Thursday, September 22, 2016

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"

Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success"of 1957 is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played by the always surprising Martin Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

indelible moment: Donen's "The Little Prince"

In the mid-1970s, Stanley Donen teamed up with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe - you know, the guys who did "My Fair Lady" - for a musical film based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry beloved gem, "The Little Prince"/"Le Petit Prince." The film was troubled given that the casting of The Pilot - Frank Sinatra, Gene Hackman, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Richard Burton were all suggested - proved gnawingly elusive.

Reliable Richard Kiley would play the role.

The resulting film ran a trim 88 minutes which was considered perfect in some quarters and suspect in others. Studio intervention? Hmmm. Donna McKechnie's role as The Rose seemed particularly truncated. But, overall, the movie is a tiny gem. Donen got it right, particularly in his casting of Bob Fosse as The Snake and, truly inspired, Gene Wilder as The Fox.

The film's stand-out moment is also the book's: It comes when Wilder, with his champagne-colored, fluffy hair and dressed in a handsome auburn suit, scurries about and stops in a field of wheat to intone:

                "It's only with the heart that one can see clearly.
                     What's essential, is invisible to the eye."

Lovely. And, yes, indelible.

Monday, September 12, 2016

eurotrash, american-style

Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures ©

I come, belatedly, to Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups" and Angelina Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" largely because it was impossible to see either of them in a theater.  Both received rather minimal, perfunctory, almost invisible releases, with scant publicity, and both were quickly whisked away by their handlers when no one showed up. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Both films are rather embarrassing and take a lot of patience, but neither is without a certain solipsistic charm. I rather like both because each one seemed to challenge/ignore Big Studio dictums about what would sell and what would play.  I doubt that either one was shown to a preview audience of moviegoers ruined by CGI superhero flicks. Still, neither is very good.

Both are also rather difficult to decipher.

Malick's is typical of the disposable "art" that he has been churning out for decades.  His first - and best - film, "Badlands" (1973) remains an oddity because it comes with such clarity and with a conventional narrative.  His second film, on the other hand - "Days of Heaven" - was a still life committed to film featuring actors who were not required to act.  That film, released in 1978, has served as a template for his oeuvre ever since.

In "Knight of Cups," Christian Bale stumbles around a very appealing Los Angeles and neighboring places in a fog for two hours.  Again, there's no acting, per se, even though the film has a huge cast - Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jason Clarke, Nick Offerman, Kevin Corrigan, Ryan O'Neal, Clifton Collins Jr., Dane DeHann, Fabio (!), Joe Manganiello and, if you blink you'll miss her, Cherry Jones.

Odd. Actors want to be in a Malick film even if they do nothing.

A paid vacation, I guess.

I had no idea what was going on.  The dialogue is either mumbled or muted.  Then, it hit me.  "Knight of Cups" is Malick's variation on Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," with Bale playing the same cynical, disillusioned character as Marcello Mastroianni did in Fellini's 1960 art-house epic. The trouble is, this kind of storytelling plays better with subtitles.

Jolie-Pitt's "By the Sea" is also a foreign-film wannabe. In this case, she's aping Claude Lelouch.  One makes the connection almost immediately, thanks to Gabriel Yared's Gallic music score and shots of Joie-Pitt (who wrote, as well as directed the film) cruising around the south of France in a benumbed state with her husband, Brad Pitt, behind the wheel of a swank little roadster.  Très charmant!

Anyway, something is clearly wrong with this marriage.  There are vague references to a dead baby or child and, when both become obsessed with the newlyweds (forever having intercourse) in the hotel room next to theirs, I half expected the film to turn into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966).  But Jolie-Pitt isn't playful enough to investigate that possiblity.

Instead, it turns into a rather bland domestic drama about a wife who thinks her husband drinks too much (and why wouldn't he?) while, self-deluded, she drinks just a much.  But I liked Jolie-Pitt's distracted, woozy performance here.  She's like a zombie here - not unlike Delphine Seyrig in  Harry Kümel's "Daughter of Darkness" (1971).

Both "Knight of Cups" and "By the Sea" are hugely amusing, albeit it's clear their makers didn't have that intention at all.

credit: Universal Pictures ©

Sunday, September 04, 2016

indelible moment: Jane Russell and the Olypmic Team in Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

There have been a lot of great numbers in movie musicals but few have become as controversial as Jane Russell's "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" from Howard Hawks' 1953 loose adaptation of the Joseph Fields-Anita Loos 1949 stage play, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Jule Style and Leo Robin wrote the show's music and lyrics but this is not one of their compositions. It was an addition to the film version and Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson wrote it.  The song itself isn't that memorable. It's the staging of it that makes it soar - athletic, acrobatic choreography by the inimitable Jack Cole, with an Olympic team of bathing suit-clad men twirling, flexing, kicking, wrestling, somersaulting, diving and doing splits and other gymnastic feats as Russell makes advances to them.

