Sunday, July 30, 2017

"freeze, liberal!"

Traditionally, right-wingers have gleefully trivialized/branded Hollywood as an evil factory for liberal propaganda, usually invoking the all-purpose expression "bleeding-heart" and any handy synonym for "weak," while also demonizing the likes of Susan Sarandon and George Clooney.

Hollywood, the land of wussies.

But wait!

Have these rednecks even been to a Hollywood movie lately? I ask because, in order to see "The Big Sick," I had to sit through six or seven trailers for upcoming films - movies ostensibly starring reputable actors but whose real recurring star is the .357 Magnum or whatever gun of choice is preferred by wuss filmmakers these days. One trailer after another featured phallic guns of all sizes, loudly neutralizing undesirables.

The movies seemed designed to appeal to gun-rights advocates, not ninny liberals, and the transparent product placement of guns in every film gives the weird impression that each could have been produced by ... the NRA.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

a heartfelt plea to tcm: "stop already!"

In the words of Howard Beale, the unhinged newscaster created by Paddy Chayefsky, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

I exaggerate. Actually, I'm more annoyed - and disappointed - than angry. My exasperation is in response to the introductions and post-screening discussions that run in tandem with the films screened by Turner Classic Movies in prime time and on weekends. There's this exhausting tendency by TCM hosts to reiterate the same information - sometimes facts, mostly opinions - over and over and over and over and over again. And again.

This is beyond redundancy, way beyond.

Case in point: Did you know that Ethel Merman, the star of the 1959 stage version of "Gypsy," was passed over when the 1962 Warner movie was made and that Rosalind Russell got the role?  This bit of information, which has been stale since 1962, is repeated every time Turner screens "Gypsy," which is a lot. "Gypsy" is a TCM staple and deservedly so. It's terrific.

Object lesson number 2: Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock's original choice for the title role in 1964's "Marnie" was Grace Kelly and that Tippi Hedren got the role after Kelly, pressured by her royal in-laws, demurred? Turner treats this as a newsflash every time "Marnie" is aired, even though your average movie buff (of a certain age) has known this since, well, 1964. Whoever writes the Turner intros needs to find fresh information.

It would also be an improvement if the intros avoided facile gossip, a la "No one expected Monroe, Grable and Bacall to get along," a sexist tidbit mentioned whenever 1953's "How to Marry a Millionaire" is screened.

What's particularly annoying (disturbing actually) about the "Gypsy" and "Marnie" examples is that both come with the implicit message that Merman and Kelly would have been superior to Russell and Hedren in their respective films when the preserved performances clearly say otherwise.

Anyway, I've lost count of the number of times (hundreds?) that the Merman-versus-Russell/Kelly-versus-Hedren discussions have taken place.

Let's start with "Gypsy" which was showcased on June 22nd during TCM's Gay Hollywood celebration - the gay connection being Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original stage production (and continued to needlessly tweak it until the day he died).

It was hosted by Dave Karger, a former Entertainment Weekly writer, and author William J. Mann, neither of whom gave any indication of having seen the original stage production but nevertheless talked authoritatively about both it and Mervyn LeRoy's '62 film (whose fidelity to the play is impressive).  Sure, both may have heard about the '59 stage "Gypsy," but frankly, opinions based on hearsay are worthless.

I winced on cue when they brought up the dog-eared Merman information and generally dismissed Russell's definitive performance in the film. Mann commented that she was "pretty good."  OK, I'm seriously dating myself here, but I actually sat in a theater and saw Merman in "Gypsy."

It was my first Broadway show and I was taken to see it because my friend Steve Curry played one of Baby June's newsboys in the show. I remember Merman being extremely broad in the role, almost a caricature, and that she tended to sing directly to the audience rather than to her co-stars on stage (something which Laurents himself observed and disliked).

My recollection may be based on a childhood experience (I was a fairly observant kid) but, unlike the theater freaks who pontificate ad infinitum about "Gypsy" and Merman, I actually experienced both.  Russell, a world-class actress, brought nuance and compelling patrician airs to the role.

She's more than just "pretty good."

"Gypsy" became something of an obsession early on.  I've seen as many productions of it as I could - and more than one Madam Rose, which as Mann astutely pointed out is what the character is called in the show, never Momma Rose (something which also bugged Laurents). Linda Lavin, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and others all brought something to the role but none of them fully located the tragic figure that Russell so effortlessly captures in the film.  Her line readings, her razor-edge timing and Warners' creative commingling of her singing voice with Lisa Kirk's conspired to create a fully-formed character that has been only two-dimensional on stage. Russell is flat-out excellent. Hands-down.

The Kelly-Hedren reference came up yet again following the July 21st screening of 1954's "Rear Window," which features Kelly and is one of many titles in Turner's on-going "Fifty Years of Hitchcock" series. TCM's Ben Mankiewicz hosts with the Swiss documentarian Alexandre O. Phillipe, whose latest work, "78/52," is a full-scale examination devoted to the filming of the shower sequence in "Psycho" and who, for lack of a better description, is "Hitchcock literate."

Phillipe's observations, to date, have not only been well-reasoned, intuitive and informative, but also refreshingly adventurous, not at all predictable.

