Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Credit: Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures 

The intoxication of greed and excess that Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" shares with its viewer is woozily addictive.  While the out-of-control lead character on screen - that would be a brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio in a wildly solipsistic, mesmerizing performance - and his cohorts routinely snort cocaine off the breasts, derrieres and privates of willing young women, the audience gets high on the complicity of it all.

Clocking in at a challenging, self-indulgent three hours (which, oddly, hardly seems enough), this modern operatic debauch is an attempt by Scorsese and his scenarist Terence Winter to showcase The Decline of the American Empire in all its naked, hollowed, self-hating glory, and to say that Scorsese nails it is a naive and rather foolish understatement.

Money here is worse than the root of all evil - it's rot. And at the center of this rot - and responsible for most of it - is DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock trader so sociopathically crooked and so oblivious to his daily crimes that he almost seems like an innocent.  Belfort, by all accounts, couldn't care less whether his clients made money, so long as his cut was intact.  And his specialty wasn't fleecing the wealthy, but the struggling working man who he finessed into investing in crummy penny stocks. Even his supportive first wife, the sweet Teresa (Cristin Milioti), is empathetic enough to wonder why Jordan is targeting people who can't afford to lose money.  Her decency gets in his way and she's out.

Enabling him are people who should know better (his father, played by Rob Reiner); those who invariably wise up (his Barbie-doll second wife, played by a terrific Margot Robbie, above); those who share his lack of scruples and dubious values (his friend and business partner Donnie Azoff, played to perfection by Jonah Hill), and those who impressed him in the wrong way (Matthew McConaughey, below with DiCaprio,  in an extended cameo).  But Jordan is way beyond control, and the movie depicting his rise, fall and kinda redemption is as outsized and excessive as he is.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is like a big, brassy musical, but in lieu of production numbers, there's one outrageous orgy after another, with Scorsese serving as choreographer, caterer and maître d'.

But unlike your typical impresario, Scorsese eschews a big finish in favor of a series of telling scenes, one of which is of the F.B.I. agent (Kyle Chandler) who busted Belfort sitting in a subway car on his way home after a day's work - a sort of prison that Belfort smirkily refers to earlier in the film. A big finish, no. But it's appropriately quiet - and haunting.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Russell's "American Hustle"

Credit: Francois Duhamel / Columbia Pictures 

David O. Russell's compulsively watchable "American Hustle" could be taken for the unhealthy spawn of Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" and John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever."  It's a crime film but it dances.

Directed by a man both delighted with and driven by the wild theatricality of his juicy material, "American Hustle" is ostensibly about the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, which as Russell sees it, was an extravaganza of pitched acting, with F.B.I. agents, scam artists and politicians as members of a game ensemble.  It was a scandal, yes, but also something of a Shakespearean comedy with colorful characters pairing off, double- and triple-crossing and entrapping each other and often taking time off to party. And David O. Russell, serving as a master dramatist of his story's many little and big skirmishes, directs it all with a pop rapture.

Abetting him every step of the way is a hugely companionabe cast of actors who shine individually and in tandem. Christian Bale, by sheer willfulness and talent, turns his con man Irving Rosenfeld, a potential vulgarian, into an unexpected (and unexpectedly poignant) romantic hero; Bradley Cooper brings a pent-up physicality to his F.B.I. agent, a man as quirky as he is ambitious; Jeremy Renner finds a certain innocence in his cluelessly corrupt politician, and Jennifer Lawrence plays a Jersey provocatrice with a cartoon verve Frank Tashlin would have appreciated.

Best of all, however, is Amy Adams, an exquisite actress with apparently no vanity.  Her Sydney Prosse, working in cahoots with Irving, is both startled and appalled by what she lets herself do.  She does not exactly find the sleaze of her situation unpleasant or unappealing. She is the mistress of her own debauch and, as Adams plays it, we're with her every step of the way, cheering for her success.  Adams tears into this role as if it were a raw slab of meat and she triumphantly devours it.

With these people as our guides, we are only to happy to be their accomplices to their invigorating American hustle.

Note in Passing:  And just love that old '70s Columbia logo.

Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks"

Credit: Francois Duhamel/Walt Disney Pictures

Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899-1996), below, was an Australian-born, British-based actress, journalist and novelist - she created the beloved "Mary Poppins" - and a handful.  Her famous book was something of a fabulist's autobiography in which Travers traced over memories of her sad childhood to create something more magical and, for her, more tolerable.

She was so driven by her affection for her beloved father, Travers Goff - and so willful in her need to overlook his flaws - that she changed her name in his memory,  Born Helen Lyndon Goff, she redefined herself as P. L. Travers and, in that incarnation, she continually challenged her loyalty to her father. Her greatest test came when, plagued by financial troubles (her books had stopped selling), she entertained the suggestion by Walt Disney to turn her most precious possession - her book (and, by extension, her father) - into a big, slick, family-friendly Hollywood film. She went into this kicking and screaming.

In bringing the story of  "the making of 'Mary Poppins" to life on screen, the director John Lee Hancock filmed two separate movies, alternating between 1901 Australia and the story of the fierce devotion shared by little Helen (the preternatually gifted Annie Rose Buckley) and her father (an excellent Colin Farrell, below with Buckley), and 1961 Hollywood, where Travers (a towering Emma Thompson) would knock heads with Disney (good, gray Tom Hanks) and his creative "Poppins" team.

