Friday, February 27, 2009


Play it again, Nick and Norah

By Edward Copeland
When talking about the Oscars just ended, a common conversation was the dearth of worthwhile adapted screenplay contenders. Now, I thought Doubt and Frost/Nixon were fine and I realize I was in a minority of fans of Revolutionary Road, which was snubbed. However, the other three nominees: Benjamin Button, The Reader and winner Slumdog Millionaire all had extreme problems in the script department. Now, as I catch up on films I missed, I find there was a superb adapted screenplay that got completely ignored in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Lorene Scafaria adapted the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and Peter Sollett directs with a sure hand to create the first film I've seen in ages about teenagers that seems as if it actually knows teens. You smile, you cringe, you remember, you recognize.

Everyone's favorite young straight man Michael Cera stars as Nick and the wonderful Kat Dennings plays Norah. Unlike the more famous cinematic Nick and Nora, there is no murder to be solved, though a body does disappear, though she is alive and hysterically drunk (Ari Graynor).

The plot is simple: Nick is unable to let go after breaking up with his girlfriend, making an endless series of CD song mixes for her which she discards and her schoolmate Norah rescues from trash cans because she loves the tunes. (I'm so old, when we did this, we made our mix tapes on actual cassette tapes.)

Nick, Norah and the ex (Alexis Dziena) are unexpectedly thrown together when they all end up at a gig for Nick's rock band that lacks a drummer and a permanent name. When rumors circulate that a favorite band, Fluffy, is giving a free, secret concert somewhere in New York. As the search goes on for both the wandering drunk girl and the concert, you see the seeds of attraction grow between Nick and Norah.

What's remarkable about the film is that it doesn't hit a false note. The characters all sound and feel palpably real and I can't remember the last time I saw a film about teens that I could say that about.

Even films that were mostly good such as Juno saddled their young characters with dialogue that was too cute by half. Nick and Norah rings true, no matter how long it's been since you've been a teenager yourself.

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Long-distance romance

By Edward Copeland
There was another love story at the heart of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and that is the camera's with New York. It's a romance to which I fully relate because I knew deep down that that city and I were meant for each other long before I ever set foot in it. Unfortunately, New York and I never got to cohabitate and it is highly unlikely we'll ever see each other again, but she's still my gal and always will be.

I actually visited Europe before I was ever able to touch down on the soil of New York. People thought I was crazy when I said I never felt more comfortable or at ease in my life. It's long been said that there are two types of people: NY people and L.A. people and to a certain extent, I think that's true. When I've been to Los Angeles, I've always had the sense of palpable evil. People who prefer L.A. feel that way about New York.

NY people never get that. What's not to love? The food. The culture. The excitement. The ease of transportation. Never a lack of things to do. You'd also be amazed for a city with such a large population how often you are likely to randomly happen upon someone you know from wherever it is you come from.

One of the first times I went to New York (trips became frequent, often thanks to movie junkets), a friend of mine who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers had me come up for lunch at a restaurant near the top of one of the towers. What a remarkable view. Years later, I had a job interview in one of the buildings. The towers remains one of two sets of buildings (that I know of) that I've been in that no longer exist, though the other was brought down by an act of urban planning, not terrorism.

My first non-junket trip there was to see my first Broadway show: Both parts of the exquisite Angels in America, which remains the best Broadway show I ever saw. It launched my Broadway addiction. The first musical I saw was, of course, a Sondheim, Passion while it was in previews. One of the most wonderful nights of my life was when I saw the play Buried Child then walked out, went next door, bought a ticket from a scalper and saw a late show by Elvis Costello in connection with All This Useless Beauty at The Supper Club.

My obsession grew so fierce that I kept moving closer and closer to shorten the gap between me and my love. First, I moved to Florida, where at least I found myself in the same time zone. Next, I found myself in northern New Jersey, where I could get there by train and I often did, almost on a weekly basis. Needless to say, my debt ballooned.

After moving back to Oklahoma to get my credit in order, I only went back to New York twice, then my health problems hit and it is very unlikely I'll ever be there again. During my last trip, I hadn't been diagnosed yet, so I got a hotel directly next door to the theater I was going to so I wouldn't have too far to limp to on my cane.

It was a musical. Fittingly enough, it was Sondheim again, this time the Broadway debut of Assassins, one of my favorite scores even if its book doesn't quite reach its heights, though its cast did, especially the great Denis O'Hare, doing a hysterically insane gallows walk as Charles Guiteau.

New York is depicted in countless films, but few have affected me as it did in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Probably, because so many of those are filmed in Toronto. Nick and Norah loves New York and it shows and reawakened my longing for that far-away isle I'm unlikely to ever see again. I thank the filmmakers for that.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Damn those TV ads again

By Edward Copeland
I resisted Changeling as long as I could, namely because of the pervasive TV ads when it opened that focused on Angelina Jolie wailing, "HE'S NOT MY SON!" After listening to her shrieking last year in A Mighty Heart, the thought of more screeching wasn't very palatable. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to the movie and found that both it and Jolie were good.

Changeling may be one of Clint Eastwood's best directing efforts except that it's a bit too long. It joins the growing list of period pieces, this time based on a true story, that makes the case that the Los Angeles Police Department always had corruption in its DNA.

Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a single mom whose 9-year-old son disappears. The police find an abandoned boy in Illinois and try to pass him off as Collins' son. When she immediately cries foul, instead of continuing to search and admit their error, the police begin a campaign to make it sound as if Christine is the crazy one.

Fortunately, a popular radio preacher (John Malkovich) is on her side, but not before the police have locked her away in a mental hospital, ready to give her shock treatments.

