Sunday, May 30, 2010

michael patrick's cinematic train wreck

As incompetently made as it is insensitive, "Sex and the City 2" is a disaster of singular distinction. It is entirely unto itself.

I'm not even sure it could be called a movie.

Candace Bushnell's scrappy career girls, so outspoken in their preoccupation with both penis size and shoe size when their sexcom first aired on HBO about a decade ago, have been redefined and deconstructed into a quartet of aging cross dressers for the big screen.

Now they dress in a series of veritible Halloween costumes pawned off as Haute Couture, as if the model of "glamour" here was Baby Jane Hudson.

Of course, Bushnell's supposed gender-bending outragousness was hardly envelope-pushing when it debuted. After all, it was predated on TV by Susan Harris' "The Golden Girls" (1985) and in film by James Ivory's "Slaves of New York" (1989) and Forest Whitaker's "Waiting to Exhale" (1995), all blessedly restrained and intelligent in comparison.

Less reserved but certainly much more fun are Stephan Elliott's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994) and Beeban Kidron's "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995).

If the makers of S&TC2 were intent on so completely fetishizing Bushnell's characters into creepy Barbie dolls, Elliott's and Kidron's cross-dressing romps should have been used as templates.

But, frankly, friends, one comes away with the distinct impression that no one involved with S&TC2 had ever even seen a movie.

Note in Passing: That new genre, The Bromance, continues to stride ahead of The Chick Flick, in terms of quality and humor content. Case in point: Todd Phillips' "The Hangover" (2009) pretty much is the same film as S&TC2, only done with guys and done much more effectively. It is genuinely witty and, hard as this may be to fathom, much less offensive.

Go figure.
Above: Most Cringable Outfit - Sarah Jessica in an oversized skirt that seems to have a life of its own, worn with a tight tee, emblazoned with "J'adore Dior," and accessorized with a lorgnette sunglasses (i.e., a pair of spectacles with a handle). Honest.
Below: Most Cringable Moment - Four terminal narcissists wising up the people of the Middle East with a karaoke rendition of "I Am Woman." Honest.

Friday, May 28, 2010

McGuane times two

A good writer is a magician of sorts, a fabulist who can make the trite seem, well, fabulous.

Thomas McGuane certainly qualifies as a good writer and, back in the 1970s, he produced two scripts seemingly married to the same essential plotline.

Released a year apart, Frank Perry's "Rancho DeLuxe" (1975) and Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) are both original scripts about cattle rustlers and land barons. Both are Westerns but the former is modern, comedic and, at 93 minutes, rather breezy, while the latter is darker, more traditional and, at 126 minutes, something of a trial to sit through.

While it's never been acknowledged that both are based on the same material, it's compelling to compare and contrast, observing how McGuane creatively moved his pieces - his characters - around, changing relationships while adhering to a tale told twice. Here goes...

In "Rancho DeLuxe," Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play two contemporary cattle rustlers who, perhaps unwisely, set their sights on the livestock of the newly transplanted Clifton James and wife Elizabeth Ashley, who came to Montana from Schnectady, New York.

In "The Missouri Breaks," Jack Nicholson leads a cattle-rustling ring and decides - again, perhaps unwisely - to take on cattle baron John McLiam, a widower with a grown daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

In "Rancho DeLuxe," James hires pokey old Slim Pickens to ensnare rustlers Bridges and Waterston. Traveling with Pickens is his niece, Charlene Dallas, who is what James Agee would have called "a dish." Ah, but Pickens and Dallas are not exactly what they seem to be.

In "The Missouri Breaks," McLiam hires Marlon Brando, a cattle-rustling regulator with an eccentric way of handling the job. He dons disguises to dispatch his unfortunate prey. In both films, the hired hand recruited to entrap the rustlers engages in a kind of play-acting. Both Pickens and Brando play characters who consider their line of work a "sport," approaching it in highly theatrical ways that are not all that dissimilar.

In terms of "love interest," in "The Missouri Breaks," Nicholson forges a relationship with Lloyd, while in "Rancho DeLuxe," one of James' goons, played by Harry Dean Stanton, becomes smitten with Dallas. (Note in Passing: Richard Bright plays James' other goon - Burt to Stanton's Curt.)

In both cases, the romance is doomed by deceit and betrayal.

The respective endings is what sets the two films apart. "The Missouri Breaks" ends on a note that's bloodier than anything that preceded it, as difficult as that is to image." "Rancho DeLuxe," on the the other hand, ends without violence, with the two heros rather blissfully in jail, a dénouement that, oddly enough, recalls the ending of ... "The Producers."

Oh, yes, and the two films were released by United Artists. And perhaps not coincidentally, Elliott Kastner was a producer on both films.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

cinema obscura: Alan Metzger's ''Take My Advice: The Abby and Ann Story" (1999)

One of Hollywood's most misunderstood/underused commodities, Wendy Malick has become something of a fixture on the small screen (mostly on sitcoms) but has yet to break through into movie theaters.

