Tuesday, October 30, 2007


He is serious — and don't call him Shirley

By Alex Ricciuti
Airplane! is one of the best films ever? Surely, you must be joking? No, I'm not. And don't call me Shirley.

That joke is just so absurd, so innocent and universal that it goes on being funny even after so many years. Airplane! was released in 1980, when I was 11, and I only got to see it for the first time a couple of years later on TV. It quickly became a classic of teenage indulgence, watching it with my friends and recalling the jokes for years on afterward. And then many years after that, after I had moved to Switzerland and watched a dubbed version of it late at night, I realized how staidly funny the damn thing was. That joke worked even in German. They simply substituted Ernst (Earnest) for Shirley to fit the colloquialism of the language.

Comedies do not usually have a long shelf life. There are exceptions such as the Marx Brothers, Toto, Louis De Funes and films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but most comedies aren't able to escape the eras from whence they came. I remember discovering Fawlty Towers back in the 1980s as a teenager and thinking it was so brilliant. Seeing them again recently, they couldn't even produce a chuckle in me. Think about all those hit comedies you have seen through the years, which ones have really stayed with you? Or look back at the big comedy films of past decades and how many can you still laugh at today?

Film comedy is a very difficult thing to pull off. Actors need to be razor sharp and the medium is often stifling to comedians used to working in front of an audience and being masters of spontaneity and timing. It's hard to generate that energy on take 23 in front of the guy holding a boom mike, but many comedic actors have earned to work with the medium and have become pretty successful at it. Successful except for the making funny movies part. I'm thinking of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and all those other lesser, nameless comedians with their dumb/immature guy routines. How many of the recent spate of high concept comedies being churned out by Hollywood will stick around? You know the ones that are so transparently based on a single gag or contrivance or fish-out-of-water theme that barely get written past that initial idea. It's as if they film the gags for the trailer and forget to work out the rest of the movie.

Think of all those good bad-movies that create a campy following, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Blob or anything that is so bad it's funny. I remember my sister and I laughing our heads off at another Krystle/Alexis catfight by the pool on Dynasty. Years later, I heard a bit on NPR where one of the Dynasty writers admitted the whole setup was one, huge campy joke. That the writers would sit around and think up the nuttiest ways to torture the ever suffering Krystle.

Now imagine if you wanted to auto-generate that kind of campy comedy? OK, imagine you are somewhere in the mid-'70s and you've just seen Lorne Greene ridiculously playing Ava Gardner's father in Earthquake when he was just seven years older than her, with grievously delivered lines from Charlton Heston like," I need a drink," and you wanted to re-create that kind of so-bad-it's-funny camp? How would you do it?

What Airplane! did was just that.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (Jerry and David) decided on doing away with comedians and comedic actors altogether (to which you must repeat: "Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers decided on doing away with comedians and comedic actors."). By doing so, they just happened to make one of the funniest films ever. They went out and hired a slew of second and third rate melodramatic actors and simply asked them to deliver their lines straight up. Everyone became the deadpan straight-man. It was brilliant. Airplane! was so original, it created its own brand of humor, and led the Abrahams/Zuckers team to make the equally funny Police Squad TV series and Naked Gun films (as well as the mostly forgotten Top Secret!). Others followed in the same ilk such as Hot Shots (on which only Abrahams worked) being of particular mention. It's a technique that may have also inspired a great cineaste such as David Lynch, who employs the wooden, expository dialogue of '50s sci-fi flicks and '70s disaster films to great simultaneous humor and creepiness in his work. The Zuckers/Abrahams method was brilliant. Even Gore Vidal, a snobbish aesthete if there ever were one, thinks the Naked Gun films are a hoot.

Comedies don't easily make best picture winners, either at European film festivals or at the Oscars and that is fine. It takes time to know a good film and it probably takes even longer for a good comedy to make itself known.

So why isn't a film that started a whole new genre, invented an entirely new style of humor, one that is funny to anyone with a pulse, universally funny, with jokes that appeal to all people at all times, why doesn't this film qualify as one of the best, most original films ever? It should fit the criteria of what constitutes a great film no matter how strictly you draw the lines. Shirley, that you cannot deny.


Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer based in Zurich, Switzerland.

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Monday, October 29, 2007


A rut of not-so-many colors

By Edward Copeland
At the very beginning of The Darjeeling Limited (not counting the Hotel Chevalier prologue), we see Bill Murray in a cab speeding through Indian streets, rushing to meet a train that he just misses catching. Once Wes Anderson's latest cinematic ride is over, I wished I'd stayed with Murray at the train station where it's possible I could have found a better and more interesting movie.

Watching The Darjeeling Limited after Wes Anderson's last disappointment, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, I can't help but wonder if what's gone off course in Anderson's films is not having Owen Wilson as his writing collaborator.

I loved Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and I liked Bottle Rocket, but Anderson's work with other writers (Roman Coppola and co-star Jason Schwartzman here, Noah Baumbach in Life Aquatic) seems to lack the essential fun and magic the Anderson-Wilson screenplays were able to conjure.

What's left in both cases seem to be sets, shots and even color schemes out of a Wes Anderson movie, but with nothing of interest to bring the productions alive. The Darjeeling Limited seems even more aimless than Life Aquatic did, with Anderson calling on most of the same stable of actors (Wilson, Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston) to sound pretty much the same notes they have in his other films.

The one thing that sets Darjeeling Limited slightly apart is the addition of Adrien Brody, who manages to shake up the usual formula a bit by bringing his own strange chemistry to the mix and most of the best moments of the movie are thanks to him.

I got to see the latest prints of the movie which include the short film Hotel Chevalier in front of it, a short that has received more praise than The Darjeeling Limited itself. Even that wasn't that interesting to me, though I think it earned kudos just because it ends more quickly than the main feature.

It's easy to see why they added it though, to explain what otherwise would look like a wordless cameo by Natalie Portman late in the film. On the other hand, it also undercuts some of the movie's closing lines about Owen Wilson's character not knowing the whole story when the audience does.

With Wilson's personal problems of late, I wish him only the best, but I do wish he'd step back behind the keyboard, with or without Anderson. Anderson is a very idiosyncratic filmmaker, but that runs risks after awhile.

Think of all the duds another filmmaker, Woody Allen, had in the '90s when his best offering, Bullets Over Broadway, happened to have a collaborator on the screenplay.

Anderson hasn't been flying solo on his scripts, but he hasn't found anyone who meshes with him as well as Wilson did. With The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson has come up with his second film in a row that plays as the dullest form of deja vu you can imagine, right down to the similar slow-motion shots of actors walking to background music.

The Darjeeling Limited is an even bigger disappointment than Life Aquatic was, but I still hold out hope that Anderson can right his ship.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007


She lives the life

NOTE: Ranked No. 68 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
When we first see Cabiria, she's running through a patch of rough weeds, clothed in a striped dress that makes her resemble an escaping prisoner. On one level, she is: Her life as a prostitute in post-war Italy has made her a prisoner, but while Giulietta Masina's remarkable performance might break your heart at times, more often than not, she'll leave you smiling, even if it's a sad smile. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Nights of Cabiria, one of Federico Fellini's very best films, opening in the U.S.

Even though Nights of Cabiria barely missed my Top 100 list when I made it earlier this year, after re-watching it, I do think this film has surpassed 8 1/2 as my favorite Fellini. Cabiria also is the only Fellini film I've been fortunate enough to see projected in a theater, seeing it for the first time on the occasion of its 40th anniversary at the Lincoln Plaza theater in Manhattan. Upon first viewing, Masina was the revelation and while she remains the key to the film, on later viewings I've found the film itself richer than I thought. It's constructed almost as a perfect circle, a ring of hell if you will, from which Cabiria would like to escape. Masina's Cabiria is a spitfire: just as prone to breaking out in dance as to be ready to fight, proud that she owns her own home when many of her fellow denizens of the streets actually live on them.

