Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Centennial Tributes: Eve Arden
By Edward Copeland
Nearly every time you see Eve Arden on screen in black-and-white, she seemed to have a cigarette firmly ensconced in her hand. Somehow it was appropriate that embers would be slowly dripping off her smoke since inevitably sparks would be flying from the dialogue emanating from her lips. In fact, her photo should appear next to the definition of wisecrack in the dictionary. Born Eunice Quedens on April 30, 1908, Arden almost always was the girl Friday or best pal to other stars, but she many times she ended up being the best thing in bad films, raised good films to a higher level and was just plain fun more times than not. Her lengthy time in film led to a longer time in radio and television. Along the way, she managed one Oscar nomination and several Emmy nominations, including one win. She even appeared in the infamous Broadway flop Moose Murders, though she was replaced during previews before the show got its one night run. In only her second film appearance as Eve Arden, she played one of the many smart-mouthed broads trading barbs in the Footlights Club boarding house for aspiring actresses in 1937's Stage Door. With Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller among the many cracking wise, Arden might have been lost, but she's easy to spot since in nearly every one of her scenes she uses a white cat as a prop, usually draped around her neck like a scarf.
In 1939, she got to hold court with one of the kings of fast-talking comedy, Groucho Marx, in At the Circus. The first role that really allowed her to shine was as model scout Cornelia "Stonewall" Jackson in the 1944 musical Cover Girl. She got to be the voice of reason and a funny voice at that. When her older boss sees a vision of a lost love of his past in Rita Hayworth, he asks Cornelia what she would do if she saw her youth walk through the door. "I'd put braces on its teeth," she replies. The next year, she got one of her very best roles and earned an Oscar nomination as Joan Crawford's friend and business associate Ida Corwin in Mildred Pierce. Ida saw through Mildred's good-for-nothing daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), even if Mildred couldn't see it. "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea," Ida tells Mildred. "They eat their young." In 1946, she again got to play the best friend, this time to Barbara Stanwyck in a dreadfully dull melodrama My Reputation that Arden tries single-handedly to drag kicking-and-screaming into the realm of romantic comedy. Alas, she fails in the effort. That same year, she showed her ability to surprise: Taking the role of a French chanteuse in the whitewashed Cole Porter biopic Night and Day with Cary Grant. Perhaps tired of always being second (or third) fiddle in film, Arden moved to radio where she created the role of high school teacher Connie Brooks, which she transferred to TV in 1952, sparring with harried principal Gale Gordon in his pre-Lucy days and teaching Richard Crenna with his wonderfully fake cracking adolescent voice. The role brought her an Emmy and several nominations and she tended to stick to television for the rest of her career, though she did venture back on the big screen now and then. In 1951, she was the best thing in Three Husbands, a better idea than a movie that attempted to spoof A Letter to Three Wives. In 1959, she was girl Friday again, this time to lawyer James Stewart in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. Of course, for the younger out there, perhaps Arden always will be best remembered as Principal McGee of Rydell High in Grease and Grease 2. Remember, if you can't be Eve Arden, be an Eve Arden supporter.
Labels: Cary, Cole Porter, Crawford, Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers, J. Stewart, K. Hepburn, L. Ball, Marx Brothers, Musicals, Preminger, Television, Theater
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Saturday, April 26, 2008
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!
By Edward Copeland
When I first planned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, I'd hoped to integrate thoughts on Scorsese's recent Rolling Stones film, Shine a Light, but it slipped in and out of town before I got a chance to see it. It was probably for the best. When you've already made one of the greatest concert film/rock documentaries of all times, it would be pretty difficult to top.
When I saw The Last Waltz for the first time, I was very fortunate: It was in a Manhattan movie theater on the occasion of its 20th anniversary re-release. For those unfamiliar with The Last Waltz, it chronicles the farewell concert of The Band on Thanksgiving 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland theater after 16 years on the road, since the musicians couldn't imagine continuing touring and playing for 20 years (an interesting contrast to the Stones).
The thought of two decades on the road is daunting because, as Robbie Robertson says, it's a "goddamn impossible way of life." The event turns out to be more of a celebration than a concert, with countless musical greats showing up to give The Band a suitable send off, including Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, The Staples, Ron Wood and even Neil Diamond. The great Muddy Waters shows up to perform his quintessential "Mannish Boy," a song I was first introduced to in Risky Business. What makes The Last Waltz so great, other than the music, is the way Scorsese has designed it as a film. You're barely aware that there is an audience present as the cameras are firmly ensconced on stage with the performers. He's also aided by first-rate cinematographer Michael Ballhaus with backup help by Vilmos Zsigmond and Michael Watkins. He also has enough inside stuff to make The Last Waltz qualify as a documentary, but not enough to stop the film from being a true musical feast. You get plenty of great nuggets from the members of The Band about their history and other elements, but the show's the thing, especially the way Scorsese has storyboarded it out as he would any feature he makes. It's especially notable once the great Bob Dylan shows up in a shot that begins with his hat before moving down to the unmistakable face and voice. Scorsese's brilliant way of shooting the concert makes it so intimate, especially if you are fortunate enough to see it in a theater, that you feel as if you are more a member of the assembled musicians on stage than just an audience member. If only I could have been there in 1976...
Labels: 70s, Documentary, Dylan, Movie Tributes, Music, Scorsese
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Monday, April 21, 2008
A few words about Lars
By Edward Copeland
"Whimsical." "Touching." "Funny." Those were some of the adjectives pulled out of reviews for quotes to praise Lars and the Real Girl, the film that inexplicably received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and that I just now caught up with on DVD. Here are my alternatives: Mannered. Ridiculous. Excruciating. Unbearable.
