Wednesday, July 27, 2016

woody reimages billy's "the apartment" - sort of

Woody Allen conferring with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in glorious color) on "Café Society" - and 56 years earlier ... 

... Billy Wilder conferring with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (in glorious black-&-white) on "The Apartment."  The connection?

In the hugely entertaining and affectionate “Café Society,” his 52nd or 53rd  film as a director (but who's counting?), Woody Allen addresses the element that has traditionally anchored Hollywood - the Jewish moguls.

Originally from the East Coast and only fitfully transplanted to the intoxicating, night-blooming jasmine environs of Los Angeles, these men influenced (and lived vicariously through) the movies that they produced.

Driven by a dream cast of largely young, contemporary actors, “Café Society” is another cleverly-drawn ensemble original by Allen but one with a teasing touch of déjà vu, honoring an earlier film and filmmaker.

But more about that later. 

Jesse Eisenberg (in the requisite Allen role) plays Bobby Dorfman, a nebbish who leaves the Bronx for the land of Oz.  That would be 1930s Hollywood, where his uncle, Phil Stern - played by the chameleon Steve Carell - is an agent-cum-producer who drops the names of stars like Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, and may even hang out with them.

Phil, his mother's brother, makes Bobby his gofer and puts him in the hands of his assistant, Vonnie (short for Veronica) - the ever-remarkable Kristen Stewart who looks absolutely fabulous in her vintage wardrobe (by Suzy Benzinger) and demonstrates the best slouch since Joan Crawford.

This is where Allen stops and, in a major plot point, pays homage to ... Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."  In Wilder's 1960 film, Jack Lemmon develops a crush on Shirley MacLaine, unaware that she is having an affair with his married boss, Fred MacMurray.  Here, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, unaware that her character is having an affair with his married uncle.

In "The Apartment," a cracked mirror in a compact exposes the affair.  In “Café Society," it's a piece of memorabilia - a love letter from Rudolph Valentino that Vonnie has given to Phil on the anniversary of their affair.

Like Lemmon's C.C. Baxter in "The Apartment," Bobby is devastated by his discovery but, unlike Lemmon's character, he elects to move on - and back to New York. This is one time when Woody Allen is actually more cynical than Billy Wilder:  Allen lets the philanderer get the girl.

Not surprisingly, like the Wilder film, “Café Society's" denouement takes place on New Year's Eve. What comes in-between Bobby's discovery and Allen's finale is what distinguishes “Café Society" from "The Apartment."

Another woman - another Veronica - comes into Bobby's life, and she and Bobby's criminal brother guide the film's Act Two, now ensconced in New York, away from the Wilder movie and back to Woody territory.

Blake Lively, every inch a Movie Star here (the critic Richard Brody has astutely commented that she is "perhaps the great melodramatic actress of the current time"), plays the new Veronica, a gorgeous divorcée who is a bit more seasoned than Vonnie and sees something in Bobby that Vonnie perhaps willfully disregarded. They marry and Bobby goes on to run a Bronx nightclub (called Café Society, after the famed Greenwich Village spot) for his brother Ben (a thug gleefully played by Corey Stoll, who is quickly establishing himself as the era's most versatile character actor).

Other cast members that make “Café Society" a most companionable film include Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby and Ben's hilariously stereotypical parents; Sari Lennick as their sister Evelyn and Stephen Kunken as her husband, Leonard; Parker Posey and Paul Schneider as a couple of New York swells who take a liking to Bobby (and set him up with the second Veronica); Anna Camp as an unlucky prostitute, and Sheryl Lee as Phil Stern's wife.  There isn't a single misstep among this cast.

 Note in Passsing: “Café Society" isn't the first film to honor "The Apartment." Amy Heckerling's ”Loser” got there first back in 2000.

Stewart plays Shirley MacLaine to Eisenberg's Jack Lemmon.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" (1975)

20th Century-Fox's "Lucky Lady" (1975) seemed to have everything going for it. A script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of "American Graffiti" (1973) fame, a legendary director (Stanely Donen) and a cast including one major box-office draw (that would be Burt Reynolds), a respected actor (Gene Hackman in an atypical comedy role) and the era's resident lovable kook (Liza Minnelli, newly Oscared at the time).

It was to be Fox's B.H.E. - Big Holiday Entertainment. (It was a Christmas release.) But it turned out to be Fox's Big Holiday Embarrassment.

What went wrong? The plot - about a trio of unlikely rum-runners (Burt, Gene and Liza) - sounded like it could be a pleasing romp, particularly with that cast. Plus Huyck-Katz added the titilation of Minnelli going back and forth between Reynolds and Hackman, romantically, with coy hints of ménage à trois doings (coy enough to avoid an R rating, natch).