"Everyone has a secret agony," a character tells her at one point and as much as Cabiria might try to avoid it, she hopes to abandon her life. First, she sees fun in a brief sojourn with a celebrated movie star (Amedeo Narrazi) that in a way predicts the storyline of Pretty Woman some 30 years down the road, though without the manufactured happy ending. Nights of Cabiria is grounded in reality: Where the poor are forced to live in caves and anyone can be a victim. Another time, a man courting Cabiria tells her that, "Some things cannot be touched by human vulgarity," referring to her. As hardened as Cabiria is, she's a sucker for it and the eventual realization that once again she's been gypped leads to an ending that manages to be touching, magical and inspiring, all at the same time, ending with one of film's greatest close-ups, which I thought about using for the recent Close-Up Blog-a-Thon at The House Next Door, but I had to save this shot for here.

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Friday, October 26, 2007


From the Vault: Do the Right Thing, a second look

NOTE: Ranked No. 77 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

Few films cause widespread debate. The Last Temptation of Christ did last year. This year, it's Do the Right Thing's turn. The films that garner this much analytical press are very few. Most movies don't merit discussions on Crossfire or Nightline, but Spike Lee's film achieves this. Do the Right Thing deserves this debate, not because of an inherent danger to society that some people see, but because its subject matter demands the discussion and a second review.

I've seen the film twice now and without a doubt it's the best yet released in 1989. A lot has been written about the film's depiction of race relations in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. That's important and gives the film its punch, but I want to discuss the sheer artistry.

The ensemble cast Lee has assembled is excellent as is the way they are introduced. Much like Robert Altman's brilliant Nashville, the large number of characters just appear on the screen, without benefit of introduction. Lee assigns the task of deciphering their purpose and relationships to the viewer. Lee carefully composes each shot, making what goes on in the background as important as the foreground.

The construction is exemplified time and time again, such as when Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) challenges Sal (Danny Aiello) for the first time about the lack of black faces on the pizzeria's wall. The argument takes the foreground as Smiley, the stuttering man who peddles photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, stands outside the store's window holding up the pictures. In fact, Lee sets up practically every scene in such a way. Characters discuss a certain issue or aspect of inner-city life while other characters lurk in the background going about their lives.

These touches prove plentiful, like when a streetlamp lights up behind Da Mayor's head as Mother Sister compliments him for the first time. One plot point that puzzles is what motivates Mookie to act the way he does toward the movie's end. Upon a second viewing, the hints dropped here and there at what's behind Mookie's action become more clear. No one, or two, newspaper articles can do justice to every question and aspect of Do the Right Thing, so let's just highlight the main points: it's mesmerizing, great and important. That should be the focus of any discussions of the film.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007


From the Vault: Do the Right Thing

NOTE: Ranked No. 77 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

One of the most important, and best, films of 1989 has arrived. It is Do the Right Thing, the controversial film by Spike Lee and the third film he's written, produced, directed and starred in following 1986's She's Gotta Have It and last year's School Daze.

The film tells the story of one day, one very hot summer day, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. Beautifully photographed by Ernest Dickerson, the film takes its time as it introduces us to the neighborhood's characters. There is Sal (Danny Aiello), the Italian man who operates his pizzeria with his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson). There is Mookie (Lee), their delivery man who has a son by his girlfriend (Rosie Perez). There is Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a drunk simultaneously afforded respect and ridicule by the neighborhood. There is Smiley (Roger Smith), a man with a speech impediment roaming the streets selling photos of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Finally, there is Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a man outraged that there are only pictures of Italian Americans on the pizzeria's wall. Buggin' Out demands that some "brothers" be added to the wall and this request, looked on as serious by some, trivial by others, sparks the most serious and powerful essay on race relations in recent memory.

Do the Right Thing is that rarest of movies today — the conversation starter. Everyone might talk about Batman, but they don't debate its message. Lee's film isn't like that. It can't be ignored and it must discussed. I still have a lot of questions about the film. Why did Lee choose to portray Smiley with a stutter? Why is a seemingly sympathetic character driven to commit what appears to be an unnecessary act of violence? Lee doesn't try to fill in the blanks, exemplified by two contradictory quotes by King and Malcolm X that close the film.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with no character portrayed as all good or all bad. In fact, the only character who borders on villainy doesn't even take part in the final violence except in self-defense. Davis gives a wonderful performance as the seldom-sober sage, the only continuous voice of reason in the film. Ruby Dee, Davis' real-life wife, shines as Mother Sister, who watches everything from her window.

Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison and Robin Harris provide ample comic relief as a trio who sit on a street corner commenting on all the failures and faults of the people around them while their own lives drift on aimlessly. Do the Right Thing shows the work of an artist completely in control of his film environment, an artist confident enough to tackle an important issue and intelligent enough not to try to provide an easy answer.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Superman develops double vision

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is in conjunction with the Double Feature Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at The Broken Projector.

By David Gaffen
One of the more notable results of the rise of DVD technology was the proliferation of “alternate” versions of film releases — that long-buried cut of one classic or another that supposedly was a better, more fully realized take on the film the average moviegoer saw in first release. This existed prior to the advent of DVDs — Francis Ford Coppola notably tinkered with The Godfather for years and years, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in two forms as well — but the memory available on DVDs made this practice all the more popular. Several versions of Blade Runner have appeared since, and Peter Jackson intentionally released longer cuts of the Lord of the Rings films that did not detract from, nor diminish, the original moviegoing experience, but instead deepened the viewer’s appreciation of the work.

One legendary production that was said to exist in a different (and presumably better) form was Superman II, parts of which were filmed simultaneously with the Richard Donner-helmed Superman of 1978. Donner was fired before the second film was completed due to disputes with the producers and Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night, was brought in to complete the work. Most recently, Donner’s version — cobbling together never-seen before footage, along with a lot of what appeared in Superman II's theatrical release, appeared on DVD as the “true” version of what the film should have looked like.

It should have remained buried.
While it’s unfair on some levels to handicap Donner’s take — some of what appears were first takes that feature inconsistent hair styling (Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent jumps from a messy 'do to the usual slicked-over-haircut in one scene) — what Lester did with the film actually improves upon Donner’s blueprint, and a blueprint is what it mostly is.

That isn’t to say Lester’s version is perfect. It’s too jokey in parts, notably during the long sequence where the villains use their super-breath to blow most of New York into a ditch (Donner’s original take mostly excises the doofus roller-skater), and the Donner version ties in better with the conclusion of the first film (where General Zod and Co. seemed like an unnecessary detour).

However, the playfulness of Lester helps the film in its greatest deviance from what Donner had intended. Originally, Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, confronts Clark Kent about his identity in the office at the film’s outset — by falling from a Daily Planet window, only to have Clark respond by zipping down the elevator shaft (as Superman, naturally), and using his breath to buoy a falling Lois into hitting an awning, depositing her on top of a fruit stand. This take strains credulity — too many people on a crowded New York street should have (and did) see Lois seemingly fall from a great height onto to slow down when nearing the street.

That scene, along with the reveal of Superman’s identity by Lois, are the greatest flaws in the “new” version; Lois fools Clark into revealing he’s Superman by firing a bullet at him, which he doesn’t react to. Of course, the gun contains blanks, but surely, Superman would have noted this without being felled by so silly a ruse.

By contrast, the parallel scenes in the 1980 release (though it didn't open in the U.S. until 1981) are two of the strongest in the series — both because they deepen the relationship between Lois and Clark and better showcase Reeve’s gift for physical comedy. The Niagara Falls sequence, where Lois intentionally hurls herself into the raging river, followed by Clark’s sly manner in rescuing her (using heat vision to break a tree branch for her, for instance), is handled in a more deft fashion. In addition, the subsequent reveal because of Clark’s clumsy pratfall into the fire (which may or may not have been intentional, subconsciously), is handled with grace and dignity, because it intertwines their feelings with his concern about protecting his true identity.

Marlon Brando reappears as Jor-El in the Donner version as well (a lawsuit filed by Brando caused producers to dump him from the second film), but his presence wasn’t missed in the original version. By then Brando’s acting had become mostly hammy gestures, and in fact, his absence adds to the poignancy of Clark’s helplessness when he returns — on foot — to the Fortress of Solitude to try to regain his identity.

