Sunday, February 26, 2017


Credit: Van Redin/Twentieth Century-Fox 2006 ©

Terry Crews and Luke Wilson in Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" (2006)

About a month ago, I re-published a 2008 essay here on the sudden relevance of Mike Judge's 2006 comedy, "Idiocracy." It turns out that great minds think alike. In today's New York Times, Andy Webster profiles Judges' film for a series of upcoming screenings in New York this week:

"If ever an era was in dire need of pointed commentary and point-blank humor, it is our fractious present. So hail the IFC Center for the series Autocratic for the People: An Unpresidented Series of Star-Spangled Satires. And for Mike Judge’s crude but prescient 'Idiocracy' (2006), playing Friday, March 3, through Sunday, which nails our media-addled-and-addicted culture with a precision often inducing queasiness

"Luke Wilson plays a G.I. who, with Maya Rudolph, submits to a cryogenic experiment that goes wrong. He awakens in 2505, in a society where the intellectual elite have stopped reproducing, leaving the country in a putrefying trash heap (with actual mountains of garbage) of ubiquitous corporate branding and monster-truck competitions, where spoken language consists of “hillbilly, Valley-girl, inner-city slang and various grunts,” and narcotized couch potatoes sit in armchairs with built-in toilet seats. The president (Terry Crews)? He’s a porn star and Ultimate Smackdown champion. Get the picture?"

Apparently, the comparison was not lost on Judge who was reportedly planning "Idiocracy"- inspired  anti-Trump ads during last fall's campaign marathon. I've no idea if he ever went through with the idea. My hunch is that if they ever did materialize, they would have gained attention for adding even more heat to an already incendiary election season.

* * * * * *

Originally, for decades it was only the Oscars - until the Oscars became the host for a endless stream of parasites, most prominently the Golden Globes.  And then there was another year-end movie award to be doled out and another and another and still another.  The crafty, opportunistic ones managed to snag a televised show on which to hand out awards.

And Hollywood and its denizens couldn't get enough of either the awards (no matter how cheesy) or the telecasts that market them.  It was sickly symbiotic: An insatiable star could collect an armful of trophies, while the members of the assorted awards-producing groups got to hang with the film's A-list attention addicts, maybe even be photographed with a few.


Naming The Most Embarrassing Movie Award Show is way more difficult than predicting the Oscars (duck soup), given that they're all shameful. But the most offensive for me is The Independent Spirit Awards telecast.

For some reason, this show brings out celebrities' worst insecure need to be "cool" in a way that makes high school kids seem sophisticated.

"What the f***!" is the level of response that a winner is likely to invoke at the Indies. Trendy stars get on stage and horse around (forced fun!) and their attempts at being glib are excruciating to witness.  At the same time, they want to be admired as serious artists, see, because - well - they are.

* * * * * *
Speaking of indies, there are two stalwart champions of the form who continue to work on modest, fringe projects, often below the radar, seemingly eschewing traditional stardom - a rare commitment these days.

They would be Naomi Watts and Michael Fassbender.

After being nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2012 for her performance in "The Impossible," Watts has spent the last five years appearing in now fewer than 17 films. Seventeen.

She's had supporting roles in some highly estimable films ("Birdman," "Demolition" and "St. Vincent"), made a slew of independent titles ("Adore," "Sunlight Jr.," "While We're Young" and "The Sea of Trees"), appeared in two movies with Jacob Tremblay ("Shut In" and "The Book of Henry") and, for fun, did the funny but reviled "Movie 43" and a couple "Divergent" films. Upcoming are "The Glass Castle," "The Bleeder" and the delayed release of "About Ray," made in 2015 with Elle Fanning (as a transgender) and Susan Sarandon and now titled "Three Generations."

The "X-Men" films notwithstanding, Fassbender has compiled an eclectic filmography in the past few years. True, he's had high-profile roles in "Macbeth," in "Steve Jobs" and "12 Years a Slave" (both of which brought him Oscar nominations) and, most compellingly, in Ridley Scott's "The Counsellor." And he worked with Scott (again) and Steven Soderbergh on a couple mainstream oddities ("Prometheus" and "Haywire," respectively).

