Saturday, January 28, 2012

cinema obscura: Bill Persky's "Serial" (1980)

Cyra McFadden's compulsively readable "The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) actually began life as a serial. Its 52 chapters appeared each week in Marin County's grand alt-weekly, the Pacific Sun (the West Coast's answer to The Village Voice and an alternative nearly as old as the Voice), and the series deliciously satirized the relentless trendiness of Marin and its denizens, circa the '70s.

The material was too good not to be filmed and it was inevitably tackled in 1980 by Bill Persky, a TV hand ("Alice," "That Girl") new to films. With its title shortened, "Serial" would be the only theatrical film directed by Persky, but it's a minor gem, extremely well-cast.

Tuesday Weld and Martin Mull (in a rare leading-man role) play the Holroyds - Kate and Harvey - a groovy couple forever trying to define the parameters of their relationship. They're into shared responsibility and seem to have it all together. But Kate's consciousness-raising group (Sally Kellerman, Pamela Bellwood, Barbara Rhodes and the priceless Nita Talbot) thinks otherwise. They convince her that she's suffering from "negative family dynamics" and that she needs her own space.

And so as Kate and Harvey experiment with an open marriage and new relationships (Kate with an Argentinian dog clipper), their daughter Joanie (Jennifer McAlister) joins the Church of Oriental Christian Harmony and their assorted friends dabble in vegetarianism, actualism, lesbianism and homoerotic cycle gangs.

Persky gives his talented, attractive cast free reign and lets everyone hang loose, successfully sustaining the funny ideas behind McFadden's observations. At a breezy 92 minutes, the film zips along and stays true to its R rating.

BTW, the movie year 1980 was a particularly good one for screen comedy. In addition to "Serial," the year gave us an eclectic array including - here goes - Sidney Lumet's "Just Tell Me What You Want," Richard Benner's "Happy Birthday, Gemini," John Landis' "The Blues Brothers," the Zucker-Abrahams' "Airplane," Michael Pressman's "Those Lips, Those Eyes," Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard," Ronald Neame's "Hopscotch," Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," Howard Zeiff's "Private Benjamin," Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack," Colin Higgins' "Nine to Five," Robert Zemeckis' "Used Cars," Buck Henry's "First Family," Jay Sandrich's "Seems Like Old Times," Anne Bancroft's "Fatso," Gilbert Cates' "The Last Married Couple in America," Ronald Maxwell's "Little Darlings," Brian DePalma's "Home Movies," Alan Rudolph's "Roadie" and Art Linson's "Where the Buffalo Roam."

As for Cyra McFadden, she went on to write a biweekly column for the San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s and produced the acclaimed memoir, "Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir" in 1986, detailing her childhood traveling with parents who worked on the rodeo circuit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

façade: James Farentino

For some elusive reason, the recent passing of James Farentino (1938-2012) has me haunted.

I guess from where I sat, he had everything - good looks, talent, you name it - and yet throughout his bumpy career, he remained...

an almost leading man.

He was married four times - most famously to Elizabeth Ashely (before she hooked up with George Peppard) and also, for quite a while, to Michele Lee. In their own way, Farentino and Lee were the Lunt and Fontanne of the '70s, only groovier, natch. He was also one of the many actors who challenge Marlon Brando and dare to attempt "A Streetcar Named Desire" - in 1973 - for which he received a Theatre World Award.

But, movies, which should have been his prime venue, somehow evaded his appeal.

News of his death immediately brought to mind two films, both lost of course, that he made in the late 1960s when screen stardom seemed within reach - Brian G. Hutton's "The Pad - and How to Use It" (1966) and Fred Coe's "Me, Natalie" (1969). And both are quite wonderful.

Let's start with "Me, Natalie," a vehicle for Patty Duke which should have rehabilitated her professional reputation after the disaster of Mark Robson's "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) but didn't. Too bad. The film is a minor gem and Duke tears into her role of an ugly duckling with the kind of passion that wins Oscars - or used to.

But she did receive a well-deserved Golden Globe for her efforts.

