Wednesday, December 03, 2014

neil and craig's excellent adventure

Allison Williams - More Diane Keaton than Peter Pan
Neil and Craig would be Neil Meron and Craig Zadan who, beyond other endeavors, are committed to keeping the film musical alive, whether it's in movie theaters or on television.  Bless them.

They've been obsessed with this project for at least two decades now and, arguably, their most commanding triumph was the live telecast of "The Sound of Music" on NBC in 2013.  Fooling all skeptics, that telecast, starring a game Carrie Underwood, was a ratings sensation.  It's something that NBC would like to repeat with the Meron/Zadan-produced "Peter Pan," which the network will air - again, live - tomorrow night.

Of course, show business being show business, it will not be enough if the ratings for "Peter Pan" equals those for "The Sound of Music."  It has to top them.  That seems to be the expectation behind the relentless promotion for "Peter Pan" that's been laced through all of NBC's prime-time shows for the past two weeks or so.

My hunch is that "Pan" will come close to "Music," in terms of ratings, but won't overtake or even equal it.

For one thing, there's the source material.  "The Sound of Music" has become something of a religious experience for most Americans.  They can't get enough of it.  The original 1965 film opened to mixed reviews but it went on to win an Oscar (as best picture, among others) and it has grown in stature in the past 50 years.  Just ask the management of San Francisco's Castro Theater where the sing-along "Sound of Music" is screened regularly - and regularly brings in enthusiastic crowds.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, is a Broadway antique which means little, if anything, to modern audiences.

Then, there's the stars.  Carrie Underwood, who toplined NBC's "Sound of Music," has a huge -and hugely loyal - following.  And it didn't hurt that Meron and Zadan were shrewd enough to cast "True Blood's" Stephen Moyer (for sex appeal) opposite Underwood.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, has Allison Williams in the lead, an appealing actress known largely, and only, for her role on HBO's "Girls."  And her leading man is Christopher Walken, one of our top character actors but certainly not one to lure in a sizable audience.

Back in January of 2014, Robert Greenblatt, the director of entertainment for NBC, opined that his dream Peter Pan was Mylie Cyrus.  I agree.  She has the right bearing and the right voice (read: husky).  But, reportedly, Cyrus wasn't interested and it didn't help that a bunch of yahoos got on the internet to protest the idea.  All in all, a missed opportunity.

Allison Williams, for anyone who has seen her on "Girls," is ready to carry on the Diane Keaton tradition.  She's a charming, edgy light comedienne.  From the few clips I've seen of her as Peter, she comes across as a Valley Girl in drag.  And, unlike Cyrus, her singing voice is decidedly feminine.

Finally, there's the uncertain future of NBC's live musicals.  The network has painted itself into a corner, given that it's become rather painfully apparent that all primetime musicals must be "family friendly."

I say this based on the web's first two efforts and the reported third, which will be "The Music Man" (a property that Meron and Zadan have already brought to TV in 2003 with a miscast Matthew Broderick in the the lead role).  Who on earth will be tapped to play Professor Howard Hill this time around?  It has to be a pop-culture personality, that's for sure.  Maybe Seth MacFarlane, who can sing and who, perhaps not coincidentally, hosted one of the Meron/Zadan-produced Oscar shows.

But after "The Music Man," what's left? "Annie" will be back in movie theaters soon (and Meron/Zadan already did a TV version of that chestnut).  Disney certainly wouldn't permit anyone but ABC to produce any of its properties. So "The Lion King" and "Newsies" are out.  Maybe "The King and I."  That's family-friendly.  Or perhaps "Oliver!"

Beyond that, I can't think of too many musicals that are suitable for mom, dad and the kids.

Monday, December 01, 2014

façade: Aldo Ray

The husky-voiced, thick-necked Aldo Ray, née Aldo DaRe, was one of the more atypical, fascinating leading men of the 1950s.

He had his only conventional leading-man role opposite Judy Holliday in his offical debut film, George Cukor's affecting "The Marrying Kind" (1952), in which he was introduced (oddly) as "Judy's life of love." 

Prior to Cukor's film, he acted as Aldo DeRa in two 1951 films, David Miller's "Saturday's Hero" and Mickey Rooney's "My True Story."

Although he starred in another Cukor film, 1952's "Pat and Mike," and in Alexander Hall's "Let's Do It Again" (1953), he never really caught on as a leading man or a light actor, despite his considerable talent.

Aldo Ray, who passed in 1991, was way too aggressively masculine, burly and no-nonsense - intimidating actually - for romantic comedies.