What are producers thinking?

Tall, regal and statuesque, Malick would have ruled screwball comedies in the 1930s and '40s, but modern big-screen roles have inexplicably evaded her, despite her (small) roles in Greg Mottola's "Adventureland" and P.J. Hogan's "Confessions of a Shopoholic" (both 2009).

Malick's one showcase was as the title stars of Alan Metzger's 1999 Lifetime TV movie, "Take My Advice: The Abby and Ann Story," in which the actress had a field day playing the feuding twin columnists, Ann Landers, ( Esther Friedman, aka Eppie) and Abigail Van Buren ( Pauline Friedman, aka Popo). The film itself is a game, scrappy stab at camp, but the revelation is Malick in one of the strangest (in a good sense) acting duets that I've ever seen. It's something of a surreal guilty pleasure to observe Malick, who has an inimitable way with line readings, particularly one-liners, trying to outact herself - and succeeding brilliantly.

She doesn't so much chew scenery as graze and luxuriate on it.

In her New York Times review, critic Anita Gates dismissed Metzgere's film as "trite and unimaginative." Say what? It's anything but.

Try finding "Take My Advice" these days. It's just about impossible.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

esoterica: I ♥ Jorma Taccone's "MacGruber"

Auteurs at work: Forte and Taccone on "MacGruber"
Jorma Taccone's seemingly negligible "MacGruber" is actually an attempt to do something different within the constraints of an industry constipated by formula and fear. So it's no surprise that the studio releasing it never bothered with advance screenings and the critics reviewing it never bothered to actually watch it. Only the stalwart Glenn Kenny got it.

Granted, its source material - a recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit - doesn't offer much promise, but then neither did John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980) nor Harold Ramis' "Stuart Saves His Family" (1995), two titles that have become personal favorites of mine, irrationally so.

On SNL, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) were simply occasional musical guests, while Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) stared into a mirror as his own new-age motivational speaker. The inherent skimpiness of the two fueled the imaginations of their makers.

On TV, each "MacGruber" sketch ended with its delusional hero blowing up everything, including himself. It's MacGruber's macho delusions that liberated the shared, fertile creativity of Taccone and writer-star Will Forte, whose idea was to take their idiot hero, keeping his vanity and stupidity intact, and plopping him inside the framework of a straightforward action film, rather than an all-out comedy.

Only Forte goes for the laughs here as he floats through the film in a constant state of confident obliviousness, distracted only by his own thoughts and paranoia. MacGruber is part Man of Action (Richard Dean Anderson-style, natch), part nudism enthusiast (Forte strips down in a heartbeat), part Jackass (ah there, Johnny Knoxville!) and part George W. Bush (meaning the character is dated in more ways that one).

Everyone surrounding him - Val Kilmer, Powers Boothe, a very game Ryan Phillippe and even Forte's SNL cohort, Kristen Wiig - play their roles relatively straight, as if they are in something along the lines of Sam Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" or his "The Osterman Weekend."

"MacGruber" is esoteric, funny and strange - three things that most Hollywood film's decidedly aren't these days. I liked it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

cinema obscura: Joseph Anthony's "Tomorrow" (1972)


The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (22 April to 6 May) just concluded its run and this year's Peter J. Owens Award went to a most deserving Robert Duvall.

The festival's program notes included an astute essay on Duvall, "An Acting Apostle," by Pam Grady, but the accompanying "selected filmmography" was noteworthy not for all the terrific Duvall films and performances that we now take for granted, but for what was missing - namely, Joseph Anthony's "Tomorrow" (1972) which, arguably, contains the actor's finest ... film ... work ... ever. Period.

Based on the affecting Horton Foote play, by way of one of William Faulkner's short stories, "Tomorrow" was brought to the screen intact by Anthony, a vastly underrated and now-forgotten director, with its original off-Broadway stars, Duvall and Olga Bellin, encoring.

The piece actually orginated as a TV play in 1960 for "Playhouse 90," where it was performed by Richard Boone and Kim Stanley, under the direction of Robert Mulligan. The Faulkner story originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on 23 November, 1940 and is included in his anthology of short stories, "Knight's Gambit."

Duvall plays the monosyllabic, illiterate, remote dirt farmer Jackson Fentry who befriends the pregnant, homeless Bellin's Sarah Eubanks and ends up raising her son after she dies. In the work's most piercing scene, Sarah's brutish kin come to claim the child, almost literally swooping down and scooping him up, returning Jackson to his sadly solitary life. The twist in this story is truly original, heart-breaking and cathartic.

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. And, curiously, Duvall did a cameo in Thornton's film as Childer's father. From what I've seen of its trailer, Duvall's role in his latest film, Aaron Schneider's "Get Low," owes a great deal to Jackson Fentry as well. And guess what. Lucas Black from "Sling Blade" is in it.

