Monday, April 20, 2015

david robert mitchell's "it follows"

 credit: Radius-TWC

David Robert Mitchell's commanding sophomore effort, "It Follows," is a superior sex thriller anchored by what should be a breakout performance by a singular young actress named Maika Monroe and by Mitchell's unstinting focus on his material.  The director and his star never flinch.

While this kind of movie is open to any interpretation, it was immediately apparent to me that "It Follows" is an unusually unforgiving cautionary tale about first-time sex, particularly when the participants are young and unformed.  Teenagers.  In their efforts to protect teens from sex, disapproving adults (who essentially want to selfishly keep sex all to themselves) create a web of guilt. Actually, they conveniently invented it.

And in "It Follows," this guilt is personified by visions of horrific stalkers intent on tormenting the foolish young fornicators. The assorted visions that haunt Monroe's character, named Jay, resemble post-coital zombies.

They are the naked undead (full-frontal naked).

And they all look as if they've just had sex and then died horribly.

Jay is advised by the guy who took her virginity that the only way she can rid herself of these guilt-produced demons is to have sex with another person, passing on the curse.  That's what he did in order to keep his sanity and pursue future intercourse. What follows makes sex look creepy, accompanied by a terrifically offbeat, discordant music score by Richard Vreeland/Disasterpeace which, at one point, includes some artistic static.

"It Follows" astutely indicts the hypocrisy of a confused, sex-addled America that continues on its unsuccessful, puritanical journey.

Note in Passing: The time in which “It Follows” is set is enticingly vague, never made clear.  It feels contemporary.  The kids look like budding millennials. However, none of their homes have flat-screen TVs.  There are several scenes of the kids watching television and all the sets are old-fashioned “box” sets.  Also none of the kids seem to have cell phones, although one girl plays around with a gizmo shaped like a seashell.  So is the film set in the present – or possibly as far back as the ‘70s?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

cinema obscura: Terry Hughes' "The Butcher's Wife" (1991)

Very much a companion piece to Richard Quine's "Bell, Book & Candle" (1958), Terry Hughes' "The Butcher's Wife" (1991) is a cozy New York comedy about a compelling woman with what might be magical powers.

And like Gillian Holroyd, the seductive heroine of Quine's film, Demi Moore's Marina in "The Butcher's Wife" is something of a bohemian.

These two women are "different," unconventional.  For one thing, they both favor walking around barefoot. It's no surprise that each one ends up among the denizens of Greenwich Village. Gillian, of course, is a witch.  Marina is something more curious, possibly a landbound mermaid.

Marina is a clairvoyant from a tiny island off the North Carolina coast who makes her way to New York to meet the man for whom she is fated - a Greenwich Village butcher named Leo Lemke (George Dzundza). Or so she thinks.  They marry almost insouciantly and Marina ensconces herself in his shop where she meets - and counsels - people from the neighborhood.

Her penchant for giving homespun, often unsolicited advice (mostly to women) attracts the attention of  Dr. Alex Tremor (Jeff Daniels), the local psychiatrist whose clientele is identical to Leo's.  (As I said, this is a very cozy Greenwich Village.) Among the characters who patronize both the butcher shop and the local shrink are a couple played by Frances McDormand and Margaret Colin (both terrific), and reliable Mary Steenburgen as a wannabe singer who seems more appropriate for Leo than Marina.

That's because Marina was really meant to be with ... Dr. Tremor.

The character of the ethereal Marina seems ready-made for Daryl Hannah but Moore, cast against type in an atypical soft role, is at once disarming and appealing and demonstrates remarkable chemistry with every other actor in the film - Daniels, Dzunda, Steenburgen, McDormand and Colin.  It's a terrific cast that also includes Max Perlich as Leo's helper, veteran actresses Miriam Margoyles and Helen Hanft as two neighborhood snoops and the great cross-dressing actor-writer Charles Pierce in a quick bit.

Best of all, there's playwright Christopher Durang, a veritable scene-stealer, hands-down hilarious, as one of Alex's more confused patients.

In interviews at the time of the film's release, Daniels said he modeled his character on Jack Lemmon and, if you look closely, there are indeed a collection of subtle, astute Lemmonesque references in his winning performance. 

