Wednesday, March 31, 2010

façade: Pierce Brosnan

"Pierce Brosnan gives the strongest performance of his rather lazy career."


So wrote
The New Yorker's David Denby in the strongest review of his rather lazy career. (I'm joking!) Speaking from experience, when a person spends 20, 30 years reviewing movies, he/she is apt to run out of things to say and write something inane, usually in haste ("deadline" being the most convenient excuse for the lapse).

The aforementioned quote is from Denby's 8 March review of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," in which Brosnan indeed gives his strongest performance to date. That's not my quarrel. My problem is with the critic's rather facile use of the word "lazy." Brosnan may have made some dubious career decisions, as most actors are apt to do during lengthy careers, but that's different from a "lazy career." I think Denby simply selected the wrong adjective. Hastily.

As far as I'm concerned, Brosnan is in his prime and "The Ghost Writer," in which he indulges in a fascinating cat-and-mouse duet with Ewan McGregor (that's them together in the photo at the very top of this post), shows the actor in complete, effortless command of his craft.

Actually, Brosnan's post-007 career has been varied and impressive but then, even during the years he played James Bond, he managed to juggle things so that his resume would include such worthy films as John Borman's excellent "The Tailor of Panama," Bruce Beresford's "Evelyn," Richard Attenborough's "Grey Owl" and John McTiernan's "The Thomas Crown Affair" which, arguably, is better than Norman Jewison's original.

But it's what Brosnan has been doing in recent years that have made him so hugely watchable. He sparred aimably with Julianne Moore in Peter Howitt's "Laws of Attraction," a take on the Hepburn-Tracy flicks; he was paired with Salma Hayek and Woody Harrelson in Brett Ratner's "After the Sunset"; he was sensational as the oddball hitman hanging out with Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis in Richard Shepard's "The Matador" (great performance); he hooked up with with countryman Liam Neeson is David Von Ancken's "Seraphim Falls"; he teamed with Maria Bello and Gerard Butler in Mike Barker's curiously little-seen "Butterfly on a Wheel" (aka, "Shattered), and he, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper and Rachel McAdams examined "Married Life" in Ira Sachs' dark comedy.

And, of course, there was Brosnan's game, playful turn as one of Meryl Streep's former lovers in Phyllida Lloyd's film of "Mamma Mia!," in which he demonstrated a raspy, lived-in singing voice that reminded me of an old rocker. Very appealing (but then I have a weakness for non-singers).

But, yes,
"The Ghost Writer" is the film that puts him on another level altogther, and currently surrounding it are roles in no fewer than three titles - Chris Columbus's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," Allen Coulter's "Remember Me" and Shana Feste's "The Greatest."

And that's not all. Coming up are George Ratliff's "Salvation Boulevard" with Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei, Ed Harris, Rebecca Hall and Brosnan's "Matador" co-star, Greg Kinnear, and Brian Levant's "Vanilla Gorilla" which reportedly is actually about a gorilla. Whew. Lazy?

I think not.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

cinema obscura: Ossie Davis' "Black Girl" (1972)

In 1966, the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene made his first feature-length film, "La Noire de..." - better known in America as "Black Girl" - a powerful social drama about a young African girl demoralized and driven to thoughts of suicide when her job as a maid for a French family relegates her to slave status.

You can't say enough about this film. It's become more precious since Sembene died last June.

But there was another "Black Girl," one almost as good. Based on the searing play by J.E. Franklin and directed by actor Ossie Davis (his third), this "Black Girl" is a terrificly acted family drama achored by the bravura turns of the wonderful Louise Stubbs, the legendary Claudia MacNeil and Ruby Dee, and the always-underrated Leslie Uggams. The virutally all-female cast gets a potent shot of testosterone in the form of the imposing, towering Brock Peters.

Franklin's material is touchy stuff, dealing with a racial self-hatred that materializes during the ugly tug-of-war over a young woman's affections and her future. The debuting Peggy Pettit, plays Billie Jean, a teenager whose desire to be a dancer are misunderstood and unappreciated by her family - a clueless mother (Stubbs) and two angry older sisters (Gloria Edwards and Loretta Green, both excellent).