Jolie is surprisingly effective and this is certainly the best performance I've seen her give since way back in Girl, Interrupted. The Oscar nomination she received wasn't the outrage I thought it might be before I saw the film and the technical nominations it got (art direction, cinematography) were definitely earned and it was robbed of a nomination for Deborah Hopper's costumes and probably a win. (Come on, The Duchess was great, but enough with the corsets. When is the last time we saw great working class 1920s duds depicted this well?)

Except for being about 20 minutes too long, Changeling is a riveting, harrowing true story that yet again explains why I've always had the sense of palpable evil when I set foot in L.A.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Preaching to the unconverted

By Edward Copeland
I enjoyed the hell out of Religulous, even if I have to doublecheck the spelling of the film's title each time I write it. Then again, why wouldn't I? Often, people who embrace rationality over faith or superstition feel as if they are isolated and here is a film that says, "You are not alone." However, I have to wonder what effect the movie would have on someone who does believe. In my eyes, it makes its case well in several spots, but my mind was decided going in. Would it be possible to challenge the assumptions of the faithful?

While it would be understandable for the religious to steer clear of this film, assuming comedian Bill Maher will just hold them up to ridicule, there is very little of that and Maher seems to get along well with most of the faithful he meets. Neither side is out to change the other's mind and Larry Charles' documentary (or any documentary on the subject) likely would run into the same brick wall.

It reminds me of the different reactions to Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Fundamentalists hated and protested Scorsese's film without ever seeing it while the late film critic Gene Siskel, a devout Jew, said it caused him to seriously contemplate Jesus in a way he never had. Then, those same fundamentalists dragged their young children to Gibson's film with its subtle anti-Semitism and unrelenting violence that really made it the most expensive snuff film ever made.

Maher, son of a Jewish dad and a Catholic mom, was raised as a Catholic. He doesn't preach atheism, he preaches uncertainty. As a sentient being with the ability for rational thought, Maher just finds it puzzling that otherwise reasonable, intelligent people can believe in something for which there is no proof.

Still, since I share Maher's point of view on the subject, the film plays as if it were made for me. Additionally, I learned things I didn't know, such as the stories of many gods that pre-date Jesus but whose stories share remarkable similarities such as how he was born, miracles he performed and resurrection.

I also didn't realize the discrepancies between the Gospels of the New Testament. I urge anyone from the most ardent atheist to the most pious follower of any religion to watch Religulous.

You'll at least laugh and even if no minds are changed, perhaps those minds will be forced to think. Of that, I'm certain.

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Monday, February 23, 2009


Oscar post-mortem

By Edward Copeland
They promised a "new" Oscarcast, determined to enliven a moribund show and (hopefully) attract those long sought-after young viewers. Did they succeed? The show may have been a Rorschach test, because skimming comments from average folks, it seems split (as it always is) with some loving it and some hating it. My opinion: eh.

First off, it was clear Billy Crystal wasn't there or he would have rushed the stage and kicked Hugh Jackman in the balls as he did a variation of his best picture medley bit, only adding props that included Anne Hathaway.

Hugh Jackman was fine and personable and served as a really good Tony Awards host. Unfortunately, the Oscars were the awards being handed out. Now, I've complained for years about the production numbers surrounding the song nominees, but what's the point of condensing the songs into a four minute or so segment if you are gonna kill more time that that with a completely irrelevant number with Jackman, Beyonce, a couple of those High School Musical kids and the young lovers from Mamma Mia! under the premise that "The musical is back!" at which point all the young viewers either turned their Wiis back on or started fantasizing about the new Grand Theft Auto.

Producer Bill Condon also said at one point that supposedly this Oscarcast was supposed to have a narrative, to tell a sort of story. If anyone out there noticed one, please let me know. The clip packages usually defied reason and because of the staging and camerawork were sometimes impossible to read. My dad asked me after the show what was up for best picture, because he couldn't tell from the clip montage.

My big question was what the hell Butch Cassidy had to do with Benjamin Button.

In the In Memoriam section, you couldn't even see some of the names, let alone figure out the plentiful list of notables they left off. As with every year, I have to complain that they don't turn off the mics in the audience so it turns into a popularity contest. More applause for Paul Newman means they like him more than that other dead guy. Also, while in theory I don't mind the idea of someone singing a song, is "I'll Be Seeing You" the right choice? Not unless you are barely hanging on and are seeing the white light.

I was surprised Jerry Lewis gave such a short speech. I couldn't tell if he was in pain or pissed off. Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black gave the best speeches of the night. I haven't seen Waltz with Bashir, but I don't know why everyone was so surprised it lost. Where did it belong? Foreign film? Documentary? Animated feature? All three? If it can't be easily categorized, it's too difficult for the voters to wrap their heads around.

I did enjoy the Judd Apatow short, if only because I think people should be laughing uproariously at parts of The Reader.

As for Jackman as a host, for the most part, he did what I think a host should: Open the show and then stay mostly the hell out of the way the rest of the night. Why do the Oscars even need a host? The Globes do without one. Want to save some time? No host. Announcer introduces presenters. They give awards. That's it.

Of course, the usual critics whine about categories they don't care about: the shorts, makeup, etc. However, the true Oscarphiles such as myself love each category. The Academy and the network it can't tear itself away from would be better served if they stopped obsessing about expanding their audience and worried about catering to the audience they already have before they give up the Oscars in exasperation. Movie buffs and those obsessed with celebs and fashion always will be there. Your average youngster never will be and why would you even want them? You make the same mistake that most newspaper publishers and editors make: You seek an audience that doesn't exist.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


What love looks like when it's triumphant

NOTE: Ranked No. 53 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
One thing is certain when Hollywood gathers tonight to hand out the Academy Awards for the 81st time: No film has a chance of sweeping the top 5 categories of picture, director, actor, actress and writing. Seventy-five years ago today, a film was released that would be the first to achieve that feat and only two other films have equaled it since. Though It Happened One Night may be 75 years old, it may be the best of the three films that have pulled off the sweep.