But then there were David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Mind" (as Carl Jung) and such tiny titles as "Frank," "Slow West," "Trespass Against Us," "Assassin's Creed" and "The Light Between Oceans." Next up: Terrence Malick's "Song to Song," an ensemble piece with Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Holly Hunter, Benicio Del Toro, Val Kilmer and Haley Bennett, and Thomas Alfredson's "The Snowman," co-starring Rebecca Ferguson and Chloë Sevigny.

* * * * * *
Speaking of Sevigny, a profile in The New York Times is a much-needed reminder of her utterly unique persona.  There is no one on the American film scene, past or present, who is remotely like Sevigny, a throwback to the jet-setting actresses of the 1960s and '70s who flourished on the international scene - Charlotte Rampling, Suzy Kendall,  Jacqueline Bissett, Catherine Spaak, Dominique Sanda, Mimsy Farmer, Catherine Deneuve, Geraldine Chaplin, Romy Schneider  and Jane Birkin. She's just that vivid.

* * * * * *
 Finally, a sad farewll to Sevigney's "Big Love" leading man, Bill Paxton, who died earlier today, reportedly from complications from heart surgery.

 He was 61.

I first encountered him in Kathryn Bigelow's vampire frolic, "Near Dark" (1987) and admired his work is so many other titles - Carl Franklin's "One False Move" (1992), Walter Hill's "Trespass" (1992), Mike Binder's "Indian Summer" (1993), Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" (1995), Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" (1998), Ron Underwood's "Mighty Joe Young," the aforementioned "Haywire" (2011) and his two films with Helen Hunt, John Irvin's "Next of Kin" (1989) and Jan DeBont's "Twister" ( 1996).

His 2001 directorial effort, "Fraility," starring Matthew McConaughey, is a brilliant thriller - one of the best, on par with Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1995).  And "Big Love," of course. Bill Paxton will be missed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

indelible moment: "South Pacific" (1958)

The scene occurs near the end of Act I in Joshua Logan's 1958 Todd-AO film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," just after Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) performs in the Thanksgiving variety show for the seabees. Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) is waiting for her backstage, talking to Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr), who will sing the concise but powerful "Carefully Taught," featuring Richard Rodgers' prescient lyric.

Nellie [To Emile]: I've been meaning to call you but...

Emile: You have asked for a transfer. Why?  What does it mean? 

Nellie: I'll explain it to you tomorrow.

Emile: No. Not tomorrow. Now. What does it mean?

Nellie: It means that I can't marry you. Do you understand? I can't marry you.

Emile: This is because of my children.

Nellie: It's not because of your children - they're sweet.

Emile: It is their Polynesian mother then - their mother and I.

Nellie: Yes. I can't help it. It isn't as if I could give you a good reason. There is no reason. This is emotional. It's something that is born in me.

Emile: It is not. I do not believe this is born in you.

Nellie: Then why do I feel the way I do? All I know is I can't help it. I can't help it!  [To Cable]  Explain how we feel!  Please, Joe!  Nellie departs 

Emile [To Cable]: What makes her talk like that? Why do you have this feeling, you and she? I do not believe it is born in you. I do not believe.

Cable: It's not born in you. It happens after you're born.

Cable sings, Emile listens

(Music No. 39 - "CAREFULLY TAUGHT")

You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too
Before you are six or seven or
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught...

You've got to be carefully taught!

Great song, arguably (and sadly) the song of the times - although I'm sure Trump would complain about the lousy melody and bad rhymes and dismiss Rodgers and Hammerstein as overrated (or, worse, liberals) and "South Pacific" as a disaster. And its status as a classic? Fake news.

Friday, February 17, 2017

boyle! garfield! avildsen!

Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield in Ritchie's "The Candidate"

For some reason, John G. Avildsen is one of those filmmakers who has received more criticism (hey there, Burt Reynolds!) than his due.

He directed "Rocky" (1976), but who remembers? Its writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, is generally regarded as its auteur. Prior to that, there were Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning turn in "Save the Tiger" (1973) and the charming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975, avec Reynolds).

Since then, Avildsen, who has been inactive of late, has amassed what I think is a varied and fairly impressive filmography of overlooked or forgotten films - "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), with Paul Sorvino in a rare romantic lead; "The Formula" (1980) with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; the hilarious Belushi-Akyroyd romp "Neighbors" (1981);  "Happy New Year" (1987), a remake of a Claude Lelouch French caper with Peter Falk; "Lean on Me" (1989), an early Morgan Freeman title, and, yes, two "Karate Kid" flicks. But nothing since 1999. Nearly 20 years.