I have liked Ryan Gosling in roles before but he is all tics here to the point that I was just hoping at some point someone would slap him silly. What's even worse is that the portrayal of the town his character lives in and its willingness to indulge his delusion that the sex doll he purchased over the Internet is a real person goes beyond straining credulity.
Aside from a few moments where his brother (Paul Schneider) expresses true concerns about Lars' mental health, everyone seems to think that nothing is out of the ordinary, prompting me to think that perhaps the entire community belongs in an institution.
How anyone could mistake this film for a comedy (or a movie for that matter) is beyond me. It drags on and on and on.
In the end, the doll, Bianca, may well be the most realistic and well-formed character in the entire charade.
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Friday, April 11, 2008
Something Old, Borrowed and Blue
By Josh R
It has been said that surest way to divest your self of sanity, acumen and a sense of a proportion is to run for office. While all-too-recent history has provided no dearth of compelling evidence to support that contention, for the common man with neither the yen for power nor the clout to actualize it, planning a wedding will do just as nicely. As a guest and/or participant at many nuptial celebrations — thankfully, none of them my own — I have seen how quickly things can spiral out of control when delusions of grandeur meet the concept of buying on credit.
The same rule applies to the process of mounting a musical on Broadway, a folly reserved for those with deep pockets, a hunger for success and a commensurate lack of forbearance. Like marriage, commercial theater production is a highly speculative pursuit, requiring a great deal of expense and no small amount of optimism. In both cases, there is no guarantee of success — no matter how much money is spent, or how pure of heart the intentions are, the honeymoon can be short-lived.
The matrimony-themed A Catered Affair, the new musical currently in previews at The Walter Kerr Theatre and set to take its stroll down the aisle April 17, hedges its bets to some degree with a production that is modestly scaled by Broadway standards.
In an age of grandiose spectacle, it is admittedly refreshing to see a show whose creators don’t try to camouflage its simplicity by stacking it in tiers and burying it under a blanket of white icing. While admirable for its lack of pretension, and the fact that it manages to achieve an emotional resonance of the kind largely absent from most of this season’s musical offerings, this resolutely old-fashioned entry by composer John Bucchino and librettist Harvey Fierstein doesn’t quite make the grade as an affair to remember. Despite fine, heartfelt performances by Tom Wopat and Leslie Kritzer, and a beautifully calibrated one by the superb Faith Prince, this drab, homey little brown loaf of a show doesn’t leave any more of a lasting impression on the palate than the flashy confections it’s trying to outclass with its unadorned simplicity. With or without the frosting flowers, it’s still Betty Crocker, made from a mix and a bit on the bland side.
Adapted from the 1956 film of the same name, which featured Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds in de-glamorized mode, A Catered Affair is nothing if not earnest. Like its source material — written by vaunted screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky before his sense of social indignation had crystallized into the lacerating acerbity of Network and The Hospital — the musical serves up a gentle, slice-of-life consideration of family dynamics viewed through the prism of working class struggle. Janey Hurley (Ms. Kritzer), a firm-minded young woman from a blue-collar family, wants to get married. Her boyfriend Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) is only too happy to comply; together, they decide to have a simple, no-frills civil ceremony. Their plans hit a snag when Janey’s mother, Aggie (Ms. Prince), balks at the notion of a hasty City Hall marriage, and insists on giving her daughter a full-blown formal wedding — a course of action which not only runs contrary to the desires of the prospective newlyweds, but creates a financial burden that Aggie and her husband, Tom (Mr. Wopat), are not really in a position to assume. As the wedding plans become increasingly elaborate, tensions run high in a family already divided by deep-seated undercurrents of guilt, resentment, and grief that have never been openly acknowledged. Equal parts kitchen-sink drama and social commentary, A Catered Affair is at its most compelling when examining the manner in which the problems specific to poverty can take a harsh toll on the bonds created by birth and relation, or those forged through love and intimacy. As Aggie basically states, it’s hard for romance to retain its bloom when the bills keep piling up and sentimental notions are swept aside by the stark realities of daily routine.
Equally difficult is the challenge of bringing a sense of freshness and immediacy to a work of theater that feels so firmly grounded in the past. Director John Doyle, best known for his post-modernist take on the works of Stephen Sondheim, seems to be out of his element with the sort of hidebound material that doesn’t furnish a lot of room for creative interpretation; accordingly, his staging techniques tend towards clunky functionality. That said, the blame for A Catered Affair’s waterlogged condition can’t really be laid at the feet of the ship’s captain, given how less-than-seaworthy the vessel is. An obvious effort has been made to imbue the show’s low-key dramaturgy with a kind of careworn, old-fashioned charm, but since neither Fierstein’s libretto nor Bucchino’s substandard music and lyrics are particularly memorable, the lavender-and-old-lace nostalgia factor never really kicks in. As it is, the show can’t avoid seeming like a musty relic of a bygone era — the olfactory experience is less redolent of lavender than mothballs. One can understand the impulse to recreate the feel of vintage book musicals, of the sort that favor substance over style — but the approach is so humble and self-effacing that it’s like training your gaze on an old photograph that fades before your eyes.
