Monday, March 31, 2014

bateman's "bad words"

Throwing caution to the wind, the affable actor Jason Bateman makes an auspicious directorial debut with a gleefully heartless little comedy titled "Bad Words," in which he admirably aims to offend just about everyone while neatly avoiding any toxicity that might come with so dubious a goal.

Good for him.

Given my distaste for political correctness, I enjoyed this film immensely.  And I hasten to remind those self-designated hall monitors among us that being offensive (to any group) or insensitive or just plain rude is not against any known law, so far as I know. So chill.

Set in the child-dominated world of adult-controlled spelling bees, "Bad Words" is about one Guy Trilby (terrific name), a smug man of about 40 who, for seemingly mean-spirited reasons, crashes a regional spelling bee, assaulting anyone who confronts him (regardless of age, gender or color) with utter mendacity. Like most bullies, Trilby is an impervious opponent.

Bateman is a double-threat here, having cast himself as Trilby, and the casting is spot-on:  As a comic actor, Bateman has proven to be something of fluent, offhand wordsmith and this role - Trilby is incorrigibly, ingeniously dishonest and has jaw-dropping foul mouth - lets him loose on a binge of glibness and transgressions that know no boundaries.

Another director might have cast Jim Carrey in the role and there's no doubt that Carrey could have pulled it off with ease.  Bateman doesn't share Carrey's affinity for manic outbursts.  His persona is much more calm. And that difference makes his Guy Trilby even more unsettling.

This character's contempt for children have prompted some to liken "Bad Words" with Terry Zwigoff's comparably profane "Bad Santa" (2003), but the inspiration for both Zwigoff's film and this one goes back even further - to the movies that W.C. Fields  made with director Edward Cline.

Bateman keeps up the comic fury and vitriol until, alas, the very end when either he or the studio felt compelled to explain Trilby's bad behavior with a back story that reduces the character in way I could have never imagined, given what preceded it.  Yes, Guy Trilby can make small children squirm and cry but that's because he's been there, see?  Oy.
  Credit: Focus Features

Thursday, March 27, 2014

anderson's "the grand budapest hotel"

More a visualist than a filmmaker, Wes Anderson brings his limited cinematic perspective to new ambitious heights with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a work that personifies the notion of style over substance.

We're in a world where mise-en-scène reigns.

An opening credit informs us that Anderson's film was "inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig," but the true inspiration here is the eye-popping, jaw-dropping production design of Adam Stockhausen, chiefly Stockahusen's execution of the titular retreat, a glorified doll house with an intricate floor plan and bright primary coloring, set in some vaguely European hillside hamlet in the 1930s. And all of it is supplemented by some masterly miniature work.  It's gorgeous but it hurts the eyes.

Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel vies with Ralph Fiennes over exactly who or what is the star of Anderson's film. (It's the hotel, hands-down.)

Fiennes is the central actor of Anderson's virtually all-male cast here, which is also rather jaw-dropping - and it's up to each individual viewer to determine whether that’s “jaw-dropping” in a good way.

Most of Anderson's eight films (one of which is an animation) have been male dominated, particularly "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Darjeeling Limited."  Yes, Gwyenth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett had roles in "The Royal Tennebaums" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," respectively, but not much to do.  Both films were about the guys. Frances McDormand was fairly unpleasant in "Moonrise Kingdom," as was Anjelica Huston in the three she made with Anderson. (Look them up.)

But Anderson's history did not prepare me for the male fantasia of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which includes no fewer than 15 name-or-recognizable actors but no female characters of any consequence.  The invaluable Tilda Swinton does a fabulous cameo bit in the film's first 10 minutes or so, and hot-young-thing Léa Seydoux has a thankless walk-on as a hotel maid. Saoirse Ronan's role as a calmly young baker with a curious, wholly unnecessary birth mark across the right side of her face is this film's idea of a female lead, I guess, but it isn't much of a role.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Fiennes' sleazy Monsieur Gustave, the hotel's resident concierge and would-be dandy who is possibly gay but definitely fey. He claims, with much misplaced pride, to have slept with all the decrepit old dowagers who are regular patrons of the Grand Budapest, although he comes across as the sort who would find sex much too messy.