Anyway, after the screening, Mankiewicz brought up Kelly and, without missing a beat, mentioned that Hitchcock originally wanted her for "Marnie."  I appreciate that Phillipe immediately stepped up and flatly stated that Hedren "crushed" the role of Marnie - a "tour-de-force" performance, he added.  At last! Another champion for a criminally underrated performance. Kelly was a limited actress who often could be charming, but I can't imagine her meeting the intimidating challenges of this role.

Hedren turns in revelatory, intricate work as a damaged woman caught in a destructive cycle, a performance that has grown in retrospect for many critics (see Richard Brody below). Turner will air the film again tomorrow (July 28) at 8 p.m. (est) and, this time around, listen to the sad, child-like voice Hedren affects whenever she regresses into her past. And she's matched by Sean Connery as the man, curiously both empathetic and brutal, who is intrigued enough to take the time to understand her.

I'm really curious about tomorrow's discussion of the film. On the one hand, "Marnie" is a Mankiewicz favorite, having been one of his monthly picks back on September 23rd, 2009. On the other hand, the usually affable Ben has been a tad combative in his stint with Phillipe.

Their chemistry hasn't been exactly smooth and, after Wednesday's screening of "Vertigo," Mankiewicz was curiously and uncharacteristically negative, calling the film's ending "contrived." Phillipe argued compellingly in its defense (does the ending imply that the James Stewart character commits suicide?) but to little avail. It was an interesting dynamic to say the very least. (If all this was an attempt by Ben Mankiewicz to bring an added dimension to TCM by incorporating a little verbal fisticuffs - a friendly arugument, an occasional debate about a film- I say Bravo!)

But back to "Marnie." Much like "Vertigo," its spiritual twin, it was critically maligned upon its initial release. And also much like "Vertigo," contemporary critics have stepped back and found much to praise about the film, particularly Hedren.

"Vertigo" is now viewed as a masterwork and I've a hunch that the status of "Marnie" will take the same route and continue to grow.  That said, I'm turning the remaining space over to Richard Brody, the movie editor for The New Yorker magazine and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.” He's also one of our best movie critics. 

In his capsule review of "Marnie" for the magazine, Brody has had this to say about Hitch's minor masterpiece and its luminous star:

"Tippi Hedren’s cool grace in 'The Birds' hardly prepares a viewer for her porcelain froideur as a sexually traumatized kleptomaniac in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychologically resonant, visually transcendent film, from 1964. Sean Connery co-stars as a businessman who hires Marnie as his secretary, lusts mightily after her, and, catching her with a hand in his till, takes it upon himself to win her heart—and, above all, her body—by healing her mind. Borrowing liberally from himself (notably, several tropes from 'Spellbound,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Psycho'), Hitchcock gives his obsessions luridly free rein—intentionally and not. He was, in fact, obsessed with Hedren, whose rejections he repaid with harsh treatment, and it shows in his images: few films have looked as longingly and as relentlessly at a woman, few onscreen gazes at an actress have so perfectly crystallized an integral and unique style of performance, and few performances have so precisely defined a director’s world view, even unto the vanishing point. He could, and did, go no further."

*  *  *  *  *
(from top)

~Tippi Hedren in "Marnie"
  Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Dave Karger and William J. Mann
  Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Ethel Merman in "Gypsy"
 Friedman-Abeles 1959 ©

~Rosalind Russell performing "Some People" and "Rose's Turn" in "Gypsy" and
with Ann Jilliann in the "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" number
 Warner Bros. 1962 ©

~Ben Mankiewicz and Alexandre O. Phillipe
 Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Grace Kelly
 Paramount Pictures 1956 ©

~Alfred Hitchcock with Hedren on the set of "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Hitchcock in his cameo for "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©

Friday, July 21, 2017

cinema obscura: david beaird's "it takes two" (1988)

David Beaird's "It Takes Two," from 1988, is an unusually accomplished and knowing little film, at once enchantingly funny and shrewdly observed.

There is an inclination to call this a lost film but, the fact is, this is a movie that was never found in the first place. It was half-heartedly released (by United Artists, then on its last leg) and casually dismissed by critics (that is, those who bothered to see it). No surprise, it never found an audience.

It is very much an independent film but no one grasped that back in '88, largely because of unfortunate timing. "It Takes Two" was ahead of its time by just a few months. In 1989, Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" would become the darling of film festivals and would open the door for small, edgy films dealing with real-life man/woman issues. Which exactly describes "It Takes Two." But it was too late for Beaird's film.

Set on the eve of a wedding, "It Takes Two" deals with what men ostensibly want (hot cars and hotter women, and lots of them) and what women want (love and a security that might be restricting). Men here, represented by the groom-to-be, are painted as dreamers, while women, in the form of his sweetheart and future wife, are seen as realists.

It's the familiar battle of the sexes and, although the film comes with an undeniable '80s feels, it has a sweet, unpretentious touch that's ageless. And, as in most romantic comedies, the man and woman here are each outraged by (and attracted to) an element in the other's character.

The man and the woman here are essentially kids, just barely out of high school. Travis Rogers and Stephi Lawrence have lived in Waxahachie, Texas, all their lives, on their families' respective farms. Travis' family breeds horses and is strictly lower middle-class, while Stephi's dad, "Bull" Lawrence (the name says it all), is admired as the local "manure mogul."

Travis and Stephi are absolutely crazy about each other and, what's more, they were made for each other. But they see matters, life, differently.