Travers' incorrigible, obstructionist behavior had everything to do with daddy issues and, in Disney, she grudgingly found a willing father figure.

Each movie here has its own ambiance, thanks to the distinctive looks and sounds contributed by cinematographer John Schwartzman and composer Thomas Newman, respectively, and it's fascinating to observe how little, throwaway details in the "Poppins" film both complemented and contrasted with Travers real-life, death-tinged story. Travers' father was a failed banker but she blamed his failure on the assorted banks that employed him and she went further, demonizing the idea of money.  And for her, Disney represented money.  Not a good thing.  Guilt by association.

And the father in "Poppins" could not be a negative one.  "Why must he be cruel?," Travers asks of Mr. Banks.  "Why?"

One of the more witty touches in the film is whether or not David Tomlinson, who played Mr. Banks, Travers Hoff's alter ego, in "Poppins," should be clean-shaven like Travers' father or have a mustache which Walt preferred - you know, sort of like his own.   One can only guess about the veracity of "Saving Mr. Banks" - Travers is pretty much vilified, while Disney is spared any criticism - but on its own terms, it works.

With Thompson's scrappy, starchy yet quite vulnerable Travers in command, "Saving Mr. Banks" emerges as an unexpectedly powerful film biography, one old-fashioned, menalcholic in design and yet artfully, fastidiously done. I'm confident that P.L. Travers would approve.

It's a surprising discovery.

Note in Passing: The film's terrific ensemble includes the fetching Ruth Wilson as P.L./Helen's mother in the alternate movie and Rachel Griffiths as a take-charge aunt who was probably the inspiration for Mary Poppins; Bradley Whitford as "Poppins" scenarist Don DaGradi; Jason Schwartzman (half-brother of the aforementioned John) and B.J. Novak as the song-writing Sherman Brothers; Paul Giamatti as P.L.'s chauffeur in Hollywood, and Kathy Baker & Melanie Paxson as two Disney secretaries.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

façade: Chris Lilley/Ja'mie

Credit: Ben Timony - © Wokashama

Whereas America has dared only to lightly flirt with narcissistic teenage girls as exploitable material - see Amy Heckerling's "Clueless" and Mark Waters' "Mean Girls" - it's an Australian auteur who not only has had the comic/socio-political vision to confront the subject with a masterful gaze, but the inventiveness to also play the meanest of mean girls himself.

Meet Ja'mie King, a private school girl who makes life hell for those less gilded, as well as everyone else who gets in her way.  (That's Ja'mie, mean girl extraordinaire, above in a typical pose.)

Ja'mie - née Jamie (and called that by all the adults in her life) but pronounced ja-may by the princess herself  (and her private school minions) - is the creation of Chris Lilley, who is some kind of wunderkind Down Under who has created a series of linked television shows (one leads to the next), in which he plays multiple characters.  Ja'mie King is one of those characters and she is the star of one of Lilley's most recent efforts, "Ja'mie - Private School Girl," currently airing (gleefully) on HBO.

Ja'mie was introduced in Lilley's earlier shows, "We Can Be Heroes" (2005) and "Summer Heights High" (2007) and he played the character in both previous incarnations, as well as on "Ja'mie - Private School Girl."

The show itself, which consists of only six episodes, is jaw-dropping hilarious, a mocumentary that follows Ja'mie and company around Hillford Girls Grammar, a tony private school in Sydney, Australia. But the titanic supporting structure of the show is Lilley himself whose performance as Ja'mie is uncanny in its frightening accuracy.  Here, we have a grown man in drag as a teenage girl and yet we never - never - see the grown man.

Lilley inhabits the role so completely and with such precision that it isn't the least bit camp.
The six episodes are all about Ja'mie's quest for the Hillford Medal, an honor she covets with so much naked lust that you'd think it was the Nobel Prize.  Beyond that ambition, Ja'mie (1) rules her harem of sycophants (who she "fucking loves") , (2) invents new code words ("quiche" for anything that's really hot) and (3) demonizes all her enemies as fat lesbians.

As for Lilley, he started his hyphenated career (writer, producer, director and star) in 2003 with "Big Bite," in which he played both an extreme sports enthusiast and a gay high-school drama teacher (who would also pop up in "Summer Heights High").  This was followed by "Hamish and Andy" in 2004 and the aforementioned "We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year," a six-part series in which Lilley played no fewer than six characters including a 47-year-old houswife named Pat Mullens and Daniel, a teenage boy who donates an eardrum to his deaf twin brother, Nathan. Both Daniel and Nathan would show up in Lilley's 2011 show, "Angry Boys" (that's them, er Lilley,  in the photo above), about "issues faced by young males in the 21st century - their influences, their pressures, their dreams and ambitions." It's a comedy, natch.

Ja'mie, as noted, was also in "We Can Be Heroes," followed by "Summer Heights High," which aired on HBO in 2008.