The Donner version also restores the original manner in which the villains were released from the Phantom Zone — through the explosion in space of one of the nuclear bombs triggered by Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor at the end of the first film. That was changed to include the Paris sequence, which doesn’t work nearly as well — particularly because whatever bomb they had put together just doesn’t match the potential destruction of a nuclear warhead.

A stated earlier, Lester’s penchant for jokiness — mostly shown in the New York destruction and some of the Southern hijinks involving the sheriff played by Clifton James, and his bumbling deputy — seems to come across as a bit much, although that indulgence did not overwhelm the film because of the existence of Donner’s earlier work. This was not so with the third film, also directed by Lester, which begins with an extended, pointless slapstick sequence, along with the mere presence of Richard Pryor, shoehorned into the film based on his box-office popularity at the time. Superman III should have killed the series; it unfortunately did not (and we’re not going to address the putrid fourth film).

That isn’t to say Donner’s version isn’t interesting — it is — but it often feels truncated, even allowing for the fact that it was never truly finished, and some of the footage involved was clearly not ready for release. Still, in the end, the producers made the right decision, as the finished product was far superior.

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Monday, October 22, 2007


An Elixir for the Fixer

By Odienator
Michael Clayton begins with a long, rambling soliloquy and ends with the longest close-up in recent memory. The soliloquy is awful, but the close-up is fascinating.

The guy doing the Norma Desmond is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), the most financially successful member of the Clayton clan. The guy pulling the Hamlet is Michael's co-worker Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a manic depressive who has gone off his medicine and gone native. During a deposition, Arthur gets butt naked and professes unconditional love to the plaintiff in his lawsuit. Unfortunately, he's on the defendant's side. Clayton, the law firm's "fixer" is assigned to bring Arthur back to reality, a thankless job he's done more than once. Arthur's latest outburst threatens to derail the lawsuit that has generated six years of revenue for the firm.

The character of Michael Clayton is like one of those movie psychics who can tell everyone's future but his own. In 17 years, Michael has had much success in fixing his firm's problems, but his own life could use two or three fixers. He's a divorced father whose son sees through him, the proprietor of a bar that's tanking and a compulsive gambler with an excuse for falling off the wagon: Michael hopes to win enough money to pay the debt incurred by his drug addicted, irresponsible brother Timmy (David Lansbury, the "fuck buddy" of Sex and the City). He's also in need of a new car, as the one he had been driving blows up 20 minutes into the movie.

After the explosion, Michael Clayton employs that ol' reliable screenplay trick, the extended flashback. Most of the film resides here and, like the aforementioned close-up versus monologue, it is visually interesting if not always narratively sound. Before the Clooneymobile "blowed up real good," Michael visits a client who ran over a jogger and left the scene of the crime. The client is angry when he is told by Michael that he's not the miracle worker his firm made him out to be. "I'm just a janitor," he states. "I tell you what you don't want to hear." This plotline is put on hold for the flashback, and then is conveniently forgotten about once we return to chronological order; it serves as the rare deus ex machina that's actually interesting to follow.

Michael Clayton has bigger fish to fry, however. The world is a corrupt place, from the wealthy guy who makes excuses for mowing down joggers to the chemical company who knew its product was deadly yet released it anyway. As part of his Arthur-fixing assignment, Michael meets with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the company rep Arthur represented before he auditioned for The Full Monty. She chews him out as expected, but he doesn’t realize just how sinister Crowder is. She has hired a shady organization to keep tabs on Arthur, bugging his phone and putting him under surveillance. Once Michael realizes Arthur is onto something, he gets ensnared in the stakeout as well.

Sydney Pollack shows up as Clayton’s boss, presenting a visual tie to the type of '70s filmmaking to which Michael Clayton aspires. Pollack’s been-there, done-that, of-course-our-client-is-corrupt attitude comes closest to the feel of some of the eponymous movies of that decade. Pollack brings an authoritative edge to his scenes; he’s completely believable as the head of the Firm (didn’t he direct that?). Pollack has bailed Michael out before, sort of a quid-pro-quo arrangement, and his tired expression when talking to Michael indicates that he’ll do it again before the film’s over.

I’d ramble on more about the machinations of the plot, but writer Gilroy is better at the dynamics of Michael Clayton’s personal relationships than how much trouble he’s in with the big bad chemical company. Clooney interacts with his cop brother Henry (Sean Cullen), his young son (Austin Williams), his co-workers, his brother’s bookie’s collector and Arthur. These scenes are interesting to watch unfold and some of the dialogue is better than it sounded when the film started. When focusing on Clayton’s interpersonal entanglements, director Tony Gilroy’s script rings true. Michael is tired, and he has blaxploitation disease — he needs just one big score to get out of the life. Whether he gets that score I won’t reveal, save to say that while the film’s climax is satisfying, it’s also rushed. All the loose ends and seemingly meandering moments pay off, but it’s cleaner than it should be.

The thriller aspects of Gilroy’s screenplay are the most problematic aspect of Michael Clayton. Yet some of his visuals and the performances he gets from his cast gloss over much of the clunkier developments. A major character is murdered in such a nonchalant way that it’s genuinely creepy. Several scenes are allowed to meander and play out, sometimes without dialogue, and that adds some suspense to the proceedings. As the film jumps from flashback to present, the film edits in different points of view and it’s fun putting the pieces together.

Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast in her standard role as enigma. She seems to play scenes so that they may be interpreted multiple ways. Early in the film, we see her shaking and sweating in the ladies’ room, and we also see her initial interaction with the surveillance/hit man organization. Is she really this naïve and nervous? Or is this an act? Why is she freaking out in the bathroom? Is it because she’s about to give the speech of her career or because she’s put a hit out on somebody? The believability of her last scene with Clooney hinges on how these prior scenes are interpreted, and Swinton is her usual blank slate, waiting for you to interpret what she’s doing. Though she has little screen time, she’s the most intriguing character in the film.

Clooney is believable as a tired lawyer whose house of cards is coming down around him (and he’s holding a losing hand in the poker room of that house). Every hair is in place and his suits are straight from the David E. Kelley section of Lawyer JC Penney’s. At the end of the film, he looks as neat and tidy as the film’s resolution, when he should be all Syriana-ed up. As he stares into the camera for at least three minutes, his face runs the gamut of different emotions as he thinks. Gilroy’s camera stays on Clooney so long that it becomes uncomfortable, but as I stared at him, I realized that this was the one time in the movie Michael Clayton could breathe easily. It cost him his soul, but the fixer was finally fixed.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


Carol Bruce (1919-2007)

She wasn't the first Mama Carlson on WKRP in Cincinnati (that was Sylvia Sidney), but Carol Bruce certainly was the one you remember. I hadn't seen that the actress had passed away at 87 until I got my latest copy of Entertainment Weekly. Her list of credits on IMDb is surprisingly slim, containing lots of guest appearances on episodic television, and a few film appearances dating back to 1941. Still, if Mama Carlson were the only role she ever played, that would have been enough. She wasn't a regular on the WKRP, but she was a presence who contributed to many of the series' finest episodes. A personal favorite is the one where she hires a consultant to evaluate the radio station and the employees thwart her by acting the exact opposite of what she expects, where the report comes back saying that Les and Herb are the only ones on the ball.

RIP Ms. Bruce.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


Joey Bishop (1918-2007)

The Rat Pack can reunite at last, assuming they all are in the same place in the afterlife, with the passing of the last member, Joey Bishop. I learned of his passing soon after I learned of Deborah Kerr's, but I didn't have time to write something then. Besides, Ms. Kerr deserved a little time in the spotlight for herself. (Another notable passing announced yesterday: singer Teresa Brewer, who had a string of hits in the 1950s, most notably "Music Music Music.") While I was too young to experience his talk show days (with then-young sidekick Regis Philbin), my first exposure to Bishop didn't come in one of his collaborations with Frank, Dino, Sammy and the gang, but in his actual film debut, 1958's WWII flick The Deep Six starring Alan Ladd and William Bendix. I remember watching it on TV which my dad when I was really young. Bishop provided some comic relief as one of the sailors on the ship who, by film's end, pretends to be dead, just to avoid an overzealous romantic interest he hooked up with on shore leave. Of course, it's the Rat Pack for which he'll always be remembered, for his work in films such as the original Ocean's Eleven and Sergeants 3. He also worked in many other various films, including the film adaptation of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and in more recent outings such as Betsy's Wedding and Mad Dog Time.

