Thursday, October 28, 2010

cinema obscura: Peter Ustinov's "Hammersmith Is Out" (1972)

One rarely encounters a cinematic calamity as uncouth, outragous and gleefully offensive (and hilarious) as 1972 "Hammersmith Is Out," Peter Ustinov's willfully unhinged take on the "Faust" legend.

Beau Bridges plays a greasy sleaze wittily named Billy Breedlove who falls in thrall of both Hammersmith, a patient at the facility for the criminally insane where Billy works as an orderly, and Jimmie Jean Jackson, a hashslinger with pretentions. These roles are played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, clearly cast against type when they were at the height of their reign as the film industry's "It" couple.

As the creepily unemotional Hammersmith goes on a killing spree, Billy and Jimmy Jean continually consummate their relationship in a variety of ill-advised locations - until Hammersmith ultimately comes between them.

Ustinov is on hand as the asylum director trying to keep an eye on Hammersmith and, as the film's auteur, he's surrouned his stars with some top character actors - Leon Ames, John Schuck, George Raft, Leon Askin and the wonderful Anthony Holland who, as another orderly, earns laughs almost effortlessly, without the strenuous mugging employed by Taylor and Bridges. (Burton is aptly stoic throughout.)

The film includes such howlers as Taylor referring to Bridges' member as a "monkey dick" and Bridges bending over to flatulate in Ustinov's face.

Why on earth didn't this film ever make the midnight circuit?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

sammy glick, updated

The near-perfect David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin collaboration, "The Social Network," works essentially as a probing, precient and very ironic filmic essay detailing the decline in social graces in the wake of the so-called social-media advances of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg (above and below), in an inarguable breakthrough performance as Mark Zuckerberg, anchors a top-flight male ensemble - Justin Timberlake (below with Eisenberg), Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer (times two) and Max Minghella - that's bathed in the noir-ish cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth, the eclectic, driving music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the rhythms of Sorkin's rapid-fire and hugely articulate dialogue. The film is compulsively watchable - a keeper, an instant classic, this year's Oscar favorite.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

the contrarian: The Fierlingers' "My Dog Tulip"

Few things surprise me more in life than a hugely anticipated film that disappoints. Case in point: the beautifully rendered animation of J.R. Ackerley's slim memoir of unconditional love, "My Dog Tulip."

The pastel-soft, scratch-pad images by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, coupled with John Avarese's playful music score and Ackerley's modest narrative, were initially transporting for this lovelorn animal activist.

For its first 15 minutes or so, I was enchanted by the film's slender plotline about a lonely, solitary bachelor finding his perfect companion in a handsome Alsatian shepherd who he rather wittily names Tulip.

But the charm wears off when, almost inexplicably, the film becomes obsessed with the dog's bodily functions - her need to urninate and defecate and her owner's curious preoccupation with/involvement in Tulip's sex life. These references aren't occasional or merely scattered throughout the film; they are the film, dominating its second two-thirds.

Strange.

Exacerbating matters is the interlude when Tulip gives birth to a litter and her owner, having given the situation absolutely no thought whatsoever, can't decide what to do with the puppies. Should he give them away? Should he drown them? He certainly can't keep them in his cramped flat. Suddenly, the wizened narrator (voiced by Christopher Plummer) seems less like an educated sophisticate than a moron. It makes sense now that this odd solopsist would be so lonely and have so few relationships.

I've no idea if this is the message that the talented filmmakers wanted to impart or even if it is possibly drawn from the source material itself.

What I do know is, it isn't good.

Friday, October 01, 2010

turner classic movies. october. 2010.


The Find of the Month on Turner in October actually screens in the wee hours of 1 November - the 1969 Vanessa Redgrave-Franco Nero collaboration for Elio Petri, "A Quiet Place in the Country," an arty psychological thriller that was difficult to see even the year it was released. But we'll get to that later, saving the best for last.

The month kicks off on 1 October with a day devoted to Walter Matthau, including a 4:15 p.m. (est) screening of Joshua Logan's "Mister Roberts" sequel, "Ensign Pulver" (1964), in which Matthau inherits the William Powell role of Doc. As I've noted before, Logan's film is an excellent example of a work that's not particularly good but that has a cast that makes it worthwhile. In addition to Matthau and Robert Walker, Jr. (who plays Pulver), there's Burl Ives, taking over for James Cagney as Captain Morton, as well as Kay Medford and Millie Perkins as two nurses, Diana Sands and Al Freeman, Jr., hilarious as two rather worldly south-seas natives, and Jack Nicholson, Dick Gautier, James Coco, Tommy Sands, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, George Lindsey, Gerald O'Loughlin and Peter Marshall as assorted sailors on "The Bucket."

