Monday, April 28, 2008

mainstream, independent and misunderstood


How could the critics in 1958 so misread Hitchcock's
"Vertigo"?

Well, the initial failure of "Vertigo," followed by a belated about-face by the opinion makers, isn't exactly an isolated incident in film history. If you haven't noticed, those Hollywood flops that are invariably promoted to masterwork status all have one thing in common - a shared thread, so to speak. None of them fits the industry's definition of a mainstream film. And that's because, well, they aren't.

For years, before the Hollywood studios co-opted the independent film scene, setting up shop with a bunch of boutique divisions, the indies coexisted side-by-side with, if somewhat in the shadow of, the big mainstream movies.

There have always been independent films. It's not as if they suddenly sprang to life with the emergence of Steven Soderbergh or, going back in time, with either John Sayles or John Cassavetes, or still further back, with Orson Welles. They've always been there, lurking on the fringes of the business, generally ignored.

But there was a time - in the late 1950s and early '60s - when some of the majors tried their hands at films that had the contours of the independents. Released wide, they seemed to confuse both audiences and critics alike, doing underwhelming business and generating indifferent reviews, to put it mildly. No one "got" them. They were derided and ultimately "dismissed," in all senses of that word.

Hitchcock's "Veritgo," for all intents and purposes, was an independent film. True, it's a sizable, glossy film, made by a major Hollywood director with major Hollywood stars, but it has the soul and the constitution of a smaller maverick movie. Paramount, which released it, didn't have a specialty divison at the time - there was no Paramount Vantage - and the studio, more or less, threw the film into the marketplace recklessly. It wasn't prepared to handle this kind of movie, and the critics and the public certainly weren't prepared to watch it.

And so, it failed. It was doomed to in 1958.


"Vertigo" would be followed in the next few years by films that shared its kinds of artistry and ambition and that would suffer the same demoralizing fate - Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Robert Rossen's "Lilith," Joseph Losey's "Boom!," George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck," Arthur Penn's "Mickey One" and Hitchcock's "Marnie," more or less a companion film to "Vertigo." You have to hand it to Hitch. He may have been burned by his "Vertigo" experience, but that didn't stop him from trying to duplicate it.

Anyway, all of them - "The Misfits," "A Countess from Hong Kong" and "Mickey One" - were met with indifference, sometimes even contempt. Remember Bosley Crowther's infamous pan of Penn's arty "Bonnie and Clyde"? There were a handful of critics who, after dismissing the film, went back and re-evalutated it in a more positive light after it caught on with the public.

In 1967, 20th Century-Fox foolishly opened Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" at the Radio City Music Hall, probably because the film stars Audrey Hepburn and the studio reasoned that all Hepburn films are supposed to play Radio City. Well, the movie didn't last there very long. It had one of the legendary theater's shortest runs. It looked as if "Two for the Road" would become one of those films, like "The Misfits" and "A Countess from Hong Kong," that studios were too embarrassed to discuss and were proned to hide. But something happened. Someone at Fox must have realized what Donen was attempting with the film. It was given a second chance, reopening a week later at the Plaza Theater, decidedly an art house, where it enjoyed a long, healthy run.

And where it was understood.

Most of these films were eventually rediscovered and, seen in a new light, re-evaluated. With both "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Two for the Road," the vindication was almost immediate. With "Vertigo," it took longer. Much longer. It was a slower process. But it did happen, perhaps because time finally caught up with its astute, deep-seated psychology and its cinematic dreaminess - two qualities that underline Hitchcock's intensely personal statement on the fear of falling, the fear of falling ... in love.

"Vertigo" may be the definitive art film - and "The Misfits" and "Two for the Road" and "Marnie" are right up there with it.

By the late '60s, the climate had changed in Hollywood. It became the New Hollywood - at least for a while - and the studios, audiences and critics were more receptive to what I like to call Mainstream Art Films. "Easy Rider." "Medium Cool." "Midnight Cowboy." "Diary of a Mad Housewife." "Five Easy Pieces." "Play It as It Lays." All from major studios. All independent-minded.

But this new policy didn't help Terry Gilliam's much-abused "Brazil," which Universal seemed to willfully misunderstand.

With their aforementioned boutique divisions, the studios have now solved the problem of their in-house art films. Still, one has to wonder about those films today that the critics and audiences are failing to "get." What contemporary masterpieces are there that will receive their delayed recognition only after being underestimated?

For me, Tony Scott's "Domino" - his 2005 film about the alleged adventures of the late Laurence Harvey's daughter, starring Keira Knightly as the titular Domino Harvey - comes immediately to mind.

I'd like to think that Scott's hastily maligned, bracingly adventurous film will finally, triumphantly, stand the test of time. Just like "Vertigo"

Note in Passing: The Sundance Channel will telecast Losey's "Boom!," starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noel Coward on Saturday morning, May 3rd at 6 (est). It's a Universal film and apparently the studio made a deal with Sundance to broadcast titles that, by all accounts, Universal could care less about. All of them are Mainstream Arts films, such as Frank Perry's "Play It as It Lays," which was telecast on Sundance today and will be repeated at 7 p.m. (est) on Saturday, May 10th; George Roy Hill's "Slaughterhouse-Five"; James Bridges' "September 30th, 1955," and Charles Jarrott's "Mary, Queen of Scots," with the dynamic acting duo, Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, being telecast Sunday, May 4th at 6:45 a.m. (est).

(Artwork: Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which confounded audiences in 1958; Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Huston's "The Misfits," and poster art for Losey's "Boom!" and of Keira Knightley as Tony Scott's "Domino")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Operation Mad Ball" Sighting


It's Turner to the rescue.