Anyway, the Swinton character, who is dispatched early on, leaves M. Gustave a much-coveted painting titled "Boy with Apple," much to the chagrin of one of her protofascist relatives (Adrien Brody) who hires a thug with bad teeth (Willem Dafoe) to retrieve the painting and do away with M. Gustave, but not necessarily in that order. It's a fairly dreary storyline and, frankly, the film loses what little appeal it has with a long, lumbering interlude involving M. Gustav's stint in prison and its aftermath.

I really missed that hotel!

Oh, and along for the ride is M. Gustav's protégé, who is also the hotel's Lobby Boy, one Zero Moustafa, (Tony Revolori, who wears a penciled-in mustache and a pillbox hat with “Lobby Boy” embroidered on it), who is all too willing to be corrupted.

Like Anderson's previous film, "Moonrise Kingdom," this one is annoyingly fussy but without the charm of its predecessor.  I would like to think that he has reached his limit with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but so long as lovelorn movie critics and film-festival denizens continue to fawn over every precious physical and visual detail, we can expect the next one to be More. Of. The. Same.

Note in Passing: The cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman abets Anderson's vision and ambition here by filming the story in three different aspects, matched up to the three time periods that the movie covers.

Monday, March 17, 2014

cinema obscura: two with Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds, who one wag aptly called Hollywood's eternal teenager, has had a remarkable screen career but much like a peer from the same era, Doris Day, she has rarely received the credit she deserves.

She has a whopping 83 acting credits, starting with an uncredited bit in 1948's "June Bride," but is perhaps largely known for roles in two Metro musicals - Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's iconic "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), her sixth film, and Charles Walters' "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), a mid-career hit which brought Reynolds her only Oscar nomination, very well-deserved. She's terrific; the film isn't.

For reasons that I cannot quite pinpoint, I'm fascinated by a five-year period in her career - 1959 through 1964 - when Reynolds churned out 12 films, including "Molly Brown" and the all-star Cinerama Western, "How the West Was Won" (1962), directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall.  But, for me, it's the other ten, more modest titles that truly fascinate, because so many have been so difficult to see for so long.

In 1959, Reynolds appeared in no fewer than four films - the Frank Tashlin-directed "Say One for Me" and three (count 'em) three directed by the aforementioned Marshall,  "The Mating Game," co-starring Tony Randall, and "The Gazebo" and "It Started with a Kiss," both with Glenn Ford, with whom she was romantically linked at the time.

Tony Curtis was her co-star in two vastly different films from this period - Robert Mulligan's tough-edged "The Rat Race" (1960), based on the Garson Kanin play, and Vincente Minnelli's antic "Goodbye, Charlie!" (1964), from the popular stage comedy by George Axelrod.

Mervyn LeRoy's "Mary, Mary," based on the Jean Kerr stage hit and just recently made available on DVD by Warner Archives, was one of two Reynolds movies released in 1963.  The other, still almost impossible to see, is Gower Champion's incredibly charming "My Six Loves," in which Reynolds plays an exhausted Broadway star whose attempt at a little R&R in the country is unsettled by a family of squatters, six orphaned children.

What may sound like sitcom hell on paper is much more in performance, thanks to Champion's nimble direction and eye for casting.  Reynolds' polar-opposite leading men here are David Janssen as a smooth New York dandy (named Marty Bliss, no less) and Cliff Robertson as a local pastor, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Eileen Heckart, Hans Conreid, Alice Ghostley, John McGiver, Alice Pearce, Pippa Scott and the particularly hilarious Max Showalter and Mary McCarty as the kids' slovenly foster parents (who develop dollar signs in their eyes when they see that they're dealing with a big Broadway star in a big Connecticut house).

"My Six Loves" was Champion's debut film as a director.  He was on the rebound.  Champion was supposed to make his directorial debut the same year with Columbia's "Bye, Bye Birdie," which he of course directed to some acclaim on Broadway.  In fact, he had planned to make it with Reynolds (who had appeared with him years before in Donen's "Give a Girl a Break") and Jack Lemmon (his co-star from "Three for the Show").  But creative differences over the script for "Birdie" caused him to bolt and he landed at Paramount with Reynolds in tow to do "My Six Loves." (George Sidney ended up directing "Birdie" - aka, "Ann-Margaret in Concert").