But then there were Avildsen's early New York films - three crude, scrappy but atmospheric movies, made between 1970 and 1972, that defy easy pigeon-holing and seem alien by today's less interesting standards.  Three unique movies, two of which introduced arguably the best character actors of the 1970s and '80s, Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield, both utterly singular.

The movies?  "Joe" (1970) with Boyle.  "Cry Uncle" (1971) with Garfield. And "The Stoolie" (1972) with Jackie Mason in a truly revelatory performance as a small-time con man, crook, stool pigeon and unreliable friend. If you don't believe me, check it out.  But good luck finding it.

"Joe," which also introduced Susan Sarandon in a supporting role, is a savage comedy about its titular bigot - a film which predated Norman Lear's landmark 1971 series, "All in the Family," by a year. Boyle, who in 1970 also had an uncredited bit as a group-therapy crackpot in Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," is funny/scary as Joe Curran, a true blue-collar nightmare. Just try imagining Archie Bunker with a gun.

"Cry Uncle" is an amusing pseudo-porno about a private dick (get it?) in which Garfield waltzes through several scenes full-frontal and yet, thanks to Avildsen's cleverness, he doesn't seem to have a penis. Critics loved it.

Both Boyle and Garfield would go on to have terrific movie careers in some terrific films, three of which put them together on screen.

In 1972, Boyle and Garfield were on hand to help Robert Redford with his political campaign in Michael Ritchie's prescient "The Candidate"; they were on screen together again a year later in 1973 in Howard Zeiff's masterful farce, "Slither," with Boyle abetting star James Caan and Garfield giving Caan a difficult time; and in 1978, they are two among the ensemble of William Friedkin's "The Brinks Job." Two Avildsen graduates.

Boyle's screen career included such diverse titles as "Steelyard Blues," "Kid Blue" and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (all released in 1973),  "Taxi Driver" and "Swashbuckler" (both form 1976),  "Hardcore" (1979), "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), "Outland" (1981) and "Hammett" (1982).

It's been rumored that, on the basis of his performance in "Joe,"  he was William Friedkin's first choice to play Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971) but that his agent or manager at the time vetoed it and never told Boyle.  Gene Hackman, of course, got the role and won an Oscar.  I've no idea about the veracity of the reports but Boyle seemingly never came to terms with this lost role/opportunity.

However, years later, in 1974, he and Hackman teamed memorably for Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." I've always wondered if, among their discussions, the subject of "The French Connection" ever came up.

Boyle died in 2006 and, despite the endless reruns of Ray Romano's  wonderful series,  "Everybody Loves Raymond," he is much missed.

An aside: I interviewed Boyle on the Universal lot when he was preparing for his role in James Goldstone's pirate flick, "Swashbuckler."  Boyle was engaging and gossipy and was eager to demonstrate his way with a pirate's cutless, a routine he had been rehearsing that day for Goldstone's film. I never got to ask him about "The French Connection."

Garfield, meanwhile, worked with some of the top director in some of the top films of the era - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (both released in 1974), Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) and Peter Yates' "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), among many others.  When his father died, Garfield reverted back to his birth name, Allen Goorwitz, as a tribute, beginning in 1978 for the aforementioned "The Brinks Job," and retained that billing for five years.

He suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and, according to IMDb, has lived in a Motion Picture & Television Fund long-term nursing home ever since.

Note in Passing: "The Comedian," the new Taylor Hackford film with Robert DeNiro as a stand-up comic attempting a comeback in an alien new era, is highly reminiscent of Avildsen's early work.  This movie, also based in New York, looks and feels as it might have been made in 1970.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

what about cary?

We've reached that time of year when thoughts turn to everything Oscar, including the usual, interchangeable stories about the greats who have been slighted.  Alfred Hitchcock's name is the one most invoked.

Rarely mentioned is Cary Grant for his star performance in Hithcock's "North by Northwest," the titanic supporting structure of that classic.

Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau, the two major surviving members of the "North by Northwest" company, have participated in several Q-&-As about the 1959 film in recent years and the major focus of their discussions is invariably - and not surprisingly - its legendary director.