Richard Quine's delightfully anarchic and long-lost
"Operation Mad Ball,"
the Jack Lemmon comedy never released on home entertainment by its maker, Columbia Pictures, will be broadcast on Saturday, July 19th at 8 a.m. (est).

This is great news, given that, inexplicably, neither "Operation Mad Ball" (1957) nor "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), also directed by Quine and starring Lemmon, was included in the deal that Turner struck last year with Sony to broadcast 500 Columbia titles from the 1950s and '60s. I use the word inexplicable because Sony managed to include the likes of "The Flying Fontaines" (1959) and "The New Interns" (1964) in the agreement.

A Turner rep explains the sudden turnaround this way: "While 'Operation Mad Ball' and 'The Notorious Landlady' weren’t part of the Columbia deal, we do have access to the films for our air through Sony."

So the good news is that "Operation Mad Ball" will see the light of day again. And hopefully, the next step will be a long-overdue DVD release.

The not-so-good news is that there is no air date for "The Notorious Landlady." So far.

Keep your fingers crossed.

(Artwork: Arthur O'Connell, Jack Lemmon, Kathryn Grant/Crosby and Ernie Kovacs in a publicity shot for Richard Quine's "Operation Mad Ball")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Negulesco, Haneke et al: Same Material, Same Director


Remakes rarely, if ever, elicit much enthusiasm, particularly not among self-styled film aficionados. I can't say I appreciate them much myself.

But there's a fascination about that small, select group of remakes that are the work of their original filmmakers - and major filmmakers at that. I mean, a really resourceful film programmer might want to consider double bills by the following filmmakers...

Alfred Hitchcock: "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934 and 1956)

William Wyler: "These Three" (1936) and "The Children's Hour" (1961)

Frank Capra: "Lady for a Day" (1933) and "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961)

Georges Sluizer: "The Vanishing" (1988 and 1992)

Leo McCarey: "Love Affair" (1939) and "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

Yasujiro Ozu: "Floating Weeds" (1934 and 1959)

Cecil B. DeMille: "The Ten Commandments" (1923 and 1956)

Francis Veber: "Les Fugitifs" (1986) and "Three Fugitives" (1989)

In most of these cases, the original and the remake are equal, although Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is arguably better than his first take on the material.

Much less successful, however, was Jean Negulesco, whose "The Pleasure Seekers" is a sad 1964 remake of his popular three-gal hit from a decade earlier, "Three Coins in a Fountain." (BTW, "The Pleasure Seekers," not available on DVD, receives an American Movie Classics telecast at 6 a.m. (est) on Friday, April 25th.)

Negulesco was something of a specialist when it came to making films about three women who either work together or room together. In the space of two years, he made "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), followed by "Three Coins in a Fountain" and "Woman's World" (both 1954), and several years later, "The Best of Everything" (1959) and "The Pleasure Seekers."

In the case of the latter, rarely has so much enticing scenery (Madrid) been wasted - or has so much bad acting been contained in a single performance in a single film. The strident, desperate performance by Ann-Margret here is a vulgarization of the role originally played by Jean Peters in the 1954 original.

Ann-Margret eventually developed into an appealing screen presence and fine actress, but at this point in her career, she was nearly unwatchable and her manic performance here (someone's misguided idea of "adorable") single-handedly sinks the film. Filmmakers of this period were seemingly in thrall to her, if audiences necessarily weren't - as evidenced by George Sidney, by then a veteran filmmaker, who sat idly by and let her hijack the awful "Bye, Bye Birdie" (1963) and then pull an Eve Harrington on Elvis Presley in the even worse "Viva Las Vegas" (1964).

But the other performances in "The Pleasure Seekers," turned in by usually reliable people (including Gene Tierney), aren't much better. Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin play the two other young women looking for love in a vacation location, and Brian Keith and Tony Franciosa are two of the men they flit around. The third is played by Garner McKay, who is such a stick of an actor that he inadvertently balances out Ann-Margret's relentless hysteria.

So, let's forget "The Pleasure Seekers" and move on to something equally disturbing ... Michael Haneke and his "Funny Games" (1997 and 2008).

Haneke's shot-for-shot American remake of his '97 German film is a willfully alienating work in which the filmmaker essentially apes the vicious behavior of his work's two cultured thugs (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet): He takes his audience hostage and forces us to witness, and by extention, participate in a harrowing home invasion. He makes us complicit in the evil, sadistic acts being perpetrated on screen and then goes a step further and blames us for the crimes.

Finally, in the spirit of pure mean-spiritedness, he holds the audience responsible for the fact that he made the film in the first place.

We wanted it, see?

Complicating and exacerbating matters is the fact that "Funny Games" - in both its incarnations - is brilliant. And the American version boasts yet another masterful turn by Naomi Watts as one of the tragic victims.

Finally, there's "September" (1987), the film that Woody Allen, made twice, filming it first with his original cast and then starting from scratch again, with some of his original players switching roles, while other parts completely recast.

It's a melancholy, Chekhovian piece in which six people share their misery during a weekend in the country. The first version starred Mia Farrow, Maureen O'Sullivan (Farrow's mother), Dianne Wiest, Denholm Elliott, Charles Durning and, briefly, Sam Shepard, who was replaced by Christopher Walken.

Dissatisfied with the movie, Allen immediately reshot it with Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterson and Jack Warden assuming the roles originally played by O'Sullivan, Walken and Durning, respectively. Wiest and Farrow stayed in their roles. Elliott also remained in the film but in a different role.

