Wednesday, July 28, 2010

cinema obscura: Maddow/Meyers/Strick's "The Savage Eye" (1960)

A major independent film of the 1950s, "The Savage Eye" has become something of an enigma in the past four decades, forgotten about until the UCLA Film and Television Archive inexplicably but bravely revived it in 2008, jogging my memory. A rush of stirring black-&-white images, courtesy of cinematographers Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt and Haskell Wexler, reminded me of what a vivid experience it was - and still is.

The dual-level film - directed in tandem by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyeres and Joseph Strick, who also produced and edited the film - is ostensibly about a woman named Judith McGuire (Barbara Baxley, then a popular New York stage actress who had just appeared in Tennessee Williams' "Period of Adjustment"), who spends the day waiting for her divorce to come through by wandering around Los Angeles.

The year is 1959.

Jaded and now seeing life in a more realistic way, Judith serves as a guide through a city which, seen up close, looks dirty and disreputable - bustling yet empty. The rose-colored glasses are off.

The result is a narrative which works also - largely - as a documentary about the city and its assorted haunts, a narrative whose compelling supporting cast is a vast array of Los Angeleans, most of whom come across as emotionally and culturally impoverished. There's no sense of joy here because priorities have been skewed in favor of relentlessly shallow needs and goals.

Gary Merrill co-stars as a character called The Poet, who gives voice to the city, and Herschel Bernardi is on board, too. Leonard Rosenman wrote the score for this vivid journey through hopelessness.

For its 2008 screening of "The Savage Eye," the UCLA Film and Television Archive utilized The Billy Wilder Theater on its campus. More please.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Belatedly, but gratefully, I come to Disney/Pixar's remarkable "Toy Story 3," arguably one of the most original prison-escape movies ever made. The prison in question is the jarring day-care center where Andy's toys - including sassy cowgirl Jessie (that's her above) - are sent because Andy is grown and soon off college and his toys have become, well, obsolete.

The head toy there is an embittered old stuffed bear who sadistically puts the new arrivals in the line of fire of a bunch of stampeding brats.

Smoothly directed by Lee Unkrich, it's all alternately affecting, hilarious and heartbreaking, and among the new editions to its cast is a Ken doll who is worthy of/sleazy enough for a spot on ABC's "The Bachelor."
Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right" is a bright alt sitcom that benefits considerably from another thorough performance from Annette Bening and a playful one from Julianne Moore, the two (that's them above) playing lesbian partners/mothers whose world is turned upside down by the arrival their respective kids' same sperm-donor dad.

The only problem with the film is not Mark Ruffalo's usual non-actor performance, but a conventional twist in the narrative which has Ruffalo bedding Moore and Bening discovering the betrayal in a way that would be dated even on a daytime soap opera. I'm not spoiling anything here; Cholodenko sets up Moore's interest in hetero sex early on by having the two women use gay male porno films to jumpstart their own sex lives. It's an unfortunate tonal shift that mars an otherwise smart comedy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

cinema obscura: Lewis R. Foster's "Those Redheads from Seattle" (1953)

Came across an obit singer Teresa Brewer, who died at age 76 in 2007, and it brought back vague memories of her single excursion into film.
Poster art for "Those Redheads from Seattle"
Paramount's lively "Those Redheads from Seattle," directed in 1953 by Lewis R. Foster, was yet another overripe musical designed to exploit the 3-D craze, much less cheesy than two other 3-D musicals, George Marshall's "Red Garters" and Lloyd Bacon's "The French Line," both from 1954.

Brewer shares the title role with Rhonda Fleming and sister duo, Cynthia and Kay Bell, as members of a singing-sister act, The Edmunds, performing in saloons in the Yukon during the Gold Rush days of 1898 - and hoping to strike their own fortune. The inimitable Agnes Moorehead plays their mother.

Teresa Brewer with Guy Mitchell in a musical number

The plot, such as it is, involves Fleming's suspicion that the act's boss - a saloon owner played by Gene Barry (with the untrustworhty name, Johnny Kisco) - may be the very no-account who murdered the girls' beloved father.

Brewer's endearing, outsized perkiness - she was dubbed "the little girl with the big voice" at the time - made her a screen natural. The camera loved her. And, for what it's worth, she steals the movie - or what little there is to steal.

But nothing came of her film debut. The problem may be that she didn't have musical numbers here as infectious as her signature songs, "Music, Music, Music" and "Ricochet Romance." Too bad. Because if Doris Day hadn't been available (and as wonderful as she was), Brewer would have made a terrific Babe Williams in "The Pajama Game."

Another missed opportunity.

