Tuesday, January 28, 2014

cinema obscura: Stuart Rosenberg's "The April Fools" (1969)

Some good news this week.

A lost Jack Lemmon film has been rescued from oblivion, dusted off and made available on DVD, letterboxed, by Paramount/CBS.

Stuart Rosenberg's "The April Fools" is an irresistible confection from 1969 that offers Lemmon in one of his last great comedic screen performances and, as a bonus, casts him opposite no less than Catherine Deneuve.

Deneuve made a rather interesting, surprising partner for Lemmon, given that she was the international "It" girl of the moment.  Maybe not too much of a surprise:  After all, five years earlier, Lemmon had played opposite another European dish, Romy Schneider, in "Good Neighbor Sam."

That said, "The April Fools" is a blissfully blatant male fantasy in which the star plays his quintessential Lemmon character, in this case an Everyman who falls in love with Catherine Deneuve - and, improbably, she returns the affection. Unlikely?  The film is also blissfully oblivious.

The two meet at a party hosted by Deneuve's husband (Peter Lawford who, by the way, appeared with Jack in Lemmon's debut film, 1954's "It Should Happen to You"), spend the night clubbing (in the company of eccentric night couple Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer) and then fly off to Paris together the next morning, with Lemmon leaving behind his wildly acquisitive wife, Sally Kellerman (who is nothing less than outstanding here as a vain, selfish woman who talks exclusively in psychobabble).

It's a soufflé, nothing more, and adding to the mix are the invaluable Jack Weston and Harvey Korman as Lemmon's attorney and a sex-addicted businessman, respectively - two buttoned-down, acoholic Mad Men -  and Melinda Dillon and Kenneth Mars as a (then) New Age couple. ("Fools" was also the first film scored completely by Marvin Hamlisch, although precious little of his excellent mood music ended up on the movie's soundtrack album, which opted to showcase the songs utilized in the film instead.)

A bit of trivia: "The April Fools" was produced by the CBS subsidiary, Cinema Center Films, an early boutique lable that functioned between 1968 and 1972, producing some 40 titles, all distributed by National General Pictures.  In tandem, Cinema Center and National General collaborated on some mighty fine films but both companies, way too good to be true, ultimately went under sometime in the mid-'70s. 

Ten of their titles -  "Little Big Man," "The Reivers," "The Boys in the Band," "Monte Walsh," "Big Jake," "Scrooge," "Le Mans," "Rio Lobo," "A Man Called Horse" and "With Six, You Get Eggroll," the first Cinema Center release as well as Doris Day's final theatrical film - show up on  Turner Classic Movies with some regularity.  "The April Fools," despite that ace cast, has evaded its schedule, along with a few others - such as the Angela Lansbury-Michael York cult film, "Something for Everyone," Patty Duke's very fine "Me Natalie," Dustin Hoffman's "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" and another Lemmon title, "The War Between Men and Women," also new to DVD.

Hint to TCM.

It's interesting to note that both Lemmon's "The April Fools" and Doris Day's "With Six, You Get Eggrolls" were their stars' respective attempts to move, however cautiously, into the New Wave of filmmaking that cropped up in the late 1960s and early '70s. But, frankly, neither one seemed terribly comfortable with the obligatory go-go sequences and other youth-oriented references that were shoehorned into their films. They didn't need this, and in the case of Day, she looked a tad embarrassed.

As for Stuart Rosenberg (1927-2007), he came to movies from TV. Not a good thing from the viewpoint of your standard cinéphile.

I, of course, disagree.

Rosenberg began his film work belatedly in 1967, making an auspicious debut with Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke," the inaugural production of Lemmon's Jalem Productions  ("The April Fools" was the second Jalem film) and would direct only a handful of theatrical films - fourteen in all, including one using the familiar psuedonym, Alan Smithee.

He would make three more films with Newman, all estimable - "WUSA" (1970), "Pocket Money" (1972) and the Lew Harper flick, "The Drowning Pool" (1975) - and also work with Redford on "Brubaker" (1980). But Rosenberg's most impressive work was with Walter Matthau on the edgy "The Laughing Policeman" (1973) and with soulmates Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke on the iconic "The Pope of Greenwich Village" (1984).

As for my favorite Rosenberg titles, they would be two back-to-back items that tend to come in under the radar - again, "The April Fools," and "Move," one of four titles that Elliott Gould made in 1970, a hip take on the era's trendy Euro filmmaking.  But more about that film later.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

still lost

Quietly haunted by Stephen Frears' affecting new film, "Philomena," I felt compelled to seek out the source material of scenarists Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's Oscar nominated screenplay - "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, a book that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been reviewed or even printed in the United States since its publication in England in 2009 by Macmillian Publishing Limited.

In the film, Judi Dench turns in an indelible performance as an Irish Catholic woman who, as a teenager, became pregnant out of wedlock and was exiled by her family to a convent run by unforgiving nuns who sold her little boy, named Anthony, to an American doctor and his wife who renamed the child Michael.  The movie is all about Philomena Lee's wrenching search for her son  - which includes an extended trek to the United States - with the help of Sixsmith, played by Coogan himself.