Director Frank Capra won the first of his three Oscars for It Happened One Night. Capra, at least as far as I'm concerned, always has had an unfair reputation as a corny sentimentalist as a director and while that description could certainly apply to some of his movies, it by no means apply to them all and, in his best films, that sentimentality is usually earned. It Happened One Night certainly doesn't fit into that pigeonhole: It's just a solid romantic comedy — and the romance comes late, sentiment is in very small doses and there's nary a trace of corniness to be found.

What you do find though is the very essence of romantic chemistry between its Oscar-winning stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. As individual characters, the actors are just as winning. Colbert's portrayal of Ellie Andrews, the spoiled heiress determined to marry a man her father despises is great, even though she speaks the truth when she tells her dad (the great Walter Connolly) that they come from a long line of stubborn idiots. You can hardly blame her dad, since the man Ellie wants to run off and make her husband is King Westley (Jameson Thomas), a too-old dandy of a playboy.

Gable is a comic dynamo as Peter Warne, the reporter we first see stinking drunk in a phone booth telling off his editor in front of a crowd of spectators. Re-watching the movie, it occurred to me how, even when it was a negative portrayal of yellow journalism, old films seemed to have a better take on the newspaper journalist than any films made today. So few are even made today and when they are, they usually are laughably ridiculous. (I'll give only one example: Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed who is supposed to be a copy editor and has her own office. That's funny enough, even before she gets her undercover reporting assignment.) When fate gets in the way of the last seat of a bus bring Peter and Ellie together, so comes the road trip and the sparks. The memorable scenes pile up one after another. There's the encounter on the bus with the now-forgotten character actor Roscoe Karns as Shapeley. There's the hysterical hitchhiking scene (remember, the limb is mightier than the thumb). The car ride with Alan Hale Sr. The Walls of Jericho, built out of blankets. Perhaps the most magical scene is when Ellie asks Peter if he's ever been in love while they are on opposite sides of the blanket and the wiseacre gets serious for a moment, wistfully describing the kind of woman that could capture his heart while we see Ellie slowly melt on the other side of the blanket. Seventy-five years later, the performances are still great, the laughs are still solid and the romance is still earned. If there are Walls of Jericho that prevent modern moviegoers from letting themselves enjoy the charms of It Happened One Night today, I say, "Let them topple."

FUN NOTE: I finally saw Clint Eastwood's Changeling last night and Angelina Jolie's character puts two dollars on It Happened One Night to win best picture in an Oscar pool, which is the first time I can remember an Oscar pool ever being referred to in any film.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009


All aboard the Overland Stage

By Edward Copeland
Western lore had been around a long time in 1939, in dime novels and below-B grade movies and Gene Autry shorts. Then, 70 years ago today, John Ford's Stagecoach opened and it practically invented the genre from scratch (though that's a bit mythical as well since Destry Rides Again would gallop into theaters just mere months later) as well as introducing one of the biggest movie stars of all time. Given the iconic shot that Ford used to introduce the Ringo Kid, the director had to know that his film was giving birth to a star.

While Stagecoach remains a great film and a landmark in motion pictures, it was a somewhat odd experience re-watching it as it came as I continued my journey through the Deadwood box set that I received for Christmas meaning that, even subconsciously, I was ready for a different kind of Western. Every time one of the snobs turned their nose up at "fallen woman" Dallas (Claire Trevor), how I longed for Ringo to call someone a cocksucker.

Then again, when you get down to it, the Western never has been a simple type when you think about it. Stagecoach begins and ends in Western towns with the trail ride in between; Deadwood remained almost exclusively within a town, as did High Noon and Rio Bravo; Red River rode its story along a cattle drive; Fort Apache took its stand at a military outpost; The Wild Bunch went all over. All would be considered Westerns.

Still, Stagecoach unofficially created a certain form of template. There is one actual link between Ford's film and Deadwood. You can still admire its great b&w cinematography and early use of deep focus and that was the work of its d.p., Bert Glennon, whose son, the late James Glennon, was the director of photography for the bulk of the episodes of Deadwood.

One thing that does set Stagecoach apart from most in its vast genre is that it's an ensemble piece. It may have launched John Wayne's career into high gear, but he wasn't the lead and neither was anyone else in the cast really and what an assortment it was. There was Andy Devine providing abundant comic relief as the stagecoach driver Buck. John Carradine as the gentleman gambler Hatfield who joins the ride to protect the lovely gentlewoman Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) on the way to join her Cavalry husband. George Bancroft as Curly, the marshal who literally rides shotgun because of reports of attacks by Geronimo and Apache forces as well as to deliver the Ringo Kid to jail. Donald Meek (has there ever been a more appropriate last name for a character actor?) as the whiskey drummer Mr. Peacock. Then there is Berton Churchill as Gatewood, the banker who, at the thought of another lunch with his wife and her society of female do-gooders, decides to grant himself a bit of a bonus and skip town. It is funny how the women who drive Dallas out of town in the opening and try to regulate morality make the Margaret Hamilton character in My Little Chickadee even more of a pitch-perfect parody.

