Monday, December 31, 2018

a fan's notes

Ring out the old year, ring in the new... Today, a few left-over thoughts, proclamations and questions.

What if?

Once upon a time, the Hollywood studios routinely did stupid things. They still do but there's one area where today's movie companies are more enlightened than their predecessors: They've adopted a belated respect for filmic elements, preserving what the old studios mindlessly trashed.

Deleted scenes from the biggest contemporary embarrassment are not only retained but meticulously added to DVDs pitched as "special edition," "director's cut" or "extended version," while 60 minutes were cut from Orson Welles' 1942 gem, "The Magnificent Ambersons" and then junked by RKO. We can see as much of any "Transformers" film that we want to see (or don't) but can't see the complete "The Magnificent Ambersons."

RKO even reshot the ending, making it happier than what Welles had shot (although the reshot ending is closer to the Booth Tarkington story on which the film is based). The fact is, even in its truncated version, "The Magnificent Ambersons" is a film of dread, perhaps darker than a general audience would have supported.

Movie buffs have been united for decades in decrying this travesty. Welles severed ties with his film editor Robert Wise, who cut the film twice at RKO's orders and whom Welles called "a traitor." And although Wise went on to have a successful directorial career, he was forever shadowed by his participation in the cutting of "The Magnificent Ambersons," pretty much demonized for the rest of his life.

Full disclosure: I've never been a fan.

But wait!

Although I am happy to endorse any movie conspiracy, what if Welles' original cut was, well, unwatchable? Or, at least, difficult to watch? What if RKO actually improved the movie, saving Welles' arse and reputation by editing it behind his back? After all, even in truncated form, the film has been acclaimed as a "masterpiece." A critics poll overseen by Sight and Sound magazine named it was one of "the greatest films ever made." And, for what it's worth, Bob Wise contended that the edited version is better than the original. Was he being self-serving? Was he right? Seems to me that he was hammering the final nail in his coffin with that remark.

Although the excised footage and the negatives were destroyed by RKO, there have been rumors for decades that a rough cut of the film exists in Brazil where Welles was working (on another project) while his film was being edited/butchered. What if that print somehow materializes? And what if it's (dare I say it?) disappointing? I'm playing devil's advocate here.

When the legend becomes fact, make a pointless movie. 

For reasons that probably have everything to do with attracting an audience, Annapurna's trailers for Adam McKay's "Vice,"which played in theaters for months before its opening, positioned the film as a comedy. I guess that there is some kind of circuitous logic to this, given McKay's success as a director of comedies and the participation of his company, Gary Sanchez Productions (partnered with Will Ferrell).

But that's a stretch.

While the movie undeniably has its amusing moments, it's no comedy. Actually, it's rather depressing, even though it affects a breeziness in its depiction of Dick Cheney's reign of terror. Which was no laughing matter.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that most critics have bought into the sales pitch, describing it as a comedy in their reviews, and a few have singled out Tyler Perry as the only cast member who plays it straight as Colin Powell. But everyone plays it straight in the film. No one tries to be funny, not even Sam Rockwell in his uncanny impersonation of George W. Bush. The movie is well-acted, stylishly made but it's simply not funny.

Nor should it be.

And it never addresses the question of exactly why it was made. What were McKay's intentions? To mock Cheney? He doesn't. In fact, he makes the man borderline sympathetic. "Vice" is no lip-smacking liberal revenge fantasy. If that's what you're expecting, you'll be hugely disappointed.

And there are moments in it that make no sense, in neither narrative nor metaphorical terms. For example, McKay dwells endlessly on Cheney's open-heart surgery (a bit of advice: avert your eyes), while allotting a few, blink-and-you'll-miss-them shots of the obscene torture that Cheney sanctioned. And all of Bush's immediate predecessors are acknowledged (via archival footage), everyone except the most immediate, Bill Clinton.

He's glaringly absent. As is the reason that this movie was made in the first place.

Everyone's a critic.

Speaking of Adam McKay...