Duke is Natalie Miller, a girl with what she perceives to be a nose problem. Her nose isn't big, but it has a hump - and this is the source of all her problems, her self-deprecating humor and her general discontent. When she moves out of her parents' home and into her own apartment, Natalie finally comes into her own. For one thing, she meets Farentino's handsome David, whose attention gives her the confidence she needs but whose presence creates a different set of problems.

Farentino, pictured in a scene from the movie above, is effortlessly dashing as a guy who seems too good to be true - and is.

Surrounding Duke, in addition to Farentino, is a stellar New York cast - Nancy Marchand and Phil Sterling as her doting parents; Martin Balsam as her understanding uncle; Solome Jens as Natalie's co-worker at a club questionably called the Topless Bottom Club; Elsa Lanchester as her eccentric landlady; then-newcomers Bob Balaban, Catherine Burns and Deborah Winters as assorted denizens in Natalie's universe, and most curious of all, Al Pacino in his first film role as a jerk who uses Natalie.

"Me, Natalie" was produced by Stanley Shapiro, who came up with the story (fleshed out by scenarist A. Martin Zweiback) and who also wrote a couple of Doris Day's popular '60s comedies. The director, Fred Coe, meanwhile. began life as a Broadway producer - he oversaw Anne Bancroft on stage in "The Miracle Worker" and "Two for the Seesaw" and produced the 1962 film version of the former - but was active in TV direction in the late 1940s and throughout the '50s. (He also produced the classic "Mr. Peepers" series.) Coe made an auspicious movie directing debut in 1965 with "A Thousand Clowns," followed by "Me, Natalie." He also directed the 1971 TV movie version of "All the Way Home," based on a play (by way of the James Agee novel) that he produced on Broadway.

Then there's "The Pad - and How to Use it" - and how it got to the screen.

Here goes... In 1964, two delightful one-act plays by Peter Shaffer opened on Broadway, titled "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear."

Or perhaps, it was the other way around.

Shaffer also wrote "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Five Finger Exercise," all plays eventually made into movies. Universal, which was busy in those days scouting Broadway productions, immediately snapped up the film rights to "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear" and then didn't know what to do with two one-act comedies. Both were eventually made into very pleasing, if little-seen movies.

"The Private Ear" was produced for film by Ross Hunter in 1966 - an atypical excursion for him into small-scale moviemaking. Hutton was hired to direct and the film was eventually retitled "The Pad and How to Use it" - a title obviously inspired by Richard Lester's successful "The Knack and How to Get It."

The thin but appealing plot - about a shy man who finally has the nerve to approach a woman while at a concert, only to lose her to his more attreactive friend - provided material in which the film's young stars truly excelled: Britain's Brian Bedford as the nerd, Farentino as the hunky friend and especially Julie Sommars as the woman.

Essentially a glorified TV movie that was released, albeit briefly, to theaters, "The Pad and How to Use It" deserves to be rescued and seen.

Farentino had nothing to do with the companion piece, "The Public Eye" which was finally filmed in 1972. It had better luck than "The Pad."

Well, sort of. "The Public Eye," its title retained for the screen, was adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself and directed by the estimable Sir Carol Reed. (The film was titled "Follow Me" in all other countries.)

In it, a dull British banker named Charles (Michael Jayston) hires Julian Cristo (Topol), an odd, eccentric private detective, to follow his American wife, Belinda (Mia Farrow), whom he suspects is cheating on him. When Belinda becomes aware that she is being followed, she's flattered by the attention and starts to play games with her potential paramour.

The private eye figures everything out: The wife isn't unfaithful at all, but merely looking for something that her husband isn't providing - something that she now seems to be getting from the detective, of all people.

"The Public Eye" made it into theaters - but just barely. Universal opened in unannounced and without any advance critics' screenings. For a while, it popped up occasionally on the Sundance Film Channel.

"Me, Natalie," "The Pad" and "The Public Eye" all remain teasingly inaccessible. It took the sad news of James Farentino to restore their fleeting pleasures to my memory. And to remind me of the actor himself.

Friday, January 20, 2012

cinema obscura: James Frawley's "The Christian Licorice Store" (1971)


Beau Bridges, one of my favorite actors, mades waves as a would-be hippie in his breakthrough film, the otherwise awful "For the Love Of Ivy" (1968).