I've no idea what reaction, if any, the number stirred back in '53 but for the past couple decades, it's been viewed as a wildly homoerotic spectacle, largely because of the skimpy bathing suits worn by Cole's dance troupe.

Skimpy?  Not really.  It was the norm for men to wear such bathing suits (and even Speedos) in the 1950s and '60s.  I've taken to calling those suits The Steve McQueen because the late actor was frequently seen wearing one. (That's Steve, to your left, posing with his first wife Neile Adams in 1963 and wearing a typical '60s bathing suit, much like those in the film.)

It's only in the past decade or so that, for some reason, guys have started wearing what looks like Bermuda Shorts with a 9" inseam for swimming and even for playing professional basketball.  (The new basketball gear, which resembles a short skirt, looks nothing like what Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore in their heyday.) Anyway, it's easy to see why the suits worn in the "Blondes" number cause culture shock these days.

BTW, the bald actor (below) playing the coach at the beginning of "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" is no actor but choreographer Cole. The "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" number was modeled after The Gladiators, a dance suite that Cole did with Rod Alexander and George Martin.
Note in Passing: John Branch wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's The New York Times that posits the theory that one of the appeals of watching the Olympics this year was the opportunity to see more skin and form-fitting gear as the contestants did their thing.

Monday, August 29, 2016

cinema obscura: Robert Enders' "Stevie" (1978)

Jackson with Washbourne, wearing the flowered dress that Jackson's Stevie wittily describes as "they all came up."

Robert Enders' endearing "Stevie" (1978), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his West End stage play, is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt (who remains agreeably nameless throughout).

Yes, the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because Enders (a novice filmmaker at the time who worked largely as a producer) fills his movie with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.

Through all the talk we come to know Stevie and her emotional problems.


All of this is staged in a cozy cottage designed by John Lageu and photographed by Freddie Young with an eye for the prevading warmth of the central relationship and Stevie's work.

There's a third character on the periphery - Freddy, a close friend played on stage by Peter Eyre and in the film by Alec McGowen - as well a Stevie as a child (Emma Louise Fox) who appears in flashbacks, moments that were only spoken about on stage. The addition of the flashbacks, as well as a narrator for the film (courtesy of Trevor Howard's marvelously sonorous intonations), are the only filmic compromises made by Enders, whose fidelity to the piece's frail nature is remarkable and admirable.

"Stevie" remains the only film directed by Enders, who died in 2007. His film was picked up for American distribution by First Artists, a fledgling company which had a short life in the late 1970s and which had little faith in "Stevie." It opened the film for two weeks in Los Angeles in 1978 and then promptly shelved it. Two years later, when First Artists was long gone, Enders bought back his film and opened it on the East Coast in 1980, where it was a huge hit with the critics and art-house patrons.

Other limited engagements in other cities followed.

It was made available on home entertainment in Great Britain, but never here. "Stevie" remains a lost film.

Note in Passing: Because of her film's irregular release pattern, Jackson never received the Oscar nomination that she so fully deserved. But the Golden Globes honored her and Washbourne in 1979 and both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave the best actress and supporting actress awards to Jackson and Washbourne in 1981. Washbourne, who died in 1988 at age 84, was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 1978 as supporting actress.
* * *

"Not Waving but Drowning"

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

"Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning."

-Stevie Smith

Sunday, August 21, 2016

delusional soulmates

I've long been fascinated by the vagaries of film distribution - how some movies seem to emerge at the right time, commenting on a current situation, although it could have never been planned that way.

That occurred to me while watching Stephen Frears' hugely entertaining biopic of "Florence Foster Jenkins," a society matron whose love of classical music compelled her to attempt a late career as an opera singer, even though she had no real talent for it.  Meryl Streep - in another of her seemingly effortless bravura performances - plays Florence with both deep humor and compassionate dignity, and Hugh Grant - in a great, revelatory performance (arguably the best male performance of the year) - plays the husband who both encourages Florence in her futile fantasy and protects her from whatever harshness that might suppress that beloved fantasy.

