Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"vertigo"/'marnie," fizzy twins

Although it's never been noted, "Vertigo" (1958) and "Marnie" (1964) - for my money, the two crown jewels in Alfred Hitchcock's matchless canon - are companion pieces. They are, in many ways, the same film.

These twins are deeply psychological studies - leisurely, seductive narratives with both James Stewart and Sean Connery as obsessive, controlling men, and Kim Novak and Tippi Hendren as the women whom they respectively ensnare, obstensibly for their protection. Or is it the women who ensnare the men? It doesn't matter. What's clear is that the person being rescued and saved must first be vanquished, conquered.

In "Marnie," Diane Baker fills the curiously ambivalent role that Barbara Bel Geddes has in "Vertigo," only with a dash of tangy malevolence. Irrevocably linking the films are the two gloriously symphonic, strikingly similar scores penned by Bernard Hermann (pictured left), both of which seem driven by the very madness that permeate Hitchcock's films.

"Vertigo" and "Marnie" also somewhat share the same history in that both were received indifferently by critics when each debuted. Both were belatedly rediscovered and redefined, finding appreciative support - "Vertigo" more so than "Marnie." I remain hopeful that, one day, "Marnie" will be seen as the masterwork that it is.

Turner Classic Movies will be airing the two titles during its all-day Hitchcock marathon on New Year's Eve - 31 December. "Marnie" screens at 9:15 p.m. (est) and "Veritgo" will be shown at 3:30 p.m. (est).

Uncork the champagne early and enjoy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

forgotten coppola

How one responds to the latter-day Francis Ford Coppola reveals, I suppose, what one likes about and expects from movies. Of late, Coppola hasn't engaged moviegoers, not even the art-house set, and has enthused critics in only a mild and often begrudging way.

His 2009 "Tetro" is his second consecutive movie to come on the scene with a whiff of anticipation, only to be greeted with a shrug and then promply forgottened. To the best of my knowledge, this aggressively arty, often painful pseudo-autobiographical film hasn't made one year-end 10 Best list. None. Nada. Almost the same, exact fate was experienced by Coppola's previous film, 2007's "Youth Without Youth," which was his first directorial effort in a decade (the last being 1997's "The Rainmaker").

But the chilling implications of "Tetro" cannot be denied - even its redemptive ending offers no surcease. A powerful, if somewhat limited, film, it should not be allowed to descend into oblivion.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"It's Complicated," or "Getting Took..."

Baldwin bulldozes Streep in "It's Complicated"
"He's a taker. Some people take, some people get took - and they know they're getting took - and there's nothing they can do about it."

-Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960)

In preamble to commenting on her new film, "It's Complicated," I should note that I am a big fan of Nancy Meyers'. Huge. Meyers is often lumped in with Nora Ephron because of the shared subjects that they pursue, but Meyers is the better director. Hands-down.

OK, with that out of the way, I have to say that I think there's a disconnect between the movie that Meyers thinks she made and what actually transpires in "It's Complicated."

The film is only marginally about an older woman (Meryl Streep), attractive and single, who not only suddenly finds herself balancing two men (Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin) but also having an affair with the ex-husband (Baldwin) she lost to a younger mistress 10 years earlier.

She's gone full circle, see? Now, the wife is the mistress.

That may sound like a vaguely queasy premise, but what "It's Complicated" is really about is much more disturbing.

Step back and block out Streep and you'll see that the movie is really a strange - and strangely empathetic - tribute to a pig, namely the narcissistic ex and his self-obsessed bad behavior. Throughout most of the film, Baldwin's character gets what he wants when he wants it.

At one point, Baldwin pantomimes the words, "I'm so happy," to Streep. He looks perfectly content. She doesn't. He's a taker. She gets took.

This could be the theme of a tough dark comedy, but "It's Complicated" isn't that comedy. It isn't nearly complicated - or tough - enough.

Alec Baldwin may get third billing here but he's clearly the film's lead player, having more scenes than either Streep or Martin, and devouring each one in a morbidly obese way. To say that he chews on the scenery would be an understatement. And so, almost by default, good, gray Martin becomes a fast friend because he's so quiet, restrained and reserved.

Less is more, Alec. Hail, subtlety!

One other thing... On the basis of this film and two of her previous ventures, "Somethings Got to Give" (2003) and "The Holiday" (2006), Meyers has become a specialist of what one wag calls "architecture porn" - I prefer "home porn" - movies that not only showcase but wildly fetishize absurdly extravagant homes with their expensive, magazine-pretty accoutrements. The "House Beautiful" homes in her films gleam and sparkle as no homes in real life do.