Hollywood noticed - well, at least Norman Jewison did - and responded with two lead roles in a couple of promising titles, Jewison's "Gaily, Gaily" (1969) and Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970), produced by Jewison. Both are really fine, dissimilar films, but in their day, each came and went, without making much impact.

Then something happened that can be described as only bad karma. Bridges made two films that virtually no one saw - Philip Leacock's Austalian-made "Adam's Woman," a 1970 film which Warners never bothered to release, and James Frawley's ultra-trendy "The Christian Licorice Store," which played only in Boston in 1971 and then was promptly shelved by the now-defunct Cinema Center Films.

"The Christian Licorice Store," the more intriguing of the two, opened November 24th, 1971 at Boston's Paris Cinema, and the Boston Globe dismissed it as "flat."

I caught up with it in New York in 1977 when exhibitor extraordinaire, the late Ralph Donnelly, opened it for a week at his First Avenue Screening Room as part of a series of hard-luck, unreleased films (which also included Paul Bartel's "Private Parts," a guilty pleasure that's still missing). Anyway, I liked it, but frankly, much of my appreciation for "The Christian Licorice Store," written by Floyd Mutrux, had everything to do with the fact that I was rooting for Beau. And for Gilbert Roland, that incorrigible veteran actor who was making something of a comeback - or at least trying to.

In it, Bridges plays Franklin Cane, a professional tennis player whose mentor/trainer is Jonathan (Roland), who himself was once a great tennis champ and now is intent on molding Franklin into his own likeness.

Much of the film follows Franklin through the celebrity territory of non-stop parties, where he meets a celeb photographer (model Maud Adams in her film debut) and where he abandons himself to a hedonistic lifestyle, crippling his future.

"The Christian Licorice Store" includes one wild sex scene (staged on a trampoline) and several notable cameos - by then-budding actor Allan Arbus and by filmmakers Jean Renoir and Monte Helman. Yes, very trendy.

I've no idea who or what owns this film now, as Cinema Center went kaput. Other titles in its library were bought up by other studios. But this one has been missing in action just about ever since it was completed.

Hopefully, someday, it will be unearthed - hopefully for Beau, who is in his prime here as a promising young actor with movie-star allure to spare.

Notes in Passing: (1)James Frawley followed "The Christian Licorice Store" with Dennis Hopper's "Kid Blue" (1973) and the Joe Bologna-Stockard Channing romp, "The Big Bus"(1976) before finally hitting it big with "The Muppet Movie" (1979). Of late, he's been directing mostly TV stuff. (2) Beau Bridges is currently on Broadway as J.B. Biggley (the Rudy Vallee role) in the current revival of the Abe Burrows-Frank Loesser musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." (3) Ralph Donnelly passed on September 21st, 2007, at age 75 at his home in Oldsmar, Fla. Among his many exhibition triumphs in New York was his stint as president of Cinema 5 theaters, the Gotham chain created by Donald Rugoff.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Thank you to God for making me an athiest!"

As much as I liked provocatuer extraordinaire Ricky Gervais beforehand, his infamous fadeout declaration to God on the night of the 2011 Golden Globes ceremony sealed the deal. In the two prior hours, he had the good sense (and good taste) to rib the aging ingénues of "Sex and the City 2," the insufferably self-important Robert Downey, Jr., those Scientologist actors plagued by pesky rumors and, of course, Mel Gibson. This was Gervais' second outing at the GGs and I clearly looked forward to his third.

The lesson learned: Never have high expectations.

Gervais was noticably neutured in Sunday night's shameless giveaway. He was, at best, borderline snarky. And his harshest one-liners were leveled at an easy target - Kim Kardashian. "The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton," Gervais quipped. "A bit trashier, a bit drunker and more easily bought."

Huh? For one thing, Kim Kardashian is not known as a drunk, Ricky. For another, she has nothing to do with movies. And who's not to say that Kate Middleton isn't trashy in private or cannot be "bought"? Better to poke fun at one of Hollywood's more deserving frauds, you know the kind that the media fawns over and lionizes without completely vetting.