Makes sense, right?  Hitchcock, my favorite filmmaker (hands-down), is inarguably the auteur of "North by Northwest."  But wait!  Hold on.
His star is clearly his equal - much more so than any other actor or actress who has appeared in a Hitchcock film. Cary Grant is an invaluable, indispensable element  of "North by Northwest" as public relations mogul Roger O. Thornhill ("The O. stands for nothing"), aka "George Kaplan."

It's never been observed but, except for one brief sequence, Grant is in every scene, nearly every frame, of "North by Northwest," starting with the opening he shares with Doreen Lang (playing his secretary) and ending with the upper-berth clinch with Saint. Every scene but ... one.  Any guesses which one.  (See note below for the answer.)

Anyway, it's a towering, neglected performance that should shame the self-important Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (talk about a mouthful) which, almost thoughtlessly (and recklessly), hands its much-coveted golden statues to lesser performances that fade quickly.

So, I hope that in future interviews, Saint and Landau remember to acknowledge Grant's crucial contribution to "North by Northwest."

That said, there are two bits of trivia that have escaped even the film's most ardent fans.  And, no, I'm not referring to Hitch's usual cameo or the fact that the delightful Jessie Royce Landis was only seven years older than her screen son, Grant, when they made the film.

In the shot prior to Hitch's cameo (missing a bus), there are two women arguing over who has the right to a taxi.  One of the women is Alma, Hitchcock's wife. Another amusing bit has the melody, "It's a Most Unusual Day," being piped into the lobby as Grant enters the Plaza Hotel. Yes, it turns out to be a most unusual day as his character is mistaken by James Mason's thugs for one "George Kaplan."

A witty, clever touch by Hitch.

Notes in Passing: The only "North by Northwest" scene in which Grant doesn't appear is the one featuring Leo G. Carroll, Madge Kennedy and their fellow government operatives discussing the situation involving ...

"George Kaplan."

Also in a skit titled "Telephone" in their 1960 Broadway revue, "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May," the acerbic comics reference "North by Northwest" (which was released a year earlier) by invoking the name "George Kaplan" repeatedly - and hilariously - as a running joke:

 "Kaplan.  That's K as in knife; A as in aadrvark; P as in pneumonia. L as in luscious. A as in aadrvark, again. N as in newel post. Kaplan."

The line is read by May who, as an officious Bell Telephone operator, affects nasal vocal inflections. Again, hilariously.

Full Disclosure:  One of my favorite interviews was with Eva Marie Saint who came to Philadelphia in either the late 1970s or early '80s in a play directed by her husband, Jeffrey Hayden.  I can't recall anything about the show, not even its title, except that her co-star was Ronny Cox.

She was a terrific interview.

Monday, February 06, 2017

poseurs, amateurs and other movie buffs

Woody Allen enlists Marshall McLuhan to help deflate the obnoxious pontifications of Russell Horton in "Annie Hall" (1977) 


 “My name is Joe.

“And I am a ... movie buff.”

Once upon a time, I was a member of a small, select, rather surreptitious subdivision of the moviegoing public.

As originally perceived, a movie buff was a solitary individual who was unlike your average moviegoer in two distinct ways: He (film buffs have historically been mostly guys) was known to attend movies alone and often saw certain movies multiple times, more than once. In less enlightened times, it was considered suspect, even undesirable, to watch a film without a companion - or to watch a movie more than one time!

Yes, friends, times have clearly changed. Case in point: the on-going, seemingly never-ending "Star Wars" craze, now 40-years-old.

A movie buff also was not discriminatory about film genres; he would sit through anything and everything. And true buffs would read movie reviews at a time when no one else read movie reviews - or was even aware that there was such a thing as movie reviews.  And, yes, they actually read the review, not just glance at the headline or the tell-nothing star-rating. 

Originally, there were no star-, numerical- or lettered-ratings. (Or thumbs!) There were no short cuts. One actually had to read the review.

I know. Crazy.

Finally, the original movie buffs learned how to “read” the movies that they watched – and if you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Movie buffs, as I knew and admired them, were curious and open-minded about film, two very important, crucial qualities.  They were adventurous.

This type of moviegoer – my type of movie buff - still exists but is quickly fading.  Frankly, we’re dying off.  And, during the past few decades, we’ve been supplanted not by a single new breed but by a few variations that have compromised the notion of what a movie buff can and should be.

