Saturday, October 31, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Edward and Moira!

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

Dave Kehr/Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinéphilia

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

Carrie Rickey/Flickgrrl

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

Daryl Chin/Documents on Art & Cinema

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

Kim Morgan/
Sunset Gun

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

Glenn Kenny/
Some Came Running

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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

Speaking of 1962 as a great movie year...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

an education in willful denial

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

Initially, it's fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schwarzes is not a nice word.

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 09, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

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

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

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

Friday, October 02, 2009

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

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

You go girls!

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?

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

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

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

Thursday, October 01, 2009

turner this month - bravo!

Hitch himself winds a clock in "Rear Window," a singular thriller driven by precise timing
It's wholly appropriate that Turner's October schedule is autumnal in feel, kicking off the first day of the month - at 10 a.m. (all times are est.) with Gillian Armstrong's dark yet expansive "Mrs. Soffel" (1984), starring Diane Keaton, at her most tremulous, and Mel Gibson when he was more interesting as a blank-slate-of-an-actor. It's difficult to project now. We know way too much about Mel Gibson to get lost in his performances.

Stick around for the day and you can catch W.S. Van Dyke II's "Rose Marie" (1936) at 4 p.m. - a filmic operetta as woodsy as it is melodic - and Hal Ashbuy's Woody Guthrie's biopic, "Bound for Glory" (1976) at 8 p.m., a film so atmospheric that you can smell the pervasive camp fires throughout the plot. John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), a sort of template for Ashby's film, follows later, airing at 1:30 a.m. 2 October.
Alfred Hitchcock's singular "Rear Window" (1954)- one of my personal favorites and seemingly a Turner monthly staple - is on hand 2 October at 9 p.m. Aside from that remarkable set designed by Joseph MacMillan Johnson and
Hal Pereira (the real stars of the film) and Hitch's pervasive use of ambient sounds, the movie is noteworthy for its ambiguous feelings towards its alleged villain, Lars Thorwald, as played by Raymond Burr - a character guilty of murdering his wife and yet poignantly sympathetic, Thanks to Burrs' brief, distanced but incredibly complicated performance.

If you can keep awake, there's Edward Dein's nifty "Shack Out on 101" (1955), airing at 2 a.m. 3 October and living up to its title, as it takes you from the comfort of you couch or bed and into a diquieting, often frightfully funny vision of spies, nuclear secrets and diners with bad food.

Funny, but in a decidedly different way is William Wyler's stab at a roadshow musical - the graceless, indifferently directed "Funny Girl" (1968), inexplicably chosen by Alec Baldwin and Robert Osborne as an "essential" and airing in that prime Saturday night spot at 8 p.m. on 3 October. This was Jule Styne's desperate attempt to recreate the magic of his "Gypsy," but all we get is a screen-hogging and very hammy Barbra Streisand delivering one bad line reading after another and inadequately lip-syncing her songs. In case you haven't guessed it, I abhor this film - and I say that as a die-hard film-musical fan. Feel free to disagree.

Turner dusts off a rarely-seen John Frankenheimer curiosity, "The Horseman" (1971), starring Omar Sharif and Leigh Taylor-Young, for an early-morning 4:15 a.m. showing on 3 October. Later that morning, catch Dennis O'Keefe in a breezy performance in Allan Dwan's antic "Brewster's Millions" (1945) about a guy trying to lose a million dollars in order to inherit a lot more.

The celebration of October's Star of the Month, Leslie Caron, kicks off at 9 p.m. 5 October with the gamine star's most representative films - Vincente Minnelli's sublime "An American in Paris" (1951), which gets better with each viewing; Minnelli's painterly "Gigi" (1958), Charles Walters' one-song miminalist musical, "Lili" (1953) and Walter's elegant "Cinderella" dansical, "The Glass Slipper" (1955).

I suggest you watch them all.

Immediately preceding these screenings at 8 p.m. is Osborne's "Private Screenings" episode with Caron in which she reveals that the singing voice in "Gigi" which sounds so much like her own, well, wasn't. A great job of dubbing here.

Goldie Hawn, meanwhile, gets a night of her own - well, sort of - on 7 October, starting with 10 p.m. screenings of three of her '70s go-go comedies, Milton Katselas' "Butterflies Are Free" (1972), Gene Saks' "Cactus Flower" (1969) and Roy Boulting's "There's a Girl in My Soup" (1976), all based on plays. In "Butterflies" and "Cactus," respectively, Hawn played the roles created on stage by Blythe Danner and Brenda Vaccaro. Peter Sellers is her co-star in the third title.