Finally, you could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his orginal screenplay for "Tender Mercies," which, of course, also starred Duvall and won him an Oscar.

But he deserved it more for his work in "Tomorrow."

And he's matched every step of the way in this sad, heart-breaking love story by Bellin, who made no other films and died young.

Sorry, SF, but you goofed. And in a big way.

Overlooking "Tomorrow" is unforgivable.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

cinema obscura: Fritz Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud" (1921)

Scenes from Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud": The Wall (above) and Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke as the ingenue and death in disguise (below)
Master filmmaker Fritz Lang thrusts the viewer into an intense emotional whirlpool in his 1921 silent film, "Destiny" ("Der Müde Tud"), one of the lesser known titles in his canon of work but an achievement that I've always found compulsively watchable and utterly fascinating.

Its inaccessibility, now that rep houses and a lot of campus film programs are sadly out of business, becomes a temporary thing of the past now that New York's Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th street) has scheduled it for a 9:30 p.m. showing as part of its Cabaret Cinema program on Friday, 14 May.

The dream-like tale of two lovers whose future together is dimmed when Death (Bernhard Goetzke) materializes and snatches the young man (Walter Janssen), "Destiny" is the kind of film that, on paper, can sound positively purple. The young woman (Lil Dagover) contemplates suicide when Death challenges her with a deal that she can hardly refuse: There's a boy and there are three candles, each representing a human life. As each candle is extinguished, someone dies. But if one candle stays lighted, the boy will be spared and survive.

This main storyline gives way to three subplots - set in ancient Persia, Renaissance Venice and China - that are both wildly methaphorical and metaphysical as the woman frantically searches for someone to give up their life once the boy's is spared. The elderly, who are at death's doorstep, run for her. There is some alert, unexpected humor in this death-drenched fable, and the heroine confronts carefully designed stumbling blocks, until she and her lover are reunited in a way that can only be described as supremely Lang-ian. Relax. No spoiler here.

I've always been struck by the methodical pace and overriding sense of calm that Lang brought to his very dark, moody fairy tale. He kept things in check here, both his direction of the material and the performances of his cast. The result is an impressively muted film.

Fritz Lang brilliantly deconstructs the notion of romantic filmmaking with "Der Müde Tud," which translates incidentially - and tellingly - as "The Tired Death."

Catch it if you can at the Rubin where Thomas Rutishauser will accompany it on the cello.

cinema obscura: Paul Newman's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972)

As noted in this month's turner this month - bravo! post, the premiere cable channel is having fun with its Mother's Day line up, mischievously scheduling as Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" and Graeme Clifford's "Frances," two films in which the mothers are decidedly unmotherly.

Turner would have had an ideal trilogy if it had included Paul Newman's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972), a major achievement in filmmaking and acting that has been casually, inexplicably, neglected by 20th Century-Fox, for more than 35 years now. It's also Newman's best directorial effort.

It's easy to see why Newman snagged Paul Zindel's delicious play for his wife Joanne Woodward. It's a showcase role this side of Tennessee Williams. Sada Thompson starred on stage as Beatrice Hunsdorfer - better known in her neighborhood as "Betty the Loon" for her odd behavior - a woman who is in way over her head as a mother.

Her daughters on stage were played by Swoosie Kurtz and Pamela Peyton-Wright, both in their late 20s at the time.

For the film, Newman enlisted more age-appropriate actresses - his own daughter Elinor Teresa Newman, billed as Nell Potts, as the sensitive Matilda (Peyton-Wright onstage) and Roberta Wallach, daughter of Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, as the troubled and troublesome Ruth (Kurtz).

But Woodward is the titanic supporting structure here, carrying the film in a performance that is at once heartfelt and hateful. The great Alvin Sargent did the adaptation, enlarging the play ever-so-slightly, and his fidelity to Zindel's words is heartening; reliable Adam Holender did the evocative cinematography, and Maurice Jarre wrote the moody, tinkly score.

Put it out on DVD already!

Friday, May 07, 2010

cinema obscura: Michael Anderson's "The Naked Edge" (1961)

In celebration of the iconic Gary Cooper's birthday today, Turner has scheduled five of the actor's better-known titles - Howard Hawks' great "Sergeant York," for which Coop won an Oscar; the Frank Capra twins, "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"; King Vidor's "The Fountainhead," and the Anthony Mann exceptional "adult Western," "Man of the West."

But not surprisingly, missing is Cooper's last movie, the faux Hitchcock thriller, "The Naked Edge," directed by Michael Anderson and released in 1961, a month after Cooper died of prostate cancer at age 60.

A tepid drama of murder and suspicion, "The Naked Edge" is virtually impossible to find these days and, while it may not be necessarily missed, the film is noteworthy for its iconic teaming of Cooper with Deborah Kerr.

The estimable supporting cast includes Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold, Peter Cushing and Michael Wilding, adding to its worth.