Monday, February 08, 2016

wow!

I thought that it would be somewhat measured to let some time pass before commenting (belatedly) on Fox's bravura inaugural entrance into the Live! TV! Musical! sweepstakes - but my reaction remains ... wow!

While I still have some serious reservations about the queasily social/moral implications of what "Grease" is saying *, there is little doubt that, technically, Fox's "Grease: Live" blew NBC's rather timid, tentative attempts at the live TV musical out of the water (with apologies to Craig and Neil). In comparison, NBC's "The Sound of Music," "Peter Pan" (oy!) and "The Wiz" seem creaky and dated and, well, underwhelming.

"The Sound of Music" remains the ratings winner - with an average of 18.6 million viewers - but then it came on the scene with a genuine superstar in the lead, one with a huge following, Carrie Underwood.  And I will forever be grateful to Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for introducing America to the original stage production of that Rodgers and Hammerstein show (so much better than the 1965 Robert Wise version, which was terribly Disney-fied).

"Grease: Live," on the other hand, was clearly based not on the original off-Broadway musical but the 1978 cartoonish film version, as adapted by the late Bronte Woodard. In terms of the new TV genre, it came in second with 12.2 million viewers but it also nabbed an impressive 4.3 rating with that all-important age group, 18 to 49 years old.  And that matters.

Numbers aside, "Grease: Live," directed in tandem by "Hamilton's" Thomas Kail (who, I assume, oversaw the actors) and Alex Rudzinski (who handled the jaw-dropping technical accomplishments), worked as something of a new hybrid - part theater, part film, part reality TV and (like the original film) part cartoon - a creative mash-up that worked exhilaratingly well.  "Grease: Live" became better and better as it progressed, seemingly topping itself at every turn, and outdid itself with a big, bang-up finish.  When the cast appeared on camera for its version of the curtain call, a standing ovation was more than deserved. Bravo!

Julianne Hough was perfect in the role of Sandy, more age-appropriate than Olivia Newton-John who was 30 when she essayed the role in the '78 film, and while Broadway's Aaron Tveit was techically correct as Danny, at 33, he is way too old for the role - and looks it.  Plus, it doesn't help that he's no John Travolta. Vanessa Hudgens, a young pro, managed to turn Rizzo into a sympathetic character, somehow outdoing her estimable predecessor, Stockard Channing.  And Hudgens was outstanding in her two big numbers - although I personally had hoped that the producers of this version would have finally retired the cruel "Sandra Dee" number.

It just isn't funny, guys.

Kudos also to choreographer Zach Woodlee and his assistant Matthew Peacock (both from "Glee") who managed to equal Patricia Birch's outstanding dances for the original film, without imitating them at all.

Finally, a deep bow to  Rudzinski's 13 - count 'em - 13 credited camera operators: Bert Atkinson, Keith Dicker, Randy Gomez, Will Gossett, Nathaniel Hayholm, Ron Lehman, Tore Levia, David Levishon, Adam Margolis, Rob Palmer, Brian Reason, Damien Tuffereau and Easter Xau, all of whom made maximum use of the legendary Warner Bros. backlot.

* My problem with "Grease": Sandy has to reimagine herself as a sexpot to win Danny.  And what does he do? He simply dons a varsity sweater.

Seriously dated one-sided sexism.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

character counts: connie gilchrist

It's long overdue to give a shout-out to Connie Gilchrist. The character actress racked up 120 screen appearances - on both the big screen and little screen - and often had a single scene, such as her brief bit with Frank Sinatra in the early moments of Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1959). And she invariably walked away with the scene in question.

In that particular scene, Connie is caught by Frank leaving a local bar where she just had a beer.  She's plays a cleaning woman who works for Frank's awful brother (Arthur Kennedy), a bigwig in town and its biggest hypocrite who also employs her daughter (Nancy Gates) - and Connie is worried that her boozy afternoon indiscretion at Smitty's could cost both of them their jobs.

Then there's Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" (1958), in which she was the redoubtable Nora Muldoon who delivers her young charge Patrick (Jan Handzlik) to his madcap relative (Rosalind Russell).  Disapproving and judgmental at first, Nora begrudgingly stays on at Beekman Place to become a part of its crazy world, eventually warming towards Mame.

And Connie was also Gladys Glover's landlady in George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" (1954), Gladys of course being Judy Holliday.

And throughout her career, Connie managed to look the same, ageless.

She was born in Brooklyn (where else?) in 1901, appeared on stage in France, England and New York and often played Irish (although she was actually cast as Señora Martinez in 1942's "Apache Trail," mother of Donna Reed's Rosalia). Chances are, if you were alive during the 1950s, had a TV or went to the movies, you saw her all the time. Like a family member or friendly neighbor, she was always around. Connie died in '85 at age 84.

Having a beer with Thelma Ritter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "A Letter to Three Wives" (1948).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"iconic" and other words that should be retired

Lately, I've become aware that certain words are being tossed around rather recklessly.  The most abused words of the moment are "icon" and "iconic."  An anchor woman on a local television station breathlessly promoting "Fuller House," the Netflix sequel to the late 1980s sitcom "Full House," invoked the word "iconic" to describe the original series.

Iconic?  I wouldn't know.  I never watched the show.  I had a life back in the '80s. But something tells me that it was just another insipid sitcom.

Matters really hit home when I was watching Tuesday's episode of "Live with Kelly and Michael" (a terrific show I would never miss) and guest Carly Rae Jepson discussed her role in Fox's upcoming "Grease: Live," in which she plays Frenchy, a part originated in the 1978 film by Didi Conn.