George Dzunda is as endearing as ever (and what on earth ever happened to him?), while Mary Steenburger is a collection of adorable 'tics.  She also gets to sing a sad, heartfelt version of Irving Berlin's singular "What'll I Do?"  And any film that includes the strains of Stéphane Grappelli on the soundtrack is instantly a friend.

Sadly, "The Butcher's Wife" is Hughes' only theatrical film. He's better- known as a TV hand who has helmed many successful sitcoms, among them, "Friends," and, sadly, this background was seemingly used against him at the time of the film's release by status-conscious critics.

But Hughes also filmed many stage productions, often working in tandem with their original directors, among them two Stephem Sondheim musicals, "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and "Sunday in the Park with George," as well as "Hughie," "Barnum," "The Gin Game," "I Do! I Do!" and Bruce Jay Friedman's controversial "Steambath." He's good.

I'd like to see Terry Hugues direct another film.  He's way overdue. His charming debut movie, now nearly 25 years old, has panache to spare.

Friday, April 10, 2015

façade: howard zieff

Howard Zieff (1927-2009) emerged as a filmmaker of some promise in 1973, just as the exciting New Wave in American filmmaking was hitting its peak, an exciting movement that started in the late 1960s with such titles as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Medium Cool," "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy" and "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Consequently, he became something of a footnote to the movement, unjustly forgotten when critics rhapsodize about the movies of the late 1960s and early '70s.

One could speculate, I guess, that the neglect he experienced had something to do with his age.  He was 46 when he made his first film in 1973 - the new-style caper-comedy, "Slither" - while Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were all in their late 20s when they officially advanced the movement with such films as "The Rain People" (1969), "The Sugarland Express" (1974) and "American Graffiti" (1973).  Of course, all three would inevitably abandon the cutting-edge of the New Wave for the glories (and financial security) of studio blockbusters.

And I should hasten to note that Zieff wasn't the only middle-ager making movies directed at the youth market.  Robert Altman (age 45),  Arthur Penn (also 45),  Hal Ashby (41) and Paul Mazursky (39) are just three Zieff peers who were no longer ambitious puppies of the movie business when they each hit it big (at the ages given here), making vital films.

It's more likely that Zieff's history was problematic with the influence peddlers.  He made his feature debut after an incredibly successful career in advertising, specifically making memorable TV commercials for such products as Alka-Seltzer and Hertz.  But it was exactly the elements that he learned from making commercials - a feeling for speed, brevity and short-hand - that make his handful of movies so exhilarating.

Case in point: "Slither," a scattered, free-form lark that plays like a Godard film shot in the most unlikely California locations.  (Anyone game for visiting Susanville?)  James Caan and Sally Kellerman as Dick Kanipsia and Kitty Kopetzky, reluctant traveling companions, are like a weirdly zoned-out Bogart and Bacall, and they keep bumping into an assortment of eccentric characters, gamely played by Peter Boyle, Louise Lasser, Alex Rocco, Allen Garfield and Richard B. Shull.

It always amazed me that Zieff managed to make a film as shaggy and as studio-unfriendly as "Slither" for James Aubrey during his tumulative reign at MGM.

Zieff made only nine films over a 20 year period and each one is a gem of comic economy.   The title that followed "Slither" two years later is, arguably, his smoothest and most refined - "Hearts of the West," which played the 1975 New York Film Festival and became an instant critics' darling. It appealed to obsessed cinéphiles, too. A love letter to early filmmaking, "Hearts of the West" is something of a companion piece to Peter Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon," which curiously came a year later.
Jeff Bridges plays the hayseed author of dime novels about the old west who finds himself a reluctant star of movies about the old west ("reluctant" seems to be a word that fits Zieff films and characters) and the actor inhabits the role completely - as does Andy Griffith as his (reluctant) mentor. Blythe Danner is the winsome female lead and there's nice work here by Alan Arkin, Herb Edelman and, from"Slither," Rocco and Shull.

Following "House Calls" (1978), a mature rom-com with Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau (with a script to which Max Shulman and Julius J. Epstein, no less, contributed), and "The Main Event" (1979) which offered a terrifically appealing reteaming of Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, Zieff enjoyed his biggest commercial hit in 1980 - the inspired feminist romp, "Private Benjamin," with Goldie Hawn in her most emblematic film performance as a Jewish American Princess who is swayed by disreputable recruiter Harry Dean Stanton (yes!) to join the United States Army.

