, of Rosalind Russell.

Was there any doubt she'd play the role in the film?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

façade: Aaron Eckhart

Aaron Eckhart is a throwback - a real Movie Star
Last summer, I stood by dumbfounded and helpless as everyone else predictably rushed to praise Heath Ledger's compelling posthumous performance in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight."

I liked Ledger, too, but frankly, Aaron Eckhart was much more impressive as Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face). In fact, I thought it was his film. Still do. It certainly wasn't Christian Bale's film. Oddly enough.

Eckhart has been in movies in full force for about a dozen years now. Following a couple roles in TV movies and one in something called "Slaughter of Innocents," he had his first starring role in mentor Neil LaBute's lacerating 1997 film, "In the Company of Men," playing a business cad who might have been the inspiration for AMC's hit series, "Mad Men."

He followed that a year later in LaBute's wonderful ensemble drama, "Your Friends and Neighbors," taking on heft for his role as a conflicted husband - one of the few times that the gain (or loss) of an incredible amount of weight served the film, not just the actor-in-question's PR ploys.

Other roles came - one with Thomas Jane and Paula Marshall in Skip Woods' little-seen "Thursday," another in John Duigan's studio-compromised "Molly," starring Elisabeth Shue in the title role (and Jane again). He also worked for Oliver Stone on "Any Given Sunday."

And then came Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," opposite Julia Roberts. Blockbuster! Career-maker. This is it!

Well, it wasn't exactly a breakthrough role, but it made Eckhart bankable by association and, after doing two more titles for LaBute ("Nurse Betty," with Renée Zellweger, and "Posession," with Gwyneth Paltrow), he's worked steadily and reliably in a pleasing selection of films. I love his post-"Erin Brockovich" filmography.

Here goes:

Sean Penn's "The Pledge" with Jack Nicholson; Ron Howard's "The Missing" with Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones; John Woo's "Paycheck" with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman; Hans Canosa's "Conversations with Other Women" with Helena Bonham Carter; Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking" with Maria Bello; Brian DePalma's "The Black Dahlia" with Josh Harnett and Scarlett Johansson; Scott Hicks' "Mostly Martha" remake, "No Reservations" with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Brandon Camp's current "Love Happens."

Meanwhile, Joshua Michael Stern's "Never Was," is a lost film from 2005, also toplined by Ian McKellen, Jessica Lange, Nick Nolte, William Hurt, Michael Moriarty, Brittany Murphy, Vera Farmiga, Alan Cumming and Cynthia Stevenson. I won't burden you with a synopsis because, with that list of players, who cares? It's available on DVD.

Upcoming is John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," based on the David Lindsay-Abaire play about a couple whose young son dies in an accident, upending their lives and marriage. The material - which reads like prime Oscar bait - pairs Eckhart with Nicole Kidman (in the role played on stage to great acclaim by Cynthia Nixon); that's them in the still below.

Who knows. "Rabbit Hole" may be Eckhart's "Heath Ledger moment."

"Love Happens," seriously

For reasons of commerce exclusively, Brandon Camp's debut film, Love Happens," is being sold as a Jennifer Aniston romcom.

Far from it. It's an Aaron Eckhart dramedy.

Jennifer Aniston may be the most generous screen performer today, something her callous detractors willfully refuse to acknowledge. She was a team player in "He's Just Not That Into You," she indulged a dog (actually many of them) and the dog-eyed Owen Wilson in "Marley and Me" and she stepped back and let the incorrigible Steve Zahn, at long last, have his moment in the spotlight in "Management."

And in each film, she was terrific herself, her role in "Management" possibly being the most fascinating woman's part this year, bar none.

As for "Love Happens," she hands the material - about a self-help guru, newly widowed, who has to learn to help himself - over to Eckhart. Aniston is essentially playing a part that's in support to his star turn here.

It's a serious film. There's nothing romantic or comedic about it. And it works because Eckhart is so commanding as a deeply flawed man. His scenes with Martin Sheen, playing his character's grieving father-in-law, incited my imagination.

I could just see these two as father and son in a remake of "I Never Sang for My Father," played nearly 40 years ago by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman for director Gilbert Cates. And, come to think of it, Aniston would be great in the sister role originally played by Estelle Parsons. I can dream, can't I?

