Friday, December 31, 2010

2010. Unannotated.

Big Screen

"The Ghost Writer"

"The Social Network"

"I Love You, Phillip Morris"

"Black Swan"

"The Town"

"Toy Story 3"


"Let Me In"


"City Island"

Little Screen

"Morning Joe"

"The Middle"

"In Treatment"

"The Big Bang Theory"

"The Soup"

Actors Acting

Bale ("The Fighter")

Portman ("Black Swan")

Brosnan ("The Ghost Writer")

Leo ("The Fighter")

Eckhart ("Rabbit Hole")

Heaton ("The Middle")

Byrne ("In Treatment")

Murphy, voice ("Tangled")

Saturday, December 25, 2010

dark holidays

Bridges and Jones shine in an atypical holiday movie.
Every Christmas, my wife and I treat ourselves to a double-bill of two of our favorite films, titles which are only peripherally related to the holiday.

Our matinee is Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" and our evening program is Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle." Perhaps not coincidentally, both were major year-end holiday releases in 1958.

We never divert.

But if we did, I'd suggest two other titles are are far removed from the usual suspects - you know, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

First, there would be Tim Burton’s exquisite “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), one of the best film musicals of recent years that clearly prepared Burton for the task of taking on Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” - and almost as triumpantly. Like the Sondheim classic, "Nightmare" boasts a major song score by Danny Elfman, gloriously symphonic and gloriously idiosyncratic.

The combination of Elfman's songs, Burton's strangely appealing little characters and director Henry Selick's wonderous stop-motion animation combine to make "The Nightmare Before Christmas" compulsively watchable.

Then there's Daniel Petrie's superior 1969 TV film, "Silent Night, Lonely Light." The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote the lovely play on which Patrie's movie is based - about two lonely people who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

On stage, "Silent Night" was directed by Peter Glenville with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes in the leads and Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann in support. It opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was immediately snapped up for filming by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
No, the film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night" was not made for theaters. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving.

Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) take over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles (and would subsequently be reteamed in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" the same year); Carrie Snodgress plays the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman show up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.

It's a wrenching work that, for some bizarre reason, is never telecast during the holiday season and is available only on out-of-print VHS tapes.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rooney! Quine! Together!

The Mick, going all crazy as the scat-talking MSgt. Yancy Skibo in Quine's deliriously funny "Operation Mad Ball" and doing the jive (below) with fellow cut-ups Dick York and Jack Lemmon.
The unsinkable Mickey Rooney - exactly how long has he been in movies anyway? - has been Turner's highlighted star this month and among the neat discoveries of this invaluable 70-title retrospective is the fact that Rooney made four films with the wonderful Richard Quine, a filmmaker largely know for his appealing output with Jack Lemmon.

Three of the titles will air on 23 December - "All Ashore" (1953), a bit of singing-sailor silliness at 7:30 a.m. (est.); "Sound Off" (1952), at 10:30 a.m., in which Rooney plays a song-and-dance man drafted into the Army, and "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), an antic farce that predated Altman's "M*A*S*H" in gleefully deflating the military. It screens at noon. And at 7:30 a.m. on 30 December, don't miss the vivid "Dricve a Crooked Road" (1954), with Kevin McCarthy and Diane Foster backing up the Mick.

You can't go wrong with Quine. Particularly when Rooney is in tow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

cinema obscura: Mazursky Times Two

Sharkey, Kidder and Ontkean do well by Paul
Mazursky. A singular filmmaker who was crucial to 1970s moviemaking and who is now largely ignored. Paul Mazursky. Like Hal Ashby, he made a handful of films in the '70s that remain indelible and invaluable, two of which have been almost impossible to see these days.

Until recently.

In fact, when The Film Society of Lincoln Center paid a rare tribute to Mazursky in May of 2007, these two titles were missing for its schedule - 1971's inside eccentricity on modern filmmaking, "Alex in Wonderland," and the unjustly underrated "Willie & Phil" Mazurksy's deft 1980 take on François Truffaut's "Jules et Jim."