In describing the role of Frenchy (and her meeting with Conn), Jepson invoked the word ... "iconic."  OK, that's it. Enough's enough.

I'm old enough to remember when "iconic" was reserved for a play by Shakespeare (not "Full House") and for characters like Blanche DuBois and Sugar Kowalcyzk (not Frenchy from a tacky movie musical like "Grease").

"Icon" and "iconic" are the new go-to words favored by talk-show hosts (both late-night and daytime) to introduce guests or describe the characters that those guests played/play in some disposable movie.

Frankly, I've grown weary of those two words, as well as several others being abused by talk-show hosts and social media.  What follows is a random list of annoying words and expressions that I think should be banned. Feel free to disagree - or add to the list.  Here goes:

Trendy show-biz expressions that annoy me: "Showrunner," "Tentpole" and "Residency," a word reserved for overpaid divas who set up shop for a few months in Las Vegas. And don't even ask me what "tentpole" means.

Trendy male-oriented expressions that annoy me:  "Bromance," "Manscape," "Man Cave," "Dad Bod" and "Junk."  (Why would any guy, except a self-loathing one, describe his penis and testicles as "Junk"?)

Trendy social media expressions that annoy me:  "Selfie," "Gone Viral" and "#hashtag."

"Baby Bump," the gratingly adorable word adopted by people who are phobic about using the word "pregnant."

"Family Friendly," a reason to avoid a movie or TV show.

"Going Commando," used to describe the dubious tend of eschewing underwear.

"Politicize," a word randomly tossed out by politicians against other politicians who have successfully used a cause to their advantage.

"Haters," used to describe anyone who confronts, challenges, questions or dares to criticize a public person.

"Shaming," used to describe those people who have been ridiculed for their weight, hair, tattoos, piercings, face or utter stupidity.

"Artisanal," favored by foodies, restaurant critics and food-show hosts to describe anything made by hand in a kitchen. Formerly "home made."

"Journey," used by celebrities and victims alike to describe their lives.

"Empower," "Empowered" and "Empowerment."  Popularized by self-deluded actresses when they agree to appear nude in a film or need an excuse for doing a graphic sex scene, whether it's gratuitous or not.

"Brand," the new word for "identity."  It could refer to a single person's "brand" (any Kardashian, for example) or a TV station's "brand" (HBO and the aforementioned Netflix come to mind immediately for some reason).

Any others?  Share!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

a few notes on frank perry's "diary of a mad housewife" (1970) and other related issues

There's currently a blizzard in this part of the world.

Snowed in, I opted to make another of my many (unsuccessful) attempts to purge, coming across an old VHS tape of Frank Perry's 1970 film version of the seminal Sue Kaufman book, "Dairy of a Mad Housewife." It's something that I recorded off Bravo back in the 1980s - way before Bravo was taken over by the inimitable Andy Cohen and his colorful house fraus.

Mad housewives, indeed.

✓ The movie year 1970

I couldn't resist.  I had to watch it again.  For one thing, "Diary of a Mad Housewife" was one of the first films that I reviewed as a young working critic, a movie that I fondly remember as one of the bracing, unsung gems of the New Wave in American Cinema of that particular time period. Yes, 1970 - the year of Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" and "Brewster McCloud," Hal Ashby's "The Landlord," Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," Stuart Rosenberg's "Move," Paul Mazursky's "Alex in Wonderland," Jerry Schatzberg's "Puzzle of a Downfall Child," Richard Rush's "Getting Straight," John Cassavetes' "Husbands," John G. Avildsen's "Joe," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Irvin Kershner's "Loving," Mike Nichols' "Catch-22" and Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock."  I could go on.

But won't.

✓ Bravo

Also, Bravo had broadcast Perry's original theatrical version, something that has become increasingly difficult to see because, well, Universal Home Video just doesn't give a damn about the film.  It was released, briefly, on VHS but has disappeared from home entertainment.  No DVD so far. In the late '70s, "Diary" was telecast by NBC - which, like Universal, is owned by MCA - but in a version that did not exactly resemble the film that had played in theaters.  (But more about that later...)

Anyway, despite Bravo's disclaimer that the film had been "edited for TV," I picked up only one bit of tampering: A few frames had been adjusted to crop out a brief bit of nudity.  Otherwise, the film was intact, including the use of two different "F" words.  This wasn't exactly a surprise because, around the same time, Bravo had somehow screened the original, uncut, uncensored version of Bernardo Bertolucci's sprawling, 317-minute epic, "1900," which included the infamous sex scene involving Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Stefania Casini.  I found out about this screening after the fact from the late Lesley Cootes, a terrific San Francisco publicist who had taped it and promptly made me a copy - which is among the assorted VHS tapes that I'm trying (in vain) to thin out.

BTW, "Diary of a Mad Housewife" was televised by Bravo without any commercial interruptions. Again, back in the day.

✓ Frank Perry

"Diary of a Mad Housewife," which was the second major studio film made by Frank Perry, after his ill-fated "The Swimmer." He had previously worked on indies (most notably "David and Lisa") and directed two wonderful TV specials based on the writing of Truman Capote, "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor."  Following "Diary," he made "Doc," "Play it As It Lays," "Rancho Deluxe," "Compromising Positions" and "Mommie Dearest."  He was a good filmmaker, hugely underrated by movie critics.  Perry, who famously worked in tandem with one of his wives, the writer Eleanor Perry, died in 1995 at age 65.