Note in Passing: Kim Morgan defends Jennifer Aniston. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Patrick Swayze, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar

Patrick Swayze (1952-2009), an atypical star, is survived by ... memories. Many of them
Patrick Swayze was one of those reliable actors easily taken for granted, largely because he was reluctant to grandstand and demand attention.

And whenever it came his way - attention, that is - he was gracious and accomodating. Patrick Swayze was an atypical movie star - he actually appreciated his success, shared it and never exploited it.

For the longest time, he existed only out of the corner of my eyes and his early screen performances - in titles such as "The Outsiders," "Grandview, U.S.A." and the delirious "Red Dawn" - barely registered with me.

But Swayze became a quick "friend" shortly after my wife and I relocated to Northern California when I was hired to review there for McClatchy. Our first movie experience there was Swayze's "Dirty Dancing," seen on a lazy late-summer afternoon at the now-gone Capitol Theatre on Watt Avenue in Sacramento. Consequently, it is difficult for me to remember "Dirty Dancing" without also remembering the Capitol and sharing popcorn with my wife. The movie, brand new at the time, had a salicious title, promising something adult and cutting-edge, but it was willfully old-fashioned - welcoming. It was a nice start. I felt at home.
Swayze as Johnny Castle and Jennifer Grey as Frances "Baby" Houseman in Emile Ardolino's seminal, old-fashioned "Dirty Dancing" (1987)
Swayze seemed to work fleetingly on screen after that and, given that his choices were somewhat eclectic, I assume that this was by design. He went from the hugely romantic "Ghost" to the guilty pleasures of the over-the-top "Road House," from the surfer heist flick "Point Break" to the esoteric "City of Joy," from "Donnie Darko" to ... "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," my personal favorite Swayze title.

And why wouldn't I love it? Swayze, putting the finishing touches on his eye make-up as flamboyant cross-dressing entertainer Vida Boheme, checks himself out in the mirror and then invokes a line from "Gypsy":

"Ready or not ... here comes Mama!"

Swayze makes the most of Douglas Carter Beane's campy dialogue in Beeban Kidron's film, especially when he counsels neophyte John Leguizamo, as Chi-Chi Rodriguez, where not to walk: "Not in direct light, dear!

Later his Vida offers this sage advice to Wesley Snipes' Noxeema Jackson: "Oh, sweet pea. Now, you listen to your Auntie Vida. I want you to believe in yourself, imagine good things and moisturize. I cannot stress this enough."

Kidron's ace supporting cast includes Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Chris Penn, Arliss Howard, Melinda Dillon, Beth Grant and Alice Drummond, but all that matters is Swayze, cheerfully risk-taking and very game as Miss Vida Boheme.
Swayze (with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo), in arugably his best performance, as Vida Boheme in Beeban Kidron's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995)

cinema obscura: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971)

Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971) was something of a sensation in its day.

It was sold as - as described by critic as - a "quasi-documentary." But, point in fact, "Hellstrom" was the first faux documentary as we know it today - although not a comedic one such as Albert Brooks' "Real Life" (1979) and Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) which came later.

Lawrence Pressman had his best screen role as the fictional Dr. Hellstrom, an esteemed entomologist who provides us with vivid illustrations delineating the silent war that insects have declared on humankind. Pressman is brilliant, alternately attractive and scary, drawing us in with his accessible, unsettling lecture and graphics - and handily instilling fear in the audience. "Microsomos," the 1996 French documentary by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, would appropriate - and exploit - many of the ideas here but in a less frightening, more artful way.

Still, Green and Spiegel's film remains compulsively watchable.

Despite its "faux" status, "The Hellstrom Chronicle" was the winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Documentary, beating out Marcel Ophul's towering "The Sorrow and the Pity." And that's approximately when the cinéphiles' collective love affair with it came to an abrupt end. It was then demonized, ostracized and forgotten, subsequently relegated to only left-handed references.

That's when its title is invoked at all.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

façade: Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis, with her straight-forward, angular good looks and rather statuesque personality, played willful heroines, briefly, in the 1970s and '80s. Less intimidating than, say, Sigourney Weaver and less girlish than Julia Roberts, she pretty much fell through the studio cracks.

I suppose she was yet another example of a promising talent who, for some bizarre reason, befuddled Hollywood.

