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 filmmography and, from where I sit, Aniston has been too-hastily (and predicatably) 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 Film Festival - and I heartily suggest that you seriously think about it. Here's a list of double-bills that I'd definitely pencil in:
-"The Break-Up" and "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" and "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" and "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" and "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" and "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" and "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" and "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" and "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.
Related reading: Kim Morgan of the fabulous "Sunset Gun" site and The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle defend 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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

cinema obscura: Vincente Minnelli's "Goodbye Charlie" (1964)

In 1964, Vincente Minnelli took a break from his work at MGM to direct Fox's film version of George Axelrod's 1960 play, "Goodbye Charlie," a deft satire about a notorious womanizer who is murdered and reincarnated as the kind of woman he used to casually exploit and abuse.

Axelrod also directed the play which opened at the Lyceum Theater in March of '60.

On stage, the role of Charlie was played in her Broadway debut by Lauren Bacall, a woman ofen described as "handsome." Bacall's deep, husky voice was obviously also an asset in the role.

For the film version, Minnelli went with the eternally girlish Debbie Reynolds, a less obvious choice whose butch mannerisms indirectly added to the piece's scabrous sense of humor. Tony Curtis (reuniting with Reynolds after Robert Mulligan's "The Rat Race" in 1960) assumed the role played on stage by Sydney Chaplin, and the supporting cast included Pat Boone, Joanna Barnes, Ellen Burstyn (when she was still being billed as Ellen McRae), Laura Devon, Martin Gable and, most memorably, Walter Matthau in one of his most shamelessly hammiest performances as a sex-obsessed wastrel named ... Sir Leopold Sartori.

Andre Previn wrote the kind of music score for the film that makes one think the material, which is fun, should have been a musical all along.


Perhaps you haven't noticed but modern movies by, for and about women deal with one hugely dubious subject - self-involvement. It's not exactly flattering and this new subgenre reached something of a nadir with Michael Patrick King's wretched "Sex and the City 2," which added a bizarre obsession with obscenely expensive shoes to the mix.

There's no where to go but up, right?

Ryan Murphy's film version of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" - retitled "Eat Pray Love" by Hollywood marketing - is something of an anti-"Sex and the City 2." The heroine's searching in this film is for her soul.

Not some designer label.

That makes a big difference - that and star Julia Roberts who reaches deep within herself to make the narcissism of this film's heroine palatable. Roberts works overtime - the star is on screen for the film's entire 133-minute running time - and she works wonders.

While I could care less about Elizabeth Gilbert's entitled problems, Julia's "Liz Gilbert" effectively sucked me in. I was hooked. I didn't even care if her search was for a rare pair of Manolo Blahniks. Luckily, "Eat Pray Love" is about her search for identity - and, by extention, peace.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

good movie, bad title

I've no idea why Jay Roach decided to call his latest film, "Dinner for Schmucks," a title that wildly misrepresents the material, except that it's crass enough to get people into theaters.

But Roach's other decisions, especially his eye for casting, are spot-on because his movie is surprisingly companionable, driven by some game performances.

A reinvention of Francis Verber's bracing, shameless 1998 French farce of humiliation, "Le dîner de cons" (released here as "The Dinner Game" in 1999), Roach's comedy is essentially something of a begrudging buddy film with the usual mismatched duo - two guys who wouldn't normally be friends. It's more "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" than "The Odd Couple."

Paul Rudd and Steve Carell inherit the original Thierry Lhermitte-Jacques Villeret roles of a careerist and the dolt he intends to use to impress his boss at a party where guests bring idiots for entertainment purposes.

Rudd, ever solid and always a good sport, anchors the film with his conflicted flipflopping over the conceit. But Carell is the source of the film's heart and humor as Barry, a poor soul into mouse-oriented taxidermy and dioramas. Wearing closely-cropped red hair with short bangs and prosthetic teeth (that seem to complement a nose that itself always seems like a prosethetic), Carell resembles a rodent himself.

A truly witty touch.

But giving Carell some serious competition are Jemaine Clement, Lucy Punch and particuarly the inspired Zach Galifianakis, all playing assorted crazies - and all of whom help Roach's spiked punch go down easy.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

indelible moment: "Marley & Me" (2008)

Because of the logistics of modern film criticism - the relentless assembly-line of releases, the deadening deadlines, impossible editors, frustrating compromises, ad infinitum - reviewers don't have the luxury of kicking back and savoring the small details. Often, they miss them.

One of the most powerful moments in recent films comes towards the end of "Marley & Me," David Frankel's 2008 adaptation of the John Grogan book which essentially follows the life of a dog, a rascally yellow labrador retriever, from puppyhood to death. 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"), but the scene in question is a brief, conspicuously wordless one.

In it, Ann Dowd, playing the family veterinarian, excuses herself so Owen Wilson can say goodbye to a seriously ill Marley, who is about to be put down. Florian Ballhaus's camera slowly follows Wilson's hand, in close-up, as he strokes Marley's coat for the last time. Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") worked to keep the moment short, silent, incredibly sensual, achingly sad and wholly memorable. Yes, indelible.

In his "Screen World" assessment of the movie year 2008, author Barry Monush honored Frankel's film "for being something more than just the obvious doggie flick that it looked like on the surface." This lovely sequence quietly advances that observation of "Marley and Me."

indelible moment will be a recurring feature on The Passionate Moviegoer, honoring those small, gem-like moments in movies that have the power to haunt one's memories and dreams. Recommendations?