Of course, the original version has never been seen but would make a nifty feature on a double-disc DVD of "September."

(Artwork: The poster art for Negulesco's "The Pleasure Seekers," a still shot from the film with Carol Lynley; the display ad for Haneke's American remake of "Funny Games," and a scene from the film with Naomi Watts)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

cinema obscura: Two Lost Lemmons


Jack Lemmon, unfortunately, spent the first ten years of his film career as a contract player at Columbia Pictures which, of course, is now in the hands of Sony.

Why “unfortunately”? Well, because, if he had apprenticed at almost any other studio – say, Fox, Warner Bros. or Universal – there undoubtedly would have been at least one boxed DVD set, perhaps two, of his work in the marketplace by now.

But Sony, which arguably has the least resourceful home-entertainment division, has done virtually nothing with Lemmon’s Columbia work, so much so that the idea of a boxed set devoted to Jack Lemmon seems a little absurd at this time.

Of the 14 titles that Lemmon made for Columbia under his original contract, only five have made it to DVD – Richard Quine’s “My Sister Eileen” (1955), Delmer Daves’ “Cowboy” (1958), Quine’s “Bell, Book & Candle” (1958) and his “It Happened to Jane” (1959), and, oddly enough, Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961).

These five, of course, had previous lives on VHS, along with five others - Jack’s debut film, George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You” (1954), as well as H.C. Potter’s “Three for the Show” (1955), Robert Parrish’s “Fire Down Below” (1957) and the two titles that Jack made back-to-back for David Swift, “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” (1963) and “Good Neighbor Sam” (1964). These five are not available on DVD.

That leaves four Lemmon/Columbia titles that have remained naggingly elusive in terms of home entertainment, willfully ignored by the studio ever since the video revolution began in the early 1970s.

Missing are Mark Robson’s still contemporary “Phffft!” (1954), based on a witty script by George Axelrod, and “You Can’t Run Away from It” (1956) Dick Powell’s quasi-musical remake of “It Happened One Night.” But at least these two surfaced on Turner Classics in the past new months.

Much more problematic - disturbing, actually - is the exact whereabouts of two of Jack’s best comedies, both made in collaboration with director Richard Quine – “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), a military romp, co-written by Blake Edwards, that remains the ‘50s precursor to “M*A*S*H,” and the sly and sophisticated “The Notorious Landlady” (1962), adapted from a Margery Sharp short story by Edwards and Larry Gelbart.

These two (1) have never been on video in any format, (2) have not been on laser, (3) are not on DVD, (4) are not part of the 500-title package of Columbia titles recently leased to Turner by Sony and, unless I’m wrong, (5) haven’t been in TV syndication for at least a decade.

My befuddled, monosyllabic response to all this is: Why?

I started asking questions about them – directly to people who work/worked for Sony – about three years ago, and have yet to receive a straight answer.

Among the Sony reps I contacted were Marc Rashba, John Reina, Clint Culpepper, Fritz Friedman and former home-division head, Ben Feingold, who reportedly was responsible for all those Three Stooges shorts that have been so lovingly transferred to DVD by the company. None of them responded to my inquiry, much worse than being given the run-around.

The one Sony person who came through with anything resembling information is Grover Crisp, who worked on the recent restoration of Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” for Sony.

In an email dated August 19, 2005, Crisp wrote:

“The only thing, unfortunately, that I cannot confirm is if and when these two titles will be released on DVD. I will look to see if they are on next year's schedule and get back to you. However, I can assure you that both these films have been recently restored, have new prints available, have been transferred to HD, etc., and are available and not at all lost. They are in great shape.”

Sounds good, right? But that was nearly three years ago and, frankly, what good is the restoration of “Operation Mad Ball” and “The Notorious Landlady” if no one can see either?

These two titles are especially worthy and have great credentials. "Operation Mad Ball," which Edwards wrote in tandem with Jed Harris and Arthur Carter, co-stars Ernie Kovacs (in his first film), Mickey Rooney and Arthur O'Connell. "The Notorious Landlady," which Edwards co-wrote with Gelbart (TV's "M*A*S*H" and Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"), co-stars Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Estelle Winwood, Lionel Jeffries, Maxwell Reed and Phileppa Bevans. Edwards and Gelbart came up with an unusually witty, literate script for "Landlady," which received particularly enthusiastic reviews from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times and The New Yorker's Edith Oliver.

BTW, Quine, a house director at Columbia, guided Lemmon through five titles there – “My Sister Eileen,” “Operation Mad Ball,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “It Happened to Jane” and“The Notorious Landlady.” (Another Lemmon-Quine collaboration, 1965’s “How to Murder Your Wife," was made for UA.)

Lemmon and Quine more than warrant a boxed-set of their work at Columbia. Billy Wilder may have been the director who put Jack Lemmon on the map, but Quine was also an important recurring thread throughout his life and career. (Both Wilder and Quine, incidentally, served as Jack’s best men when he married Felicia Farr in Paris in 1962.)

Also, before there was the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau/Billy Wilder triumverate, there was the Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine teaming – in “Operation Madball,” “Bell, Book and Candle” and “It Happened to Jane.” You could say that Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine anticipated Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder.

For that matter, Kovacs himself also deserves more DVD exposure. I'm amazed that, considering the recent interest in Kovacs' TV and stand-up work, most of his films have yet to be committed to any form of home entertaiment – and, again, he made quite a few for Columbia. (An aside: While we were working on my book on Lemmon, Jack told me that Harry Foster Malone, the villain that Kovacs plays in “It Happened to Jane,” was based directly on Columbia head, Harry Cohn, who died while the trio was making "Bell, Book and Candle" at Columbia the year before. Kovacs even affected Cohns' look, cosmetically, for his wicked impersonation, donning a bald plate for the film.)