There's a prodigious amount of talent in Lilley's joyful art - and it all belongs to the man himself.  "Ja'mie - Private School Girl" is a spastic explosion of ideas and unsubtle humor about a girl who is defiantly self-centered and, in spite of herself, very, very funny.

The Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" / connection: Mazursky's "Next Stop, Greenwich Village"

Credit: Alison Rosa / CBS Films 

The artist who becomes paralyzed with self-doubt when left adrift and alone by a creative partner is something of a subgenre among films about musicians.  One example: Dean Martin played just such an immobilized composer way back in 1960 in Vincente Minnelli’s “Bells Are Ringing.”  It took perky Judy Holliday to rouse him out of his stupor and self-pity.

"Inside Llewyn Davis,” Ethan and Joel Coen’s idiosyncratic take on the material, is much less commercial or corny.  It is a visually striking mood piece about the blossoming folk culture of the 1960s and about one man, the titular Llewyn Davis (a blank Oscar Issac), who just can’t cut it.

Davis can't gain entrée into this somewhat cloistered word – either because he doesn’t have the ambition or the great talent or because he cannot curb his aggressively self-directed and alienating ways. The Coens have created a film around an annoyingly unlikable person who is also quite uninteresting.  Davis is so thoughtless and in so many different ways - and, frankly, so stupid - that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy with or empathy for him, although I’m not sure if the Coens even want us to.

The character’s negativity seems to bring out the worst in the people around him – Carey Mulligan as an ex reduced to hurling insults and expletives at him; John Goodman as a decrepit hipster who sees through Davis, sizing him up in no uncertain terms, and Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as a patient academic couple finally driven to distraction by their narcissistic, addlepated friend.  (They are the owners of one of three unlucky cats that have unfortunate encounters with Davis.)

In many ways, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is hugely reminiscent of Paul Mazursky's autobiographical film, "Next Stop Greenwich Village" in its mise en scène and the delineation of a young professional - in Mazursky's case, a struggling actor named Larry Lapinsky and played by the late Lenny Baker (that's him below) - who, like Davis, may be too scattered and unfocused to succeed. But the difference, as Pauline Kael opined in her review of "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," is that the Mazursky character has a "manic generosity that holds the film together." 

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is inarguably evocative and hugely atmospheric, thanks largely to Bruno Delbonnel's brooding cinematography, but with Davis at its center, there's, well, simply no there there. And like its anti-hero, the movie challenges us to like it.  It dares us."

Credit: 20th Century-Fox

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

McKay's "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

  Credit: Paramount Pictures

Will Ferrell, in character as the delusional news anchor Ron Burgundy,  has been so ubiquitous, tireless and clever in promoting “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” his latest collaboration with writer-director Adam McKay, that the movie itself is somewhat anti-climatic – not nearly as much fun as the marathon marketing prelude leading up to its release.

It’s also something of a missed opportunity.  Ferrell and McKay have material here that’s ripe for a scathing satire – the advent of the 24-hour news cycle – but they apparently were more intent with regenerating gags and situations that, over the past decade, has turned 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” into a cult favorite.   Case in point:  Their restaging of the first film’s memorable rumble sequence is twice as big and twice as long and boasts twice as many cameos, but what was so exhilarating in the original now feels leaden and obligatory.

The movie’s one original comic high point has Burgundy whipping a nowhere car chase into a sensational news story and ratings winner, but Ferrell and McKay don’t take the joke any further.  All those wasted cameos in the rumble could have been scattered through similar faux headline pieces,  the kind of nothing stories that cable news shows currently – and routinely – beat into the ground with wild-eyed fervor.

Instead, the film gets waylaid by an extended and endless sequence that has the Burgundy character going into hiding at a seaside lighthouse to rehabilitate himself.  It’s very odd, not very amusing and it stops the film cold. “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” never bounces back from this bizarre, needless detour and never becomes the bigger and better follow-up that it was designed to be.  Besides, Ferrell and McKay more than topped themselves two years after the original “Anchorman” with“Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013



One of the many virtues of Turner Classic Movies is how it always honors film people in all areas of the art in its year-end In Memoriam feature.

Never less than fastidious, Turner has been traditionally inclusive. In fact, it routinely puts the Oscars' yearly botched obit tribute to shame.

Seemingly - seemingly - no one is disregarded or omitted by Turner.  Until this year...

I appreciate that many more film people pass away who can be fit on any reasonable list, but for some inexplicable/inexcusable reason, the 2013 edition of TCM Remembers neglects Paul Walker, the appealing actor who died in a tragic car accident at a young 40 on November 30th. His death was major news that one would think could not be ignored.  But it was.

I would day that Turner simply didn't have time to include him, but wait! Eleanor Parker, who died more than a week after Walker - just two days ago, on December 9th - is very much included.  Funny how they were able to accommodate Parker on such short notice, but not Walker.


And unlike James Gandolfini, who also qualified for Turner's list, Walker wasn't known largely as a TV actor.  He had a solid film résumé. 

So Eleanor Parker and James Gandolfini make the grade (and deservedly so) but not Paul Walker. OK, but also feted by Turner are Virginia Gibson, who danced in a few films and, from time to time, even got to speak a line of  dialogue; Rossella Falk and Diane Clare.  Diane who? Who's she?

