Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"vertigo"/'marnie," fizzy twins

Although it's never been noted, "Vertigo" (1958) and "Marnie" (1964) - for my money, the two crown jewels in Alfred Hitchcock's matchless canon - are companion pieces. They are, in many ways, the same film.

These twins are deeply psychological studies - leisurely, seductive narratives with both James Stewart and Sean Connery as obsessive, controlling men, and Kim Novak and Tippi Hendren as the women whom they respectively ensnare, obstensibly for their protection. Or is it the women who ensnare the men? It doesn't matter. What's clear is that the person being rescued and saved must first be vanquished, conquered.

In "Marnie," Diane Baker fills the curiously ambivalent role that Barbara Bel Geddes has in "Vertigo," only with a dash of tangy malevolence. Irrevocably linking the films are the two gloriously symphonic, strikingly similar scores penned by Bernard Hermann (pictured left), both of which seem driven by the very madness that permeate Hitchcock's films.

"Vertigo" and "Marnie" also somewhat share the same history in that both were received indifferently by critics when each debuted. Both were belatedly rediscovered and redefined, finding appreciative support - "Vertigo" more so than "Marnie." I remain hopeful that, one day, "Marnie" will be seen as the masterwork that it is.

Turner Classic Movies will be airing the two titles during its all-day Hitchcock marathon on New Year's Eve - 31 December. "Marnie" screens at 9:15 p.m. (est) and "Veritgo" will be shown at 3:30 p.m. (est).

Uncork the champagne early and enjoy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

forgotten coppola

How one responds to the latter-day Francis Ford Coppola reveals, I suppose, what one likes about and expects from movies. Of late, Coppola hasn't engaged moviegoers, not even the art-house set, and has enthused critics in only a mild and often begrudging way.

His 2009 "Tetro" is his second consecutive movie to come on the scene with a whiff of anticipation, only to be greeted with a shrug and then promply forgottened. To the best of my knowledge, this aggressively arty, often painful pseudo-autobiographical film hasn't made one year-end 10 Best list. None. Nada. Almost the same, exact fate was experienced by Coppola's previous film, 2007's "Youth Without Youth," which was his first directorial effort in a decade (the last being 1997's "The Rainmaker").

But the chilling implications of "Tetro" cannot be denied - even its redemptive ending offers no surcease. A powerful, if somewhat limited, film, it should not be allowed to descend into oblivion.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"It's Complicated," or "Getting Took..."

Baldwin bulldozes Streep in "It's Complicated"
"He's a taker. Some people take, some people get took - and they know they're getting took - and there's nothing they can do about it."

-Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960)


In preamble to commenting on her new film, "It's Complicated," I should note that I am a big fan of Nancy Meyers'. Huge. Meyers is often lumped in with Nora Ephron because of the shared subjects that they pursue, but Meyers is the better director. Hands-down.

OK, with that out of the way, I have to say that I think there's a disconnect between the movie that Meyers thinks she made and what actually transpires in "It's Complicated."

The film is only marginally about an older woman (Meryl Streep), attractive and single, who not only suddenly finds herself balancing two men (Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin) but also having an affair with the ex-husband (Baldwin) she lost to a younger mistress 10 years earlier.

She's gone full circle, see? Now, the wife is the mistress.

That may sound like a vaguely queasy premise, but what "It's Complicated" is really about is much more disturbing.

Step back and block out Streep and you'll see that the movie is really a strange - and strangely empathetic - tribute to a pig, namely the narcissistic ex and his self-obsessed bad behavior. Throughout most of the film, Baldwin's character gets what he wants when he wants it.

At one point, Baldwin pantomimes the words, "I'm so happy," to Streep. He looks perfectly content. She doesn't. He's a taker. She gets took.

This could be the theme of a tough dark comedy, but "It's Complicated" isn't that comedy. It isn't nearly complicated - or tough - enough.

Alec Baldwin may get third billing here but he's clearly the film's lead player, having more scenes than either Streep or Martin, and devouring each one in a morbidly obese way. To say that he chews on the scenery would be an understatement. And so, almost by default, good, gray Martin becomes a fast friend because he's so quiet, restrained and reserved.

Less is more, Alec. Hail, subtlety!

One other thing... On the basis of this film and two of her previous ventures, "Somethings Got to Give" (2003) and "The Holiday" (2006), Meyers has become a specialist of what one wag calls "architecture porn" - I prefer "home porn" - movies that not only showcase but wildly fetishize absurdly extravagant homes with their expensive, magazine-pretty accoutrements. The "House Beautiful" homes in her films gleam and sparkle as no homes in real life do.

Nit-Picking: Martin plays an architect in "It's Complicated." The film opens with Meryl Streep and family helping youngest child Zoe Kazan move out of the family house. Streep reflects that all her kids are gone now and her older daughter Caitlin Fitzgerald asks if she's afraid to sleep alone there. A couple of times later in the film, reference is made to her empty nest status. Given that, why on earth is Streep's character having an addition constructed on what seems to be an already huge house? I know this is only a movie, but it doesn't make sense. Shouldn't she be downsizing or moving? Wasn't there a better, more logical way to introduce Martin into her life other than using architecture?

Advice to Streep: Go with Steve. Definitely.

"nine"/nein

Nicole Kidman coddles petulant Daniel Day-Lewis in "Nine"

Rob Marshall's "Nine" is pretty much what I expected - which wasn't much. Full disclosure: For some reason, I consciously avoided both Broadway incarnations of the musical play from which it's been adapted.