Good news!

"Alex in Wonderland," which has Donald Sutherland contributing a memorably solipsistic performance in a movie for filmic eggheads, is scheduled to air on Turner, but in the wee hours of 21 December - at 4:30 a.m. (est.), no less. Tape it.

And "Willie & Phil," which arguably offered Michael Ontkean, Margot Kidder and the late Ray Sharkey their best roles on film, has been popping up regularly on the Fox Movie Channel.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Gyllenhaal and Hathaway - so young, so obnoxious
Last August, The New York Times' op-ed columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote a misguided column called "Tragedy of Comedy," in which she and someone named Sam Wasson jawed glibly about the lowly state of the romcom. For some bizarrer reason, the decided to be bullies and lay the blame at the feet of the two Jennifers - Garner and Aniston.

Little did they know, they hadn't seen anything yet. Their tear-stained duet was about six months premature. Aniston's "The Switch," which is actually saavy, alert fun, now seems like a masterwork of restraint compared to the last three romantic disasters of the year.

First, there was Edward Zwick's rudely disjointed "Love and Other Drugs," which purported to be a romcom but wasn't and which has the distinction of turning two previously very companionable screen presences - Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway - into toxic annoyances. To describe both of them in this film as "obnoxious" would be wildly charitable.

Then came Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Tourist" gleefully devoured by Glenn Kenny in a now-classic pan for MSN Movies. Watching this alleged film, it is difficult to believe that either Johnny Depp with his ugly facial hair and Angelina Jolie with her spindly arms are major movie stars. They come off more like poseurs - he thinking that he's still playing a pirate and she under the delusion that she's Elizabeth Taylor's successor.

Last and certainly least, there's James L. Brooks' "How Do You Know," a strangely pointless film with Reese Witherspoon applying her usual steamrolling charm and trying her darndest to do smart, ping-pong-style repartee with Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. And failing.

This film is so hopeless that even the peerless Wilson is no fun. Jack Nicholson, meanwhile, looking well-fed and umcomfortable, practically phones in his performance (or maybe had an assistant do it for him). Only Rudd comes through unscathed. But he survives all alone.

Aside from their shared awfulness, these three have one other thing in common. Each of their so-called romantic couples come sans chemistry.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

façade: Debra Winger

With perhaps the faintest of fanfare, the singular and much-missed Debra Winger has returned, yet again, from self-imposed exile.

She's currently, and rather comfortably, ensconced in the role of Frances, a difficult, messed-up actress in HBO's endlessly fascintating omnibus series on the highs and lows of psychoanalysis, "In Treatment," where she sits across from, and spars with, Gabriel Byrne, her co-star from Stephen Gyllenhaal's "A Dangerous Woman" (1993). Winger is riveting as a character she understands and plays perhaps a bit too well.

The "In Treatment" gig is, by my count, Winger's fourth attempted comeback, following a lead role in her husband Arliss Howard's unfortunate "Big Bad Love" (2001), supporting roles in a couple fairly bad throwaway titles ("Radio" and "Eulogy") and a thankless, surprisingly unmemorable turn in Jonathan Demme's overrated "Rachel Getting Married" (2008). Her last film, prior to this tentative output, was Billy Crystal's joyless (and slightly narcissistic) romcom "Forget Paris" in 1995. That's when she seemed to officially call it quits and walked away.

Actually, it's never been clear if Winger walked away from her career or if her career walked away from her - a career that started auspiciously in 1980 with James Bridges' "Urban Cowboy," followed by Taylor Hackford's "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) and James L. Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" (1983), all for Paramount Pictures.

A huge talent known equally for her precision and also, fairly or unfairly, for her "tempestuousness" (Shirley MacLaine's word), Winger seemed to select films not on the basis or quality of the material, but rather on the filmmakers involved. In her prime, she worked with an eclectic and impressive group of filmmakers - and, well, not always on their best projects: Alan Rudolph ("Made in Heaven"), Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Sheltering Sky"), Richard Pearce ("Leap of Faith"), Costa-Gavras ("Betrayed"), Bob Rafelson ("Black Widow"), Karel Reisz ("Everybody Wins"), Richard Attenborough ("Shadowland") and, to a lesser degree, David S. Ward ("Cannery Row"), Ivan Reitman ("Legal Eagles"), Glenn Gordon Caron ("Wilder Napalm") and the aforementioned Gyllenhaal.