The movie is about a delusional person being enabled by the people around her and I made the connection to Donald Trump whose current quest for presidency is also being nurtured by the people around him.  There are obvious differences between Florence and Donald, to be sure, but their delusions are similar, as are the enablers taking care of them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

cinema obscura: Richard Benner's "Happy Birthday, Gemini" (1980)

The late Richard Benner, who died in 1990, was a promising Canadian filmmaker who, for reasons unknown, directed only three movies.

He broke through in 1977 with the hugely entertaining "Outrageous!," a drag-queen farce driven by fine-tuned, yet comic, turns by the cross-dressing Craig Russell (who also died in 1990), the fetching Hollis McLaren, reliable Helen Shaver and the cult filmmaker Allan Moyle ("Pump Up the Volume" and "Empire Records"). A decade later, Benner made the less-successful sequel, "Too Outrageous!," and that was that.

End of film career; onward to TV, which also lasted only briefly.

In-between his two Russell farces, however, Benner made his best, most assured film - 1980's "Happy Birthday, Gemini," based on the Albert Innaurato stage comedy that was simply titled "Gemini" when it was staged off-Broadway twice within a year - first by Playwrights Horizons in December 1976 and then by the Circle Repertory in March 1977 - and again on Broadway in May 1977. To call Innaurato's piece "audience-friendly" was an understatment. It was irresistible, playing a whopping 1,819 performances on Broadway. Sigourney Weaver, Danny Aiello and Robert Picardo were among the cast in its various stage incarnations.

In those days, a successful stage comedy was automatically snapped up for the screen (not any more!) and when United Artists decided to film it, the project was handed to Benner on the basis of "Outrageous!"

Essentially a backyard comedy, set among row houses in South Philadelphia, "Happy Birthday, Gemini" revolves around the 21st birthday celebration of one Francis Geminiani - played on stage by Picardo and in the film by Alan Rosenberg - a gay kid who had the misfortune to grow up in a rough-hewn neighborhood. An antic comedy of manners ensues as various friends, relatives and neighbors crowd their way in, making a lot of arm-flailing, neurosis-revealing commotion.

These include Francis's father, Nick (Robert Viharo), and his girlfriend, Lucille (Rita Moreno); next-door neighbor Bunny Weinberger (Madeline Kahn) and her obese son Herschel (Timothy Jenkins), and Francis's classmates from Harvard, the twins Judith Hastings (Sarah Holcomb) and Randy Hastings (David Marshall Grant). It's like this - Sarah has a crush on Francis, who in turn has a crush on Randy.

Blessed with this pleasing cast, Benner almost effortlessly whipped up a most companionable film. The three young leads, all new at the time, are especially good. Rosenberg and Grant both went on to have modest acting careers in film and television, with Grant branching off into producing and writing and Rosenberg occasionally directing for TV. But one has to grieve the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Holcomb, who debuted in 1978 in "Animal House," had a commanding dramatic role in "Walk Proud" a year later, and was most fetching in "Caddyshack," made in 1980, the same year as "Gemini." Four films in three years and then ... nothing.  She apparently dropped out.  Where is Sarah Holcolmb? A major loss.

Anchoring the film with appropriately diva-like performances are Moreno and the late Kahn, both old pros whose bravura work here should have elevated Benner's pleasing little comedy to near-classic status. As a film, it certainly deserved as large an audience as its stage source attracted.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

façade: Judy Holliday

Judy and Dino played the Radio City Music Hall during the summer of 1960
The Museum of Modern Art remembers what Columbia Pictures (now enveloped by Sony) seems to have regrettably forgotten, namely that Judy Holliday was terrific - and bracingly idiosyncratic for a Movie Star.

Holliday was one of several companionable blondes who played and flirted with audiences during the 1950s.  No two were alike.  There was Marilyn, of course, the child-woman.  And Kim, the haunted blonde.  (No need for last names here, right?)  And Jayne and Mamie and Sheree, the latter brought in by Fox executives to keep Marilyn in line, a toxic decision that limited the talented Sheree North's career.  And then there was Judy, who was less sexualized than the others and, because of that, more accessible.

She also reflected a complicated comic styling, bringing affecting pathos to dialogue meant to be funny. Her singular line readings took her characters precariously close to being pathetic but her uncanny timing rescued her women, keeping their dignity intact and revealing them to be actually kind of smart.

No ditz she.

As a star, Holliday enjoyed a brief two-decade career, which ended prematurely in 1965.  She was 43 and she succumbed to breast cancer. Twenty years earlier, she replaced Jean Arthur during the out-of-town tryouts of the Garson Kanin comedy, "Born Yesterday" and subsequently starred in the 1950 Columbia Pictures film version, winning an Oscar.  As well as a Columbia contract.