Matthau and Medford have impressive comic/sexual chemistry in a ship-to-shore sequence which doesn't even have them in the same frame together. It's a case of each character meeting his/her match.

"Ensign Pulver" marked a reunion of sorts for Medford and Gautier, who appeared in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie" - as Mrs. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke's mother) and Conrad Birdie, respectively - but who were passed over by George Sidney for his 1963 film of the musical. (Maureen Stapleton and Jesse Pearson replaced them on screen.) Logan's movie may be negligble, but I will forever be appreciative of his nimble casting here and particularly for correcting Sidney's slight and coming through for Medford and Gautier. (Gautier, incidentally, would also be reunited with Van Dyke for Bud Yorkin's astute, hilarious marital comedy, "Divorce, American Style," in which he essays the role of Van Dyke's divorce attorney.)

Moving on, Sidney's "The Eddie Duchin Story," accurately described by Dave Kehr as “a melancholic, death-tinged musical melodrama,” shows up on Turner's schedule on 4 October @ 11:45 a.m.; Robert Wise's all-star, savvy "Executive Suite" on 6 October @ 7:30 a.m., and Robert Altman's "Countdown" and John Sturges' "Marooned" - two space explorations - on 8 October @ 12:15 a.m. and 4:15 a.m., respectively.

"Let's Kill Uncle" and "Thirteen Frightened Girls" - two William Castle titles that serve as a preview of a full-day of Castle films slated for 30 October - air on 9 October @ 2:45 a.m. and 4:30 a.m.

Hayley Mills had one of her first grown-up roles in future hubby Roy Boulting's "The Family Way," based on a Bill Naughton play about newlyweds who can't consummate their marriage because they live with the bride's family. Hywel Bennett plays the groom; John Mills is the father-of-the-bride. It shows on 10 October @ 12:15 A.M. And, continuing the father-daughter pairings, Vanessa Redgrave has an early role, opposite her father, Michael, in Desmond Hurst's "Behind the Mask," airing immediately afterward at 2:15 a.m.

Luxuriant and leisurely are the words that best describe "The Honey Pot," Joseph L. Mankiewicz's version of Ben Johnson's venerable "Volpone" (along with two other credited sources). Rex Harrison, Susan Hayward, Maggie Smith, Edie Adams, Capucine and Cliff Robertson star in the 130-minute film, set for 11 October @ 3:30 p.m.

"Something Wild" - 13 October @ 11:30 p.m. - is one of only two films made by Jack Garfein (the other being "The Strange One"). With his then-wife, Carroll Baker, as star, Garfein effectively investigates the after effects of a rape in an intriguingly existential way.

Director John Berry gets a late-night, three-title celebration -
"He Ran All the Way Home," "Tension" and "Maya" - on 14 October, beginnging @ 1:30 a.m.
Turner's "Star of the Month" Fredric March, with co-star Loretta Young, shines in Alexander Hall's "Bedtime Story," airing on 13 October @ 3 a.m.
Walter Forde's "Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt" - on 15 October @ 5 a.m. - is a version of you-know-what, only without Ray Bolger or Jack Benny.

MGM has a veritable bottomless pit of film musicals, most of them readily available, but Mervyn LeRoy's version of the Otto A. Harbach-Oscar Hammerstein II operetta, "Rose Marie," is difficult to see. Well, here's your chance: 15 October @ 4 p.m. Ann Blythe, Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Maine and Ray Collins star.

Alt Cinema is represented on October 16, starting @ 2:45 a.m. with Alex Cox's "Repo Man" and "Border Radio," co-directed by Kurt Voss, Dean Lent and Allison Anders. And if you liked Scorsese's "The Departed," you'll revel in Alan Mak and Wai-keung Lau's Hong Kong original, "Infernal Affairs"/"Mou gaan dou," screening on 18 October @ 2 a.m.

There's a companionable Roz Russell double-bill on 19 October - Richard Thorpe's "Man-Proof," with Waler Pidgeon as leading man, @ noon, and Irving Commings' "What a Woman!," with Brian Aherne, @ 1:45 p.m.