Travis has never been to a big city and has never owned anything fine, anything to call his own, and has never been with anyone except Stephi - and he hasn't really been with her. (They're both virgins.) He has dreams of fancy cars and panting blondes, dreams followed by nightmares of Stephi locked inside his queasy stomach - dressed in her wedding gown.

Stephi is spoiled, a bit self-centered and something of a nag, but (thanks to some three-dimensional playing here) you just know how much she caares about Travis and how she only wants to make him happy.

When he announces that he wants to invest most of his hard-earned money in a fancy Tovare, advertised as an American imitation Lamborghini, and that he plans to go to Dallas right before their wedding to buy one, Stephi goes along with him, but only after a few fights.

Their fights are actually a kind of mutual criticism, very realistic, and as most married couples know, they are sometimes the only road to accommodation - torturous, painfully introspective but necessary.

So while Stephi prepares for the big wedding, which is only 46 hours away, Travis goes to Dallas, aptly Oz-like in his eyes, to buy his car. The sales clerk, a blonde named Jonni, is the kind of woman that Travis saw only in his dreams and she takes him for a ride in more ways than one. (It's a sly touch that the autoplex where Jonni works is named Emerald Motors.)

Travis' pursuit of his male fantasy turns into a male nightmare that somehow ends kind of dreamy, thanks to the efforts of writers Richard Christian Matheson (son of Richard Matheson) and Thomas Szollosi.

Back in 1988 when I first saw (and reviewed) "It Takes Two," I felt that I had discovered some remarkable, attractive new talent.

George Newbern and Leslie Hope, the stars, are two accomplished players who should have gone further in the nearly 30 years since "It Takes Two" was first released. Newbern as Travis is a crackerjack leading man, at turns funny and serious and always willing to expose himself to the audience. His Travis is a fine character study of a young man old enough to grow a mustache but young enough to look silly with one.

Leslie Hope (who, back in the day, was soon to be seen in Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio" and with Matt Dillon in "Kansas") is the titanic supporting structure of this film. As Stephi, Hope reads dialogue as if she were having a candid conversation with her friends and has a smile to die for. In the film's big scene, when Stephi thinks Travis has stood her up at the altar, Hope has a monologue that defines her unusually complex character.

Kimberly Foster, who plays Jonni, is sort of a neo-Kim Novak, a striking blonde with a punky edge, a heart of gold (of course) and, most important, a streak of decency. She's excellent. And a special note about the invaluable character actor Barry Corbin who plays the aforementioned Bull and who brings a tangy, lived-in feel to the role. You could say the same about "It Takes Two" - tangy, lived-in and also ... bittersweet.

Oh, and by the way, just prior to its release, "It Takes Two" was titled "My New Car." Neither generic title does the film justice.

Notes in Passing: Five years later, in 1993, George Newbern and Leslie Hope would be teamed again, in the nifty Drew Barrymore faux Hitchcock thriller, "Doppelganger," directed by Avi Nesher. Newbern would become best known for his role as Kimberly Williams' young husband in the "Father of the Bride" twins, while Hope would move from acting to directing.

And the talented David Beaird would direct "Scorchers," a 1991 guilty pleasure starring Faye Dunaway. Highly recommended fun. Beaird hasn't made a film since 2005's "The Civilization of Maxwell Bright," starring Patrick Warburton, Simon Callow, Eric Roberts, Austin Pendelton and Jennifer Tilly. And based on Beaird's filmography, that's one I'd like to see.
*  *  *  *  *

~Leslie Hope and George Newbern in "It Takes Two"
~photography: United Artists 1988 ©

Friday, July 14, 2017

the same movie: McGuane times two

A good writer is a magician of sorts, a fabulist who can make the trite seem, well, fabulous.

Thomas McGuane certainly qualifies as a good writer and, back in the 1970s, he produced two scripts seemingly married to the same essential plotline.

Released a year apart, Frank Perry's "Rancho DeLuxe" (1975) and Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) are both original scripts about cattle rustlers and land barons. Both are Westerns but the former is modern, comedic and, at 93 minutes, rather breezy, while the latter is darker, more traditional and, at 126 minutes, something of a trial to sit through.

While it's never been acknowledged that both are based on the same material, it's compelling to compare and contrast, observing how McGuane creatively moved his pieces - his characters - around, changing relationships while adhering to a tale told twice. Here goes...

Point One

In "Rancho DeLuxe," Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play two contemporary cattle rustlers who, perhaps unwisely, set their sights on the livestock of the newly transplanted Clifton James and wife Elizabeth Ashley, who came to Montana from Scehnectady, New York.

In "The Missouri Breaks," Jack Nicholson leads a cattle-rustling ring and decides - again, perhaps unwisely - to take on cattle baron John McLiam, a widower with a grown daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

Point Two

In "Rancho DeLuxe," James hires pokey old Slim Pickens to ensnare rustlers Bridges and Waterston. Traveling with Pickens is his niece, Charlene Dallas, who is what James Agee would have called "a dish." Ah, but Pickens and Dallas are not exactly what they seem to be.

In "The Missouri Breaks," McLiam hires Marlon Brando, a cattle-rustling regulator with an eccentric way of handling the job. He dons disguises to dispatch his unfortunate prey. In both films, the hired hand recruited to entrap the rustlers engages in a kind of play-acting. Both Pickens and Brando play characters who consider their line of work a "sport," approaching it in highly theatrical ways that are not all that dissimilar.