There's another, earlier Paramount film that Reynolds' made during this period which also seems to be lost.  In 1961, she made Vincent Sherman's "The Second Time Around," for Fox (and now available on DVD by Fox Cinema Archives), and Paramount's "The Pleasure of His Company," George Seaton's film version of the play by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Samuel Taylor about a long-lost father who disrupts the Napa-based wedding of his debutante daughter, much to her delight and chagrin.

Fred Astaire and Reynolds played the father-daughter roles that were essayed on stage by Cyril Richard and Dolores Hart.  Tab Hunter had the role of the groom, performed on stage by George Peppard. And Lili Palmer is the estranged wife, a part that Skinner herself limned on Broadway.

"The Pleasure of His Company" is very much a filmed New York play, urbane and talky - a good thing - and it benefits from the casual chemistry shared by Reynolds and Astaire who, at the time, was diving into straight acting roles and with some success ("On the Beach" and "The Notorious Landlady").  Both it and "My Six Loves" should be out there for us enjoy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

cinema obscura: Ron Howard's "EdTV" (1999)

Credit: Universal Pictures

Now is the time to praise Ron Howard's prescient comedy of 1999, "EdTV."

For two reasons.

First, it's a giddy reminder that before their bravura acting duet in "True Detective," the scorching anthology series recently from HBO, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson shared a screen history.  They first teamed as brothers (and a fabulous match-up it was ) 15 years ago in Howard's underrated and now forgotten film, and they would subsequently join forces again about ten years later in an even lesser-known, more obscure title, S.R. Bindler's B-movie treat, "Surfer, Dude" (2008).

Secondly, "EdTV" is actually a film that deserves the lofty description of "prescient."  Howard made it on the cusp of television's seduction by reality.  McConaughey plays the title character, Eddie Perkurny, a video-store clerk who is "discovered" by an ambitious TV producer (played by Ellen DeGeneres) who decides he's worth trailing with a camera 24/7.

Peter Weir and Jim Carrey tackled the same basic idea the year before in more surreal terms in "The Truman Show," which was a bigger commercial and critical hit, but the Howard film is absolutely uncanny and unparalleled in its penchant for nailing the inanity of the Reality TV phenom.

One of Howard's strengths as a director is his eye for casting, especially the women in his films.  Aside from the perfect pairing of McConaughey and Harrelson as siblings, his cast includes Sally Kirkland as the boys' mother, Dennis Hopper as their estranged father, Martin Landau as their stepfather, Jenna Elfman as Eddie's girlfriend, plus Rob Reiner, Elizabeth Hurley, Adam Goldberg, Viveka Davis and, of course, DeGeneres.

All of them are clearly having fun with the fresh material.

Note in Passing:  "EdTV" was loosely based by Howard regulars Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel on the 1994 Québec  film, "Louis 19, le roi des ondes" ("King of the Airwaves"). Ganz and Mandel shared screenplay credits with the authors of the original, Sylvie Bouchard and  Émile Gaudreault.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

inside adele dazeem

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Idina Menzel has become the beneficiary of John Travolta's grotesque gaffe during the recent Oscarcast - you know, the moment when Travolta somehow contorted the actress-singer's name into the unrecognizable "Adele Dazeem," that spelling being variable.

 It's been reported today that ticket sales for "If/Then," the new musical for which the talented Menzel was in rehearsal when she took a break to memorably belt out the Oscar-winning "Let It Go," have been "robust" and there's been understandable speculation whether Menzel's Travoltified name is a contributing factor: The show pulled in a whopping $909,159 during its first seven previews, considered hugely impressive for a new/original musical. "If/Then," which officially opens March 30, has played to more than 95% audience capacity so far.

Even Menzel's "If/Then" producers got in on the joke by publishing a special Playbill insert reading, "At this performance the role of Elizabeth will be played by Adele Dazeem."

In some weirdly circuitous way, John Travolta has given Idina Menzel name recognition - or at least more than she already had.

But cynic that I am, I can't help wondering if Travolta was being playful that night, knowing exactly what he was doing.  I think this because the gaffe never made much sense.  It would be reasonable if Travolta introduced her as "Irene Mantel" or even "Irma la Douce."

But "Adele Dazeem"?  It's not even remotely close.

John Travolta is a smart guy, a pro.  He's not Vinnie Barbario or Danny Zuko.  He's no fool. He didn't get up there unprepared.  Presumably, there was a rehearsal beforehand - and a teleprompter on the night of the event.  Those critical of his performance that night have invoked the three D words - drunk, drugs and dementia. I've another - disarming.  No, John Travolta is no fool but perhaps he was willing to look a little foolish to help someone he admires get a little more attention. Just a theory.