Most of these films tanked, boxoffice-wise, a problem exacerbated when the Oscar nominations also stopped mounting. (Winger's been nominated three times.) A performer can be temperamental and difficult for only so long - as long as the performer delivers, either at the boxoffice or during the awards season. Otherwise, career problems start mounting.

"Forget Paris" was Winger's nadir.

The Crystal film was a long way from her best, most adventuous work - which wasn't for legends, as one might assume, such as Bertolucci or Rafelson or Reisz, but for Bridges and Caron.

Caron's "Wilder Napalm" (1993) which co-stars Dennis Quaid and where she met Howard, may be the least-seen of Winger's work - an oddball/screwball comedy about uneasy brothers, the circus, pyrokinesis, pryomania, wacky names and Winger's vibrant screen presence.

Quaid and Howard play Wallace and Wilder Foudroyant, siblings who in childhood were able to start fires with their minds.

Following an unfortunate accident, Wilder manges quit the habit, cold turkey, settling down and marrying the enticing Vida (Winger). Not Wallace, however. As Biff the Clown, he continues on as a one-man circus act. When Wallace shows up in town with his traveling circus, he discovers that he and Vida have something in common. She's something of a pyromaniac, too, see?

The shameless Wallace intones at one point, "Once you've had a clown, you never go back.""Wilder Naplam" (which was half-heartedly released by TriStar) is a bit too quirky to wholeheartedly recommend but, for me, it's a guilty pleasure. Plus it has Winger in a role very much made for her.

The film brilliantly showcases that great honking voice of hers, those deep, black eyes that seem to stare and pierce and, of course, that mane of dark, unruly hair - hair that aches to be touched.

Still, Winger did her best screen work for the late James Bridges - and vice versa.
Bridges, of course, put Winger on the map in 1980 when he tapped her to replace Sissy Spacek in "Urban Cowboy." (Spacek, who was to be reunited with her "Carrie" co-star, John Travolta, in the film, had to drop out, and in tribute to her, the character was named Sissy.)

Winger was quite a presence in that film - again, with that head of wild hair - and an acting style to match her look.

She was revelatory.

Two years later, the director and star reteamed in 1982 for what turned out to be a troubled film, the mistreated and underrated "Mike's Murder," in which Winger turned in one of her very best performances. Too bad so few people have seen it.

The film has quite a history, a bumpy one. Bridges wrote the story - of a lonely young woman whose life changes after a man with whom she shared a one-night-stand dies violently - with Winger in mind.

It was shot during the summer of 1982 but not released (in altered form) until spring of 1984.

And it's probably safe to assume that the huge popularity of Winger's subsequent film, the Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment," prompted its distributor to finally get it into the marketplace. (BTW, Winger also replaced Spacek in "Terms of Endearment.")

Even in its much-altered release form, it plays like a love letter to Winger. Pauline Kael caught up with the film belatedly but wrote about it with much admiration, singling out Winger "in a superb, full-scale starring performance." Kael also commented on (1) Winger's "thick, long, loose hair and deep, sensual beauty" in the film, (2) Bridges' "original and daring" touches on the film and (3) Warner Bros, the studio that "buried it."

Reportedly, the murder in the film was tied to the film industry in its original form, but by the time it was released, after several months on the shelf and after many revisions, "Mike's Murder" now indicted the recording industry. Also rumor has it that Bridges originally conceived - and edited - the film so that his story played backward. This was a risky approach, way ahead of its time. Claude Lelouch had told his story of "The Crook" chronologically scrambled in 1971, but this was different. It would take another couple decades before the conceit would be accepted, as evidenced by the success of both Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and, to a lesser degree, Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" (both from 2002).

