Sunday, June 28, 2015

indelible moment: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) is a musical comedy with the accent on comedy, thanks largely to the skills of Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn and the child actor George "Foghorn" Winslow.

Cast as a millionaire named Henry Spofford III who's much younger than Monroe's golddigging Lorelei Lee had expected, the seven-year-old, preternaturally deep-voiced Winslow effectively steals the two shipboard scenes he shares with Monroe.  The second scene is a comic encounter with Monroe hilariously stuck in a porthole and in desperate need of help.

Their banter:

Henry: "Hello."
Lorelei: "Oh, Mr Spofford. Would you please give me a hand? I'm sort of stuck!"
Henry: "Are you a burglar?"
Lorelei: "Heaven's no! The steward locked me in. I was waiting for a friend."
Henry: "Why didn't you ring for him?"
Lorelei: "I didn't think of it. Isn't that silly?"
Henry: "If you were a burglar, and I helped you escape..."
Lorelei: "Please help me before somebody comes along."
Henry: "I'm thinking. All right. I'll help you. I'll help you for two reasons."
Lorelei: "Never mind the reasons. Just help me."
Henry: "The first reason is I'm too young to be sent to jail. The second reason is you got a lot of animal magnetism."

Winslow died two weeks ago - on June 13 - at age 69.  According to the obit by William Grimes in  The New York Times, Winslow was discovered by Cary Grant who had him cast in his first film, Norman Taurog's "Room for One More" (1952).

This unusual, memorable little boy worked in film for only six years, until 1958, and made a scant 10 features. He claimed that never enjoyed acting.

But audiences certainly enjoyed Foghorn.

Monday, June 22, 2015

inside out/uʍop ǝpᴉsdn

"Inside Out" is something of a crash course in the development and working of the human brain, specifically the evolving brain of a child and, for the sake of simplicity, its focus is limited to only five emotions - joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust - that may dictate the child's given mood.

It has the soothing feel of one parent (the filmmaker) reassuring other parents (his target audience) that it's perfectly fine for their children to experience sadness - and, by extension, for everyone to feel sad occasionally, children and adults alike.  Being sad, in fact, can be constructive. Given the unfortunate societal trend of expected instant gratification, this bit of wisdom is much-needed, if not necessarily new.

But it's a long slog before this message becomes clear.  Much of the film is about the custody battle for sole dominion of a child named Riley fought by two emotions, personified as adorable cartoon creatures  - Joy, a text-book control freak, and Sadness, a text-book passive aggressive.

Joy, who flat-out states, "I just want Riley to be happy," initially has the audience on her side, but when the two warring emotions are sidelined away from the control panel that motivates Riley's swinging moods and they have to find a way to get back (in road film fashion), it is Sadness who saves the day. Riley's problem, see, is that her parents moved her from her birthplace to San Francisco and she learns it's perfectly fine to mourn the change and cry over her loss. She feels better when she does.

"Inside Out" and its championing of sadness would make more sense if Riley's parents spent most of the film trying to cheer her up and nudge her towards forced fun, insisting on happiness.  But they never do that.  Her father is preoccupied with work-related problems and her mom is distracted because the truck carrying all their furniture hasn't arrived.

There would be a point to the film if Riley's folks were like other modern parents who are obsessed with their children being happy all the time.

But more problematic is that the movie's concept and its execution don't match.  The film is clearly speaking to an adult audience with dialogue that incorporates a veritable glossary of  psychological jargon ("core memories," "abstract thought" and more).  It's very clever and glib, particularly when Joy comes upon a board game whose individual pieces read either "fact" or "opinion" and she quips, "I don't see the difference."

But, visually, especially the way the control-room emotions are drawn in bright primary and pastel colors (and those emotions do dominate the film), "Inside Out" looks like something packaged for pre-school children.

Much like Joy and Sadness, these two factions are at war with each other.

Note in Passing: "Inside Out" opens with an on-screen introduction by one of its makers, Pete Docter, who lauds the audience for being there and for supporting movies which are so important to life.  The conceit is a tad condescending and self-important and I thought to myself, "Uh-oh!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"caddyshack" (still) rules!

happy 35th anniversary to bill murray, the gopher and company

This curious email came in from

 "I remember your review of Caddy shack in the daily news 35 yrs ago trashing it. Calling men's room humor and giving it 1 star. Then at the end of the year (after all the success) you said it was one of your best movies of the year. If you're going to trash a movie. Have the guts to stick by your review. I've never respected your reviews ever since.  I am and always been a Caddy shack fan."  Sent from my iPhone

That would be incorrect.  I don't know about a movie titled "Caddy shack."  I did see - and appreciate - a Harold Ramis' looney-tune masterpiece from 1980 called "Caddyshack."  However, I did not award it one star.  Actually, I gave it no stars - because, at that time, the zippy Philadelphia tabloid where I reviewed didn't have a star system in place.

