Friday, December 28, 2012

in no particular order, and unannotated

Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" (Disney)

Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (Weinstein)

Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" (Universal/Focus)

Callie Khouri's "Nashville" (ABC)

Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" (MGM)

Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (Summit)

Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (Columbia)

Matthew McConaughey ("Bernie," "Magic Mike," "Killer Joe" & "The Paperboy")

Hiromasa Yonebayashi's "The Secret World of Arrietty"/"Kari-gurashi no Arietti" (Disney)

David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" (Weinstein)

Ben Affleck's "Argo" (Warner)

The Duplass Brothers' "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" (Paramount)

Oliver Stone's "Savages" (Universal)

Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol's "A Cat in Paris"/"Une vie de chat"(Gébéka)

Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" (Focus)
Photos (from top) Connie Britton and Charles Esten in "Nashville," artwork for "Django Unchained" and Jason Segel in "Jess, Who Lives at Home."

Monday, December 24, 2012

the anti-musical

"Les Miz" - kinda strange for a musical
Tom Hooper’s film of the cult pop opera, “Les Misérables,” is one of those movies that’s oblivious to criticism.

It has a built-in audience, a rather sizable one, which loves it, and anyone who doesn’t love it is, well, a wretch (to borrow from and translate the production’s title), someone clearly deserving of his/her misery.

Me? I didn’t like it. Yes, it's bad, but actually, the worst thing that I can say about “Les Misérables,” whose stage productions I managed to avoid for more than two decades now, is that it’s exactly what I expected it to be – an extravaganza for tourists, at turns middle-brow and pretentious.

Also tedious, bloated and exhausting.

Given that it’s based on the imposing Victor Hugo tome, in which just about everyone suffers and then dies, it’s no surprise that this is yet another danceless musical, despite a credit to Liam Steel. Dancing would be way too joyful for the funereal mood that pervades the material here. Still, I missed that particular element. My hunch is that Hooper directed everything in "Les Miz" all by himself, handling all of it, even those many "songs," with the same dull, monotone touch.

A musical without dancing? Kinda strange for a ... musical. A musical without dancing is, well, only half a musical.

Finally, most of the buzz around "Les Miz" has to do with Hooper’s decision to have the film’s interminable list of songs – all 50 of them – sung "live," as if that was an edgy decision. But, frankly, there was no other way to film this material, given that most of the “songs” here aren’t songs at all but long stretches of sustained dialogue, set to droning music.

Hooper's only other option was to dub/loop the entire movie.

The songs in Les Miz" are, more or less, internal monologues. Its characters "sing" to themselves or directly to the audience, mostly to themselves, but rarely to other characters. They don't connect musically.

“Les Misérables,” in the end, isn’t a musical at all. It’s an anti-musical.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

one and only one

My previous post on Tim Allen’s first and only film as a direct, “Crazy on the Outside,” made me think of other performers who tested their hands at filmmaking – once and only once. (Televsion and cable movies, and documentaries, don't count, only theatrical narratives.) Here goes…

Johnny Depp - "The Brave" (1997)

Anne Bancroft – “Fatso” (1980)

Jack Lemmon – “Kotch” (1971)

Marlon Brando – “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961)

Morgan Freeman – “Bopha” (1993)

David Byrne – “True Stories” (1986)

Joan Rivers – “Rabbit Test” (1978)

Rip Torn – “The Telephone” (1987)

Walter Matthau – “The Gangster Story” (1960)

Talia Shire - "One Night Stand" (1995)

Richard Pryor - "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986)

Frank Sinatra - "None But the Brave" (1995)

Danny Glover - "Just a Dream" (2002)

James Caan – “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980)

Anthony Quinn - "The Buccaneer" (1958)

Tommy Lee Jones - "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005)

Charles Laughton - "Night of the Hunter" (1955)

Timothy Carey - "The World's Greatest Sin" (1962)

Raymond St. Jacques - "Book of Numbers" (1973)

Robert Culp - "Hickey and Boggs" (1972)

Angelina Jolie – “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011)

Dan Aykroyd - "Nothing But Troubole" (1991)

Karl Malden – “Time Limit” (1957)

Sally Field – “Beautiful” (2000)

Laurence Fishburne - "Once in the Life" (2000)

Bill Murray (co-director) - "Quick Change" (1990)

Philip Seymour Hoffman - "Jack Goes Boating" (2010)

Liev Schreiber - "Everything Is Illuminated" (2005)

Dyan Cannon - "The End of Innocence" (1990)

Robert Enders - "Stevie" (1978)

Larry Hagman - “Beware! The Blob!” (1972)

Steve Guttenberg - "P.S. Your Cat Is Deead" (2002)

Connie Stevens - "Saving Grace B. Jones" (2010)

Kevin Bacon - "Loverboy" (2005)

Edward Norton - "Keeping the Faith" (2000)

Antonia Banderas – “Crazy in Alabama” (1999). (Banderas also directed a Spanish feature never released here, “El camino de los ingleses.”)

And, of course, at the ripe age of 75, Dustin Hoffman makes his debut with "Quartet" (2013).

Did I overlook anyone?

cinema obscura: Norman Lear's "Cold Turkey" (1971)

Funny how politics never changes. Both Otto Preminger’s “Advise and Consent” (1962) and, going even further back, Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) are as relevant today as they were when they were released. Seems to me that they were more than merely mirrors of their times. They were downright prescient.

And I can think of a few dozen more films that, although made in the past, reflect today’s disheartening political scene with an uncanny accuracy.