Hawn is delirious fun as the clueless Judy Benjamin who does her Army maneuvers with limp wrists and no coordination whatsoever and who, with a straight face, asks her drill sergeant (a perfect Eileen Brennan) exactly where are all the beach condos that Stanton promised in his pitch.
Zieff was absent for about four years before he did his 1984 remake of the 1948 Rex Harrison film, "Unfaithfully Yours," with Dudley Moore in the reimagined Harrison role and Nastassja Kinski filling in for Linda Darnell.  And then came the Michael Keaton comedy in 1989, "The Dream Team," the least of all his films. But the endearing "My Girl" (1991) came next.

A winning film about coming of age - in this case, a rare one about the coming of age of a girl - "My Girl" is a warm but also alert and rather eccentric look at family and friends and the passing of time and ... life.  Thanks to Zieff's adroit touch, the film is as comfortable as an all-embracing, overstuffed chair (with an ottoman, natch) - and that's probably the exact kind of place you'd want to sit while watching it.

The  movie introduced the remarkable Anna Chlumsky, a little girl with a huge face, as the young heroine, a motherless kid named Vada who lives in a funeral parlor with her father (Dan Aykroyd) and uncle (Richard Mazur) and who finds a fleeting soulmate in Macauley Culkin and a soul sister in the beautician (Jamie Lee Curtis)  hired to make the corpses look, well,  lifelike.  His last film was the unnecessary '94 sequel, "My Girl 2."

The crucial eccentricity (by now a Zieff trademark) of "My Girl" is underlined by Chlumsky's unusual name, Vada, and also by the film's original (and more singular) moniker, "Born Jaundiced," a title which Vada explains in a voiceover.  The film's producer Brian Grazer reportedly came up with the banal "My Girl" (with its convenient music tie-in) and I've a hunch that the change was made much to its director's chagrin. I mean, how could Howard Zieff, of all people, not prefer "Born Jaundiced"?

Zieff was 67 when he decided to retire.  He died, at age 82, some 15 years later in 2009 - of Parkinson's disease - and his vision is much missed.

Monday, April 06, 2015

harvey's pseudomemory

Our favorite modern movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, is making his debut as a Broadway producer with a musical staging of his hit 2004 film, "Finding Neverland," starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer.

He  took time out from his busy prep work for a quick Q-&-A, titled ”What Harvey Weinstein Learned in ‘Neverland,’ with The New York Times' Lorne Manly. For the session, which ran yesterday in the Times' Arts & Leisure section, Weinstein opened with this reminiscence of his childhood encounter with a certain Julie Andrews movie musical from 1965. 

“When I was a kid, my mom and dad took me to see ‘The Sound of Music’ and the minute the nuns came on, I always say I fell in love with theater — the Rivoli Theater, where James Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’ was playing. The nuns came on, and I just flew [makes a whooshing sound] out of the theater. And my dad kind of had a sense that I was going to Bond, and he found me two hours later in the balcony of the Rivoli.”

This could not be.

”Goldfinger” opened December 22nd, 1964 at the DeMille and Coronet Theaters, while ”The Sound of Music” opened several months later in 1965 – on March 3rd  – as a roadshow attraction. It opened at ... the Rivoli.  It was “The Sound of Music” that played at the Rivoli Theater.  Exclusively.

The Bond film that was released in 1965 was ”Thunderball” but it didn't open until the end of the year, on  December 22nd, and it played at the Paramount, Sutton and Cinema II Theaters.

If Weinstein’s father found him in the balcony of the Rivoli in 1965, it was most likely during a performance of “The Sound of Music,” not “Goldfinger” (which was no longer playing in New York) or any other Bond movie.

But if that’s how Weinstein remembers things, well, to quote the famous newspaper line from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Note in Passing: I urge you to click on the above links for the three Times' reviews.  Bosley Crowther's take on "The Sound of Music" is priceless - and quite representative of the film's critical reception.

Friday, April 03, 2015

doris' day

Doris turns 91. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

indelible moment: "north by northwest"

Cary gets punk'd by Hitch
April Fools!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

the cinéphilic circle jerk

Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," Rob Marshall's "Chicago," John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love," Paul Haggis' "Crash" and Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire."