In 1982, however, the studio got nervous and promptly shelved the film. Apparently, a preview of the first version was booed by audiences in San Jose, and Warner Bros. and the indie that produced it, The Ladd Company, refused to distribute the movie unless changes and cuts were made.

In 1983, Warners/Ladd decided to re-edit "Mike's Murder" in chronological order and release it, just barely - like "Wilder Napalm."

One other thing: The film was also re-scored. "Mike's Murder" originally had a terrific song score by Joe Jackson - which was recorded and released while the film was still shelved - but it was junked in favor of a John Barry original. (Jackson's songs were reduced to bits of music heard in the background, always on a radio.) Jackson's soundtrack went on to become a best-seller, while Berry's score, also good, was belatedly recorded and released in a limited edition CD in 2010.

Anyway, I've become obsessed with the idea of seeing "Mike's Murder" in its original incarnation, but with Bridges now gone, that's not very likely. (Also lost is the expanded version of "Urban Cowboy" that Bridges prepared the film's debut on network television. It was shown only once in that form - with about 15 minutes of extra footage added - but has seemingly disappeared. Paramount never bothered to put the extended version into syndication or include it any videos or DVDs of the film.)

"Mike's Murder" had been released on Beta only, never VHS.  It was one of those forgotten titles until Warner Archives did the right thing and released it on DVD in 2009.

Note in Passing: Read Variety's review of "Mike's Murder", published December 31st, 1983.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

sammy glick, updated

The near-perfect David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin collaboration, "The Social Network," works essentially as a probing, precient and very ironic filmic essay detailing the decline in social graces in the wake of the so-called social-media advances of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg (above and below), in an inarguable breakthrough performance as Mark Zuckerberg, anchors a top-flight male ensemble - Justin Timberlake (below with Eisenberg), Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer (times two) and Max Minghella - that's bathed in the noir-ish cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth, the eclectic, driving music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the rhythms of Sorkin's rapid-fire and hugely articulate dialogue. The film is compulsively watchable - a keeper, an instant classic, this year's Oscar favorite.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

the contrarian: The Fierlingers' "My Dog Tulip"

Few things surprise me more in life than a hugely anticipated film that disappoints. Case in point: the beautifully rendered animation of J.R. Ackerley's slim memoir of unconditional love, "My Dog Tulip."

The pastel-soft, scratch-pad images by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, coupled with John Avarese's playful music score and Ackerley's modest narrative, were initially transporting for this lovelorn animal activist.

For its first 15 minutes or so, I was enchanted by the film's slender plotline about a lonely, solitary bachelor finding his perfect companion in a handsome Alsatian shepherd who he rather wittily names Tulip.

But the charm wears off when, almost inexplicably, the film becomes obsessed with the dog's bodily functions - her need to urninate and defecate and her owner's curious preoccupation with/involvement in Tulip's sex life. These references aren't occasional or merely scattered throughout the film; they are the film, dominating its second two-thirds.


Exacerbating matters is the interlude when Tulip gives birth to a litter and her owner, having given the situation absolutely no thought whatsoever, can't decide what to do with the puppies. Should he give them away? Should he drown them? He certainly can't keep them in his cramped flat. Suddenly, the wizened narrator (voiced by Christopher Plummer) seems less like an educated sophisticate than a moron. It makes sense now that this odd solopsist would be so lonely and have so few relationships.

I've no idea if this is the message that the talented filmmakers wanted to impart or even if it is possibly drawn from the source material itself.

What I do know is, it isn't good.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

indelible moment: "Bell, Book and Candle"

Richard Quine's "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958) is one of those rare films that not only seems to improve with age but also strikes me as ageless. It's timelessly contemporary, whether you saw it in '58, '88 or '08.

In that sense, it's magical, a quality that drives its most enchanting sequence - when Kim Novak and her cat Pyewacket bewitch Jimmy Stewart, complemented by George Duning's lilting theme, hummed by Novak, and James Wong Howe's shimmering cinematography. (Duning, by the way, came to call his title track for the film ... "Kim's theme.")