It's a story that's difficult to shake, but it's not even remotely close to what Sixsmith originally wrote, which is much more powerful.  Actually, after reading "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," I wondered why Frears and company didn't bother to film it.  As the title of Sixsmith's book makes clear, his story is all about the son; Philomena's story merely bookends it.

The movie, on the other hand, is the mother's story, a good portion of it fictionalized.  In fact, Philomena's trip to America - the primary story arc that drives the film - never happened.  She never traveled to America.  And in Sixsmith's book, the author serves as narrator, not as a major character as Coogan, in a strange form of vanity, has cast him.  The major thrust of Anthony/Michael's sad life has been reduced to a few expository facts that Coogan and Pope sprinkle throughout the dialogue shared by Philomena and Sixsmith during the film's made-up road trip.

So exactly who decided to take this approach - Frears or Coogan?  And why?  Independently, "Philomena" remains a wonderful film, but there's little denying that the son's story is much more provocative and tragic than the mother's. And did the Academy voters who opted to nominate the film in the Best Adapted Screenplay category even bother to read the book?

I ask because it really isn't an adaptation at all.

Note in Passing: For its Penguin Books tie-in with the movie's release, Sixsmith's book has been retitled "Philomena: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search."

Monday, January 13, 2014

indelible moment: John Huston's "The Misfits"

"Horse killers! Killers! Murderers!

"You're liars! All of you, liars!

"You're only happy when you can see something die!

"Why don't you kill yourselves and be happy?!

"You and your God's country! Freedom! I pity you! You're three dear, sweet, dead men!

"Butchers! Murderers!

"I pity you! You're three dead men!"

-Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn, a lonely, stricken divorcée begging three modern cowboys - played by Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach - not to trap wild horses for dog food  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Jonze's "her" / connection: "Harold & Maude"

Credit: Rick Howard Company LLC/Warner Bros. Pictures 

Spike Jonze’s singular “her” is a woozy fantasy/nightmare in which an isolated, seemingly computer-generated voice named Samantha seduces a mild-mannered Joaquin Phoenix, taking over his life in much the same unhurried, insidious way that the system HAL ruthlessly overwhelms the two astronauts in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).

Shot in Los Angeles (but abetted by Shanghai to give it a futuristic look), "her" also has its way with its audience, thanks to the pervasive sunniness caught by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the hallucinatory soft pastel colors favored by the film's invaluable visual design team.  That would be production designer K.K. Barrett, art director Austin Gorg, set decorator Gene Serdena and particularly Casey Storm, Jonze's house costume designer who has dressed the cast in cutting-edge fashions.

The look of this film goes way beyond trendy.

So does its plot, even though, in many ways, it recalls Hal Ashby's equally iconoclastic romance, "Harold & Maude" (1971), in its offbeat, oddball consideration of what constitutes attraction and love. 

Much like Bud Cort's Harold Chasen, Phoenix's Theodore Twombly is  "poetically melancholic" (as ideally put by Manhola Dargis in her New York Times review), rather blissfully nursing the pangs of a broken marriage (to Rooney Mara) while expressing his hurt through the swoony "personal" letters that he writes for other people in his curious professional life for, yes, an on-line service called BeautifuHandwrittenLetters.com.

Holed up in a spacious, handsome apartment, minimally decorated, and with a best friend (Amy Adams) who makes nifty animations and documentaries, Theodore is decidedly cut off from reality by privilege.

Enter Samantha, the self-named Operating System made for someone who is clearly as acquisitive as Theodore.  It's his latest toy. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha and her contribution to the film is crucial because as she speaks, we imagine Johansson and better appreciate her seduction of Theodore and how he can be so easily bewitched. 

Just as scenarist Colin Higgins made the noncomformist relationship of Harold and Maude palatable, Jonze brings a natural charm to the atypical courtship here, as Samantha makes herself invaluable to Theodore, tidying up the events in his life and then acting as matchmaker for her lovelorn employer before taking things even further, romantically and emotionally.

"her" is "Harold and Maude" for Millennials.

Much has been written/said about Robert Redford's solo turn in "All Is Lost," but far too little to date about Phoenix's veritable one-man-show here.  In retrospect, Redford had it easy; Phoenix, on the other hand, has dialogue, and plenty of it, that he essentially speaks into air, but with just the right vocal inflections and facial expressions.  It's a performance that must have taken a lot of focused concentration and imagination.  The actor and the character are a perfect fit.  Phoenix has nurtured a persona of strangeness for years now - bugginess is his norm - and Jonze shrewdly showcases/exploits/capitalizes on it. Bottom line: He's incredible.

One of the treats of "her" is the uncredited vocal support that dots the film.  Bill Hader and Brian Cox provide two of the voices, but the funniest bits come from Jonze himself, who does the voice of a foul-mouthed alien child in a video game that Theodore plays, and Kristin Wiig, who plays a computer-sex date who wants Theodore to strangle her with a dead cat.

