Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mr. Dobbs Goes to Hollywood

Will wonders never cease? Lou Dobbs of the eponymous "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on the Fox Business Network, has made the startling discovery that two new family-friendly animations - Disney's "The Secret World of Arrietty" and Universal's "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" - come with a liberal bias.

The wonder that fails to cease is not that Dobbs made this predictable and unoriginal observation, but that I agree with him. Yes, yes - both "Arrietty" and "Lorax" are wonderfully, gloriously left-leaning.

This isn't the first time this year that a radical-right crackpot has denounced Hollywood's menu for children. "The Muppets," "Cars 2" and "Happy Feet 2" were also "exposed" as some kind of plot.

But my immediate interest is the "Arrietty"/"Lorax" scandal because Dobbs not only dismisses both titles as “insidious nonsense from Hollywood” because of their rather transparent, often blunt political themes, but also claims that “Hollywood is once again trying to indoctrinate our children.”

"Indoctrinate"? The word I'd use is "enlighten."

"The Secret World of Arrietty," based on the beloved Mary Norton book, "The Borrowers," about tiny denizens who “borrow” their life essentials from humans, is not about "class envy and redistribution of wealth," as Dobbs puts it, but about having empathy for something foreign or different. Also, it's from Japan, not Hollywood. I guess that's worse.

"Dr. Seuss' Lorax"? Well, Dobbs says that this one is yet another example of "environmental radicalism" and, you know - pause - it is! But so what. The film, about a willfully clueless tree assassin, is also anti-corporate America and makes no effort whatsoever to hide this fact. I say huzzah.

Anyway, two points that I learned during my decades as a movie critic is that (1) everybody has an opinion about movies and (2) frankly, precious few of these people actually know what they are talking about.

I find them rather tiresome.

Earth to Mr. Dobbs: All movies have an agenda and/or some sort of political content. Your discovery is not exactly a revelation.

I wonder if you've paid heed to John Huston's 1982 screen adaptation of the musical "Annie" - based, of course, on "Little Orphan Annie" - and its none-too-vaguely anti-Capitalist undertones. Leapin' Lizards!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


How ironic that the GOP so intensely hates Hollywood.

I mean, the two entities are essentially the same.

True, the GOP may be conservative and Hollywood is largely liberal, but both are almost entirely driven by wealthy, aging white men who believe that money can buy anything - political elections or movie awards.

Both have been "corrupted by money," to quote "Curb Your Enthisiasm's" Gavin Polone in his astute "Oscar Farce" essay written for New York magazine (January 30). The whole process has become so cynical that the Oscarcast isn't even "kitschy fun" (Polone's words again) anymore.

Fact is, the show is now upstaged by the Red Carpet foolishness that precedes it. Don't get me started!

This handily explains why something as middle-brow as "The King's Speech" won over the bracing and exhilarating "The Social Network" last year - and why, in the throes of misguided love, the Academy members always fawn over the latest "It" person, predictably ignoring an industry vet who has paid his/her dues. Roberto Benigni, anyone?

Yeah, predictable is the word. Personally, I don't care who or what wins tonight. Except for George Clooney. If his inspiring, heartfelt, no-frills work in "The Descendants" is brushed aside for the novelty of the industry's latest "flash act" - Jean Dujardin, who will probably be part of this year's predictable "The Artist" sweep - well, I'll rest my case.

The current logic is that all those aging white men are smitten with "The Artist" because it's seen as a love letter to Hollywood. But the same argument could be made on behalf of the far superior "Hugo."

Full disclosure: I came to this piece with an attitude. I was already primed to pontificate after the performance of the year - Michael Fassbender's as a damaged sex addict in Steve McQueen's "Shame" - was (again, predictrably) neglected by the Academy's old white males.

But did I really expect a performance in an NC-17 film, regardless of how major it is, to receive the credit it deserves?

And then there's "Margaret"! Don't get me started!

Well, my planned rant, however, was upended by someone who got there first.

"I would have appreciated seeing Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret' get some respect," Sean Axmaker wrote in a terrific piece on Oscar Snubs for msn.com. "His beautifully messy and admirably unkempt script captures the messiness of human lives and unresolved emotions in the wake of 9/11, which looms in the background through lingering anxieties and anger. This year swings so far in the other direction of Big Films with Important Messages Hammered Home with Insistent Direction that the indie films that spurred the expansion were all but ignored. I suppose the art house take on a grindhouse story left 'Drive' in the dust and Fox effectively sabotaged grass-roots support for Lonergan's 'Margaret' by burying the film after a nominal release, but if the Academy really wants audience-friendly films, you can't do better than 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the kitchy science fiction franchise as a gripping prison break thriller with a wicked high-concept twist." Well put.