Fortunately, there is one figure in the sepia-toned snapshot that remains as sharply defined as a work of digital imaging — specifically, the production’s leading lady. As the mother of the bride, Tony-winning actress Faith Prince gives a poignant performance which believably communicates the full weight of Aggie's numbing workaday existence — the product of years of compromise, struggle and diminished expectations. Like S. Epatha Merkenson, who enlivened the similarly fusty Come Back, Little Sheba a few months ago, Ms. Prince invests her portrayal with deep reserves of empathy and insight, capturing the essence of the unsophisticated, rather frumpish character she is playing with an unaffected simplicity that never stoops to condescension. Sturdy, unruffled support is provided by Tom Wopat, as the cab driver husband who seems like a burnt-out shell but still longs for the things that are just beyond his grasp, and the equally fine Leslie Kritzer, who delivers an understated, eminently credible portrait of a smart, down-to-earth woman whose brisk pragmatism exists mainly as a coping mechanism to weather disappointment.
The remainder of the cast makes less of an impression, although only one member seems entirely out of place. As the gay uncle trying to shoehorn his way into the nuptial preparations, Mr. Fierstein seems to have wandered in from a different show altogether. It goes beyond the fact that his particular brand of comic relief, which relies on rather obvious gay humor, feels out of keeping with the tone of the show itself. For reasons difficult to fully comprehend in show that otherwise seems so firmly ground in the realm of realism, his character hovers on the outskirts of scenes in which he is not featured as an unseen, omnipresent observer; whether this is represents some form of commentary or merely a case of authorial hubris is anybody’s guess.
It is Mr. Fierstein who delivers the show’s all-too-cozy coda, a song encouraging the audience to live life to the fullest. A Catered Affair labors mightily to meet that standard, but in spite of the best efforts of a few of its actors, it mostly feels dull, sluggish and out-of-date. When done correctly, old-fashioned charm can still give off the rosy glow of a polished antique. Unfortunately, when this bouquet of withered roses goes sailing through the air, there’s no one around to catch it — Janey and Ralph may be engaged, but the audience isn’t.
Labels: Bette, Chayefsky, Debbie Reynolds, Musicals, Sondheim, Theater
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Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Another Turn at Bat for the Mother Who Just Won’t Quit
By Josh R
In baseball, a batter who resists the urge to swing on bad pitches, and fights off the good ones by blocking them into foul territory, is known as a tough out. Since professional athletes don’t hold a monopoly on grit, fortitude, or all-around stubbornness, any Major League scout (or theatrical agent) who caught Rose Hovick in action would be forced to concede that she was the toughest out to ever step up to the plate. To her intimates and her adversaries — circles featuring more in the way of overlap than one might be given to suppose — she was an immovable object, as implacably determined as she was mercilessly unyielding, unable to sanction any cession of terrain she considered hers by right. The indefatigable, hard-driving Ms. Hovick, it must be stated by way of explanation, suffered from that peculiar affliction known to show business types as ‘The Bug.’ After having experienced that first, intoxicating whiff of greasepaint — a more addictive substance than cocaine for those desirous of attention — she pursued her dreams of vaudeville glory for her two hapless daughters with the monolithic intensity of Admiral Farragut leading the charge at Mobile Bay. Obstacles were of little consequence; regardless of the circumstances, Mama never loosened her iron grip on the footlights for a fraction of a second. Performers who won’t leave the stage of their own volition are generally given the hook — in Rose’s case, it would have taken the combined efforts of a scalpel and a bulldozer to dislodge her from her perch.
Gypsy, the classic backstage musical chronicling the exploits and escapades of Mama Rose and her brood (and loosely based on the memoirs of her eldest, celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), has demonstrated nearly as much intransigent staying power as its central character when faced with the unthinkable prospect of surrendering the spotlight. The current Broadway incarnation, strutting its flashy stuff across the boards of The St. James Theatre in an open-ended engagement, marks the fourth Main Stem revival of the show since its 1959 premiere, and the fifth Broadway production overall. As if that weren’t enough, it has also spawned two award-winning film adaptations, and a seemingly countless number of regional, stock and touring productions. With its knockout score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim and hardscrabble libretto by Arthur Laurents, there’s a fair argument than can — and has — been made for it as the greatest musical ever written; even allowing for differences in taste, it’s in just about everyone’s top five. Certainly, no musical has ever provided as probing a portrait of a woman driven to extremes by her simple inability to accept compromise or defeat, or rendered with such piercing clarity the prickly dynamics of parent-child relationships. In the years since Ethel Merman originated the role with her signature blend of brass and vocal virtuosity, the character of Rose has come to represent the summit for actresses working in musical theater — as well as the single greatest test of their abilities and barometer of their star power. It’s not just that Merman’s legendary vocal interpretation is the yardstick by which all other Roses are measured, or that the part makes more demands of its interpreters’ dramatic skills than musicals generally do. Seemingly every classically trained English-speaking stage actor born in the past four hundred years has taken a pass at Lear; If you have any hopes of ever seeing a ‘Sir’ in front of your name, it’s the litmus test which separates the men from the boys. Rose is likewise a role of Shakespearean proportions — and one that comes with the baggage of equally weighty expectations, and just as high a factor of risk.