Adapted by way of Fellini's “8½,” natch.

This isn't a movie musical, per se, but something akin to one of those glitzy, psychedelic TV variety-show specials in the 1970s, with star Daniel Day-Lewis acting as host, ushering each elephantine production number in and out, in assembly-line fashion. And "elephantine" is the operative word for these soulless numbers. Marshall has calculated every single song-and-dance routine here as a whopping, in-your-face showstopper.

There are no modest, quiet numbers in "Nine" - amazing, considering that the film's original source material is all about ... introspection.

Actually, in terms of Fellini, "Nine" is much closer to that old SNL skit, Tom Schiller's hilarious Fellini-send-up, "La Dolce Gilda." And "La Dolce Gilda" is better.

And more accurate.
Gilda Radner (with Dan Aykroyd as "Marcello") plays a paparazzi-beseiged actress in Tom Schiller's spoof "La Dolce Gilda"
Also, why would a choreographer of all people hyper-edit his dance sequences into jarring slivers? I could see a filmmaker with no deep appreciation of dance doing that, but a choreographer? Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire must be roiling. I miss the days when one could savor a dancer in full frame/full body, doing his/her thing - when you saw the length of a dancer's body in movement, in minimally-cut takes.

Cotillard, with Day-Lewis, excels in Marshall's frenzied, soulless fantasia.
As artistically blocked filmmaker Guido, Day-Lewis is strangely resistible as a man who also allegedly drives many women to obsessive distraction. (We have to suspend disbelief about both his filmmaking and sexual talents.) But I do like the actresses here, even though they are all required to bump and grind their numbers. Particularly memorable and affecting are Penélope Cruz and Marion Cotillard - Cotillard being the only one who actually acts her songs, bringing an emotional life to them. And what songs! (Not to be taken as a compliment. I mean, those rhymes - "in his head"/"instead.")

Cotillard, like the others, isn't spared Marshall's fetishizing. She's been assigned a gratuitous strip titled "Take If Off" that my colleague Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer aptly compares to Ritz Hayworth's "Put the Blame on Mame" number from Charles Vidor's "Gilda" (1946) . But Marshall also references Natalie Wood here: Cotillard's hairstyle and dress and her coy removal of a glove are direct quotes from Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962). Initially. Then all the slithering sets in.

Hudson in her glitzy Big Number

The other actresses just sing - and move like big animatronic toys - making no impression. All except poor Kate Hudson who, unfortunately, stands out for a dubious reason: She seems to be channelling Ann-Margret (in her deranged "Viva Las Vegas" period) as she jumps up and down maniacally and shouts out the lyrics to something called “Cinema Italiano.”

And one Ann-Margert is quite enough for me.

The largely downbeat reviews parceled out to "Nine" - at least by the major film critics (led by A.O. Scott in The New York Times) - contrast sharply with the secondary pre-Oscar nominations awards and citations (Golden Globes, the SAGs, Critics' Choice, etc.) that have come its way.

This is nothing new. There's a history of questionable films being honored before the bad reviews come in. And it always reflects poorly on those eager award-givers. They've generously given "Nine" the same benefit of doubt that Rob Marshall expects us to extend to Guido.

Note in Passing: As a devoted movie-musical fan, there was a time when I'd rush out to buy the attending soundtrack album of each new film musical. Well, I've managed to restrain myself lately, passing on the recordings (as well as DVDs) of the film versions of "Dreamgirls," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers," all blurs now.

Alas, "Nine" has joined this august group.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

the movie year. 2009. unannotated.


  • "Inglorious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino) / 1
  • "Up in the Air" (Jason Reitman) / 2
  • "Gake no eu no Ponyo" (Hayao Miyazaki) / 3
  • "The Hurt Locker" (Kathryn Bigelow) / 4
  • "A Serious Man" (Ethan and Joel Coen) / 5
  • "The Girlfriend Experience" (Steven Soderbergh) / 6
  • "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" (Lee Daniels) / 7
  • "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans" (Werner Herzog) / 8
  • "Brothers" (Jim Sheridan) / 9
  • "Coco Avant Chanel" (Anne Fontaine) / 10
  • "Whatever Works" (Woody Allen)
  • "Les plages d'Agnès" (Agnès Varda)
  • "State of Play" (Kevin Macdonald)
  • "Me and Orson Welles" (Richard Linklater)
  • "The Hangover" (Todd Phillips)/"I Love You, Man" (John Hamburg)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

alec, the actor who cried wolf

Every so often, an actor/actress comes along, upon whom one plants a few dreams. These people are more than favorites. They are screening-room buddies whose each film is eagerly, even hotly, anticipated.

These are people we cast in fantasy films. Well, some of us do.

Burt Reynolds and Beau Bridges are two actors from my distant past who meant something to me. Alec Baldwin and Debra Winger are two others - over-the-top talents who, at one time, I envisoned as playing George and Martha in a remake of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Come on, doesn't that sound absolutely terrific?

But Baldwin and Winger shared another quality apart from their sizable acting talents. Both were pretty tempestuous. So my cockeyed dreams for them went unfulfilled as their careers spun out of control.

But Alec - okay, I feel as if I know him - rebounded. His is a comeback that rivals John Travolta's. And he seems to be enjoying himself in his Second Act. Good for him. But for some bizarre reason, he has this penchant for periodically making - how shall I put this? - threats.