That said, given that this site is devoted to the neglected, here's a nod to this year's Oscar outsiders (losers, I suppose, in Hollywood's eye):

Michael Fassbinder & Carey Mulligan ("Shame")

Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer & Clint Eastwood ("J. Edgar")

Charlize Theron ("Young Adult")

Albert Brooks ("Drive")

Ryan Gosling ("Drive," "The Ides of March" & "Crazy, Stupid, Love" - take your pick)

Michael Shannon ("Take Shelter")

Brendan Gleeson ("The Guard")

Anna Paquin & Jeannie Berlin ("Margaret")

Andy Serkis ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes")

Christoph Waltz ("Carnage")

David Fincher ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo")

And "the kids"...

Asa Butterfield & Chloë Grace Moretz ("Hugo")

Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants")

Elle Fanning ("Super 8")

They didn't stand a chance in a solipsistic, middle-brow organization ingrained with ageism. Don't get me started!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

dimmed "star"

Turner Classic Movies will screen George Cukor's terrific - but also terrifically overrated - "A Star Is Born" at 5 p.m. on Oscar night, Sunday, February 26th, as part of its ongoing "31 Days of Oscar" calvacade.

The print runs 176 minutes - which is basically the truncated 154-minute version of the film pieced together with stills and audio of lost footage.

This apparently is as close to the 182-minute roadshow version that the restoration team could get. But wait! The fact is, "A Star Is Born" actually - originally - ran longer than 182 minutes. When it opened at at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre on September 24, 1954, the movie clocked in at 196 minutes - that's 3 hours and 16 minutes. This was the first - and also the last - time that this version of "A Star Is Born" was seen.

When it opened subsequently in its initial roadshow engagements about a month later, 14 minutes had already been taken out (apparently with Cukor's involvement), bringing the film to its 182-minute running time.

Back in those days, it was not uncommon for a roadshow film to be shortened for general release and so, "A Star Is Born" was cut again - by another 28 minutes (this time, without Cukor's involvement or approval) - leaving the film at 154 minutes, the version of record for the last 58 years.

Those excised 28 minutes would guarantee exhibitors another show per day - and Warner Bros. with a bigger box-office take.

This is nothing new. This is Hollywood. It was routine. It was also routine - and rather stupid - not to save the discarded elements from excised films.

And now, the few people at the Pantages who saw the original Original Version of "A Star Is Born" back in 1954 are probably all gone. Dead.

Along with all the precious missing footage.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

trouble right here!

Channel-surfing last night, I couldn't get away from the recurring image of GOP contender Rick Santorum whipping his devoted followers into a frenzy over something called "the war on religion."

Then I came to the Turner channel, where Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" was in progress and Robert Preston, as con man Professor Harold Hill, was whipping the townspeople of River City, Iowa, into a frenzy over the presence of a pool table in their hamlet.

The juxtapostion was uncanny.

"Now, Marcellus, I need some ideas if I’m gonna get your town out of the serious trouble it’s in," Prof. Hill says to an old friend (Buddy Hackett).

"River City ain't in any trouble," Marcellus responds.

"Then, I'm gonna have to create some," Hill informs. "Must create a desperate need in your town for a boy’s band."

This dialogue, about trumping up an emergency, is the set-up for Meredith Willson's classic, "Ya Got Trouble," during which Hill successfully instills fear in the denizens of River City, a song which ends rousingly with:

Harold: "Oh, ya got trouble! Ya got lots & lots 'a trouble! That game with the 15 numbered balls is the devil's tool!"

Townspeople: "Devil's tool!"

Harold: "Oh yes, we've got trouble, trouble!"

Townspeople: "Oh yes, we've got trouble here, we've got big, big trouble!"

Harold: "With a "T"!"

Townspeople: "With a capital T!"

Harold: "That rhymes with P!"

Townspeople: "That rhymes with P!"

Harold: "That stands for pool!"

Townspeople: "That stands for po-o-ol!"

I've been amused for years now by the constant state of (feigned?) outrage of the GOP, which always seem to be shocked and appalled.

Last night, Robert Preston added a melody to the aggrievement.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


Where to start. There is so much annoying with the latest TV curiosity, "Smash," that it became immediately overwhelming and tiresome. An episodic soap opera about the mounting of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, the series wallows in the usual show-biz clichés - self-glorification, self-pity and self-indulgence.

