Sunday, March 25, 2012

tilda, rachael & Will

It's getting to the point that there are precious few current films worth seeing, let along discussing. The title of Glenn Kenny's inspired non-review of Gary Ross's "The Hunger Games" says it all: "From Hunger." (But exactly why is everyone else so excited about this movie which, it seems to me, is a triumph of marketing, not filmmaking?)

Anyway, three titles, about which no one seems to care, are worth recommending nevertheless.

First, there's Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a deliciously demented film with Tilda Swinton as the mother of an evil spawn - an awful teenage son who goes berserk and traps a bunch of kids in the school gym (à la "Carrie") and kills them with his bow and arrows (à la "The Hunger Games").

The film, which traces the steps of Kevin from screaming infant to obstinant toddler to aforementioned awful teen - is being sold as a social statement on disturbed kids waiting to explode but it's really a horror film about the hazards of breeding. Question: Did Swinton receive an Oscar nomination for this? Who remembers? Who cares? Still, she deserved one. Next up is Robbie Pickering’s raggy "Natural Selection," about Linda, a barren Christian woman whose hypocrite husband piously refuses to have recreational sex with her (ah, there Rick Santorum!) but has no problem jerking off to religious pornos at the local sperm bank.

When the prig has a stroke during an ejaculation, his betrayed wife finds out about her hubby's favorite pasttime - and the fact that he sired at least one nameless kid, a boy who is now a grown man. Linda decides to track down the kid and what follows is a road film of self-discovery, self-fulfillment and, yes, sexual awakening.

"Natural Selection" is anchored by a game, resourceful performance by Rachael Harris, a terrific, intelligent comedic actress who usually plays shrews ("The Hangover") or moms ("Diary of a Wimpy Kid").

Get this woman a major role already! Matt Piedmont's "Casa de mi Padre" is an amiable curiosity - a Will Ferrell lark spoken entirely en español (with some made-up malapropisms tossed in for extra laughs). The publicity for film - about a land barron, his two sons (Diego Luna is the good son; Ferrell is the stupid one, natch) and a vicious drug dealer (Gael García Bernal) - likens it to a telenovela, but it's actually closer to a cheezy Grade-Z Mexican import.

Best gag: A title tells us that it was filmed in "MexicoScope."

It's great fun, even while it's winding down. But who on earth will bother to see it? Perhaps that's why Lionsgate gave it a less pushy opening than it accorded ... "The Hunger Games."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

cinema obscura: Charles Lane's "Sidewalk Stories" (1989)

Critics, like a lot of other people, have very short memories, although most of them would avidly debate that notion.

Case in point: When Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" was released with much (aggressive) fanfare last fall, critics greeted this novelty - a silent film photographed in black & white - as a refreshing revelation.

Of course, Gene Kelly and Jackie Gleason attempted a similar conceit way back in 1962 with "Gigot" - although Kelly's film was shot in color.

More recently (well, 1989), there was a tiny film by African American filmmaker Charles Lane - the silent "Sidewalk Stories," a disarming Chaplinesque tale (read: "The Kid") of an artist (played by Lane) who decides to raise a toddler after her father is murdered.

Released by Palm Pictures, "Sidewalk Stories" was championed by critics for its commingling of modest virtures and cinematic daring, but has since fallen into oblivion, becoming a forgotten film. The very critics who praised it in '89 had no idea it was even made by the time they were being seduced by "The Artist" and its ironically loud marketing campaign. Lane's film was televised by PBS and on cable television in the 1990s and saw limited exposure on VHS, but is currently ... unavailable.

Edie Falco, Tom Hoover and Darnell Williams are seen in early roles in a cast that was as unknown as them at the time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

lost moment: José Ferrer's "State Fair" (1962)

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) swoons as Bing croons

When Walter Lang filmed Rodgers and Hammerstein's original movie musical, "State Fair," in 1945, he came up with the clever idea for the first reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring."

Jeanne Crain (singing voice dubbed by Louanne Hogan), as the film's young heroine Margy Frake, is in a deep funk and, sitting on a porch swing looking forlorn, is momentarily revived when she hears/imagines the voices of Ronald Coleman, Charles Boyer and Bing Crosby whispering sweet nothings to her. Cute, although it's never been clarified if the voices are those of the real actors or impersonators.