It's no secret that, once again, Alec Baldwin has threatened to call it quits.

This is the third time, by my count, and each time he does this, I cringe.

The first time, if you recall, occured nearly a decade ago during the 2000 Primary. Baldwin vowed to leave the country and move to Canada if George W. Bush won the Presidency. Well, George did win.

But Alec didn't leave.

The second time was in April of 2007 when Baldwin left his now-notorious voicemail message for his 11-year-old daughter. He was so mortified when he was cornered by the media - nothing is private today - that he threatened to leave the struggling "30 Rock" at the end of the season.

Well, "30 Rock" hung on and so did ... Alec.

Now, he tells Men's Journal magazine in its latest issue that he will leave acting in 2012. And while making this premature farewell, Baldwin rather gratuituously noted that he considers his movie career to be "a complete failure." I'm sure that statement heartens the people with whom he's worked on such worthwhile projects as "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Beetle Juice," "The Departed," "Miami Blues," "Married to the Mob," "The Cooler," "Lymelife," "Outside Providence" and "Talk Radio."

Alec, relax. Your filmmography is full-bodied and fascinating.

But wait! While Baldwin may actually bail this time, he is currrently all over the place doing different things - something that's unlikely to change.

Let's see... He writes for the Huffington Post ... he's part of the New York Times Arts & Leisure speaker series ... he just signed for a second season as co-host of Turner Classic Movies' The Essentials ... and, of course, he will host the next Oscarcast in tandem with Steve Martin.

Alec Baldwin says he's leaving. But is he really?

Why don't I believe him?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

cinema obscura: Griffin Dunne's "The Accidental Husband" (2008)

Morgan and Thurman in the unreleased "The Accidental Husband," directed by Griffin Dunne.
Uma Thurman's latest film, "Motherhood," directed by Katherine Dieckmann, opened in a few "select" cities recently and then disappeared after a week - an indication that it will travel no further theatrically.

Next stop: DVD.

But at least it was released.

What on earth happend to Thurman's previous film, "The Accidental Husband," from 2008? It was directed by Griffin Dunne and co-stars "Grey's Anatomy's" Jeffrey Dean Morgan before he even made "Watchmen," and the ubiquitous Colin Firth - and Sam Shepard! With a cast like this, why wasn't "The Accidental Husband" ever released?

In it, Thurman plays a popular radio talk show host, emgaged to Firth but already married to Morgan - much to her chagrin. And confusion. See, she doesn't remember even marrying Morgan. So what gives? This sound like the kind of inane romcom that most studios have no problem releasing - at least, not when the inane romcom stars Sandra Bullock.

Apparently, the Morgan character is harboring some "big secret" which, for me, is code that his character is really gay. I'm only guessing here.

Uma's recent movie choices have come in under the radar in terms of box-office, but they've been nothing if not risky and diverse - Susan Stroman's "The Producers" 2005), Ben Younger's Prime" (2005), Ivan Reitman's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" (2006) and Vadim Perelman's "The Lies Before Her Eyes" (2007). It doesn't help that both "Motherhood" and "The Accidental Husband" have been virtually invisible.

Hey, Give her a break. Let's see the Griffin film already!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"And The Premio Dardos Award Goes To..."

I've been remiss. Way remiss. Two movie-blog colleagues, Edward Copeland and Moira Finney, have individually - and generously - nominated my little site for The Premio Dardos Award, which is given for "recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing."

Mostly, it's a clever way to promote a sort of daisy-chain fraternization among movie bloggers - a way to nudge naturally solitary people into a kind of internet socialization. See, it behooves the honoree to then follow suit and pass the torch to five other bloggers.

Edward, who is the main writer of the eponymous "Edward Copeland on Film," flattered The Passionate Moviegoer by commenting, "there is no better evidence of Joe's passion than his subject matter, defending and remembering the more obscure titles from cinematic history. No matter how much you think you might know about movies, odds are you will learn of new ones if you check out Joe's site."

And Moira, author of "Skeins of Thought," wrote, "Joe ... devotes himself to those myriad neglected figures and movies seemingly left by the roadside in our societal rush toward cultural amnesia. Whether he is trying to find the source of Jack Lemmon's quicksilver appeal or understand Vincente Minnelli's valedictory films or express just why we miss Jack Carson, Joe is consistently thoughtful and knowledgeable without being ponderous."

Thank you, Edward and Moira!

So, now it's my turn. My five picks meet the expected cultural-literary criteria but, frankly, these are sites to which I'm addicted - that I check out on a daily basis. That said, my five faves - drum roll, please! - are:

Dave Kehr/Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinéphilia

Dave's remarkable site is noteworthy not only for the number of hits it gets (275 and still counting ... 276 ...277) but also for the intelligence and insight behind each comment. There's actually very little of Dave in it. He announces the topic - always linked to his weekly DVD column in The New York Times - and then hands it over to his regulars, who run with it. A vital dialogue ensues, with Dave weighing in every now and then. He is not only the best working critic around but also the most generous. Dave is also the only DVD reviewer whose writing is actually based on watching the DVD and not recalling what he merely remembers about the film(s) in question.


Carrie Rickey/Flickgrrl

Carrie, a great critic and an even greater writer, keeps matters simple on her site. She will write a brief, self-contained essay on a movie trend or something she's picked up on during a screening or something she's read, and each opinion/observation, tersely stated, is then followed by Carrie's staple question - what does the reader think? It's an invitation difficult to refuse. Carrie keeps matters - and herself - accessible, drawing us in, and she seems to get an authentic kick from the fact that she learns as much from her readers as we do from her.