"Diary of a Mad Housewife" has a plot that makes less sense in 2016 than in 1970, when it was celebrated as a cautionary feminist tale about the evils of patriarchy.  Seen from the vantage point of more mature eyes, it now resembles a screed: The two main male characters in the film are aggressively awful, repugnant actually.  But they aren't the only characters in the film who routinely - relentlessly - abuse its vulnerable heroine, Tina Balser.  Seemingly everyone does. And Tina remains so patient and so grounded throughout her daily maltreatment that these otherwise laudable qualities quickly become a little suspect.

The woman is obviously a masochist - and perhaps stupid, despite having graduated form Smith.  She's married to a seemingly successful New York lawyer named Jonathan, an insufferable snob and elitist bully with arty pretensions.  He speaks to her horribly, and so does the older of their two daughters (who is Jonathan's mini-me).  Tina is such a dishrag that one eagerly waits for her to cheat on the prig Jonathan.  And she does, but with someone just as repellent - a celebrity writer named George Prager who is curiously effeminate.  It's easy for one to think that one is imaging Prager's closet homosexuality until Tina, finally fed up, calls him out on it (invoking one of the aforementioned "F" words).

 

The late Carrie Snodgress remains a revelation as Tina, a performance that's as memorable and fresh today as it was back in 1970.  Again, the character doesn't exactly add up but Snodgress makes it work. She's the film's star - its titanic supporting structure - but for some unaccountable reason, she's billed third after her two male co-stars.  Given the film's theme, this is quite odd. Snodgress plays a character who is disrespected and, as an actress, is disrespected herself in this case. Life imitating art?

It certainly seems that way.

✓ Benjamin & Langella

Richard Benjamin dominates the film's opening scenes as the unctuous Jonathan as he delivers a monologue of non-stop complaints and demands that efficiently defines the character but also makes him inevitably tiresome.  Benjamin is great in the role, perhaps too great.  Frank Langella, in his film debut, plays the unpleasant lover with a personality slightly more refined than Jonathan's. He might be even more shallow.


Frankly, decades later, "Dairy of a Mad Housewife" is rather painful to watch largely because it lacks subtlety. The characters, none of whom are even remotely recognizable, now emerge as puppets, manipulated to make a point, meet an agenda. Of course, this narrative failing may date back to the source material, Kaufman's book (which I admit I never read).

✓ Carrie

Carrie Snodgress, who passed in 2004 at 58, was an old-fashioned movie star with a raspy voice - think Jean Arthur - who came along a little too late. The year she made "Diary" is the year that she broke into movies.  She had debuted a few months earlier in Jack Smight's very good adaptation of "Rabbit, Run," the John Updike book with James Caan as Rabbit Angstrom and Snodgress, in full Bette Davis mode, as his pathetic, alcoholic wife, Janice. A searing performance.  But it was 1970 and the world was head over heels in love with another actress, a movie star in a decidedly different mold - Ali MacGraw - and with her film, "Love Story."
 
Snodgress was better on screen, see, than in glossy magazine spreads - and so her stint in movies was modest and way too brief.  Prior to her two 1970 films, she had a role in Daniel Petrie's fine 1969 TV film of the Robert Anderson play, "Silent Night, Lonely Night," and in 1971, she excelled in another TV film, "The Impatient Heart," directed by John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever") and written by the great Alvin Sargent. How "The Impatient Heart" with its estimable pedigree ended up on TV and not in theaters is a mystery only Universal can answer.

In it, Snodgress plays an edgy, driven social worker who embraces the people in her charge while she alienates those in her private life. A control freak, she finds that she can't motivate or, rather, manipulate the guy (played by Michael Brandon) who is right for her.  It's a great performance but "Diary of a Mad Housewife," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, remains her signature role, her one claim to fame.

✓ Universal

I'm a little surprised by how shabbily Universal has treated what was considered a prestige film - Oscar-bait - in its day.  For its showing on network TV, Universal trimmed so much out of the movie that newly-filmed sequences where required to explain what was cut. These mostly involved the New York stage and television actor Lester Rawlins who was brought in to play Tina's psychoanalyst. Rawlins gives a talking-head performance in his scenes, reciting his lines directly into the camera as he analyzes the put-upon Tina.  Only Snodgress' voice is heard in these sequences, which are scattered throughout the film. Exacerbating matters, Universal tried to be "arty" about it by shooting Rawlins upside-down, supposedly from the point of view of the couch-bound Tina.  Pretty bad.

✓ "Red Sky at Morning" 

None of this is new. Universal routinely created "TV versions" of its theatrical releases in the late 1970s.  One of the most disturbing re-dos involved  James Goldstone's fine 1971 film, "Red Sky at Morning," which reunited Richard Thomas and Catherine Burns (fresh from Perry's "Last Summer) and which also starred Richard Crenna and Claire Bloom as Thomas's parents.  Bloom plays a particularly complicated character, a neurotic woman who is not entirely sympathetic or easily explained.

Her character apparently confused some studio person because by the time the film made its TV debut, also on NBC, narration was superimposed over most of her dialogue.  She would open her mouth but you couldn't hear what she was saying because an uncredited actor speaking as the adult version of Thomas's character is explaining what's happening.  Once again, matters are exacerbated: The voiceover is very "Waltons"-like. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Thomas was the star of "The Waltons" at the time.) The film's powerful ending was also altered for TV, watered down.

Right now, this is apparently the only version of "Red Sky at Morning" that's available anywhere.

Notes in Passing:  The actual running time of "Diary of a Mad Housewife" either has varied or has remained elusive.  IMDb reports that it runs 95 minutes but curiously adds that the "original running time" is 104 minutes.  Huh?  The 1970 New York Times review of the film and the VHS cassette both report 100 minutes.  The film has also been listed as running 85 minutes, but that may be the truncated TV version.  IMDb also lists Lester Rawlins as being an "uncredited" cast member but he was never in the theatrical release of the film, only in those scenes added to the TV version.