Drama-queen stuff.

But what's really endemic here - and what undermines the series - is an illogical quality that strips the project of any authenticity and charm. Case in point: A singer/dancer (Megan Hilty), hoping to play Marilyn in the show, and a troupe of chorus boys perform a number titled "The National Pastime" (one of several original songs written for the series by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) in an empty, sprawling rehearsal hall.

The number should be as spartan as the setting, accompanied perhaps by only a tinkling piano. But instead, when the performers open their mouths to sing, out come pre-recorded voices, replete with full orchestral backing.

It should have been performed "live" and with the all usual rough edges. Rather, what could have been natural and organic - and even original - is presented as a foregone "showstopper," calculated to knock us out.

True, this sequence subsequently morphs into a full-dress, dramatically-lit performance on a stage, but the moments in the studio, with the dancers only in tights, would have been so much more refreshing done "live."

What we get instead is ... "fake."

Sunday, February 05, 2012

small movie

It's not exactly surprising that "Big Miracle," saddled with an arch, generic title and directed by a filmmaker who gets no respect from the critics, was virtually invisible the day it opened. No one seemed to care.

But wait! This is a solid little movie - defiantly old-fashioned in a 1950s way and impressively untrendy - and it boasts an ace case which seems committed to the film's very transparent appreciation of animal activism.

The aforementioned filmmaker is Ken Kwapis, who made his "mark" (well, sort of) with the lost 1988 Cindi Lauper-Jeff Goldblum vehicle, "Vibes," co-directed the clever (and popular) "He Said, She Said" (1991) with Marisa Silver and has pretty much operated for the last decade or so as a house director without a house (read: a studio). Kwapis seems to operate under the radar, despite his handling of the 'tween hit, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" (2005), and "He's Just Not That Into You" (2009).

With the latter and "Big Miracle," Kwapis has worked Robert Altman conventions (huge casts, multiple storylines) into mall movies and, frankly, I've found his efforts both effective and rather appealing.

"Big Miracle" is inspired by the real-life 1988 situation that found a family of gray whales (mother, father and baby boy) stranded and trapped under the thick ice in the Arctic Circle and by the efforts of the several diverse groups who worked selflessly in tandem to free them.

It's material that Disney normally would have tackled in '88 but, for some inexplicable reason, didn't.

I'm a sucker for such stories and making this one even more irresistible and companionable is the attractive cast: A warm John Krasinski as a struggling TV journalist stationed in Alaska and an impressively authentic Drew Barrymore as a driven Greenpeacer (and Krasinski's former main squeeze), plus Kristin Bell (as another journalist), Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Baker, Stephen Root, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGross, Rob Riggle, Bruce Altman, Quinn Redeker and (in archival footage) someone named Sarah Heath. Also the film casts several Inupiat natives, most notably John Pingayak and the gifted child actor, Ahmaogak Sweeney, in central roles.

Everyone is credible, which I think says a lot about Kwapis as a director of actors. And I suppose that the fact that he was able to attract impressive casts for both "Big Miracle" and "He's Just Not That Into You" says a lot about him as a human being. Actors obviously like him.

It shows.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

brief encounter: Ben Gazarra

The passing of Ben Gazzara (1930–2012) - whose rich career is thoroughly covered in The New York Times by Neil Genzlinger. - brought back a memory of my interview with him in 1970 when he came to Philadelphia to promote John Cassavetes'
"Husbands" for Columbia on "The Mike Douglas Show."

In those days, the show was housed in a cramped space on Walnut Street, and its make-up room was a nook in the building's revamped basement. When I encountered Gazarra, he was sitting in one of the vintage barber chairs that the Douglas staff used to primp the guests.

Frankly, I can't remember any of the interview that followed but the image of Gazarra - sitting in that chair, chomping on a cigar and gesturing with flailing arms to a Philly friend who stopped by to say hello - remains burned in my brain: The actor was dressed in a white tuxedo shirt (collar rakishly open, natch) and black trousers (that could have been half of a black-tie suit). He looked like Cosmo Vittelli, the character he would create six years later for Cassavetes in "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie."

I remember Gazarra as both gragarious and imposing (he looked very much like a virile, impeccably-groomed, disarmingly polite mobster), with a gutteral voice and a quick, hearty laugh. Francis Ford Coppola really should have found a place for him in one of "The Godfather" films.

A missed opportunity.

That's about all I remember, that once-vivid, now shadowy image. Our ensuing conversation is lost somewhere deep in my tearsheet archives.