Point Three

In terms of "love interest," in "The Missouri Breaks," Nicholson forges a relationship with Lloyd, while in "Rancho DeLuxe," one of James' goons, played by Harry Dean Stanton, becomes smitten with Dallas. (Note in Passing: Richard Bright plays James' other goon - Burt to Stanton's Curt.)

In both cases, the romance is doomed by deceit and betrayal.

Point Four

The respective endings is what sets the two films apart. "The Missouri Breaks" ends on a note that's bloodier than anything that preceded it, as difficult as that is to image." "Rancho DeLuxe," on the the other hand, ends without violence, with the two heroes rather blissfully in jail, a dénouement that, oddly enough, recalls the ending of ... "The Producers."

Point Five

Oh, yes, and the two films were released by United Artists. And perhaps not coincidentally, Elliott Kastner was a producer on both films.

Friday, July 07, 2017

blasphemy & sacrilege!

Or, Rain already, rain on her parade! Do it!

Willam Wyler's "Funny Girl" (1968) is the final candidate for my disruptive Hall of the Overrated. Perhaps this is a premature end, considering the many other titles that I would have liked to tackle here. "Independence Day"! "Rain Man"! "The Silence of the Lambs"! The list goes on: Films that other moviegoers (and critics) have enjoyed and even obsessively loved.

"Funny Girl" is also the third title on the list that belongs to my favorite genre - the film musical, particularly the film musical that's an adaptation of a stage play. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I should note that I saw all three shows in their original Broadway productions - "West Side Story" as a kid and, later, "Cabaret" and Funny Girl" as a young adult.

But more about that later.*

During its lifespan, the movie musical was routinely overseen by people with music backgrounds but, every so often, Hollywood would assign one to director not connected with the genre but a solid craftsman nonethless: 
  • Howard Hawks - "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
  • Fred Zinnemann - "Oklahoma!"
  • Henry Koster - "Flower Drum Song"
  • Francis Ford Coppola - "Finian's Rainbow" (and, later, "One from the Heart")
  • Sir Carol Reed - "Oliver!"
  • Sidney Lumet - "The Wiz"
  • Milos Foreman - "Hair"
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - "A Chorus Line"
  • Martin Scorsese - "New York, New York"
  • Peter Bogdanovich - "At Long Last Love"
  • John Huston - "Annie"
  • Michael Ritchie - "The Fantasticks"
Some of these pairings worked (Hawks, Zinnemann), some didn't (Lumet, Attenborough). In the case of "Funny Girl," Columbia brought in the estimable William Wyler (he of "Ben-Hur" fame, as well as "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Children's Hour," among many other varied films) and teamed him with the star of the 1963 Broadway show, Barbra Streisand. And, apparently, there was a power struggle over exactly who was the film's auteur - its seasoned director or its driven leading lady.

Caught in the middle is the movie itself which is at once big and splashy and gaudy - and also lengthy and lethargic. At its best, it's highly disappointing. Not that the original show itself was that great, apart from Streisand's showstopper-after-showstopper performance. She was the only reason to see it. As for the material, it served simply as an opportunity for its composer, Jule Styne, to repeat the same formula (a vaudeville-based musical biography) that worked so successfully for him with "Gypsy" a few years earlier. But there's really no comparison at all.

"Funny Girl," which chronicles both the personal and professional life of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice, remains  merely a serviceable musical comedy that, both on stage and on film, has functioned strictly as an over-the-top showcase for its star. This was made apparent when the material was blown up to 70mm proportions for the film. Wyler's camera is ruthless.

Unless you are an avid Streisand fan or have a deep appreciation for the kind of broad performance she delivers, his movie is something of a trial to sit through. And little is more deadly than its first 15 minutes.

Streisand enters an empty theater in full Grande Dame mode, looking pained and full of regret and ready to share the struggles of her journey. Cue to flashback. Now looking younger (in an anacronistic way, circa 1968), she performs what's supposed to be a novelty number, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty," with character actresses Kay Medford (as her mother) and Mae Questel, but the way it's staged here, the song is downright funereal.

So who made the decision to open the film this way? Wyler? Streisand? Producer Ray Stark? Or Isobel Lennart, who wrote the scripts for both the play and the film? Or was it one of those decisions by committee?

Matters don't improve as Streisand is indulged by a beached Wyler - dancing a fractured version of "Swan Lake," trying to balance herself on roller skates, playing a pregnant bride and acting coy with Omar Sharif.

And then there's the faulty lip-syncing - which is actually kind of funny.

In spite of its bloat, "Funny Girl" plays like a watered-down version of Styne's previous hit. Picking Wyler to direct this material was probably a ploy to give the film something of a pedigree and I guess he delivered that. But for all its razz-a-ma-tazz, "Funny Girl" feels stillborn and that's probably because of Wyler. He was the wrong choice. In comparson, Mervyn LeRoy - who directed the 1962 Warner film version of "Gypsy" - had an active background in (and feel for) vaudeville and it shows. And it helps that he made such titles as "Gold Diggers of 1933," also for Warners.

* Note in Passing: "Gypsy" was another show that I saw as a kid, the original production with Merman. I often think about the musical shows I saw growing up. It was a natural part of my youth. So when did it become a gay thing to enjoy musicals? Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?  I ask because my wife and I each had fathers who loved musicals, both on stage and on screen  No big deal.

Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and both loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen. A musical was just another type of movie to see.  This week, a Western. Next week, a musical. And the week after that, something with Clark Gable or Doris Day. It simply didn't matter. A movie was just a movie.