The roster of ambitious climbers either brave or foolhardy enough to attempt to scale the peaks of Mount Rose constitutes a virtual Who’s Who of Broadway leading ladies; it includes Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, both of whom won Tonys for their interpretations, while in the last 10 years modern legends Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley have each taken their crack at it. The latest heavyweight to enter the ring is Patti LuPone, she of the rabid fan base and earth-shaking vibrato. The marquee at the St. James Theatre proclaims that Rose is the role Ms. LuPone was born to play, and going strictly by surface appearances (and considerations of decibel levels), the assertion is not without merit. With her bold, Italianate features and clarion voice, the actress has always been a commanding presence. Harking back to her Tony-winning turn in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita — the poperetta anvil on which her star was forged — she has always favored a performance style characterized by strident affectation and a tendency to show off; in the field of vocal pyrotechnics, she has been the undisputed standard bearer on Broadway for more than a generation. It's worth wondering if she's ever been entirely able to shake the role of Eva Peron; aspects of that performance and persona may have bled into her subsequent efforts. Certainly, she has stardust in her bloodstream (and possibly some of that Merman DNA), a strong sense of theatricality, and the confident swagger of a woman to be reckoned with. These are qualities that can work for Rose when administered in the proper dosages. Ultimately, they are no substitute for emotional authenticity, or the ability to create a real sense of the conflicted feelings, primal instincts and inchoate yearnings that make Mama one of the richest and mostly intricately layered characters ever created for the musical stage.
Watching Ms. LuPone in action on the stage of the St. James — in a performance that is never less than vivid — there is never any doubt that she is connecting to the thorny Rose as a star role. Only at select intervals, and never for any sustained length of time, does she seem to be connecting to her as a character. The actress is a much more logical and natural choice for the assignment than that eternal nymphet with the fizzy champagne pop, the kittenish Bernadette Peters, who played the part a scant five years ago and couldn’t avoid seeming a bit out of her depth (moral: never send a kitten to do a tigress’s job). What Ms. Peters more convincingly conveyed than her successor was an acute awareness of the peculiar forces that drove Mama; namely, the need to experience vicarious fulfillment through her daughters’ success, and the barely suppressed rage of someone all too achingly aware of her own lost opportunities. Ms. LuPone brings a considerable amount of star power to her depiction of Rose, to be sure — it’s a Diva performance that commands the spotlight without going over the top — but it exists mostly on the surface, without bringing the internal life of the character into sharp focus. There’s something rather smug and arch about the way she embellishes the role with so many flourishes; her cadence of speech suggests Katharine Cornell as Cleopatra giving grand speeches and occasional orders to the servants. With her cultured style of delivery, it doesn’t really make sense when Rose uses words like “ain’t”; she sounds like she ought to be walking around with a martini in one hand and a long-stemmed cigarette holder in the other. Of more critical concern, the anger, the need, and the despair that have to be present in order for the character to make sense can only be discerned in fits and starts. As a result, the show seems to be less about a woman determined to make her daughters into stars than one determined to win a Tony Award.
Unfortunately, if perhaps inevitably, this constitutes a conspicuous, ultimately insurmountable liability for Arthur Laurents’ otherwise fine production. Mama’s roiling emotions, tinged with shades of bitterness and regret, have always been the motor that makes Gypsy run. Without that driving force behind it, what ought to sprint across the track with the smooth assurance of a thoroughbred feels more like an old warhorse straining for the finish line. The 90-year-old Mr. Laurents, who also helmed the Lansbury and Daly productions, has cited his displeasure with the deconstructionist tactics of Sam Mendes' 2003 revival — the one that the brave Ms. Peters did her damnedest to put over — as the reason he decided to mount another Gypsy so soon after the show's last swing around the maypole. In its restored form, it is not without its share of incidental pleasures; and yet, it can’t avoid feeling like a cookie-cutter production without any strong point of view. This is a faithful, diligent rendering by a seasoned director who knows his source material inside and out — as one of its authors, he couldn’t have been counted upon for anything less. That said, without a visceral, emotionally convincing central performance to anchor the proceedings, the resulting rendition feels stale, rudderless, and lacking in excitement.
This is an especially sad turn of events given how very, very good Ms. LuPone’s co-stars are — and the extent to which their efforts are undercut by the production’s flaws. As Rose’s immoderately forbearing suitor, Boyd Gaines is the most persuasively rendered Herbie I’ve seen, and delivers the evening’s most shaded and moving performance. As the chief beneficiary of her mother’s scratching, clawing drive for success, Laura Benanti is in splendid vocal form as Louise, and convincingly charts her character’s progress from insecure wallflower to glittering sex queen; her crystalline violet eyes, a ringer for Liz Taylor’s, have never been used to more seductive effect. Strange as it may seem, this is the rare production of Gypsy in which the relationship between Herbie and Louise becomes the show’s most compelling consideration. Mr. Gaines and Ms. Benanti expertly communicate the strained dynamic between the would-be family man, tentatively, somewhat wistfully trying to reach out to his surrogate daughter and concealing his sadness and hurt every time she pushes him away, and the lonely adolescent too gun-shy from years of disappointment to allow herself to become attached to yet another disposable father figure. Additional praise should be conferred upon Leigh Ann Larkin as an unusually hard-boiled, clear-eyed June — a sweet-looking little blonde made cynical by years of living life on Mama’s terms and being treated like a wind-up toy.
As fine as they are, all three actors are hampered by the fact that their relationships with Rose aren’t particularly convincing. That’s because Ms. LuPone herself isn’t particularly convincing, at least when it comes to connecting with the emotions that fuel the character’s actions and define her motives. There’s an inescapable impression that what we’re seeing is the ambition and neediness of Patti LuPone, the star, as to opposed to that of Rose Hovick, the woman. Judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience on the night I attended Gypsy, this may not matter very much; the performance Ms. Lupone is giving is undoubtedly the one her fans have been clamoring for, and the one they’re only too happy to receive. There is no denying her power as a vocalist — Styne and Sondheim’s show-stopping compositions fall right in her wheelhouse, and she delivers them with the razzle-dazzle showmanship of the sort that send diva-cultists into fits of swoony delight. Nor can it be said that her interpretation lacks anything in the way of personality; she puts her own, brash stamp on the part, and never creates the impression of being anything less than the star that she is. Personally, I’d have been just as happy if she’d been a bit more sparing with the star quality, if it meant clearing a path for a performance with greater emotional resonance. Ms. LuPone is well-cast, well-suited and eminently well-equipped to knock this baby out of the park; even if her dramatic skills are not to all tastes, she’s where she is for a reason. Old-school Broadway stars are a dying breed; that the actress has maintained her status as one for nearly 30 years says volumes about her determination and power of endurance, to say nothing of her talent. Rose Hovick was a tough out. So is Patti LuPone. Strange then, that what ought to have been a home run feels more like a swing and a miss.