RIP Mr. Bishop.

To read The New York Times obit, click here.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007


Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)

That iconic image above in From Here to Eternity is one of many associated with the great Deborah Kerr, who passed away Tuesday in England at the age of 86. With six Oscar nominations and zero wins, she unfortunately holds the record for the most nominations without a win among lead actresses, though at least the Academy saw fit to give her an honorary Oscar in 1994.

Though, as seems to be the case with many of our greatest performers, her six nominations didn't necessarily represent her very best work. Her first nomination came in 1949's Edward, My Son, where she was fine, though really it was a supporting turn. Following that was a nomination for 1953's Eternity, 1956's The King and I, 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, 1958's Separate Tables (another supporting role, and a miscast one at that) and 1960's The Sundowners. For me though, her finest work came in films for which she wasn't nominated, such as her triple role in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. She scored with them again in 1947's Black Narcissus. Then there were other, less well-known films such as in 1945's Vacation From Marriage and, most especially, her charming turn as an Irish lass who hates the English so much she unwittingly becomes a Nazi spy in I See a Dark Stranger. Often, she was the best thing in otherwise lackluster films such as Otto Preminger's Bonjour tristesse and John Huston's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana. This doesn't even take into account the number of huge movies in which she appeared such as King Solomon's Mines, Quo Vadis?, Julius Caesar and An Affair to Remember.

RIP Ms. Kerr.

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The Close-Up as Revelation: The Moral Imperative

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door.

By Odienator
Why is this man smiling?

Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), the wisecracking hero of Martha Coolidge's Real Genius has just suffered the biggest disaster of his academic career. The laser he and his best buddy Mitch have staked their grades on has just disintegrated, courtesy of their archenemy Kent's shenanigans. The cocky protagonist is devastated by the loss, for he knows his future is gone with the wind.

In fact, mere seconds before this moment was captured, Chris looked like this —

— and had a more natural reaction to watching his college degree burn up with that laser: He kicked and punched the walls in the common area of the dormitory, knocking open the freezer door and freeing the means to his salvation. As he stares down at the cylinder of frozen nitrogen rolling across the floor, his dour expression transforms from misery to exaltation. Coolidge keeps her camera on Chris' face as it registers the epiphany that will allow him to graduate AND ensure that his former laser did not die in vain. It plays out in real time, and Kilmer's eyes reflect his hallelujah moment. You can see his lost confidence returning — this is how Chris Knight Got His Groove Back. He starts to giggle, then launches into a dance of pure joy. He runs into Lazlo, the guy who lives in his dorm room closet (don't ask) and says "I'm going to graduate!" He's also going after Kent, because as he explains to Mitch, "It's a moral imperative to get revenge on Kent."

For more on Real Genius, go here.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Hidden in the shadows

This post is part of the Montgomery Clift blog-a-thon being coordinated by Nathaniel R at Film Experience.

By Edward Copeland
For a long time, I was sort of stumped about something to write about for the Monty Clift blog-a-thon. While I admired the actor in many films, nothing evoked much passion in me. Then, when I happened to catch up with the documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, it awakened my interest in that director again so A Place in the Sun seemed a likely place to revisit. Alas, my reaction was one of disappointment in terms of the film and Clift's performance.

Based on Theodore Dreiser's early 20th-century novel An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun has a lot going for it, but it never seems to really get going, especially once Raymond Burr shows up as one of the hammiest district attorneys in the history of film. For those unfamiliar with the basic outlines of the story, Clift plays George Eastman, the nephew of a rich California magnate who comes his uncle's way in search of a job following his rearing by an extremely religious branch of the Eastman family. George is quiet and unassuming and once he gets a job with his uncle, he starts to date Alice, a co-worker (Shelley Winters), against the rules of the company. More importantly though, he begins to fall for high society deb Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and much of the conflict stems from the class struggles and upper-class snobbery heaped upon George.

Of course, things get complicated when Alice finds herself with child and threatens George's preferred future with Angela. While A Place in the Sun does offer some crisp dialogue and an interesting premise, (I particularly like that the good girl/bad girl dichotomy is upended a bit, since Alice is the good girl and ends up pregnant but Angela is most decidedly the bad girl, taking chances at every turn.) the problem stems from the character of George and Clift's portrayal. Whether it was the actor's inclination, the director's instructions or the way it is supposed to be, George is a cipher. I have to believe this is intentional since so many of his scenes show him covered in shadows or with his back to the camera.

The opening shot of the film where he's hitchhiking along the highway sets this up to the point that in his dark clothing, he'd be nothing but a black blur at one point if it weren't for the credits running over his image. This could have been truly touching and sad, but once events lead to the introduction of Burr's D.A., it almost seems comical. It isn't helped that I kept thinking about two bits of comedy that stemmed from the movie and the original book. I remember in Horse Feathers, nearly 20 years older than A Place in the Sun, when Groucho takes the college widow out on the lake and mentions he's been afraid to get into a boat ever since he read Dreiser's novel. The other joke I remember comes from one of the multitude of AFI specials where A Place in the Sun popped up on the list and had commentary from noted film historians Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. I can't remember who said which, but one asked the other, "Would you kill your wife for Elizabeth Taylor?" to which the other comic responded, "I'd kill my wife for Shelley Winters."

Montgomery Clift was a fine actor who gave many memorable performances, but A Place in the Sun really didn't serve him well.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007


A Parisian in America

By Josh R
For the past several years at The Primetime Emmy Awards, it has been an annual custom for the winners in the guest acting categories — which are announced during a prior ceremony primarily devoted to the technical arts — to present the writing and directing awards. In discussing the highs and lows of last month’s ceremony, some smartass AOL television blogger was given to wonder why The Academy would allow Leslie Caron, a winner for her guest turn on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to present an award during the network telecast when, in his words, “nobody had the faintest idea of who she was or what she was doing there.” In the warped mind of this sad and twisted soul, who shall remain nameless mainly to save undue embarrassment (because it isn’t nice to pick on the mentally deranged), Ms. Caron’s presence on the telecast qualified as a “low” point of the evening. It wasn’t that the actress had difficulty reading off the prompter, went off book with some shambling impromptu remarks (paging Elaine Stritch), or wore some outlandishly garish frock so blinding as to cause television sets to go on the fritz. Blogger X, whom I only assume is one of those nutjobs who believes that all black and white movies categorically “suck” and that elderly people who can no longer contribute to society should be kept in detention centers fenced in by chicken wire, simply felt that presentation duties should be reserved for the likes of “real” stars, like Eva Longoria, Adrian Grenier or Hayden Patinierre.

Forgetting for a moment that people will still be watching films like An American in Paris long after most of today’s top-rated shows have become obscure footnotes in pop cultural history, with names of the actors who starred in them long forgotten, indulge me while I review the credentials of the lady in question — and, hopefully, give Blogger X a lesson in respect. These kids today — you gotta learn `em.

