Friday, February 27, 2015

character counts: roland young

character counts - This is a new recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors, addressing them by their names.  Which too few of us know, even dedicated cinéphiles. 

First up, the endearing Roland Young, who played patrician gents (often inebriated) in screwball comedies and is best known as Mr. Topper from ... "Topper," Norman Z. McLeod's 1937 hit (and its assorted sequels). 

Cosmo Topper.

Young had a beguiling smile (and smiling eyes) and, when he talked, he barely opened his mouth, so that much of what he said usually came out as a relaxed, kinda spacey mumble, as if he was conversing with himself. 

Jerry Seinfeld would defintely tag him a low talker.

Given that and his diminutive demeanor, the teeny-tiny autograph just above Young's right shoulder in the photo below is most appropriate.

My favorite Young performance?  As George, the Earl of Burnstead (yes!), in Leo McCarey's ever-wonderful "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935).

A hyper-elegant actor, a super-sophisticate.  If he were alive today, he'd be the face of Tom Ford.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

the post mortem

Photo Credit:

To paraphrase a popular line from innumerable movies, watching the Oscars is like banging your head repeatedly against a brick wall.

It feels so good when it's over.

Not surprisingly, the rating for The Oscarcast was down this year.  First, it was reported that the numbers were down by 10 percent from last year.  Then, the figure went to 14.9 percent, before ballooning to the current number, 16 percent (in some quarters, 17 percent).  Oy.

In an excellent analysis today in The New York Times, titled "Oscars Show Growing Gap Between Moviegoers and Academy," the decline is dissected and defined in thorough fashion by Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply.

The low rating is no surprise because of the films and performances in question.  It has become apparent that there's a correlation between the movies involved in the competition and the level of enthusiasm that the viewers, average moviegoers, have for those films.  This year, the buzz surrounded such titles as "Boyhood," "Whiplash" and the 2015 winner, "Birdman," films with which movie critics and die-hard cinéphiles may obsessed, but not the moviegoing public.

In point of comparison, the public was obsessed with the 1998 Oscar winner - the big-studio "Titanic." That year, the Oscarcast drew an average of 57.25 million people over its length, which was a 29% increase from the previous year when the indie, "The English Patient," dominated the show.

In recent years, as more independent filmmakers have become members of the academy, the five slots for Best Picture have become dominated by independent films.  This apparently became cause for concern because the Academy expanded the field to as many as 10 titles, so that more popular titles had a chance to vie for the top award.  But this year, there was only one popular film among the eight nominees - "American Sniper."

Not even "Interstellar," which is not only a big and popular film but an extremely thoughtful one, managed to make the grade.

The show itself, meanwhile, was so unmemorable this year that most of the dialogue has revolved around the annually problematic In Memoriam sequence.  Someone is always left out.  For some reason, everyone seems up in arms this year about the exclusion of Joan Rivers, whose handful of films included a witty cameo in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" and the comedy "Rabbit Test," which she directed.  Her other titles are negligible. Elaine Stritch, also slighted, had a similarly lightweight résumé.

There have been no complaints, however, that a real movie star - Lizabeth Scott - was conspicuously missing from this year's In Memoriam. Scott was a major fixture in several film noir classics, arguably the definitive femme fatale.  Granted, she passed in 2015 - on January 31 - but Rod Taylor, Anita Ekberg and Louis Jourdan, all of whom died after her, were included. In the scheme of things, who cares about Joan Rivers? She was a peripheral player at best.

And while we're at it, the fine director Joseph Sargent ("The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "MacArthur") was also overlooked.

Bad form. Very bad form.

Postcript:  Two readers, Beth and Charlotte, alerted me to the fact that the Academy has a complete In Memoriam photo gallery on its site.  Everyone is there - 129 names in all, alphabetized.  Joan Rivers is there.  Elaine Stritch is there. Lizabeth Scott is there.  Joe Sargent is there. So why didn't the Academy simply refer the media to its site when all the fuzz started?  An Academy spokesperson has been apologizing for the Rivers omission, saying "You can't include everyone."  Which is true. Listing 129 names would have added yet another half hour to an already unwieldy show.  But directing the curious to the Academy's site could have avoided an unnecessary misunderstanding.  Flawed communication here.  Anyway, click here for the Academy's photo/memoriam link.