Finally, there is Thomas Mitchell as the boozehound Doc Boone, a performance for which Mitchell won the 1939 Oscar. Mitchell had one helluva year of performances from which to choose from too. In 1939, he also played Scarlett's father in Gone With the Wind, Jean Arthur's fellow reporter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Cary Grant's pal in Only Angels Have Wings and Clopin, king of the beggars in Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike this year with Kate Winslet, the Academy chose the proper Mitchell role as Doc Boone is a great one, never overplaying the drunkenness and then when the time comes, making the inner wisdom and strength convincing when he has to sober up and perform his medicinal duties. In fact, for some first-time viewers today, much of Stagecoach's plot will seem predictable and trite. You know the alcoholic doctor will overcome his weakness to come through when he's needed. You know the woman with her nose in the air will come to see that the fallen woman is just another human being. You know the marshal will be an old softie. However, it's important to remember that in 1939, all these cliches weren't the cliches they are now. Other parts of the film will seem oddly prescient, particularly those dealing with the banker Gatewood who says, "What's good for banks are good for America," complains about taxes and Washington wanting to install examiners to look over bank books. Then you remember that when they were filming this in 1938, it was still recovering from the last time that a lack of regulation allowed the nation's financiers to drive our economy into the ditch.

Finally though, this is Ford's show and he makes the most of it. In addition to the aforementioned photography and mythic introduction of the Ringo Kid, there are other iconic shots, most set in Monument Valley. Landmark camera work such as the whip pan from the stage riding through the valley to the Apaches perched on a hill. Finally, there is the amazing nine-minute chase sequence as the Apaches pursue the stage, punctuated with the remarkable stunt work of the legendary Yakima Canutt. Stagecoach may be 70 years old, but it's still sturdy enough to carry passengers today.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009


It is better to give than to receive

By Edward Copeland
Edward Copeland on Film is the proud recipient of the Premio Dardos Award, a meme that has been circulating among the film blogging community for the past couple of months and which was bestowed upon me by Bob Westal at Forward to Yesterday. According to the description of the award, "The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web." Of course, as with most prizes and memes of this sort, they are accompanied by rules. First, never let the Dardos eat after midnight. Wait, I'm confusing my rule lists. Here are the real ones:
  • 1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
  • 2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

  • Now, that's always the hard part, not only because there are so many worthy candidates but because so many of them already have been honored. I tried to do as much research as I could as to whether possible recipients were already winners. One of my possible winners thought that the prize was intended for one person shows. Since I could never locate the origin of the award, nothing in the description I was given indication such a rule and since my site actually has several contributors, I decided not to worry about that. If I pass the honor along to anyone who has been honored before, I apologize in advance.

    So, I pass along the Dardos Awards to these 5 blogs, in no particular order:

  • 1) Keith Uhlich, editor emeritus Matt Zoller Seitz and the many talented contributors who have made The House Next Door a must-read for anyone interested in serious discussion of film, television and related issues on the Internet.

  • 2) Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication who espouses your basic movie or TV review alongside lengthier thought pieces on genres and trends, all with intelligence and excellence.

  • 3) M.A. Peel at her self-named blog which effortlessly details pieces on television and film with literature and poetry alongside thoughts on her travels. Like the secret agent her name is a play on, you never know quite what to expect, but it's always likely to be good.

  • 4) Craig at The Man from Porlock sometimes make you wait for new posts, but when they arrive, be they about film or television or just pointing you to interesting reads, they are more than worth it. Who else can find parallels between The Office and Deadwood?

  • 5) Joe Baltake at The Passionate Moviegoer and there is no better evidence of his passion than his subject matter, defending and remembering the more obscure titles from cinematic history. No matter how much you think you might know about movies, odds are you will learn of new ones if you check out Joe's site.

  • Labels:


    Friday, February 13, 2009


    Cheers for Melissa Leo

    By Edward Copeland
    As a fan of film, television and theater, it's difficult not to root for some performers who have fallen off the radar. This was definitely the case for many with Mickey Rourke's comeback in The Wrestler. For me, it is gratifying to see renewed acclaimed for Melissa Leo via the vehicle of Frozen River.

    I was a huge fan of the TV series of Homicide: Life on the Street, a great series that grew weaker each time they made a lame casting decision in an attempt to boost ratings at the expense of excellence. One of the worst of these decisions was when they cut Leo and her great character of Kay Howard from the cast.

    Wait long enough though, and excellence will rise again and Leo has in Frozen River in the role of abandoned mom Ray Eddy. Her reward has been acclaim and a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

    Courtney Hunt's writing-directing debut also earned a nomination for original screenplay and while the film is good, Leo's performance is stronger than the movie as a whole.

    Leo plays a struggling mom with a teenage son and 5-year-old son whose husband disappears as Christmas approaches. Left with only a dead-end part-time job in a dollar store, Ray struggle to make ends meet and to realize her family's dream of getting their own double-wide.

    When Ray stumbles upon her husband's car, she also crosses path with Lila, a young Mohawk Indian woman (Misty Upham) whose own child has been taken from her and has been making money by smuggling illegal immigrants from China, Pakistan and elsewhere across the Canadian border. Ray reluctantly gets drawn in to the operation, eventually finding the big paydays too lucrative to pass up, despite her reservations.

    Meanwhile, Ray's teen son (Charlie McDermott) is attempting scams of his own before a rent-to-own company takes the family's color TV away.

    Hunt does set some beautiful compositions as a director, but some of the twists of the screenplay strain credulity. Thankfully, Leo's performance, never begging for the audience's sympathy and showing a tough veneer without sacrificing the mother's love beneath, makes the movie work.

    It's great to see her get such a great role again. Let's hope it's the first of many.

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    Thursday, February 12, 2009


    Beware those colorful rogues

    By Edward Copeland
    As I mentioned yesterday in my tribute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, There Was a Crooked Man proved to be such a pleasant surprise that I decided to give it a more thorough write-up. While Sleuth was competently directed, it was never one of my favorite films, but Mankiewicz's penultimate film shows that the director still had his skills in the twilight of his career.