There's no doubt that the home-entertainment divisions of the studios are in desperate need of film advocates - knowledgable people who are willing to fight for deserving titles that are being casually overlooked.

Finally, about a year ago, for some bizarre reason, “The Notorious Landlady” was revived in Paris. That occasion gave me some hope that a DVD would be on the way. No such luck.

But wait. A DVD of the film has recently surfaced and is available through Movies Unlimited. A friend who works there verified this but hastened to add that it’s a non-Sony DVD being distributed by an outside company.

Apparently, “The Notorious Landlady” has lapsed into public-domain purgatory. And my quess is that “Operation Mad Ball” is right there alongside it.

I promptly contacted David Bishop, the current head of Sony Home Entertainment, and received – you guessed it – no response.

Jack Lemmon deserves better from the company that discovered him, put him in movies and sold him as "A Guy You're Gonna Like." But Sony is too busy to worry about the likes of Jack Lemmon. Word is that it is working busily on restoring one of David Lean's lesser titles, "A Passage to India." I'm sure that - what? - at least a half dozen movie freaks out there are clamoring for that one.

Now you know why the word "elitism" has taken on less-than-flattering connotations lately.

A case of studio elitism? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's just plain old apathy. Maybe no one there cares.

Afterthoughts:

1. There are two other films that Lemmon made for Columbia years after his contract there expired – Clive Donner’s film of the Murray Schisgal play, “Luv” (1967), who made it to video but not DVD, and James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” (1979) which is available on DVD.

2. As you'll see if you check out the responses here, both "It Should Happen to You" and "Fire Down Below" were once available on DVD, but apparently only fleetingly. Neither seems to be around any longer, not even, unbelievably, "It Should Happen to You," a minor classic.

3. And to Dave Kehr for his wonderful site and for being so supportive of other film sites.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Jack Lemmon in his early days at Columbia; a quote ad from a 1962 copy of The New York Times for "The Notorious Landlady," an ad for "Operation Mad Ball," the ad for the French 2007 revival of "The Notorious Landlady" and a shot of Lemmon in his later years.)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

"Baby Mama" Makes Do-Do


As good as a movie year that 2007 was, that's how disappointing 2008 has become.

An in less than six months.

An excellent case in point - and an even better representative of the year as it's shaping up (or down) to be - is the Tine Fey-Amy Poehler sitcom, "Baby Mama," which on paper at least sounds promising.

The idea of Fey playing an uptight, brittle, self-involved careerist and Poehler essaying the role of the rather overaged surrogate inexplicably selected by Fey to carry her spawn makes the mind go crazy with rude, evil, near-abberant and hilarious thoughts.

But there's nothing remotely rude, evil, abberant or hilarious in this happy-face movie. The two stars bring none of the edge that we've come to associate with them to the proceedings but instead make themselves fully accessible to the gloomy kid-centric obsession that seems to drive every PG- and PG-13-rated film these days. Yes, children are our future, but do they have to be the future of movies as well? Seems that way.

First-time filmmaker Michael McCullers keeps everything impersonal and bland, so as not to offend the stroller moms who are clearly his target audience.

His hastily executed final scenes make no sense whatsoever and require even more suspension of disbelief than the rest of his film. For example, why would the narrative bring Poehler close and cozy with Romany Malco's doorman and then drop their potential romance by fade-out?

Instead, Poehler somehow ends up back with her loser, white-trash boyfriend (a game Dax Shepard). Hey, but at least he's white, see?

This abrupt, seemingly 11th-hour about-face has "focus group" written all over it. But let's face it. "Baby Mama" was made for focus groups.

Not us.

Like most of this year's films.

(Artwork: Fey and Poehler in the compromised "Baby Mama")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Monday, April 21, 2008

cinema obscura: Turner Screens Chayefsky/Mann Duo


Before there was Michael Mann, there was Delbert Mann - and also Daniel Mann.

But, today, we're honoring Delbert Mann, who died of pneumonia in November of 2007 at age 87 and who, during his peak as a Hollywood filmmaker, was the go-to guy for filmed plays. In the five years between 1955 and 1960, Mann helmed no fewer than six big-studio adaptations of hit plays, starting with Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" in '55, his first film for which he won an Oscar as best director, and continuing with Chayefsky's "The Bachelor Pary," Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," Terence Rattigan's "Separate Tables," Chayefsky's "Middle of the Night" and William Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs."

Three of those films - "Marty," "The Bachelor Party" and "Middle of the Night" - as you can see were based on plays by Chayefsky and Chayefsky himself did the adaptations.

Thanks to what could not exactly be coincidental timing, Turner Classics is screening both "Middle of the Night" (1959) and "The Bachelor Party" (1957) this week - two difficult-to-see titles worth checking out.

The heartbreaking "Middle of the Night," airing Wednesday, April 23rd at 3 p.m. (est) on Turner, about a confused, immobilized young woman, newly divorced, looking for a father figure, opened on Broadway on February 8th, 1956 and starred Edward G. Robinson (who won a Tony Award for his performance) and a young actress named Gena Rowlands. It was adapted from a teleplay that Chayefsky wrote for NBC's Philco Television Playhouse that was performed on September 19th, 1954. E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint starred in the TV version for a director named ... Delbert Mann. (Yes, Mann also directed the TV edition, just as he experimented with "Marty" first on television before tackling it as a film.)