Labels: Lansbury, Liz, Merman, Musicals, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Theater
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Monday, April 07, 2008
Made it, Ann. Top of the world!
By Edward Copeland
Seventy five years ago today, King Kong stomped onto movie screens for the first time. He's been back many times since in sequels and in two remakes, but the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack original remains the best.
It's a well-worn cliché that the journey trumps the destination in importance and that certainly proved to be the case with King Kong. If you went into the film blind, you might have no idea as to the story's direction. There's the one and only filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) with his "reputation for recklessness" setting out to film some sort of adventure on the fly on a mysterious, unchartered island. The only problem: He needs a female lead. Denham would be happy to ditch the romantic element, but you know those damn critics and audiences: You have to have a woman. The film drops hints here and there that the island may offer something bigger than just an exotic location. Denham acknowledges that he knows that something is "holding that island in the grip of fear. Something no white man has ever seen." Of course, because of Denham's reputation, no reputable agent will sacrifice a client to him, but thankfully (for Denham anyway) he stumbles upon the struggling Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and talks her into enlisting in his voyage. He even gives her screen tests for gowns and shrieks while they sail and we get a preview of that scream, that delicious scream.
Of course, the all-male crew on the ship resent having a dame aboard as only men in a 1930s film could, but that doesn't stop Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) from falling for Ann in a way only Hollywood's Golden Age would allow: Basically, give them one scene together of friction, then have them declare their love for each other. When Jack pours out his feelings for Ann, she says, "But Jack, you hate women!" "But you ain't women," he replies. When you really get deep into it, in many ways the later relationship that blooms between Kong and Ann might be more realistic and better developed. One thing I noticed this time (thanks to a DVD commentary by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen and visual effects wizard Ken Rolston) that never caught my attention before: Aside from the opening credits, Max Steiner's memorable score doesn't even begin until the ship arrives in the fog outside Skull Island.
Harryhausen makes a couple of other cogent points that should have occurred to me before: 1) If the natives built a wall big enough to keep Kong out, why did they add a gate big enough for him to come through? and 2) What happened to all the native women that had been sacrificed to Kong prior to Ann? Did he eat them? When Kong makes his first appearance, the stop-action movements bear a bit of a resemblance to the first shots of the Abominable Snowman coming over the mountain in the TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Sure, sometimes the scale misses the mark a bit in the effects (such as when the Loch Ness-type dinosaur flings bodies around), but I'd trade these primitive effects over bloated CGI anyday. In their running commentary (which really ranks as one of the best DVD commentaries I've heard and includes bits of archival interviews with Cooper and Wray), Harryhausen and Rolston express wonder at the magic conjured with the limited abilities of 1933 Hollywood. Rolston goes so far as to call King Kong the Jurassic Park of that generation (though I'd come up with a better movie example than that). "Everything today is reinventing the wheel," Harryhausen says. "And they are making it worse," Rolston replies. He's right.
As Harryhausen points out, the more they strive for realism, the more mundane movies become. They should strive to take us to another world such as the strange universe of Skull Island with its giant apes and still-living dinosaurs. The horrible 1976 remake and Peter Jackson's bloated 2005 do-over both missed the magic of the 1933 version. The other night, the 1976 version aired on AMC and I caught parts of it, reminding me of how truly bad it was. It only had two things I thought improved on the other versions: It bothered to show how they actually transferred Kong on a ship back to New York and its equivalent of the Denham character (Charles Grodin) got what he deserved). Actually, one other plus to the 1976 version (I write this solely as a present for Josh R): The 1976 animatronic Kong had more realistic facial expressions than Jessica Lange. Of course, if Kong had put his foot down with Armstrong, it would have deprived us of one of the classic closing lines in movie history. That's something else that the original doesn't get enough credit for: Its screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose holds up much better than you'd expect in an action fantasy of this type. Just listen to the throwaway lines as jaded New York theatergoers crowd in to see Denham's show paying the then-outrageous ticket price of $20. I also love the little touches, such as when Kong breaks free of his arm restraints and then slowly and methodically undoes his other chains instead of just tearing them out in a fury. "A film is like an ink blot," Harryhausen says at another point in his DVD commentary. "It tells you more about the person watching it than the film itself." This proves most especially true about the 1933 King Kong, which deserves the title of the eighth wonder of the world, if only for finding pathos in a foot-and-a-half tall rubber puppet.
Labels: 30s, Grodin, J. Lange, Movie Tributes, Peter Jackson, Remakes
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Sunday, April 06, 2008
What a long, strange trip it's been
By Edward Copeland
"It's puzzling. I've never seen anything quite like this before," HAL 9000 says at one point in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opened 40 years ago today. I used that quote to open the first movie review I ever wrote: a writeup in my high school newspaper of the 2001 sequel 2010 . At the time, I suggested that in many ways, 2010 made for a superior film because, as far as I was concerned, 2001 was overrated and boring for a lot of its length. I haven't seen 2010 in a long time, so I doubt I'd stand by that assertion, but my opinions of 2001 have evolved over time. I still believe it's overrated, but there is a lot within it to admire. Just not enough to love.