An uncredited actor who does appear in the film is Peter Boyle, who would score a personal success the same year as the title character in Avildsen's "Joe."  Boyle is featured in the final scene of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," as one of the opinionated members of Tina's group therapy.

One more thing: Perry's long-neglected film is  the subject of an excellent 2009 Essential Cinema essay by Rob Christopher on the Chicagoist site, which was timed to coincide with a 35mm screening of the film at the University of Chicago as part of its Doc Films series that year.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

observations & pronouncements

The big movie news of the week isn't who or what was nominated for an Oscar but who or what wasn't.  But, in the end, who really cares?

Well, the studios and stars who reap the monetary rewards of a lauded film certainly care - and perhaps a few hundred die-hard movie geeks.

Ricky Gervais got it right during the recent Golden Globes Giveaway Show:  These awards mean ... nothing. And the notion of picking "the best" is a fairly futile exercise considering that 6,932 films, both domestic and international, were released in the United States in 2015, if one is to believe the statistics on IMDb. That's right, 6,932 titles. Insane, right?

So, it's kinda suspect that with that many films, employing what must be tens of thousands of actors, directors and writers, only white people were found worthy of recognition in the top categories.  White people and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. It's as old as movies themselves - or at least as old as "Gone With the Wind" (1939) when Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar and was still treated shabbily.

"No young whippersnappers here!"

So I don't buy into the popular but naive conspiracy theory that there's this entitled Hollywood-&-Vine clique that operates nefariously to decide who is or isn't worthy. The problem is that the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has grown to approximately the same number as the films released in 2015 - 6,000-plus - but it hasn't changed in its demographics.  It remains an Old White Men's Club.  These numbers are in constant flux, I'm sure, but the Academy membership that votes for the Oscars is 94% white, 77% male and the average age is 63.

It's still 1939, see?

The Academy is the G.O.P. of the arts, still living in the past and unable (or unwilling) to accept progress and change.  It is afflicted with all the -isms.  In addition to its innate racism, which gets all the attention, the Academy is especially guilty of ageism.  A child actor rarely is honored, which explains the absence of Jacob Tremblay of "Room" among the nominees.

And Tremblay arguably received better reviews than his co-star, the talented Brie Larson, who was nominated.  And if Tremblay had made the grade?  Well, he would have been put in the supporting category, even though he is the male lead in his film.  Child actors who are the stars of their films have routinely been relegated to a supporting classification.

Think Tatum O'Neal and Patty Duke.

"She's just not good enough!"

And let's not forget the snobbery factor.  Kristen Stewart turned in one of the most acclaimed performances of the year for her work in Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" as the assistant to Juliette Binoche's aging film star.  The New York Times' film critics predicted a supporting-actress nomination for her in their Oscar-preview essays.  But Stewart's association with the popular "Twilight" film franchise and her popularity with tabloid reporters and paparazzi somehow disqualified her from consideration.  She's good enough to make Hollywood rich with her participation in a franchise, but unworthy of artistic recognition.

One would think that her alternate persona in a string of impressive independent films would be enough to offset the "Twilight" curse.  She's given terrific performances in "Still Alice" (for which she also should have been nominated), "The Runaways" (as Joan Jett), "Adventureland" (with Jesse Eisenberg), "On the Road" (based on the Jack Kerouac book, of course), "Into the Wild" (the Sean Penn film based on the Jon Krakauer book) and especially "Welcome to the Riley's" (opposite James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo) and "The Yellow Handkerchief (with Eddie Redmayne, William Hurt and Maria Bello), to single out but a few of her achievements.

Could it be that she's still too young for recognition?

Well, Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence are the same age (both born in 1990), but Lawrence receives the respect that's denied to Stewart.
  The Voice!  

Overshadowing the calculated Oscar mania was the passing of the extraordinary actor Alan Rickman, whose death on January 14th eerily coincided with the announcement of the nominees - and, in my mind, trivialized them. It was sobering to hear names of the usual suspects being announced (Leonardo DiCaprio! Cate Blanchette!) while being keenly aware that Rickman, he of the deep, mellifluous voice and perfect enunciation, never won an Oscar or was never even nominated for one.

How could that possibly be?  Well, it be.

"This is no laughing matter!"

Finally, the utter strangeness of the Academy is perhaps best exemplified by its selection of hosts.  For some reason, the Academy gravitates towards comics, usually outrageous, irreverent comics.  Actually, to be fair, all movie-awards shows do, not just the Oscars.  And, each year, there is deep-seated fear and hand-wringing over who the comic in question will insult and how stinging and pertinent the insult will be.

Chris Rock, this year's Oscar host, was ruthless when he had the same gig about a decade ago.  (Remember his gratuitous tirade against Jude Law?)  If I recall, the Academy said he would never be invited back.  Gervais took no prisoners when he hosted the Golden Globes a couple times a few years ago. The audience was appalled but he was back on stage in the Beverly Hilton banquet room again this year. Jane Lynch hosted a recent "give-me-an-award!" show and was supremely sarcastic and the incorrigible Seth McFarland was suitably smarmy when he did the Oscars.

Then there's Tina and Amy who smiled sweetly as they sandbagged the invited guests and nominees - and they were as funny as hell.  Even Ellen DeGeneres had fun bursting bubbles.  But how dare they play so unfairly?

So if the Academy wants to free itself of this yearly, self-inflicted torment about its selected host, maybe it should simply stop hiring comics and stick to James Franco and Anne Hathaway, who were inadvertently funny (so memorably awful they were funny) a few years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris who, for all his talent and charm,  somehow bombed at last year's gala.