And some variety made movies even better. But not anymore. Men now think that their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch a musical. This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which George (Jason Alexander) purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival as a birthday present for Jerry (Seinfeld).

One for him, one for Jerry.

Uptight that anyone would think he is gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"

To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"

"The Outing" first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.

Sadly, it's gotten much worse.

*  *  *  *  *

~Barbra Streisand and Kay Medford in "Funny Girl"
~photography: Columbia Pictures / Rastar Productions 1968 ©

~Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in "The Outing"
~photography: Castle Rock Entertainment / NBC 1993 ©

Thursday, July 06, 2017

unapologetic blasphemy!

Or, the movie deeply in love with itself

The word iconic is thrown around rather loosely these days by the entertainment media. Last May, a host of one of the TV entertainment magazines - maybe "Entertainment Tonight," perhaps "The Insider" - was going on and on about a new short that's a sequel to an "iconic movie."

I never watch these shows but I sat down in anticipation. I had to know the name of the classic movie involved. Finally, the title was revealed.


"Love Actually" (2003) is one of the last films I reviewed professionally and I hold it solely responsible for my leaving a career that so many deluded movie buffs covet. I retired in 2004 while I was still healthy and relatively young. I remember sitting there thinking, "Life is way too short."

I couldn't take the relentless assembly-line release of films anymore, especially when so many were so bad but yet still managed to attract adoring audiences. Case in point: This posh British romcom - the romcom to end all romcoms - which I credit with my much-craved liberation.

"Love Actually" was the first film directed by Richard Curtis who, up to that point, was known largely for his scripts, most notably "Notting Hill" (1999) and "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001). (Next up: his script for Disney's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid.") Curtis has since helmed only two other titles - the not-bad "Pirate Radio" (2009) and "About Time" (2013), which is curious considering the on-going popularity of "Love Actually."

Headed by a huge (and hugely impressive) A-list cast, Curtis' film is about eight couples dealing with love and misunderstanding in London during Christmas. That's right, eight couples - that means 16 major characters, not one worthy of my time. And their problems really aren't problems.

Curtis' starry cast is ill-used, with many formerly companionable actors suddenly/surprisingly annoying. Emma Thompson's familiar precise enunciation takes on a superior edge here, while reliable Bill Nighy is unappealingly smug. Hugh Grant resorts to his trademark tics. He stutters and flails in a performance that seemingly threatened to bring his career to an end - until his winning return in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

And Laura Linney, the film's token American, is sadly wasted in a rather insulting role. There are many other talented actors involved, but I'll stop here. (Oh wait! I should also note an unctuous child actor under foot.)

The film is precious and so self-satisfied it seems to be constantly hugging itself. When my review drew hate mail, I asked around about its seductive powers and was told that it was a "gender thing" - that only women can truly appreciate it. But that explanation only further depressed me.

Thanks to the vagaries of studio release patterns, "Love Actually" opened the year that HBO's "Sex and the City" ended its run and it apparently benefited from the timing. It inherited Carrie Bradshaw's audience.

Sure, "Sex and the City" could also be annoying but its appeal was always apparent - and, unlike "Love Actually," I never had the urge to slap it.

*  *  *  *  *
~Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in "Love Actually"
~photography: Peter Mountain/Universal Studios 2003 © 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

still more blasphemy!

Or, Willkommen! Bienvenue! . . . Go Away!

The movie version of "Cabaret" (1972), as recklessly deconstructed by one Bob Fosse, is a film musical for people who don't like film musicals.

Traditionalist friends who are avid fans of the genre tend to frown upon it. That's because it really isn't a musical - not in the traditional sense. True, it has singing and it has Fosse's idiosyncratic choreography, but neither is strictly/seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Its numbers are "staged."

The songs that were sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing on stage at a tawdry little club.

What I'm saying is that "Cabaret" isn't a "book musical" wherein the numbers are required to carry forward the plot and advance character development - you know, where characters simply break out into song.

This is what your average moviegoers doesn't understand or like. While people have no problem suspending disbelief for the brainlessness of comic-book and superhero movies, the idea of one character singing to another is seen as ridiculous. But fantasy is fantasy. There's no difference.

Anyway, the original 1966 stage version of the John Kander-Fred Ebb material was very much a book musical. The songs were strewn throughout the plot and they were sung by various characters. A few were staged as cabaret numbers in the notorious Kit Kat Klub, but only a few.

For their film version, Fosse and company took songs out of the narrative and away from supporting characters and gave them to the supposedly second-rate singer Sally Bowles and the creepy Kit Kat host, known only as Emcee, making them all as grotesquely lurid as possible. It's all "divine decadence!," see? Which Sally is given to shrieking at repeated intervals.

Gone was the musical tradition of songs replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot. Fosse wasn't exactly breaking new ground here. Way back in 1957, director George Sidney and his scenarist Dorothy Kingsley turned the Rodgers and Hart musical,"Pal Joey," into "An Evening with Frank Sinatra."  Except for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (which Rita Hayworth lip-syncs to another woman's voice; Hayworth was always dubbed), the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience.

An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.

Actually, George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954) predates "Joey" by a few years, restricting all its songs to performances either in clubs or on studio soundstages - or, in one scene, in Judy Garland's living room where she "entertains" James Mason, reenacting a musical number she shot that day. "A Star Is Born" is often hailed as a great film musical but it really isn't.