Daryl Chin/Documents on Art & Cinema

To be honest, I can't get enough of Daryl's impish column. Film plays a big part in it, of course, but that doesn't stop him from being bracingly eclectic, musing about other arts, life itself, just about anything that crosses his mind. In any given post, Daryl will shimmy his way through an assortment of topics. And he dishes in a stream-of-consciousness style that is compulsively readable. It's a singular blog.


Kim Morgan/
Sunset Gun

Kim is amazing - as prolific as she is obsessed. And her obsession for film knows no boundaries. She's insatiable for movies and her topics are varied and approached with the kind of depth that's missing from most film writing these days. Having a blog can be liberating and Kim takes full advantage, writing lengthy, leisurely-paced, fact-filled essays.


Glenn Kenny/
Some Came Running

OK, full disclosure: There's no way I could dislike a blog titled after my favorite Minnelli movie, but beyond that primal attraction, Glenn brings genuine wit to his posts. He knows a lot about film but never shows off or drops names. He just has fun and, along the way, he imparts valuable information and essential perspective. But best of all are the consistent laughs.

With that said, now please go and check out the above five remarkable sites and - these, too: Dennis Cazzalio/Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Jim's Moviezzz Blog, Girish Shambu and Lou Lumenick. And, by all means, leave comments. Start a dialogue with these masters. Now.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

cinema obscura: Joe Dante's "Matinee" (1993)

Speaking of 1962 as a great movie year...

Now is the time to praise "Matinee," which happens (perhaps not so coincidentally) to be set in 1962.

Paying homage to genre shlockmeister William Castle, Joe Dante - a genre filmmaking giant himself - resurrects the peerless movie year, 1962, for this astute, affectionately detailed imagining of a shameless, C-level mogul whipping his teen target audience into a frenzy over his latest gimmick flick.

Light and vivacious on the surface, but with a subtle undercurrent of melancholy and regret, "Matinee" is irresistible to anyone who has been transported - and who sorely misses - such Castle-style diversions as "The Tingler" and "Homicidal" with their one-of-a-kind novelty props. ("The Tinlger" had the auditorium seats wired to goose the audience at apt times, while "Homicidal" came with its nifty "fright break," offering patrons a chance to get out of the theater or be scared to death.)

That effortless actor John Goodman uses his size and his winning personality to play the Castle on-screen surrogate here, a man of sheer force, one Lawrence Woolsey, who pulls out all stops and breaks all the rules of showmanship to unveil his latest kitschy horror effort, "Mant," to the teens of Key West, Florida.

Lurking in the background are the Cold War and the Cuban Missle Crisis which, Woolsey, of course, exploits for all they're worth.

Dante faves, Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, pop up as expected, adding to the fun, and there are game turns by Jesse White, David Clennon, Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert and filmmaker John Sayles in supporting roles. But there's also memorable work here by the women - Cathy Moriarty and Kellie Martin, a talented, fetching screen presence who seems to have all but disappeared.

"Matinee" is one of two criminally neglected films by Dante, the other being "The 'Burbs"," a funny film with Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher. Both films have made it to DVD, "The 'Burbs" apparently in a "director's cut" version, and are definitely worth adding to your film library.

BTW, in time for Halloween, HBO will telecast "Matinee" at 6 a.m. (est) on Saturday, 31 October, but probably the the HBO pan-and-scan style.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

cinema obscura: Henry Koster's "Take Her, She's Mine" (1963)

Sandra Dee and Bob Denver in Henry Koster's "Take Her, She's Mine," based on the Ephron play
James Stewart took a break from the dark films he made for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the late 1950s to do two family larks for Henry Koster and Twentieth Century-Fox early in the 1960s.

First came, "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" in 1962, a film largely remembered for a very weird turn by the singular John McGiver and the film debut of Lauri Peters, who was fresh off the stage version of "The Sound of Music" and still married to her co-star from that show, Jon Voight.

While "Mr. Hobbs" has been available on DVD for quite some time, its successor, Koster's affable "Take Her, She's Mine" from 1963, remains elusive. The Fox Movie Channel is telecasting it on Wednesday, 28 October at 2 p.m. (est).

Adapted by Nunnally Johnson from the play by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, "Take Her, She's Mine" cast Stewart and Audrey Meadows as the overprotective parents of a teenage daughter who's off to study in Paris. The Ephrons based the play on their experiences with their own daughter, Nora - named Mollie and played by Sandra Dee on film.

On stage, the parts of the parents were played by Art Carney (prior to his doing "The Odd Couple") and Phyllis Thaxter, with then-newcomer Elizabeth Ashley winning a Tony award as the problematic Mollie. The Broadway production, which opened at the Biltmore Theatre on 21 December, 1961 and played there for 404 performances, was produced by Harold Prince and directed by George Abbott.

June Harding, a promising young actress at the time, played the role of Ashley's younger sister, Liz, on stage (a part essayed by Charla Doherty in the Koster film). Harding was beautifully showcased when she was part of the ensemble of "The Richard Boone Show," an omnibus jto-do which presented a series of original playlets during the 1963-1964 TV season. She would make her most pleasing film debut opposite Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell in Ida Lupino's "The Trouble with Angles" in 1966 and then, inexplicably, disappear. A great loss.

The Fox Movie Channel will rebroadcast "Take Her, She's Mine" on Thanksgiving - Thursday, 26 November at 10 a.m.