But like her mom, Janet Leigh, Curtis was a team player and did what Hollywood handed her, much in the spirit of an old contract player. She was particularly playful opposite Dan Aykroyd in two films - John Landis' "Trading Place" (1983) and Howard Zieff's "My Girl" (1991).

She gamely overcame the stigma of initiating her film career in 1978 with seven - count 'em - seven back-to-back horror flicks. Here goes: "Halloween," "The Fog," "Prom Night," "Terror Train," "Roadgames" (not strictly a horror flick), "Halloween II" and "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." I guess all those titles seemed like a good idea at the time.

But then came good roles in the aforementioned "Trading Places," Robert M. Young's "Dominick and Eugene" (1987), Charles Crichton's "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), Steve Rash's "Queens Logic" (1990) and Kathryn Bigelow's "Blue Steel" (also '90). Bigelow's film should have been her way to break out of genre films and into starring roles in the major league.

Bigelow handcrafted for Curtis an archetypal role that the actress seemed to instinctively understand. Cast as Megan Turner, a rookie cop who stops a robbery in progress, killing the supposed bad guy (Tom Sizemore) but actually set up by the film's resident psycho/stalker (Ron Silver), Curtis perhaps brought her experience as an actress manipulated by the Hollywood system to the role of a professional woman unsure of who exactly to trust. Magan is an obsessive character and Curtis turns in an appropriately obsessive performance - a fully realized performance.

It is an engaged yet compellingly reserved acting triumph, beautifully modulated and underlined by Curtis' impeccable line readings.

Both she and her director, clearly in perfect concert with each other, seem to be working here through the professional delusions that each one had experienced. It's odd that "Blue Steel" is rarely invoked in references to either Bigelow or Curtis, but it remains something of a major, if unacknowledged, accomplishment in feminist filmmmaking.

Curtis had a few other roles that seemed worthy of her talent but that, inexplicably, led to nowhere - opposite John Travolta in James Bridges' "Perfect" (1985), a reviled film that may be ripe for reevaluation, and Diane Kurys' "A Man in Love" (1987), which my friend, Carrie Rickey, once wittily retitled "A Man in Love with Himself," a wicked reference to title star Peter Coyote's narcissistic lead performance.

Curtis' last great role was opposite Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush in 2001 - in "The Tailor of Panama," John Boorman's first-rate adaptation of the John le Carré novel. In it, she was mature, relaxed with herself and as sexy as ever. I doubt if even Streep could have done a better job.

Renée's One and Only

Renée Zellweger channels Lana Turner in Richard Loncraine's utterly disarming "My One and Only"
A few weeks ago, Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer devoted one of the posts on her Flickgrrl blog to considering whether or not Renée Zellweger has hit "that bad age" for an actress.

We've seen it happen to such prolific and seemingly youthful actresses as Sissy Spacek and Sally Field whose careers (on the big screen, at least) stopped with a thud once they reached ... "that bad age." Insidious.

It's not pleasant to watch, but to answer Carrie's question, I really don't see that happening to Zellweger, who turned 40 this year. She's always been a singular, idiosyncratic actress, an acquired taste for some, who has made some compelling, sometimes risky career decisions.

As a result, her filmography, while not as mainstream or filled with high-profile hits as, say, Julia Roberts, is endlessly fascinating.

And her last few films, which may seem unmemorable for some, have frankly provided me with the few lasting movie experiences that I've had recently. What's more, she's had terrific roles in each, arguably the only truly original female roles in movies these days.

There was her turn as writer Beatrix Potter Chris Noonan's neglected "Miss Potter" (2006), her newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton in George Clooney's charming (and also neglected) "Leatherheads" (2008), her sly, wicked vamping as the duplicitous Allie French in Ed Harris' equally provocative "Appaloosa" (also '08) and her near-perfect hommage to Doris Day as corporate hot-shot Lucy Hill in Jonas Elmer's "New in Town" (2009), which was - you guessed it! - neglected.

These were all juicy roles and Zellweger was alarmingly precise and spot-on in each one - as she is in Richard Loncraine's delicious "My One and Only," an old-fashioned entertainment that combines two irresistible genres - the road movie with the romp about a kid's outrageous mother/aunt/grandmother (take your pick). It's part "Auntie Mame," part "Travels with My Aunt" and part "Imitation of Life."