It's a great drama which just happens to have songs.

Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical.  Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musical numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable for dim audiences.  Again, it's a musical for people who don't like/understand musicals. It's a bastardization of the book musical.

Marshall notwithstanding, the auteur behind "Chicago" was ... Bob Fosse.  But he was dead by the time "Chicago" made it to the screen and, to Marshall's credit, he didn't bother to recreate Fosse's original choreography, sparing us those annoyingly affected dance mannerisms.

"Cabaret" was Fosse's second film as a director, following 1969's "Sweet Charity," which received less-than-charitable reviews. The experience must have convinced Fosse that instead of turning "Cabaret" into another elephantine roadshow musical, he would go the art-house route.

Hiring Liza Minnelli must have seemed like a brilliant strategy, given that she had one foot in Old Hollywood and the other ensconced in the then-Hollywood New Wave (having starred with some success in Alan J. Pakula's "The Sterile Cuckoo").

But she's simply too overpowering for the role of Sally, originally created in the play and film of "I Am a Camera" by Julie Harris and in the Broadway stage version of "Cabaret" by the Harris-like Jill Haworth.

Haworth, with her slight voice, was no great singer, but neither is Sally. Minnelli turned her into a Mermanesque belter, a showstopper. Huh?

There's a great moment in the 2007 documentary "Chris and Don: A Love Story" when the writer Christopher Isherwood attends an advance screening of "Cabaret" with his longtime companion, Don Bachardy.

Isherwood created Sally Bowles. He wrote the 1945 two-part book "The Berlin Stories" (known largely as just "Berlin Stories" for some reason) that was the genesis of "Cabaret." As Bachardy tells it, Isherwood squirmed during the screening, whispering over and over again, "She's ruining it!," every time Liza Minnelli did one of her trademark Liza bits.

Isherwood's book was adapted into "I Am a Camera" in 1951 by John Van Druten ("Bell, Book and Candle" and "Old Acquaintance"), starring Harris, who would also star in the 1955 film version, in turn adapted by John Collier. There's more. Joe Masteroff did the stage-musical adaptation and Jay Presson Allen ("Marnie") is credited with the script for the Fosse film.

Got that?

For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical, a genre that has been muddied for the past two decades or so.  "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals.  They aren't.

They're dancicals. Characters don't sing in these movies - they just dance.

So, let's get something straight - a film musical isn't a musical unless its characters burst out into song, and not on a stage or some dream.

"Cabaret" isn't a musical.

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~Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret" 
~photography: Allied Artists 1972 ©

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

even more blasphemy!

Or, please don't play it again, Sam

As I said in my initial piece in this series, there are certain films that movie critics and film buffs are supposed to like. It's almost obligatory if you seriously want to belong to The Club. None more so than "Casablanca."

This 1942 Michael Curtiz film has become the litmus test to weed out those who really aren't dedicated movie aficionados at all. Anyone who doesn't like it (or "Citizen Kane," for that matter) becomes immediately suspect.

Well, I don't like it although, heaven knows, I've tried repeatedly to fall in line and experience the wonder of this political romance about love and conscience and the Nazis. I've gone into innumerable rep houses during my lifetime and forced myself to drink the filmic equivalent of kool aid, but to little avail. I suppose that I'm deficient because I just can't get into it.

There I said it: I. Just. Can't. Get. Into. It. It's that simple, although for the longest time, I couldn't understand why, given that it is adored by so many people and revered by professionals who probably know more than I do.

Consequently, this essay will be short and (relatively) sweet because I really can't think of much to say about Curtiz's much-loved "classic."

Each time I've experienced it, I'd sit there and then my mind would start to wander. Instead of "reading" the film, I'd find myself making mental notes about what I have to do afterwards - call my wife, pick up the dry cleaning, get the car washed. You know the drill.  Meanwhile, the film on-screen was being ignored. I'd wager that I've tried watching "Casablanca" more than a dozen times but I'm lucky if I make it to the movie's middle.

Bottom line: I just don't care.

Belatedly, I've reasoned that my reaction has something to do with a resistance to the film's star, Humphrey Bogart (he of the clenched teeth), and his rather stiff acting style, which isn't very companionable or natural.

Frankly, Bogart's iconic stature as an actor has always baffled me.

Again, I just don't get it - either him or his film. However, I'm sure there will be many more attempted viewings of "Casablanca" in my future.

And more mental lists.
*  *  *  *  *
~Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" 
~photography: Deutsche Kinemathek / Warner Bros. 1942 ©

Monday, July 03, 2017

more blasphemy!

Or, "Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"

Today's pick for my newly-founed Hall of the Overrated is, yes, the venereable "West Side Story" (1961) which, as Hollywood legend has put it, was initially directed by stage hand Jerome Robbins exclusively before studio favorite Robert Wise was brought in by the suits and took over.

If you bother to check out the TV listings in your local newspaper, you are probably aware that televised movies get star ratings that are immutable.  They never change - never - even though movies themselves change regularly in relation to our evolving perception of them.

Star ratings often caused trouble with readers when I was a working critic because, at times, I'd change the rating that I appointed to a film. Writing under the pressure of a deadline can make one hasty and, occasionally, a months or two after I reviewed a movie, I'd come to the realization that I had a different opinion of it and would adjust the rating accordingly.