Anyway, flashforward to 1962 and the remake of "State Fair" - or perhaps 1961, when the film was actually made. José Ferrer is directing the remake and Pamela Tiffin (singing voice dubbed by Anita Gordon) is now playing Margy.

While the film was still in production, there were reports that Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra would be making cameo appearances. The assumption, for anyone familiar with the material, was that they would be involved with Tiffin in the reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring."

Well, the film opens in 1962 and there is no reprise of "It Might As Well Be Spring." Hence, there's no Frank, Cary and Jimmy. What happened?

Was the reported sequence ever actually filmed?

The only clue to its possible existence is a shot of Tiffin in the end credits in a scene that is not in the finished film. In it, she is laying on her bed looking kinda swoony. My hunch is that it is in preamble to the reprise with Cary, Jimmy and Frank.

And by extension, my hunch is also that the scene was indeed filmed and, for some bizarre reason, was dropped.

My question is ... why?

Given that Ferrer is long gone, only Pamela Tiffin can provide insight into the mystery.

Margy Frake (Pamela Tiffin) swoons as Frank croons (maybe)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

humble beginnings on shubert alley

Very few plays make it onto film these days, and even fewer stage musicals.

But there was a time when the studios depended seriously on Broadway as a source for its prestige productions. (There's been a curious flipflop in the past two decades with the B movie - action films and action comedies - now being given the lavish adornments once reserved for message/Oscar films exclusively.) Hollywood had such an unquenchable need to film plays that even stage productions that were flops and folded quickly (but were not necessarily bad) quickly became movies.

To name a few...

"Little Murders"

Written by the popular acerbic cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the very dark "Little Murders" opened at the Booth Theater on April 18th, 1967, playing a total of seven performances. The play starred singer Barbara Cook (in a decidedly non-singing role) and Elliott Gould, just before he hit Hollywood with William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Feiffer comically chronicled what happens when a gung-ho all-American girl brings an inarguably unAmerican guy (a self-described "apathist" who photographs dog excrement for a living) home to meet her family - an oblivious mother, a father embarrassed by his name (it's Carroll) and a brother who wants to be a woman, played by Ruth White, John Randolph and David Steinberg, respectively. Exacerbating the tension are such modern travials as power outages, a garbage strike and serial murders.

Heyward Hale Broun, Phil Leeds and Dick Schaal rounded out the cast, under the direction of George Sherman.

A subsequent 1969 staging at the Circle in the Square also starred Gould and Steinberg, along with Linda Lavin, Vincent Gardenia and Donald Sutherland in the role of a hippie cleric.

Gould, of course, recreated his role for the 1971 film, which was gamely directed by Alan Arkin who also assumed the role of the quickly uncoiling detective investigating the murders. The wonderful Marcia Rodd (and exactly what happened to her?) is a standout in the Cook role of Patsy; Elizabeth Wilson and an encoring Gardenia play her parents and Jon Korkes her brother, and Sutherland was back on board as the minister.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle"/"Last of the Mobile Hotshots"

Tennessee Williams' "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" had a tryout at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and opened March 27th, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast consisting of Estelle Parsons, Harry Gaurdino and Brian Bedford, under the direction of José Quintero.

OK, here goes: Williams' play is about Lot (Bedford), a tubercular, impotent transvestite who has taken a wife named Myrtle (Parsons) who, in turn, is a prostitute and former showgirl, the sole survivor of the Five Memphis Hot Shots. Myrtle lives to nurse Lot back to health but Lot cares only about stealing the family property from his multiracial half-brother, Chicken (Guardino).

Naturally, Chicken is attracted to Myrtle.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle" closed after 29 performances.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1970 film version, which was retitled "Last of the Mobile Hotshots" and was one of the few prestige films of that era to be rated X by the MPAA. Lynn Redgrave starred as Myrtle, James Coburn as Lot (renamed Jeb actually for the film), and Robert Hooks as Chicken.

The film was made in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana, but forget the scenery. All that counted here was the idea of James Coburn playing a transvestite.
"A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper"

William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," which opened December 7th, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and closed after 25 performances, remains Warren Beatty's only Broadway appearance. His co-stars were dancer Carol Haney (in a decidedly undancing performance), Betty Field, Robert Webber, James O'Rear, Margaret Braidwood and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

Daniel Mann directed.