    Kirk Douglas stars as Paris Pitman Jr., a post-Civil War scoundrel, robbing wherever he can, but doing so with charm and aplomb. The film is a dark comic Western and the first screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman following Bonnie and Clyde. In many respects, it shares a similar tone with that film, particularly in the opening sequences which create a sort of picaresque version of a Western to introduce all the characters before they are all ensconced in the same location.

    The movie's tone is even set by its bouncy credit sequence, which includes a title song by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (the songwriters of Bye Bye Birdie) and sung by Trini Lopez.

    We open as Paris and his band of masked marauders, in the most polite way possible, intrude upon a wealthy man (Arthur O'Connell) and his family during dinner and proceed to steal his fortune. Not wanting to be perceived as rude, Paris goes ahead and serves the fried chicken while it is hot as his cohorts scoop up the bounty. Unfortunately, as they make their escape, Paris' entire gang is gunned down, leaving Paris to ride off solo with all that loot.

    After the storing the bulk of his ill-gotten gain, Paris proceeds to have a good time. Unfortunately, it leads him to the same brothel frequented by the now destitute O'Connell who recognizes him.

    The next series of vignettes introduces other varying degrees of shady characters (Hume Cronyn, John Randolph, Warren Oates) a stalwart sheriff (Henry Fonda) and an unlucky young man who fate earns a path to the gallows (Michael Blodgett). All the various characters end up in the same frontier prison, incarcerated with an aging legendary outlaw (Burgess Meredith). At the prison, the cast even includes the Skipper, too as Alan Hale plays a prison guard. Mankiewicz moves the action at a brisk pace as Paris befriends his cellmates, woos his wardens and plots to make his break and get reunited with his stolen fortune. Paris is such a good-humored character, it's easy to see how he ingratiates himself with everyone he meets, which makes the ending sort of a surprise. There are plenty of clues along the way that should make it obvious where it's headed, but Paris seduces the audience as well, much in the way many an antihero in film and television history has, making you forget their essential nature. The title of There Was a Crooked Man itself should flash in your brain like a neon sign as to what Paris is really like, but he still fools you into the finale, though an appropriate comeuppance still finds its way to him. Sleuth may be Mankiewicz's official last film, but There Was a Crooked Man is so good and so much fun, that it really deserves to be remembered as his last contribution to features.

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    Wednesday, February 11, 2009