Note in Passing: Co-incidentally, Guy Mitchell, a young musical leading man of the era, had roles in both "Redheads" and "Red Garters."
Brewer above and in a publicity shot with Agnes Moorehead and Rhonda Fleming and The Bell Sisters

Sunday, July 18, 2010

nolan's brilliant crackpot of a movie

Some movies have a little subtext. Christopher Nolan's challenging and quite bracing new film, "Inception," is all subtext. Gloriously so.

Structured as a state-of-the-art noir,"Inception" has something to do with a small band of intellectual adventurers who invade - and often share - the dreams of clients with lofty problems that need to be solved.

They are provocateurs who suggest ideas to their clients, manipulating their thought and dream patterns, and particularly astute viewers might sense that Nolan is using dream manipulation here as an allegory for filmmaking itself and that his chief protagonist is an auteur of sorts.

Arcane wordplay is used to explain everything and simply listening to it can lull one into a seductive dreamworld that is not unlike a movie.

And that is not at all unpleasurable.

A commanding Leonardo DiCaprio, Nolan's on-screen surrogate, is physically even a dead-ringer for Nolan here as he leads a world-class supporting cast through an intimidating maze of rushing action and melancholy moods. The latter is driven by DiCaprio's relentless pursuit of his late wife (the magnetic Marion Cotillard) in a dreamworld that he would like to share with her but, for apparent reasons, can't.

Their "relationship" is the core of "Inception" and it's clear that Nolan shrewdly used Alfred Hitchcock's woozy, iconic "Veritgo" (1958) - the last word in a man hopelessly stalking a woman - as his template.

This most audacious film tackles remarkably serious matters - loss and the fear and sense of exclusion that come with it - and, in the end, despite its willfully confusing vision, "Inception" is astonishingly simple.

It is that rare modern movie that has a moral conscience.

Monday, July 12, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lucky Lady," reportedly never released on any home entertainment format, had disappeared until the Fox Movie Channel started airing it (in wide screen) in June. Added showings have been penciled in for July 21 at 2:00 p.m. (est), July 27 at 4:00 p.m., August 3 at 2:00 p.m. and August 13 at 4:00 p.m. Not a good film but, for some bizarre reason, worth catching.

Friday, July 09, 2010

when men were men

Mary Badham (above) and Phillip Alford (below) both looked up to Gregory Peck in Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." So did the audience in those days.
Growing up, I paid scant attention to Gregory Peck. He wasn't my favorite movie star. I thought him too stiff and reserved, emotionally distant. What can I say? I was young and stupid.

But these days, when I look at what Hollywood passes off as men, Peck looks and sounds pretty good. Watching one of his films now, I see a genuine grown up - a fully formed, mature man. You don't see much of that on screen anymore, not even in the work of an elder statesman like Jack Nicholson.

It made me wonder - why aren't there any actors who want to be like Gregory Peck, who want to be "the next Gregory Peck" or who remind us, even slightly, of Gregory Peck? A few years ago, I read an article in which contemporary actors were asked what actors from the past they appreciated the most and hoped to emulate and the name invoked the most was Steve McQueen, a fine, commanding actor who shrewdly couched a certain immaturity into his performances. It was novel and appealing when the person in question was Steve McQueen, less so when it's (well, fill in the space with a young actor, almost any young actor, today).

Cary Grant, of course, is also a big reference point for most of today's actors. George Clooney is "the new Cary Grant," don't cha know.

But no one ever calls forth the name of Gregory Peck.

Tom Cruise is currently 48, although he seems like an eternal boy. Peck was actually three years younger than Cruise when he played his most defining character - Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan's film of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1961. (The film was released in 1962.)

No one would ever mistake Atticus Finch for a boy.

And I, for one, have given up on the idea of Cruise ever playing a character even remotely like Finch, even remotely mature.

By the way, Peck is currently being honored by Turner Classic Movies as its Star of the Month, via 26 titles. Tune in and see what it means to be a man, to be a grown up. Then go see Cruise in "Knight and Day."

Note in Passing: As another point of reference, Clark Gable was 37 - 11 years younger than Cruise - when he appeared in "Gone with the Wind."

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

cinema obscura: Anne Bancroft's "Fatso" (1980)

Films fail for a variety of reasons, the most recurring one being neglect - by the studio that produced it, the critics who review it and a public that just doesn't care. Neglected films are what drives this site.

Case in point: Anne Bancroft's soulful "Fatso," her only directorial/writing credit. Released (half-heartedly) by 20th Century-Fox in 1980, the small, very small, taciturn film offered Dom DeLuise one of his few noteworthy film roles ("The End" is another) as Dominick DiNapoli, an unassuming guy with a weight problem and, by extention, body-image issues. Two women come to his rescue - his sister, Antoinette (played by Bancroft herself), who tries to nudge him towards a healthier diet and lifestyle, and Lydia (the singular Candice Azzara), a neighborhood woman who is just the distraction that Dom needs.