Don't ask.

Just see the movie.  It's marginal, yes.  It's a little freaky, maybe.

But those are reasons to go.

Note in Passing: Hal Ashby has been credited with being their inspiration by such filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne.  By all appearances, Jonze is part of that crowd.  There are moments in his film that seem to quote "Harold & Maude," such as the movie's fade-out scene which is identical to the moment from "Harold & Maude" below.
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Wells' "August: Osage County" / connection: Mike Nichols' "Who Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" plus Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire"

There was only one way for John Wells to direct Tracy Letts’ iconic, imposing 2007 play “August: Osage County” – it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony – and that was head-on, much in the same way that Elia Kazan and Mike Nichols handled their respective films of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). These are all seminal works in which stylized, outsized acting is not just the norm, it's a requirement.

In some ways, it's a show-biz tradition that Wells and company honor and continue.

Theatergoers have traditionally understood and appreciated the "affront" of over-the-top, passionate performances - as did moviegoers in the 1950s and '60s. Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for chewing the scenery in "Virginia Woolfe," deliciously so, and Marlon Brandon's performance in "Streetcar" (perhaps now seen as a caricature) set the standard for method (read: unnaturalistic) acting.  Even while those performances and those films are still considered "classic," matters are different today, given that moviegoers and critics alike are more cynical and less adventurous - and less likely to recognize a modern-day equivalent. They may fancy themselves educated and sophisticated when they really aren't.

"August: Osage County" is a willfully old-fashioned, flamboyant drama of rampant familial dysfunction that rather effortlessly melds the expected "power" of such a piece with some uncharacteristic subtlety and modesty.  It is not an accident that it's most powerful moments are not those of domestic terrors spoken with a roar but those murmured in hushed tones. It was planned that way by Letts who did his own exacting adaptation.

Letts, who also moonlights as an actor, apparently has an affinity for such incendiary material:  Going full circe, he played George in the recent lauded Broadway revival of Albee's "Virginia Woolf," directed by Pam MacKinnon and for which Letts won the Tony for Best Actor (2012).

The plot for "August: Osage County" is undisguised, naked in fact.  An unexpected death, a suicide, is the motivation for an unwelcomed family reunion among the Weston clan of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, also euphemistically known as The Plains - the cancer-ridden, drug-addled Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) and her three damaged daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis).

There are  husbands and boyfriends, but they don't really count.  This is a hellish matriarchy that thrives on equal parts of denial and confrontation.  Spiking this homemade stew with some whiskey is Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), whose husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), a decent man woefully aware of the disrepair at hand, is the lone voice of reason.

The film's bravura centerpiece, as on stage, is a contentious family dinner that ends with Barbara literally lunging at Violet, physically attacking her and making it clear exactly who's in charge now.  The moment, a showstopper, shocks even Barbara who, wrestling with the prospect of losing her unfaithful husband (Ewan McGregor), now realizes that she is quickly turning into her mother - hardened, bitter and unforgiving.

Barbara is startled and appalled by what's happened to her.

There's a lot of grand acting in "August: Osage County," but the film belongs to Roberts who, in arguably her best performance ever, manages to evoke both pity and terror.  Taking a risk that few actresses her age would even consider, Roberts makes her angry misery visible.  There's no dazzling smile here.  She plays a woman who thought she escaped Pawkuska, failed in that escape (namely, her marriage) and now, forced to return, finds that it's not a matter of her being sucked back into the craziness but that she never really left. This is a major performance.

The nominal star of the film's impressive ensemble is, of course, Streep and like Taylor in "Virginia Woolf" and every other actress who has played Violet on stage, she's there to tear into Letts' choice script as if it's raw meat and she's been starving.  She plays, as they say, to the last row in the balcony, as befitting the material, but pro that she is, Streep knows when to pull back and act with just her eyes, which define her Violet.  She may have a wicked mouth, but there's constant fear in her eyes.

Also memorable are Nicholson in a quiet, affecting turn as Ivy, and the ever-reliable Martindale who, in another movieland scenario, would have played Violet.  But she makes a potent Mattie Fae, who can go from being warm and fuzzy to being a bully, scarily so, and makes the transition in a way that you cannot catch her "acting."  Her chemistry with Streep is effortless; they are sisters - in all their weaknesses and failures.

Note in Passing:  "August: Osage County" has opened to largely positive reviews, although there are those few who don't "get" the film's histrionics.  (Hey, that's the point, guys.)  More curious are those who have made the point of noting (perhaps bragging) that they never bothered to see the play.  Why?  What's the purpose? Perhaps an unconscious attempt to diminish the play's not inconsiderable reputation?

This proclivity brings to mind those hunters who relish the accomplishment of bringing down elephants.  It gives them a sense of prowess. Here, it's a way to minimize the play's laurels, not to mention the film's intimidating cast, while also elevating oneself. Having been one longer than it's reasonably healthy to be, I recognize that critics prefer films that need their support. "August: Osage County" clearly doesn't fall into that camp.
Credit: Claire Folger / The Weinstein Company