There will be no suspense (as usual) during this year's Oscarcast, as least as far as the winners are concerned.  Expect Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Jason Leigh to thank their mothers and agents for their awards and blessings.

Award winners usually tend to forget to thank their spouses and co-stars.

Now, that's funny.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

cinema obscura: Tony Richardson's "A Death in Canaan" (1978)


This superior television movie, based on the 1976 Joan Barthel best-seller, is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the estimable Tony Richardson. The solid acting ensemble includes such reliables as Brian Dennehy, Kenneth McMillan, Conchata Ferrell, Jacqueline Brooks, Charles Haid, Charles Hallahan, Tom Atkins, Bonnie Bartlett and Paul Clemens in his first role as Peter Reilly, a New Canaan, Conn. teenager who found his mother's mutilated body and was charged with her murder.

Based on a true story, "A Death in Canaan" follows Powers, playing Barthel, as she tries to document the investigation of the 1973 case and the hands-on involvement of the townspeople, friends and neighbors of the solitary, fatherless Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of nerve, insecurity and charm. Clemens, the son of the late actress Eleanor Parker, is astonishing. Around the same time, he also appeared in another fine lost film, Jerome Hellman's "Promises in the Dark" (1979), starring Marsha Mason, Kathleen Beller, Ned Beatty, Susan Clark and Michael Brandon.

Profoundly moving, "A Death in Canaan" is enhanced by Richardson's subtle direction of an exceptional cast.

The movie, now very difficult to see, was originally made for a 150-minute time slot, including commercials. One of its most recent - and last - TV airings was years ago on the Lifetime channel, which inexplicably edited it down for a 120-minute time period.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

a film of entitlement

"There is no there there"
-Gertrude Stein

Stein's famous quote - often appropriated and always misquoted - is from her 1937 book, "Everybody's Autobiography" (a sequel of sorts to "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"). It was written in reference to her return to her birthplace, Oakland, California after a sojourn in Paris.

She couldn't find her childhood home, or the school she attended, or the park where she played.  Hence, she wrote, "There is no there there."

But that sentence has been interpreted/misinterpreted to describe a certain emptiness, much to the chagrin of the people of Oakland. It's become engrained because this reading of Stein's words easily sums up something that's vapid and soulless. And it handily encapsulates my unexpected reaction to the lovely new Todd Haynes film, "Carol."

"Carol" is an apt example of Stein's misrepresented sentiment - there is simply no there there. The movie seemingly has all the right pieces for a great work, but something is missing - something so subtle it's omission has been overlooked by its passionate advocates (and there are many).

Set in the 1950s and based on "The Price of Salt," an autobiographical novel which the estimable Patricia Highsmith wrote using a pseudonym, Haynes' film details the casual meeting of two women whose attraction to each other escalates into a forbidden love affair that ends sadly.

This plot isn't as groundbreaking as it was when Highsmith wrote her book back in 1952, but it is a haunting reminder of exactly how much we were repressed and not that very long ago.  Haynes handles this material with great delicacy and attention to detail.  "Carol" fairly drips with a tony ambience.  It is a visually gorgeous, visually meticulous film - thanks to Judy Becker's production design, Jesse Rosenthal's art direction, Heather Loeffler's set decoration, Sandy Powell's costumes and, of course, the pristine porcelain beauty of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

And all of this loveliness has been captured by Edward Lachman's flawless cinematography.  Lachman's camera not only serves up frame after frame of painterly shots but also serves as a character in the film, as it moves cautiously around the two women and the people that their love impacts.

Perfect, right?  So what's the problem?  It's the lack of chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, who individually turn in delicate performances, but who never really connect.  "Carol" is ostensibly a love story but it never really conveys what each woman sees in the other, or why they are attracted to each other, or the depth of their love. It's all a blank.

Sitting through "Carol" is akin to taking in a beautiful scenic landscape.  It ultimately becomes boring.  You move on to another bit of gorgeous scenery.  Until that also becomes boring.  In the case of "Carol," one visually stunning sequence follows another.  But my response was always the same.  Is this all there is?  There's no there there. Which took me by surprise, given that "Carol" was one movie that I eagerly anticipated.

It became as pointless as its rhapsodic reviews.  It's not the first time that I've been out of step with other critics, and it certainly won't be the last.

Ah, yes, the reviews...

"Carol" is one of those entitled films that comes along every year, a movie that critics respond to with an immediate knee-jerk positive reaction, almost a blind loyalty - as if it was decided beforehand, sight unseen.

In 2013, it was "Inside Llewyn Davis."  The movie year 2014 had two such candidates that received critical fawning - "The Grand Budapest Hotel"  and "Birdman."  Like "Carol," these are fine movies but each one is far from perfect, although reviewers gave all three the benefit of doubt not accorded to other titles.  The lavish praise heaped upon them was unmediated.  They are masterworks, see?  Without question. Period.

And "Carol" has opened to the same kind of entitled reception.

It's a beautifully mounted nothing, but it is indeed beautiful. Period.

Monday, January 04, 2016

twenty fifteen

The recently deceased movie year was a strange one, oddly unmemorable in spite of its loud, grandstanding, ultimately joyless blockbusters.

The highlight, for me, was the productivity of the fearless Kristen Wigg, who seems less interested in being a Movie Star than a working actor guided by an ecelctic, willfully uncommercial taste in the projects she pursues.  She's an SNL survivor in no urgent rush to become a "brand."

So, rather than indulge in your average movie critic's wet dream of composing a Ten Best list, I'm opting for a collection of 2015 observations that I think are more fascinating than the year's movies themselves.