Most of 8 October is playfully devoted to films with the word "Girl" in the title, several of them British - such John Mills' "Gypsy Girl" (1966) and two by Desmond Davis, "The Girl with Green Eyes" (1964) and "A Nice Girl Like Me" (1969). The one notable American exception is William Castle's "13 Frightened Girls!" (1963), a frightfully good Nancy Drew-like caper, set London and full of page-turning intrigue. Castle, who was very good with actors (see Jean Arliss/Joan Marshall in "Homicidal"), elicits an excellent, impressively precocious performance from Kathy Dunn who plays Candace Hull, an inquisitive teen who likes taking risks. (The film was originally titled "The Candy Web.") Dunn, a New York actress who spelled her first name Cathy when she starred for Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin in "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956) and when she played Louisa Von Trapp, one of the kids, in the original 1959 Broadway production of "The Sound of Music," should have had a major screen career after "13 Frightened Girls!" She does incredible work in it.

Another "Girl" film, David Lowell Rich's "Hey Boy! Hey Girl!," is an oddity starring Louis Prima and Keely Smith. A must-watch - at 6:15 p.m. Don't change the dial. What follows are also must-sees - Preston Struges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), Lewis Milestone's "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" (1933), my favorite Jolson flick, and Gregory LaCava's elegant "My Man Godfrey." (1936).

Sinatra, in one of his best performances, in Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate." Leigh is pretty good, too
John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), airing at 8 p.m. 9 October, is arguably more auspicious today than the day it was released. Much of the praise that goes to the film tends to revolve around Angela Lansbury's towering performance, George Axelrod's silky smooth screenplay and Frankenheimer himself. But this time, keep your eye on Frank Sinatra's superb underplaying and particuarly on his tense, sexy interplay with a very good Janet Leigh in the train sequence.

BTW, Lansbury lost her Oscar that year to Patty Duke who essentially mugged her way through Arthur Penn's hugely over-valued "The Miracle Worker," airing on Turner at 6 a.m., 28 October.

The beautiful and very talented Kassie DePavia, one of my favorite soap stars ("One Life to Live"), is the female lead in Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" (1987), on the schedule for 2:15 a.m., 10 October. This woman should have been a big-screen star a long time ago. I'd watch her in anything - even this.

Dazzling Kassie is anything but evil

Paul Muni gives an easy-to-watch performance in one of his last films, Daniel Man's "The Last Angry Man" (1959). It airs at 3 a.m. 11 October and offers fine supporting work by David Wayne and Betsy Palmer.

Turner has several perennial titles ("Vertigo," "West Side Story" and "Lawrence of Arabie," among them) and Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" (1972), at 3:15 p.m. 11 October, is apparently the newest addition to the stable. Great! It's a most flavorsome family drama, set against a rodeo backdrop, with Robert Preston and Steve McQueen ideally cast as father and son - and Ida Lupino who, as wife and mother, demonstrates that great actresses don't age. They get better. Here, she's the same Ida of her early noir films.
Gary Lockwood and the inimitable Anouk Aimee in Jacques Demy's "Model Shop"
You can enjoy a cosmopolitan afternnon on 12 October when Turner devotes its afternoon schedule to art-house favorite Anouk Aimee, who will be showcased beginning at 1:45 p.m. in Federico Fellini's seminal "8½" (1963), Jacque Demy's only American film, "Model Shop" (1969) and Sidney Lumet's long-missing "The Appointment" (1969), all made to be seen with a Martini in hand.

Anouk's time in the spotlight will be followed immediately with more Caron - starting at 8 p.m. with Nunnally Johnson's "The Man Who Understood Women" (1959), Joshua Logan's Oscar-nominated "Fanny" (1961) and Ralph Nelson's "Father Goose" (1964).
If Anouk and Leslie aren't French enough for you, you can get your fix with these back-to-back features starting at noon on 13 October - Otto Preminger's "Bonjour Tristesse" (1957), Richard Brooks' "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954), Martin Ritt's "Paris Blues" (1961) and Robert Parrish's "In the French Style" (1963).

Two B-movie personalities from the 1950s - singer Jill Corey and producer-to-be James Komack - get the star spots in David Lowell Rich's lively "Senior Prom" (1958) which airs 10 a.m. 15 October, right before Jack Arnold's campy "High School Confidential" (1958). Stick around for Gene Fowler Jr.'s "I Married a Monster from Outer Space" (1958), about a woman (Gloria Talbot) who, like so many of us, doesn't recognize the person sleeping next to her. (That would be Tom Tryon.)

A quartet of evocative films set during the Depression kick off at 8 p.m. that night with Peter Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon" (1973), The Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), Martin Ritt's "Sounder" (1972) and Sydney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969). The stars are Clooney, Fonda (Jane) and the O'Neals.

The aforementioned Angela Lansbury is offered up in a double-bill on 16 October with Robert Stevens' "In the Cool of the Day" (1963) and Delbert Mann's compelling "Mister Buddwing" (1966), starting at 4:45 p.m.
"The Devil Doll": Lionel Barrymore's comic triumph
Wake up on Saturday, 17 October (7:30 a.m.) with Tod Browning's wonderful "The Devil Doll" (1936), with Lionel Barrymore doing a bang-up job (often in drag) as a madman with killer dolls (actually, miniturized humans). I wish Turner would recruit Drew Barrymore to introduce and comment on this title. I'd love to here her observations.