Or for romance in general.

Ray's career-defining roles were in perhaps two Raoul Walsh war epics, "Battle Cry" (1955) and "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), and in two by Anthony Mann, "Men in War" (1957) and "God's Little Acre" (1958).

This limited but pleasing display of his work provides a rare opportunity to become familiar with a criminally neglected actor.

Friday, November 28, 2014

reversal of fortune - from screen to stage?

The cast of Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman."  Why hasn't any one adapted this natural into a stage musical?

The immediate previous essay comments on Broadway's current penchant of adapting popular movies, mostly recent ones, into lavish stage musicals.  Not a bad idea, except that most of the choices have been slightly wacky.  "Rocky"?  "The Bridges of Madison County"?  Oy.

Not every Broadway musical derived from a successful film makes sense.  Not every past movie lends itself to singing and dancing the way a "Hairspray" or a "Kinky Boots" does.  Not every old film is as natural a musical as "The Producers."

The new musical version of Andrew Bergman's 1992 movie, "Honeymoon in Vegas," which begins previews in two weeks and opens January 15, is one of those rarities that makes complete sense.  Bergman himself did the adaptation and he's come up with a delightfully wonderful show, an old-fashioned musical comedy, along the lines of "Bye Bye Birdie."  The New York Times' Ben Brantley said as much in his rave review when the show premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey in October, 2013. A natural musical.

Anyway, here are my picks for ten films that would make terrific musicals.

I think. 

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" - This 1993 masterwork, directed by Henry Selick under the eye of auteur Tim Burton, contains one of the screen's best original song scores - a symphonic blend of the elegant and the eccentric by Danny Elfman.  Disney has been so astute and so aggressive in refashioning its animations into surefire stage musicals that it's quite curious that the studio has managed to overlook this one.


"True Stories" - The talented David Byrne made his directorial debut in 1986 with this inventive new-style musical, which he co-wrote with playwright Beth Henley and Henley's then-boyfriend, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and then seemingly retired.  Too bad because he had an original vision.  This film bristles with idiosyncrasies and terrific songs and its eclectic cast - John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, Annie McEnroe and Byrne himself - operates in an apt alternative space.

"Elmer Gantry" - Sinclair Lewis' novel was already the basis of a powerful and hugely entertaining movie - filmed in 1960 by Richard Brooks - as well as a stage musical.  Yes, as mentioned in the previous essay, it was staged in 1970 with the late Robert Shaw in the title role and Rita Moreno as Sister Sharon, directed by choreographer Onna White.  The rest of the creative team was lesser known  (book by Peter Bellwood; music and lyrics by Stanley Lebowsky and Fred Tobias, respectively) and the show closed after only one performance. Ouch.  But there's still potential for a great musical here, particularly if cast with someone as dynamic as Burt Lancaster, who brought a musical lilt to his showstopping performance in the film.  One problem: The subject of lay preachers was the basis of the recent flop, "Leap of Faith," also based on a film.


"My Sister Eileen" - Richard Quine's highly regarded 1955 musical version of Ruth McKenney's perennially popular stories about life and a career in New York/Greenwich Village of several decades ago already comes with a great script by Quine and Blake Edwards and a nimble song score by Leo Rubin and Jule Styne.  It would be ill-advised to update the material.  "My Sister Eileen" is comfortably ensconced in the past and should remain a period piece. And keep the Bob Fosse choreography.

"The Landlord" - Hal Ashby's 1970 seriocomedy, based on the book by Kristin Hunter, remains one of the best films about race relations, alternately comic and tragic.  It has just the right number of characters for an intimate stage musical and already comes with a selection of evocative songs that Al Kooper wrote as background for the film.  I could see Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Williams taking on the Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands roles, Harriet Harris doing Lee Grant's bit and Jeremy Jordan in for Beau Bridges. Bill Gunn's movie script should adapt well.

"A Face in the Crowd" - Budd Schulberg's cautionary (and prescient) fable about corrupting power, directed in 1957 by Elia Kazan, is a natural for a stage musical, given that its lead character, the hillbilly Lonesome Rhodes, ingratiates himself with the public with his twangy singing. True, Andy Griffin is indelible in the film but country superstar Blake Shelton could easily fit Griffin's boots. He could be a knockout  if anyone is inspired to turn the material into a full-scale musical.