To be fair, it would be difficult to make a case for Leslie Caron as a major star — at least when juxtaposing her career accomplishments with those of her contemporaries. Her rise to prominence in the 1950s, and her years of greatest productivity, coincided with those of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. While a marquee attraction in the prime of her career, Caron never quite achieved — nor ever really earned — the same degree of importance or acclaim as the aforementioned women, either as a performer or as a figure of public fascination. Nevertheless, Blogger X dismisses her too lightly, for her resume is impressive by any standard. Consider these facts:

She is a two-time Academy Award nominee for best actress, and one of only two women to have played leading roles in multiple Best Picture winners. She is perhaps the only French-born actress whose stardom owes itself to work in English-language films, and really the only one who can be said to qualify as a mainstream American movie star; one could rightly argue that Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve have had more significant careers in the world of global cinema, but neither ever found success in Hollywood to the extent that Caron did (for a bit of perspective, Deneuve’s most prominent American film credits would be Hustle and The Hunger — a far cry from Gigi and An American in Paris). She is one of the few MGM contract players hired as a novelty performer for Arthur Freed’s musical unit to have successfully navigated the transition to dramatic roles, and one of only three “star” dancers, after Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen, whose field of specialty was ballet — she is more closely associated with the genre than either of the other two. She is among an elite group of women to have danced opposite both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and quite a few of her films have endured as major and minor classics beyond the period of their initial success. From the group of actresses mentioned in the previous paragraph, she is the only one who is still active as a performer — while the legendary status of Taylor and Loren may eclipse that of the little French ballerina, Caron is the one who’s still working.

The delicate-featured, purse-lipped gamine, often employed as the centerpiece of MGM’s frequent attempts at Gallic pastiche, was born in Boulogne-Bilaincort, France in 1931, the daughter of a chemist. Her mother had been a dancer; Caron was introduced to ballet at an early age. As a teenager, she was performing with a company in Paris when spotted by a vacationing Gene Kelly, who was in town doing preliminary research for An American in Paris. Cyd Charisse, the original choice for the female lead, had become unavailable due to pregnancy, and Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli were in the process of searching for a replacement — no small feat, considering Kelly’s concept required a classically trained ballerina who could meet the rigorous demands of the film’s ambitious choreography. Caron was quickly signed to a contract by MGM, transplanted from Paris to Culver City, given a crash course in English, and cast as Lisa, the Parisian love interest of Kelly’s struggling artist. If the novice made little impression beyond affecting a modest, self-effacing charm in her acting scenes, she more than compensated for it with her exquisite performance in the climatic 20-minute dance sequence. Her look was unusual — as Pauline Kael observed in her discussion of the film, it didn’t appear that MGM had quite yet gotten her makeup exactly right for the purposes of her debut. Her pleasantly quotidian appearance, distinguished by a broad, toothy grin, made her a bit of a challenge from a casting perspective; the 1950s was already shaping up as the decade of goddesses, glamour queens and sex symbols.

She bided her time in a few dull costume pictures — she cited the consummate professionalism of Barbara Stanwyck, with whom she appeared in 1951’s The Man with the Cloak, as being of particular inspiration to her — before signing on for her next musical project, Lili, directed by Charles Walters. The sentimental story of an orphaned waif who finds a home with a traveling carnival, it was property that MGM had no particular enthusiasm for. The studio brass underestimated the film’s canny fusion of sweetness and pathos; made on a low budget and with limited expectations, it went on to become one of MGM’s top grossing films of 1953, netting a surprise best actress nomination for its leading lady in the process. Although that accolade seems generous in retrospect, the film did allow Caron to demonstrate an ability to project an appealing vulnerability without resorting to preciousness. She lost the Oscar to Roman Holiday's Audrey Hepburn, with whom she was often compared and occasionally confused; although bearing little facial resemblance, they were a similar physical type — together they popularized the gamine look, making slim-hipped, flat-chested girls with boyish haircuts seem like the height of European sophistication.

Daddy Long Legs, which found her being romanced by Astaire, and The Glass Slipper, a musical retelling of the Cinderella story, were pleasant diversions; the latter’s ballet-heavy choreography provided her with best opportunity since An American in Paris to demonstrate her prodigious skill as a dancer. Gaby, an unhappy foray into straight drama, was a sodden remake of the 1940 Vivien Leigh weepie Waterloo Bridge concerning an out-of-work dancer who resorts to prostitution as a means of support; the actress was unhappy while making the film, and considered the finished product an embarrassment. While she had been an appealing presence in her musical roles, it was clear that she hadn’t yet experienced her breakthrough as an actress — her unaffected charm, while never less than ingratiating, didn’t communicate an abundance of personality; she didn’t always seem that sure of her bearings in front of the camera, and slightly embarrassed as a result. Her next project — and the film for which she was to become most identified — marked tremendous strides toward that end.

Gigi, Vincente Minnelli’s lavish musical adaptation of Collette’s mildly risqué novella concerning the antics of a sprightly Parisian schoolgirl being groomed for the life of a courtesan, has sometimes been unfavorably compared to My Fair Lady — certainly, they were cut from the same cloth. The composer-lyricist team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe adhered very closely to the template set by their previous success; as in their smash musical treatment of Shaw’s Pygmalion, Gigi chronicled the transformation of a rambunctious, unprepossessing girl into an elegant, sophisticated woman — much to the consternation of the male protagonist, who finds himself surprisingly, if somewhat unwillingly, drawn to the altered incarnation. Moreover, in terms of both the structural function and thematic content of the musical numbers, Gigi mirrored its predecessor to an uncanny degree: “The Night They Invented Champagne,” in which the hero, the heroine and her grandmother dance around their apartment in jubilant celebration, is essentially a refurbishment of “The Rain in Spain”; “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” expresses female frustration in the tradition of “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins”; “It’s a Bore,” which outlines the male protagonist’s blithely anti-social outlook, echoes “Let a Woman in Your Life”; the Oscar-winning title song, in which Louis Jourdan’s disaffected playboy (a man who puts limited stock in the notion of romance) begins by disparaging the heroine, only to come to the realization that he has fallen in love, builds in much the same way as “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” — in both cases, the internal conflict, which progresses from angry denial to stunned epiphany, is made musically and verbally explicit.

If an inevitable sense of déjà vu accompanied the proceedings, it didn’t prevent Gigi from qualifying as a resounding success on its own terms; in truth, it was a better film than An American in Paris, and Minnelli’s best since Meet Me in St. Louis. The melodic score, coupled with a witty script by Lerner which captured the essence of Collette’s prose while tempering its racier aspects, only accounted for part of the film’s considerable charm — with gorgeous location photography and French actors in the principal roles (including the redoubtable Maurice Chevalier as a septuagenarian bon vivant), the film felt like an authentic reflection of the culture it was attempting to recreate — something of a rarity for MGM, whose version of continental flavor usually wound up seeming more Euro-Disney than European. Moreover, Minnelli’s elegant visual composition brilliantly showcased the sumptuous production design; the director received an Academy Award for his efforts. All around, it was a sparkling entertainment, and the best film in which Caron appeared during her tenure at the studio.

For her part, the actress seemed notably more animated and engaged than she had been in her previous efforts. Too often, there had seemed to be a dark cloud hovering overhead when she took on ingénue roles — her lack of formal training as an actress may have left her feeling somewhat insecure, making the halting, abashed quality that had characterized her other star turns more pronounced than it would have been otherwise. It was nowhere in evidence with her work in Gigi, which revealed a lightness of touch worthy of a polished boulevard comedienne; working with Minnelli, perhaps her greatest champion, brought out her confidence, as well as a previously unsuspected streak of mischief. In the early scenes, she successfully conveyed the exuberance of youth and handled the comic aspects of the role with surprising dexterity; as the transformation took root, she became self-possessed, forthright, and for the first time, genuinely beautiful. As Lili, Gaby and Ella of the Cinders, she had had a tendency to seem pathetic and childlike when the material took a turn for the dramatic — finally, it was possible to see her as a mature actress of genuine spirit, capable of holding the screen without seeming apologetic or ill at ease.

Her last project at MGM was Fanny, another expensively mounted exercise in Gallic frivolity, only one in which the fun seemed forced. The film was successful, earning a best picture nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for its star, but couldn’t help seeming like a step backward — if Gigi had liberated her sense of humor, Fanny seemed determined to reign it back in. But The L-Shaped Room was a genuine triumph; as the ostracized émigré trying to rebuild her life in a seedy London boarding house, she offered an instinctive, insightful account of a stranger in a strange land, struggling to regain her sense of equilibrium. Clearly, the bleak predicament of a foreigner negotiating the uncertainties of survival in a hostile, unfamiliar environment struck a deeply personal chord; plucked out of the corps de ballet at a young age to embark on an acting career she had neither pursued nor conceived of, Caron had spent much of her early years in Hollywood feeling like a fish out of water.