Case in point: Norman Lear’s slyly blistering “Cold Turkey,” which was filmed in 1968, ready for release in 1969 but held up for two years by its atypically nervous distributor, United Artists. Since it was tossed away by U.A. in 1971, “Cold Turkey” has been virtually impossible to see. It has rarely screened on television and its rather belated home-entertainment release came in more than 20 years later – in 1993. It finally surfaced on DVD in 2010, courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The hugely cynical plot is about Eagle Rock, a desperate small town in Iowa, whose entire citizenry buys into a Big Tobacco company’s challenge to quit smoking for an entire month for a tax-free check for $25,000,000 in return. Big Tobacco, meanwhile, has pretentions of winning a Nobel Prize for its humanitarian efforts. In this ripe scenario, it’s difficult to determine who is more evil – the PR hack (Bob Newhart) who is the mastermind behind this marketing scheme, or the town’s beloved (and hypocritical) young minister (Dick Van Dyke) who, with ambitions of his own, finesses and coerces everyone in town to suck it up and join up.

The film was made by Tandem Productions, a company that Lear shared in partnership with Bud Yorkin. In 1967, Tandem produced the excellent “Divorce, American Style” (also starring Van Dyke), with Yorkin directing Lear’s screen play. For “Cold Turkey,” Lear directed as well as penned the screenplay. In between, Lear and Yorkin collaborated on the iconic and groundbreaking “All in the Family” television series.

Yorkin cleverly interpolated several verité sequences in “Divorce, American Style” and Lear took that conceit a few steps further by filming “Cold Turkey” almost entirely in cinema verité. Perhaps, not coincidentally, his second-unit director was Robert Downey (“Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace”) and one can sense the fascinating commingling of Lear’s political sensibility with Downey’s alt-film stylings. This was Downey’s first and only stint as a second-unit director.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Elsie Downey (Robert’s first wife and the mother of Robert Jr.) does a wacky turn in the film as an operating-room nurse freaked out because the surgeon - Barnard Hughes - wants to smoke. (That's Downey and Hughes in the still shot above.)

Barnard Hughes is one of many notable character actors who dot "Cold Turkey" – among them, Newhart, Tom Poston, Sudie Bond, Judith Lowrey, Vincent Gardenia, Peggy Rea, Edward Everett Horton, Barbara Cason, Paul Benedict, Woodrow Parfrey, M. Emmett Welsh, Gloria LeRoy, Harvey Jason, wonderful Jean Stapleton (you know, from that aforementioned Lear-Yorkin TV series) and Graham Jarvis (from Lear's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"), who is spot-on as an anti-Big Government right-wing nut. The comedy team of Bob (Elliott) and Ray (Goulding) pop up in several cameos, doing wicked impersonations of famous TV newsmen of the time.

Turner Classic Movies, ever on top of things, will screen “Cold Turkey” on Monday, January 21st - in tandem (pun intented) with “Divorce, American Style.” The double-bill will start at 8 p.m. (est) with "Divorce" which, BTW, gets an encore showing at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 31st.

"Cold Turkey" is the definition of topical. It's time has come.

Monday, December 10, 2012

cinema obscura: Alan Rudolph's "Investigating Sex" (2001)

Diehard Alan Rudolph fans take note. The auteur's long-shelved "Investigating Sex," which played the film festival circuit in 2001, is finally available for us to peruse. Apparently, Rudolph had to go to Europe (Germany) to find funding for his film which is what led to its ultimate unraveling.

It is now available on DVD under the new title "Intimate Affairs." I thought you might want to know because if you came across that moniker in your local Blockbuster, you'd probably (and understandably) assume it was a Lifetime movie.

Audacious as ever, Rudolph does not let down his disciples with his examination of the free-thinking climate of bohemian Europe in the late 1920s, apparently based on real characters - from José Pierre's book, "Recherches sur la Sexualite Archives du Surealisme."

Witty in an intellectual way, "Investigateing Sex"/"Intimate Affairs" stars Dermot Mulroney as Edgar who oversees a circle of avant-garde pals in discussions of modern sexuality - which Edgar insists be dealt with in clinical detail.

The participants include Jeremy Davies as a filmmaker, Alan Cumming and Til Schweiger as two artists and Julie Delpy as Edgar's lover who prefers flesh-and-blood sex to abstract discussions of the subject.

Brought into the circle are two young stenographers - the sexually experienced Zoe (Robin Tunney) and the virginal Alice (Neve Campbell), with the understanding that they don't comment on what they hear and record. Rounding out the cast are Nick Nolte as a businessman and Tuesday Weld as his wife, whose villa Edgar uses for the discussions.

Reviewing from the 2001 Seattle Film Festival, Variety's Ken Eisner wrote,"whether set in 1929 or 2001, 'Investigating Sex' already feels too dated, and far too timid, to spark any real exploration of mind or body."

Monday, December 03, 2012

cinema obscura: Tim Allen's "Crazy on the Outside" (2010)

I find that when an actor decides to try directing, his/her first feature usually reflects something of the new filmmaker’s personality.

Case in point: Clint Eastwood’s “Play ‘Misty’ for Me” (1971). Another: Paul Newman’s “Rachel, Rachel” (1968). What follows may vary, but the debut film generally mirrors its director’s persona. So it came as little surprise that Tim Allen’s sadly underseen directorial debut, “Crazy on the Outside” (2010), has a distinctive low-keyed quality, not unlike Allen himself. It is self-effacing and soft-spoken, qualities at odds with a time when “funny” is synonymous with anything that's loud, profane and generally rude.

“Crazy on the Outside,” on the other hand, is a throwback to the gentle B screen comedies of the 1940s and early ‘50s, the kind that might have starred Joel McCrea or Dennis O’Keefe. In it, Allen plays Tommy, a good soul who’s spent the last few years behind bars, after having taken the rap for an unsavory – and clearly criminal – friend, Gray. Recently released, Tommy gets a transitional job at a fast-food restaurant through his parole officer – a single mom named Angela – while his sister Vicki nudges Tommy towards taking over their late father’s painting business.