"Raise the Red Lantern"- Yimou Zhang's splashy 1991 melodrama about the pecking order and rivalries among the four wives of a wealthy lord in 1920s China is so fascinating and so accessible because one could read the material as being about office politics in the workplace.  With virtually an all-female cast, this would make a great Stephen Sondheim musical and not atypical at all for the legendary composer who tackled similarly difficult subjects in "Pacific Overtures" and "Passion."

"One-Trick Pony" - Paul Simon's music never ages and the fabulous songs he wrote for Robert M. Young's 1980 film (for which Simon also wrote the screenplay) would sound wonderful sung live - on a New York stage.  Simon is now too old to recreate his autobiographical role on Broadway, but his story about a singer trying to navigate the details of a tour while putting out an album remains as contemporary as ever.

"Waiting for Guffman" - This one could be the next "The Producers."  Christopher Guest's tale of an awful centennial show - being done by an amateur cast (including a dentist and a couple who work as real-estate agents) from Blaine, Missouri and under the direction of a clueless "off-off-off-off-off-Broadway" character named Corky St. Clair - is ready-made for the Broadway stage. And the songs, of course, are appropriate idiotic.  It remains a mystery why Guest hasn't done this himself.

"Mike's Murder" - James Bridges' ill-fated and misunderestood 1984 film is about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the memory of a one-night stand after the guy is murdered.  Bridges, who also wrote the script, originally told his story backwards and used a song score by Joe Jackson in lieu of the usual instrumentals.  When the film failed in previews, it was re-edited and made chronological and the Jackson songs were scrapped for a John Barry score. During the film's delay,  A&M Records released Jackson's soundtrack in 1983, a solid year before the film's release, and it became something of a sensation.  And with good reason.  It's terrific.  The story, with Jackson's marvelous songs, would make a fine small musical.

So there you have it.  My nominations.  What are yours?  Any Ideas?

Share!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

reversal of fortune - from stage to screen?


Robert Shaw was a singing Elmer Gantry

The on-going trend of Broadway depending on movies for source material has not gone unnoticed, at least not by The New York Times which regularly runs updates detailing which popular film, usually a relatively recent one, is being refurbished for the stage, and always as a musical.

However, no one has picked up on the fact that the movie industry no longer depends on Broadway for "product."   A curious crisscross, a surprising reversal, has taken place, but more about that a little later.

Perhaps the best of the Times' reports on the ubiquity of musical stage adaptations of successful movies was Patrick Healy's title-packed essay, "Like the Movie, Only Different," which ran a little more than a year ago, timed to coincide with the opening of a song-&-dance version of "Rocky."

In it, Healy noted that musical versions of movies are not exactly a new idea:  "Big," the Tom Hanks film, came to Broadway as a musical back in 1996.  It was a flop but it was predated by such successes as "Wonderful Town," "The Most Happy Fella," "Sweet Charity," "A Little Night Music" and "Promises, Promises," all based on films but with notable title changes.

More obscure were musical versions of "Georgy Girl," "Alfie," "Lilies of the Field," "Lolita" (with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry!), "The Miracle on 34th Street" (by stalwart Meredith Willson, who titled his version "Here's Love"), "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (by Stephen Schwartz), "Exodus" (yes, "Exodus," retitled "Ari"), "East of Eden" (renamed "Here's Where I Belong"), "The World of Henry Orient" (reborn as "Henry, Sweet Henry") and "Gantry" (starring the late, great Robert Shaw, no less, as Elmer Gantry, and Rita Moreno as Sister Sharon), to name but a few.

And, of course, let's not forget the infamous - "Carrie" or "Holly Golightly" (aka, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," starring Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain and Sally Kellerman). I could go on.  But won't.

If some of these titles seem a bit odd for musical treatment, that's a curiosity that has continued - and become much weirder.  "Big Fish, "Far from Heaven," "Hands on the Hardbody," "Love Story," "Catch Me If You Can,"  and "The Bridges of Madison County" have all come and gone as musicals.  And there's been talk of doing "Misery," "Diner," "Chariots of Fire," "The Bodyguard" and "Tootsie." Well, "Tootsie" admittedly makes some sense, as did the musical versions of "Hairspray" and "Kinky Boots."

There was once talk a few years ago of doing "Marty" with John C. Reilly in the title role.  It has yet to happen but I wouldn't count it out too quickly.

In one way, all this is great for Broadway.  Let's face it: There's a bottomless pit of movies to be turned into stage musicals.

On the other hand, stage plays are rarely gobbled up anymore by the movie industry.  This tradition is all but dead.  That revenue is gone. The Times could easily run a companion piece – or at least a sidebar – on how dramatically the Hollywood/Broadway relationship has changed.