Monday, February 23, 2015

cinema obscura: tom kalin's "savage grace"

It's official.

The acting royalty of the moment is the duo of Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, the current guardians of the Best Actress and Best Actor trophies - until two other privileged thespians are announced at the next Oscarcast. In 2016. Of course, they retain their gleaming gold statuettes in perpetuity. They don't have to relinquish them at the next Awards Season.

But Moore and Redmayne, both hugely talented and highly deserving of their Oscars, have a fascinating history - one that predates their award-winning acting in "Still Alice" and "The Theory of Everything," respectively.

They created something of a scandal back in 2007 when they appeared as a rather unorthodox mother and son in Tom Kalin's deliciously wicked "do-you believe-the rich-actually-behave-this-way?" opus, "Savage Grace." Never heard of it?

That's because, inexplicably, despite its pedigree, it came and went under the radar.  It would make sense if some enterprising young executive at IFC Films, which released "Savage Grace," suggested an art-house re-release. This effort by two Oscar winners deserves to be seen.

The film covers the rather unhealthy exploits of the fabulously wealthy Baekeland family - father Brooks (Stephen Dillane), who was the heir to the Baekeland plastics fortune (Brooks's grandfather invented Bakelite);  his ambitious, society-obsesssed wife Barbara (Moore), and their son Tony (Redmayne) - and traverses the years immediately following World War II up until the 1960s, flitting from New York to Paris to London.

The relationship between Brooks and Barbara is toxic, to say the least, and with that dynamic serving as something of a model, it's no surprise that the individual and shared behavior of mother and son, Barbara and Tony, is wildly dysfunctional. We're talking decadence here, as father, mother and son sleep around and with each other's paramours and with each other.  Yes, there's incest and, for good measure, murder.

Don't be put off by the expected sordidness because, with people this wealthy, entitled and privileged, "Savage Grace" is handsomely appointed and glamorous to the hilt. It's fun to slum with the filthy rich.
Photo Credits: IFC Films

Sunday, February 22, 2015


This will probably be a rant.  It's about the Oscars, after all.  But I'll try to exercise a little self-control.  Here goes...

I thought I had come up with only one reason to watch the Oscarcast tonight.  But then I realized that there are actually two - and one of them is the pleasure in watching the indefatigable host Neil Patrick Harris in action. Unless the usual excess overwhelms and numbs Harris - which would be uncharacteristic for this enterprising performer - he should shepherd his audience safely through hours of rampant narcissism, shameless self-promotion, bad jokes, arch presentations, faux humility, thinly-veiled bragging and desperate stabs at social consciousness.

The other reason?

Well, that would be to see who wins the Best Actor trophy.  There is absolutely no suspense among the other major acting nominees.

Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette will undoubtedly continue their on-going winning streaks in the Best Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, respectively. Yawn.

As for Best Picture, its history alone should help Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" nail that top slot. Or perhaps that critics' darling, Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman," will nab the big brass ring, leaving the average televiewer/moviegoer thinking, "Huh? What just happened?" 

Linklater may or may not win as Best Director, but frankly, I don't care. It seems that his achievement with this particular film had more to do with painstaking coordination than with the usual standards for direction.

That leaves Best Actor - Carell, Cooper, Cumberbatch, Keaton and Redmayne.  For months, pundits had been confidently pontificating that "It's Michael Keaton's year" - that is, until Eddie Redmayne started picking up trophies at lesser awards shows.  Then it was all over for Keaton and it became "Redmayne's year" - that is, until "American Sniper" opened Big and, forthwith, salesman Bradley Cooper was gamely all over the place.

On second thought, do I really care who wins Best Actor?  In all honesty, no.  Which brings me back to only one reason to watch Hollywood's 87th Giveaway Show. Even the most star-struck film journalist knows that the Oscar has relatively little to do with achievement (although most pretend otherwise) and that it's all about popularity in its various, mutated forms.

A person gets nominated - and wins - because (1) he/she is likeable and/or venerable, or because (2) a big studio money machine is behind that person, making sure to keep that person in your face for four months straight, or because (3) the film in which he/she is involved has been critically endorsed and is, therefore, obviously a winner - and so anyone who is even remotely associated with that film must also be a winner.