Zellweger clearly had her choice of how to play runaway wife and mother Anne Deveraux (based on Anne Hamilton Spalding, mother of actor George Hamilton). Would she go with Rosalind Russell or Maggie Smith or Lana Turner? Well, Lana wins. And the satisfying result is a restrained comedic performance that's lulled by pathos and a certain tenderness - and tinged with a retro glamour-puss alure. The bottom line is that it's an authentic depiction of the way stars once behaved in movies.

Lana definitely would have approved.
Mark Rendall and Logan Lerman (in the role of the young George Hamilton), playing brothers, keep up with and complement Renée, their on-screen mother

Friday, September 04, 2009

Mike Judge's Jack Lemmon Movie

Ben Affleck plays Ernie Kovacs to Jason Bateman's Jack Lemmon in Mike Judge's retro "Extract"

Mike Judge's third film, "Extract," is something of a willful departure from his previous comedy triumphs - 1999's "Office Space," a comic tonic for anyone who despises workplace authority (count me in), and 2006's "Idiocracy," an aggressively subversive gift for those of us made impatient with the stupidity that's encouraged and rewarded by the people who run the country (I'm in again). I like the way Judge thinks.

"Extract" is no less angry but its relatively sunny retro quality is likely to throw off people, even those who are paid to be observant and astute - yes, the critics.

Watching star Jason Bateman as the befuddled owner of an flavor extract plant, trying to juggle disgruntled workers, a disinterested wife, a tempting new employee, the promising sale of his company and a potential lawsuit, I was transported easily back to the 1960s when Jack Lemmon would inarguably have been its star.

"Extract" is a sex comedy, circa 1964 (not 2009), a film that, one day, will make a nifty double-bill with Lemmon's "Good Neighbor Sam," if some resourceful rep house programmer gets the idea.

Instead of Dorothy Provine and Romy Schneider as the put-upon hero's wife and sex fantasy, respectively, we get Kristen Wiig and Mila Kunis driving Bateman to comic distraction in different ways. David Koechner steals scenes as the neighbor from suburban hell (Robert Q. Lewis had the role in "Sam"), and Ben Affleck is something of a scruffy revelation, playing Ernie Kovacs to Bateman's Lemmon, always ready to offer unsolicited, untrustworthy advice. Affleck is a welcome presence whenever he's on screen - when he's off, you miss him - and his scenes with Bateman have the natural ping-pong rhythm of buddies bonding.

Such modern supporting stalwarts as J.K. Simmons, Beth Grant and Clifton Collins, Jr. add to the pleasing ensemble.

"Extract" probably won't win Judge any new fans - and may disappoint the ones he already has - but it's an accomplished, soothing reminder of a time when sex comedies were ... innocent.

Lemmon as good neighbor Sam

façade: Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges does his best W.C. Fields opposite border collie Devon in HBO's otherwise unwatchable "A Dog Year," directed by George LaVoo
Jeff Bridges has appeared in 65 feature films to date and has four Oscar nominations to his credit. Therefore, according to logic, to say that he's underappreciated or overlooked makes no sense at all, right?

So why exactly do I feel he's underappreciated and overlooked?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it's because, like the actors of whom he is so reminiscent - Robert Mitchum and Sterling Hayden - Bridges is a character actor/leading man hybrid. And hybrids have this tendency to confuse studio executives and the public alike, sneaking in under the radar with killer performances that only critics and buffs seem to "get."

The leading man roles now in his past, Bridges has relaxed his way into an eclectic assortment of roles in a compelling array of movie choices. He's worked on eccentric projects for eccentric filmmakers (Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" and Larry Charles' "Masked and Anonymous"), cult films (Michael Traeger's "The Amateurs," aka "The Moguls"), blockbusters (Jon Favreau's "Iron Man"), art films (Tod Williams' "The Door in the Floor"), teen flicks (Jessica Bendinger's "Stick It") and mainstream Oscar bait (Gary Ross' "Seabiscuit"). I'm impressed but I've a hunch that, in Hollywood, such careeer crisscrossing is considered social suicide.

And like Mitchum and Hayden, Bridges is something of an adjustable wrench as an actor. Most recently, he turned in a suitably disagreeable performance in a disgreeable HBO movie, "A Dog Year" (based on one of Jon Katz's dog books). He played the role of a toxic writer the only way it could be played - as if he'd rather not be in the film. Strangely, it worked.

I imagine Mitchum or Hayden in the same exact cranky performance.