There was a time when stage productions were a major source for the movie industry.  But not anymore.  Quick!   Name the Broadway shows that have been made into movies recently.  Off the top of my head, I can think of only six major titles – “Les Miserables,” “Rock of Ages,” “Rabbit Hole,”  "August: Osage County" and two by Roman Polanski - “Carnage” (“God of Carnage” on stage), and "Venus in Fur."

And coming up are "Into the Woods" and a remake of "Annie."

But, after that, I come up empty.

Successful stage plays like “Mister Roberts,” once routinely filmed, rarely make it to the big screen these days.

The marketing tool, “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,” has become obsolete, replaced by “Soon to be a Major Broadway Musical.”

A reversal indeed.  But why?  Any theories?  Share!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

cinema obscura: Peter Ustinov's "Romanoff and Juliet" (1961)

Ignored by its distributor, Universal Pictures, for almost five dacades now, "Romanoff and Juliet" is Peter Ustinov's Cold War satire that playfully juxtaposes the familiar Shakepeare plot with the political atmosphere that was simmering in 1961. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been available on home entertainment in any form and I can't recall the last time it was televised. I'm guessing forty years at least.

I'm seriously dating myself here.

Sandra Dee and John Gavin (above), who also teamed the same year in Henry Levin's "Tammy, Tell Me True" (also for Universal), play the title characters - he being the son of the Soviet Ambassador to Concordia and she the daughter of his American counterpart. Ustinov essays the role of the leader of Concordia, virtually playing it drunk, and makes a most disarmimg cupid for Romanoff and Juliet.

Ustinov's satire compares favorably with "The Mouse That Roared," Jack Arnold's Cold War satire from the same period, but it inexplicably remains less known than Arnold's film.

The 1958 play which Ustinov wrote and on which his film was based was directed by none-other-than George S. Kaufman and included incidental music by Harold Rome ("Fanny") with lyrics written by Ustinov and ... Anthony Hopkins. Elizabeth Allen played Juliet and Edward Atienza played Romanoff. Ustinov recreated his original Broadway role for the film.

Note in Passing: Speaking of "Tammy, Tell Me True," it is available on DVD in a boxed set from MCA/Universal that includes "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957) and "Tammy and the Doctor" (1963). I don't know about the other two "Tammys," but I'm a sucker for "Tammy, Tell Me True."

Thursday, November 06, 2014

que sera

There are hundreds - nay, thousands - of movie blogs on the web.  Too many.  It can be overwhelming to those film freaks compelled to sample them all.  Personally, I reduced my movie-blog perusing to one, Vienna’s Classic Hollywood, which is hands-down, inarguably, the best.

Vienna's goal is simple - to treat us to an array of movie stills, posters and especially rare production shots, such as the one above of Vera Miles in a costume check when she was getting ready to star for Hitchcock as Madeleine/Judy in "Vertigo."  Vera left the production, of course, and Kim Novak came on board, turning in an iconic breakthrough performance.

It's difficult to separate Novak from"Vertigo," and one can only imagine how Miles would have read the role(s) if her pregnancy hadn't intruded.

I hope Vienna doesn't mind that I "borrowed" this shot from her site, but what better way to introduce you to Vienna's most essential blog?

Saturday, November 01, 2014

indelible moment: "The Graduate" (1967)

It's 1967. The movie is Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's novel.

Dustin Hoffman, as recent graduate Benjamin Braddock, is talking with Elisabeth Frazer, as Joanne, a friend of his parents, when they are interrupted by Mr. McQuire, played by Walter Brooke.

Mr. McQuire's one-word recommendation to Benjamin brought gales of laughter in theaters - and still does, even though that word has proven to be eerily prophetic.

Joanne: "What are you going to do now?"
Ben: "I was going to go upstairs for a minute."
Joanne: "I mean with your future - your life."
Ben: "That's a little bit hard to say."
Mr. McGuire: (interrupting them) "Ben."
Benjamin: (to Joanne) "Excuse me."
Benjamin: (turning away from Joanne) "Mr. McGuire!"
Mr. McGuire: "Ben."
Benjamin: (voice trailing off) "Mr. McGuire."
Mr.McGuire: "Come with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. Excuse us, Joanne?"
Joanne: "Of course."

(pause)

Mr. McGuire: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr.McGuire: "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
Ben: "Yes, I will."
Mr. McGuire: "Enough said. That's a deal."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

cinema obscura: Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong" (1967)

“The Girl,” the recent HBO film about the tortured relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, makes it clear that while Hitch may not have succeeded in breaking the spirit of his star, he did leave her with a broken career.