That said, here are a few unpopular, contrarian complaints, pontifications, observations and questions about this year's Oscars in particular - and the so-called "awards season" (in all its trumped-up, shameless glory) in general. Given that I no longer answer to an editor and therefore not obliged to feign interest in the event, my thoughts will be unexpurgated.

"Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)."  I've rarely been in sync with other critics but the fawning enthusiasm for Iñárritu's film really makes me feel like an outlier.  The plot about a washed-up movie actor attempting a comeback in a self-written Broadway play might have been engrossing if either the actor or his play was interesting - or if the film about them wasn't so glibly self-satisfied. Exacerbating matters is a collection of thoroughly unpleasant characters and a clanging drum score (credited to Antonio Sanchez) that's so jarring that now, whenever I see, hear, write or say the title "Birdman," I associate it with severe head pain.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel."  Wes Anderson’s fussy, all-male fantasia was also confounding. Frankly, the silly storyline about a fey concierge who claims to have had sex with the titular hotel's decrepit female patrons and is rewarded by one of them with a priceless painting (leading to a desperately unfunny chase) is made bearable only by Adam Stockhausen's remarkable production design and the three different aspect ratios employed by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman. But the brand of "charm" that permeates this film is like sweet, sticky caramel. Sorry, but Anderson's precious frat-house film is way too twee for me.

"Selma."  Going in, there were two bright Oscar promises among the attention-seeking candidates - this Ava DuVernay biopic centering on Martin Luther King's voting-rights march in 1965 and Angelina Jolie's "Unbreakable," based on Lauren Hillenbrand's huge best-seller about World War II hero Louis Zamperini.  Remarkably, Jolie's film, which earned good reviews, went absolutely nowhere in terms of awards.  Nothing.  Nada. DuVernay's movie, meanwhile, was the center of two controversies, one of which may have led to the other.  After DuVernay was the subject of unflattering opinion pieces and editorials for negating LBJ's role in the design and passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, her film managed to snag only two Oscar nominations - for Best Picture and Best Song. Overlooked were DuVernay herself for direction and her star David Oyelowo.  Hollywood racism was targeted by the supporters of "Selma."  There was no mention, however, that perhaps the Oscar snub was self-created, the result of an agenda that turned off many voters.  But, hey, a Best Picture nod ain't exactly chicken feed

"Whiplash."  Hands-down, the most ludicrous film of the year - one which positions percussion as a blood sport  - and it's weighed down by the most ludicrous character of the year, a maniacal jazz instructor straight out of "Full Metal Jacket."  Honest.  I couldn't make this stuff up.  I love that J.K. Simmons, who plays the role (and will win the Oscar), is finally receiving peer recognition but it's for a performance that simply makes no sense.

"Wild."  Just the thought of Laura Dern makes me smile.  Terrific actress.  She has nailed every role that she's played.  Never a misstep.  She's been around since the '80s and has had some really revelatory roles  ("Wild at Heart," Rambling Rose," "We Don't Live Here Anymore," "Everything Must Go" and especially HBO's "Enlightened") but her part in "Wild" isn't one of them. Again, I'm happy she's nominated but keep asking myself, "Why?"

"Foxcatcher."  When an actress, who is charming and attractive, deglamorizes herself for a serious role, the critics - mostly male - call her on it.  She'll be accused of nakedly angling for a top acting award (or, at least, some critical praise) or of being ambitious and self-promoting.  Most male critics would deny that they are sexists, but when they write stuff like this, they are - the cads.  And the fact is, one could make the same exact generalizations about anyone who sets themselves up as Oscar bait, even men.  But no one commented on Steve Carell's transparent Oscar bid as multimillionaire wrestling nut John E. du Pont in Bennett Miller's film, where he dons a huge prosthetic nose and cosmetically changes his hairline and skin tone.  Sure, Carell is convincing but who wouldn't be with that kind of help?  Carell has turned into an extraordinary film actor with a really eclectic filmography. And, from where I sit, he has been much more convincing is roles that required less showcasing ("Little Miss Sunshine," "The Way Way Back," "Crazy. Stupid. Love.," "Dan in Real Life," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and those not considered Oscar-worthy ("Dinner for Schmucks," "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and particularly "The 40-Year-Old Virgin").   He's another actor who I like - a lot - but, frankly, his turn in "Foxcatcher" has been overrated.