On the sidelines is Tommy’s old girlfriend Christy who has delusions of dallying with Tommy even though she’s engaged to a businessman who stars in his own TV commercials. Under Allen’s direction, the unrushed film just moseys along. What really distinguishes it is the impressive cast that Tim Allen has assembled and his easy-going direction of his actors.

He recruited two former costars – Sigourney Weaver (excellent as Vicki), who appeared with Allen in “Galaxy Quest” (1999) and the wonderful Julie Bowen (as Christy), his leading lady from “Joe Somebody” (2001). Rounding out the cast: Ray Liotta as the incorrigible Gray, J.K. Simmons as Weaver’s husband, Kelsey Grammer as Bowen’s blowhard fiancé and Jeanne Triplehorn as the calmly Angela. She matches up well with Allen.

The two make very good company. Everyone here does.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

doppelgängers/ Ben's erratum

"Sing Out, Louise, sing out!"
Once again, the astute programmers for Turner Classic Movies offered up back-to-back screenings of Walter Lang's delirious and deliriously campy "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) and Mervyn LeRoy's bravura filmization of "Gypsy" (1962). This clever double-bill aired today beginning at 3:15 p.m. (est) and was also showcased in tandem on Turner last January 25th (oddly, also starting at 3:15 that day).

Ethel Merman is the obvious connection here, given that she heads the ensemble of the Lang film and was in the original 1959 stage production of "Gypsy." Even more obvious are the thematic similarities that the two productions share. Merman plays a vaudeville-era stage mother in both (as well as a performer herself in "Show Business") and even though "Gypsy" came from a distinctly different source, namely Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography, you have to think that its makers got some inspiration and ideas - and perhaps even the decision to write "Gypsy" with Merman in mind - from "There's No Business Like Show Business."

If Turner elects to pair them up again (and there's no reason to think it won't), by all means, tune in and compare and contrast.

BTW, in his post-screening discussion of "Gypsy" today, the very affable Ben Mankeiwicz, reading from a script, passed on some dated misinformation, stating that Merman's chances of recreating her stage role in "Gypsy" were shattered when producer Frederick Brisson, husband of Rosalind Russell, bought the film rights to the musical and took the project to Warner Bros. with the stipulation that Russell star in the role Merman originated - Madam Rose. (The character, incidentally, is never referred to as Mama Rose in either the stage show or film, as most people assume.)

Not true.

Brisson and Russell were actually negotiating with Harper Books for the rights to the Gypsy Rose Lee autobiography with the idea of producing a straight dramatic version of the material, a plan that was misinterpreted - perhaps intentionally - in the gossip columns at the time. It was erroneously reported that Brisson and Russell were planning to film the musical "Gypsy" and drop all the songs, making both the star and her husband persona non grata among rancorous theater types. It was Jack Warner himself who personally optioned the film rights to "Gypsy." He also purchased "The Music Man" at the same time. In fact, the Warner Bros. studio issued a single press release announcing its plans to film both musicals. with a target release for each of them in 1962.

Brisson, in the end, was never able to option the Gypsy Rose Lee book because its rights were irrevocably tied up in the musical stage production.

Knowing Russell's interest in the material and having had a good working relationship with her on Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" (1958) and LeRoy's "A Majority of One" (1961), it was only natural that Warner would offer the role of Madam Rose to Russell. Judy Garland vied for the role but only with her daughter Liza Minnelli attached to play Gypsy, and Doris Day, once a Warner contract player, reportedly was also interested, but Russell was Warner's one and only choice. (For better or worse, Merman herself was never considered because she had been absent from the screen too long and consequently had little-to-no box-office appeal.)

Now, the stage play that Brisson did option for Russell was Peter Shaffer's "Five Finger Exercise," released in 1962 (the same year as "Gypsy") and on which he has producer credit. (He has no credit on "Gypsy.")

As noted, the nasty fiction that Russell was angling to buy "Gypsy" and drop the songs hurt her in the theater community, and exacerbating this was the perception that she also "stole" prime stage roles from their originators - Gertrude Berg ("A Majority of One"), Jessica Tandy ("Five Finger Exercise") and , of course, Merman ("Gypsy").

And, unbelievably, the grudge persists 50 years later. Still, Russell's definitive take on Madame Rose - the patrician airs she brings to the role - dominates the film of "Gypsy." Her line-readings are impeccable, and her timing, particularly her comic timing, is peerless. A world-class actress.

All the other Roses pale in comparison.

Note in Passing: Another project about Gypsy Rose Lee was also once in the works. It was announced a few years ago - by HBO, I believe - that there would be a film of Erik Lee Preminger's book about his mother, "Gypsy & Me: At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee" (1984), with Sigourney Weaver as Gypsy.

The film never materialized. As of yet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

rude thoughts on metro's unfortunate film of meredith willson's "the unsinkable molly brown"

Turner Classics’ airing of Charles Walters' inferior film of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) tonight @ 8 (est) provides me with the opportunity to do a little airing myself. This will be one of those hugely indulgent chain-of-thought posts.

Please bear with me. Here goes:

1. The MGM Myth. For what seems like at least a century, MGM promoted itself as the premiere source for movie musicals. If you were able to get through any of the “That’s Entertainment” movies, you probably absorbed a lot of misinformation – such claims as (a) Metro created the movie musical, (b) Metro created Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (no, it was RKO) and (c) Metro created Bing Crosby (no, it was Paramount). MGM did, however, create Esther Williams and it overhyped Judy Garland and Gene Kelly to the detriment of such overlooked but formidable talents as Howard Keel, Jane Powell and Marge and Gower Champion.