Here goes...

Star of the year.  Easy.  The aforementioned Ms. Wigg, who did potentially audience-alienating, but bracingly good work in "Welcome to Me," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Nasty Baby," as well as team player stuff in the mainstream "The Martian."  Plus, she was all over the small screen in the "Wet Hot American Summer" reboot, the second season of the goofy mini-series "The Spoils Before Dying" and the straight-faced Lifetime spoof, "A Deadly Adoption" (the latter two with the equally game Will Ferrell).  And yet there was too far little of Wigg in 2015, the year that she became the female equivalent of Steve Carell.

Wigg's output is certainly more impressive than the sitcoms that the fabulously talented Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been churning out.  "Baby Mama"?  "Sisters"?  They deserve - and can do - much better.

The revolving door.  The movie year 2015 produced a number of films with good pedigrees that enjoyed their 15 minutes (if that) and then went away as if they were never made. Chief among them were those that seemed to be made with awards in mind - "Pawn Sacrifice," "Truth," "The Walk," “Suffragette,” "Steve Jobs," "Freeheld," "By the Sea," "Macbeth,"  Love and Mercy,"  "The End of the Tour,"  "99 Homes," "Black Mass," "The 33,"  "Infinitely Polar Bear,"  "Our Brand Is Crisis," "Everest," "A Walk in the Woods," "Mr. Holmes" and "I Smile Back," Sarah Silverman's curious, rather abrupt venture into dramatic territory. "About Ray," the Elle Fanning transgender drama and a favorite on the film-festival circuit, didn't even get its 15 minutes. (Reportedly, it's been shelved, at least temporarily.)

Each one opened with a certain among of fanfare and potential and then, before you knew it, the film were gone.  Kaput.  "Freeheld"?  What's that?

A notch or two below them (read: less award-worthy) were "Aloha," "Miss You Already," "Self/Less," "Rock the Kasbah," "Mississippi Grind," “Sicario,” "The Rewrite," "Remember," "Five Flights Up, "Lily and Eva," "A Little Chaos," "While We're Young," "Mistress America," “Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation,” "The Gunman," "Burnt" and "The D Train."

Star marketing.  Little on screen was as exciting or as suspenseful as how effectively Disney whipped the moviegoing public into a frenzy over a franchise that, a decade ago, everyone thought was stone cold dead.

007.  It took me an entire decade to finally realize that Daniel Craig may not be the best candidate to play James Bond.  His blue-collar discomfort was never more evident than in "Spectre," in which he wore a series of tuxedos and tight designer suits as if they were straighjackets.  Fact is, Craig isn't the least bit debonair.  He's much more interesting than that.

Sell it, baby, sell it! Anyone who watches Turner Classic Movies on a regular basis (and who doesn't?) is aware of how much air time is devoted to the relentless pitching of products - DVDs, books, eponymous film festivals, cruises, localized screenings, bus tours and now wine - wine!  The wine ads couldn't be escaped, running like clockwork, seemingly between every screening. (And, frankly, the idea of an inebriated movie geek frightens the heck out of me.)  I just wish Turner had the same commitment to its year-end TCM Remembers memorials.  This year, it manged to overlook  Martin Milner, a regular in Turner movies.

A big hand for the little lady. Quenten Tarantino's ambitious "The Hateful Eight" was greeted with conflicted reviews - praised for its attempt to revive the 70mm roadshow spectacle and criticized for the amount of blood and carnage that it spreads across the Ultra Panavision 70 screen.  But no one has called Q. T. on the grotesque sexism of his film. "The Hateful Eight" is essentially an all-male Western with (for most of its running time) only one female character, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is abused in every way possible (and Tarantino even invents a few new ways) and the audience (of mostly males?) is encouraged to laugh at every abuse.  The reason for all the abuse?  Well, she murdered someone, see?  But so have all of the self-righteous men who are slapping, kicking, belting and insulting her.  (I personally don't think any of them are "men," even though they are played by people with penises.)  Tarantino makes all of this acceptable - the abuse and the audience laughing it off - by presenting the victim as something less than human.  Leigh's character is certainly unlike anyone I've ever encountered, male or female.  She's a sub-human here, a "thing" that spits, cusses and snarls.  Venom comes out of her mouth, instead of words. So who cares how she's treated?

This is not to detract from Jennifer Jason Leigh's acute, feral performance.  She finds a certain wit in the character and works beyond the call of duty to satisfy both her director's vision and and her own actorly instincts.

I've no problem with fake blood caused by fake violence, but the way this character is presented and treated is anything but fake.  It's pure, undisguised sexism that detracts from the filmmaker's core mission to create an old-fashioned, broad-shouldered, extravagant movie-movie.

Movie of the year.  For some reason, the only film that stayed with me this year was Hiromasa Yonebayashi's "When Marnie Was There" ("Omoide no Mânî"), a small but ambitious Japanese anime about self-loathing.  And could it be a coincidence that the enigmatic title character is named after a Hitchcock heroine?  Also, there was time very well-spent with David Cronenberg's "Map to the Stars," Isobel Coixet's "Learning to Drive," Niki Caro's "McFarland, USA," Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight," Woody Allen's "Irrational Man," David O. Russell's "Joy," John Crowley's "Brooklyn," Jay Roach's "Trumbo," Asif Kapadia's "Amy," Lee Toland Kreiger's "The Age of Adeline," Alex Garland's “Ex Machina,” Kent Jones' "Hitchock/Truffaut" and... Hey, wait! Am I constructing one of those "Best of" lists here?