Granted, my first exposure to 2001 came in the wake of Star Wars and my subsequent childhood obsession with it, so its more cerebral sci-fi take was off-putting to a youngster to say the least. This was a space odyssey! Why was I watching people in ape suits running around? As I aged of course, I grew to appreciate the meaning of the Dawn of Man sequence, though I still think Kubrick could have accomplished it in less time. It's 25 minutes before a single word is spoken in the film. Though my favorite Kubrick films are his works in black-and-white, I do have to say that watching 2001 again, his color compositions in his post-Dr. Strangelove films were quite stunning, even if the films themselves were too often chilly.
Proof of the low temperature reading of 2001 is that the most interesting character in the movie doesn't arrive for an hour and it's a computer. Voiced in monotone by actor Douglas Rain, HAL 9000 is very much the main attraction in 2001. When HAL sings "Daisy" and vanishes while Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) goes on the final 25-minute acid trip, the computer is sorely missed. When you get down to it, no attempt is made to develop any character in the film the way HAL is. What do we know about Dave, his fellow astronaut (Gary Lockwood) or Heywood Floyd (to be played by the late Roy Scheider in the sequel)? They have families on earth. That's about it. HAL is the first one to question the "extremely odd things" about their mission to Jupiter.
HAL also reveals more layers in terms of what motivations the machine has within him and where his loyalties lie, not to mention the chill when you realize that HAL can read lips. In many ways, HAL is the viewer's conduit into the film's murky depths. When Dave proceeds to disconnect him and HAL says he can feel his mind going, you can feel your mind going at the same time. When 2010 came out in 1984, a lot of 2001 fans were critical at the attempt to provide answers for what was going on in the earlier film. However, even in retrospect, the trippy ending to 2001 really doesn't add up at all to what the supposed "answer" is as given by 2010. Granted, when the late Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book of 2010 and Peter Hyams made the 1984 film, they really could have no idea that the Soviet Union would cease to exist in less than a decade and the Cold War aspect of their story would be obsolete in their 21st century setting.
Putting that aside though, how does Dave Bowman traveling through lights, seeing himself as an old man eating and then even older lying in bed staring at another monolith square with the idea that everything that happened (basically aliens killing humans getting too close and taking over computers) was to engineer the creation of a second sun in the universe which the planet Earth was to use in the name of peace? As I said at the outset, I've grown to have a lot of admiration for 2001, but not a lot of fondness. It's worth marking its 40th birthday, but I believe it's yet another case of a movie that drowns in fans singing praise not from actual love but for fear that if they admit they have problems with it, they might be exposed. Kubrick was a truly iconoclastic filmmaker and I think he'd hate that kind of worship. He'd rather you be true to yourself than to pat him on the back because you think that's what you are supposed to do.
Labels: 60s, Books, Fiction, Kubrick, Movie Tributes, Roy Scheider, Sequels, Star Wars
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Friday, April 04, 2008
Life after the strike
By Edward Copeland
New episodes of various series that screeched to a halt are pretty much back in full force following the writers' strike, with My Name Is Earl finally returning last night (though I wrote and posted this before I saw the finished product). South Park has been back for a few weeks now and this week's episode was particularly good, choosing to mock the strike itself.
The World Canadian Bureau (acronym WGA, in case you were too slow to get the analogy) decides that everyone is making too much money and goes on strike until the rest of the world starts forking over some of all that "Internet money." However, the episode gets even funnier when it turns away from the more specific writers' strike mocking and turns its satiric sites on YouTube, mocking just about every strange celebrity the site has created and underlining the point of how money from the Web is theoretical more often than spendable.
Though Earl returned last night and Scrubs had new episodes in the can when the strike started, NBC has treated the series' final season particularly abysmally. It announced not once but twice that new episodes were about to air before changing their minds. Then, they cut the already-shortened final season order. This week, they made it official that they wouldn't bring it back next year so it can get the ending creator Bill Lawrence had been working toward all season, though the scuttlebutt is this may result in an unexpected full eighth season on ABC next year. I wish Lawrence were able to do his other idea: Film the final handful of episodes just for the DVD edition, since the series has been running on fumes a lot of the time even in its swan song year and the idea of everyone having to get re-energized for a full, new season at a new network concerns me as to how its quality would be.
One series that has been back with three new episodes already and have more to come (with frequent updates as to where it will air when it switches time slots) is the CW's underrated Reaper. Seeing it again, I forgot how much I'd really grown to enjoy this show and though I know its renewal chances may be slim, I hope it gets another shot. (It's the CW for God's sake — what the hell else are they going to put on?) In the earlygoing, Reaper risked falling into formula, but it's become more successful at moving away from that while enticing with more specks of ongoing mysteries that I for one would like to know more about. (Why did Sam's dad burn those particular pages of his contract with the devil?) The addition of The State veterans Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black as the boys' neighbors whose homosexuality didn't bother them but their secret lives as demons did has added a new wrinkle as they may be possible allies against the devil (the always great Ray Wise). Of course, there are other questions I have I bet will never get answered, such as why is it so easy for souls to escape from Hell and why do they end up in Sam's town? On top of that, why would the devil care? Wouldn't a little chaos on Earth be in his interest? I just hope I get more Reaper to come.