That’s my opinion, take it or leave it. While MGM may have been a force in designing original movie musicals, it was deadly when it came to Broadway adapations, with the possible exception of George Sidney's film of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." But that was clearly an exception. Simply look how the studio reduced the scores of both “On the Town” and “Bells Are Ringing” (with the latter succeeding, in spite of MGM, only because of Vincente Minnelli’s shrewd handling of the truncated material handed to him) or what it did to … “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

2. Meredith Willson. Poor Willson. After having been spoiled by the fidelity that director Morton DaCosta brought to the Warner Bros. film version of Willson’s "The Music Man"  (1962), he must have suffered culture shock at what MGM did to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” (Of course, DaCosta, an underrated filmmaker, also directed the stage version of “The Music Man.”) It should be noted at this point that Warners was the polar opposite of Metro when it came to filming stage musicals.

Jack Warner’s dictum was, HANDS OFF, as evidence by the faithful Warner films of "The Music Man” and also “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Gypsy,” “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” "The Music Man" in theory is the definitive MGM musical, but I doubt if Willson's tricky score would have appealed to the Metro suits. And only the gods of movies could imagine what Metro would have done with something like “Gypsy.” I can guarantee you that “Rose’s Turn” would have been the first number to go.

MGM hacked away at Willson’s score for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with its usual know-it-all superiority - and pretty much edited Willson out of the equation. Exactly 12 – count ‘em – 12 songs were cut from Willson’s score for the film, including the crucial “My Brass Bed,” “Beautiful People of Denver,” “Bon Jour,” “If I Knew,” the emblematic “Keep-a-Hoppin’” and “Chick-a-Pen,” which refers to the hero’s pet name for the show’s heroine.

You have to wonder why the studio even vied for the film rights to the show in the first place. It should be noted that “Beautiful People of Denver,” along with “Dolce Far Niente,” show up on the “Molly Brown” soundtrack as instrumentals.

By comparison, Warners retained just about the entire score of “The Music Man,” billing it as Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," while MGM's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" was "a Lawrence Weingarten Production." For "The Music Man," Warners replaced only one song with a new one – and at Willson’s request. With so many songs cut from "Molly Brown," it is no surprise that Helen Deutsch’s scenario for the film is a watered-down version of what Richard Morris wrote for the stage.

3. The casting. The stage version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was a personal triumph for a new off-beat Canadian actress named Tammy Grimes who, of course, was too idiosyncratic for an MGM musical. On the other hand, the play’s leading man, Harve Presnell, could have come from the same bolt of cloth as Howard Keel. If “Molly Brown” existed in the ‘50s, Keel would have played the male lead. In 1964, Presnell recreated his stage role. (For some bizarre reason, during the stage run, Presnell did not appear in the matinee performances; his role was played at those times by James Hurst.)

With Grimes out of the picture, Debbie Reynolds, an MGM vet, was the obvious choice to play Molly. But neither the studio nor the director Charles Walters (a former choreographer who also directed “Lili” and ”Good News” for Metro) wanted her. Both campaigned for the then-hot Shirley MacLaine, a lesser musical performer than Reynolds. It should be noted here that Walters directed both Reynolds and MacLaine previously – Reynolds in “The Tender Trap” and MacLaine in “Ask Any Girl” and “Two Loves,” all three MGM movies.

Frankly, both women could have played the role well but, frankly, the character of Molly had Debbie Reynolds written all over her.  The casting was obvious.  Natural.  Organic.

Reynolds, reportedly, offered to do the film for nothing. That may be old Hollywood lore but I’d like to believe it. She won the part and deserved it. Working hard and putting her heart into it, Reynolds was Oscar-nominated. The role is said to be her personal favorite and it ought to be: She’s the best thing about “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” If only the film itself were up to her level.

And if only its makers - and MGM - only appreciated her more.  The opening titles and display ads read: "The Unsinkable Movie Brown" ... "Starring Debbie Reynolds."  They should have read: "Debbie Reynolds is The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

4. Peter Gennaro. Other than Presnell, this popular TV choreographer was the only other holdover from the stage show and the movie arguably comes alive only when his dances are on screen.

Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse? Gennaro was every bit as good as those two legends.

5. The New Songs. While 12 of the stage songs were cut for the film, two were added. One, “Colorado, My Home,” a terrific song, was originally in the show but cut during the tryout because of the inability to produce the echo effect that the song required (although, inexplicably, strains of it remain in its overture). The necessary echos were no problem for the studio technicians. The other new song is the showstopping “He’s My Friend,” in which Reynolds does some hell-raising, ligament-straining dancing with Gus Trikonis (Goldie Hawn’s first husband and one of the Sharks in the film “West Side Story”) and the inexpendable Grover Dale. Gennaro outdoes himself here and, again, I’d put this production number up against anything created by Robbins or Fosse.

6. Grover Dale. OK, aficionados talk about Kelly, Astaire, Fosse and, you know, the usual suspects, but for me, the greatest dancer on film was Grover Dale. Unfortunately, he came along too late – at the end of the studio system. He made his movie debut here as one of Reynolds’ brothers,  which I guess was officially the last MGM musical. (I’m not counting the studio’s pick-up of Ken Russell’s “The Boy Friend" in 1971.) Had he come along a decade or two earlier, Dale would have been in MGM’s stable and groomed for movie-musical stardom. Still, in only a handful of films, he made an incredible impression – “Molly Brown,” George Sidney’s “Half a Sixpence” (recreating a role he played on stage), Jacques Demy’s “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”/”The Young Girls of Rochefort” and Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (in which he played Lee Grant’s boogaloo dance instructor).

On stage, Dale also appeared in “West Side Story” (as a Jet), Frank Loesser's cult favorite, “Greenwillow” (with his close friend Anthony Perkins) and Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” with Elaine Stritch. He has frequently choreographed shows on stage and was the uncredited choreographer on the film “The Way We Were. Dale was married to actress Anita Morris for 21 years - until her death in 1994. They had a son in 1978, James Badge Dale, who is now an actor.