Monday, October 19, 2009

cinema obscura: Gene Saks' "Bye Bye Birdie" (1995)

The cast of the good film of "Bye Bye Birdie," the one directed by Gene Saks, not George Sidney
After nearly 50 years, "Bye Bye Birdie" has made it back to Broadway for, unbelievably, its very first New York City revival.

The beloved Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical comedy from 1960 (their debut) had been Gower Champion's Broadway directorial debut, with Champion both helming and choreographing, and his appealing cast included Dick Van Dyke as Albert, a reluctant talent agent; Chita Rivera as Rosie, his secretary and muse; the late, inimitable Kay Medford as Albert's grasping mother, Mae; Dick Gautier, dynamite as the Presley-like Conrad Birdie; Susan Watson, the first and best Kim MacAfee, a girl possibly being corrupted by Birdie; Michael J. Pollard (yes!) as Hugo Peabody, her lovelorn boyfriend, and the late Paul Lynde who, as her father, turned the all-American dad into a sissy. A nice subversive touch, especially when set in the idyllic Sweet Apple, Ohio - Small Town, U.S.A.

The New York Times greeted with the new revival with a pre-opening puff piece by Charles McGrath and Ben Brantley's savage pan, both of which invoked unfavorable comments about George Sidney's 1963 film version.

No complaints from me here. Sidney's film was pretty much a bastardization of the show - albeit an inexplicably popular bastardization.

No mention, however, of the fine 1995 television film made from the material by Gene Saks - a version that went back to Michael Stewart's original book for the show (the TV film has no screenplay credit) and that restored the more sophisticated Strouse-Adams songs that Sidney and his hack writer Irving Brecher promptly trashed in order to showcase Ann-Margret, grotesquely miscast as a teen ingenué. Columbia let Sidney and Brecher make so many bizarre and gratuitous changes that you have to wonder why the studio bought the film rights to the show in the first place.

Not that it mattered at the time - or even now - but Sidney's film also starred Van Dyke and Lynde, recreating their Broadway roles (Lynde in a less exaggerated, more conventional version of what he played on stage), a wasted Janet Leigh as Rosie, a game Maureen Stapleton as Mae, Bobby Rydell, a bad actor utterly hopeless as Hugo Peabody, and a humorless stick named Jesse Pearson, a complete wash-out as Birdie.

Jason as Albert
Champion, who was initially set to make his film-directing debut with "Birdie," reportedly took one look at the script and bailed. Among the excised songs were the excellent "An English Teacher," which opened the show, the cynical "All-American Boy," the Sinatra-esque "Baby, Talk to Me," the defiant duet "What Did I Ever See in Him?" and, most jaw-dropping of all, the show-stopping "Spanish Rose." After Champion left, Onna White was brought in to choreograph. (He eventually made his film directorial debut the same year - 1963 - with Debbie Reynolds' "My Six Loves"; Reynolds was Champion's original choice for the screen Rosie; he had Jack Lemmon, his co-star from H.C. Potter's 1955 musical, "Three for the Show," in mind for Albert.)
Janet Leigh, being a good sport and a team player in the misconceived first "Birdie"
The 1963 film Disney-fied the material, stressing the kids (mostly A-M). The adult characters were either downplayed or turned into morons. Albert, ostensibly the lead character, was planning to be an English teacher in the stage version (hence, the opening song); for Sidney's film, his college major was changed to chemistry - an alteration that added all sorts of nonsense involving a pill called Speedo, a turtle and a Russian ballet company. The "Put on a Happy Face" number, staged on Broadway as an appealing Gene Kelly-type bit, incorporated stick-figure animation for the film. The whole affair is crude and idiotic - and unnecessary.
Chita & Dick in the original
And, apparently, the new Broadway revival is just as bad (that's if you go by Ben Brantley, of course). So much for "Bye Bye Birdie's" reputation as "foolproof."

Before Saks filmed his version, he directed a 1991 revival with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking that opened in San Francisco and then toured. It was full of newcomers - up-and-comging Susan Egan in the A-M role of Kim MacAfee; Marc Kudisch as Conrad Birdie and Steve Zahn (yes!) as Hugo Peabody, the goof who fancies Kim his inmorata.

Alan Sues, from "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," was once on-board to play the Lynde part of Harry MacAfee - and presumably revive the sissiness of the role - but he never became a part of the ensemble. The role was played by Dale O'Brien, who essayed it as a sitcom dad.

Saks' was the complete show. He added a new song for Tune called "A Giant Step" - and he resisted inserting the title song that was especially written for (forced upon?) the Sidney film. There was one deletion, however: Saks dropped the Act One "How to Kill a Man" dance, a comic dream ballet that I suspect was designed by Champion specifically to showcase Rivera. In it, Rosie dances her way through fantasy murders and the piece ends with Van Dyke's Albert, expiring and ascending into the sky - the rafters - wearing wings and being pulled up by wire.

(Note in Passing: "How to Kill a Man" has never been staged in any other production of "Bye Bye Birdie" that I've seen, only the original - although, frankly, I have no idea if it is included in the new revival.)

When this "Birdie" went on tour, Strouse and Adams added another new song - "He's Mine," a witty battle of wills sung by Rosie and Mae.