The movie quotes Hitchcock (brilliantly incarnated by Toby Jones) telling Hedren (Sienna Miller)  that if she insists on breaking her personal contract with him, she will never work in film again. Not entirely true. While Hedren would never enjoy the A-level career she deserved (she’s magnificent in Hitchcock’s “Marnie”), she did land a role in an important – and prestigious – film three years after she and Hitch ditched each other.

Charles Chaplin’s “A Countess from Hong Kong,” released in 1967, had Hedren being handpicked by another legendary filmmaker (shades of her Hitchcock situation here) for a role in a highly anticipated film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. This was Chaplin’s first film in 10 years, his first (and only) film in color and it would be his final film.

Based on a script that Chaplin wrote in the 1930s as a Paulette Goddard vehicle, it has the contours of a filmed play, with Brando, witty as a 'tic-afflicted American ambassador en route to the States on his boat and Loren as a glamorous Russian countess who stows away on it.

Hedren had the third lead as Brando’s estranged wife who enters the last act. It was originally a small role that Hedren hoped Chaplin would enlarge but, given that the piece is largely a two-hander, its narrative arc made that impossible. It remained a small, but crucial role.

Hedren thought of leaving the production but, according to Wikipedia, “in the end, she remained in the film and later said that it was a pleasure working for (Chaplin).”

The finished film is odd and oddly charming, full of eccentric touches – such as Brando’s character feeling uncomfortable with the close quarters that he’s sharing with Loren and being particularly embarrassed by the idea of using the bathroom (to relieve himself) when she is so nearby. I mean, rude bodily noises. Brando, who has a terrifically guarded chemistry with Loren, plays this moment for all its neurotic idiosyncrasy.

Chaplin cast himself as the ship's steward, a cameo role - once again shades of Hitchcock.

Misunderstood and dismissed, “A Countess from Hong Kong” was not a success, with either critics or its audience. It’s something of a flawed masterwork (Chaplin considered it his best movie) that joins the ranks of such criminally underrated films as Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” Robert Aldrich’s “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” and Hitchcock’s own “Vertigo” and “Marnie.” At least, the latter two have been rediscovered and reevaluated with a new appreciation.

"A Countess from Hong Kong," which has occasionally and uneventfully popped up on home entertainment without much enthusiasm from Universal, is ripe for the same attention and consideration.

Friday, October 17, 2014

façade: bob rafelson

Bergin and Shaw in Rafelson's "Mountains of the Moon"

In the early 1970s, when he was part of the exciting "new generation" of filmmakers and at the top of his form, Bob Rafelson reportedly told an interviewer, "I'll consider myself happy if I direct ten films in my career."

That comment, perhaps said glibly, has proven to be somewhat prescient because, some forty years later, Rafelson's filmography of theatrical releases adds up to ... ten titles.  Which makes one wonder.

Why?  Why only ten?

Rafelson emerged at a time - a rare time - when directors were permitted to dominate and chart the course of the film scene.  The moguls stepped aside for Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin, the young auteurs who commanded most of the attention, from both the studios and the media.  Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn, I suppose, blazed the trail for them, making what were essentially independent movies for mainstream distribution.

Following closely behind were Paul Mazursky, Brian DePalma and James Bridges.  And then there were Hal Ashby and Rafelson who initially weren't given as much of the spotlight that the others enjoyed.

It's interesting that Rafelson and Ashby shared a similiar career trajectory in that their first halves of their respective careers are rich with edgy, original films, while the second halves are much less so. (I can't think of one movie aficionado who links Ashby with "The Slugger's Wife.")

After having directed several episodes of "The Monkees" TV series and making his feature-film debut with the Monkees movie, "Head," in 1968, Rafelson went on to direct "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "Stay Hungry" (1976), the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981) and, arguably, his best and most idiosyncratic film, "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972).  One word: Wow.

He took a break for several years (six to be exact) and then tried his had at a commercial thriller with two interesting actresses - Debra Winger and Theresa Russell - and the result was "Black Widow" (1987).  Something changed.  It was difficult to pinpoint, but even Rafelson's most ardent fans were unenthusiastic about "Black Widow" and the last three films he directed - "Man Trouble" (19092), "Blood and Wine" (1996) and "No Good Deed" (aka, "The House on Turk Street,"2002). (In 1998, he made "Poodle Springs," a Philip Marlowe film with James Caan, which played theatrically in Spain but was sold as a TV movie here.  I never saw it.)