Curtis Berhardt's superior biopic soap opera, "Interrupted Melody," about opera star Marjorie Lawrence's battle with polio, boasts the potent team of Eleanor Parker and Glenn Ford. See it on 21 October @ 6 a.m.

Perhaps hoping to make them a screen team, Warners paired Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter in two films in 1956. One of them, Stuart Heisler's "The Burning Hills," will be shown on 23 October @ noon. The other title? David Butler's "The Girl He Left Behind."

Alex Guinness day on Turner - October 23 - includes two titles that would be reincarnated in other forms. Anthony Kimmins' "The Captain's Paradise" (@ 10 p.m.) became the Tony Randall stage musical, "Oh, Captain!" (directed by Jose Ferrer), while Henry Caas' "Last Holiday" (@ 11:45 p.m.) became the recent Queen Latifah-Wayne Wang film.

When Warners decided to film "No, No Nanette" with Doris Day, for some reason it ended up on screen with the title, "Tea for Two." David Butler directed Day opposite two of her favorite leading men at the studio, Gordon McRae and Gene Nelson. It airs on 24 October @ 2:15 p.m.

OK, Cecil B. DeMille filmed "The Ten Commandments" twice and Hitchcock, Capra and Wyler also tackled remakes of their earlier films ("The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Lady for a Day"/"Pocketful of Miracles" and "These Three"/"The Children's Hour," respectively). And then there's Jean Negulesco, who had a big fat hit with the Rome-based romcom, "Three Coins in the Fountain," and decided to redo it - in Madrid - with "The Pleasure Seekers," skedded for 24 October @ 8 p.m.

Go ahead - compare and contrast.

Fredric March fans (count me in!) can enjoy an evening of his films, starting on 26October @ 8 p.m. with Stanley Kramer's still-topical "Inherit the Wind" and concluding on 27 October @ 4:45 a.m. with Phil Karlson's "The Young Doctors," co-starring Ben Gazzara, Aline MacMahon and Dick Clark. March is October's deserving Star of the Month.

Rosalind Russell had one of last film roles in Leslie H. Martinson's "Mrs. Polifax - Spy," based on Dorothy Gilman's popular novel, “The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax,” about a New Jersey housewife who applies at the CIA for spy duty. It is one of three Russell roles that would later be appopriated by Angela Lansbury, who appeared in both “Mame” and “Gypsy” on stage and in “The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax” on TV. Roz's version, with Darren McGavin, airs on 28 October @ 5:15 p.m.

Moving into a weekend of ghosts and goblins, Turner has scheduled two near-perfect thrillers - Nicholas Gessner's "The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane," with Jodie Foster and Scott Jacoby, and Robert Mulligan's "The Other," with Uta Hagan, on 29 October @ 12;15 a.m. and 2 a.m.

The underappreciated Don Stewart gets to give a star turn, albeit a dubious one, in Al Adamson's "Carnival Magic," airing at 30 October @ 2:45 a.m. Mark down that date because later in the day, there's a William Castle marathon of five titles, starting at 11:45 a.m. with the sublime "Homicidal," starring Jean Arless (aka, Joan Marshall; aka, Mrs. Hal Ashby) in an astonishing performance. Happy Halloween! Keep in the spirit of things with that inimitable Roger Corman-Dick Miller collaboration, "A Bucket of Blood," on 31 October @ 12:15 p.m.

Definitely nifty.

Now, back to Petri's "A Quiet Place in the Country," slated by Turner for 1 November @ 3:15 a.m... Here is a nasty little piece on sadistic game-playing, feuled by art, fantasy and insanity, in which Redgrave plays the possibly demented patron to Nero's artist, or more accurately, victimizer to victim. But which is which? Who is who? Stylish, bizarre, brilliant and never dull, Petri's film works on the viewer's nerves with a sense of what is best described as artistic dread.

At the time of its release, critic Rex Reed wrote of the plight of "A Quiet Place in the Country":

"Vanessa Redgrave, I am told, appeared in the film to insure financing for her friend Mr. Nero. It was completed two years ago and I am appalled at the lack of publicity with which the people at United Artists surrounded its New York release. The studio moguls apparently think very little of it, so it might be difficult to find throughout the country. But if you enjoy having the living daylights scared out of you as much as I do, search it out. 'A Quiet Place in the Country' is to horror films what Château Grillet is to wine. If the hacks who run the movie companies had their way, they'd drink nothing but Manischewitz."