Monday, February 28, 2011

death by awards show

How difficult is it to hand out movie awards to avaricious recipients who are more than willing to accept them?

It's apparently overwhelming, wildly so, if one is to judge this dubious exercise by what The Independent Spirit Awards and The 83rd Oscarcast - polar opposites in temperament - separately wrought this weekend.

A deadly dose of forced fun and self-conscious trendiness was the hallmark of The Independent Spirit Awards (aired by the Independent Film Channel late Saturday evening), a show that got off to an immediate bad start with host Joel McHale's adolescent opening monologue.

McHale, who is genuinely funny and usually reliable, set the base tone of the evening, practically inviting presenters and winners alike to be as crass as possible. And everyone seemed more than willing to comply. The show reached its nadir when Craig Robinson, so witty on "The Office," sat down at a piano to sing an obscene (and seemingly endless) saloon song that managed to make even devil rum and dirty sex both unappealing.

You needed a body-sized prophylactic to get through this show.

The Oscarcast, lavish as usual (you could nearly smell the money on ABC last night), has already been ripped by Roger Ebert and Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter.

Yes, it was a trainwreck from the get-go, what with a montage (also seemingly endless) which insinutated the charmless hosts James Franco and Ann Hathaway into clips from the ten films nominated for Best Picture. Frankly, I had completely forgotten that there were ten films nominated again this year - quick! name them! - given that only four titles ("The Social Network," "The King's Speech," "The Fighter" and "Black Swan") have been discussed for the past two months.

Where to start? Franco stood there like a stick throughout the show (legs apart, hands cupped at his crotch), with a smug, complacent smirk on his face. (Or is that the way he always smiles?) He seemed superior to the whole thing and made no eye contact whatsoever with Hathaway.

Heck, he hardly even looked at her.

Hathaway, meanwhile, worked overtime, perhaps trying to make up for Franco's vacancy. She changed her outfit at least a half dozen times and was totally "on" - in her wide-eyed, gee-whiz, "ain't-Hollywood-grand-?" mode. Which I can take only in small doses. The woman is exhausting.

Hathaway has that brand of confidence and self-satisfaction that makes it seem as if she's always hugging herself. She also did a gratuitous solo, for no apparent reason other than to show what a gosh-darn great singing voice she has. It was capped with Franco walking on stage, crossdressed as Marilyn Monroe. Why? The "bit" ended there. It went nowhere.

On "Morning Joe" today, Joe Scarborough bemoaned the fact that she was stuck on stage with Franco because Hathaway is such "a great actress." On what basis? "Rachel Getting Married"? That's one film and that's it. In other films, she's never been more than competent.

But Hathaway is preferrable to Franco, who uttered the single most jaw-dropping line of the night when, after Marisa Tomei introduced the technical winners (whose awards were given at a separate event), Franco shouted "Congratulations, nerds!" He should talk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

cinema obscura: Robinson Devor's "The Woman Chaser" (1999)

The television show "Seinfeld" was not only a comedy phenomenom in its own right, it also provided a wonderful springboard/showcase for the many actors who made guest appearances on it - both people already fairly well-known at the time (Courteney Cox, Jon Lovitz, Janeane Garafalo and Teri Hatcher) and those then-unknown (Wendy Malik, Veanne Cox and Jon Favreau).

Arguably, the most vivid impression was made by a newcomer named Patrick Warburton, who played the recurring role of Puddy, Elaine's burly, affable, sort-of-vague boyfriend. Big and handsome, Warburton played dimness to the hilt, and his deadpan delivery of his character's signature line, "Yeah, that's right," was funny no matter how many times he said it.

It was only a matter of time, I thought, before Warburton would make the leap onto the big screen - which is where he belongs.

And that's what happened. Well, kind of.,,

"The Woman Chaser," an amiably minor entertainment from 1999, marked the actor's first full-fledged starring role in a movie after getting his feet wet with a supporting part in Wes Craven's "Scream 3."

Frankly, "The Woman Chaser" isn't all that much of a movie.

It's every inch a "first film" - a movie by and about someone clearly obsessed with movies. Filmmaker Robinson Devor has fashioned what feels like an autobiographical tale about Richard Hudson (Warburton), a well-heeled Los Angeles layabout who, out of boredom, gets the idea of making his own movie. He's lived in a company town all his life, after all - except for a recent brief stint in San Francisco - so it makes sense that he would be bitten by the filmmaking bug.

The fact that Richard had never shown any interest in movies or moviemaking before or that he isn't even sure he has the talent or the resources to do it is beside the point. The urge is in the L.A. air, and like bad air, this urge is cloudy and inescapable and feels a bit recycled.