Still, it's a kick to know that, after all these years, I can still rankle people.

Even if it's incidental.

my review / click on image to enlarge and read  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

the last movie musical

Good news.  The recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release of Michael Ritchie's "The Fantasticks" includes not only the truncated 86-minute release version of the movie musical but also Ritchie's original 109-minutes cut, as edited by William Scharf, in standard definition. And it's terrific.

Twenty years later, we can see now see Ritchie's vision - an immaculate film most likely doomed because of its loving fidelity to the original Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt 1960 stage production.  The landmark musical started life as a small off-Broadway effort that subsequently ran for a whopping 17,162 performances - that's 42 record-breaking years.

Ritchie kept matters intimate, despite his film's open-air settings, and even though movie musicals had virtually no audience interest in 1995, the filmmaker probably thought - and rightfully so - that those 42 years in New York meant that the show had an obsessively loyal following.

But those people (plus those who had performed the show in school and in community productions) never got a chance to see the film. United Artists test-screened "The Fantasticks" for audiences no longer familiar with film musicals.  The scores were predictably low, the film was shelved.

For five years.

MGM Home Entertainment was preparing a direct-to-video release of Ritchie's cut in 2000 when Francis Ford Coppola reportedly stepped forward and offered to re-edit the film for a theatrical release.

Twenty-three minutes were taken out of "The Fantasticks" and it was given a "limited release" in only four markets - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.  The film played a week and then went away until it materialized on home entertainment in Coppola's cut, not Ritchie's.

Ritchie supported Coppola's cut. He died in 2001. "The Fantasticks" was not his last movie, as widely reported. (That would be "A Simple Wish" in 1997.)  Now it's 2015. Twenty long years have passed and Ritchie is gone but "The Fantasticks" has somehow, miraculously, survived. The fastidious attention that Michael Ritchie devoted his movie is, well, humbling.

His film is not an adaptation of "The Fantasticks."  It is "The Fantasticks."  Ritchie retained the show's original graphic (as seen in the frame from the opening credits above), as well as the show's overture - arguably the second most famous musical overture after Jules Styne's "Gypsy."

Now, about the Coppola cut... It is just another example of what studios traditionally have done when confronted with tightening movie musicals.  For some bizarre reason, the customary mentality has always been to trim the very elements that define a musical - the songs.  In the case of "The Fantasticks," some songs were routinely trimmed, while two were cut altogether - "Plant a Radish" and, unbelievably, the opening rendition of the show's most emblematic song, the achingly beautiful "Try to Remember." (That's Jonathon Morris pictured above singing the song).

It's ironic that when it comes to his own films, Coppola adds footage (see "Apocalypse Now Redux"), but then it's unclear if Coppola personally re-edited "The Fantasticks" himself (see Note in Passing below).

That said, many thanks to Craig Spaulding, Ed Dennis and their gang at Twilight Time for believing in Ritchie's film and presenting its Blu-ray incarnation as something of an event - a circumstance that I could have never imagined. And thanks to Julie Kirgo for astute liner notes that express thoughts about the film that the critics missed.  And the topping, of course, is the privileged experience of seeing Ritchie's original cut - a straightforward, no-frills, no-nonsense, old-fashioned movie musical.

This is not a modern aberration, along the lines of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge."  No, it's a real musical. The last real movie musical.
Ritchie's cast assembled for a curtain call
An element that's available on the MGM Home Entertainment DVD of the film, but not included on the new Blu-ray, is a rough filming of "It Depends on What You Pay (The Rape Song)" as written for the original '60 stage production of "The Fantasticks."  The roughness is evident in the frame pictured above.  Ritchie must have filmed it as a test or perhaps a favor to the composers.  The song was eventually re-filmed and used in the movie but as "The Seduction Song," reworked by Jones and Schmidt.
Note in Passing: Much was made about Francis Ford Coppola being brought in and using his American Zoetrope facilities to re-edit the film, reducing it from 109 minutes to 86 minutes.  But an end title on the release version of "The Fantasticks" credits Melissa Kent with the "additional editing."  Hmmm.  That title card, incidentally, replaced one in the end credits of the Ritchie version that announced that the film's soundtrack album would be available on Telrac Records.