All of this is in preamble to noting that "West Side Story" has been given four stars ever since it went to television. It's automatic. Well, it may have been a four-star movie in the '60s but not anymore. It would be helpful (but time-consuming) if newspapers actually considered giving aging films a second look. Me? I can't watch it anymore. Frankly, it makes me cringe.

Yes, I know, the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score is exquisite and the choreography by Robbins is electric and remains revolutionary.

But that's about it.

The film's problem? Simple. It's the awful script.

Critic Sam Adams put it best a few years ago in his critique of a DVD release of WSS for Philadelphia's long-gone City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win."

Yes, the dialogue.  The expression "daddy-o," invoked frequently in the film, was already dated even before the movie went into production.

I agree also with Sam's assessment of the unfair lambasting of the film's two romantic leads, particularly Richard Beymer as Tony. As concocted by Laurents, Tony is a patently unplayable character. None of the actors I've seen in the role has been very credible. Tony simply makes no sense - a supposed gang member who behaves like a refugee from a seminary.

And speaking of the dialogue, it doesn't help that Beymer is saddled with Laurents' most purple lines, which Lehman misguidedly preserved.

He's not alone. Poor Natalie Wood gets her share of bum dialogue, too. Thanks to the script, particularly the dialogue, the acting in WSS is painful; Wood and Russ Tamblyn are the film's only two convincing performers.

As for the songs, there have been decades of complaints about the fact that the singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed. True. But wait! Everyone's singing voice in the film is dubbed, thanks to associate producer Saul Chaplin. He was noted for wanting "perfect voices only" when it came to musicals. This gets weird in "West Side Story": Tamblyn's singing voice was dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith - so that when Tamblyn sings and Smith sings, it sounds like the same voice.

Why?  Because it is the same voice.

Even Rita Moreno, a trained musical-comedy star, was dubbed in part (by Betty Wand). I'd like to know why exactly? But, unfortunately, Chaplin is no longer around to explain his hang-up. Perhaps Rita can enlighten.
Speaking of the music for WSS, when Stephen Sondheim appeared on "Inside the Actors Studio" on September 11th, 1994, host James Lipton brought up Sondheim's reservations about his lyrics for the show.

Lipton: "I've heard you disparage your lyrics for 'West Side Story,' but I would give a great deal to have written, 'Oh, moon, grow bright and makes this endless day endless night.'"

Sondheim: "It's fine until you remember that it's sung by an adolescent in a gang."


On the plus side, Boris Leven's production design is a masterwork, as are the credits by Saul Bass who also served as visual consultant. Thanks to their contributions, the film remains as arty today as it was back in 1961.

I fear that, these days, "West Side Story" is effective only in the artificial setting of a legitimate theater. It has to remain stagebound to work.

It can't withstand the close-up scrutiny of the merciless camera. 

Note in Passing: About dubbing, I have nothing against it, but personally, I get a kick when a genuine movie star, one not known as a vocalist, sings in a film. I can overlook the occasional bad note. I love movie musicals but I'm no purist. Yesterday, I referred to Audrey Hepburn's rendition of "Moon River" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which is so much better than the perfect but soulless voice (of Marni Nixon) that comes out of her mouth in "My Fair Lady." Hepburn, unlike a lot of stars, had a particularly distinctive speaking voice. You can't change it for a musical because you have a need for perfection. It can potentially distort an overall performance. Luckily, Audrey Hepburn was enough of a pro - a true world-class actress - to overcome the unwise decision to play around with her voice in "Lady."
*  *  *  *  *

~Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"
 ~photography: United Artists / Mirisch Corporation 1961 ©

Sunday, July 02, 2017


Or, daring to dislike a movie that everyone else loves...

In a piece that ran about a decade ago in The San Francisco Chronicle, the paper's spirited movie critic Mick LaSalle casually referenced the Deborah Kerr-Cary Grant tearjerker, "An Affair to Remember" (1957), confessing that he had never seen it. A seemingly innocent, honest admission, right?

Well, some Chronicle readers were outraged, the situation underlining one of the misconceptions that your average moviegoer has about film critics. In this case, it's the impression that one crucial requirement for the job of reviewing movies is that the critic has seen every film classic ever made.

Mick cleverly responded to his enraged readers with a 2008 column devoted to five other lauded films he had never seen, including (gasp!) the anointed "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) by Robert Mulligan. Of the five, he was truly enthusiastic about only one and was actually quite tough on "Mockingbird," as well as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"(1968), one of the more amusingly overrated titles in movie history.

Mick astutely (and tersely) nails both movies in his essay.

Which brings me to another curious belief embraced by moviegoers - namely, that a critic has an obligation to endorse a film deemed "a classic" by those critics who have preceded him/her. You know, gold-standard titles such as ... "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

This particular notion provokes my inner contrarian, feuling an idea. The Passionate Moviegoer was conceived as something of a site of dissent - to negotiate on behalf of the overlooked, underrated and misunderstood. It's largely about films and movie people too often dismissed with facile, derisive amusement. You won't find the usual suspects here. There's been no fawning over "Citizen Kane," for example, and there never will be.

While this goal remains intact, I've been inspired to upend it by challenging movies considered sacrosanct - those select films deemed "classics" or described as "iconic."  In short, instead of defending underrated films, I'll scrutinize the overrated. And, yes, acceptable boundaries may be violated.