The L-Shaped Room represented a risk for Caron, as it marked a dramatic departure from the kind of films on which she’d made her name. A product of the new vogue in British filmmaking which favored the kitchen-sink style of realism, Bryan Forbes’ perceptive character study considers the position of social outcasts, trying to carve out a place for themselves in a world that regards them with suspicion and disapproval. The character of Jane Fosset, in addition to being an immigrant, also has the stigma of being pregnant and unwed — the first friend she makes is an immigrant and a man of color, who feels betrayed when she shows a romantic interest in someone else, and betrays her in turn. The characters are isolated by their outsider status, and ultimately, from each other — their attempts to connect often result in misunderstanding, disappointment and hurt. When an elderly eccentric reveals herself to be a lesbian, you can see in her face the fear of reprisal that such an admission might bring. Staring at the photograph of the woman’s dead companion, whom she had assumed to be a man, Caron’s wordless response is one of sad recognition and empathy — she can relate to what it means to be on the margins, yearning for acceptance but feeling shut out in the cold. It’s an unusual film, and probably ahead of its time in many respects, even though from a modern standpoint its content seems relatively tame.

Her excellent, moving performance netted Caron a second, well-deserved best actress nomination; in contrast to her first nominated performance, audiences were seeing the insecurities of the character, as opposed to those of the actress. Her naturalistic style, which occasionally seemed out of place in the glossy Hollywood product which had been her stock in trade, meshed well with the new wave sensibility — it’s tempting to wonder what Truffaut, Malle and Godard might have made of her if she’d remained in her native France.

The fruits of success were somewhat less than she might have hoped for. In Father Goose, she played second fiddle to Cary Grant and a gaggle of schoolgirls — as if Gigi were getting her comeuppance. The lame-brained sex comedy Promise Her Anything cast her opposite Warren Beatty, with whom she embarked on an ill-fated affair; the young actor, who had already acquired the reputation of a lothario, was named as a correspondent in Caron’s divorce from British stage director Peter Hall. Later, the actress offered this infamous put-down: “Warren has an interesting pathology; he always goes after women who have either just won or been nominated for an Academy Award”…while not on the level of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” a withering assessment nonetheless.

She worked out the '60s in a succession of increasingly less interesting roles; in the seventies she devoted more of her energies to rearing her two children by Hall, breaking occasionally for the odd bit of film or television work (in some instances, quite odd indeed). If her work attracted less attention in the years to follow, she did — finally — get to work with Truffaut in The Man Who Loved Women, and with Malle in Damage. Chocolat was a high-profile film, even if she was criminally underutilized in what amounted to a cameo — she might have done wonders with the more prominent role of the village curmudgeon, which in Dame Judi Dench’s hands amounted to a fussy piece of caricature. Her fine, restrained work in Law & Order: SVU, in which she played a victim of sexual assault whose attacker is brought to justice 30 years after the fact, demonstrated that she is still willing and able to take on challenging acting assignments when the opportunity presents itself.
Contrary to what Blogger X and many others may have felt, this year’s Emmy telecast was a depressingly prurient affair — one in which the “high” points were often indistinguishable from the low. Poor taste has been the hallmark of many an awards show, and Emmy `07 didn’t stint in that regard: viewers were treated to Brad Garrett making crude remarks about Joely Fisher’s tits to the approbation of the crowd, the obligatory round of off-color jokes about Charlie Sheen, and an unusually high rate of bleeping (Fox’s censors might want to ease up on the trigger finger — a boob is a boob, but how much hand-wringing is merited by the term “screwing?”). Even Sally Field let a cuss word slip while voicing the tired old Lysistrata line, spoken verbatim at podiums around the world by women who want to make a political statement without saying anything remotely controversial, about how “if all the mothers of the world got together, there would be no goddamn wars” — a sentiment as quixotically naïve as it is stupidly sexist (at this point, I think women have demonstrated that they can be just as self-serving and obtuse when it comes to the politics of violence as men are — just ask Mr. Copeland for his views on Mrs. Clinton). It turns out, after all, that Blogger X has a point: Ms. Caron did seem out-of-place at this year’s Emmy Awards. Her presence provided the one glimpse of class in an evening otherwise distinguished by a lack of it. Perhaps her Emmy victory will bring more opportunities worthy of her talents — time can neither diminish the memory of her triumphs, nor, with luck, prevent her from achieving still more.

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Monday, October 15, 2007


How NOT to film a musical for TV

By Edward Copeland
I was curious to watch Legally Blonde: The Musical, since MTV was airing an unprecedented showing of a musical while it was still running on Broadway. The credits whizzed by so fast and I can't find the answer anywhere online, so I can't take to task the director who filmed Jerry Mitchell's musical for television by name. Besides, I'm still probably too nauseous from the attention deficit disorder-designed camera moves to make much sense any way. It's a shame because the show, while not great, looked as if it was fun with some catchy tunes. Too bad the hyperactive camera didn't slow down long enough to let me enjoy it.

When my contributor Josh R reviewed Legally Blonde back in April after seeing it on Broadway, he was surprised (as was I reading it), that the latest adaptation of a movie into a Broadway show had turned out as well as it did. I'm glad to say he wasn't overselling it.

This showing was my first chance to hear the score (fun if not memorable) and several of the performances (particularly Christian Borle in the Luke Wilson role from the movie and Michael Rupert taking over from Victor Garber) were quite good.

I particularly liked Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe's songs "Blood in the Water," "Chip on My Shoulder" and the guilty pleasure that is "Gay or European?" (though I don't think that is the song's actual title, but I can't quite figure out what it is.)

Laura Bell Bundy is quite good re-creating Reese Witherspoon's Elle Woods for the stage and Orfeh is a real scene-stealer in the Jennifer Coolidge role of her hairdresser confidant.

A few shortcuts have been made that don't make sense, but are understandable. Unfortunately, this telecast does a real disservice to the material, with the camera never stopping for long, zooming up and around and all over the stage, and even at one point showing the audience, for no apparent reason.

I don't know about you but when I attend the theater, unless there is a ruckus, the only time I look at the audience is before and after the show or during intermission.

If you watch Legally Blonde on MTV, it can give you a taste of the show, but be sure to take some Dramamine first.

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Friday, October 12, 2007


The Close-Up as Revelation: Dora the Explorer

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Close-Up Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door.

By Odienator
In Central Station, two characters embark on that cinematic shorthand for bonding, the road trip. The crotchety older woman and the streetwise kid learn about each other and it spurs their personal growth. It’s been done before, and it will be done again. Yet, cliché isn’t a bad thing if it’s done right, and Central Station benefits from two fine performances by its leads.

The film is darker than standard road trip fare. Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a mean, cynical and condescending individual. She writes letters for illiterate people, letters full of hope and dreams that she frequently mocks and infrequently mails. She revels in the misfortune of others, and has no time nor pity for the young boy orphaned in front of her letter writing stand by a speeding bus. Dora is no stranger to death, and it seems neither is Josue (Vinicius de Olivera), the young boy whose mother’s last official act was commissioning a letter to Josue’s dad. Coldly, she dismisses the boy when he demands the letter back, leaving him to sleep on the street.

Dora winds up taking the boy in, and we assume this is where the ice melts around her heart. Then she sells Josue to a suspicious adoption ring for money to buy a new TV. Even after her girlfriend (Pixote’s Marilia Pera) tells her that Josue will probably be butchered for his organs, Dora seems unmoved, and by this point, irredeemable. Then, Dora steals Josue back, an action fueled more by guilt and appearances than actual decency, and embarks with him on a trip to find his father. On this journey, Dora discovers Josue is sharper than she thinks, and Josue notices a humanity in Dora that she doesn’t realize has returned until the scene depicted in these close-ups.