Its plot revolves around Lila (Haney), a sensitive, aging showgirl for a series of shows staged by a Madame Olga. When she gets dumped by the thieving Rick (played by Robert Webber in play and film) and is left stranded in the small town where she grew up, she moves in with her neighbor (Field) whose son she used to babysit. That role was written by Inge especially for the young Warren Beatty who would go on to star for Inge in "Splendor in the Grass" on screen. For the 1963 film, directed by Franklin J. Schafner in his debut, Joanne Woodward (in arguably her finest, if least heralded, performance) and Richard Beymer play the Haney/Beatty roles, with Pollard also recreating their stage roles. The rest of the cast includes Claire Trevor (in for Betty Field), Carol Lynley, Louis Nye and ... Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga.
"Silent Night, Lonely Night"
The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote this lovely play about two lonely people - played by Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes - who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

The play, directed by Peter Glenville and co-starring Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann, opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was snapped up immediately by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.
The film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night," directed by Daniel Petrie, was not made for theaters, but for TV. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving. Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) took over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles, Carrie Snodgress played the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman showed up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.
"My Sweet Charlie"

David Westheimer's play "My Sweet Charlie" - a study in race relations - opened in tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia on November 8th, 1966 before moving to New York's Longacre Theater onn December 6th, 1966, where it closed after 31 performances.

The actor Howard Da Silva ("They Live By Night," "The Great Gatsby," "The Blue Dahlia," "The Lost Weekend" and "1776" among many other films) directed a cast that included Louis Gossett, Jr. in the title role, Bonnie Bedelia, John Randolph and Sarah Cunningham. Gossett's Charlie Roberts is a black New York lawyer accused - falsely - of murder in a small Texas town. He finds a vacant house where he hides out and this is where he meets Marlene (Bedelia), an artless, uneducated young woman who has been shunned by her father for being pregnant.

They become allies and unlikely friends.

The 1971 TV film version, also produced by Universal, was adapted by the then-hot team of William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by the great Lamont Johnson on location in Port Bolivar, Texas.

"My Sweet Charlie" was hugely popular as a film, thanks in large part to the affecting lead performances of Al Freeman, Jr. and Patty Duke. Ford Rainey took over the Randolph role.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Trig, I've a feeling we're not in Wasilla any more"

"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm
After They've Seen Paree..."

Much has been written about Jay Roach's hugely entertaining HBO movie, "Game Change" (based on the book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin), with more than one critic noting its skeletal resemblence to "Pygmalion"/"My Fair Lady" as it reenacts the tireless efforts of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign team to groom and cajole a rural guttersnipe into a plausible Vice Presidential candidate.

Others have likened the process to "Frankenstein."

But the above lyric - written by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis (with music by Walter Donaldson) back in 1918 - is a more concise description of what happened to Sarah Palin when she was snatched from relative obscurity and redefined for political stardom on the vast national stage.

And once she tasted the forbidden fruit, there was no going back.

Julianne Moore's uncanny portrayal of Palin goes beyond her impersonation of the ambitious public woman who we all came to know from her campaigning on camera. Much more impressive are the private moments in which Moore rather empathetically delineates Palin's transformation from an eager-to-please team player to an exploited puppet to a resentful rebel to an angry, empowered narcissist.

To paraphrase a popular movie line, "Nobody puts Sarah in a corner."

Once she's been showcased, pampered and spoiled by the process, there was no way that Sarah Palin would go away, no matter how ill-equipped she was intellectually or emotionally to handle the challenge.

To invoke another movie, her journey was like "The Wizard of Oz," but without the "There's no place like home" coda. She traveled to Oz, and despite the uncertainty and discomfort of the trip, she liked it there.

All of this is conveyed in Julianne Moore's remarkable performance - a portrayal that's at once funny, affectionate, defiant, enervating and poignant. She so fully inhabits this character and explains her in such a precise way that we see Sarah Palin differently for the first time.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Jen & Jen

"Everybody's named Barbara," George Segal comments in Robert Altman's "California Split" (1974), in which Altman playfully named serveral female characters Barbara - you know, just like in real life.

Well to paraphrase, everybody's named ... Jennifer. At least in movies. There's Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Grey, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jennifer Beals, Jennifer Coolidge, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Finnegan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jennifer Tilly and the greatest Jennifer of all - Aniston.

And then there's Jennifer Westfeldt.

Thanks to vagaries of movie release schedules, both Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Westfeldt have two new movies in release. Both are comedies. Both are very good comedies. And both are quite observant.