Actually, now that I think about it, none of this sounds very good at all. In performance, the film is forced, with everyone pretending to have a blast and Minnelli, in particular, irritating in her trademarked giggly/jittery way.

Two additional endings were filmed when Fox became understandably anxious over the original in which the film takes a jarringly tragic turn with Hackman and Reynolds ending up dead and Minnelli ending up alone.

In the early 1980s, the Fox syndicated self-promotional show, "That's Hollywood," included this footage in an episode on outtakes.

The sequence is haunting and painterly as Hackman and Reynolds are gunned down on a beach, with the waves pushing their dead bodies towards a traumatized, immobolized Minnelli who walks, zombie-like, towards the shore.

It's a sobering, fatalistic moment but one has to ask what it had to do with what preceded it. What on earth were Donen, Huyck and Katz thinking? Not surprisingly, Fox (which presumably approved the original script) demanded a happy ending. Donen shot two - one in which the three characters are still together in old age (see out-of-focus photo below) and the one which went into the release print, where everything turns out rosy and the implied ménage à trois continues uninterrupted. The End.

Hackman came through the ordeal essentially unscathed, while the ever productive Reynolds didn't have a care in the world as he had churned out three other titles that year (John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," Peter Bogdanovich's ”At Long Last Love” and Robert Aldrich's "Hustle"). He operated as an old-style studio star.

But the film effectively ended the film careers of Donen, Minnelli and Huyck and Katz, who would go on to write a negligible sequel to "American Graffiti" and the notorious "Howard the Duck" (1986).

"Lucky Lady," reportedly never released on any home entertainment format, had disappeared until the Fox Movie Channel started airing it (and in wide screen, no less) when it was still screening vintage titles from the Fox library.

Not a good film but, for some bizarre reason, worth catching. If you can.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

façade: George Roy Hill

The unfairly neglected George Roy Hill (1921-2002)

George Roy Hill made 14 major films in about 25 years before retiring in 1988 to teach his craft at Yale, and from where I sit, there isn't really one embarrassment among them. Wait! I take that back: There's ”Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a film that I dislike to the point of irrationality.

He was an active force in New York during the 1950s, directing both plays and live TV dramas, including among other titles, the original Playhouse 90 production of Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1959 (wherein Maximilian Schell played the same role that would inevitably win him an Oscar two years later for the 1961 Stanley Kramer film version).

Hill directed the original stage production of the Tennessee Williams comedy, "Period of Adjustment," and when MGM made it into a movie in 1962, Hill was part of the package, guiding star Jane Fonda through one of her most charming performances. He followed this directorial debut with another filmed play, Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," made a year later and starring Dean martin, Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller.

His third film was the very charming and very urbane 1964 Peter Sellers lark, "The World of Henry Orient," which Hill would also direct as a terrific Broadway musical, titled "Henry, Sweet Henry," in 1967. Two films with Julie Andrews followed in 1966 and '67, both roadshow attractions - "Hawaii" and the dreaded "Thoroughly Modern Millie," respectively.

Then came "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"in 1969.  It was his sixth film, it was topped by two genuine movie stars - you know, Newman and Redford - and it was a huge hit.

From that point on, Hill helmed a pleasingly eclectic selection of titles, including "A Little Romance" (1979), the Laurence Olivier/Diane Lane trifle, and Diane Keaton's "Little Drummer Girl" (1984).

"Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972) and "The World According to Garp" (1982), arguably, his two best films, followed and then he reunited with "Cassidy/Sundance" stars - you know, Paul and Robert - for the Oscar-winning "The Sting" (1973), himself taking the best director award that year.

And he would subsequently also direct Bob in "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975) and Paul in "Slap Shot" (1977), both fine, sturdy films.

His last film was "The Funny Farm," with Chevy Chase, made in 1988. Hill died from complications from Parkinson's disease in 2002, at the age 81.  He is much-missed and way too under-appreciated.

Friday, July 01, 2016

effortless grace

a face that exudes natural warmth

She's been alive 100 years, as of today, and worked in film for approximately 50 of those years. Born in Tokyo, she is best known ... as Melanie Hamilton in the iconic "Gone With the Wind," as Errol Flynn's most frequent leading lady, as an Oscar winner for "To Each His Own" and "The Heiress," as James Caan's victim in "Lady in a Cage," as Bette Davis' victimizer in "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," as Yvette Mimieux's nurturing mother in "Light in the Piazza," as the wife of Paris Match editor Pierre Galante and as the older sister of Joan Fontaine (1917-2013), from whom she was reportedly estranged for most of their adult lives, a situation which apparently can be traced back to 1941 when both competed in the same Oscar category - best actress - and Joan won.

Olivia DeHavilland.  Livvie, to her friends.

credit: Vienna's Classic Hollywood