Of course, a soundtrack album never materialized.

Finally, The Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a one-hour adaptation of "The Fantasticks" in 1964, starring Ricardo Montalban as El Greco, Stanely Holloway and Bert Lahr as the fathers, John Davidson as Matt and Susan Watson as Luisa. Watson, who created the role of Kim MacAfee in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie," created the role in the inaugural Barnard College production of "The Fantasticks."

Monday, June 08, 2015

perfect little movies

Apparently, although it's still young, the summer movie season isn't quit good enough for Hollywood. I mean, the powers who run the movie industry have noted that "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has amassed only $438 million domestically, far short of its predecessor's $623 million. 


Maybe the problem is that modern movies just that aren't good enough. To generalize, most of them are trivial and yet extremely bloated. 

The studios have yet to learn that, sometimes, smaller is better.  Case in point: The current breed of television commercials.  They might not have the gravitas of something presented on an IMAX screen but they're light and engaging in a way that evades modern movies.  And some are compulsively watchable.  Three come to mind - the 30-second ads for State Farm Insurance, Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner and Progressive Insurance, the latter repped by the incorrigible Flo, memorably played each time by comedienne Stephanie Courtney (left).

Few current comedies are as well-written, well-directed or well-acted as State Farm's witty "State of Unrest" (aka, "Jake from State Farm") ad, starring Justin Campbell as an innocent husband, Melanie Paxson as his supicious wife and Jake Stone, who actually works for State Farm.

The tightly-plotted ad opens with Campbell, dressed in pajamas and in his living room, on the phone with Jake, talking insurance.  It's three in the morning when Paxson barges unexpectedly into the room, thinking her husband is talking to another woman. And she's determined to find out.

Matters do sound fishy. Here it is:

Campbell (talking on the phone): "Yeah, I’m married. Does it matter? You’d do that for me? Really? Yeah, I’d like that."

Paxson (bargng in): "Who you talking to?!"

Campbell: "Uh, it’s Jake, from State Farm."  (getting back to Jake) "Sounds like a really good deal."

Paxson: "Jake from State Farm at 3 in the morning?" (grabs the phone from her husband) "Who is this?!"

Campbell: "It’s Jake ... From State Farm"

Paxson: "What are you wearing (making an air quote with her free hand) 'Jake from State Farm'?"

Jake (sitting in the State Farm customer service call center): "Uh, Khakis."

Paxson (to husband): "She sounds hideous!"

Campbell: "Well, she’s a guy, so..."

The commercial ends with an announcer stating, "Another reason why more people stay with State Farm. Get to a better state."

It's a gem - and an effective one, given that State Farm is mentioned four times in 30 seconds. And the timing of Paxson and Campbell is flawless.

Note in Passing: Melanie Paxson, who trained with Second City and performed with the Steppenwolf Theater troupe, previously acted under the name Melanie Deanne Moore.  She is married to Andy Paxson.

The Progressive ads, meanwhile, have turned Flo/Courtney into a minor icon. There's a new one seemingly every week and each one has been singular.  Arguably the best is the one modeled after an "After School Special," with Flo comforting an Progressive rep who didn't make a sale and tries to cheer him up by offering to buy him an ice cream cone.

"With sprinkles?," the guy asks.

Without missing a beat, Flo responds, matter-of-factly: "Sprinkles are for winners." Courtney's dry delivery is perfect.

Finally, there's the adorable Scrubbing Bubbles ad, titled "Behind Closed Bathroom Doors," with two little sisters washing a small, filthy stray dog in the family bathtub.  "He's so cute!," they squeal about the pathetic little creature which looks remotely like a drenched gremlin.

When their parents hear the commotion in the bathroom and come in, the two girls plead in unison, "Can we keep him? ... Ple-e-e-se?"

A nice touch: the dad lets out a small scream when he sees the dog.

Or the mess.

Monday, June 01, 2015

getting it right

  credit © 2015 Kevin Lynch Inc.
Kelli Garner, focused and uncanny, as Marilyn

Traditionally, the bio-pic has been a tricky bit of filmmaking business.

It's a very a delicate balance. When the casting is on target, the genre works.  But those occasions have been extremely rare.  Extremely. More often, the bio-pic simply doesn't work, the casting being the key problem.

The Lifetime channel's recent telecast of "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe," based on the book by J. Randy Taraborrelli, is an excellent example of a rare case where the bio-pic worked because director Laurie Collyer (of the Maggie Gyllenhaal indie, "Sherrybaby") kept the focus tight and her narrative, despite its three-hour-plus running time, nicely lean.