The moment is creamy, dreamy and, well, indelible.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anton, Addison et les autres

The beleaguered film critics fraternity - and I do mean fraternity - received something of a respite this week with two major announcments.

Now, two announcements may not seem like much, given the slow, agonizing death of film criticism that we've been witnessing for the past few years. But with 60-some long-time movie critics having been offed by their ungrateful employers to date - a phenomenom documented by Sean P. Means, of The Salt Lake Tribune, in an on-going column, rather mordantly titled The Departed - every opportunity helps.

Turner Classic Movies was the first to weigh in with a release drumbeating its special Critic’s Choice showcase, which will air each Monday and Wednesday night during October, starting Oct. 4 with critic/historian Leonard Maltin, editor of "Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide," and the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan. The segments were taped in July.

A total of 16 movie critics will be participating, each introducing two movie picks with TCM's Robert Osborne in tow. Sixteen movie critics - 14 men and two women. I repeat, fourteen men and two -count 'em - two women.

All white.

So exactly what's wrong with this picture?

I think I just answered my own question. The participants are all fine critics and, frankly, several of them are friends, but where's the diversity that's a unique contemporary feature of the criticism community?

The lone two women involved - Kim Morgan and Susan Granger - are solid picks because they represent distinct opposite ends of the film-reviewing spectrum. Granger is a pro with years of experience and Morgan is a ubiquitous contributor on The Hit List, the MSN movies blog, and the author of the compelling, wittily narcissistic blog, Sunset Gun .

But there are more than two women out there reviewing film today.

Well, ok, off the top of my head, there's Manohla Dargis of The New York Times; Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly; Amy Taubin of Film Comment and The Village Voice; Christy Lemire of The Associated Press; Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post; Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times, Farren Smith Nehme of the blog, The Self-Styled Siren, and particularly Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Did I miss anyone? Apologies.

And criticism isn't the exclusive purview of Caucasians. Some exciting criticism is being written by (and spoken by) reviewers who are African-American, Hispanic and Asian. I would like to think that whoever put this promising feature together for Turner knows exactly who is out there in terms of contemporary film criticism. I would hope so.

BTW, I say this as someone who doesn't exactly subscribe to political correctness. But c'mon.

The second announcement came from Roger Ebert who got things right with the hyping of his eponymous new show for PBS stations, "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies," to be hosted beginning next January by AP's Lemire and NPR contributor (and former New York Times critic) Elvis Mitchell, with the aforementioned Morgan and Omar Moore, of The Popcorn Reel, as occasional contributors. And Ebert will be participating not only on his own show but also as one of Turner's choice critics.

Roger is a terrific critic and an extremely generous person, but I can't work up much enthusiasm for this project. Ideally, at this point in his life and career, I would have loved to see him mentor and nurture young, aspiring critics, something more behind the scenes. But that's just me.

And so the most heartening "critic news" for me this week was the return of Manohla Dargis to her film-reviewing berth at The New York Times. Dargis, who has been absent from the Times since June 20th, made her comeback with a review of Joaquin Phoenix's "I'm Still Here."

Believe me, she was much missed.

Note in Passing: Dargis is one of two first-string film critics at The New York Times, the other being A.O. Scott. In its profile of the Critic's Choice segment in its "Now Playing" guide for October, Turner lists Scott's credentials as "chief film critic" for the Times. No, there are two of them.
"You're out of your league here, young woman!"

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

clooney channels bronson

Anton Corbijn's "The American" is much like its star - sinewy, thoughtful and not at all unpleasant to be around.

The star, of course, is George Clooney.

In terms of narrative, "The American" brings to mind Gene Hackman's famous opinion of an Eric Rohmer film in Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975): "It's like watching paint dry." Which means that nothing much happens in this moody, atmospheric tale of yet another hit man (or a vague variation on that occupation) preparing for his final gig.