These are classic films/popular movies whose entitled status never fails to befuddle me - works I've seen more than once over the years, largely in an effort to comprehend the decades-long fuss that has surrounded them.

But where to start? There's Arthur Penn's "The Miracle Worker" (1962), a film that's so overacted and theatrical that it makes me nervous, and then there's Frank Capra's "irresistible" charmer, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a movie that I find highly resistible. I know, I know. Blasphemy!

Many other titles also annoy me and, while no two are alike, they all have one basic feature in common: Their wide appeal simply evades me.

For the next week, I'll profile one title per day - and, given that my views will be contrary to popular opinions, feel free to disagree. Let's start.

And so, my inaugural pick is...

                                    Drum-role, please! 

                                                        ..."Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)!

Speaking of charm, it's the one word usually invoked to describe this Blake Edwards film which, for me, is actually rather charmless.

My hunch is that the charm attributed to the film has more to do with its beloved star, Audrey Hepburn, than with the material at hand.

But Hepburn is hardly charming as Truman Capote's heroine, Holly Golightly.  For me, it's the first time she wasn't charming in a film - perhaps because she was encouraged to be a little too charming (there's that blasted word again!). Full disclosure: Audrey Hepburn has long been a personal favorite. Nevertheless, she's miscast as a simple hillbilly-turned-outrageous New York party girl and she's not very believable as either.

And yet, somehow, this became Hepburn's Signature Role.

"Breakfast at Tiffany's." Hmmm. Exactly what is it?  I've spent years - no, decades - trying to figure this out. I mean, is it a comedy? Not really. It's certainly silly but I could never locate a genuinely witty moment in it. 

Or is it a drama? Well, at certain points, it tries to be but it's really not very dramatic either. I doubt if even Edwards himself could have satisfactorily explained what it's supposed to be. It lacks the organic qualities necessay for even a select subgenre such as a "dramedy."

The movie's big scene is a party sequence staged as forced fun (meaning it's no fun at all) and then there's the odd moment when Hepburn sings (rather nicely) "Moon River," a lovely song that has nothing to do with either the film or her character. Cast-wise, George Peppard makes an unusually unpleasant leading man, Patricia Neal is creepy (but not in an interesting way) and Mickey Rooney is grotesque as Hepburn's Asian neighbor, an insulting low point for the talented actor.

But, wait! I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the film's pluses.

There are two of them.

The film's opening credits, accompanied initially by a moody instrumental version of "Moon River," are beautifully evocative: Hepburn on the vacant corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street at dawn, dressed in a simple black gown, with coffee and a Danish in hand, staring with quiet desire into the windows of Tiffany's.

And the film's final scene involving a rain-drenched Orange Tabby named Cat is a heart-tugger. However, while it's genuinely touching, the moment comes seemingly out of nowhere and has the quality of being tacked on. It doesn't feel organic, but then, again, nothing in this film feels very organic.

Perhaps that's a polite way of calling it a mess. That said, sincere apologies to both Audrey Hepburn and Orangey, who played Cat.
Much more interesting than the movie itself are tidbits about its production. For example, about that aformentioned black dress...

It was one of only four dresses Hubert de Givenchy created for Hepburn, who had nixed wearing anything by Edith Head, the legendary Paramount designer assigned to do the film's costumes. Hepburn brought in de Givenchy, who kept things simple with his handful of designs. Clever accessorizing is what gives the impression that Hepburn's wardrobe here is extravagant, a conceit compatible with the designing poseur she plays in the film.

Also, when Paramount Pictures purchased the screen rights to Truman Capote's novella, the studio's director of choice was then-newcomer John Frankenheimer, who would be making his big-screen directorial debut, after years of working in live TV. And he would be directing a script by playwright George Axelrod. Both Frankenheimer and Axelrod agreed with Capote about who should play Holly - namely Marilyn Monroe. And Axelrod already had a history with Monroe, having written the screenplays for her back-to-back films, "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) and "Bus Stop" (1956).

But Monroe was contracted to 20th Century-Fox, while Paramount wanted its own star contract player in the role - Audrey Hepburn.  When Hepburn was signed, Frankenheimer was out of the picture, replaced by Blake Edwards.  Rumor has it that Hepburn was aware of Frankenheimer's preference for Monroe and was worried she's be uncomfortable (and hindered) working with him, but it's also been written that she was skeptical about taking on so important a role with someone who had never directed a theatrical film.

Frankenheimer eventually made his directorial debut with the Burt Lancaster film, "The Young Savages," released the same year as "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  A year later, in 1962, he directed three huge hits - "All Fall Down," "Birdman of Alcatraz" (also with Lancaster) and "The Manchurian Candidate," on which he collaborated with Axelrod.

Frankenheimer would eventually return to Paramount to direct "Seven Days in May" (with Lancaster again)  in 1964 and "Seconds" in 1966. 

Note in Passing:  Back to Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember" and those outraged moviegoers. From where I sit, it's hardly a classic. A "guilty pleasure" would be a more accurate (and generous) description.
*  *  *  *  *

~from top: Orangey as Cat in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" 
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

An opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer

The party scene in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a still of Mickey Rooney in the film 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©

Audrey Hepburn and Orangey 
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 © 

Another opening credit for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
~cinematography: Franz Planer 

George Axelrod and Marilyn Monroe on the set of "Bus Stop"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1956 ©

~below: Hepburn, Orangey and George Peppard in the final scene
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1961 ©