The studio's head, Harry Cohn, initially had no interest in casting the untested Holliday in the film but Kanin and the film's director George Cukor convinced Cohn by first casting her in another collaboration.

That would be MGM's "Adam's Rib."

It was ingenious plan.  It worked. Holliday's scant film career consists of six Columbia titles bookended by two Metro films - Cukor and Kanin's aforementioned "Adam's Rib" in 1949 and Vincente Minnelli 's "Bells Are Ringing," based on the hit 1956 stage musical she headlined at the height of her stardom. The film version, released in 1960, was her final movie.

It is also her only film shot in color.  Judy Holliday was a black-&-white leading lady and the six films she made for Columbia come with a gray, overcast appeal, most of them filmed (or located) in a woozy New York of another time, a city that paired well with Holliday's distracted personality.

Given that she made only a half-dozen films for Columbia, it's disappointing that Sony has yet to combine those titles in a boxed DVD/BluRay set.  But for the time being, there's MoMA's Modern Matinees: Summer with Judy Holliday (curated by Anne Morra), which has been running since late July and continues through August 31st .

Judy & Jack Lemmon & New York in "It Should Happen to You"

At Columbia, between 1950 and 1956, Holliday worked with the venerable Cukor three times ("Born Yesterday," the prescient farce "It Should Happen to You" and the excellent dramedy "The Marrying Kind"); twice with Richard Quine, arguably Columbia's best house director ("The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life"), and Mark Robson (the eternally modern and sophisticated - and criminally underrated - "Phffft!").

"Bells Are Ringing," already presented on July 27th, screens again at Moma on August 12that 1:30 p.m.  I hope to be there.  It would be great to see this Minnelli musical on a big screen again.

It's a fascinating movie because one can sense that Minnelli was aware of changing moviegoer tastes and that, sadly, screen musicals were no longer a welcomed treat.  As an act of accommodation, Minnelli made some shrewd changes in the Adolph Green-Betty Condom-Jule Styne material (note his filming of the "I Met a Girl" number" and his reinvention of "Mu-Cha-Cha"), creating a new-style movie musical for its time.

I just wish Vincente had filmed it in black-&-white. You know, for Judy.

Who, by the way, had an IQ of 172. No ditz she.

Note in Passing:  While all of Holliday's Columbia films were shot in black-&-white, the final scene of Quine's "The Solid Gold Cadillac" was photographed in color, to accentuate the glittering title vehicle.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

woody reimages billy's "the apartment" - sort of

Woody Allen conferring with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in glorious color) on "Café Society" - and 56 years earlier ... 

... Billy Wilder conferring with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (in glorious black-&-white) on "The Apartment."  The connection?

In the hugely entertaining and affectionate “Café Society,” his 52nd or 53rd  film as a director (but who's counting?), Woody Allen addresses the element that has traditionally anchored Hollywood - the Jewish moguls.

Originally from the East Coast and only fitfully transplanted to the intoxicating, night-blooming jasmine environs of Los Angeles, these men influenced (and lived vicariously through) the movies that they produced.

Driven by a dream cast of largely young, contemporary actors, “Café Society” is another cleverly-drawn ensemble original by Allen but one with a teasing touch of déjà vu, honoring an earlier film and filmmaker.

But more about that later. 

Jesse Eisenberg (in the requisite Allen role) plays Bobby Dorfman, a nebbish who leaves the Bronx for the land of Oz.  That would be 1930s Hollywood, where his uncle, Phil Stern - played by the chameleon Steve Carell - is an agent-cum-producer who drops the names of stars like Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, and may even hang out with them.

Phil, his mother's brother, makes Bobby his gofer and puts him in the hands of his assistant, Vonnie (short for Veronica) - the ever-remarkable Kristen Stewart who looks absolutely fabulous in her vintage wardrobe (by Suzy Benzinger) and demonstrates the best slouch since Joan Crawford.

This is where Allen stops and, in a major plot point, pays homage to ... Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."  In Wilder's 1960 film, Jack Lemmon develops a crush on Shirley MacLaine, unaware that she is having an affair with his married boss, Fred MacMurray.  Here, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, unaware that her character is having an affair with his married uncle.

In "The Apartment," a cracked mirror in a compact exposes the affair.  In “Café Society," it's a piece of memorabilia - a love letter from Rudolph Valentino that Vonnie has given to Phil on the anniversary of their affair.