Most newspapers have a TV listing that includes one-line critiques of movies being televised that generally have nothing to do with the original reviews written by the paper's critic(s). Case in point: The New York Times and its TV listing of McKay's terrific 2006 Will Ferrell comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Originally, the TV critique for the film was a simple (and simple-minded) "a paean to product placement." 

Huh? That's a fairly dismissive view of a film that was greeted rather enthusiastically by one of the Times chief movie critics, A. O. Scott, and whose original screenplay (written by Ferrell and McKay) was singled out for Oscar consideration by its other chief critic, Mahohla Dargis. (Although it's not generally known, "Talledega Nights" opened to positive reviews.)

Well, that original mini-critique, probably written by a copy editor, was subsequent changed to "a good-hearted spoof" in the Times listing. So what about the "product placement" reference? That came from a squib, probably also written by a copy editor, directing the Times' readers to Tony Scott's review. Scott never mentions product placement in his review but he does refer to "corporate sponsorship," which makes sense, given that the film is a comedy about professional Nascar drivers. Copy editors!

Bad Hair Day.

If you've ever thumbed through People, you've undoubtedly noticed a regular feature toward the back of the magazine in which two seemingly identical pictures are placed side-by-side and the readers are challenged to locate the minute changes that make them different. I think of this every time I watch Billy Wilder's "The Apartment." Which is often.

Having experienced Wilder's gem over and over and over again, I've picked up on subtle elements about it. For example, star Shirley MacLaine's trademark pixie shag - considered so off-beat at the time that one wag suggested that she combed her hair with an eggbeater.

And that's the look that Shirley sports through most of the movie, except for one, brief fleeting moment early in the movie when her hair looks similar but different - that's when her character meets Fred MacMurray's for a quick drink in a Chinese restaurant. The eggbeater look is gone!

In the scene immediately before it, in which she sets up a tentative date to see "The Music Man" with Jack Lemmon, the hair above her forehead is long and uneven (see the "before" photo, above). A few minutes later, her hair actually looks coiffed, a tad too perfect, and with short, straight bangs (see the "after" photo, below). Her hair momentarily changes for that scene and only that scene. And it looks, well, unnatural - like a wig.

My theory is that Wilder had to reshoot the Chinese restaurant sequence (for whatever reason) months later and MacLaine's hair had changed in the interim. (By this point, she was filming William Wyler's "The Children's Hour.") So she was given a wig to approximate the look that she originally had. Feel free to disagree - or you can tell me that I'm imagining all this. I guess only MacLaine herself can solve this mystery. If she remembers. Award of the Week.

Movie stars are insatiable. There can never be enough of the three As -  attention, applause or awards. And to keep them happy, Hollywood and its imitators oblige by inventing new reasons to celebrate them. Stars are given awards at film festivals, at year-end critics' functions and, of course, at awards time. Which is right now. Enter Variety, which has come up with yet another award - its annual Creative Impact in Acting Award. It's not new, except to me. I never knew about it until just a few minutes ago.

I'm not really sure what this award is about but this year's recipient is Emily Blunt, so I can't complain too much. Blunt appeared in "A Quiet Place" and "Mary Poppins Returns" during 2018 but has been praise-worthy in everything. When she accepts her Creative Impact in Acting Award, I hope Emily explains it.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

hollywood deluged by political fireworks!!!

The politicization of, well, just about everything - but of Hollywood in particular - has been the defining event of twenty-eighteen. Inarguably.

The prevailing phenom of the year has been an on-going, ubiquitous reality show that's virtually inescapable because (1) it airs on every network and cable channel and (2) it can never be canceled, per Executive Privilege. For better or worse (actually, much worse), we're stuck with it.

There was no way that any other entertainment-based medium could compete with it or its 24/7 exposure. Consequently, the achievements of Hollywood seem vague and piddling, despite the focused efforts of both industry and critics groups to prove otherwise with year-end accolades.

And it's hit me, too! (Poor me.) My own humble take on what mattered, entertainment-wise, in 2018 is somewhat scattered and much more personal (and political) than usual, but here goes anyway...