It's a particularly satisfying day for movies on Sunday, 18 October. Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) gets things moving at 1 p.m., followed by John Huston's "The Misfits" (1961) Later, at 8 p.m., there's a Robert Redford double-bill - Michael Ritchie's "Downhill Racer" (1969) and Gene Saks' "Barefoot in the Park" (1967). In-between at 6:15 p.m. is Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" (1941). A perfect movie day.

More Leslie Caron on 19 October with Bryan Forbes' sexy "The L-Shaped Room" (1962) at 8 p.m., and Curtis Bernhardt's little-seen "Gaby" (1956), a film that Caron reputedly hates, at midnight.

Me? I kinda like it.

Another good day: 20 October - Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960) at 8:30 a.m.; Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracle" (1961); Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" (1961) which boasts fine acting ensemble and two great Grande Dame performances by Faye Bainter and Miriam Hopkins.

Thelma Ritter, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in "The Misfits"; Andy Griffin in "A Face in the Crowd"; poster art for "Elmer Gantry," and
Audrey Hepburn, one of the first-rate ensemble of William Wyler's "The Children's Hour"

Two by J. Lee Thompson on 21 October. Each one boasts an intriguing cast. First, rthere's Jack Buchanan, Brenda de Banzie and Diana Dors in "As Long As They're Happy" (1957), at 4:45 p.m. Then, Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Ingrid Thulin ignite Thompson's creepy little thriller "Return from the Ashes" (1965), airing at 6:15 p.m.
The most beautifully awful "South Pacific"
How can a movie that has one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest song scores, provocative plot lines about prejudice and discrimination, gorgeous scenery and first-rate Leon Shamroy cinematography (and, yes, I like the color filters) be so awful? Watch "South Pacific" (1958) - at 3:445 p.m. 22 October - and decide for yourself. (A hint: The performances don't help matters.)
Much better - but hugely underrated - is John Huston's "Annie" (1982), much, much better than the show it's based on, better than the watered-down but beloved Rob Marshall TV version and definitely better than critics would have you believe. This time, enjoy Albert Finney (who appropriates Huston's vocal inflections for the role of Daddy Warbucks), Carol Burnett (coaxed by Huston to "play it soused" in one long drunk scene as Miss Hannigan) and Aileen Quinn who, as Annie, is reminiscent of a rambunctious kid from the "Our Gang" shorts.

Mark down 8 p.m. 23 Friday. That's when Turner airs Charles Laughton's compusively watchable "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), based on a James Agee script. Mitchum stars.

Two with Tuesday on 24 Saturday: The sublime Weld stars in two defining performances in Noel Black's "Pretty Poison" (1968) and George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck" (1966), with Anthony Perkins and Roddy McDowell co-starring, respectively. Axelrod also wrote "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and he and then-director John Frankenheimer both had Marily Monroe in mind as Holly Golightly. Reportedly disappointed that the role went to Audrey Hepburn (under the aegis of new director Blake Edwards), Axelrod wrote "Duck" specifically for Weld. It was supposed to be his new, improved "Breakfast at Tiffany's".

The very good director James Goldstone ("Red Sky at Morning"), who died way too young, has fun with James Garner and Katharine Ross (co-stars in the aforementioned "Mr. Buddwing") in "They Only Kill Their Masters" (1972), showing at 6 p.m. 24 October. June Allyson came out of retirement for a cameo - as a lesbian, no less.

I'll be there for Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterful "Diabolique" (1955) - 2:15 a.m. 26 Monday. Who could ignore Simone Signoret?
Jack Carson watches as Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon break up in "Phffft!"
The day continues with a string of game comedies about break-ups, infidelities and other assorted adult bad behavior. It starts at 7:30 a.m. with David Miller's "Happy Anniversary" (1959) and continues with Mark Robson's "Phffft!" (1954), Melvin Frank's "The Facts of Life" (1960). Stanley Donen's "Once More, with Feeling" (1960), George Stevens' "Woman of the Year" (1942), Michael Gordon's "Boys' Night Out" (1962) and Melville Shavelson's "Houseboat" (1958).

Later that night - yes, more Leslie Caron. Threeidiosyncratic titles that I happen to like - Paul Magwood's "Chandler" (1971), with the much-missed Warren Oates; the short version of Joseph Sargent's "Goldengirl" (1979) with the perfectly cast Susan Anton in the title role, and Ken Russell's "Valentino" (1977), with Rudolf Nureyev in the title role.

Byron Haskin directed George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette in "The Power" (1968), a groovy thing about psychic powers with a psychdelic touch that shows at 10 p.m. 27 October.

The documentary "Easy Rider, Raging Bulls," based on the book about '70s filmmaking is being shown at midnight on 29 October, surrounded by films by arguably the era's best representatives of maverick filmmaking - Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude"), Dennis Hopper ("Easy Rider") and Bob Rafelson ("Five Easy Pieces").