Am I?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

indelible moment: Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960)

"Ring out the old year, ring in the new. Ring-a-ding-ding"
- Fran Kubelik's sarcasm on New Year's Eve.
- From Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), an apt quote to end 2015.

Monday, December 28, 2015

when bad things happen to good movies

© Sony Pictures
John Huston and his amazing "little girls" from "Annie" (That's title star Aileen Quinn on Huston's right and, directly next to her, is the late Amanda Peterson) The film, once unfairly reviled and discredited, is being rediscovered and reassessed

It's heartening to sense that John Huston's 1982 film version of the Broadway musical "Annie" is yet another hastily dismissed, misunderstood title that has been - at long last - "rediscovered" and appreciated for the terrific movie musical that it is.  Of course, it took more than 30 years and two inferior remakes to convince its detractors of its worthiness - a watered-down 1999 TV version and a grotesquely updated 2014 remake.

For the past three decades, people who don't "get" movie musicals - including professional critics whom one would think would know better (well, think again) -  have indulged in snarky derision and bad jokes, exhibiting their abject cluelessness.  And, for me, few things are as amusing as a dull white middle-aged male movie critic trying to be funny.

"Annie" joins a select list of movies initially written off, chief among them Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) which, in its day, was harshly reviewed, to put it mildly.  So much (again) for critics and their educated tastes.

"Annie" could certainly be included among the films recently celebrated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BAM) in its "Turkeys for Thanksgiving" program, among them Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra," Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Robert Altman's "Popeye," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" and Charles Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux."  All really good films. "Folly or misunderstood masterpieces?," BAM asked in its promotion for the series.

Richard Brody, arguably the best movie critic writing today (although his official title is actually movie editor at The New Yorker), covered the BAM series on his New Yorker blog in a piece titled "These So-Called Bad Movies Prove the Urgency of Film Criticism," an essay you can read here.

But back to "Annie." It's popularity as a "family-friendly" Broadway show (when there were precious few back in those days) is a given.  Columbia Pictures sensed that it could be transferred rather seamlessly to the big screen and spent a then-record $9.5-million for the movie rights.

Producing chores were handed to Ray Stark, who had successfully overseen "Funny Girl" for Columbia years earlier, and Stark was given complete creative control to hire anyone he desired.  He could have picked among the usual suspects to direct this valuable property but he (wisely) settled on Huston, a decidedly non-musical name but a real filmmaker.

This was a shrewd trend in the late 1970s and early '80s which answered the question, "How do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, immediately declare every new movie musical 'an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster'?"

Answer: You bring in the Big Guns - Sidney Lumet to direct "The Wiz," Milos Foreman (!) to film "Hair" and Sir Richard Attenborough to take "A Chorus Line" from stage to screen.  Surely, critics would approve, right?

Wrong.  The critics nitpicked, even though both Huston and Foreman hit all the right notes, with Huston delivering a throwback. an old-fashioned movie musical, and Foreman helming the definitive version of "Hair."

In the case of Huston, it was the perfect mating of filmmaker and material.  The director seemed to relate to his tough-willed little title character and, in nine-year-old Aileen Quinn, he found an effortlessly spunky kid who could have stepped out of a '30s Warners street film.  And Quinn handily nailed the role.

Huston's other smart move was to bring in the great veteran Broadway choreographer Joe Layton to oversee all of his film's musical numbers and the then-new British choreographer Arlene Philips to stage all the dances.

Philips' exuberant, acrobatic staging of the film's "It's a Hard-Knock Life" number is a jaw-dropping knockout - hands-down. It gets better with each viewing, equalled by her breezy staging of Ann Reinking's "We Got Annie."

Which brings us to Huston's shrewd casting - Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder and Edward Hermann and Lois De Banzie (spot-on and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt) from Broadway; Albert Finney from international cinema; Tim Curry from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and of course, Carol Burnett from, well, every medium imaginable.

And thanks to reader Kevin Barry for the gentle reminder of the crucial role that the legendary editor Margaret Booth played in "Annie," another astute hire.  (Kevin's response is among the posted comments.)

That said, here are a few "Annie" factoids that add to the fascination of this terrific film:

Albert Finney's line-readings for Daddy Warbucks.  Stark reportedly joked that Huston himself would be the perfect Warbucks.  That gave Huston and Finney an idea: Finney appropriated Huston's vocal intonations for his performance. His line readings sound exactly like Huston speaking.

John Huston's own "cameo" in the film.  The sonorous voice of the actor on the radio soap opera who seems to be talking directly to Carol Burnett (just prior to the "Little Girls" number) is ... Huston's.

Carol Burnett's performance.  When the actress asked her director for a tip on how to perform Miss Hannigan, Huston made it simple: "Play is soused."  Burnett's performance is one long (witty) drunk scene.

Carol Burnett and Dorothy Loudon.  When Carol Burnett exited as a regular on "The Garry Moore Show" to do the 1964 Broadway musical "Fade In, Fade Out," she was replaced by Dorothy Loudon.  Loudon would go on to create the role of Miss Hannigan in "Annie" on Broadway and Burnett would replace her in the film.  A nifty, circuitous happenstance.

The casting of Rooster Hannigan: Huston had his heart set on his "almost" son-in-law Jack Nicholson for a smallish role in "Annie" - as Miss Hannigan's incorrigible brother, Rooster.  (Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston at the time.)  That would have been a hoot.  Perfect casting.  But even though it would have been a quick shoot for Nicholson, he had a scheduling conflict and Huston moved on and subsequently nabbed Tim Curry for the role.  And Curry also proved to be a perfect Rooster Hannigan - wildly theatrical, juicily evil, in the role.