These estimable films, all Oscar winners, have something else in common.  They've all been the easy targets of the members of what I call "The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk" (CCJ).  Much like the late, unlamented Mr. Blackwell, these guys - and, yes, they are all male - used to materialize only during the movies' awards season, coming out of their parents' basements or childhood bedrooms to attack those films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had foolishly honored with Oscars.

The very thought of this offended them, and although none of these grown men was ever employed as a working professional critic, each one found an online forum, many forums, on which to express their utter outrage.

Those films singled out for extermination by The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk are subjected to ridicule so intense that the way these guys carry on, one would think the group was declaring war on something the approximate size of the United States. They behave like schoolyard bullies - perhaps because they were once the victims of schoolyard bullies themselves.

Frankly, there's nothing much wrong with the films singled out, but The CCJ members become so inconsolably angry about whatever regard these titles receive that they lose all sense of magnitude and rationale.

The movie that best represents a CCJ's target is Haggis' "Crash" - the worst!, according to its panick-y members.

The Cinéphilic Circle Jerk isn't exactly new.

It's been around for ages (I just never had a name for it), although its members seem to have multiplied like rabbits in the past decade or so. Its beginnings can be charted back to the advent of Siskel and Ebert who, for better or worse, brought film criticism out of the closet, so to speak.

Before Gene and Roger hit it big on television, only a rare breed of moviegoer actually read reviews and even fewer thought about critics.  And those thoughts were usually negative and hostile:  A movie critic was a mean-spirited, miserable human being deserving of his/her misery.

But Siskel and Ebert popularized the form and indirectly inspired their viewers to become armchair critics.  Like that famous Marshall McLuhan sequence from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," these days, one can no longer go anywhere without hearing some guy (again, it's always a guy) proudly, arrogantly pontificating his uneducated, mundane view of movies.
And as they've multiplied, they've also highjacked a few estimable and essential movie sites. Suddenly, the CCJ had an audience - an audience of other Js - to soak up their lame pontifications.  To demonstrate their credentials, they often self-consciously invoke the names of Kael, Sarris, Agee and Thomson, while also demonstrating (inadvertently) they have learned absolutely nothing from Kael, Sarris, Agee and Thomson.  They've simply read the same critiques that many of us have read.

Lately, some CCJ's members who have never worked as critics or had a single byline in a newspaper or a magazine, identify themselves as film historians which, I guess, gives the desired impression of credibility.

And, please, don't get me started on the creepy narcissism that has infested many movie sites and the CCJ members who patronize them. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

cinema obscura: a robert preston double-bill

Preston with his wife Catherine Craig

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," the fabulous Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version - a performance which should have earned him at least an Oscar nomination but didn't.

But the Meredith Willson musical did provide him with an awesome second act.  Preston went on to do the fine work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough" Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two Blake Edwards titles, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B."

But, today, I am more interested in the two titles that bookended his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two plays, both films apparently now lost.
Delbert Mann's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960)

There are those who thought that the great playwright William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film, "The Stripper" and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge played the small role of of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Teresa Wright, Pat Hingle and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 Warner Bros. film, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, starred Preston in the Pat Hingle role, along with Dorothy McGuire (above with Preston)  and Eve Arden, taking the Wright and Heckart parts, along with Angela Lansbury and a young Shirley Knight, an Oscar nominee for her performance.

Preston was great as always in this and in ... "All the Way Home." 

Alex Segal's "All the Way Home" (1963)

This piece has something of a legendary history. Based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family," it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The play examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal, starred Preston as the father, Jean Simmons as his wife (above with Preston and Michael Kearney, below with Preston), Pat Hingle as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role played on Broadway by John Megna, a child actor best known for his role as Dill in the film, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Philip H. Reisman Jr. did the adaptation for this most affecting film.

"All the Way Home" was also filmed twice for televison - first in 1971 with Fred Coe direcing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle in a teleplay adaptation by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann, starred William Hurt, Sally Field and Ned Beatty. Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. (Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

character counts: barbara nichols

Barbara Nichols (1929-1976) - Our all-time favorite brassy, sassy, big-mouthed '50s blonde, hands-down
character counts - This is a new recurring feature devoted to those familiar faces - Hollywood's invaluable character actors, addressing them by their names.  Which too few of us know, even dedicated cinéphiles.