"Still Alice." The film itself received bad reviews, deservedly so.  It's a strange hypbrid - part Lifetime movie and part predictable Sundance/indie fare. It's a toxic combination that almost steamrolled its two great performances - from Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart. This is another "problem movie" in which the problem (in this case, Alzheimer's disease) revolves around well-heeled, entitled people. Which has become typical in indies.  Moore, of course, plays a privileged, educated woman with a cool career. She lives in a handsome Manhattan brownstone and has a beach house.  When she takes winter walks on a beach, the beach in question is an indie beach - somehow, free of other people.  (It's accompanied, of course, by one of those spare, tinkly piano scores.) She has the beach to herself so that she can contemplate the dementia that is taking over her cultured life.  When she visits a "home" that caters to Alzheimer's patients, they are all old and poor, unlike Moore's character, but the film would be more interesting - and more honest - if it was about those poor souls.

Academy Snobbery.  If the Academy is indeed steeped in racism, it doesn't surprise me.  It's been guilty of every other -ism that exists. It also becomes all hoity toity at awards time.  So, let's get back to Kristen Stewart.  Why wasn't she nominated for her performance in "Still Alice"?  She's spectacular in it, its steely center.  But, of course, the status-conscious Academy would never consider someone, however talented they are, who has become tabolid fodder and who stooped to appear in the "Twilight" franchise.  The same goes for Channing Tatum, who is the heart and soul of "Foxcatcher" and whose performance is much more impressive than either Carell's or the mannered one by mumbling Mark Ruffalo (inexplicably another nominee this year).  But, of course, the Academy would never entertain the idea of honoring Magic Mike.  The horror. Hollywood behaves as if performers like Stewart and Tatum are good enough to make money for the industry, but reward them when they excel in their roles as actors?  Never.  (And while we're at it, a long-overdue shout-out for "Nightcrawler's" Rene Russo, also slighted this year.)

OK, end of rant.

Wait!  One more thing. The year's best actor, despite who wins tonight, is actually Jake Gyllenhall (also overlooked, natch), so mesmerizing in "Nightcrawler."  To expand on that, it might be a bit anti-climatic but these are the performers most deserving of accolades/awards in 2015.

In my opinion. 
  • Jake Gyllenhall / "Nightcrawler" - Best Actor
  • Jennifer Aniston / "Cake" - Best Actress
  • Channing Tatum / "Foxcatcher" - Best Supporting Actor
  • Kristen Stewart / "Still Alice"- Best Supporting Actress   
Note in Passing: Not enough has been written about Jennifer Aniston's remarkable performance in "Cake," a fine film whose aborted box-office life seemed to be the result of a bizarre release pattern.  As a woman addicted to pain medications prescribed after an unseen accident, Aniston brought an astonishing generosity of spirit - and unexpected lightness - to a work that could have been an unrelenting downer.  There is a subtle form of humor in the film, thanks to Aniston's razon-sharp line readings and eccentric demeanor. She creates nervous laughter, but it's real. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

au revoir, m. jourdan

The dashing Louis Jourdan, who passed on Saturday - February 14 -  at the amazing age of 93, was something of an anomaly.

First case in point:  He was a classically handsome movie star who was married to the same woman for 68 years - until his beloved Berthe's death in 2014 - and there were no scandals during those nearly seven decades.

No extramarital affairs. No dalliances. No easy movie-set flirtations.

Another observation: Due to his proficiency with the English language, which he spoke fluently early on, Jourdan is a Frenchman better known for his American films (the first of which was Alfred Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case" in 1947) than for his Gallic movie career (which started in 1939 with Marc Allégret's "Le corsaire").  In fact, he had barely a hint of an accent.

More: Despite his good looks, Jourdan was rarely the dreamy leading man in his films.  Quite the contrary, he could be refreshingly petulant and irritable (as he was in Vincente Minnelli's "Gigi"), an uptight prig (Walter Lang's "Can-Can"), a heel (Jean Negulesco's "The Best of Everything," above with Suzy Parker), a psycho husband (Andrew Stone's "Julie"), a callous rake (Max Ophuls’s "Letter from an Unknown Woman") and an outright villian (John Glen's "Octopussy" and Wes Craven's "Swamp Thing" and its sequel). And he sang - unexpectedly - as he did, rather well, in both "Gigi" and "Can-Can."