Prior to a recent TCM screening of "Annie," a Turner host erroneously reported that Nicholson was Huston's choice to play Warbucks. This misinformation (from the “Annie” page on Turner's website) could have been easily fact-checked: The Nicholson-Rooster connection was widely reported prior to production. No, Albert Finney was Huston's sole choice to play Warbucks, which seemed curious at the time (even though Finney had previously sung on-screen in 1970's "Scrooge"), but it worked. Finney is just witty enough as Warbucks and his eyes expose his affection for Annie.

And Nicholson also previously sung on screen., but his rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's "Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?" was cut from Vincente Minnelli's 1970 film musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."  (Nicholson's song was included among other deleted movie musical numbers on an album released by Out Take Records.)

As for Huston and Finney, two years late,r they would collaborate again but on a film the polar opposite of "Annie" - "Under the Volcano," based on the Malcolm Lowry novel.

The return of two "Annie" characters from the strip:  Huston reinstated the characters of Punjab (Holder) and Asp (Roger Minami) for his film version  Neither character is in the stage musical. Which brings me to Carol Sobieski who adapted "Annie" for the screen, managing to honor not only Thomas Meehan's stage script but also the original Harold Gray cartoon strip.  Sobieski, who died in 1990 at age 51, had previously worked for Stark, writing the screenplay for the fine 1978 Walter Matthau film, "Casey's Shadow." Two of her screenplays were filmed after she died - Jon Avnet's hugely popular "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), based on the Fannie Flagg book, and John Cusack's "Money for Nothing" (1993).

The original "Easy Street" number: Two versions of this memorable number were filmed.  Philips originally staged it along the lines of "Who Will Buy?" from Sir Carol Reed's 1968 version of "Oliver!" (choreographed by Onna White), on an outdoor set and backup dancers (pictured directly below). But producer Stark reportedly wasn't entirely happy with the finished product and asked that the song be re-filmed - this time, in an indoor setting with a more intimate staging and with only Curry, Burnett and Peters performing (also pictured below).

I speculate the number also had to be re-recorded to accommodate the revised staging.

All of this was documented by Andrew J. Kuehn in his promotional documentary, "Lights, Camera, Annie!", which was televised by ABC and broadcast prior to the film's release. Kuehn's film is a must-see for any movie-musical aficionado who has ever fantasized about going behind-the-scenes and on set during the making of a film musical. It helps to have an appreciation of Huston's film, of course, but that's not a prerequisite.

This is fly-on-the-wall fun. Period.

There is ample footage of Huston, Layton, Stark and Phillips discussing the reinvention of the number as something smaller, with a few shots of "Easy Street" as it was originally conceived. Kuehn's work, narrated by Gene McGarr and produced by Jim Washburn, goes beyond the promotional documentary genre and sneakily slips us into meetings and on-set discussions, giving us an insider's insight into the making of a musical.

There are also on-set interviews with Finney, Burnett, Quinn, Peters, Curry, Reinking and Holder and an extended sequence devoted to the auditions for the title role among scores of little girls. The casting director got the job done expeditiously by going up and down aisles of little girls, having each one contribute to a on-going, non-stop version of "Tomorrow."

Each girl picks up where the previous girl left off.

Carol Burnett discussed the filming of the two versions of "Easy Street" when she was a guest on Alec Baldwin's ”Here’s the Thing” podcast on October 10th.

Frankly, I'd love to know why Sony Home Entertainment didn't include Kuehn's documentary or the original "Easy Street" staging on its recent reissue of the "Annie" DVD as bonus features, instead of an updated "rap" version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" by some generic teen group - an ominous inclusion that anticipated Columbia's dubious 2014 remake.

The song score: The stage songs dropped from the movie were "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," "N.Y.C.," "You Make Me Happy," "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long," "Why Should I Change a Thing?," "Something Was Missing" and "A New Deal for Christmas."  New songs added to the film were "We Got Annie," "Dumb Dog"/"Sandy," "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Sign."  All songs, for both the play and the film, were written by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). Charnin has directed seemingly umpteen stage revivals of the show.  It's his baby.

Strouse also wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie" (with Lee Adams doing the lyrics) and I've a hunch that all those dropped "Annie" songs brought back unpleasant memories of when the same studio, namely Columbia, filmed (and unnecessarily truncated) "Bye Bye Birdie" back in 1963.

I can't say I particularly miss the deleted stage songs, but the "We Got Annie" number is wonderful, so wonderful that I'm surprised Strouse and Charnin never incorporated into the subsequent stage revivals of "Annie."

"Live" versus Dubbing: Although most of the songs for "Annie" were pre-recorded, there are areas of the film when the performers sung "live" on set, most notably Carol Burnett's rendition of "Little Girls."  Finney sings a "live" reprise of "Maybe" and the opening portion of "Easy Street" is sung "live" by Curry, Peters and Burnett.  Huston used the show's signature song, "Tomorrow," over the opening credits (in lieu of an overture), sung by Quinn who later in the film sings it "live" (sweetly and with no musical accompaniment) to Hermann and De Banzie. When Finney, Hermann and De Banzie join her in a quick reprise, the song is lip-synced and scored.

The film's one oddity: One of the film's highlights - the "Let's Go to the Movies," shot it the magnificent Radio City Music Hall - is marred when the film stops cold to screen assorted scenes from George Cukor's "Camille" (1936) with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Huh?  My assumption has always been that "Camille" was one of Ray Stark's favorite films - an assumption never confirmed.  I can't think of any other reason for its inclusion. Otherwise, it beats me.  But that one blemish aside, at least we get great shots of the Music Hall's cavernous lobby.  Gorgeous.

And there you have it...  All about "Annie."