One of the fleeting pleasures of watching '50s movies is the occasional date with Barbara Nichols, not so much one of the many blonde bombshells (and Marilyn-wannabes) who drifted, rather languidly, throughout the decade but a first-rate supporting performer and team player. Fox had its CinemaScope trademark blonde, Monroe, in its stable (keeping Sheree North and Jayne Manfield on hold for whenever MM acted up) and Columbia had Judy Holliday and Kim Novak playing different degrees of blonde and dumb. But on the fringe, working free-lance, were such names as Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Britain's Diana Dors and ...

Barbara Nichols.

Of the bunch, Nichols came across as the toughest and most likable. She was the Damon Runyon blonde - brassy, sassy and resplendent with her Brooklyn accent - among the more machine-tooled bottle blondes.

Her big year was 1957 when she played the poignant role of Rita in Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," the wise-cracking Gladys Bump in George Sidney's "Pal Joey" and Poopsie in Stanley Donen and George Abbott's "The Pajama Game." Other roles came - Philip Dunne's "Ten North Frederick" (1958) with Gary Cooper; Raoul Walsh's "The Naked and the Dead" (also '58) with Aldo Ray; Sidney Lumet's "That Kind of Woman" (1959) with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter, and Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960), with Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and fellow bomshell Lansing (playing her sister, no less), along with bits with Robert Cummings (and Lansing again) on "The Bob Cummings Show"/"Love That Bob" sitcom.

Her scratchy, chalk-on-a-blackboard voice fueled these films and made most of them memorable, but sexpots, like dancers, usually don't age well. By the 1960s, Nichols was left with guest roles on TV series, although she had something of a personal triumph on Broadway in Ray Evans-Jay Livingston's "Let It Ride," starring George Gobel and Sam Levene - a 1961 musical version of Mervyn LeRoy's 1936 film, "Three Men on a Horse," in which Levene recreated his original role.

She died young - at age 46 - in 1976.
Nichols with Janet Leigh (center, natch) and Joi Lansing in Sidney's "Who Was That Lady?" (1960)

Friday, March 13, 2015

façade: charlton heston, farceur?

"On screen, Mr. Heston parted the Red Sea in 'The Ten Commandments,' drove the Moors from Spain in 'El Cid,' painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy,' baptized Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' and gave him a drink of water in 'Ben-Hur.'

"And on the seventh day, Mr. Heston did not rest."

-Carrie Rickey

I can't top that. Frankly, I have nothing to add to what Carrie wrote.

Except for one observation.

In his long, 50-year Hollywood career, Heston made a lot of films, close to 100 (not counting his television appearances), but they were heavily dramatic and most of them period/costume pieces - Biblical epics, Westerns and such.

But to the best of my knowledge, Heston has only only two - count 'em - two comedies on his resumé: Jerry Hopper's "The Private War of Major Benson" (1955) and Melville Shavelson's "The Pigeon That Took Rome" (1962) and, in both, he played military men.

In "The Private War of Major Benson," he's a career soldier given a choice after mouthing off once too often to higher-ups: He will be drummed out of the Army, or he can keep his stripes if he takes command of - and shapes up - the ROTC program at a boys' academy. The Universal film, which was remade as Damon Wayan's "Major Payne" in 1995, would have been better suited to the talents of Glenn Ford.

"The Pigeon That Took Rome" cast Heston as another American soldier, this one behind Italian lines in World War II, who uses carrier pigeons fitted with messages to communicate the movements of the Germans - and who grows more and more in love with the daughter of the local family with which he's residing.

The ever-reliable Harry Guardino co-starred, handling most of the film's comedy, and Elsa Martinelli was Heston's love interest, whose father (Salvatore Baccaloni) fouls things up by cooking the pigeons for a family dinner.

The film is a little reminiscent of the military comedy that Jack Lemmon made with Richard Quine in 1957, "Operation Mad Ball," and in fact would have been a better fit with Lemmon.

That's not an original opinion. At the time of the release of "The Pigeon That Took Rome," Heston himself opined that it would have been better with Lemmon.