There's a fourth sister, Netta (Uggams), who is adopted, light-skinned and educated - three qualities that make her a pariah and an outsider in this family. Netta's encouragement of Billie Jean's ambitions strips everyone naked as the major characters claw into each other and generally numb Billie Jean. McNeil plays the family matriach, the grandmother; Dee is Uggams' mother, and Peters plays the father of Billie Jean and her two spiteful sisters.

Considering its cast of major African-American players, it's a mystery that "Black Girl" has been lost for more than 30 years now. Has it ever been telecast? It certainly isn't available on home entertainment and never has been.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Lear's "All That Glitters" (1977) - and other forgotten gems

Lois Nettleton and Robert DoQui in an episode from Norman Lear's 1977 ensemble comedy, "All That Glitters" (a still signed by Nettleton)
For no good valid reason, other than I want to, I'm going to take a break from my usual obsession with forgotten films and briefly venture into the more rarified area of forgotten television. Actually, this is a subject that Stephen Bowie covers with some expertise on his remarkable site, The Classic TV History Blog: Dispatches From the Vast Wasteland.

Every once in a while, when I least expect it, my mind drifts towards lost '60s sitcoms from my distant youth:

Ezra Stone's "The Hathaways" (1961-62), in which the inimitable team of Peggy Cass and Jack Weston plays parents to a family of chimps; Gary Nelson's "Occasional Wife" (1966-67), in which Michael Callan makes like Jack Lemmon as a careerist who enlists Patricia Harty to pretend to be his wife to help him in his job, and David Swift's "Camp Runamuck" (1965-66), a minor classic about deranged camp counselors, among them comics Dave Ketchum and Dave Madden - and Nina Wayne as Caprice Yodelman. Isn't it remarkable the things that one remembers?

Then there's Norman Lear's short-lived attempt to tranpose Lanford Wilson's raunchy, eclectic play about lowlifes, "Hot L Baltimore" (1975), to the small screen, with a dream cast that included James (then Jamie) Cromwell, Conchata Ferrell (from the play) and Richard Mazur.

But the title that I miss the most is Lear's trailblazing 1977 series, "All That Glitters," an inventive gender-bender that, not surprisingly, lasted only one season. Lear may be better known for "All in the Family," "Maude" and the surreal soap, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," but "All That Glitters" is arguably his best, despite its status as a nonentity these days. It ran for one season ... in a late-night slot ... in syndication.

The premise was simple. The sex roles were reversed, with women behaving like dominant alpha males, running companies and the world (and having casual affairs because they earned them and because, well, they can), and the men staying home and knowing their place. Playing on the edge, the show introduced Linda Gray (who, of course, would go on to do "Dallas") as a transsexual - a woman who was once a man.

The series' two house directors were Herbert Kenwith, a sitcom specialist of the era ("Good Times" and "Diff'rent Strokes"), and James Frawley, who had directed such eccentric titles as "The Christian Licorice Store," "Kid Blue," "The Big Bus" and "The Muppet Movie."

In addition to Gray, Lear's game, delicious cast included Barbara Baxley, Eileen Brennan, Lois Nettleton, Jessica Walter, Anita Gillette and Louise Shafer as the women, and a hilarious Chuck McCann, David Haskell, Tim Thomerson, Gary Sandy and Greg Evigan as the guys. Absolutely golden.

That's why it glittered.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

rothman's non-event

Against my better judgment, I watched the Fox Movie Channel's Fox Legacy showcase of the 1960 Walter Lang film, "Can-Can," based on the Cole Porter stage musical, which aired twice on Friday, 19 March.

"Can-Can," whose real auteur was star Frank Sinatra, is a fairly awful film, covered here at length on Thursday, 31 December, 2009.

But I had my reasons for tuning in.
Fox Legacy is a periodic feature on FMC, hosted by Tom Rothman, Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, who introduces "landmark 20th Century Fox films and provides insight about how these notable films were created."

It's news to me that "Can-Can" is a "landmark" film. Still, the film - which runs a scant 131 minutes - was given a three-hour time slot (with no commercial breaks) and, against all odds, I was hoping that Rothman might screen the long-lost "I Love Paris" number as bonus feature.

About the only thing that fascinates me about "Can-Can" is that, back in '60, someone made the inexplicable decision to delete the "I Love Paris" duet by Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier. I mean, it's the show's most notable song and it was sung by two icons. (The conspiracy theorist in me always had a hunch that, for some bizarre reason, Sinatra himself was the force behind the decision to delete the classic number.)