"Middle of the Night" holds up remarkably well, has some great vintage shots of New York’s garment district and features a titanic supporting cast (Glenda Farrell, Lee Grant, Joan Copeland, Martin Balsam, Edith Meiser, Albert Dekker and Lee Philips).

Mann elicited unusually strong performances from Fredric March and Kim Novak as a widower businessman and the much younger secretary with whom he falls in love, deciding against everyone's wishes to marry her.

There is some quietly revelatory work here by Novak. You really sense her digging deep into her troubled and troubling character. And March, one of our great, unheralded actors, is particularly fine. Better than fine. His subtle ethnic patterns here are particularly impressive. He never stoops to stereotype or caricature, yet he’s totally credible.

It’s a deeply shaded, nuanced character performance. March is exceptional.

"Middle of the Night," voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 National Board of Review, has never been released on any form of home entertainment. So being able to see it on Turner is a rare gift.

"The Bachelor Party," not to be confused with the early Tom Hanks comedy of the same title, has also evaded home video. The title tells all as Charlie (Don Murray, always a credible combination of sensitivity and masculinity) and a group of office buddies (Jack Warden, Larry Blyden and E.G. Marshall) take another co-worker and groom-to-be (Philip Abbott) out on the town before he ties the knot. There is much soul-searching as the guys get progressively drunk and strip themselves naked, emotionally, while Charlie, whose wife (Patricia Smith) is expecting, struggles with balancing his dreams and his doubts. Actually, this is a depressing little picture.

The highpoint is Charlie's tempting encounter at a party with Carolyn Jones (an Oscar nominee here), playing a chatty bohemian simply identified as The Existentialist. Her stream-of-consciousness monologue shows Chayefsky in top form as a writer, and Jones' razor-sharp, quick-witted dialogue delivery of his work is nothing less than awesome. Warden is also memorably gruff and macho as the, well, dominant ape among the guys.

"The Bachelor Party," which airs on Turner Friday evening, April 25th at 11:30 (est), also started life as a TV playlet - in 1953 as a Goodyear TV Playhouse production. Mann also directed the television program, which starred Eddie Albert as Charlie.

Mann's other efforts include the now-lost Glenn Ford-Geraldine Page love story, "Dear Heart," two Doris Day hits ("Lover Come Back" and "That Touch of Mink") and Tony Curtis' "The Outsider," the story of Ira Hamilton Hayes, the Native American who helped to raise the flag at Iwo Jima and who was also profiled (by Adam Beach) in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Father" (2006).

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: March and Novak in a scene from Mann's "Middle of the Night", artwork for the paperback edition of Chayefsky's script for "The Bachelor Party")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Judd Apatow's Dick Flicks


I've been waiting around for the marketing guy - I assume it was a guy - who coined the loathsome expression, Chick Flick, to come up with a comparable companion term for male-oriented films.

Now that Judd Apatow has successfully created a cottage industry making romantic comedies about lovelorn, but still manly men, the time has come. I'm tired of waiting. I'm stepping in and arbitrarily declaring that such Apatow-made and/or -sanctioned hits as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Superbad," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and the latest, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," officially constitute a new sub-genre - ta-da! - the Dick Flick.

Remarkably, none of these films has been bad. They've ranged from excellent ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") to fine-but-overrated ("Knocked Up") to smoothly, if uneventfully first-rate ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). Apatow, a genuine auteur, has his formula down to a science. His movies have offered us a gallery of guys who don't talk like guys at all, but rather like glib, highly efficient comedy writers, and do so in a way that's alternately entertaining and instructive but never intimidating. Apatow's universe is populated with guys the way they should be but rarely ever are in real life. Laugh and learn, each film seems to advise.

This is especially true of the shrewdly seductive "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," directed by Nicholas Stoller and anchored by an appealing (and wholly unexpected) screen presence named Jason Segel, who is something of a watered-down, less smarmy Vince Vaughn. (Nothing against Vince Vaughn here; he's terrific.) As a brokenhearted guy trying to shake the title character, Segel makes jokes that are wistful but never mean-spirited, cries often, curses only occasionally and gamely exposes his large, fleshy body in the bookend scenes that open and close the film.

Male frontal nudity apparently is Apatow's cause celebré. He thinks it's long overdue for the much-protected, far-too-respected men on screen to be as exploited as much and as often as women have been since the year One. I agree. My problem is that I'm not sure that Apatow is the man to do it, considering that his target audience - 20-something guys - is the least likely to be interested in seeing other men nekkid. Too threatening.

Plus the actors who make up Apatow's resident company aren't exactly fantasy figures. That is, they're not the movie hunks that the few women in his audience would be interested in seeing undressed.

Right now, all Apatow has succeeded in proving is that, unlike the female form, the male body is more utilitarian than beautiful.

But at least it's a start.

Note in Passing: One Apatow talent that has been just about completely overlooked by the media is his keen eye for women. To date, his films have given us such appealing women as Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Fischer, Katherine Heigl, Leslie Mann, Amy Adams, Leslie Bibb and, in "Sarah Marshall," Kristen Bell and the wildly attractive Mila Kunis, who has the dark good looks of a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as Zeta-Jones' soft, sonorous voice. Thank you, Mr. Apatow.

(Artwork: Affable auteur Judd Apatow bares it all for manhood)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, April 13, 2008

critical quackery: A.O. Scott Rambles


I hate to sound snarky, but I don't quite understand the point of A.O. Scott's piece today in The New York Times. I know that it was positioned as an essay on the return of Roger Ebert to print criticism - and also, circuitously, on the state of modern film criticism in general. (Unless you haven't heard, it's going through a disturbing upheaval.)