So is the film surrounding Richard Hudson - a tale that every would-be or neophyte filmmaker eventually tackles. To his credit, Devor has had the good sense to set "The Woman Chaser" in the past, a place where Hollywood always has - and always will - exist. He's filtered a very personal story through some thick L.A.-in-the-'50s ambience.

Shot in a very authentic-looking black-and-white from 40 or 50 years ago, "The Woman Chaser" fairly drips in the sunny/seedy atmosphere of Hollywood - or Hollyweird or Tinseltown or whatever you want to call it. It's this ambience and Warburton's performance that beef up the slender storyline, which is based on a piece of choice pulp by Charles Willeford, whose writings inspired two other eclectic films - Monte Hellman's
"Cockfighter" (1974) and George Armitage's "Miami Blues" (1990).

The plot picks up Richard just after he's returned from his stint in San Francisco and has moved back in with his socialite mother (Lynette Bennett), who is remarried to a washed-up Hollywood producer (Paul
Malevich) who, in turn, has a grown daughter (Marilyn Rising) who, in turn, is still a virgin and wants Richard to sexually initiate her.

He obliges her - with some boredom - and also beds a few other women, but for the most part, the film's title is highly deceptive. Richard doesn't so much chase women as fall, almost accidentally, into bed with them. He really has no prowess to speak of, no real technique.

Buying a used-car lot, Richard displays his sense of showmanship - and drive - when he forces his salesmen to dress up in Santa Claus costumes in the middle of August. From there, it is only one small step to his idea of making a movie, called "The Man Who Got Away," about a trucker who mows down a little girl and then has to fend off the police. Richard leans on his stepfather for advice and expertise and then makes his movie.

And that's about it. That's "The Woman Chaser." In the span of a few short months, Richard turns into Orson Welles, becoming increasingly unstable as he shoots film and more film; discovers players who can't act; browbeats one of his leading ladies, using sex to get a decent performance out of her, and then battles with his film editor (Max Kerstein) and studio brass (Ernie Vincent). He saves his film in the editing room - but only by whittling it down to 63 minutes, which makes it virtually unreleasable as a feature.

Everyone suggests selling it to television, but that's out of the question for this auteur.

Devor, who has an excellent eye for everything '50s and an even better one for faces, basically strings together a series of oddball vignettes dominated by those faces. One of the best bits in the film - which has almost nothing to do with anything - is a sequence in which a shirtless Richard joins his mother in her dance studio for a pas de deux that's made compelling by both its incestuous overtones and the fact that the giant Warburton is so light on his feet. It's too bad he wasn't around in the '50s because some mogul, like Jack Warner, for example, would have loved him - and grabbed him up and groomed him for stardom.

Warburton even looks like an actor from the 1950s, not at all sculpted and smooth the way other contemporary actors are.

Anyway, this film which should have made him a Star, didn't. He was born too late. Patrick Warburton was made for the 1950s.

"The Woman Chaser," which is not available on DVD (although it was on VHS briefly), plays San Francisco's invaluable Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street (at Valencia), starting tomorrow (25 February), playing for a week (through 3 March). If you're in the area, see it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

the horror! the oscars!

So I settled in last night and watched The Independent Film Channel which was showing Brian De Palma's "Carrie" (1976), a favorite that I haven't seen in years. OK, decades.

What a gorgeous horror film - so gorgeous that it made me think. Just about every year around this time, movie types bemoan the fact that comedies are predictably shut out of the Big Oscar Giveaway.

This is true. But the real bastard child of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the horror film.

I mean, if Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (one of the greatest horror films ever) failed to pass muster back in 1960, exactly what scare tactic would?

The movie year 2010 produced many wonderful films that have been shunted by the Academy's uninformed voters - Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," Ben Affleck's "The Town" and Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island", among them. But there was also one worthy horror entry - Matt Reeves' exquisite "Let Me In."

Comedy? Who cares?

Fact is, there were precious few screen comedies of any real worth in 2010 ("Sex and the City 2" anyone? "Love and Other Drugs"? "How Do You Know"? Heavens!), but there was at least one great horror movie.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

movies, newspapers and plagiarism

Cary encouraged Roz to plagiarize in "His Girl Friday"
In his ever-fascinating column, The Ethicist, in the New York Times magazine section, Randy Cohen answers a reader who rightfully questions if "The Social Network," a "Hollywood movie, the product of an industry often portrayed as a snake pit," should be tackling the issue of stealing, given its own propensity for plagiarism. Indeed.

During my years as a working journalist on the movie beat, I was always fascinated by the incredible disconnect between newspapers and the film industry when it came to the subject of plagiarism.

In newsrooms, the mere hint of "plagiarism," a word usually spoken in hushed whispers among newspeople, is enough to shrivle the testicles of any average male newspaper editor. An anonymous call from a reader (who may be certifiable or worse) heatedly accusing a staffer of plagiarism has often been the reason for countless closed-door meetings - the unfortunate staffer being guilty until proven innocent.