But his matinee-idol status was cemented by what was indeed a dreamy-leading-man role in  Jean Negulesco's "Three Coins in a Fountain" in 1954.

Louis Jourdan was born Louis Robert Gendre in Marseille, France on June 19, 1921.  For his career, he took his mother's maiden name.  He acted in a whopping 86 movies and TV shows (again, predominantly American) and served as a soothing, unseen raconteur for an 87th - speaking the witty expository narration of Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce" (1963):

"This, then, is the story of Irma La Douce...
A story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death...
Everything, in fact, that makes life worth living." 

One fascinating fact about Jourdan's career that has been overlooked by the various obituaries and appreciations:  He was the original male lead, opposite Barbara Harris, in the 1965 Alan Jay Lerner-Barton Lane musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," playing the psychologist, Dr. Mark Bruckner, to Harris' Daisy Gambel.

He played the role during its Boston tryout at the Colonial Theatre but was replaced by John Cullum before the show reached Broadway.  His character was originally written as a Frenchman but the nationality was changed to accomodate Cullum.  However, when Vincente Minnelli filmed the musical in 1970 with Barbra Streisand (in the Harris role), the doctor was again a Frenchman - this time played by Yves Montand.

But Minnelli changed the character's name to ... Marc Chabot.

French, you know.

Note in Passing: Oddly enough, Minnelli had directed Jourdan in both "Madame Bovary" and "Gigi."  Given that, it's a bit curious that he didn't give Jourdan at second chance at "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Friday, February 06, 2015

talking heads

Marjane Satrapi's "The Voices" is a charmingly gruesome oddball film with a charmingly unstable oddball hero.  Jerry (a remarkable Ryan Reynolds) has been on the mend, mentally, and disenfranchised ever since an ugly childhood event in which he was only peripherally involved but that left him with a damaged reputation. His Wonder Years were hell in general.

Jerry's stunted and his overall sense of dislocation has brought him to Anywhere, U.S.A. where he works for Milton International, a bathtub factory.  He lives in the curiously solitary apartment above the abandoned Mellow Lanes bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers, both of whom speak to Jerry in distinct voices (provided by Reynolds himself). Bosco, a kind soul, has a good-old-boy country drawl, while the snide, foul-mouthed Mr. Whiskers talks with, improbably, a Scottish brogue.

Jerry also talks, once a week, to his psychoanalyst Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), whose one mission is to keep Jerry on his meds - so he won't hear voices.  Actually, it's because of the meds that he thinks Bosco and Mr. Whiskers are talking to him.  Anyway, Mr. Whiskers, a brilliant provocateur, coerces Jerry to date and kill a few of the young women in the accounting department of Milton.  (The ladies unlucky in love are gamely played by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Ella Smith.)

Yes, Jerry becomes a serial killer.

Well, to be precise, he becomes a serial decapitator. He stores the women's heads in the refrigerator in his little apartment, chatting with them (they talk back, too) and feeding them cereal. "The Voices" is clearly an acquired taste (to put it mildly), hardly easy to recommend, but I absolutely adored it.

Satrapi, who wrote the graphic novel "Persepolis" and co-directed its 2007 film version with Vincent Paronnaud, is apparently drawn to stories of exile and dislocation which have the potential to be dispiriting. But she offsets this unpopular passion with her appreciation and use of pop-art primary colors and kitschy production design and "The Voices" fairly snaps visually.

Reynolds, who has broken away from the Hollywood mold since "Green Lantern" (Atom Egoyan's The Captive" and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Mississippi Grind"), is totally in concert with Satrapi's vision here.

His performance is immersive and fully committed, at once funny, affecting and frightening.

Together, Satrapi and her star refuse to honor audience expectations, to the point that "The Voices" closes with a nifty production number in which the entire cast sings and dances - to a ditty titled "Sing a Happy Song" (!).

Again, oddball.

"The Voices" isn't receiving a wide release.  No surprise here.  Or even a reasonably limited release.  (Full disclosure: I saw it On Demand.)

What's surprising - and heartening - is that it got made in the first place.

Photo Credits: Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate  © 2014 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

indelible moment: Aldrich's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

"You mean, all this time we coulda been ... friends?"
-Baby Jane Hudson to her sister Blanche, dying on a Santa Monica beach.