    Centennial Tributes: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

    By Edward Copeland
    One hundred years ago today in Wilkes Barre, Penn., Joseph Leo Mankiewicz was born. Twenty years later, he already was beginning to make his mark in Hollywood as a translator of intertitles for the remaining silent films at the Paramount office in Berlin as the transformation to sound was still taking place. Throughout his long career, Mankiewicz would work as a producer, a writer and a director, sometimes on the same film, sometimes not. It's a good thing sound arrived, because Mankiewicz's greatest gifts came in his memorable dialogue. He also achieved an amazing, never duplicated feat, winning Oscars for writing and directing in two consecutive years: in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives and in 1950 for All About Eve. He wasn't the first Oscar winner in the Mankiewicz family however. His elder brother Herman had won a writing Oscar for co-writing none other than Citizen Kane with Orson Welles in 1941. Now that's one helluva family.
    One of Joe Mankiewicz's earliest credits as a writer earned him an Oscar nomination. It was 1931's Skippy, which also earned a best picture nomination, a best actor nomination for Jackie Cooper (at the tender age of 9) and a best director Oscar for Norman Taurog. In 1932, Mankiewicz received a story credit for Million Dollar Legs, a Jack Oakie vehicle featuring W.C. Fields which movie critic Pauline Kael (presumably in jest) frequently referred to as the best film of all time. It's funny and entertaining, but Kael must have been having fun at someone's expense with that pronouncement. Mankiewicz worked with Fields again when he wrote the all-star 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland. In 1934, he got to shift away a bit from his more comic roots, penning Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell. In 1936, his career took a turn toward producing and Mankiewicz produced the original version of Three Godfathers with Walter Brennan, The Gorgeous Hussy and the still powerful Fury starring Spencer Tracy as a wronged man. He produced many films in this period, including The Shopworn Angel starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, The Philadelphia Story (which earned him another Oscar nomination) and the first pairing of Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year. The writing bug must have returned because he both produced and wrote 1944's The Keys to the Kingdom and he wasn't credited as a producer again until the 1960s. He wrote 1946's Dragonwyck, originally meant as an Ernst Lubitsch project but when Lubitsch took ill, Mankiewicz took over directing duties as well and his directing career was born. His fifth film as a director, 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, was the first to gain some notice, mixing comedy and pathos as a widowed Gene Tierney and her daughter (Natalie Wood) move into a haunted seaside home and instead of running as most have, learn to live with the ghost of the sea captain who still resides there (Rex Harrison). Mankiewicz didn't write this one, but there is a sweetness to it and it did pair the director with George Sanders for the first time. Based on a novel, the movie would later be turned into a TV sitcom in the 1960s. January 1949 began what truly was an incredible run for Mankiewicz as a director and the first of the two films that would win him consecutive writing and directing Oscars. In a way, you can see why people who whined about Revolutionary Road whined about its take on the problems of marriage in suburbia because A Letter to Three Wives was doing it 60 years ago. The narrator, an unseen character named Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm), even remarks early on how if you traveled down the suburban streets you'd find marriages in various stages of ascent and descent. Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell play the three wives of the title who, off supervising some kids on an outing, receive a letter from Addie informing them that not only has she left their town, she's taken one of the trio's hubbies with her as a souvenir. Most of the film unfolds in flashback as the three women recall crucial points in their courtships and marriages while wondering if it's her man that might be the one that got away. Mankiewicz's writing is sharp and the performances are strong, especially Sothern as a radio writer and Kirk Douglas as her school teacher husband who gets a great scene dressing down some radio executive vulgarians about what the meaning of real writing is and what the result of dumbing down America will be. Sixty years later, some things not only never change, they only get worse. As if that weren't enough for a film fan to bite on, Mankiewicz even tosses in Thelma Ritter in an uncredited role and Ritter in a movie is seldom a bad thing. Mankiewicz wasn't done for 1949 either. Later in the year, he also directed a now nearly forgotten pseudo-noir called House of Strangers starring Richard Conte, Edward G. Robinson and Susan Hayward. The film opens with Conte returning home to see his brothers at their bank after a seven year absence, five years after their father (Robinson) has died. Like Letter, the story unfolds in flashback, which proves to be a frequent tool in Mankiewicz's film career, despite the wide variance in subject matter. Robinson plays Gino Monetti, a stubborn but proud Italian immigrant who is tough on his sons, favoring Max (Conte) over his three jealous brothers. Gino runs a bank, though he's really a glorified loan shark, only he works out of well-equipped office building. Robinson is great as always, even if his Italian accent is a bit hokey. Even though the script is credited to Philip Yordan, I can't help but detect a bit of that Mankiewicz flavor, especially in the scenes between Conte and the woman who comes into his life (Hayward). In fact, House of Strangers almost seems to be moving on two tracts for awhile: the story of the Monetti family and the sparring romance between Conte and Hayward. Eventually, they merge to some extent and the film's themes of loyalty, family and not repeating the mistakes of an earlier generation come through. While it isn't a great movie, it is a good one that is worth rediscovery. Next up, Mankiewicz tackled an issue film, namely racism in No Way Out, which is most notable as the film debut of Sidney Poitier as a doctor beginning his residency in a hospital's prison ward. Unfortunately, as with many message movies, the older they are, the more dated they feel and that is certainly the case here though there is still a palpable sting of hate when you hear Richard Widmark as the racist robber spit out the n-word. The film isn't helped by some gaping plot holes and an ending you can spot within the first minutes of the film. Thankfully, Mankiewicz had something much better to offer moviegoers later in 1950, in fact, it was his masterpiece, the film that won him the second half of those consecutive writing and directing Oscars. If Joseph L. Mankiewicz had made no film other than All About Eve, that film alone would make him worthy of a centennial tribute. The ultimate backstage theater story, it gave Bette Davis what was perhaps her greatest screen role and had so much quotable dialogue, you almost just want to list lines from it. In fact, All About Eve deserves its own separate post and review, which I hope to get to someday, if only so I can write a love letter to George Sanders' Oscar-winning role as Addison DeWitt, who is nobody's fool, though he is an improbable person, with contempt for humanity and the inability to love or be loved, though that last part isn't true. I love Addison DeWitt. The following year, Mankiewicz continued his writing-directing streak with Cary Grant starring as an unorthodox doctor who draws the ire and scrutiny of the medical community because of his methods and his private life in People Will Talk. He scored again in 1952, though only behind the camera, with the great spy tale 5 Fingers starring James Mason in one of his very best performances as the valet of the British ambassador to Turkey who pursues a life of leisure funded by espionage. It earned Mankiewicz another Oscar nomination as director. In 1953, he let Shakespeare do the writing, but the casting seemed a bit unusual as he took one of the era's hottest stars of a new style of acting, Marlon Brando, and cast him as Antony in Julius Caesar. Brando got an Oscar nomination for the film. In 1954, he wrote and directed a different sort of study of fame than All About Eve was. The cynicism didn't have an air of fun, it was laced with sadness and tragedy in The Barefoot Contessa which starred Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner and won a supporting actor Oscar for Edmond O'Brien as well as a writing nomination for Mankiewicz. His 1955 offering was much more fun and he again used Marlon Brando in a surprising way: as a musical star, much to Frank Sinatra's chagrin. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the big-screen version of the Broadway hit Guys and Dolls. Then, in a casting decision that miffed Ol' Blue Eyes, he gave Brando the role of Sky Masterson, the larger singing part of the two male leads, leaving Sinatra to take on Nathan Detroit. Thankfully, Brando wasn't an embarrassment and the film is fun. After making that many movies in that many years, a man is entitled to a break, so it's not surprising that it was three years until another Joseph L. Mankiewicz-directed film hit theaters. Then again, it could have been complicated by the fact that much of it was being filmed in civil war-torn Vietnam as he adapted Graham Greene's The Quiet American. This original version, unlike the 2002 remake starring Michael Caine, was set in 1952 before U.S. involvement when Vietnam's emperor and the French military battled the communist insurgents in the north. What also sets the original apart from the remake is that it isn't a complete and utter bore, only a sporadically and partial bore. Michael Redgrave plays the British reporter who claims no sides and he's awfully good and in a strange paradox, Audie Murphy plays the title character and though he's nowhere near as good an actor as Brendan Fraser is in the remake, somehow Murphy's scenes with Redgrave are 10 times more compelling. In the wake of Vietnam, many reviewers preferred the remake, thinking that the original made Redgrave the villain and Murphy the hero for trying to launch terrorist acts that would make U.S. involvement justified, but I think people who lived through the Vietnam War era saw what they wanted to see. Mankiewicz's film doesn't really have heroes or villains. It's a sad love triangle about a lonely older man having his world views shattered in the middle of a mystery. The next year, Mankiewicz tried his hand at directing a Tennessee Williams adaptation, always a dubious proposition in the prudish 1950s. Even with Williams and Gore Vidal handling the screenplay duties, Suddenly, Last Summer still came out watered down, though it didn't help that it wasn't one of Williams' strongest plays to begin with. The film did, however, reunite Mankiewicz with Katharine Hepburn, for the first time as a director, and introduced him to Elizabeth Taylor who would star in his next production, one of the most infamous productions of excess in the history of Hollywood. Yes, poor Joe was the man who helmed 1963's Cleopatra, with its trendsetting budget overruns, off-camera romances, etc., etc. It still managed to earn Oscar nominations and has some positive qualities, but even Mankiewicz voiced regrets over his involvements. His next project would be for television, which I haven't seen, followed by the film The Honey Pot in 1967, another one I haven't seen, followed by a documentary on Martin Luther King. In trying to catch up on some of his work I haven't seen for this piece, I was introduced to 1970's There Was a Crooked Man, a comic Western starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda that was such a joy that I decided it deserves a full review, which I hope to get to soon. Two years later, Mankiewicz directed his final film, the original Sleuth, the gamesmanship movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine and adapted from Anthony Shaffer's stage play. Appropriately, he got one final nomination for director. While it marked the end of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's career, it wasn't of his life. He lived until 1993 and died eight days short of his 84th birthday.