7. Debbie. Finally, coming full circle and getting back to the indefatiguable Reynolds, I'd like to put in a word for her many lost movies. Among those missing from home entertainment formats are these made within a five-year period in the early 1960s: Frank Tashlin's "Say One for Me" (1959), George Marshall's "The Gazebo" (1959), Robert Mulligan's "The Rat Race" (1960), George Seaton's "The Pleasure of His Company" (1961), Vincent Sherman’s “The Second Time Around” (1961), Gower Champion's "My Six Loves" (1963) and Vincente Minnelli's "Goodbye, Charlie" (1964). At least, "The Rat Race" shows up on Turner Classics on occasion, and "The Gazebo," in fact, had a brief life (a very brief life) on VHS about a decade ago. Mervyn LeRoy’s difficult-to-see "Mary, Mary" (1963), also on Turner often these days, recently (and belatedly) surfaced on DVD, as did two other Marshall titles, "It Started with a Kiss" and "The Mating Game" (both 1959). Yes, Debbie made three - count 'em - three films for Marshall in '59, two co-starring Glenn Ford.

If I were carrying a sign now, it would read, FREE DEBBIE REYNOLDS!

(Artwork: Morrow's artwork for the stage version of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"; composer Meredith Willson; the inimtiable Tammy Grimes, the original Molly Brown; Grimes performing the "Belly Uo to the Bar, Boys" number on stage; a pre-release ad for the film version; the ageless Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell in the film; Grover Dale on a 1960 cover of "Dance Magazine," and Debbie as Molly) 

Friday, November 09, 2012

sleek, slithery, sensual

“Skyfall,” Sam Mendes’ revisionist/retro take on the unsinkable James Bond franchise, brings both intellectual weight and visual elegance to the spy-thriller genre. The movie is as gorgeous as it is exciting, seemingly bathed by cinematographer Roger Deakins in the color of the soft blue bottle of Sapphire Gin that’s crucial to Bond’s Martini.

If Hitchcock had ever ventured into 007 territory, this is the film he would have made. “Skyfall” is sleek, slithery, sensual.

It is also one powerfully solid movie.

If you’ve had your fill of independent, foreign-language, festival-circuit movies – what I call watercress films – you might need a big, juicy steak. Mendes and company have come up with the filmic equivalent of just that – a movie that in its bravura, near-orgasmic opening chase sequence lets us know that this is a Big Hollywood Movie, albeit one with prestigious British credentials. Here, we have Bond careening over rooftops in Turkey on a motorcycle and wrestling with one of the film’s resident villains atop a speeding train, a highwire stunt that plays like a choreographed sex act (what with the train speeding through one tunnel after another).

Daniel Craig has become the series’ invaluable star, somehow fitting his bruiser boxer’s mug and physique into the refinement of tailored suits and tuxedos. As a screen icon, he is both battered and beautiful, bringing an apt personal fury to the role. And he is ably abetted by Javier Bradem, witty and totally game as a rogue agent, and particularly Judi Dench who in this film shrewdly uses her curious combination of warmth and froideur to play M as both a bad mother and a most unexpected Bond girl.

All of this combines to make “Skyfall” the most pleasurable film of the year – a compulsively watchable movie-movie. A hearty steak indeed. Read this and other "Skyfall" reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.Com

"Skyfall" photos by Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures

"And we'll have a real good time, yes sir!..."

For anyone who has had a serious crush on Natalie Wood – and who hasn’t? – the indefatigable Marc Huestis has fashioned a pleasing mini-retrospective of her work, starting tonight and playing through Sunday at San Francisco’s invaluable Castro Theater.
The Program
 Friday, 9 November:
Double Feature-
Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) @ 2:30 & 7 p.m. / Sydney Pollack’s “This Property Is Condemned” (1966) @ 4:45 & 9:15 p.m.

 Saturday, 10 November:
Matinee Double Feature-
The 50th Anniversary Screening of Mervyn LeRoy’s "Gypsy" (1962) (click here), hosted by Matthew Martin as Mama Rose, @ noon / Robert Mulligan’s “Love With a Proper Stranger” (1963) @ 3 p.m.

Evening Gala-
Centerpiece Screening of Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) @ 9 p.m., with pre-screening event hosted by Lana Wood @ 7 p.m.

 Sunday, 11 November:
Matinee Feature-
A Sing-Along Screening of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s “West Side Story” (1961) @ 2 p.m.

Evening Double Feature-
Paul Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) @ 7 p.m. / Robert Mulligan’s “Inside Daisy Clover” (1965) @ 9:05 p.m.

To this otherwise perfect mix of titles from Natalie's filmography, I would have added only George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) and Irving Rapper's "Marjorie Morningstar." (1958). (1962)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

election day!

"I'm a Democrat from New England. I have no prejudices."
-Jack Lemmon to Kim Novak in Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady."
(The dialogue is credited to Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

the famous warner bros. logo(s)

Warner Bros. - the original and the Saul Bass update
It took a little coaxing but for two releases this year, Warner Bros. has revived the mod logo designed for its '70s titles. Both Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike" and Ben Affleck's "Argo," each one coincidentally set in the 1970s, opened with the logo with the unmistakable look of its artist, Saul Bass. Film buffs have been divided on Bass's re-design. Some, who preferred the original Warner logo, familiar and venerable, were appalled; others, devotees of Bass, were enthusiastic about the update, which was futher altered when Warners absorbed Seven Arts.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

cinema obscura: Frank Tashlin's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" (1956)

Leslie Parrish (right) toasts Tom Ewell and Sheree North in Frank Tashlin's elusive "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts," airing on Turner Classic Movies next month
The incomparable Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) began his professional life as a cartoonist/animator and when he branched out and started working with humans, he animated them, too. Hilariously so. And he brought a cartoonish quality to the one subject that connects most of his films.