(Also, he looked nonplussed afterwards when he was returned to his seat in the audience, as if nothing had happened.  And Travolta didn't comment on the situation until several days later when he "apologized" - well, sort of - by saying, "I've been beating myself up all day.")

This reminds me that, back in the day - 1974 to be specific - there was another Oscar moment that was supposed to be spontaneous.  That's when the late photographer Robert Opel - aka, The Streaker - suddenly appeared on stage behind presenter David Niven.  He was completely nude, although somehow the TV camera was positioned in such a way that Opel's crucial parts could not be seen by the viewers at home.

How convenient. And how convenient that no one backstage noticed a naked man.  Even more convenient was Niven's well-put (and allegedly also spontaneous) response to the nudity:

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... But isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

According to Wikipedia:

"Later, some evidence arose suggesting that Opel's appearance was facilitated by the show's producer Jack Haley, Jr. as a stunt. Robert Metzler, the show's business manager, believed that the incident had been planned in some way. During the dress rehearsal, Niven had asked Metzler's wife to borrow a pen so he could write down the famous ad-lib."

As my friend Daryl has said," "I'm always amazed when people seem to take these obviously staged 'gaffes' as actual."  Me, too.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

memo to cate: "great!"

When Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, wrote her courageous and now-infamous letter to The New York Times on February 1, in which she alleged that she was sexually molested as a child by Allen, she challenged those who have blindly supported and celebrated Allen as an artist, while blithely disregarding any flaws or weaknesses.

Two days later, on February 3, Barbara Walters, in her usual seat on "The View," defended Allen - "I don't know about Dylan. I can only tell you what I have seen now. That it's a good marriage, and he's a loving, caring father. I think that has to be said" - completely oblivious to the fact that she was validating exactly what Dylan Farrow wrote in her letter.

There are those who think - and not without good reason - that Farrow's letter was timed to coincide with the Oscars' voting process.

Woody Allen had been nominated in one of the writing categories for his screenplay for "Blue Jasmine."  It was felt that there was too much formidable competition for Allen to win and, on the night of the awards, when Allen's nomination was announced, it was to scant applause compared to the other nominees.  (They were "American Hustle," "Nebraska," "The Dallas Buyers Club" and "her," which ultimately won.)  A surprise?  Not really.  Farrow is correct.  Hollywood usually stands behind one of its own, but Woody Allen doesn't really fit that profile.  He's been a Hollywood outsider - by design - something which hasn't gone unnoticed.

So there was no way that Dylan Farrow's letter would have negatively affected Allen in terms of the Oscar.  If there was a potential victim at all, it was Cate Blanchett, the acclaimed star of "Blue Jasmine" and the likely winner of the Best Actress Oscar.  Yes, Blanchett won the Oscar and several other acting awards for her performance and each time she won, she managed to reference Allen with little or no effusiveness.

Cate Blanchett is not only a great actress, a fashion icon, a handsome woman and and an urbane, witty person, but also a shrewd diplomat.

We can all learn from her.

At each awards ceremony, Blanchett found a different way to deflect attention away from Allen and even herself.  At the Independent Spirit Awards, she made a note of pointing out that the best actor category had six nominations while the best actress category had only five. She wondered why Greta Gerwig's performance in "Frances Ha" was left out.

(BTW, one of the six male Indie Spirit nominations went to Robert Redford who, given his association with Sundance and independent film, couldn't be denied; hence, the sixth nomination.  Am I being too cynical?)

And on Oscar night, she graciously cited Allen's screenplay with cool dispatch and with that quickly out of the way, went on to complement the other contenders in her acting category and to praise one in particular  - Judi Dench (her co-star from "Notes on a Scandal").

She defused Woody Allen by downplaying him.

This past awards season, Cate Blanchett illustrated her knack for brilliantly, effortlessly, neutralizing a potentially damaging situation.

And one which had absolutely nothing to do with her.

Monday, March 03, 2014

oscar kvetching. stop already!

Credit: Bradley Cooper
The only thing more boring and annoying than movie awards shows is complaining about movie awards shows.  I think you know what I mean.