What Clooney's character exactly does is some kind of intricate prep work for the real assassin, all played out without much dialogue in a location fairly dripping with ambience. (That would be Abruzzo, a mountainous region East of Rome.) This is the kind of existential material that Alain Delon and director Jean-Pierre Melville confronted so memorably in 1967's slinky "Le Samourai" and that Jean-Paul Belmondo and our own Steve McQueen both tackled regularly with assorted filmmakers.

But the actor who comes to mind while watching Clooney do his movie-star thing is Charles Bronson who one can see having addressed this material with either Michael Winner or Terence Young as his director.

Recommending a film like "The American" - adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's much better-titled novel, “A Very Private Gentleman” - is tricky. It is definitely an acquired taste but, once tasted, easy to savor.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

cinema obscura: John Huddles' "Far Harbor" (1996)

There's a certain subgenre that I've dubbed "the hanging out movie" - you know, that film where a group of friends gather together to drink, eat reminisce, complain and have sex.

John Sayles arguably introduced the form with his breakthrough movie, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1979), and his idea was quickly appropriated a few years later by Lawrence Kasdan for "The Big Chill" (1984). While Sayles' film was scruffy and companionable, Kasdan's arch, glossy take on the material took it to its nadir. Still, it was phenomenally, inexplicably, popular, inspiring several imitations.

One of the least-known clones is John Huddles' "Far Harbor," a 1996 effort that, like Kasdan's movie, uses death to bring its cast of characters together. In this case, it's the death of a child which inspires a weekend getaway. Ryland (Jim True-Frost) thinks it will be good for his stressed wife Ellie (Jennifer Connelly) - and their marriage - if they play hosts to several friends in the seaside Far Harbor.

Playing the guests are Marcia Gay Harden, Dan Futterman, George Newbern, Tracee Ellis Ross (Diana's daughter), Andrew Lauren and Edward Atterton, who plays a struggling film writer named Frick (you heard me) and who also happens to be Ellie's first husband.

So much for a stress-free weekend.

The material is underwhelming but the gifted young cast - well, young in 1996 - makes for good company, and Futterman in particular stands out in a few edgy scenes. "Far Harbor" was Huddles' first and only theatrical film; he subsequently directed the cable movie, "At Sachem Farm" (1998), starring Minnie Driver, Rufus Sewell, Amelia Heinle and Nigel Hawthorne, before seemingly disappearing from the scene.

Originally titled "Mr. Spielberg's Boat," the title was changed after Steven Spielberg refused permission to use his name. And so the name Steven Spielberg in the film became David Sprechman, an unseen character whose status as a famed filmmaker brings out the impatience in Frick.

"Far Harbor" pops up on the Independent Film Channel in September, airing Saturday, Sept. 4 at 8:30 a.m. (est), Saturday, Sept. 4 at 1:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 16 at 10:45 a.m. and Thursday, Sep. 16 at 6:00 p.m.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

the contrarian: "South Pathetic"

OK, climbing out on a limb, I’m going to say what no one else has said. Here goes… Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” despite that glorious score and racial-divide themes that are still provocative, isn’t a very good show – on film or on stage.

For the past five decades now, Joshua Logan’s 1958 film version, which Logan also staged on Broadway in 1949, has been the subject of much criticism, and I’ve participated, despite the fact that when I was young and unformed, “S.P.” was a favorite film. Until I outgrew it. I thought.

But watching the recent PBS telecast of a live performance of the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center revival, replete with its original stars, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, my jaw dropped and my mind opened.

After all these years of making snarky remarks about the Logan film, I suddenly realized that I have never seen a good production of the show, this one included. I’ve seen various regional productions and even remember a revival with Florence Henderson, also staged at Lincoln Center, in the 1970s, and frankly, I can’t think of any that were very good – again, despite that grand score and the racial-intolerance plot.

And, remember, with a book by Hammerstein and Logan, the show won a Pulitzer Prize. That makes it untouchable, right? No, you'd be wrong.

It’s the book – to which the ’58 film version and the unwatchable 2001 Glenn Close TV remake were so faithful – that’s bad. Filled with awful dialogue, it apparently engenders bad performances across the board. (Full Disclosure: I’ve no idea what Mary Martin and Enzio Pinza were like in the original, but nearly everyone else I’ve seen has been subpar.)