First, there are what I call The Franchise Geeks, a brainless but dangerous group of moviegoers - dangerous because they are what drive the film studios.  The original Franchise Geek was born in the late ‘70s in response to such blockbusters as “Jaws” (1975), “Superman” (1978) and especially “Star Wars” (1977).  The second-generation Franchise Geek made his debut 1989 in tandem with the Burton version of “Batman,” and the millennial Franchise Geek is the target audience for series inspired by the comics of Marvel (“Spider-Man”) and D.C. (“The Dark Knight Rises”). 

The Franchise Geek cares about one thing and one thing only – the latest franchise CGI extravaganza – and is not really a movie buff at all.  But these geeks have power and influence.  The studios court them and some critics have lowered their standards to keep in step with them.

In their own simple(-minded) way, they're opinion-makers. Scary.

Next, we have The Siskberts, those people who suddenly discovered film and film criticism with the advent of “Sneak Previews,” the syndicated movie-review show hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert that ran on PBS from 1975 to 1983 before morphing into other versions (“At the Movies,” “Siskel & Ebert” and “Ebert Presents: At the Movies’). 

Gene and Roger (who I remember as good friends, as well as colleagues) did something crucial:  They brought movie criticism out of the closet, so to speak. To reiterate, few people paid much attention to movie reviews but Gene and Roger popularized the form.  A movie critic was formerly seen as some grumpy old professorial type, deserving of his misery. 

But here were Gene and Roger, two regular guys just sitting around and jawing – not about sports but about film.  And they made it look easy.

And, in turn, they inadvertently created a lot of little Siskbert monsters – clueless people who pontificate about movies and who now think they are experts on the subject.  Woody Allen anticipated this phenomenon with his astute and hilarious Marshal McLuhan sequence in "Annie Hall" (1977).

 As a personal experience, I recently met a Siskbert who complained that "Manchester by the Sea" has "serious editing problems." Huh?

I'm willing to wager that your average Siskbert has never heard of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris - and probably doesn't even read movie reviews at all.  Why bother?  They're their own critic, see? I mean, they are the critic.

Our next group, The Movie Bloggers, is a hybrid of the Franchise Geek and the Siskbert.  Because their views on film are presented as written words (on a computer screen, not a newspaper or a magazine), they actually perceive themselves as movie critics, not knowing that someone has to actually hire you and pay you before you can present yourself as such.  Some have also identified themselves as “film historians.” Oy.

But I’ve a hunch if you asked any blogger about their favorite Glenda Jackson movie, they’d look at you with a confused glazed expression.

Finally, there are two groups more closely related to the Original Movie Buff. The Graduates are film freaks from the 1960s who became hooked on the film of the same name, as well as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider,” Medium Cool, “M*A*S*H” and “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” – just a few of the titles representing the then-New Wave in American filmmaking. 

Some of them may still be around – I’m certainly still a member – but they were drowned out by the Franchise Geeks when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” took over. The New Wave was suddenly finished. Stone. Cold. Dead.

Which brings us to The Codgers, who were among the Original Movie Buffs but refused to evolve. Your average Codger doesn’t like anything new and thinks that anything made after 1970 isn’t legitimate or worthwhile.  They sit symbolically on the porch in their rocking chairs complaining that no one makes musicals like the ones that Judy and Mickey made for Metro.  In their tiny universe, MGM is sacred.

BTW, one doesn't necessarily have to be old to be a Codger, whose beginnings can be traced to 1994, the year Turner Classic Movies debuted.  Many of them are devotees of TCM's Robert Osborne.

What all these subgroups lack is something that I alluded to earlier – curiosity and an open-mind.  One really doesn’t have to be fanatic about film or even well-versed in it. But a sense of adventurousness is crucial – a desire to see “The Lobster” and “Paterson,” as well as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Dr. Strange,” an enthusiasm for “La La Land” and “Our Kind of Traitor,” as well as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Casablanca.”

There's no room for any kind of snobbery among movie buffs and when I use the word snobbery, I'm not strictly referring to an elitism.

Snobbery can come in all forms, both high-brow and low-. It's too restricting. Too exclusive. The hobby, pastime, avocation of being a movie buff must be rescued from exclusivity and anything restrictive. It must!