Dora is so unlikable even director Walter Salles’ camera doesn’t want to get too close to her. This makes his spare use of close-ups of Montenegro more noticeable. His camera catches her putting on lipstick in a bathroom mirror, sneaking up on her as she pretties herself for the truck driver with whom she and Josue have been riding. He will repeat this shot as Dora applies makeup just before sneaking out of Josue’s uncle’s home, leaving Josue for good. Dora sees her reflection, but it isn’t until the final scene that she is convinced she has changed.

In a big Hollywood film, Dora and Josue would have a big “thanks-for-the-memories” tearful goodbye and music would swell. Salles gives us a tearful goodbye where the two characters never say it in person, because the most important aspect of their journey isn’t the bond they have shared, but how it affects their self-discovery.

Salles depicts this is a wonderfully old fashioned cross-cutting of Josue running in the hopes of catching Dora before she leaves, and Dora riding the bus back home. He accomplishes two things here, first assuring us that he has no intention of going for the easy manipulation, then bringing full circle the events of the film. Dora’s first and last interaction with Josue revolves around a letter, the latter instance is narrated by Montenegro as she writes it—another nice old-fashioned movie touch. As we hear Dora’s words, we see Josue stop in the road and look at a picture he took with Dora. Dora does the same thing with a similar little viewfinder. Then Josue smiles.

Dora smiles too, but it is much more than that.

Montenegro plays this last scene in silence, letting her tears and her facial expressions tell all. She goes through several emotions in quick succession, one of which seems to be genuine surprise at her emotional reaction. It’s as if she’s saying “I can’t believe that kid really got to me. God bless the little bastard.” The last shot is her shaking her head with equal parts joy and disbelief. It is a wonderful scene that earns that lump in your throat. Watch this scene, and then ask yourself what the Academy was thinking when they gave her Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Not ha-ha funny

By Edward Copeland
You would have thought that white gloves would have been a giveaway that the chubby-faced, seemingly harmless young man seeking eggs for a neighbor had other plans in mind. Then again, if she'd caught on quicker, perhaps the madness that happens in Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games could have been prevented.

Having liked the admittedly acquired taste of Haneke's films such as Cache: Hidden and The Piano Teacher, I felt I had to catch up with Funny Games once I learned he was doing an American remake of it and that the original starred Ulrich Muhe, the late actor whose great performance in The Lives of Others gave that film much of its resonance.

Funny Games proves to be tense and compelling though I'm not certain that Haneke's admitted thesis of showing that fake violence can be as devastating to a viewer as real violence comes off, though he definitely is trying to make some points about the audience's voyeurism. More than once, one of two villains of the piece (Arno Frisch) looks directly into the camera as if to acknowledge he knows the viewer is there.

The dastardly duo, supposedly named Peter and Paul, also refer to themselves on occasion as Tom and Jerry and Beavis and Butt-head. Late in the film, when something happens that any reasonable member of the audience would hope would happen, he breaks the rules again by undoing it. Fortunately, this doesn't come off as pretentiously as it sounds.

Instead, what you get is a well-acted, taut and suspenseful variation on films such as The Desperate Hours. Muhe is fine, but the real standout is Susanne Lothar as Anna, the mother of the family, who tries her best to cope with a most untenable situation.

Regardless of Haneke's intent though, Funny Games still proves to be a worthwhile viewing experience and may well be my favorite film of Haneke's that I've seen.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007


A Saxon on the Bayou

By Escutcheon Blot
Schultze is a salt miner in Saxony-Anhalt in the heart of eastern Germany, forced into early retirement, along with his two best friends, Manfred and Jurgen. Each is given a salt-crystal lamp, and then thrown to the wolves of pensioner-dom. The daily routine of life without work wears on all three men, as the two friends become more and more short-tempered and Schultze is caught in the middle in Schultze Gets the Blues.

A popular local accordionist, Schultze is preparing his perennial polka for the local music club's 50th anniversary gala. Flipping through radio channels in his lonely house one evening, he is arrested by the lively strains of Louisiana Zydeco. One thing leads to another and soon Schultze, the quintessential "Hans Wurst," the German everyman, is playing zydeco instead of polkas and cooking jambalaya for his wondering buddies. Opting for zydeco rather than a polka, Schultze manages to insult the entire music-club at the big gala. However, they magnanimously forgive him, opting to send him to a German Festival in Texas.

Schultze packs up his accordion and heads to America. He is bemused by the typically American conflation of all regional German attributes into one cohesive whole, leaning very heavily on the Bavarian aspects. To understand this cultural fish-out-of-water feeling, not immediately obvious to an American audience, one should know that Saxony-Anhalt and Bavaria are not at all close to each other; they have very different cultures and different dialects of German are spoken, and were not even part of the same country until the 1860s. Schultze's reaction would probably be similar to that of a Kentucky Blue Grass fiddler plopped down in Miami and asked to play salsa. He escapes the festival, rents a small, blue boat, and goes off to discover the bayou country, meeting and charming the residents(the females especially) along the way — incidentally, without being able to speak more than about five words of English.

Director Michael Schorr and his cast of German professionals and American amateurs — mostly, combine to give a touching, often funny ... in a dry, German sort of way...story of a man yearning for something more, after a lifetime of having done what was expected of him. Horst Krause gives a dignified and touchingly vulnerable, albeit pot-bellied, reading of Schultze, leavening his essentially tragic performance with deft comedic moments. This is above all a vehicle for Krause, but his two kumpel (buddies) played by Harald Warmbrunn and Karl-Fred Mueller, are both experienced actors from the German state-theater system, beautifully trained, and play off each other's irritating foibles perfectly — grumpy old men with a Saxon accent. The other actors, many not professionals, together with the matter-of-fact cinematography, contribute a quasi-documentary reality to the film's underlying fabric.

The movie explores that very common German sentiment of modern times, Sehnsucht, or longing — specifically for people and places foreign, colorful, lively, and sunny. It is no coincidence that Germany is one of the biggest markets for Bollywood films in Europe, and that Germany loses close to a quarter of a million people a year to emigration. Production designer Natascha Tagwerk provides the grimily realistic backdrop of a post-communist mining town, and her dreary interiors do much to explain Schultze's own wish to get away ... without exaggerating the reality of eastern German life.

The film is slow-paced, but appropriately so – mirroring the quiet desperation of Schultze's life, picking it up a bit when he gets to the U.S. (Incidentally, the Americans in the film are handled fairly and with affection — reflecting what I think is the general German view of us 'Ami's.') I watched it twice on successive days, and was surprised and chagrined by the subtleties I missed the first time around. And, with its relatively sparse dialogue, it is a relatively painless film to watch with subtitles (which are well translated, if slightly less-humorous than the original).

Schultze Gets the Blues was released in 2003, with a wider, German release in 2004 and internationally in 2005. It won several prizes in Stockholm, Venice, Gijon, etc, film festivals, including best directorial debut, best actor, best film, best art direction, and best script. This is a film well worth watching, and maybe watching again.

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Monday, October 08, 2007


Calla lilies still in bloom at 70

By Josh R
One of the inviolable rules of acting — at least as far as stars are concerned — is to make a memorable entrance. As one of the foremost practitioners of the art of grabbing an audience’s attention with early and decisive action, Katharine Hepburn managed some spectacular entrances in her career — including a deliriously baroque one in Suddenly, Last Summer which saw her descending from the heavens, deux ex machina style, via hydraulics. In the 1937 film Stage Door, Gregory La Cava’s superlative comic drama set in a boarding house for women pursuing theatrical careers, her entrance is one that almost isn’t — or rather, one that isn’t executed without a certain degree of difficulty. As Terry Randall, the haughty blueblood looking to trade in her status as heir to a wheat empire for success on the boards, she literally shows up at the wrong door — one which is locked. After locating the correct entrance, she wonders aloud “How many doors are there in this place?” Ginger Rogers, as the acerbic chorine who has been warily appraising the new arrival from a few feet away, snaps back, “Well, there’s the trap door, the humidor and the cuspidor…how many doors would you like?”