Nit-Picking: Martin plays an architect in "It's Complicated." The film opens with Meryl Streep and family helping youngest child Zoe Kazan move out of the family house. Streep reflects that all her kids are gone now and her older daughter Caitlin Fitzgerald asks if she's afraid to sleep alone there. A couple of times later in the film, reference is made to her empty nest status. Given that, why on earth is Streep's character having an addition constructed on what seems to be an already huge house? I know this is only a movie, but it doesn't make sense. Shouldn't she be downsizing or moving? Wasn't there a better, more logical way to introduce Martin into her life other than using architecture?

Advice to Streep: Go with Steve. Definitely.


Nicole Kidman coddles petulant Daniel Day-Lewis in "Nine"

Rob Marshall's "Nine" is pretty much what I expected - which wasn't much. Full disclosure: For some reason, I consciously avoided both Broadway incarnations of the musical play from which it's been adapted.

Adapted by way of Fellini's “8½,” natch.

This isn't a movie musical, per se, but something akin to one of those glitzy, psychedelic TV variety-show specials in the 1970s, with star Daniel Day-Lewis acting as host, ushering each elephantine production number in and out, in assembly-line fashion. And "elephantine" is the operative word for these soulless numbers. Marshall has calculated every single song-and-dance routine here as a whopping, in-your-face showstopper.

There are no modest, quiet numbers in "Nine" - amazing, considering that the film's original source material is all about ... introspection.

Actually, in terms of Fellini, "Nine" is much closer to that old SNL skit, Tom Schiller's hilarious Fellini-send-up, "La Dolce Gilda." And "La Dolce Gilda" is better.

And more accurate.
Gilda Radner (with Dan Aykroyd as "Marcello") plays a paparazzi-beseiged actress in Tom Schiller's spoof "La Dolce Gilda"
Also, why would a choreographer of all people hyper-edit his dance sequences into jarring slivers? I could see a filmmaker with no deep appreciation of dance doing that, but a choreographer? Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire must be roiling. I miss the days when one could savor a dancer in full frame/full body, doing his/her thing - when you saw the length of a dancer's body in movement, in minimally-cut takes.

Cotillard, with Day-Lewis, excels in Marshall's frenzied, soulless fantasia.
As artistically blocked filmmaker Guido, Day-Lewis is strangely resistible as a man who also allegedly drives many women to obsessive distraction. (We have to suspend disbelief about both his filmmaking and sexual talents.) But I do like the actresses here, even though they are all required to bump and grind their numbers. Particularly memorable and affecting are Penélope Cruz and Marion Cotillard - Cotillard being the only one who actually acts her songs, bringing an emotional life to them. And what songs! (Not to be taken as a compliment. I mean, those rhymes - "in his head"/"instead.")

Cotillard, like the others, isn't spared Marshall's fetishizing. She's been assigned a gratuitous strip titled "Take If Off" that my colleague Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer aptly compares to Ritz Hayworth's "Put the Blame on Mame" number from Charles Vidor's "Gilda" (1946) . But Marshall also references Natalie Wood here: Cotillard's hairstyle and dress and her coy removal of a glove are direct quotes from Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962). Initially. Then all the slithering sets in.

Hudson in her glitzy Big Number

The other actresses just sing - and move like big animatronic toys - making no impression. All except poor Kate Hudson who, unfortunately, stands out for a dubious reason: She seems to be channelling Ann-Margret (in her deranged "Viva Las Vegas" period) as she jumps up and down maniacally and shouts out the lyrics to something called “Cinema Italiano.”

And one Ann-Margert is quite enough for me.

The largely downbeat reviews parceled out to "Nine" - at least by the major film critics (led by A.O. Scott in The New York Times) - contrast sharply with the secondary pre-Oscar nominations awards and citations (Golden Globes, the SAGs, Critics' Choice, etc.) that have come its way.

This is nothing new. There's a history of questionable films being honored before the bad reviews come in. And it always reflects poorly on those eager award-givers. They've generously given "Nine" the same benefit of doubt that Rob Marshall expects us to extend to Guido.

Note in Passing: As a devoted movie-musical fan, there was a time when I'd rush out to buy the attending soundtrack album of each new film musical. Well, I've managed to restrain myself lately, passing on the recordings (as well as DVDs) of the film versions of "Dreamgirls," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers," all blurs now.

Alas, "Nine" has joined this august group.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

the movie year. 2009. unannotated.