Well, Diane Clare is a prime example of Turner's admirable inclusiveness.

But apparently not Paul Walker.

So exactly what's going on here?  By appearance, it smacks of a disturbing case of film snobbery - you know, the "he's not one of us" mentality that is way beneath what Turner Classic Movies is supposed to represent.  Heck, Turner is so democratic that it regularly allots precious air time to the dubious films of Elvis Presley and Frankie & Annette.

Regardless of the rationale for this exclusion, it's still hugely disappointing.

Update:  I subsequently engaged in a friendly email conversation about this subject with a Turner rep, who acknowledged the chore of weeding through so many deaths, but who noted that those who are finally chosen are selected with "an eye towards picking personalities whose fim work resonates strongly with the TCM community."  Um, OK.  Also, I was told that Diane Clare, a name that still means nothing to me, was selected because she was "best known for appearing in Hammer horror films which make sense with out brand." I guess I understand that.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

a fan's notes

Parker's Baroness made "The Sound of Mucus" bearable for at least one viewer - ok, me.

My friend Carrie calls me The Contrarian because I agree to disagree.

Particularly about movies.

Case in Point: For some reason, which even I can't explain, I don't like "Casablanca." I simply can't get through it. I've tried innumerable times, often under the most ideal circumstances. One time, I saw a newly restored print at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, located along the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame. My appetite was whetted but, as usual, I was bored. Couldn't get into it. Perhaps my tendency to keep the film at bay has something to do with the fact that I have an aversion to Humphrey Bogart. I know. Blasphemy.

Another:  When "The Sound of Music" opened on Broadway in 1959, it was billed not as "a new musical comedy," but tellingly as "a new musical play."  That's because it was serious.  By the time it hit the big screen in 1965 under Robert Wise's dubious guidance, it had morphed into an elephantine Disney film. I disliked it the minute that Julie Andrews came twirling and trilling over that oh-so-picturesque mountain top.

And it got worse as Wise poured on heaps of  sugar and included those insufferable Von Trapp kids in way too many scenes, far more than the characters had on stage. (Yes, I prefer the recent live TV version with Carrie Underwood, but more about that on another day.)

I made it through only because of the wicked humor of  Richard Haydn and especially the regal, witty villany of Eleanor Parker, who died yesterday at age 91. Parker in particular makes the film watchable for me.

Thank you, Eleanor.  Sleep well.

Along similar lines, I spent most of "Independence Day" cheering on the interloping aliens against the intolerably smug Will Smith, an unpopular stance that got me into trouble with my readers at the time.

Finally, there's "West Side Story."

Regular readers of this site know by now how I feel about this classic. Yes, the music is legendary and the dancing is great, albeit kind of riduculous when staged in realistic settings. It's what comes in-between that's bad. My problem has always been with Arthur Laurents' original stage script which adapter Ernest Lehman honored too closely. By 1961, four years after the play opened, the material already sounded dated.

Critic Sam Adams put it best in his critique of WSS (in one of its DVD incarnations) for Philadelphia's City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win."

Amen, Sam.

Adams also questioned with the decades-long unfair lambasting of the film's two romantic leads, particularly Richard Beymer as Tony. And, of course, it also doesn't help that both Beymer and Natalie Wood are saddled with Laurents' worst dialogue (which Lehman slavishly preserved). I think both Wood and Russ Tamblyn are terrific in the film and that the unfairly maligned Beymer does wonders with a character that's virtually unplayable (and actually makes no sense whatsoever).

On the other hand, there are Rita Moreno who, at 30, was simply too old for her role, and George Chakiris, who, well, simply can't act - and yet these two won Oscars, inexplicably beating out Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg."

In one of her many recent interviews about WSS, Moreno - who apparently is still busy promoting the film, even though it's more than 50 years old - commented that everyone expected Garland to win out of "sentiment."  No, everyone expected Garland to win because she's actually great in the film.  Moreno's win had everything to do with popularity - not her popularity but the film's, which swept the Oscars that year.

She was conveniently caught up in the sweep. Had Natalie Wood been nominated for "West Side Story" instead of "Splendor in the Grass," I have every confidence that she would have won, too.

Also, there have been years of complaints about the fact that the singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed. True. But wait! Everyone's singing voice in the film is dubbed, thanks to associate producer Saul Chaplin's weird hang-up about having only perfect singing voices on screen. Tamblyn, an accomplished musical-comedy star, was dubbed by co-star Tucker Smith, who plays Ice in the film. It's odd to hear Tucker's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth in "Cool." Betty Wand, who also did the singing for Leslie Caron in "Gigi," dubbed Moreno.

Of course, Boris Leven's production design for the film is a masterwork, as is Saul Bass' still-arty titlework. But this film is no classic.

End of tirade.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Frears' "Philomena"

Credit: Alex Bailey/Weinstein Company

As a Catholic-turned-Lapsed-Catholic-turned-Collapsed-Catholic, Stephen Frears' heartbreaking "Philomena" resonated with me.  My reasons for appreciating the film oddly coincide with the reservations of those Catholics who condemn the film: It is an unblinking attack on the Church.

And deservedly so.