Which brings me back to Bartlett Sher’s grotesquely misconceived, self-important reinvention for the current revival, which is a much darker reading of the material – so dark that even the buffoon Luther Billis comes across as a semi-serious character. Sher’s version, like all the other “S.P.s,” is noteworthy for its bad acting - not so much O’Hara, who is fine as Nellie Forbush, but the men. All the men. Somehow, every male performance in this production is cringe-inducing and, while Szot has the requisite show-stopping voice as Emile de Becque, he is a lumpy presence and his facial contortions while singing are not pretty to experience.

“South Pacific” may have a laurelled history, but like its successor in “serious musical comedy” – that would be “West Side Story” – it is a show that remains melodically glorious but resistant to good acting.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

façade: Jennifer Aniston

 Ok, this is just between us, right? 
Let's see...How shall I put this?... Oh, heck, here goes"
I ♥ Jen!
Now is the time to praise Jennifer Aniston.


Well, she has a pleasing, sturdy filmography and, from where I sit, Aniston has been too-hastily (and predictably) pigeon-holed by short-sighted, lazy media writers as a former TV star rather than as a popular film star.

Fact is, she's a solid actress, a terrific comedienne, a most pleasing screen presence and, by all accounts, one of the most generous people working in films today.Anyone needing proof should contemplate a home-theater Jennifer Aniston Fil Festival - and I heartifly suggest that you seriously think about it. Here's a list of double-bills that I'd definitely pencil in.
"The Break-Up" / "Friends with Money"
Two of Aniston's more recent films, both from a single year, 2006 - an impressive achievement. The former is Peyton Reed's scathingly authentic look at the baggage that couples thoughtlessly bring into relationships, eventually paying the price.
It's an uncompromising, often harsh but very accurate examination of a relationship unraveling. In this comedy, the "jokes" hurt. They're unusually brutal. It's impressive that the astute script was written by two men, Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick, because they've created an amazingly empatheic role for Aniston who tears into it as if it were a raw slab of meat. Her performance here is auspicious, as she registers disappointment and frustration in counterpoint to co-star Vince Vaughn's glib, unfeeling self-entitlement. The guy definitely comes off worse here. The actual scene in which the pair breaks up - and extended argument played out in real time - is arguably some of the best screen writing in years. That scene alone, which runs about ten minutes, can stand on its own as a complete, self-contained movie.

Nicole Holofcener directed the second - a slender, shrewd inside-out take on Aniston's "Friends," where matters are less than egalitarian. Aniston bravely took on the role of the loser of the group - which includes Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack - and ran with it.
"Love Happens / "Management"
For reasons of commerce exclusively, Brandon Camp's debut film, Love Happens," was sold as a Jennifer Aniston romcom. Far from it. It's an Aaron Eckhart dramedy. Aniston hands the material - about a self-help guru, newly widowed, who has to learn to help himself - over to Eckhart; she 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 40 years ago by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman for Gilbert Cates. And Aniston would be great in the sister role originally played by Estelle Parsons. (I can dream, can't I?)

Playwright Stephen Belber (he of the Manhattan Theater Club and the Playwrights Horizons) wrote and directed "Management," a quirky, shaggy dog love story between a desperate man-child (Steve Zahn) and a jaded traveling saleswoman (Aniston) who supplies the tacky art that routinely litters cheap motel rooms but whose avocation is more green and more enlightened. She's obsessed with the environment. The film is wistful, intelligent and very small, and Belber handed Aniston a wonderful role - possibly the most fascinating woman's movie part in ages, bar none. But she stepped back and let the incorrigible Zahn, at long last, have his moment in the spotlight in "Management." Definitely worth a second look, now that the tabloid dust that usually
surrounds Aniston has settled.