During the long draught, my channel surfing became more frequent than usual. It wasn't helped by the continued programming malfeasance by the executives at Nick at Nite and TVLand which continues to ruin their lineups. TVLand is bordering on unwatchable with the addition of cut-up feature films (If they were made for TV movies, at least they'd go with the perceived theme of their channel) and even worse, a slate of awful new reality shows which they air and promote relentlessly. Their High School Class Reunion is always promoted on the right side of every show they air and frequently during the same time, a bigger promo for it appears on the left side at the same time. Can you say overkill? After a brief period where the finally removed the quaint Andy Griffith Show from their late night lineup for the mediocre but passable Just Shoot Me, it has returned again. Shows I'd much rather watch such as Cheers still remain relegated to early morning for some reason.
My channel flipping also has caught glimpses of Ultimate Fighting shows. Is it just me or do these matches really bear an uncanny resemblance to soft gay porn? Also, since I have no other place for crazy thoughts like these: Have you all seen the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich commercials with the Sun portrayed as a suburban father of two who works in an office? I know I shouldn't think about things like this, but if the Sun really had a wife, wouldn't she be incinerated upon any physical contact, let alone be able to give birth to his children? Shouldn't they bear part of his chemical DNA?
Labels: Ray Wise, South Park, Television
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Thursday, April 03, 2008
Stairway to Heaven
By Josh R
Somewhere, Alfred Hitchcock is smiling. Contrary to what his grave countenance and magisterial manner of speech might suggest, The Master of Suspense was never without a sense of humor. Even when working in a darker vein, his films featured enough in the way of mordant wit to suggest that the roly-poly shadow looming large from behind the camera existed as mere camouflage for the prankish, mischief-making sensibility of a pre-adolescent boy with joy buzzers strapped to each palm. That feeling of impish playfulness informed both the lightest and the bleakest of his films — even the jolts delivered in Psycho were punctuated by spasmodic, faintly heard fits of the giggles.
If the Master were around today, I imagine he’d be tickled to death by the marvelously silly trifle that British playwright Patrick Barlow has whipped up from the ingredients of his 1935 film, The 39 Steps. At once a loving homage to the black-and-white classic and deliciously tongue-in-cheek takeoff, Maria Aiken’s brilliantly conceived, ingeniously staged production — accomplished with a cast of four and a bare minimum of scenery — proves once and for all that spectacular feats of theatrical sorcery can be achieved without the benefit of advanced technology.
The human imagination, when applied correctly, is capable of even greater special effects. The 39 Steps, which transfers from the American Airlines Theatre to the Cort at the end of April, has magic to spare — and more than enough tricks up its sleeve to keep audiences in stitches for many months to come.
The prototype for Hitchcock’s later, more celebrated effort, North by Northwest, the 1935 classic follows an innocent man mistaken for a criminal, and subsequently plunged headlong into a web of international intrigue involving espionage, murder and other contingencies of smoke-infused cloak-and-dagger. In the film, the admirably unruffled victim of circumstance was played by the great Robert Donat, whose cool, patrician charm lent an element of sophistication to what was, essentially, a primitive form of action film (in terms of its structure, it’s one long chase sequence, pausing only for the occasional bout of sexual flirtation). As portrayed in the Roundabout Theatre production by Charles Edwards — an actor whose fortune is in his quizzically cocked eyebrows — the character of Robert Hannay has become a pipe-smoking, sherry-sipping monument to stiff-upper-lip foppishness, at once both dapper and absurd. As the three women he encounters in his travels — a sinuous femme fatale with an unidentifiable accent, a simpering Scottish farm wife, and a demure, nonplussed blonde who bats her eyelashes with the incredulous sincerity of a tyke sitting on Santa’s lap — Jennifer Ferrin has a pout made for comedy, and sexy, daffy charm in keeping with the spirit of 30’s screwball heroines. Rounding out the cast are two rubber-faced clowns with limbs made of Silly Putty, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, each of whom plays about two dozen characters. One of the chief delights of the production is the manner in which these two great shape-shifters execute their rapid-fire transformations with such dexterity — their energy is so unflagging that it borders on the supernatural. In one particularly dizzying sequence, using only a pair of bound trunks and a succession of hats, the three male ensemble members bring the celebrated train sequence to life with dazzling acrobatics worthy of Chaplin and Keaton.
Does the slapstick spin Barlow and Aiken have applied to The 39 Steps violate the integrity of the original film? Believe it or not, it has the opposite effect. The production is guided as much by a spirit of giddy exultation — of both the source material and its director — as it is by its impudent sense of fun. The creators aren’t so much making fun of The Master as they are paying him a loving, loopy sort of tribute. Mr. Hitchcock was inclined to make cameo appearances in most of films; here, he appears the form of a tiny shadow puppet on a Scottish hillside watching his hero escape with the aid of an accommodating camel (don’t ask). Look very closely, and you can see the slightest glimmer of a smile forming around the edges of his centimeters-long, cigar-chomping mouth. On certain nights, and when no one is looking, I imagine it broadens into an ear-to-ear grin worthy of a Cheshire Cat.
Labels: Chaplin, Hitchcock, Keaton, Theater
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Wednesday, April 02, 2008
From the Vault: Cliffhanger
Money can't buy everything. It can purchase Sylvester Stallone's services or it can acquire a good screenplay. Stallone stars in Cliffhanger, so guess what the movie lacks.
Stallone plays Gabe Walker, an employee of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team. They scale the rugged terrain to aid hikers and climbers when nature gets the better of them. At the film's outset, Walker comes to the aid of his co-worker Tucker (Michael Rooker), who has scaled a tall peak with his inexperienced girlfriend.