Furthermore, in the five decades since the film's release, the song has never surfaced anywhere, not even on the two-disc DVD of the film released two years ago. Still, I watched. Foolish, I know.

Well, Rothman aired the same lame film that's been around for 50 years now, plus lots of behind-the-scenes shots of Krushchev's visit to the set, home-movie footage that went on forever. Plus, there were clips of the movie's Hollywood premiere and a curious interview with Shirley MacLaine, curious because of MacLaine's conspicuous absence on the DVD. There's no commentary from her.

Not surprisingly, MacLaine was like a broken record, using her appearance with Rothman as, yes, yet another attempt to diss Debra Winger, "attempt" being the operative word. When she started to talk about the "chaos" on "Terms of Endearment," Rothman quickly stepped in and said, "Well, we don't have to get into that" (or something to that effect). Anyway, no "I Love Paris."

I'm a little confused. I realize that the familiar Krushchev stuff has historic value but why would Fox save all that footage but not a duet of a great Cole Porter number sung by Sinatra and Chevalier? I don't get it.

Of course, it's rather ironic that Rothman would be hosting a show celebrating 20th Century-Fox's "landmark" films, given that his studio’s classics-on-dvd department has been shut down on his watch.

Don't these people appreciate the value of their own property and can't they manage to once, just once, behave responsibly with it?

BTW, the Fox Legacy presentation of "Can-Can" will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. on Sunday, 28 March.

Monday, March 15, 2010

cinema obscura: Hillary Brougher's "Stephanie Daley" (2006) surfaces! (under an alias)

I'm not exactly sure "Stephanie Daley" qualifies as Cinema Obscura, at least not directly, but this curious little film acutely defines why the Independent Filmmaking Scene, onces so vital and promising, has become every bit as demoralizing as the studio assembly lines.

First, an admission: I haven't seen it. I wanted to. My appetite was certainly whetted by the bits and pieces of information about it that managed to creep out of the overcrowded film-festival ghetto.

Of the three hundred or so titles that routinely play Sundance and Toronto (and are there really that many festival-worthy films?), this is one of the few of the past few years that attracted my attention, largely because of the muted excitement over the performances of its female stars.

Although "Stephanie Daley" has surfaced on DVD, its theatrical life was aborted. It didn't play in the Philadelphia area, which is where I live. Seeing it would have meant going to New York and going there within the cramped one-week period which it played. It also played in Los Angeles and probably in San Francisco and maybe Boston. But I figure that if the film couldn't make it to Philly, it really didn't get very far. (The movie recently had a one-day revival on 5 March at New York's 92Y Tribeca.)

And, frankly, finding a local store that stocks esoteric DVD titles only exacerbates the problem of geeting to see such movies. It ain't easy.

Apparently, both Amber Tamblyn, a major young star still waiting to happen, and the always reliable Tilda Swinton turned in award-worthy performances but let's face it: When a film with a good or great performance is barely released, it's like acting in a vacuum.

Tamblyn's "Stephanie Daley" is the kind of film whose most potent performances are seen only in private screening rooms or in the rarefied, often surreal, very solipsistic world of film festivals.

Directed by Hillary Brougher, "Stephanie Daley" sounds like a tough piece, with Tamblyn as a 16-year old who hid her pregnancy, lost her baby and is accused of murdering it. The initmitably creepy Swinton, always an acting powerhouse, plays the pregnant officer investigating the situation and apparently not in an entirely detached way.

The New Yorker's Richard Brody offered an enticing tumbnail analysis of the film when it played New York back in April of 2007.

Sounds like my kind of movie. Maybe I'll find it. Someday. Somewhere.

Wait! Brougher's film will show up on the Lifetime cable channel at 5 p.m. on 27 March but with a new title - "What She Knew." Hopefully, the 92-minute film will be shown intact, but it's unlikely. Ah, well...

Friday, March 12, 2010

the white elephant

Somehow, it managed to get worse - and more embarrassing - with each passing hour. And the hours passed oh so slooowly.

Where to begin, where to begin - that's the conundrum here. Let's see...

There's Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin behaving like two old burlesque comics, with Martin literally turning into Mr. Magoo before our eyes.