"Rock Star" / "Office Space"
Two of Aniston's more eclectic titles - Stephen Herek's 2001 indictment of just how unhealthy and destructive show business can be to a person's psyche, and Mike Judge's gloriously anarchic and savage bludgeoning of the modern workplace. Released in 1999, it's a film full of guys - but Aniston shines as Joanna, an artless young woman who just doesn't wear enough of the required "flair" in her demoralizing waitress job.

"The Good Girl / "The Object of My Affection"
These two contain Aniston's strongest screen performances - as the blue-collar Justine in "The Good Girl," Miguel Arteta's astute 2002 art-house hit about a young woman who is trapped, stuck, immobolized (take your pick) and 1998's "The Object of My Affection," directed by Nicholas Hytner from a screenplay by Wendy Wasserstein, in which the actress plays Nina, a confused young woman who falls in love with a gay man (Paul Rudd).
 "Derailed" / "Rumor Has It"
Aniston starred in these two diametrically opposed films in 2005 - the first, a nasty bit of business by Mikael Håfström, with Clive Owen and Vincent Cassel, and the second a potentially promising reimagining of the story behind "The Graduate," which suffered an irrevocable loss when its first director (and creator), Ted Griffin, was dismissed after 10 days into principal photography and replaced by Rob Reiner. It never got its footing - and, sadly, remains a missed opportunity.
"She's the One" / "Dream for an Insomniac"
Two from 1996 - Ed Burn's sophomore feature, an easy-going ensemble piece that also features Cameron Diaz, and Tiffanie DeBartolo's little-seen off-beat romcom with Ione Skye and Jennifer as BFFs. Worth checking out.

"He's Just Not That into You" / "Marley & Me"
 Earlier, I commented that Aniston may be the most generous screen performer today. She was a team player in the hugely entertaining ensemble film, "He's Just Not That Into You," and she indulged a dog (actually many of them) and the dog-eyed Owen Wilson in "Marley & Me." (And let's not forget those films she made with Eckhart and Zahn.)
”Marley & 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 but there's more than what meets the eye here. Director David Frankel, ably abetted by his game stars Owen Wilson and 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. His film deals 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.
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 & Me" earns its tears, largely because Frankel has given his film a generous exposition that's alive with many acute observations and details. The well-honed screenplay was written by ace scenarist Scott Frank ("Get Shorty," "Minority Report" and "Out of Sight") and indie filmmaker Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex"). And in Wilson and Aniston, Frankel 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.

 "The Iron Giant" / "The Thin Pink Line"
The first is Brad Bird's much-admired 1999 animation in which Aniston provided the mom's voice, and the second is - what? I'm not sure. It was directed by Joe Dietl and
Michael Irpino in 1998, a send-up of sorts, and apparently went straight to video. Huge cast. In addition to Aniston, there's Mike Myers, Janeane Garofalo, David Schwimmer, Illeana Douglas and Jason Priestly. The contributors on IMDb compare it to "Waiting for Guffman." Too much of a curiosity not to be included in my little at-home festival.

I left out a few Aniston titles - "Picture Perfect," "Till There Was You," "Bruce Almighty" and "Along Came Polly" - largely because her roles in them do fit into the facile profile of Aniston's film career that's been offered up by movie pundits - the thankless "girlfriend" role.
Right now, Aniston is due out in the aforementioned "The Switch," opening Friday (20 August) in which she continues to define her singular screen persona - namely, a woman who's a looker and a good sport and who has a spikey edge that she makes no effort to conceal. The film's narrative sounds Aniston-made - calling on the resources of the actress who can be playful and in charge. And Jennifer Aniston is very much in charge.
Note in Passing: I would have loved to see what Aniston would have done with the role of Mariane Pearl in "The Mighty Heart," a vehicle that, reportedly, she and Brad Pitt optioned together when they were still a married couple - and which was originally developed with Aniston in mind.
Relating Reading: And, in a piece worth reading, The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle defends Aniston. Bravo! And LaSalle defines "Love Happens." And Carrie Rickey, Glenn Kenny and Tom Shone all weigh in on Jen on their marvelous movie sites, "Flickgrrl, "Some Came Running" and "Taking Barack to the Movies," respectively.