The film is "based on a true story," and ironically, those sections that deal with the Church's harsh treatment of its title character are the only ones based on fact.  Just about everything else about the movie has been fictionalized.  There are areas of "Philomena" where one can question its veracity but, by all accounts, its depiction of the Church in this particular time and place are based on an eyewitness account and are accurate.

Initially, the story here is almost Dickensian - It is 1952 and a teenage Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark), pregnant and unwed, is sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, where she gives birth and is then put into viritable servitude, seeing her infant son only once a week.  The nuns there treat their wards with contempt, intolerance and utter disregard, the latter epitomized by their routine of selling the babies in their care to wealthy Americans.  That's how Philamena loses her little Anthony.

Flashforward to today when the 70-year-old Philomena (Judi Dench), distracted by guilt and curiosity, sets out to find her son with the help of a jaded journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is there to cover her plight/journey for a magazine piece that eventually became the book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”  They travel to American to locate Anthony and "Philomena" becomes a road film with an odd couple at its center. Entertaining as this is, it's also blatantly untrue.

Philomena never traveled to America.

But the film remains fascinating nevertheless - and disturbing, thanks to those nuns, who worked for decades to keep mother and son apart as one looked for the other.  And "Philomena" also remains wrenchingly sad.

What Philomena eventually learns about Anthony only validates her lifelong fears for him, her dread. She lived a nightmare that never went away and, yet as played by the great Judi Dench, she was everything that her tormentors, the nuns, weren't - forgiving and humane.

Dench's masterful performance here effectively humbles the audience.

Payne's "Nebraska"

Credit: Merie W. Wallace / Paramount Vantage

In her review of the 1974 Paul Mazursky fillm, "Harry & Tonto," Pauline Kael noted that it was "the most difficult kind of comedy to bring off, because it comes directly from the moviemaker's feelings about life."

The exact same observation could be made of Alexander Payne's hauntingly spare and gnawingly moody "Nebraska," another "old-man-on-the-road comedy," as Kael also described "Harry & Tonto."

The tricky part, I think - and the reason Kael opined about the difficulty of the genre - is that these films aren't entirely comedies.  There's also a melancholy to them. especially "Nebraska," which takes the risk of coming close to depressing its audience with its clear-eyed, sometimes harsh. view of a certain area of Middle America, one in the state of stasis.

Payne offers no surcease from his depiction of a people left immobilized by a paralyzed economy as he follows the plight of Woody (Bruce Dern, excellent), an old man who has deluded himself into think that he's the big winner in a millionaire sweepstakes and is intent on collecting his prize, much to the chagrin of snappish wife (June Squibb, also excellent), a woman who has had to develope a tough skin and alienating persona in order to get through life with a man who was always an easy touch.

Accompanying him on the pointless trip is Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte), who feels empathy for the old man, perhaps seeing his own beak future in him, and who sees this as one last opportunity to finally connect with his father.  As wonderful as Dern is in the film, "Nebraska" really belongs to Forte, whose relaxed, naturalistic turn as  a decent man is quietly powerful. His performance is entirely transparent.

The mood of hopeless that pervades "Nebraska" is sustained by the gorgeous, evocative black-&-white, wide-screen cinematography by Phedon Papamichael.  It completes the picture.
Credit: Paramount Vantage / Courtesy of Paramo

Friday, November 29, 2013

indelible moment: Adam McKay's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006)

  Credit: Columbia Pictures

In anticipation of the latest Will Ferrell-Adam McKay collaboration, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"  (opening December 18), I off this hilarious scene - the"Baby Jesus" grace - is from their best movie to date,  McKay's slyly subversive "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," in which Will Ferrell plays a clueless George W. Bush (yep)  in the guise of clueless NASCAR stock car racing sensation Ricky Bobby.

The sequence in question has the Bobby family gathered around the table for a feast of fast-food takeouts. The clan includes Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), Ricky's BFF (Cal is "shake" to Ricky's "bake"); Carley Bobby (Leslie Bibb), Ricky's hot wife; Chip (Ted Manson), Carley's father, and Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell), Carley and Ricky's obnoxious sons. The wicked dialogue was written by Ferrell and McKay and There's a reason why Manhola Dargis touted "Ricky Bobby's" script as one of the five best original screenplays in her 2007 New York Times essay on recommended Oscar nominations for 2006.

And let the grace (and its sureally profane aftermath) proceed...

Ricky: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox.

Cal: Mmmm.

Ricky: Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. who’s got my back no matter what.

Cal: Shake and Bake!

Ricky: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it!

Cal: Mmmm.

Ricky: (continuing) Dear tiny, infant Jesus...

Carley: Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.

Ricky: Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

Carley: You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.

Ricky: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists...

Chip: He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky: Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.

Carley: Ricky, finish the damn grace.

Cal: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, 'cause it says, like, “I wanna be formal..."

Ricky: Right!

Cal: "... but I’m here to party, too.” 'Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.

Walker: I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.

Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings.

Ricky: Yeah!

Cal: And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, a angel band. And I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.

Carley: Hey Cal, why don’t you just shut up?

Cal: Yes, ma’am.

Ricky: Okay. Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo!

Cal: Woo!

Carley: Woo!

Walker and Texas Ranger: Ow!

Ricky: Love that money! - that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious...