But much worse was the bizarrely gratuitous, wildly hypocritical montage celebrating a genre that has almost never been nominated for - let alone rewarded with - an Oscar. That would be horror movies.

Much, much worse, however, was the inexplicable celebration of a hack filmmaker/producer who directed a scant eight movies, only two of them any good ("Sixteen Candles" and "Planes, Trains & Automobiles"), and produced scores of really lousy films. That would be John Hughes.

And even worse than that was a weird, unweildy display of dull "interperative" dancing matched up with the nominated film scores - a spectacle so bad and so drawn-out that it made one nostalgic for the mundane awfulness of Debbie Allen's past Oscar-show concoctions.

But wait! Much more worse (worser?) was the condescending dismissal of film personalities who represent experience and knowledge - Lauren Bacall, Roger Corman, Gordon Willis and John Calley - who were reduced to audience members while someone representing the dismal future of film was given the spotlight on stage. That would be Mylie Cyrus and Taylor Lautner. (BTW, Bacall et al were given their "honorary" awards at an event hosted - seemingly clandestinely and at some secret location - way back in November. Sounds like a much better event to me.)

Much worse, however, was the Oscarcast's orchestra giving the hook to Ric O’Barry - protagonist of the best documentary, "The Cove" - because he attempted to enlighten the viewing audience about his on-going campaign to halt the capture and brutal slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Who's he think he is anyway? A star? Mylie Cyrus?

But topping that were the toxic “personal tributes" - in which celebs were made the stand in a line-up, without even a podium to lean on, and fawn over and pander to each and every nominated best actor and actress. That would be arse-kissing of the highest/lowest (take your pick) sort.

Ah, but much, much worse was the Academy's reliably awful "In Memorium" segment, legendary by now for snobbishly overlooking people who worked hard to make the industry look better than it actually is. This year, at long last, the Academy got caught with its petty bias showing when it made the jaw-dropping mistake of purposely ignoring Farrah Fawcett, while celebating Michael Jackson who, by my recollection, made only one - count it - one film. That would be the execrable "The Wiz."

But also overlooked were:

James Whitmore
Ricardo Montalbán
Bea Arthur
Gene Barry
Marilyn Chambers
Edward Woodward
Henry Gibson
Don Galloway
John Alvin
Edward Judd
Molly Bee
Phil Carey
Steven Bach
Jimmy Boyd
Salvatore Samperi
Sydney Chaplin
Ken Annakin
Jack Cardiff
Simon Channing-Williams
Jody McCrea
Mort Abraham
Frank Aletter
Harve Presnell
Fred Travalena
Ed McMahon
Ruth Ford
Melvin Simon
Lou Jacobi
Betty Lou Keim
Joseph Wiseman
Al Alberts
Paul Wendkos
Carl Ballentine
Perry Wilson
Dan O'Bannon
Connie Hines
Alaina Reed Hall
Rose Kaufman
Richard Todd
Bryan O'Byrne
Maggie Jones
Clint Ritchie

How difficult is it to keep a list of who died and when - and then honor those lost people? And how many extra seconds does it add to the show’s self-indulgent, sprawling running time to flash the faces of these departed? If that’s too much trouble for the Academy, maybe it should start licensing Turner Classic’s In Memoriam, which is always definitive. Of course, the Academy can't even figure out if its memorials represent the preceding calendar year exclusively or if they should cover the span from Oscar show to Oscar show. Decisions, decisions.

Congratulations of sorts go to Bruce Davis, the executive director of the Academy, and to Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic, producers of this year's Oscarcast. Congratulations because, well, they won. The Oscarcast had is best ratings in years, particularly in the much lusted-after 18-to-34-year-old demographic. A dubious achievement, indeed. Yes, an audience was lured and reigned in, but did that audience actually like what it saw?

Or were the viewers as dusgusted as I was?

We'll find out next year when they tune in again. Or not.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

cinema obscura: Phil Karlson's "99 River Street" (1953)

"99 River Street." This satisfying little noir gem may be the definitive Phil Karlson movie. The ever-underestimated John Payne, a solid actor, stars as a washed-up boxer named Ernie Driscoll, who just lost a heavyweight championship match and drives a taxi for a living, much to the chagrin of his awful, unfaithful wife (Peggy Castle), who blames Eddie for him for her own failure. When his two-timing wife ends up dead, murdered by her paramour, Eddie is framed for her death and needs to prove his innocence.