It was the 1950s and the Playboy philosophy was just beginning its reign of terror - and Tashlin's wide-screen comedies exposed the era's accepted penchant for leering (the filmmaker essentially fetishized it) for what it was. Junevile and unattractive and funny as hell.

Turner Classic Movie unearths one of Tashlin's more elusive, forgotten treasures next month, with a screening of 1956's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" scheduled for 2 October at 8 p.m. Tom Ewell plays his patented creepy middle-aged, middle-class wolf inexplicably married to a military babe - the wonderful Sheree North - and much of the film is about his relentless ploys to get her discharged. The film is as unstable as its noxious hero, wildly incorrect and guiltily pleasurable in spite of itself.

"The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" has sporadically popped up on the unreliable and erratic Fox Movie Channel, but it took Turner to finally showcase it. Hopefully, TCM will also claim another Tashlin orphan at the mercy of the Fox Movie Channel - namely 1962's "Bachelor Flat."
Tuesday, Terry and Tashlin, together at last
"Bachelor Flat" offers Terry-Thomas in prime form as displaced Britisher, a professorial paleontologist who teaches in an alien Southern California and who is wildly attractive to women - an inadvertent ladies men whose life comes to consist of colliding females.

Tashlin's cast here also includes Celeste Holm (as T-T's fiancée), and Tuesday Weld and Richard Beymer who had starrred two years earlier for Blake Edwards in another breezy Fox comedy, "High Time" (1960), all in the above photo/left.

And speaking of Tashlin, too few of his broad comedies from the the 1950s and early '60s have made it to home entertainment in any form. Sure, it's relatively easy to see his two Jayne Mansfield flicks, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "The Girl Can't Help It," "Artists and Models" (1955), with Martin and Lewis and Shirley MacLaine and "Susan Slept Here" (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds. But what about the others? Aside from "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" and "Bachelor Flat," also missing are "Say One for Me" (1959), also with Reynolds, this time with Bing Crosby and Robert Wagner and "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) with Danny Kaye and Cara Williams.

Release them, I say!

Monday, September 24, 2012

quote/unquote: David Edelstein

In the most recent "Sight & Sound" poll (of critics, filmmakers, and cinéphiles), Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) was unceremoniously bumped from its decades-long first place as "the best film of all time" by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958).

Writing in New York magazine, ace critic David Edelstein wittily explained the reasoning behind the not-so-surprising switch: "Both (films) ... center on lonely men — like the critics who cast most of the S&S votes."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

the all-american boy

Mitt and Ann Romney taped an episode of "Live with Kelly and Michael" on September 14th that aired today. One of the questions tossed at the Romneys by Kelly Ripa had to do with who should play them in a movie.

Kelly: "Who would you pick to play each other in the movie?"

Mitt: "Uh, let’s see. Let me think about that. For me, my favorite actor is Gene Hackman, so I’d like Gene Hackman."

Kelly: "You’d like Gene Hackman to play your wife?"

Romney: "No, to play me! Oh, to play her? Oh!"

Kelly: "Is this your first marital fight?"

Ann: "I bet Gene would really think that would be a great idea."

Mitt: "You know, what was that movie he was in? 'Birdcage' when he... No, I think for her maybe Michelle Pfeiffer."

Kelly: "That’s actually perfect."

Ann: "Oh, he’s made it easy for me... Gene Hackman!"


As much as the Michelle Pfeiffer suggestion inarguably flatters Ann Romney, at least both are within the same age range, give or take about eight years or so.

But Gene Hackman, who will be 83 in January, is 17 - seventeen! - 17 years older than Romney, who just turned 65.

Plus, the guy's retired.

No, someone younger, much younger, should play Mitt - someone who can pass as today's equivalent to Tony Dow, the teenage actor who famously played the Beaver's older brother.

Romney may look like a fully formed adult male, but he has the bearing, demeanor and vocal patterns of a teenage boy. When Ann Romney quipped that she had not five, but six, sons, I knew what she meant: Mitt is essentially still a boy.

At least, that's the persona he affects when he talks to the peons. (He seems to present a decidedly different, more commanding image whenever he addresses his peers - fellow businessmen and millionaires.)

When Mitt Romney campaigns to "the little people," his stiff posture, the way he robotically shifts from side to side and his "golly gee" line readings smack of Wallace "Wally" Cleaver. But not Gene Hackman. Never.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

indelible moment: Wilder's "Some Like It Hot"

Jerry (to himself): "I'm a girl. I'm a girl. I'm a girl."

His eyes stray down the aisle. In Upper 2, Sugar is getting ready for bed. All Jerry can see is her legs dangling out of the berth as she removes her stockings. But that's all the indenitification Jerry needs.

Jerry (calling down the aisle): "Good night, Sugar!"

Sugar (sticking her head out): "Good night, honey."

Note in Passing: "Good night, honey," indeed. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Marilyn's passing. As columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote at the time of MM's death, "Sleep well, sweet girl. You have left more of a legacy than most, if all you ever left was a handful of photographs of one of the loveliest women who ever walked the earth."

Good night, Sugar!

Friday, July 20, 2012

the storyteller

"Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them" (HarperCollins/$25.99/356 pages), Frank Langella's compulsively readable debut as a writer, is the ideal beach book.

Langella, who is every bit as inventive a writer as he is an actor, calls this tome "a memoir," but that's a stretch. It's a series of encounters that Langella had with a number of notables - 66 in all - and all of them, except for one (Rachel "Bunny" Mellon), are deceased. Langella wittily presents them, his "Cast of Characters" (his words), "In Order of Disappearance."

That's why Whoopie Goldberg, Langella's longtime companion, is not included.