To her credit, Kardashian took the gratuitous insult in stride. According to Bang Showbiz, Kim found the routine "hilarious." Well, Ricky, I know of at least one person within the axis of the film industry who has, um, class.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

forever, woody

As 2011 crept away, I elected to go through my movie paraphrenalia and do a little purging. Among what I call my "celebrity letters," I found five from Woody Allen, four of them handwritten (and one on legal-size yellow paper). They all brought back memories of the Allen movies I reviewed and how wonderful it felt to be validated by the filmmaker.

Here's one which was his response to a column about how we all tend to connect - and identify - with those elusive, yet somehow familiar shadows on the screen, one of whom for me back then was ... Woody. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

vertiginous intellectuality

I came to David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" with an eager anticipation that he would somehow conjur up the juiciness of "Dead Ringers," his wicked 1988 examination of twin libidinous gynocologists (both played by Jeremy Irons!), and somehow top himself.

But, no, "A Dangerous Mind" in which the ever-adventurous Cronenberg traces the birth of psychoanalysis (and, by extension, the curious pleasures of sexual sadomasochism) isn't the playful exercise that I expected. It is a bit more literal-minded - and, surprisingly, middle-brow - dealing as it does with the protégé/mentor relationship of Carl Jung (a watchful Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (an astonishing Vigo Mortensen), before they became professinal frenemies, and the interesting case study, the hugely neurotic Sabina Spielrein (an aptly feral and theatrical Keira Knightley), who came between them.

Sabina preferred punishing sex and found a willing partner in her psychoanalyst, Jung, but their taboo sex acts (always staged fully clothed) come across as curiously discreet and a tad dainty. (Rarely has sex seemed so obligatory.) Still, it was enough for Sabina to pursue a career in psychoanalysis herself, verifying the suspicion that, egad, most shrinks themselves are possibly damanged in the head.

Christopher Hampton adapted his play, "The Talking Cure," (a title that says all, in the case of this movie), working in elements from John Kerr's book, "A Most Dangerous Method." The talk - and there's a lot of it - is both super intelligent and kinda filthy, with the tony characters managing to work the words "penis" and "vagina" into most conversations.

Reading this stuff on paper might be slightly arousing but, on screen, it all seems, well, impotent. But I've a hunch that's exactly the point the provocateur Cronenberg wanted to make. Still, I liked his film.

A lot.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

the contrarian: "match me, sidney"

Alexander Mackendrick's atmospheric
"Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) is one of those films that I like but not as much as I'm supposed to.

I mean, what's not to like? The '50s New York ambience (shot in black-&-white, natch, by James Wong Howe) is seductive, and the acting duet of Burt Lancaster as ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the weak, fawning publicist Sidney Falco should be enough to get me through the film.

So, again, what's not to like? Well, the plot. Which, for me, is - well - kinda silly. Everything hinges on the fact that J.J. doesn't want his spoiled kid sister, Susan (played by a mink-wrapped Susan Harrison, who looks young enough to be Lancaster's daughter and yet who looks nothing like him at all), to marry a musician with the great name Steve Dallas (a character played with white-bread harmlessness by Martin Milner).

And this is what accounts for this so-called tough film's palpable angst.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

prescient grief

Stephen Daldry's “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a shrewdly-made polemic linked to 9/11, functions largely as a road movie about an uncommonly bright boy (Thomas Horn) who goes in search of - what?

Relief?

Answers?

Or could it be simply a desperate need to understand "the impenetrable"?

In this case, "the impenetrable" is the loss of his beloved father (Tom Hanks) on that fateful day in one of the Twin Towers.

Oskar Schell (Horn) goes on a journey of grief for which, in some curious way, he was prepared by his doting dad - but which his mother (Sandra Bullock) is simply too distraught to understand. A mystery key that Oskar finds in an envelope left behind by his father, an envelope with one word scrawled rather cryptically on it, ignites his search for, again, what?

The answer - or explanation or solution or clue - is hidden somewhere in New York and among its denizens. And so, Oskar starts his journey.

Daldry, who previously helmed "Billy Elliott," "The Hour" and "The Reader," balances the destructive energy of 9/11 with the lovely redemptive poetry of Oskar's restless, utterly important search.

This delicate balance is handily achieved by the young actor Horn who is completely complicit with his director and who, almost preternaturally, resembles both Hanks and Bullock, particularly Bullock.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" goes beyond the trauma of 9/11 to get to the heart of palpable, achingly personal grief.