Saks ("Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple") clearly learned a lot in the four years between staging his revival and directing the movie. His '95 TV film is the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie," with more music than I've seen in any other version of the show. "A Giant Step" from the 1991 revival was inserted into the plotline, but not "He's Mine." Instead, Strouse and Adams wrote two new songs, "Let's Settle Down" (for Rosie) and "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore" (for Mae). Saks also gave in and used the song "Bye Bye Birdie" twice - over the main credits and also as a pleasing four-part harmony, rendered by a quartet of teenage girls.

Kudisch reprised his role as Birdie for the TV version, joined by versatile Jason Alexander as Albert, a very fine Vanessa Williams as Rosie, Tyne Daly, frighteningly good as Mae, Chynna Phillips, a modest Kim, and George Wendt as Harry. The '95 film also revived the role of Gloria Rasputin, played by Vickie Lewis (who appeared with Alexander on a few "Seinfeld" episodes as his secretary.)

Saks filmed the material in the style of Robert Zemeckis' charming "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978), with production designer Charles C. Bennett and set decorator Cynthia T. Lewis, abetted by cinematographer Glen MacPherson, giving the opening New York scene a gray, near-sepia-toned look and the scenes set in Sweet Apple a pastel glow. Mary E. McLeod's costume design fully complement this coloring. And Ann Reinking, Saks' Rosie on stage, did the first-rate choreography.

All in all, this "Bye Bye Birdie" is one of the all-time best screen musicals...

...even if it was made for the small screen.

And, good news! It's available on DVD.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

John Huston's "The Misfits" (1961) - bless the beasts

Much has been written about the John Huston-Arthur Miller collaboration, "The Misfits" (1961), for nearly five decades now - initially dismissive stuff, later psycholoigcal analyses of the film and, more recently, a warm, belated understanding of a neglected classic.

The film is many things, I suppose, but to the best of my knowledge, it's never been given its due as a great essay on empathy for animals and, by extension, a potent attack on animal exploitation and cruelty.

Marilyn Monroe's character, Roslyn, is of course sensitive to animals and the treatment of them throughout the film, starting with her reaction to modern-day cowboy Clark Gable's dog and later to his threats to shoot a rabbit. But the film's high point, its pièce de résistance, is the prolonged, monumental mustange hunt that caps the film, as Russell Metty's limber camera follows as a zooming plane and speeding truck brutally chase the horses into exhaustion, after which they are bullied, roped and brought to their knees by Gable and fellow cowboys Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift.

It's a heartbreaking moment. And is anything more liberating and euphoric than when the ropes binding them are cut and they are set free?

Turner Classics screens "The Misfits" tomorrow - Sunday, 18 October - at 4 p.m., est.

cinema obscura: Ed Blum's "Scenes of a Sexual Nature" (2006)

Ewan McGregor is one-half of a couple meditating on life and love in "Scenes of a Sexual Nature."
Once again, The Movie Channel (TMC) unearths a neglected gem - this time, Ed Blum's 2006 British-made ensemble film, "Scenes of a Sexual Nature," a title which inexplicably evaded U.S. release.

The vagaries of those films that get released and those that don't never fail to confound me, given the disposable junk that's routinely dumped in the marketplace.

His film set on one afternoon on Hampstead Heath, London, Blum considers the minutiae of seven couples relaxing there and meditating on life and love.

This is Blum's third directorial credit, following a short and a mock documentary on interrogations techniques.

His assorted couples include Ewan McGregor and Douglas Hodge as gay lovers; the great Eileen Atkins and Benjamin Whitrow as an older couple; Gina McKee and Hugh Bonneville as a pair on their first date, a blind date; Andrew Lincoln and Holly Aird as a couple in a stale marriage (his attention distracted by Eglantine Rembauville-Nicolle); Adrian Lester and Catherine Tate as two on the verge of divorce; Sophie Okenedo and Tom Hardy, who have a chance meeting after she's experienced a break-up, and Polly Walker, a working woman negotiating a "deal" with Mark Strong.

A distant relative of "Love Actually," only superior, "Scenes of a Sexual Nature" has smart, observant talk, complicated feelings and the breezy ambience of its green surroundings. It premieres on TMC on Monday, October 19 at 6:25 p.m. (est), with encore performances on Sunday, October 25 at 4:25 a.m. and Tuesday, October 27 at 6:05 p.m.

Note in Passing: McGregor also plays one-half of a gay couple, opposite Jim Carrey, no less, in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's prison film, "I Love You Phillip Morris," which has been playing the festival circuit. It is set to open limited engagements on 5 February, 2010, going wide on 12 Feb.

Friday, October 16, 2009

an education in willful denial


The first impression made by Lone Scherfig's "An Education" is that it is a deft throwback to Britain's serious comedies from its Carnaby St. era - you know, Silvio Narizzano's "Georgy Girl" (1966) and Desmond Davis' "Smashing Time" (1967) - with Peter Sarsgaard doing a light, uncanny riff on the irresistible cad/rascal/scamp (pick your own word) that the late Alan Bates routinely played during that period.

Initially, it's fine.

But then its story kicks in. The plotline is familiar to any art-house afficionado who has been exposed to the trailer for the past couple of months: A wonderful 24-year-old actress named Carey Mulligan plays a precocious, a tad pretentious but extremely likable 16-year-old named Jenny who plays the cello in her school orchestra and is light years ahead of the boys her age - and also her parents (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina), for that matter. The sophistication she seems to studiously affect is actually the real thing. Jenny has only two things on her current agenda - to keep her virginity until she is 17 and to get into Oxford.