Like Lemmon's C.C. Baxter in "The Apartment," Bobby is devastated by his discovery but, unlike Lemmon's character, he elects to move on - and back to New York. This is one time when Woody Allen is actually more cynical than Billy Wilder:  Allen lets the philanderer get the girl.

Not surprisingly, like the Wilder film, “Café Society's" denouement takes place on New Year's Eve. What comes in-between Bobby's discovery and Allen's finale is what distinguishes “Café Society" from "The Apartment."

Another woman - another Veronica - comes into Bobby's life, and she and Bobby's criminal brother guide the film's Act Two, now ensconced in New York, away from the Wilder movie and back to Woody territory.

Blake Lively, every inch a Movie Star here (the critic Richard Brody has astutely commented that she is "perhaps the great melodramatic actress of the current time"), plays the new Veronica, a gorgeous divorcée who is a bit more seasoned than Vonnie and sees something in Bobby that Vonnie perhaps willfully disregarded. They marry and Bobby goes on to run a Bronx nightclub (called Café Society, after the famed Greenwich Village spot) for his brother Ben (a thug gleefully played by Corey Stoll, who is quickly establishing himself as the era's most versatile character actor).

Other cast members that make “Café Society" a most companionable film include Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby and Ben's hilariously stereotypical parents; Sari Lennick as their sister Evelyn and Stephen Kunken as her husband, Leonard; Parker Posey and Paul Schneider as a couple of New York swells who take a liking to Bobby (and set him up with the second Veronica); Anna Camp as an unlucky prostitute, and Sheryl Lee as Phil Stern's wife.  There isn't a single misstep among this cast.

 Note in Passsing: “Café Society" isn't the first film to honor "The Apartment." Amy Heckerling's ”Loser” got there first back in 2000.

Stewart plays Shirley MacLaine to Eisenberg's Jack Lemmon.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" (1975)

20th Century-Fox's "Lucky Lady" (1975) seemed to have everything going for it. A script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of "American Graffiti" (1973) fame, a legendary director (Stanely Donen) and a cast including one major box-office draw (that would be Burt Reynolds), a respected actor (Gene Hackman in an atypical comedy role) and the era's resident lovable kook (Liza Minnelli, newly Oscared at the time).

It was to be Fox's B.H.E. - Big Holiday Entertainment. (It was a Christmas release.) But it turned out to be Fox's Big Holiday Embarrassment.

What went wrong? The plot - about a trio of unlikely rum-runners (Burt, Gene and Liza) - sounded like it could be a pleasing romp, particularly with that cast. Plus Huyck-Katz added the titilation of Minnelli going back and forth between Reynolds and Hackman, romantically, with coy hints of ménage à trois doings (coy enough to avoid an R rating, natch).

Actually, now that I think about it, none of this sounds very good at all. In performance, the film is forced, with everyone pretending to have a blast and Minnelli, in particular, irritating in her trademarked giggly/jittery way.

Two additional endings were filmed when Fox became understandably anxious over the original in which the film takes a jarringly tragic turn with Hackman and Reynolds ending up dead and Minnelli ending up alone.

In the early 1980s, the Fox syndicated self-promotional show, "That's Hollywood," included this footage in an episode on outtakes.

The sequence is haunting and painterly as Hackman and Reynolds are gunned down on a beach, with the waves pushing their dead bodies towards a traumatized, immobolized Minnelli who walks, zombie-like, towards the shore.

It's a sobering, fatalistic moment but one has to ask what it had to do with what preceded it. What on earth were Donen, Huyck and Katz thinking? Not surprisingly, Fox (which presumably approved the original script) demanded a happy ending. Donen shot two - one in which the three characters are still together in old age (see out-of-focus photo below) and the one which went into the release print, where everything turns out rosy and the implied ménage à trois continues uninterrupted. The End.

Hackman came through the ordeal essentially unscathed, while the ever productive Reynolds didn't have a care in the world as he had churned out three other titles that year (John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," Peter Bogdanovich's ”At Long Last Love” and Robert Aldrich's "Hustle"). He operated as an old-style studio star.

But the film effectively ended the film careers of Donen, Minnelli and Huyck and Katz, who would go on to write a negligible sequel to "American Graffiti" and the notorious "Howard the Duck" (1986).

"Lucky Lady," reportedly never released on any home entertainment format, had disappeared until the Fox Movie Channel started airing it (and in wide screen, no less) when it was still screening vintage titles from the Fox library.

Not a good film but, for some bizarre reason, worth catching. If you can.