In David Wain's genuinely hilarious "Wanderlust," Aniston is paired breezily with Paul Rudd as a New York career couple who, victimized by the economic downturn and strapped for cash, hit the road, ending up in a commune that seems to have wandered in from a '60s film.

At last, a hands-down funny comedy, and one without the huffing, puffing shock value of "The Hangover" and "Bridesmaids." Not that "Wanderlust" is prim, but much of what's wonderful about it are its alert one-liners, nifty visual gags, the chemistry of its cast, the sublime comic timing of Aniston and the irreplaceable Rudd's Lemmon-esque turn.

Aniston has very good taste in leading men - Rudd (here and in "The Object of My Affection" and on TV's "Friends"), Jason Bateman ("The Switch"), Steve Zahn ("Management"), Vince Vaughn ("The Break Up"), Aaron Eckhart ("Love Happens"), Ron Livingston ("Office Space"), Owen Wilson ("Marley and Me"), Clive Owen ("Derailed"), Mark Wahlberg ("Rock Star"), Jake Gyllenhaal ("The Good Girl"), Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Costner ("Rumor Has It") and Ben Affleck ("He's Just Not That Into You").

Westfeldt's "Friends with Children," meanwhile - which the hyphenate performer wrote, directed and stars in - in a most companionable romcom about two BFFs (Adam Scott and Westfeldt) who decide to have a baby but without the complications messing up the lives of their couple-ly friends (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, and Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd).

Each one plans to live separately from the other - she in a relationship with Ed Burns, he with Megan Fox. But life, as they say, gets in the way.

Westfeldt and Scott end up with a bigger mess than their friends in this relationship comedy that's more solid and more vulnerable than most.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

cinema obscura: Amy Heckerling's "Loser" (2000)

Homage alert!

Amy Heckerling's 2000 romantic comedy, "Loser," came and went without making much of an impression.

But this shaggy little film is not without its fascination. Although no one would admit it at the time of its release, "Loser" is a rather transparent tracing-over of Billy Wiilder's "The Apartment." The similarities are striking and to writer-director Heckerling's credit, she pulls off the conceit in an amazingly clever way.

The skeletal plots are identical: Nerdy guy has a crush on a woman who likes him but who, in turn, has a crush on an authority figure who's taking advantage of her. In "The Apartment," these characters are played, respectively, by Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

In "Loser," their counterparts are Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari and Greg Kinnear. Wilder's film takes place within the confines of an insurance company; Heckerling's on a college campus.

Beyond its basic plotline, there are several scenes in "Loser" that echo Wilder's film:

(1) In "The Apartment," Shirley MacLaine stands up Jack Lemmon at a performance of "The Music Man." In "Loser," Jason Biggs is stood up by Suvari at a rock concert.

(2) In "The Apartment," a good doctor pumps a suicidal MacLaine's stomach and gives a warning to Lemmon, who pretends to be her boyfriend. In "Loser," a good doctor pumps a suicidal Suvari's stomach and gives a warning to Biggs who pretends to be Suvari's boyfriend.

(3) In "The Apartment," Lemmon's unsavory superiors party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards. In "Loser," Bigg's unsavory roommates party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards.

(4) In "The Apartment," MacLaine stays at Lemmon's place to recuperate and he offers to cook for her. In "Loser," Suvari stays at Biggs' place and he offers to cook for her.

(5) At the conclusion of "The Apartment," Fred MacMurray complains to MacLaine how Lemmon "threw that big, fat promotion in my face." At the conclusion of "Loser," Greg Kinnear complains how Biggs' threw a big "A grade" back in his face.

(6) Both films end with the heroine finally wising up and rushing back to the hero's apartment/animal hospital quarters for a happy ending.

At the time of the film's release, Heckerling, who happened to adapt Jane Austen's "Emma," with tremendous success, into 1995's "Clueless," was quoted as saying that the similarities were coincidental.


And perhaps Wilder, who was still alive at the time, gave his blessing. After all, he was something of a mentor to Heckerling, having signed her application for membership in the Directors Guild of America.

Bottom line: There's absolutely nothing wrong with paying homage. It happens all the time in movies. Anyway, "Loser," whose title unfortunately proved to be prophetic at the box office, clearly deserves a second look - and perhaps in tandem with - back-to-back with - "The Apartment."