Every year, from late December to early March, people don't talk so much about movies themselves as they do about the alleged awfulness of movie awards shows.  Some rant on and on and on, sounding approximately like crazy cabbies. The cynicism and negativity can be toxic.

If they are so outraged, why do they bother to watch, I ask.  And the outrage is more than a little excessive, given something as simplistic (simple-minded?) as your average movie awards show.

And, yes, your average movie awards show is indeed a simple creature, no matter how it is dolled up (and often with its excesses of its own):  Someone steps up to a podium to read the names of those vying for a certain award and is inevitably joined by the winner(s) in that category.


The perennial whipping boy of all the movie awards shows is the Oscarcast, largely because it is the most important and most luminous of the bunch (some might call it self-important and elephantine) - but also because it's the very last movie awards show of an increasingly long movie-awards season, which this year seemed to go on for an eternity.

And being the last is what's caused it so much heartache in recent years.

There is such a glut of movie-awards paraphernalia that precedes it that the Oscarcast has become anti-climatic, and I'm not including the silly critics' awards - which includes, among many others, The National Board of Review, The Critics Choice Movie Awards (formerly known as The Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards - whew!), The New York Film Critics Circle and The National Society of Film Critics, a group that I politely declined to join (I'm dating myself here) way back in the 1980s.

It doesn't matter who's hosting or what the theme may be. For the Oscars, it's always a matter of too little too late.  There's no surprise, no suspense because the usual suspects rule the night.  The major winners at Monday's Oscar festivities are the exact same who/that dominated the Independent Spirit Awards the night before - and, before that, the Golden Globes.

Ennui sets in.  It's unavoidable.  Who cares that Blanchett and Leto won?

Haven't they each won four other acting awards in as many months?

If the powers that run the Oscarcast really want to give it a shot in the arm, they'd leapfrog ahead of all the others and schedule the event in January, when all the nominees are fresh and new and there is still some excitement surrounding them.  But that's too big a risk.  It's easier to do some relatively minor tweaks in terms of host and production design.

The Oscarcast isn't the only movie awards show undergoing constant nips and tucks and scrutiny.  For some bizarre reason, four years ago, someone with The Hollywood Foreign Press came up with the bright idea of introducing a host to the Golden Globes telecast.  As much as I enjoy Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, they're unnecessary.   For years, the Globes got by with just a faceless announcer and a parade of presenters and then someone decided to impose Ricky Gervais on the proceedings.  He was funny and irreverent.  I loved him.  But he was also ... unnecessary.

Last year, the Oscarcast elected to spice things up and avoid its funereal reputation by recruiting the scamp auteur Seth McFarland to host.  He took a risk:  he approached the Oscars as if he was overseeing a fraternity hazing and, well, even if you didn't watch the show, you can imagine what transpired.  But he was better than Billy Crystal, who was brought out of mothballs the year before to host, and way better than the team of James Franco (who was on stage but somehow "absent") and Anne Hathaway (who always seemed to be hugging herself) the year before that.

This year, Ellen Degeneres made an appealing host and, in her own subtle way, was shrewdly subversive.  The alert viewer would have noticed that she played down the notion of competition and even movies themselves and played up the lost ideal of fraternity (but not the Seth McFarland kind).  She waded through the audience more than once, networking with the glitzy celebrities and bringing them together.  It wasn't an awards show.  It was a party at her house, see, and she even ordered pizza for the occasion and took a picture of herself with her starry guests.  She was our surrogate - a fan who found herself in a fantasy world of movie stars.

And, running the risk making a fool of herself, she instead demonstrated what it is to have a whale of a good time.  And, by projection, we did, too.

It didn't matter that the blest Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto won yet again. Who cares really? What mattered was that we got to see Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt, both dressed to the nines, eating pizza.

Note in Passing:  And bravo to the Academy's In Memoriam this year.  Extremely well-done and pretty much inclusive.  Glenn Close's disclaimer that perhaps some beloved faces might be missing - but "they remain in our hearts" - was a wise move and very well put.  And, finally,  Bette Midler’s moving rendition of "The Wind Beneath My Wings" (alternately known as "Hero") topped it off quite nicely. A lovely touch.

And a most appropriate one.

BTW, the official Oscar site has an unedited memoriam of 160 names in all, 78 of which are represented with photographs and are alphabetized.

The list, alas, was ultimately pruned down to 47 names for broadcast.