Thursday, October 20, 2011

clipped wings

"The Big Year" is, well, an odd bird. (Bad pun intended.)

Seeemingly a comedy with an ace cast, it never takes flight. (There I go again!)

The problem is that the film, from source material by memorist Mark Obmascik, isn't a comedy. Which is a tad confusing, given that it's toplined by Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as obsessed bird-watchers (that's right) who use this curious pasttime as yet another excuse for male competitiveness. But it isn't necessarily a drama either. It isn't much of anything - a gentle, anecdotal, lovingly filmed nothing.

"There is no there there," to borrow from Gertrude Stein.

The three stars have zero chemistry, but more alarming is that, despite detailed work by director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada" and "Marley & Me") and his scenarist Howard Franklin ("Quick Change"), the film fails massively to engage us in "birding," as it's called.

Nevertheless, it has a handsome cast - Brian Dennehy and Dianne Weist as Black's parents; JoBeth Williams as Martin's wife; Rosamund Pike as Wilson's wife; Joel McHale and Kevin Pollak as two of Martin's business associates; Rashida Jones as a potential love interest for Black; Tim Blake Nelson as another birder; Jim Parsons as a birding blogger - and Frankel has conjured up quite a few cozy, companionable sequences set in restaurants and bars. The tony narration is read by John Cleese.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

façade: Inger Stevens

Inger Stevens, circa 1963

Inger Stevens' star - and sweet face - twinkled brightly but briefly from the late 1950s to 1970 when she died at age 36, reportedly a suicide.

She was one of those curious stars whose troubled personal life contrasted sharply with her public persona, which was probably best defined by her role as a plucky Swedish governess opposite William Windom (and the invaluable Cathleen Nesbitt) on the popular TV series, "The Farmer's Daughter," a sitcom with a realistic edge.

Stevens made her film debut in 1957 in the very small Bing Crosby vehicle, "Man on Fire," directed by Ranald MacDougall. She had just turned 20 when she was cast and 22 when it was released, immediately following it with an eclectic collection of titles - Andrew L. Stone's "Cry Terror!" (1958), with James Mason; Anthony Quinn's "The Buccaneer" (1958), with Charlton Heston; MacDougall's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1959) with Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, and an Emmy-nominated role opposite Peter Falk in David Friedkin's "The Price of Tomatoes" (1962), a playlet on Dick Powell's anthology series.

During this period, Stevens reportedly had doomed affairs with most of her leading men, including Crosby, Mason and Quinn.

After interrupting her screen work to do "The Farmer's Daughter," Stevens returned to films in, among others, Gene Kelly's "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), John Guillermin's "House of Cards" (1968) and, opposite Quinn, in Daniel Mann's "A Dream of Kings" (1969), finally a role worthy of her talents. But it was too little too late.

In less than a year, the ultimately enigmatic Inger Stevens was dead - another Hollywood casualty but also a tragic missed opportunity.

Fourteen years is way too brief a career.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

cinema obscura: Richard Quine's "So This Is Paris" (1955)

Richard Quine is largely noted for his work at Columbia, where he started out as a contract player (he was sodajerk Frank Lippincott in Roz Russell's "My Sister Eileen") and then segued into directing there (the musical version of "My Sister Eileen," among others).

He made his directorial debut at Columbia in 1954 with "Drive a Crooked Road" (co-written by colleague and friend, Blake Edwards, one of several of their collaborations) and became a reliable house director there the same year with the marvelous "Pushover" (starring his muse, Kim Novak).

But Quine also ventured out to other studios for such titles as "The World of Suzie Wong," "Sex and the Single Girl," "The Moonshine War," "Hotel" and the film of Arthur Kopit's quirky play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (which starred Russell).

In 1955, the year he made the excellent "My Sister Eileen" for Columbia, Quine was loaned out to Universal for another musical, "So This Is Paris," a throwaway charmer starring a singing and dancing Tony Curtis as an avid, skirt-chasing sailor. With Gene Nelson (on Curtis' right above) and Paul Gilbert (on his left), the film can be mistaken for nothing less than a tracing-over of "On the Town," only set in Paris rather than New York.

The naturally engaging Gloria DeHaven (also above) has the Vera-Ellen role of a showgirl who isn't exactly what she seems to be. Corinne Calvet, the low-rent, G-rated Brigette Bardot of her day, and Mary Corday are the two other gals who team up with the ... gobs. (Quine's movie was alternately titled "So This is Paree" and, yes, "Three Gobs in Paris.")

If you know the drill, you know the rest.

"So This Is Paris" is one of those B-musicals (if there is such a genre) that were prominent during the early- to mid-1950s, when the studios still had expansive music departments and when musicals were still accepted, no questions asked, by audiences. In fact, Janet Leigh, Curtis' wife at the time, starred in two of her own - James V. Kern's "Two Tickets to Broadway" (1951), which happened to co-star DeHaven, and Quine's aforementioned "My Sister Eileen" (1955).

By the way, Curtis played another sex-sick soldier on the loose in Paris in Blake Edwards' difficult-to-see "The Perfect Furlough" (1958) and Leigh teamed up with him (one of their many films together) as a no-nonsense Army psychologist keeping tabs on him by acting as chaperone.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

unmoored, brilliantly

Lonergan directs Damon and Paquin

Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited/long-delayed "Margaret" submerges a willing viewer in the scattered yet fascinating day-to-day activities of a privileged New York teenager named Lisa Cohen - or, as Lisa describes herself to one of her teachers, "an entitled liberal Jew."

The movie is an Altmanesque ensemble piece anchored by a major performance by a very game and very brave (and very young) Anna Paquin, who would normally be a shoo-in for an Oscar if "Margaret" wasn't made way back in 2005 and if it hadn't been mired in distracting legal and editing issues. Paquin's Lisa attends a progressive private school whose precocious students are smarter, more probing and verbally quicker than their teachers (who include Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick).

Particularly Lisa.

The lynchpin of Lisa's otherwise aimless life is a horrific accident that Lisa causes when she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who promptly mows down a pedestrian (Allison Janney). This brilliantly staged sequence shrewdly juxtaposes the death of one person with the rebirth of another.

Lisa, now no longer adrift, is jolted by bracing, powerful feelings. She's been enlightened and, once one is enlightened, there's no going back. Lisa can't unlearn this harsh lesson and return to her former self.

Lonergan's movie runs two-and-a-half hours (reportedly shortened from the director's three-hour cut by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) and, frankly, I wanted more. More of Paquin. And more of the cast surrounding her - J. Smith-Cameron and Lonergan himself as her divorced, estranged parents; Jeannie Berlin as a middle-aged woman who becomes Lisa's unlikely new best friend; Jean Reno as a European sophisticate romancing her mom, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo's wife.