He gets off-beat assistance from a terrific Evelyn Keyes who plays a spunky actress who tricked Eddie with a scam of her own and now uses her wiles and creatively fertile mind to help prove that Eddie is part of a set-up and the two have to elude traps on their road to the truth.

"99 River Street" is terse, snappy and gorgeously photographed by the great Franz Planer (Audrey Hepburn's "house cinematographer," so to speak).

Not available on home entertainment, "99 River Street" and another Karlson gem with Payne, "Kansas City Confidential," will be showcased at a rare double-bill screening at Hollywood's fabulous
New Beverly Theatre, 7165 West Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90036 (one block west of La Brea_, on Wednesday and Thursday, 24 and 25 March. Phone: 323) 938-4038

Thursday, March 04, 2010

an education in willful denial/part two

"But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy."

-William Shakespeare,
"The Merchant of Venice," Act II Scene 6
Cinéphiles - and in that group I would lump both critics and your more-than-casual moviegoer - can be a lovelorn lot.

I know. I've been there. There have been times when I loved a film so irrationally that no amount of nudging could sway me from my crush.

I understand why most of my friends and colleagues have fallen head over heels in love with "An Education." It has a pedigree that any self-respecting cinéphile would find irresistible - a young female filmmaker from the Dogma school, Lone Scherfig; a writer who is a literary darling, Nick Hornby; an attractive leading man who is also a serious actor, Peter Sarsgaard, and a charming new face, Carey Mulligan, in the lead role. And it doesn't hurt that the material (based on Lynn Barber's memoir) evokes those late '60s, Carnaby-era Brit films that starred Alan Bates, Rita Tushingham, Charlotte Rampling and Lynn Redgrave. Yes, bliss.

What surprises me is the determination of its fans to overlook, downplay or flat-out deny the anti-Semitism that's such an important part of the narrative of "An Education." When I've brought it up, the response has been one of anger. I'm not asking anyone to love "An Education" any less - only to acknowledge an aspect that, in many ways, makes the film more fascinating and complicated. When I originally expressed these thoughts last 16 October in a post titled Peter Sarsgaard Channels Alan Bates; The Unexpected anti-Semitism of Lone Scherfig's Beguiling/Troubling "An Education," 26 comments were generated.

My initial hunch was that everyone was so in love with the endearing Mulligan that they were blinded, unaware of what they were actually watching. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Sarsgaard is the single most important element in the film - his presence, his casting. Sarsgaard has matinee-idol good looks and an unfussy, easygoing talent that, in tandem, are so dazzling that it's easy to miss exactly what his character, David Goldman, is all about. Reviews of the film have alternately referred to David as "an older man," "a charismatic older man" and "an attractive older man" (take your pick) who seduces a much younger woman named Jenny (Mulligan, natch). His Jewishness is barely even addressed, even though the film itself makes a big deal of it. What's troubling about David isn't that he's Jewish but that the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to make him a negative stereotype.

This telling excerpt from an astute 2 December post written by Irina Bragin, for pretty much encapsulates how the character is presented in the film:

"David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods, deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: 'Shvartzes,' he tells Jenny, 'have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent from their own kind.' The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses the collective 'we' to justify his wickedness: 'This is how we are, Jenny,' Goldman editorializes. 'We’re not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways, because if we weren’t, there would be no fun.' He uses the word 'stats' for old ladies he victimizes. They 'are scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies out and I buy their flats cheap.' Along with his partner, Danny, David barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious relics. 'We have to be clever with maps,' he tells Jenny. An ancient map, he rationalizes, 'shouldn’t spend its life on a wall…. We know how to look after it…. We liberated it.'"

To discuss "An Edcuation" with the people who adore it, one would come away with the impression that none of the above is even in the film.

It simply goes by them.

If one were to read "An Education" on the print page, Peter Sarsgaard would not be the first actor who comes to mind when one thinks of David. I've tried replaying scenes from "A Education" in my head but with other, more obvious actors in the role. Adrian Brody. Maybe Adam Goldberg.

What, I've wondered, would the audience response have been with a another David on screen, a different David? Would it have been same?

Anyway, all of this makes "A Education" more compelling to me, much more provocative. But its acolytes will hear none of it.