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    Tuesday, February 10, 2009


    Plots Without Regard

    By Jonathan Pacheco
    Youth Without Youth blipped briefly on my radar when it premiered; the return of Francis Ford Coppola excited me, but negative reviews quelled most of my enthusiasm. All I knew about the film was that it involved a man growing rapidly younger while his lover raced in the other direction. When the movie showed up on Netflix’s online streaming service, it once again aroused my interest, almost as an alternative to last year’s Benjamin Button. I soon found out that not only did Coppola’s film resemble Button, but it also contained traces of The Good German and possibly a Michael Crichton novel. I generally enjoy those things, but it was difficult to find much pleasure in Youth Without Youth. The director puts the film together skillfully, as if he never took a hiatus, but the rusty storytelling contradicts that.

    One can easily segment the wildly different ideas that Youth Without Youth meshes together, but oddly the film never quite feels episodic. It moves more like a storyteller who realizes his yarn may be too “dull” for some, so he makes some sharp turns to keep their interest. Whether that’s Coppola’s doing or it stretches back to the original published story, I don’t know. Regardless, the feeling is present in the final product, which puts the blame on the director.

    The film begins as a story about a scientific phenomenon and the repercussions and opportunities it provides. Next thing you know, you’re in the middle of a WWII sci-fi picture before ultimately finding yourself in a philosophical dilemma involving etymology. Honestly, I’m not sure what was wrong with the plot that began the film, or why Coppola felt the need to veer in the middle of it. Then again, the second plot was interesting too, as was the third one. We’re not dealing with dull material here, but it’s not material that was masterfully pieced together, consequently draining the film of much of its life.

    Worse, Youth Without Youth rarely feels like it’s “about” anything. Sure, there’s plenty of plot to go around, but what does the film give us to really chew on? What can I ponder or dissect? We get glimpses at several possibilities — lovers aging in different directions, the origin of language, Nazi scientific practices — but the movie takes no care to cultivate or explore any of these ideas. It’s amazing how a movie with possibly too many ideas ends up seeming like a movie about nothing.

    On the way to work one day, I ran through the entire plot of Youth Without Youth for my girlfriend. Two thirds into my description, she asked, “Is this a made-for-TV movie?”

    “No, it was theatrical,” I said.

    “And this made money?

    “Well, I don’t know about that.”

    It’s miserably clear that Coppola didn’t know what he wanted from Youth Without Youth — or perhaps he did know, and didn’t realize what a mess of a film his ideas could create. As mentioned, the film shares some ambitions with The Good German. Both seek to reproduce the style of a long-gone era of Hollywood through formalism. While Soderbergh seemed certain in the impact he wanted his film to create, I’m not sure that Coppola was entirely clear on his own intentions. The film’s a bit of a fever dream, not entirely engaging, but somewhat lifeless, especially considering the director.

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    Saturday, February 07, 2009


    James Whitmore (1921-2009)

    Many actors earn Oscar nominations for their film debuts, but that doesn't make the feat any less impressive and James Whitmore did that for his first film outing in William Wellman's 1949 film Battleground about the World War II Battle of Bastogne. It was the beginning of a long and illustrious film career, though Whitmore, who died Friday at age 87, left his mark on the stage and television as well.

    The year before Whitmore got his supporting actor nomination for Battleground he received a Tony Award that is no longer given for Broadway excellence: best performance by a newcomer in Command Decision.

    In 1950, he got to work with John Huston in the classic crime film The Asphalt Jungle. Huston used his distinctive voice again the following year in an uncredited role as the narrator of his adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage.

    Those distinctive vocal chords gave life to the angel in the original version of Angels in the Outfield that same year. Though not cast in any of the major singing roles, Whitmore also showed up in the film versions of Kiss Me, Kate and Oklahoma! In between, he had to help battle mutant giant ants in the cult sci-fi classic Them!

    Toward the end of the 1950s, he began to appear frequently on television, usually on the many theater programs as opposed to series. He still made features, including The Deep Six in 1958.

    As the 1960s came along, he did begin to make guest appearances in series such as Wagon Train, Ben Casey and The Twilight Zone. In 1964, he starred in the screen adaptation of Black Like Me about a white reporter who went undercover as an African American to try to get a better look at racism in the United States.

    He put on more elaborate makeup as the president of the assembly in the original Planet of the Apes. During the 1970s, he developed a taste for playing historical figures in one-man stage shows. His repertoire included Will Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The film version of his Truman show, Give 'Em Hell, Harry, earned him his second Oscar nomination in 1975.