This brief, yet barbed exchange sets the tone for Stage Door, in which the quips fly fast and furious — to say nothing of the fur.

Adapted from a hit play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, the film chronicles a year in the lives of the residents of The Footlights Club, a somewhat shabby theatrical boarding house where would-be actresses, dancers and musicians eat, sleep, bicker, dish and crack wise while waiting for their big break. To play this ragtag collection of bantering Broadway babies, RKO recruited (as Hepburn would describe them to her biographer) “all the good girls” from their stable of contract players — the result being a dazzling assembly of female talent practically unrivaled in the history of motion pictures. In addition to Hepburn and Rogers, the ensemble featured Lucille Ball as a smart-talking gal from Seattle who serves as a reluctant hostess to the lumbering lumbermen who visit from her old neck of the woods; Eve Arden, dryly deadpanning her way through entire conversations while draping her bedraggled pet feline around her shoulders like a mink stole; the 18-year-old Ann Miller as a gum-cracking hoofer who knows a wolf on the make when she sees one, even if her pals get taken in by the lamb’s clothing; Constance Collier as a preening has-been who comes equipped with a musty volume of moth-eaten press clippings; Gail Patrick as an opportunistic vamp milking her sugar daddy for all he’s worth; and Andrea Leeds, Oscar-nominated for her heart-rending turn as the fragile Kay, who finds that fledgling success in the capricious, cutthroat world of show business does not a future guarantee. Together, this brilliant company of actresses creates a memorable portrait of a makeshift family forged through boisterous camaraderie, a competitive instinct that fuels their creative impulses and their wits, and ultimately, a touching mutual dependency.

While the film is often uproariously funny — these gals can fire off epigrams at the rapid-fire pace of champion ping-pong players on an adrenaline high — the basic narrative structure is essentially tragic. What Stage Door does, that so few films have ever done as successfully, is address the doubts and anxieties experienced by struggling performers trying to keep their hopes and spirits intact in the face of an uncertain future. The action hinges on a crucial plot point: the casting of the lead role in a play. The arrival of Hepburn’s Terry Randall is greeted with suspicion by her housemates — they don’t know what to make of the imperious, well-heeled interloper who quotes Shakespeare at dinner and discusses her career goals will the brash certitude of one who considers success to be her natural due. Since the women at the Footlights Club must share rooms, Terry is paired with Rogers’ equally sharp-witted, if more rough-edged Jean Maitland — for both women, it’s hate at first sight, although they gradually come to respect each other. Just as their tentative cease-fire arrangement seems poised to develop into something resembling genuine friendship, Terry — who believes she is acting in the other’s best interest — deliberately sabotages Jean’s relationship with a caddish producer (Adolphe Menjou) who has been wooing her with the promise of financial support. She further estranges herself from Jean and the other residents of The Footlights Club by securing a part coveted by Kay — the lead role in a Broadway melodrama. Terry’s casting owes nothing to her merits as an actress; she proves to be woefully inadequate in rehearsals, much to the delight of her tycoon father, who has secretly bankrolled the production in the hope that his daughter’s eventual failure will permanently cure her of the acting bug. Meanwhile, Kay’s depression has deepened - her spirit broken by the indignities of destitution and rejection, she eventually commits suicide. Jean confronts Terry on the play’s opening night, charging her with responsibility for Kay’s death. A shattered Terry believes she can’t go on, but is convinced to do so as a tribute to Kay; finally able to connect with the emotions of the scenes she is playing, she gives the performance of a lifetime. After delivering a moving curtain speech in which she credits Kay as the guiding force behind her triumph, she and Jean are reunited backstage in a tearful embrace. Instead of being feted at her opening night party, Terry leaves with Jean so that they can quietly mourn the passing of their friend.

While the film is very much an ensemble piece, the most interesting aspect of the film has always been the relationship between the two central characters — the lead actresses play off of each other brilliantly. There’s a charge and intelligence to Rogers’ work in Stage Door that she would never again equal in her career — perhaps working alongside Katharine Hepburn brought out the best in her. They were the two biggest female stars at RKO in the 1930s — it was a notoriously unfriendly rivalry. Kate, along with everyone else, believed herself to be the better actress of the two, and made it known in subtle ways that she didn’t really consider Ginger an equal — or a threat. Ginger was self-conscious, insulted, and ultimately, not one to back down from a fight. When the two traded barbs in their scenes together, the audience was treated to an authentic battling rhythm fueled by genuine animosity and a spirit of competition. Maybe it took a slap in the face and a challenge to bring out both the toughness and the vulnerability in Ginger Rogers – whether that’s true or not, you’re glad it’s there, because her work in Stage Door unequivocally qualifies as a career-best performance. Always underrated as a comedienne during her tenure as one half of the century’s most famous dancing duo, she was able to demonstrate in the La Cava film what a devastating way she could have with a quip — her delivery of the film’s zingy one-liners is so quick, sharp and assured that it sounds like inspired improvisation. Jean Maitland is a tough cookie, to be sure, but not immune to experiencing disappointment, or worse still, losing hope. The aspiring actresses at The Footlights Club live a precarious, uncertain existence — Rogers, more than any of the other performers, allows us to understand that comic banter is a necessary distraction from the fact that, at any moment, the girls might have their dreams and livelihoods taken away from them and fall off the grid. It’s not that the actress simply lets us see the fear and fragility that exists behind the comic sensibilities and snazzy retorts of these tart-tongued dames; she shows just how inextricably linked those seemingly self-contradictory entities are. She’s a smart-aleck blonde with a chip on her shoulder — as with any stand-up comedian, it’s the chip that’s the source of her comedy, even if the reality behind it is a source of hurt.

For her part, Hepburn seemed to relish the opportunity of matching wits with an actress who could give as good as she got; also, to an uncanny extent, her assignment in Stage Door represented an unwitting exercise in autobiography. Perhaps no other role the actress played in her long and storied career spoke as much to her own personal experience, or mirrored it more closely. Like Terry, she was the product of a privileged upbringing and education — a flashy specimen of “good breeding”. She too had turned her back on a guaranteed life of comfort as a member of the social elite in order to realize her dream of becoming an actress. And she was confident, brash, even arrogant in the way she wore her independent spirit as a badge of honor. She was also — by her own admission — highly competitive. Very seldom in Hepburn’s career was she required to play opposite other actresses who could not only challenge her for attention, but create as strong a presence in HER presence (Vanessa Redgrave in The Trojan Women is the only other one who comes to mind). In her scenes with Rogers, there’s a fascinating dynamic at work — not only a fight for supremacy, but a crackling electric current born of two great talents at the pinnacle of their powers giving great performances that complement each other. A lesser competitor might have made no impact on Hepburn whatsoever — she reacts to Rogers because she has to; the signal she’s giving out is coming back strong and clear.

In addition to furnishing her with a great character and a formidable co-star, Stage Door provided Katharine Hepburn with one of her most iconic pieces of dialogue: “The calla lilies are in bloom again … such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.” The lines are spoken in the context of the play that Terry Randall is appearing in, but they attain a different meaning after she learns that Kay is dead. In this, as in other respects, Stage Door illustrates the manner in which the act of giving a performance — whether on a stage in front of an audience, or by cracking jokes with your friends in a dormitory living room to keep despair at bay — can function as both something cathartic and as a means of survival.

In various critical discussions of Stage Door, the question has been posed as to whether the film is a comedy or a tragedy. Really, it represents the best of both worlds. Even its most cynical observations are delivered in a mordant vein of humor that tickle the funny bone even while they touch a nerve. Consider this exchange between Lucille Ball’s Judy and one of her lumbermen:
Man: “You know, I’ve known this little gal since she was that high, in pig tails…In those days, nobody ever thought that Pete Jones’ daughter would be an actress.”

Judy: “Well, the odds are still the same.”

The line isn’t delivered with any bitterness, but rather as a brightly self-mocking punchline. As Stage Door illustrates, sometimes the best way to cope with frustration and disappointment is to make light of it. Often, humor is the only defense against despair. Very few comedies have been brave enough to admit it.

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