Cal: Mmmm!

Ricky: ...and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry...

Cal: Mmmm!

Ricky: ...Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.

Carley: Amen!

Cal: Amen!

Ricky: Let's dig in!

Cal: That was a hell of a grace, man. You nailed that like a split hog!

Ricky: I appreciate that. I'm not gonna lie to you, it felt good.

Walker: Dad, you made that grace your bitch.

Carley: (to Walker and Texas Ranger) Hey, boys, I wanna see some napkins in the lap.

Ricky: Boys, how was school today?

Walker: I threw a bunch of grandpa Chip's war medals off the bridge!

Ricky: Sounds like a good day. Texas Ranger, how about you?

Texas Ranger: Well, the teacher asked me what was the capital of North Carolina.

Ricky: Mm-hmm?

Texas Ranger: I said, "Washington, D.C."

Cal: Bingo!

Texas Ranger: She said, "No, you're wrong." I said, "You got a lumpy butt." She got mad at me and yelled at me and I pissed in my pants.

Ricky I'm so proud of you, boys. You remind me of me - precocious and full of wonderment.

Chip: I can't hold my tongue. These kids are my grandchildren, and you are raising them wrong. They are terrible boys.

Walker: Shut up, Chip, or I'll go ape-shit on your ass!

Texas Ranger: I'm gonna scissor-kick you in the back of the head.

Cal: Yeah!

Ricky:: Yeah! Turn up the heat!

Cal: Go on and get some, boys!

Ricky: Come on.

Walker: I'm 10 years old but I'll beat your ass.

Texas Ranger: Chip, I'm gonna come at you like a spider monkey.

Ricky: Chip, you brought this on, man.

Chip: What is wrong with you?

Texas Ranger: Chip, I'm all jacked up on Mountain Dew.

Ricky: Whoo-hoo, I love that!

Chip: You gonna let your sons talk to their grandfather like that? I'm their elder.

Ricky: I sure as hell am, Chip. I love the way they're talking to you. 'Cause they're winners. Winners get to do what they want. The only thing you ever done with your life is make a hot daughter. That's it. That's it! That is it!

Carley: We wanted us some wussies, we would've named them Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman, okay?

Ricky: I worked too hard for your bull, Chip. Everyone just keep eatin'.

Carley: (to Ricky, lunging at him) Come here! I'm hot!

[She lands on him and they kiss passionately - and inappropriately.]

Cal: Alright! I'll hold your hair.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

façade: Pamela Tiffin

Pamela Tiffin. Even the name has the perfect movie-starlet allure, circa 1960.

Tiffin's star shined briefly in the early 1960s when she made an auspicious Hollywood debut in three major back-to-back films, starting with Peter Glenville's 1961 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, "Summer and Smoke," starring Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey. She followed this later the same year with a game, comic turn in Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three" and in José Ferrer's remake of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "State Fair," in 1962.

And then, it suddenly seemed over. A list of forgettable, youth-oriented films followed and then a turn in Italian films before she retired. She was married briefly to New York editor Clay Felker and, when last reported, was married to Edmondo Danon and lives with Danon and their two daughters in Manhattan.

Tiffin was a wisp of an actress, turning in small, quiet and yet craft-like performance in those first three films. Her rendition of "It Might as Well Be Spring" in "State Fair" (whether dubbed or not) is downright palpable, a beautiful moment in an otherwise forgotten film. I sense that she was an actress who needed the protection and direction of the studio system, which was on its last leg when Tiffin came along.

A few other noteworthy titles dot her filmography - John Sturges' "The Hallelujah Trail" (1965), Jack Smight's "Harper" (1966) and Jerry Paris' delightful "Viva, Max!" (1969) - but her potential was never truly fulfilled.

In 1964, she made "The Pleasure Seekers," Jean Negulesco's remake of his 1954 romance, "Three Coins in the Fountain," with co-stars Ann-Margret and Carol Lynley, who were probably her chief rivals at auditions in those days. In the early '60s, in terms of ingenués, they were the only game in town - the resident blonde, redhead and brunette.

(Artwork: Pamela Tiffin on the cover of a summer 1962 issue of Screen Stories, which profiles her film, "State Fair," inside)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

cinema obscura: Billy Wilder's "Fedora" (1978)

Billy Wilder remained a vital, prolific filmmaker, while many of his contemporaries were slowing down with only an occasional film.

But Wilder kept churning out title after title, particularly in the 1950s and '60s. In 1957, for example, he was actually able to produce a wildly diverse trio - "Love in the Afternoon," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "Witness for the Prosecution." Whew.

But after "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, he abruptly pulled back. It was four years later when he returned with the troubled but appealing "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," followed another two years by "Avanti!," a sophisticated but clearly middle-aged entertainment. Yes, he was beginning to slow down, too, and would make only three more films, two of them rather lethargic Lemmon-Matthau teamings, "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy," the latter being Wilder's final film.

But sandwiched in-between was the compelling"Fedora" (1978), an attempt by Wilder to return to form. More accurately, it was a companion piece to his triumphant "Sunset Blvd." (1950), replete with the same leading man - William Holden. It was nearly 30 years later and Wilder and, to a degree, Holden were out to prove that they still had it in them to make a seminal, influential movie about the filmmaking process. Only this time, the pervasive eerieness of the material wasn't simple camp.