Only dead folk here. And I have a theory on that: The dead can't challenge what's written about them. Consequently, I doubted much of what I read here. I'm not questioning Langella's veracity, I'm not calling him a fabulist, but rather, I'm exhibiting my own dark, cynical skepticism.

Case in point: His reminiscence of his fleeting encounter with Marilyn Monroe, the first celeb in the book, seems like a fantasy. It was the winter of 1953 and the young Langella was "aimlessly looking for something in New York - unaware of what I was looking for." Then he encounters "a long black Limousine from which a white-gloved had appeared." It's ... Marilyn Monroe.

"She turned briefly to her right, saw me standing there, smiled like a sunbeam, and said in a soft whisper: 'Hi.'

"An indefinable yearning to free myself from a life I instinctively felt was killing my soul had caused me to venture forth that day without guidance or direction ... Marilyn Monroe had, I'm certain, awakened that morning yearning for something she too could not define; a tortured soul that I saw only as a beautiful woman and a Movie Star."

I love it, but I don't believe it for a second.

To Langella's credit, he confesses his own flights of fantasy up front. Of his remembrances, he writes: "I admit they are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionist, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of event as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories."


Of a fractious backstage situation between Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, which isn't pretty, Langella describes it as "an incident not recalled by either."


But who cares? This stuff is fun to read, preferrably with a gin-&-tonic in hand. His take on Anne Bancroft is particularly delicious: "Potentially one of the greatest actresses of her generation, she was consumed by a galloping narcissism that often undermined her talents."

He writes of an incident at Bloomingdale's perfume counter where Bancroft "saw a woman across the way smiling at her. She smiled back. The other woman returned hers with an even broader smile. And Annie said she felt inextricably drawn to this woman, wanting to go around the counter to embrace and kiss her passionately, until she realized she was looking into a mirror."

Great stuff.

What's really interesting is Langella's description of Coral Browne's relationship with columnist Radie Harris who apparently was obsessed with Browne. Harris, Langella writes, "had a bum leg, walked with a cane and wore a brace."

And doesn't that description exactly fit the columnist character that Browne played in Robert Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare"?

Read this book. Now.

Note in Passing: Curiously, Langella makes little mention of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," the film that put him on the map, or its director Frank Perry, and nothing of his beguiling co-star in the film, Carrie Snodgress.

Strange, given that both of them are ... dead.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Manchurian Candidate Redux"

"I am United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin, and I have here a list of two hundred seven persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party!"

-James Gregory, as a clueless but ambitious politician addressing the Senate in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a film, written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, that has proven to be quite prescient.

Jump to a dialogue between Gregory and Angela Lansbury as his machiavellian wife:

Lansbury: "I'm sorry, hon'. Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?"

Gregory: "Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that'd be easy for me to remember."

Jump to Gregory, addressing the Senate again:

Gregory: "There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!"

Excuse me, but does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

I've been waiting for months for someone, anyone, to link the recent deranged rants of Rep. Allen West (R-FL) - "I believe there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party ... No, they actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus” - to James Gregory's tirade in "The Manchurian Candidate" 50 years ago.

Yes, fifty years.

But then former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann came along, alledging that Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have ties to - gasp! - the Muslim Brotherhood. Oy!

Since no one else has picked up on the connection or made the comparison or offered an opinion, I'll do - and add the unsolicited comment that the professional Republicans, seemingly more desperate than ever, have lost it.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

a fan's notes: catching up

France's "Une vie de chat" preserved the fleeting, precious felicity of modern-day moviegoing - a rarity these days

I'm back!

Having exhausted all mental energy in April with my (admittedly self-indulgent) tribute to movie dance sequences that no one else cares about, I decided that I needed a respite from the sound of my own voice reverberating in my head.

But that didn't stop me from keeping up with what is euphemistically referred to these days as popular culture. So here are twenty thumbnails of what I saw...

"Snow White and the Huntsman" - A prime example of the aggressive masculinization of modern movies. Even fairy tales aren't safe from testosterone poisoning. Exacerbating matters is Charlize Theron's one-note performance of the wicked queen who intones ad infinitum "Bring her to me!"

"Bernie" - Delicious. The ever-evolving Richard Linklater brings the best of juicy fiction to the sordid true story of an awful woman and the sweet guy she nags into murdering her. Jack Black, Matthew MacConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, as the wealthy old shrew, turn in companionable performances, and isn't it fascinating how, in her career, Shirl has gone from victim to victimizer?

"Modern Family"/"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" - The enthusiasm for ABC's most beloved possession, "Modern Family," evades me. It's strictly a conventional sitcom (boob dad, smart wife, chauvinist granddad, bratty kids) with a new paint job (a couple gays, plus a Latina) for the illusion of topicality. No, the real "modern family" is E!'s "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," a lively sitcom (with Scott and Kourtney playing role-reversed Lucy and Ricky, respectively), disguised as Reality TV. It's the best guilty pleasure going.

"Dark Shadows" - Johnny Depp was once a singlar fringe actor who lived in France and made alt films with intriguing filmmakers. Then, he became a pirate, moved to L.A. and sold out. He's entertaining as hell (and as game as ever) in Tim Burton's take on the cult '70s soap opera, but he's given one gimmicky performance too many (and always for Burton). I just wish he'd go away.

"A Cat in Paris"/"Une vie de chat"- A cat burglar who's literally a cat (actually, he's the feline sidekick of the human thief). Très charmant.

"Magic Mike" - If Burt Reynolds made a male-stripper flick in the 1970s, it would look like this affable Steven Soderbergh concoction. (It even comes replete with the much-reviled Warner logo from the '70s.) Star Channing Tatum, apparently playing himself, is all charisma, and Matthew MacConaughey (again) throws himself with gusto into the role Reynolds might have played.