Favorite Film "True Stories"

For me, the year's best movie was actually released by Warner Bros. in 1986: The Criterion Collection's 2018 Blu-ray release of David Byrne's wildly inventive, willyfully oddball, new-style movie musical, "True Stories." (This is an invaluable, much-needed corrective to the DVD that Warner Bros. itself released in the '90s, a transfer of the pan-and-scan version made for syndicated television and formatted for the old box TV sets.)

Set in Virgil, Texas - an open-air location that's strangely airless - Byrne's film (his first and only directorial effort) acts as a series of vignettes seemingly inspired by the kind of stories headlined in supermarket tabloids, all connected by Virgil's planned Celebration of Special-ness.

There are yarns here about the world's most desperate bachelor (John Goodman), the world's biggest liar (Jo Harvey Allen), the world's laziest woman (Swoozie Kurtz) and a happily-married couple (Annie McEnroe and Spaulding Gray) who haven't spoken directly to each other in years.

Supermarket tabloids aside, there is something Almanesque about Byrne's little movie, written by playwright Beth Henley and actor Steven Tobolowsky (who were an item at the time). And much like Altman's "Nashville," it's driven by a marvelous song score - by The Talking Heads ("Wild, Wild Life" and "People Like Us," among others).

Included in Criterion's Blu-ray packaging is a CD of the film's first, complete soundtrack, including Byrne's eccentric background melodies. At the time of the film's release in '86, Byrne released two albums - one of the film's background score and one of The Talking Heads' versions of the songs.  So, it's a pleasure to hear John Goodman on "People Like Us" and Annie McEnroe's wonderfully loopy reading of the hauntingly evocative "Dream Operator," sung during a wildly weird fashion-show sequence that's one of the highlights of the movie.

David Byrne and company were downright prescient. The singular strangeness of "True Stories" and especially its delusional middle-of-the-country characters have caught up with the times. One can easily imagine these "little people" being whipped into a frenzy at a modern political rally.

My self-indulgent reasoning for highlighting it aside, "True Stories" really is "The Movie of 2018!"

That said, there were a few other worthy titles, rare movies (and TV series) that I actually wanted to see for a second or third time...
 "Isle of Dogs"  
     "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"  
           "The Bookshop"  
                     "Double Lover" ("L'amant double") 
                           "A Simple Favor"
                                "Eighth Grade" → 
                                          "Three Identical Strangers" 
Favorite Performers →  Matt Damon (as Brett Kavanaugh) / “Saturday Night Live” (September 29th, 2018 episode)                                                 
andMelissa McCarthy  (as Lee Israel) / “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

and Robert Redford (as Forrest Tucker) / "The Old Man & the Gun"

andJulia Roberts (as Holly Burns) "Ben Is Back"

And nine others... 
     Ansel Elgort / “Jonathan”
          Mj Rodriguez / “Pose"
              Jonah Hill / “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot"
                   Lucas Hedges / "Boy Erased" & "Ben Is Back"
                         Patricia Clarkson / "Sharp Objects"
                                Richard E. Grant / "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
                                     Andrea Riseborough / Nancy"
                                           Blake Lively / “A Simple Favor”
                                               Rami Malek / “Bohemian Rhapsody" 
Favorite Line of the Year  The Commander in Chief during a  moment in the Helsinki episode of the reality series when he described the current Russian President as "extremely strong and powerful."  Which sounds exactly like something that Jane Russell would have said about Robert Mitchum in their hot 1952 Josef von Sternberg/Nicholas Ray collaboration, "Macao."

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(from top)

 ~Fireworks overtake Holywood
~Photography: Getty Images

~Clever publicity art for "True Stories"
~Photography: Warner Bros. 1986© 

~John Goodman singing "People Like Us" in the film
~the fashion show at the Virgil Shopping Mall
~photography: Warner Bros. 1986©

 ~Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh on SNL
~photography: NBC 2018©

 ~Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
~photography: Fox Searchlight Pictures 2018©

~Poster art for "Macao"
~photography: RKO Radio Pictures 1952©