The film, hastily dismissed upon release, seems downright prescient 30 years later. Ahead of its time? Has its time finally come? Perhaps. I do know that Bancroft's sure hand with her actors and the material is impressive. She handles both with the simplicity of a silent film; the courtship shared by DeLuise and Azzara is like a tiny duet out of Chaplin.

Almost impossible to see, the affecting "Fatso" has suddenly surfaced on HBO, where it plays throughout July, with performances scheduled for July 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 20 and 25. Check for exact times in your area and be sure to catch it. You'll be both surprised and pleased. I promise.

Note in Passing: Dom DeLuise directed his own film, for producer Ray Stark, a year earlier - "Hot Stuff," in which he co-starred with Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette and Ossie Davis. Also lost and also appealing.

"cyrus" - there's more there

Hill, Tomei and Reilly gamely participate in a study of dubious relationships in the Duplass's "Cyrus.
I've an elusive thought: Am I the only one to notice that John C. Reilly's relationship with his ex-wife in Jay and Mark Duplass's "Cyrus" is every bit as unhealthy as Jonah Hill's with his mother? That parallel seems to be the point of an otherwise pointless, albeit engaging, film but it's been addressed by no critics to the best of my knowledge. It's also interesting that Reilly's so-called hero consistently, and rather selfishly, intrudes upon and interrupts two relationships here - Catherine Keener's with her fiancé and Marisa Tomei's with her son. He's an interloper and a third wheel in both cases - a narcissist deceptively disguised in sheep's clothing.

Monday, July 05, 2010

a mad "inside" joke: ethel's revenge

La Merm with screen daughter, Dorothy Provine, in Stanley Kramer's elephantine, oddly unfunny comedy epic, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
I've written repeatedly here about my affection for Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 filmization of "Gypsy," my all-time favorite movie musical.

The film - actually, its star, Rosalind Russell specifically - has been the subject of a five-decade hissy fit on the part of Broadway types who resent that Ethel Merman, the star of the piece on stage, wasn't signed by Warner Bros. to repeat the role that she created to some acclaim.

The disturbing columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in particular got her nose out of joint when her good friend Merman was passed by as Mama Rose.

But Jack Warner wasn't stupid: Like everyone else, he had seen "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" and knew that Merman was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character.

Anyway, while it was in production, Kilgallen had "Gypsy" under a microscope for her on-going demonization. LeRoy's nifty decision to hire Jack Benny for an inspired cameo elicited the following Kilgallen criticism: "Jack Benny has been hired to play a role in the film of 'Gypsy.' It must be in trouble." Jeez, you can't buy bad publicity like that.

A year later, Merman got a consolation prize when she was hired by Stanley Kramer to play the harridan, Mrs. Marcus - mother of Dorothy Provine and mother-in-law of Milton Berle - in Kramer's elephantine comedy, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." The film, despite its plethora of noted comedy stars, is singularly unfunny - except for Merman.

She's a hoot in the film.

Anyway, Jack Benny, perhaps not coincidentally, popped up for a cameo scene opposite Merman - which leads to a very inside joke.

Merman and company are stranded, their car having broken down, when Benny drives by and asks if they're having trouble.

"No!," screams Merman as only she could, adding angrily "And we don't need any help from you!"

The scene isn't the least bit funny and seems pointless - until you think about Benny's unclean participation in Merman's beloved "Gypsy."

The traitor!

I don't know but that thowaway line, "And we don't need any help from you!," always takes on a deeper meaning for me.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" airs on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. (est), 6 July.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

the movie year. 2010. so far...

Polanski's atmospheric "The Ghost Writer," tops the movie year 2010 - 1 January through 30 June


Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer"

Raymond De Felitta's "City Island"

Alain Resnais' "Wild Grass"/"Les herbes folles"

Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give"

Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker's "Red Riding Trilogy"

Brian Koppelman & David Levien's "Solitary Man"

Lee Unkrich's "Toy Story 3"

Derrick Borte's "The Joneses"

Rodrigo García's "Mother and Child"

Floria Sigismondi's "The Runaways"

Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg"

Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island"

Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right"

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"


Pierce Brosnan & Olivia Williams/"The Ghost Writer"

Annette Bening/"Mother and Child" & "The Kids Are All Right"

Julianne Moore/"The Kids Are All Right"

Michael Douglas/"Solitary Man"

Colin Farrell/"Ondine"

Joan Rivers/"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

Leonardo DiCaprio/"Shutter Island"

Andy Garcia, Emily Moritmer & Julianna Margulies/"City Island"

Greta Gerwig/"Greenberg"

Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei/"Cyrus"

Vanessa Redgrave/"Letters to Juliet"

André Dussollier/"Wild Grass"("Les herbes folles")

Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet & Rebecca Hall/"Please Give"

Dakota Fanning & Kristen Stewart/"The Runaways"

Michael Shannon/"The Runaways"