"Rock of Ages" - Talk about throwing oneself into a role, catch Tom Cruise's revelatory turn in Adam Shankman's musical, a kinda update of "42nd Street." Ditto for Alec Baldwin. Anthony Lane, who is paid by The New Yorker to review movies, complained about the film's characters breaking into song. With influence peddlers so lame, it's no surprise the film musical is stone cold dead.

Lena Dunham- Like most Flavors of the Month, Dunham has been wildly overrated. HBO's recent "Girls," her edgy take on clueless young women of the new millenium who don't even get pleasure from sex, had its moments but, if I absolutely have to watch people having sex, can't they be remotely attractive?

"Moonrise Kingdom"- Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson (read: arch and precious). The critics felt obliged to love it, sight unseen, with the result being a bunch of reviews that make even less sense than the movie itself which (for all its archness and preciousness) is curiously watchable and enjoyable.

"The Amazing Spider-Man"- Amazing? Hardly. It's the same joyless superhero film that Hollywood feels compelled to make for its braindead core audience every few months. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are adorable (up to a point), but once the talented Rhys Ifans was turned into a reptile, I walked out.

"Savages"- Oliver Stone returns to form - impressively - with this sumptuous film lumiere, a delirious, sun-struck stoner film crossed with drug-war darkness. Game performances from Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta and particulary Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch. A movie this good deserves the two socko endings that Stone playfully devised for it.

"The Newsroom"- Aaron Sorkin's witty and urbane dialogue, as alert as ever, is trumped by the bloated, pervading self-importance here. I worked with journalists for 30 years and this HBO series captures them accurately, inadvertently illustrating exactly why I personally liked so few of them.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"- Like taking a tiny vacation with terrific companions (Dench! Wilton! Smith! Wilkinson! Imrie! Nighy! Pickup!).

"Darling Companion"- Lawrence Kasdan has made his first "old man's" film, a listless ensemble piece in which Kevin Kline trots out his imperious Fraiser Crane schtick (he isn't very good) and in which Elizabeth Moss's trademark odd line readings are revealed to be simply bad line readings (she isn't very good either). But Diane Keaton, as always, is like an old, reliable friend. She redeems the film.

"The Five-Year Engagement"- One those titles you enjoy and then immediately forget. Actually, there are a lot of films like this these days.

"Take This Waltz"- A naggingly flirtatious affair is finally consummated, but is it all a fantasy? We'll never know. This Sarah Polley-directed film benefits mightily from star Michelle Williams' seductive, playful otherness.

"Ted"- Genuinely hilarious and, for once, the token female character (played by Mila Kunis who makes the most of it) is no token. Mark Wahlberg is slyly funny here the way he was in "I ♥ Huckabees," for which he deserved more acclaim.

"To Rome with Love"- Minor but enjoyable. Woody Allen on autopilot. Am I the only one who thinks the Alec Baldwin character makes no sense whatsoever?

"Your Sister’s Sister"- Lynn Shelton's novel take on the ménage à trois. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt play the (they-don't-)lookalike sisters, one a widow, the other a lesbian; Mark Duplass is the guy who sleeps with both. Yeah, novel.

"The Dictator" - All I remember about this nonentity from provocateur Sasha Baron Cohen is a birth sequence as disgustingly unfunny as it is gratuitous.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

the end: beyond fred, ginger & gene

The final entry... Judy and Jack, as a divorced couple, bump into one another with their respective dates at a nightclub and try to outdo one another on the dance floor. Their dueling mambo is both hilarious and sublime.

 The film: “Phffft!” (1954)

 The director: Mark Robson

 The number: "Mambo!"

 The composer: Frederick Hollander

 The choreograher: Jack Cole

 The dancers: Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon

 The cinematographer: Charles Lang

 The editor: Charles Nelson

 The production designer: William Flannery

Saturday, April 28, 2012

beyond fred, ginger & gene

 Bogdanovich's elegant screwball-of-a-musical hit its first of many peaks with a loose-limbed rendition of a Cole Porter fave, sung "live," natch.

 The film: “At Long Last Love” (1975)

 The director: Peter Bogdanovich

 The number: “Friendship”

 The composer: Cole Porter

 The singers: Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete

 The choreograhers: Improvised by the cast, with coordination by Albert Lantieri and Rita Abrams

 The dancers: Reynolds, Shepherd, Kahn and Del Prete

 The cinematographer: László Kovács

 The editor: Douglas Robertson

 The production designer: Gene All

Friday, April 27, 2012

beyond fred, ginger & gene

 An eruptive moment from John Landis' best film (hands-down, friends) brought James Brown, the king of soul, together with two game white-boy wannabes and a chorus line that wouldn't sit down, shut up or let up.

 The film: “The Blues Brothers” (1980)

 The director: John Landis

 The number: “Old Landmark”

 The composer: James Brown

 The singers: Brown and chorus

 The choreograher: Carlton Johnson

 The dancers: The ensemble

 The cinematographer: Stephen M. Katz

 The editor: George Folsey Jr.

 The production designer: John J. Lloyd

beyond fred, ginger & gene

 "Again! Again! Again!," Paul Wallace shouts to Natalie in this arousing choreographed sex act designed by Jerome Robbins for the legendary Broadway original and, thanks to a very smart Mervyn LeRoy, recreated for the screen by Robbins' stage assistant, Robert Tucker.

 The film: “Gypsy” (1962)

 The director: Mervyn LeRoy

 The number: “All I Need Is the Girl”

 The composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim

 The singer: Paul Wallace

 The choreograher: Jerome Robbins, recreated by Robert Tucker

 The dancers: Wallace and Natalie Wood

 The cinematographer: Harry Stradling Sr.

 The editor: Philip W. Anderson

 The production designer: John Beckman