Nevertheless, these two points never congealed. I've no idea how the article was pitched but it emerged in print as a formless hybrid - an unreadable mishmash which, in the end, said absolutely nothing.

I am more than a little appalled at the amount of space alotted to it by the Times. That kind of newspaper space - which underlines the "importance" of the piece (an importance which, frankly, just wasn't there) - is precious in these sad days of fading dailies.

And it's difficult to fathom that this sloppy, indulgent essay actually passed through a series of editors at the Times.

Any thoughts?

(Artwork: The New York Times' A.O. Scott)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Curious Clout of Edward Norton


Brooks Barnes wrote an interesting piece today on Universal's upcoming Marvel Comics film, "The Incredible Hulk," for The New York Times.

Now that I'm comfortably retired from full-time reviewing, I could care less about movies such as "The Incredible Hulk." No, what fascinated me about the article is what Barnes wrote about the film's star, Edward Norton:

"Mr. Norton and Marvel, which has the right of final approval on the film, have sparred in recent weeks over trims, among other issues, said studio executives involved, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak publicly. Mr. Norton — who was hired to rewrite the script along with playing the lead — has made it clear he won’t cooperate with publicity plans if he’s not happy with the final product, these people said.

"A spokeswoman for Mr. Norton said he had no comment. (David) Maisel (chairman of Marvel Studios) brushed off the friction as par for the course.

“'When you get to this point in the process, there are always lots of passionate discussions,' he said. 'Edward is very passionate. He is as passionate about the Hulk as we are.' (For those unaccustomed to Hollywood speak, 'very passionate' roughly translates to a seven on the 'he’s a difficult person' scale.)"

This isn't the first time that Edward Norton has made waves during a production, either rewriting or re-editing films (or both), and while I fully appreciate his prodigious talent as an actor, I also can't help wondering why studios sit still for it.

I mean, think about it: It's not as if Norton is a huge box-office star, along the lines of Tom Cruise, guaranteeing the studios big opening weekends. (Heck, even Tom Cruise isn't Tom Cruise anymore.) I'm not sure there is anyone who rushes out to see a movie because Edward Norton is in it.

And it isn't as if Norton has the credibility of being an Oscar winner. He's been nominated twice - the second time almost ten years ago - but he has no golden statue to give him the leverage you'd think he'd need in order to rewrite and re-edit films.

And he certainly isn't a wildly charismatic performer, a la George Clooney who everyone seems to like, or even a vaguely threatening one like Sean Penn. Fact is, we have no idea of what Edward Norton's off-screen personality is like.

And, finally, he is not the stuff of celebrity gossip. Fans don't hang on his every word and no one knows who he's currently dating - and, more to the point, no one seems to care.

So, I repeat my question: Exactly why do the studios seem so intimidated? Am I missing something?

If you have any ideas/theories, share.

(Artwork: The persuasive Edward Norton)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Monday, April 07, 2008

façade: Charlton Heston, farceur?





"On screen, Mr. Heston parted the Red Sea in 'The Ten Commandments,' drove the Moors from Spain in 'El Cid,' painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy,' baptized Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' and gave him a drink of water in 'Ben-Hur.'

"And on the seventh day, Mr. Heston did not rest."




So wrote movie critic Carrie Rickey in her gold-standard appreciation of Charlton Heston in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I can't top that. Frankly, I have nothing to add to what Carrie wrote. Except for one observation.

In his long, 50-year Hollywood career, Heston made a lot of films, close to 100 (not counting his television appearances), but they were heavily dramatic and most of them period/costume pieces - Biblical epics, Westerns and such.

But to the best of my knowledge, Heston has only only two - count 'em - two comedies on his resumé: Jerry Hopper's "The Private War of Major Benson" (1955) and Melville Shavelson's "The Pigeon That Took Rome" (1962) and, in both, he played military men.

In "The Private War of Major Benson," he's a career soldier given a choice after mouthing off once too often to higher-ups: He will be drummed out of the Army, or he can keep his stripes if he takes command of - and shapes up - the ROTC program at a boys' academy. The Universal film, which was remade as Damon Wayan's "Major Payne" in 1995, would have been better suited to the talents of Glenn Ford.

"The Pigeon That Took Rome" cast Heston as another American soldier, this one behind Italian lines in World War II, who uses carrier pigeons fitted with messages to communicate the movements of the Germans - and who grows more and more in love with the daughter of the local family with which he's residing.

The ever-reliable Harry Guardino co-starred, handling most of the film's comedy, and Elsa Martinelli was Heston's love interest, whose father (Salvatore Baccaloni) fouls things up by cooking the pigeons for a family dinner.

The film is a little reminiscent of the military comedy that Jack Lemmon made with Richard Quine in 1957, "Operation Mad Ball," and in fact would have been a better fit with Lemmon.

That's not an original opinion. At the time of the release of "The Pigeon That Took Rome," Heston himself opined that it would have been better with Lemmon.

(Artwork: Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in a scene from William Wyler's "Ben-Hur; The Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic, Carrie Rickey; Heston with Elsa Martinelli and Salvatore Baccaloni in "The Pigeon That Took Rome," and an ad for the film.)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

turner this month - bravo!

Note: This is a regular monthly feature, highlighting, well, the highlights on Turner Classics' schedule. Why? Simple. Because Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.

April 1: Turner playfully celebrates April Fool's Day with a string of films with the word "fool" in their titles. Case in point: Robert Stevens' "I Thank a Fool," a Susan Hayward soap opera about a convicted killer hired as caregiver to an ill woman. Peter Finch and Diane Cilento co-star.