Of course, don't stop to think logically. It has no value in a film like Cliffhanger so don't even bother asking yourself how a woman with no climbing skills got that high up the mountain in the first place. In fact, implausibilities stack up to a height that might rival Mount Everest.
Needless to say, it comes as no surprise when the rescue goes awry, the woman plunges to her death and Stallone blames himself. Given the film's formula nature, the script, the genre and Stallone, you know that he'll leave the mountain, wracked with guilt, only to return in a situation that requires him to conquer his fears.
Except that's not quite what happens — Walker shows no qualms about returning to the mountain (aside from when it's convenient for the plot) and Tucker's animosity only comes to the surface in a single scene before they again band together to fight the film's personification of evil. The evil in this case turns out to be a band of (surprise again) international thieves led by John Lithgow, who appears as bored being in this film as the audience is watching it. He looks as if he could steal the film at any time, but why on earth would he want to?
With the help of a crooked Treasury agent (Rex Linn), Lithgow and his gang have attempted to hijack a shipment of government cash, only the theft gets bungled the three suitcases full of greenbacks plummet to the mountain range, followed by the plane itself. Having no tracking skills of their own or climbing equipment, the crooks trick the Rescue Team into helping them find the money and put in place the film's interminable cat-and-mouse chase between Stallone and the bad guys.
Along the way, the usual elements rear their ugly heads: lame quips at inappropriate moments, slow motion yells, explosions and poetically justified deaths. Directed by Renny Harlin, who somehow gained a reputation as a good action director though he's only made three bad movies (Die Hard 2, Nightmare on Elm Street IV and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), the film does manage some nice set pieces, particularly the hijacking sequence. Aside from those few touches, even the action leaves much to be desired. When they get around to the requisite mano-a-mano between Stallone and Lithgow, the stunt looks neat but it plays out so predictably — down to when the bite occurs and how Lithgow dies — it just induces yawns.
It puzzles me why they even tried to add emotional weight to this film because the filmmakers discard it as soon as they've finished wheeling out a couple of poorly written melodramatic scenes. The characters — and I use that term loosely — are so poorly developed that only ones who seem well drawn are two twentysomething thrill seekers in a brief cameo. If the producers had brains or daring — and this film shows no evidence that they possess either — they might have tried to re-create the trailer for Cliffhanger as the film.
Dump the dialogue entirely and just present a nonstop chain of action sequences set to classical music. The result would be the same, the film would be mercifully shorter and we wouldn't be forced to listen to Stallone's anguished battle cries.
Labels: 90s, Lithgow, Stallone
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Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Jules Dassin (1911-2008)
By Edward Copeland
Of the list of prospective honorary Oscar recipients I sent to the Academy several years ago, Richard Widmark, who died last week, was the second oldest. Now, my oldest suggestion, director Jules Dassin, the man who directed Widmark in one of is best roles, 1950's Night and the City, has died as well at the age of 96.
Until his blacklisting forced him into exile in Europe, Dassin made a series of notable noirish films in Hollywood. In addition to the great Night and the City, he helmed the Burt Lancaster-Hume Cronyn prison drama Brute Force and the New York police melodrama The Naked City starring Barry Fitzgerald. His greatest film though probably was one made once he was overseas: Rififi, one of the greatest heist films ever made. The extended scene of silence during the carrying out of the robbery is a masterpiece in and of itself. Dassin later made other films, though none quite as great, including Never on Sunday and Topkapi, an attempt to duplicate the Rififi touch but did manage to win Peter Ustinov his second Oscar.
RIP Mr. Dassin.
To read, The New York Times obit, click here.
Labels: blacklist, Cronyn, Dassin, Lancaster, Obituary, Widmark
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Games people don't play
This post is part of the White Elephant Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Lucid Screening.
By Edward Copeland
When I received my assignment for this year's White Elephant Blog-a-Thon, I originally was given the task of reviewing ABBA Number Ones. Apparently though, people who choose to rent that like to keep it for a very long time and it became clear that there would be little chance I'd get to see it before April 1. Ben was kind enough to get me a substitution: Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Having not seen the first two films, I hoped I wouldn't be hopelessly lost. Also, since I would be watching it in boring old 2-D, I hoped it wouldn't lessen the experience. Mamma mia! I wished I'd been able to see the ABBA offering instead. At least their tunes were catchy. There isn't a whole lot to say about Spy Kids 3 except that it's mercifully short. Despite lacking the 3-D glasses, the images did show quite a bit of visual depth, even if I frequently recalled those old SCTV skits about 3-D movies (Would you like a hot dog?). The premise involves the youngest ex-spy kid in a family of spies being sent inside a new video game to rescue his sister from the hands of the evil Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone, who always is dangerous when he's trying to be funny). For the most part, as with all movies that try to depict life inside a video game dating back to Tron, games always are more fun to play than to watch and in the case of Spy Kids 3, a lot of the time it's difficult to even tell what the object of the game is. Robert Rodriguez's film admittedly is colorful, but it's a colorful bore. It's practically overflowing with cameos. (Having not seen a Spy Kids film before, I was surprised to see Danny Trejo appear as a character named Machete, the same character he played in the mock trailer in Grindhouse. The young actors aren't very good and the old pros don't get enough to do to help save the day, though Ricardo Montalban has some fun. Stallone though is over-the-top not only as the Toymaker but as his four imaginary friends, one of whom is obviously based on Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory. "This isn't a game — it's life!" The Toymaker bellows. It's not really life, it's hardly a game and it's certainly not a movie.
Labels: 00s, Blog-a-thons, K. Douglas, Rodriguez, Stallone
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