And a terrific actress was cast - make that well-cast - in the lead role.

Monroe's life is hardly a secret by now, but Collyer and her scenarist Stephen Kronish (of "24") zeroed in on the fact that Marilyn's tragically mentally-ill mother was very much alive during her daughter's spectacular ascendance to stardom. The publicity mill of 20th Century-Fox, the studio that made (and later abused) Monroe, had the world believing its star was an orphan - that her mother, Gladys Monroe Mortenson, was deceased.

The fact is, Gladys outlived her doomed daughter by 22 years.

She was severely impaired and institutionalized throughout just about all of Monroe's life, and the driving force behind the film is that Marilyn and Gladys were irrevocably intertwined - that Marilyn became her mother.

Collyer lucked out with the actress who plays the title role.  Kelli Garner never stoops to an impersonation (as the wildly miscast Michelle Williams does in the unfortunate "My Week with Marilyn') but, somehow, managed to inhabit the role of Marilyn.  This young actress, who was so memorable in the indies "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Thumbsucker" and the TV series, "Pan Am," so immerses herself here that she is unrecognizable. 

And Garner's remarkable performance is abetted by Susan Sarandon's as Gladys.  The push-and-pull, love-hate dynamics of their scenes together creates a satisfying acting duet.  And serving as a sharp contrast are Garner's moments with Emily Watson, as Monroe's "Aunt" Grace - tiny moments that come with the warmth, empathy and acceptance that otherwise evaded Marilyn throughout her short, sad life.

And I appreciate the fact that Collyer largely eschewed the usual temptation of having supporting actors perform tacky impersonations of the celebrities who shared Monroe's universe.  (This conceit always seems like Halloween.) Clark Gable and John F. Kennedy are just  two examples of famous names who are referenced in the film but never shown.

Coincidentally, a week earlier, Lifetime aired an acquisition, "Grace of Monaco," a film-fete discard about the '50s film star Grace Kelly that, to put it mildly, is cinematic torture and something of an embarrassment even to watch. There's no question that Nicole Kidman was a bizarre choice to play Kelly but she wasn't entirely the problem.

Aside from being poorly cast (Tim Roth as Rainier!), the film was poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly directed.  It's a mystery why this mess was selected to open the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (so much for the credibility of film festivals) but understandable why it was booed after its premiere. Around the same time, Kidman's Aussie BFF, Naomi Watts, appeared in "Diana," a film about Princess Diana that came and went in such an inconspicuous way that no one even remembers it now.

Watts as Princess Diana?  More bizarre casting.
Playing celebs in bio-pics is Oscar catnip for actors.  Reportedly, the powers behind "Grace of Monaco" thought Kidman would be a shoo-in for the award. And some actors do pocket the gold, even if they don't quite deserve it.

Michelle Williams was nominated in 2011 for her typically somnambulant turn in "My Week with Marilyn" and Cate Blanchett actually won in 2004 for her curious take on Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator."  It's not really a great performance. But Blanchett as Hepburn - how on earth could the Oscar voters resist?

And Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, won for his 2005 caricature of the fey writer in "Capote," even though his delineation of the role is inferior to Toby Jones' Truman Capote in "Infamous" a year later.  Jones' got it right, as did Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) and Jamie Fox in "Ray" (2004), both of whom won Oscars.
Jones would outshine not only Hoffman but also Anthony Hopkins.  In 2012, both played Alfred Hitchcock in separate projects - Jones in HBO's "The Girl," which details the director's unhealthy obsession with Tippi Hedren, and Hopkins in the theatrical film, "Hitchcock," about the making of "Psycho."  Hopkins is the better-known actor but Jones is the better actor.  His Alfred Hitchcock is an acute, subtle representation of the man, while Hopkins simply makes the most of another example of a major actor who's been miscast.

Upcoming, we have "Love and Mercy" in which both Paul Dano and John Cusack play the Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson at different stages in his life.  Both are capable actors, but their casting illustrates another bio-pic issue:  They look nothing alike.

It's difficult to believe that Dano ages into Cusack or that Cusack looked like Dano when he was younger. Matching up actors who play the same role is presumably a difficult process, but Hollywood rarely takes it seriously.  However, one recent title comes to mind. "The Age of Adeline," the Blake Lively film, got it right.  Anthony Ingruber, the actor cast as the young Harrison Ford, was a perfect match-up.  He had just the right look and he mimicked Ford's vocal inflections perfectly. Well done.