Alfred Hitchcock, a TCM staple gets a mini-marathon, starting with the sublime (and criminally underrated) "Marnie," featuring a revelatory performance by Tippi Hedren, and the seminal "The Birds," again with Hedren, as well as Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. The creatively bankrupt New Hollywood has elected to remake "The Birds" with Naomi Watts in Hedren's role.

Haven't we learned anything from Gus Van Sant?

The people who undertake these remakes of classics invariably call their efforts "a tribute." I see it more as contempt for the original.

April 2: More Hitch with “Topaz” and "Torn Curtain" signing in.

April 3: Doris Day, just about all day. I'm in. Turner did a good job in coming up with four disparate titles showcasing Day's range, starting with the obvious - "Lover Come Back," Delbert Mann's fluff comedy about marketing rivals, co-starring Rock Hudson, Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter.

Next comes another by Hitchcock - his superior remake of his earlier thriller, "The Man Who Knew Too Much." This time out, savor the jaw-dropping scene in which Jimmy Setwart sedates Day before telling her that their son has been kidnapped and get emotionally involved in Day's magnificent performance in it.

Day and Clark Gable take on - and outshine - Hepburn and Tracy in George Seaton's super intelligent, sophisticated
"Teacher's Pet," another in a line of Day's exhilaratingly outspoken "liberated woman" films (see "The Pajama Game," "It Happened to Jane" and "Please Don't Eat the Daisies").
Then there's the companionable "Young at Heart," Gordon Douglas's quasi-musical remake of "Four Daughters," which teamed Day and Frank Sinatra for the only time. And, yes, two of the era's greatest pop singers get to do a duet.

April 4: It's Anthony Perkins' birthday and the day starts off with George Cukor's "The Actress," based on Ruth Gordon's memoirs and with Jean Simmons playing Gordon's on-screen alter ego. Spencer Tracy plays her father, and Perkins nimbly supports both. This is followed by the Anthony Mann Western, "The Tin Star," with Perkins teamed opposite Henry Fonda. Next up: Perkins' career-defining (and -damaging) role, "Psycho."

Following is the film that Perkins made just prior to "Psycho" - Mel Ferrer's curiosity, "Green Mansions," co-starring Ferrer's wife, Audrey Hepburn. More interesting are the three films that Perkins made immediately after "Psycho," all of them offering him good roles - Orson Welles' Euro-centric version of Kafka's "The Trial" and two by Anatol Litvak, "Five Miles to Midnight," an insurance-fraud thriller co-starring Sophia Loren and Gig Young, and "Goodbye Again," based on Francoise Sagan's "Aimez-vous Brahms?" and starring Ingrid Bergman and Yves Montand.

All that's missing from this period of Perkins' career is Jules Dassin's retelling of the Greek myth, "Phaedra," with Melina Mercouri - a film that's just about impossible to see.

April 5: Classic Castle, “The Tingler.”

April 6: Frank Capra and star Glenn Ford reportedly had a tempestuous relationship on “Pocketful of Miracles” but you'd never know it from the larky film that resulted. Pure fun, elevated by a supporting cast of ace comedic character actors. Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds, meanwhile, are two innocent souls at the mercy of big bad New York in Robert Mulligan's fine film version of the Garson Kanin play, “The Rat Race," featuring a killer supporting turn by Kay Medford. And reliable Steve McQueen goes against type in Mark Rydell's folksy version of William Faulkner’s turn-of-the-century “The Reivers.”

Speaking of Faulkner, one of his short stories was the source for the affecting Horton Foote play, "Tomorrow," which was brought to the screen intact by director Joseph Anthony and with its original stage stars, Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin, encoring. This is Duvall's best film performance. Ever. Period. And he's matched in this sad, heart-breaking love story by Bellin, who made no other films and died young.

Duvall plays the monosyllabic, illiterate dirt farmer Jackson Fentry who befriends the pregnant, homeless Bellin and ends up raising her son.

If you ever wondered where Billy Bob Thornton got his idea for "Sling Blade's" Karl Childers, look no further. He was obviously inspired by Jackson Fentry. Curiously, Duvall did a cameo in Thornton's film as Childer's father.

You could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his orginal screenplay for "Tender Mercies," which also starred Duvall.





April 7: Pencil in “Trapeze,” Sir Carol Reed's deliciously sordid (and erotic) circus drama with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida; Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" ("Les Mépris"), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli and "The Bigamist" in which Ida Lupino directs Edmund O'Brien, Joan Fonatine and herself.

April 8: “Two Girls and a Sailor.” The girls are June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven. Cute and Cuter. Say no more.

Richard Harris gets his own day, with the newly-restored, extended 136-version of "Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" being the standout. This is an almost-complete version of Peckinpah's legendary Western. His original cut ran 152 minutes.

April 9 Now this is really curious. Turner has scheduled a series of film dealing with rape - Ida Lupino's "Outrage," starring Mala Powers; Lewis Gilbert's "Loss of Innocence," with Susannah York; Jack Garfein's especially fine "Something Wild," starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker, and Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," with Lee Remick as the alleged victim.

In the case of "Loss of Innocence" (the American title for the British film "The Greengage Summer"), it's more a matter of attempted rape. The assailant here is the estimable Kenneth Moore, and his "almost" victim is Susannah York in one of her first films, playing a teenager. And look for a very young Jane Asher as one of her younger sisters.

By then, you'll be ready for some trashy fun, so try Lana Turner's “By Love Possessed,” directed by John Sturges, of all people.

April 10: “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” the Powell-Pressburger masterwork with Deborah Kerr and Rober Livesay.