Then she meets the big-talking David (Sarsgaard, commanding a subtle British accent here), an older man who sweeps her off her feet and exposes her to the good life. In what amounts to a shameless teen fantasy, Jenny's parents (who are slightly opportunistic, at least her father is) actually approve of David and endorse the relationship. So far, so good. Well, sort of. But then, in what seems like a gratuitious touch, David tosses off the fact that he's Jewish. Then, a scene or two later, he admits that he's something of a crook - a scam artist with expensive tastes to feed - and he rationalizes his penchant for ripping off people. As a real-estate player, he purposely places black families in apartments and condos in order to scare off other tenants/owners, an underhanded way to get their property. "Schwarzes have to live somewhere," he shrugs.

And exactly why did David have to be Jewish? Hmmmm.

Alas, "An Education" is now at a point of no return.

A caring teacher (Olivia Williams, drabbed down way too much) is worried that Jenny might abandon Oxford for David - that he is ruining her life. The school's headmistress (Emma Thompson), meanwhile, is turned off by David's Judaism and, in a rant, reminds Jenny that his people murdered Christ. Less troubling than her intolerance is the film's curious attempt to justify her anti-Semitism by continuing to indict the now wildly unappealing David, revealing each of his secrets/skeletons, one by one.

When Jenny sees entrepreneur David escorting a black family into an apartment building and asks about it, he shrugs, "Schwarzes have to live somewhere."

Schwarzes is not a nice word.

And so, a film that starts out as a darkly affable little affair quickly degenerates unnecesssarily when its heroine's trust is violated and the ethnicity of her lover is unnecessarily made a crucial part in her betrayal.

Note in Passing: Many thanks to Irina Bragin, for the mention in her insightful piece, "British Film Gives ‘An Education’ in Anti-Semitism," written for JewishJournal.com.
David (Sarsgaard) indulges Jenny (Mulligan) in the illusion of romance. She's wised up, not educated.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tod Browning's "The Devil-Doll" (1936)

The diminuative thief/killer Lachna (Grace Ford) is the focal point of a scene from Browning's "The Devil-Doll," which features a bravura Lionel Barrymore
As part of its month-long lead up to Halloween, Turner Classics is screening Tod Browning's sublime 1936 trick, "The Devil-Doll," Saturday morning (October 17) at 7:30 (est). It was his next-to-last movie (his final was "Miracles for Sale" in 1939) but he isn't credited on screen for directing it. There is no directorial credit, in fact.

It is billed only as "A Tod Browning Production"...


Browning conferring on the film's set with star Lionel Barrymore in disguise as Madame Mandelip
Anyway, if you haven't seen it, by all means, watch it. You're in for a treat. If you're familiar with the movie, you might want to pay attention to the material's skeletal similarity to the "Sweeney Todd" legend which was the basis for the acerbic Stephen Sondheim stage musical and the subsequent (and impressively faithful) 2007 Tim Burton film adaptation.

Lionel Barrymore is absolutely masterful as Paul Lavond, a respected Paris banker who, like Sweeney Todd's barber, was set up for a crime he didn't commit and is obsessed with exacting bloody revenge.

Framed for robbery and murder by three of his partners, Paul is sent to Devil's Island from which, after 17 years, he escapes.

He goes on the lam with a fellow escapee, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), an ailing scientist who has perfected a method to reduce the size of living creatures, humans included. Consumed with revenge, Paul teams up with with Marcel's very creepy and possibly deranged widow, Malita (an entirely memorable, scene-stealing Rafaela Ottiano in the partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett role), after the scientist dies.

They reduce the young servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford), whose memory is erased in the process, and dispatch her to carry out Paul's deadly deeds. As a doll, she remains inanimate until Paul, using hypnotic thought, instructs her to steal the jewelry of the wife of one of Paul's old associates, paralyzing the associate for good measure. Her first job.

Also, like Sweeney, Paul has a grown daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) on the sidelines, impoverished and embittered - unaware her father is back.

One of the singular touches of "The Devil-Doll" is the curious conceit that has Barrymore donning a disguise as "Madame Mandelip," the supposed maker of the amazingly, well, lifelike little dolls. This is an idea that could have flopped with a thud, but the legendary actor outdoes himself in his drag scenes, convincingly affecting the voice and movements of a pandering, unctous and vaguely annoying old woman. Brilliant.

It would be a kick to have Drew Barrymore introduce this film one day on Turner. It would be even better if she thought about a remake. I'd go.

Note in Passing: The film's working title was "The Witch of Timbuctoo." Oh, and by the way, its special effects are astonishingly good.











Poster art for the film, and Barrymore in a scene with Robert Graves)

Friday, October 09, 2009

cinema obscura: Jordan Brady's "Waking Up in Reno" (2002)

A game Swayze with Theron and...
Thanks to the vagaries of life, Natasha Richardson and Patrick Swayze, both of whom passed this year, happened to co-star in a little-seen comedy by a first-time filmmaker named Jordan Brady. "Waking Up in Reno" is one of those unfortunate Miramax titles that was filmed, shelved and then barely released during the waning days of the Weinstein reign.

Not surprisingly, given its bumpy journey, "Waking Up in Reno" was promptly dismissed by those few critics who bothered to see it. (TV Guide gives it one star, although it is highly questionable that the person who graded it even watched it.) Fact is, "Waking Up in Reno" is something of a comic find, a sort of redneck "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," with Swayze paired with Theron and Richardson with Billy Bob Thornton as two rural couple-y friend from Little Rock, Arkansas who head to Reno for a holiday, arranged around a Monster Truck Show there, only to get sidetracked by some unexpected country-western feelin's.