"Fedora" is genuinely eerie. Actually, it's downright creepy.

Once again, Holden plays a washed-up movie opportunist hoping to nudge a retired, reclusive actress - the Polish Fedora - toward a comeback with his new version of "Anna Karenina." But something is amiss, strange.

And when Fedora dies suddenly, after jumping in front of a moving train, Holden attempts to ferret out the ... "truth." That word comes with ominous underpinings. "Fedora" is an atmospheric, chilly affair, not quite as companionable as "Sunset Blvd.," and while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues) rather than black-&-white, he conjurs up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, "Fedora" is essentially the European sibling of "Sunset Blvd.")

The film's Big Secret, concocted by Tom Tryon (the late film-actor-turned-writer) for a short story in his 1978 collection, "Crowned Heads," remains provocative, and Wilder surrounded Holden with both a top international cast - Marthe Keller (pictured above with Holden), Hildegard Kneff, Stephen Collins, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Fonda, Mario Adorf (below with Holden), Arlene Francis and Michael York - and a fabulous setting, the Greek Island of Corfu.

For the occasion, the director adapted Tryon's story in collaboration with his long-time writing partner, I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond, and these vets make it clear that they are striving not for the modernity of the other films at the time but for something ageless. Again, not unlike "Sunset Blvd."

Their efforts here almost matched their previous projects. Almost.

Note in Passing: In his book, "Conversations with Wilder," Cameron Crowe writes, "Wilder is quick to point out that his original casting plan would have served the picture better." I believe, if my recollections are correct, that his original plan was to cast Vanessa Redgrave and her mother Rachel Kempson is the roles ultimately played by Keller and Kneff.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

indelible moment: "Picnic" (1955)

Ah, the days when filmmakers had to be creative.

I'm not talking about cinematics but content. However, in this case, cinematics and content are irrevocably intertwined. In bringing William Inge's seminal play of longing to the screen (by way of Daniel Taradash's fine screenplay), director Joshua Logan faced the challenge of having the piece's star-crossed lovers - stumble-bum Hal and small-town queen Madge - be intimate with actually showing them engaging in sex.

He shrewdly solved the problem with a dance that has become an iconic screen moment, even though is lasts only a minute or so. Swooning and gyrating to "Moonglow" and "The Theme from 'Picnic,'" expertly intertwined by composer George Duning, stars William Holden and Kim Novak seem to be improvising their choreographed sex act.

But, in actuality, the dance was overseen by choreographer Miriam Nelson who, for some bizarre reason, was never credited.

Nevertheless, what she created in ... indelible.

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will screen "Picnic" at 8 p.m. (est) on Wednesday, 1 September - in anticipation of Labor Day, aptly enough the backdrop of the film.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Broadway Flops on Film

Very few plays make it onto film these days, and even fewer stage musicals.

But there was a time when the studios depended seriously on Broadway as a source for its prestige productions. (There's been a curious flipflop in the past two decades with the B movie - action films and action comedies - now being given the lavish adornments once reserved for message/Oscar films exclusively.) Hollywood had such an unquenchable need to film plays that even stage productions that were flops and folded quickly (but were not necessarily bad) quickly became movies.

To name a few...

"Little Murders"

Written by the popular acerbic cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the very dark "Little Murders" opened at the Booth Theater on April 18th, 1967, playing a total of seven performances. The play starred singer Barbara Cook (in a decidedly non-singing role) and Elliott Gould, just before he hit Hollywood with William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Feiffer comically chronicled what happens when a gung-ho all-American girl brings an inarguably unAmerican guy (a self-described "apathist" who photographs dog excrement for a living) home to meet her family - an oblivious mother, a father embarrassed by his name (it's Carroll) and a brother who wants to be a woman, played by Ruth White, John Randolph and David Steinberg, respectively. Exacerbating the tension are such modern travials as power outages, a garbage strike and serial murders.

Heyward Hale Broun, Phil Leeds and Dick Schaal rounded out the cast, under the direction of George Sherman.

A subsequent 1969 staging at the Circle in the Square also starred Gould and Steinberg, along with Linda Lavin, Vincent Gardenia and Donald Sutherland in the role of a hippie cleric.

Gould, of course, recreated his role for the 1971 film, which was gamely directed by Alan Arkin who also assumed the role of the quickly uncoiling detective investigating the murders. The wonderful Marcia Rodd (and exactly what happened to her?) is a standout in the Cook role of Patsy; Elizabeth Wilson and an encoring Gardenia play her parents and Jon Korkes her brother, and Sutherland was back on board as the minister.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle"/"Last of the Mobile Hotshots"

Tennessee Williams' "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" had a tryout at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and opened March 27th, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast consisting of Estelle Parsons, Harry Gaurdino and Brian Bedford, under the direction of José Quintero.

OK, here goes: Williams' play is about Lot (Bedford), a tubercular, impotent transvestite who has taken a wife named Myrtle (Parsons) who, in turn, is a prostitute and former showgirl, the sole survivor of the Five Memphis Hot Shots. Myrtle lives to nurse Lot back to health but Lot cares only about stealing the family property from his multiracial half-brother, Chicken (Guardino).