  • "Inglorious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino) / 1
  • "Up in the Air" (Jason Reitman) / 2
  • "Gake no eu no Ponyo" (Hayao Miyazaki) / 3
  • "The Hurt Locker" (Kathryn Bigelow) / 4
  • "A Serious Man" (Ethan and Joel Coen) / 5
  • "The Girlfriend Experience" (Steven Soderbergh) / 6
  • "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" (Lee Daniels) / 7
  • "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans" (Werner Herzog) / 8
  • "Brothers" (Jim Sheridan) / 9
  • "Coco Avant Chanel" (Anne Fontaine) / 10
  • "Whatever Works" (Woody Allen)
  • "Les plages d'Agnès" (Agnès Varda)
  • "State of Play" (Kevin Macdonald)
  • "Me and Orson Welles" (Richard Linklater)
  • "The Hangover" (Todd Phillips)/"I Love You, Man" (John Hamburg)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

cinema obscura sighting: Edmund Goulding's "Mardi Gras" (1958)

Where, oh where, are Pat Boone's movies? Well, one of them - one of the best - has been plucked from studio-shelf obscurity by 20th Century-Fox:

Edmund Goulding's terrific "Mardi Gras" from 1958 gets a rare showing on the studio's Fox Movie Channel at 2 p.m. (est) on Wednesday, 13 January.

Alas, it will be a fullscreen showing of the CinemaScope feature, but pan-and-scan is better than nothing. This is one of many Boone films that Fox has not bothered to release on home entertainment in any form.

So where's the gratitude?

An early contract player at the studio, Boone was a major cash cow for Fox during the 1950s. What's odd is that most of the films of Elvis Presley, Boone's polar-opposite counterpart, have long been available on home entertainment and have been shown endlessly on Turner Classic Movies.

And let's face it, Elvis' titles, with the exception of two or three, are fairly ... awful. Boone's movies are actually better, particularly his first three titles for Fox which are more than deserving of a boxed set.

Those first three films would be Henry Levin's "Bernadine" and "April Love" (both 1957) and Goulding's ensemble musical, "Mardi Gras."

While "Bernadine" and "April Love" are modest, diverting entertainments, "Mardi Gras" works as a great, full-fledged movie musical, replete with a varied song score and fine choreography by Bill Foster. The plot (not that much unlike "Bernadine's" - which I'll get to later) is about school guys - in this case, military cadets (played by Boone, Dick Sargent, Tommy Sands and Gary Crosby) - who aim to attract a French movie starlet (Christine Carère, a delightful, if sadly fleeting, screen presence at the time) to their end-of-the-year ball. Everyone converges in New Orleans, where the movie queen is promoting a new movie and where the cadets are participating in the Mardi Gras festivites.

Lionel Newman (brother of legendary composer-scorer Alfred Newman and uncle of composers Randy, David and Thomas Newman) wrote the nimble score, which includes the title song, "I'll Remember Tonight," "Bourbon Street Blues," "That Man," "What Stonewall Jackson Said," "Just Like The Pioneers," "Bigger Than All Of Texas" and the showstopping "Loyalty," cleverly staged in a locker room shower. The traditional "Shenandoah," sung by Sands, was also utilized

Rounding out the cast are the invaluable Sheree North, Barrie Chase (who does a comic striptease), Jennifer West and ace character actors Fred Clark and Geraldine Wall. Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner, who were making "In Love and War" with North at the time (also on the Fox lot) put in cameo appearances.

Carère, who made her American film debut in Jean Negulesco's "That Certain Smile" (1958), would appear in one more American film - Raoul Walsh's "A Private's Affair" (1959), also with Gary Crosby - before heading back to France.

"Mardi Gras," of all Pat Boone films, deserves a DVD showcase.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Boone made a credible film debut in "Bernadine," based on the Mary Chase play and augmented by some popular songs of the time (the title song and "Love Letters in the Sand," among them). It's about a group of high-school guys and a fictitious girl named Bernadine - the "perfect girl" - who they want to prove really exists. Such veteran film actors as Janet Gaynor, Dean Jagger and Walter Abel are on hand to fortify newbie Boone, and the young supporting cast includes Terry Moore, James Drury, Dick Sargent (billed as Richard) and Ronnie Burns (son of George Burns and Gracie Allen).

The affable "April Love" is a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1944 film, "Home in Indiana" (based on the novel by George Agnew Chamberlain and utilizing the same screenplay by Winston Miller), about a delinquent city boy forced to do time with relatives in a rural area, stirring things up. (Actually, Herbert Ross's "Footloose" of 1984 could have easily come from the same source.)

Boone plays the bad boy and he's effectively teamed opposite tomboy Shirley Jones. Again, there's an ace supporting cast here - Jeanette Nolan, Arthur O'Connell, Matt Crowley (not to be confused with playwright Mart Crowley) and the sublime, criminally neglected Dolores Michaels.

And, while we're at it, where the heck is Norman Taurog's "All Hands on Deck" (1961), with Barbara Eden and Buddy Hackett, one of the last films Boone made for Fox? How about it, Fox? Put them on DVD already.