Smack-dab in the middle of all this, Rafelson directed his most ambitious, atypical movie - 1990's "Mountains of the Moon," a detailed period piece about Captain Richard Francis Burton's and Lt. John Hanning Speke's arduous trek to find the source of the Nile river that also works as an intimate study of an intense friendship and its disintegration.

The excellent film features Iain Glen as Spek and a riveting Patrick Bergin as Burton, who shares a powerfully adult love story with Fiona Shaw who plays his wife, Isabel. Which brings me to another subject - Patrick Bergin.  He followed "Mountains of the Moon" a year later with an equally commanding performance as Julia Roberts' demented/dangerous husband in Joseph Ruben's "Sleeping with the Enemy" and he seemed poised to become a major film force.  But that never happened.

Anyway, "Mountains of the Moon," much like its director and star, is largely forgotten today.  IFC screened it a few time in 2008 and now, the resourceful people at Turner Classic Movies have claimed it, airing the film tonight (Saturday actually) @ 12:15 a.m.

Turner's brand, of course, is American and English-language narratives made between 1930 and 1960, but it's been expanding to include more foreign-language films, silents, documentaries and post-1970 titles.  (Animation is still under-represented.)   Turner has screened Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" several times (usually in graveyard time slots)  and, I believe, "The King of Marvin Gardens" at least once. The first impression is that "Mountains of the Moon" is a far cry from those two films, but the relationships in it are not that unlike those in Rafelson's seminal films.

It's at once old-fashioned and quite modern. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

arguably

Credit: Warner Bros. 
Annabelle Wallis as Mia in John R. Leonetti's "Annabelle"

Given the unruly number of movies made available for review - The New York Times covers a whopping 25 titles today - and the ever-dwindling number of critics to review them, it's no surprise that some (well, actually a lot) are shunted or simply fall through the cracks.

Exacerbating matters are tight deadlines that often necessitate hastily-written critiques.  And, of course, there's the matter of prejudgement of which all critics are guilty but which speeds things along so that one can move on to the next movie and the next review.

Not surprisingly, Warner Bros.' "Annabelle," ostensibly an "evil doll" thriller, is a movie that first-string critics avoided and that second- and third-string reviewers handily dismissed.  And why not?  Much like animation these days, there's a new thriller or two coming off Hollywood's relentless assembly line seemingly every week.  Reduced to a brief synopsis, "Annabelle" is about a young pregnant woman whose husband buys her another antique doll for her collection and all hell breaks loose.

But, frankly, the wicked doll is the least necessary element in the film, as are the images of walking dead that the heroine seems to hallucinate.

Strip them away and, at its deepest core, "Annabelle" plays like a nifty 99-minute reference to "Repulsion."  Yes, "Repulsion" - Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."  And it's just as artfully done in its intense focus on a young woman who's easily spooked and possibly being driven mad.

And that's the real theme of "Annabelle."

John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer making his directing debut here, examines his heroine's descent in images and gliding camerawork that are eerily dreamy but never nightmarish or even unpleasant.

And his work is abetted and complemented every step of the way by the assured, nuanced and very serene performance of Annabelle Wallis (the British actress from "The Tudors") in the lead role. It's no accident, I suspect, that Wallis captures the placid cool of Catherine Deneuve here.

As if to reward her, Leonetti even named the film after Wallis, a conceit that has escaped everyone who has reviewed it.  No, Annabelle is not the name of  the grotesque doll.  Fact is, the darn doll has no name.

The director also pays homage to another Polanski film - Wallis's character is named Mia, after the star of "Rosemary's Baby" - and to the California Lumière/crazy lady thrillers of Robert Aldrich ("Baby Jane"/"Charlotte") by setting his film first in sun-struck Santa Monica and then Pasadena.

"Annabelle" opened on October 3 in tandem with David Fincher's bravura 149-minute ”Gone Girl” and nearly matched it at the box office, taking in $37,134,255 to "Gone Girl's" $37, 513, 109.  I'm not about to overrate "Annabelle."  It doesn't match the Fincher film in any other way and is, in fact, its polar opposite - tight and uncomplicated. Rather simple.

But it's so much more than its advertising and reviews have implied, largely because of Annabelle Wallis, whose work here is equally on par with Rosamund Pike's breakthrough performance in "Gone Girl."

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will air "Repulsion" @ 6:15 p.m. (est) on Friday, October 31 - Halloween!

Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"