    He still appeared in films and on TV. In 1973, he starred as a groovy professor in The Harrad Experiment, a film about free love that I dare anyone to try to watch with a straight face today. Among his later, most memorable film work was as Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, the old inmate who'd been "institutionalized" because he'd been jailed and couldn't deal with freedom at such an old age and said, "You better get busy livin' or get busy dyin.'"

    His only two Emmy nominations came after that, including a win for a guest appearance on The Practice and for a guest appearance on a series I don't even recall titled Mister Sterling.

    Through his gigantic body of work, there are numerous things that bear the marking that James Whitmore was here.

    RIP Mr. Whitmore.

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    Wednesday, February 04, 2009


    Remembrance of prisoners past

    By John Dacapias
    The recent passing of Patrick McGoohan leads my mind back to a time when I was in my early teens, a tall-for-my-age, shy-around-everyone 14-year-old geek. Yes, The Prisoner, the mod but mind-bending TV series, which came at the very end of the '60s spy genre (1967), led to the maturation of this very writer near the end of the '70s.

    I swallowed whole books, films and television programs as if they were all milk chocolate kisses, anything dealing with the future, of proud men striding forth to conquer a bright tomorrow, angry aliens and computers. One can imagine then how the introduction of The Prisoner in the only commercial free station available in San Diego (KPBS) was to me.

    A man, No. 6, proud of spirit, fighting against a hidden but multivalved organization with tentacles where ever he turned, who tried every means at his disposal to retain his individuality: the series was like manna to my aching soul.

    The Prisoner ostensibly followed a character similar to John Drake of Danger Man, McGoohan’s former television series, that lead to the Johnny Rivers hit “Secret Agent Man” (subsequently, the series was called “Secret Agent” in the United States). Snatched after resigning from a secretive organization that remotely resembled M16, or the British version of the CIA, a few puffs of smoke, and he is “reassigned” to the Village, the Hotel Portmeirion, in North Wales (which we do not discover until an end credit in the final episode).

    Quizzed by a variety of No. 2s through the whole of the series, as to why he resigned from his former organization, we go from having No. 6 quizzed while being in a Western (“Living in Harmony”) to having No. 6 discover that all along (SPOILER), he was the elusive No. 1 or the head of the Village.

    Though only 17 episodes, (The Prisoner was pared down from 26 episodes by a studio (ITV) probably confounded by the results of what was being made through their financial auspices) it was a spy series that with the final episode, “Fall Out,” threw everything that was experienced by this viewer into doubt.

    Patrick McGoohan, if one thinks about it, was an unlikely action hero. With eyes set deeply into his skull and a stentorian voice that approached the heights of his mentor, Richard Burton, McGoohan ultimately had his hand in virtually everything that was The Prisoner, from writing a few of the scripts to directing more of them (ultimately using pseudonyms so it was not too obvious). McGoohan clashed with directors, such as on the set of Ice Station Zebra, and was reportedly depressed about not achieving a viable film career at the time of his passing, it was said.

    With the continued resonance of The Prisoner throughout pop culture, from The Simpsons having the bulbous Rover chasing Marge during one episode, to rock and pop groups all quoting its distinctive main theme, Patrick McGoohan need not worry about his legacy. If only writers continue to fall in love with its varied themes of personal value within increasingly formalized nation-states, trying against it all to remain a name, a free man, and not a number.

    P.S. Even now, as I type this, if you go into the AMC Web site, you will see that the basic cable channel is doing an ill-advised remake of The Prisoner series. Though it is a a definite product of its time (the 1960s), without having the ever inquisitive mind of Patrick McGoohan in some capacity, the current redo of The Prisoner will only be a very weak version of the timeless British series.


    John Dacapias is currently head of the Movie Club of San Diego, Calif., now celebrating its tenth year, and is a member of the San Diego Asian Film Forum, also celebrating its tenth year. A graduate of San Diego State University, he enjoys cheese enchiladas, the love of his girlfriend, Carla, and the murmur of a crowded theater audience, collectively reacting as one.

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    Monday, February 02, 2009


    My hero

    By Edward Copeland
    Given the fact that in 2008, I spent three-and-a-half months in hospitals and all the time since in a hospital bed in my bedroom with the exception of trips to hospitals and doctors, you would think that the last television series I'd embrace would be a medical drama, but I did. Granted, I came to House late in its run, but its lead character is the type of physician I long for.

    Dr. Gregory House reminds me a lot of myself: We're both misanthropic, don't suffer fools gladly and endure chronic pain. Unfortunately, I don't share his seemingly unlimited access to painkillers because I would make a great pill addict. Actually, I don't know if that's true. It's been my experience that after awhile, I build up a tolerance to certain medications and have to try another. Surely by now, Vicodin has outlived its usefulness for House.

    Then again, it might have. One of the problem with coming to a series late and not doing it by getting season DVDs and watching it in order means I have huge gaps in terms of story. Hell, I don't know what caused House's leg injury in the first place.

    I've seen episodes involving Chi McBride as the rich pharmaceutical entrepreneur who buys the hospital and gives House hell but I've never seen episodes explaining how that resolved itself. Still, it doesn't matter because the show's medical mystery formula is so solid and Hugh Laurie is so damn entertaining.

    Why hasn't this man won an Emmy? I have to wonder if Emmy voters have something against giving the prize to British actors playing either Americans or in American settings in drama series. Hugh Laurie, Ian McShane. Can anyone else think of any examples?

    The supporting cast on House is fine, especially his relationship with Robert Sean Leonard, but Hugh Laurie is the show. I wish there really were a Dr. Gregory House.

    There isn't a lot of mystery to my various ailments, but I bet he could help me and if he did come to see me, I might be that rare patient he'd get along with. Then again, we might be too much alike for that.

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