April 11: Time out for two with Jose Ferrer - Michael Gordon's "Cyrano de Bergerac" (Ferrer's Oscar-winner) and John Huston's garish "Moulin Rouge."

April 12: Ferrer is a hoot as a derelict theater director (with Elaine May as his daughter, no less) in Carl Reiner's wonderful, autobiographical “Enter Laughing.” Laughton and Agee collaborate, magnificently, on the creepy “The Night of the Hunter," featuring the definitive Robert Mitchum performance. And John Garfield and Shelley Winters team effectively in blacklister John Berry's gem-like “He Ran All the Way Home.”

April 14: Try to watch the charming “Gregory’s Girl,” directed by Bill Forsythe. (Remember him?) Also, a good selection of titles - Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” Hitchcock’s suave favorite, “North by Northwest” and David Miller’s “Lonely Are the Brave” with a very good Kirk Douglas.

April 15: Richard Lester’s “It’s Trad, Dad!” and Mel Brooks’ grotesquely funny Western,
“Blazing Saddles,” starring his muse, Gene Wilder.

April 16: More with Wilder - “Start the Revolution Without Me,” co-starring Donald Sutherland.

April 17: Call in sick. Eight – count ‘em – eight Bill Holden flicks air today.

April 18 Mervyn LeRoy’s madcap “Three Men on a Horse,” starring Sam Levene who would repeat his role in a ‘60s stage-musical re-do of the material called “Let It Ride!” On stage, George Gobel and Barbara Nichols had the roles played in the film by Frank McHugh and Joan Blondell.

“Strangers When We Meet” is Richard Quine’s astute take on adultery, with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak as neighbors cheating on their spouses. Novak makes her unfulfilled character’s need for sex downright palpable. Ernie Kovacs, in a supporting role, gets a good double-entendre when he refers to his girlfriend, played by Nancy Kovacs, and her healthy appetite – “She’s very oral.”

April 19 Bob Hope is up to his neck in women (including Lana Turner) in the suburban comedy, “Bachelor in Paradise.” And the unrelated Slaters, Helen and Christian, star in Matthew Robins’ “The Legend of Billie Jean.” It’s fun.

In another class altogether is John Huston’s vivid “The Misfits,” with a script by Arthur Miller. And there’s an encore performance of “Teacher’s Pet.”

April 21: Don Taylor’s musical version of “Tom Sawyer” with the child Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher.

April 22: A young Helen Mirren stars with James Mason in Michael Powell’s “Age of Consent,” while Ginger Rogers plays young in Billy Wilder’s “The Major and the Minor.” Also James Garner and Joan Hackett in Burt Kennedy’s “Support Your Local Sheriff.”

April 23: Two with Kim Novak – Richard Quine’s “Pushover,” costarring Fred MacMuarry and Phil Carey, and Delbert Mann’s hard-to-see "Middle of the Night," based on a Paddy Chayefsky script (from his play), in which Novak plays a young woman having an affair with an elderly man, played by Fredric March.

April 24: Now, it’s Shirley MacLaine’s turn. Watch her in Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry,” George Marshall’s “The Sheepman,” Joseph Anthony’s "The Matchmaker,” Charles Walters’ “The Yellow Rolls-Royce,” Billy Wilder’s “Irma La Douce,” Walters’ “Two Loves” and Vincente Minnelli’s sublime “Some Came Running.”

April 25: Charles Walters again – directing Joan Crawford in full force in “Torch Song.” Plus Blake Edwards’ antic “The Party” and Delbert Mann’s “The Bachelor Party,” which is a little more somber, to put it mildly. Don Murray stars in this excellent film version of the Paddy Chayefsky play about five office buddies out on the town for a friend’s bachelor party. There’s fine support from Larry Blyden and Jack Warden – and from Carolyn Jones billed in a memorable bit as The Existentialist.

April 26: Martin Ritt’s homey horse drama, “Casey’s Shadow,” starring Walter Matthau and Alexis Smith. And you can’t go wrong with Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon.”

April 27: Minnelli and DeNiro in “New York, New York,” Grant and Loren in “Houseboat” and Stewart and Allyson in “The Glenn Miller Story.”

April 28: Stanley Baker, Anne Heywood and David McCallum in Basil Dearden’s British crime meller, “Violent Playground,” and Bernard Vorhaus's very campy/tacky "So YOung, So Bad" from 1950 with Anne Francis, Rita Moreno and Anne Jacksom as JDs and Paul Henried as the psychotherapist trying to reform them.

April 29: Alain Cavalier directs Alain Delon and Lea Massari in the 1964 French import, “Have I the Right to Kill” ("L'Insoumis").

April 30: Andy Griffith soars magnificently in Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s still-pertinent “A Face in the Crowd.”

(Artwork: Suzanne Pleshette and Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's "The Birds" and Hedren attacked by the film's title characters; a day for Day on TCM; Frank Sinatra and Doris Day featured in the display ad for Gordon Douglas's "Young at Heart"; the singular Tony Perkins; display ads for the New York engagement of Joseph Anthony's "Tomorrow," authored by Foote and Faulkner, and Robert Duvall and Johnny Mack in a scene from the film; Charlton Heston and Sam Peckinpah on the set of Peckinpah's "Major Dundee"; Poster art for "The Greengage Summer," the original British title of "Lose of Innocence"; Saul Bass's title design for Hitchcock's "North By Northwest"; William Holden, the original McDreamy; Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas in Richard Quine's "Strangers When We Meet"; Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in John Huston's "The Misfits"; Fredric March and Novak in Delbert Mann's difficult to see "Middle of the Night," and poster art for Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com