I know of one reptilian editor, playing Colombo, who actually stalked one of his writers, short of using surveillance, seemingly in the hopes of actually proving that the writer was guilty. Why? Why the avidity?

On the other hand, Hollywood not only shamelessly steals ideas and screenplay treatments, but actually seems to encourage its denizens to do so and will then go to great expense and lawyer up, going to court to prove that the similarities are all an unfortunate coincidence - and that the wronged party is just a greedy opportunist bent on destroying the studio.

Makes one wonder which is worse - newspapers or movie companies.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

the hills are alive...

Ingrid Bergman made one of the most memorable comebacks in screen history. While making "Stromboli" in Italy in 1950, she fell in love with her married director, Roberto Rossellini, becoming pregnant by him. Times were different then. The American public, provoked by religious groups, ostracized an actress it once adored (Sister Benedict of "The Bells of St. Mary's"!) and, consequently, no Hollywood studio would touch her.

But six years later, she returned to American filmmaking with Anatole Litvak's "Anastasia," winning her second Academy Award. (The first was for "Gaslight.") It was obvious: All was forgiven. In 1958, she struck box-office gold with two hits - Stanley Donen's silky-smooth "Indiscreet" and Mark Robson's hugely popular "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness," the latter based the life of Gladys Aylward, a determined British woman who, most unlikely, became a missionary in China just prior to World War II.

The highlight of the film is its big finale when Bergman's Aylward escorts hundreds of Chinese children across mountain terrain while the kids sing the British traditional, "This Old Man." It's the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein moment that had nothing to do with Dick and Oscar. Given the team's penchant for singing kids ("The King and I" and "The Sound of Music"), it's odd they never musicalized Aylward's story for the stage.

"The Inn of the Sixth Happiness," which runs an epic 158 minutes, is also noteworthy for the unusual participation of the fine German actor Curt Jürgens and the British Robert Donat in Chinese roles. While such casting would be eschewed today, considered politically incorrect and insensitive, the fact is both actors deliver solid, convincing performances, particularly Jürgens, who with little make-up, convincingly gives the appearance of the half-Chinese officer Colonel Lin Nan. (His father was Dutch.)

Mark Robson received the film's only Oscar nomination, which was more than well-deserved.

Turner Classic Movies, which has aired several difficult-to-see Fox films lately (Nunnally Johnson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Henry King's "Tender Is the Night" and Henry Koster's "Good Morning, Miss Dove," for examaple - all with Jennifer Jones), will screen "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" at 5:15 p.m. (est) on Sunday, 20 February.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

magnificent minnelli

It's no secret that Vincente Minnelli is my second-favorite filmmaker (running a close second to Hitchcock, natch), so it should be no surprise that I am beside myself that Dave Kehr elected to devote his New York Times DVD column to Warner Archives' decision to release four Minnelli titles - "The Cobweb” (1955), “Tea and Sympathy” (1956), “The Reluctant Debutante” (1958) and “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962) - on discs.

For the first time.

All of this gives me a legitimate excuse to weigh in on Minnelli's rich mid-to-late-career as a filmmaker.

His last two films were the 1970 movie version of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," a film which begs to be restored (there are musical numbers by Jack Nicholson and Larry Blyden waiting to be reinstated) and the severely compromised "A Matter of Time," released in 1976 and also primed for a restoration (that's if the deleted footage even still exists).

But for all intents and purposes, Minnelli's final films were the dozen or so titles that he breathlessly made for MGM (plus one minor gem for Fox) during a quick ten-year period - from 1955 to 1965.

Few of them are considered classics, but all of them are good - very good - companionable films that share a master's sense of storytelling as Minnelli went from genre to genre to genre. Such variety!

I don't know about you but I find this list utterly fascinating:

1955 - "The Cobweb" and "Kismet"

1956 - "Lust for Life" and "Tea and Sympathy"

1957 - "Designing Woman"

1958 - "Gigi," "...Some Came Running" and "The Reluctant Debutante" (a banner year)

1960 - "Bells Are Ringing" and "Home from the Hill"

1962 - "Two Weeks in Another Town" and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

1963 - "The Courtship of Eddie's Father"

1964 - "Goodbye, Charlie" (the lone 20th Century-Fox title)

1965 - "The Sandpiper" (after which he would not make a film for another five years)

The films themselves are an amazing collection, but think about the wide array of on-screen talent that participated, and the generations spanned - from Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum, to Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin, Richard Burton, Tony Curtis, Judy Holliday, Shirley Jones, Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds, to ... Ronny Howard.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Roger ♥ Susan

Roger Ebert, a Facebook friend, has generously posted my Susan Sarandon façade entry (below) on his wall. Thank you, Roger.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

façade: Susan Sarandon

The 13-film Susan Sarandon retrospective that kicks off Thursday (10 February) at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has made me wildly nostalgic.