The film tickles and teases and earns its laughs. The script by actors Brent Briscoe and Mark Fauser is genuinely witty, with some unexpected underlying intelligence that Brady keeps subtle.

The four leads have terrific chemistry, with Swayze revealing a rarely displayed comic edge and both Ricardson and Theron mastering credible cornpone drawls. The funny comic David Koechner has a bit here, and Penélope Cruz puts in a game cameo. Worth checking out.
Richardson with Thornton in "Waking Up in Reno"
Richardson, who sustained blunt impact trauma to the head during a skiing accident outside of Montreal on March 16 and died two days later in a New York hospital, was immediately memoralized by Swayze.

"It is such a great loss to this community to lose an actress and person such as Natasha," the ailing actor commented upon her death. "Gifts like her don't come along very often. It's a rare thing in this industry to have someone with so much talent, beauty, and dedication and yet is imbued with such humility. I know for me and many other people, the world will be a different place without her. My heart goes out to Liam and his two boys, but I'm sure that Natasha's light is shining down on them,"

Coincidentally, Swayze also worked with Liam - Liam Neeson - on John Irvin's 1989 thriller, "Next of Kin."

Six degrees in Hollywood is not restriced to Kevin Bacon exclusively.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

cinema obscura: Lewis Gilbert's "Haunted" (1995)


Lewis Gilbert's "Haunted" from 1995 is one of those films with a high-profile pedigree which would have guaranteed it a high-profile release. Seemingly. With a tony cast including Aidan Quinn, Kate Beckinsale, Anthony Andrews, Anna Massey, Linda Bassett, Liz Smith, Alex Lowe and the late John Gielgud in one of his last film roles and a ghost-story plotline, "Haunted" would have had some kind of visibility had a major studio handled it. While Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope was involved in its production, the movie was released by October Films - or supposed to be. It played theatrically in England but went straight to video here.

Set in the English countryside of Edbrook in the early 1900s, "Haunted" casts Quinn as a professor of psychology and defiant skeptic who arrives from America to teach at the University of Camberley. An author of books debunking most psychic phenomena, Quinn is solicited by Massey who, as an elderly nanny, is convinced that she is seeing ghosts in the house where she raised Andrews, Lowe and Beckinsale, who becomes romantically involved with Quinn. Gilbert, who directed several Bond films as well as "Alfie," "The Adventurers" and Educating Rita," imbues "Haunted" with atmospheric touches that lend it both credibility and companionablity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Barrymore's "Whip It" - or "Kansas City Gidget"

Barrymore and Wiig try to keep up with Juno
Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" is the most purely pleasurable movie I've seen in, well, a long, long time. Hands-down. It's "Kansas City Bomber" (Yeah!) crossed with "Gidget" (Ahhh!) and it's ir-re-sistible. Ellen Page sheds her flip, self-satisified "Juno" persona and turns in a performance that's a study in diminutive perfection - sad, funny, smart and fully-felt. Kristin Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Marcia Gay Harden and The Goddess herself, Drew, have her back all the way.

You go girls!

cinema obscura: Dennis Lee's "Fireflies in the Garden" (2008)

Julia Roberts and Ioan Gruffudd in Dennis Lee's high-profile/low-profile film, "Fireflies in the Garden"

Movies that don't open - or that open without any advance critics' screenings - are automatically (hastily?) written off by said critics as embarrassing failures. Hence, the reluctance on the part of the studios.

Not so. Sometimes films are abandoned - or dumped, to use a less polite term - strictly for political reasons. If the head of a studio doesn't personally like you, chances are your film will be sacrificed. Or maybe your film is politically incorrect, stepping on the toes of other companies associated with the studio (see Mike Judge's "Idiocracy") that paid you.

The fact is, Hollywood routinely markets and screens awful films all the time and sometimes quite enthuiastically. I mean, the big-screen version of "The Avengers," hidden from the critics in 1998, was no better or worse than any other film released by Warner Bros. (or any studio) that year.
Willem Dafoe with Roberts
This is all in preamble to bringing to your attention Dennis Lee's "Fireflies in the Garden," which was made in 2008 but whose planned June 24th release in New York this past summer never happened. Which is odd, considering the film's star wattage: Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hayden Panettiere and Ioan Gruffudd.
Carrie-Anne Moss and Ryan Reynolds
It would be too facile to dismiss a movie that can attract a cast of this calibre. Certainly, there must be something about "Fireflies in the Garden" that's appealing and/or compelling - at least, to actors. Or, it could be awful.

Who knows?

Dennis Lee, who based his film on the Robert Frost poem, is an Asian filmmaker new to me. He had penned the scripts for a well-regarded shorts prior to making his directorial debut with this one.

A domestic drama, "Fireflies in the Garden" reportedly is driven by a lot of flashbacks and flashforwards as it delineates three generations of a troubled family, headed by Roberts and Dafoe as a woman and her domineering husband. Reynolds plays their grown son, a writer driven to examine his life, particularly his childhood, when his mother dies in an automobile accident. Moss plays Reynolds' wife, and both Panettiere and Watson play Roberts' sister, then and now.

The core of "Fireflies in the Garden" revolves around the edgy, contentious dynamic between father and son - Dafoe and Reynolds. I, for one, would have liked to witness it.