Naturally, Chicken is attracted to Myrtle.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle" closed after 29 performances.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1970 film version, which was retitled "Last of the Mobile Hotshots" and was one of the few prestige films of that era to be rated X by the MPAA. Lynn Redgrave starred as Myrtle, James Coburn as Lot (renamed Jeb actually for the film), and Robert Hooks as Chicken.

The film was made in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana, but forget the scenery. All that counted here was the idea of James Coburn playing a transvestite.

"A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper"

William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," which opened December 7th, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and closed after 25 performances, remains Warren Beatty's only Broadway appearance. His co-stars were dancer Carol Haney (in a decidedly undancing performance), Betty Field, Robert Webber, James O'Rear, Margaret Braidwood and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

Daniel Mann directed.

Its plot revolves around Lila (Haney), a sensitive, aging showgirl for a series of shows staged by a Madame Olga. When her boyfriend, Rick (Beatty), steals the show's boxoffice receipts, Lila is fired and opts to change her life. But then Rick returns.
For the 1963 film, directed by Franklin J. Schafner, Joanne Woodward and Richard Beymer play Lila and Rick, with Webber and Pollard recreating their stage roles. The rest of the cast includes Claire Trevor, Carol Lynley, Louis Nye and ... Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga.
"Silent Night, Lonely Night"
The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote this lovely play about two lonely people - played by Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes - who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

The play, directed by Peter Glenville and co-starring Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann, opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was snapped up immediately by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.

The film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night," directed by Daniel Petrie, was not made for theaters, but for TV. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving. Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) took over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles, Carrie Snodgress played the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman showed up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.
"My Sweet Charlie"

David Westheimer's play "My Sweet Charlie" - a study in race relations - opened in tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia on November 8th, 1966 before moving to New York's Longacre Theater onn December 6th, 1966, where it closed after 31 performances.

The actor Howard Da Silva ("They Live By Night," "The Great Gatsby," "The Blue Dahlia," "The Lost Weekend" and "1776" among many other films) directed a cast that included Louis Gossett, Jr. in the title role, Bonnie Bedelia, John Randolph and Sarah Cunningham.

Gossett's Charlie Roberts is a black New York lawyer accused - falsely - of murder in a small Texas town. He finds a vacant house where he hides out and this is where he meets Marlene (Bedelia), an artless, uneducated young woman who has been shunned by her father for being pregnant.

They become allies and unlikely friends.

The 1971 TV film version, also produced by Universal, was adapted by the then-hot team of William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by the great Lamont Johnson on location in Port Bolivar, Texas.

"My Sweet Charlie" was hugely popular as a film, thanks in large part to the affecting lead performances of Al Freeman, Jr. and Patty Duke. Ford Rainey took over the Randolph role.

(Artwork: Flyer art for the off-Broadway production of "Little Murders" and Marcia Rodd and Elliott Gould in the film version; Playbill for "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" and the poster for its movie version, "Last of the Mobile Hotshots"; Playbill for "A Loss of Roses" and the poster art for its film version, retitled "The Stripper"; Playbill for "Silent Night, Lonely Night" and the dustjacket for the VHS of the movie version, and the flyer for the Philadelphia tryout of "My Sweet Charlie" and the dustjacket for the video of the film)

Monday, October 21, 2013

directing versus filmmaking

On paper,  the proposed remake of “Carrie” is nothing short of fabulous, what with Kimberly Pierce as director, Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, as her well-cast stars, and writer Lawrence D. Cohen recruited to update the lean script that he wrote for the Brian DePalma original in 1976.

But, in execution, the completed film is something else, and part of me would like to point to Marvel Comics wunderking Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa, brought in as co-scenarist and to seemingly mess up Cohen's model script, specifically the ending. Seemingly (I hasten to stress). 

Whatever the reason, a mess it is.

While DePalma’s “Carrie” is unusually painterly for a horror film, Pierce’s is blunt and, frankly, crass, qualities in full view in the film’s gross and gratuitous opening sequence – in which Margaret White (Moore) is a frantic, demented bystander to the blood-spurting birth of her own daughter, Carrie.  While Piper Laurie was almost ethereal as the religious-nut mother in the first film, poor Moore is presented as a perspiring, smelly hag. As for the gifted Moretz, she does little else here than walk around with her shoulders squeezed up to her ears.

It’s a hunched performance in more ways than one. Sissy Spacek, twice Moretz's age when she starred in the original, somehow seems years younger - a permamently, fascinatingly stunted child, if you will.

Pierce, whose first two films (1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and 2008’s “Stop-Loss”) I admire, may be a case of someone who was prematurely lauded by the critics.  Aside from being hardly prolific, she seems to lack a feel for the camera’s eye.  Pierce inarguably knows a solid story when she sees one and she’s a good director of actors, but she simply isn’t a filmmaker. And that’s what sets her apart from Brian DePalma who is.

And it’s what makes her film so wildly different from – and inferior to – the original.  The new “Carrie” underlines Kimberly Pierce’s few strengths as a director, as well as her major weaknesses as a filmmaker.