Suddenly, I experienced a rush of - for lack of a better expression - "Susan Sarandon moments."

Specifically, my mind wandered to those films from her past that have been forgotten and to those more recent titles that have been seen by only a limited audience.

Sarandon made an auspicious debut as Dennis Patrick's out-of-control daughter in John G. Avildsen's "Joe" in 1970, but her film career didn't take flight until trhe mid-'70s, starting with good roles in two 1974 TV films - George Schaefer's 1974 TV film, "F. Scott Fitzgerald and 'The Last of the Belles,'" opposite Richard Chamberlain and Blythe Danner, and Glenn Jordan's "Benjamin Franklin" miniseries, playing the wife of the young Ben Franklin, essayed by Beau Bridges. (Lloyd Bridges took over the Franklin role in his later years, and Sheree North, a great match-up for Sarandon, played his wife in middle age.)

Before long, she was back on the big screen, seguing into such titles as Sidney Lumet's bucolic "Lovin' Molly," also starring Danner and Bridges (plus Anthony Perkins); Billy Wilder's "The Front Page," playing Peggy Grant, Jack Lemmon's fiancée; George Roy Hill's criminally underseen "The Great Waldo Pepper," in which she and Margot Kidder vyed for daredevil Robert Redford; Gilbert Cates' "Dragonfly" (aka "One Summer Love"), an N. Richard Nash script starring (again) Beau Bridges, and John Leone's "The Last of the Cowboys" (aka, "The Great Smokey Roadblock"), with Henry Fonda and Eileen Brennan.

These promising titles went nowhere. Only Jim Sharman's 1975 "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which must have seemed like a throwaway project at the time, is the one Sarandon film that managed to stick.

It was followed by two high-profile titles (Charles Jarrott's hugely commercial "The Other Side of Midnight" and Louis Malle's arty "Pretty Baby") and one in which she arguably gave her best performance of that period (Frank Pierson's "King of the Gypsies").

Sarandon entered the 1980s with Jack Smight's "Loving Couples," with Shirley MacLaine, James Coburn and Stephen Collins; Malle's superb film of a John Guare story, "Atlantic City," opposite Burt Lancaster, and Joanthan Demme's TV film "Who Am I This Time?," based on a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. story and co-starring Christopher Walken. Her most disarming performance at this time came in Frank Perry's "Compromising Positions" (1985), a nimble comedy-mystery based on the Susan Isaacs novel.

Prior to her belated breakthrough in Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louis" in 1991, Sarandon bided her time in such variable films as Paul Mazurksy'a "Tempest," opposite John Cassavetes; George Miller's "The Witches of Eastwick"; Tony Scott's "The Hunger" (in which she famously got naked with and kissed Catherine Deneuve); Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham"; Robert Greenwald's "Sweet Hearts Dance," a pleasing relationship film about two intersecting couples, co-starring Don Johnson, Elizabeth Perkins and Jeff Daniels - definitely worth checking out - and, with less success, Pat O'Connor's "The January Man," Glenn Jordan's "The Buddy System," Luis Mandoki's"White Palace" and Euzhan Palcy's "A Dry White Season," each of which had a Sarandon moment.

Lately, Sarandon's career is best described as adventurous, as she's jumped from Paul Haggis' politically charged "In the Land of Elah" to Craig Gillespie's low-down "Mr. Woodcock" to John Turturro's experimental musical, "Romance & Cigarettes" (pictured above) to Kevin Lima's fanciful "Enchanted" to Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" to Barry Levinson's HBO biopic on Jack Kevorkian, "You Don't Know Jack."

She found time in 2010 to make two titles with Michael Douglas - Oliver Stone's "Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps" and Brian Koppelman and David Levien's "Solitary Man."

Two of Sarandon's most recent films which remain nearly unseen are Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmatic," co-starring Max Von Sydown, Gabriel Byrne and Christopher Plummer, and Ann Turner's Australian-made "Irresistible," in which Sarandon and Emily Blunt knock heads over Sam Neill, their shared romantic pursuit.

Hard to believe that this 2006 film has yet to see the light of day in an American movie house.

The titles included in BAM's much-deserved Sarandon celebration are Paul Schrader's "Light Sleeper," Robert Benton's "Twilight," Stanley Tucci's "Joe Gould's Secret" and her Oscar-winner, Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking," plus the aforementioned "The Front Page," "Thelma and Louise," "Romance and Cigarettes," "Pretty Baby," "Atlantic City," "The Witches of Eastwick," "The Hunger" and "Bull Durham"; the location of the retrospect is the BAM Rose Cinemas, located in the Peter Jay Sharp Building at 30 Lafayette Avenue.