Tuesday, September 01, 2015

joe's dreaded genre

Marley as a pup in "Marley and Me," the only "animal movie" that one movie fan can tolerate.

During my years as a working critic, I harbored some very rigid opinions about what people assigned to the movie beat should and shouldn't do.

Celebrity interviews were out of the question.  Too dangerous.  My opinion was that no professional critic should sit down with a filmmaker or a movie star to discuss a project that the reviewer inevitably has to critique.  It's too easy to be charmed and flattered by the movie person sitting across from you - and too easy to adjust an initial impression of a film in favor of the film.  There's no getting around it: Movie people can be seductive.

As I once told an editor, "I don't do windows or interviews."

No, "reviewing" and "interviewing" should be two separate jobs done by different people. I was adamant about that and still am. Period.

Another of my pronouncements was that it was a movie critic's duty to see everything - anything on celluloid, in those days - that was available for review.  A responsible critic would never pick and choose based on likes and dislikes.  No genre should be avoided.  Doing so was contrary to being an adventurous moviegoer, to being opened to discovery, enlightenment.

There was no room for snobbery or elitism.

One was duty-bound to see everything, even if one wasn't reviewing a particular title. I extended this rule to self-described "movie buffs" as well.  See everything or risk being branded a lazy fraud.  I was impossible.

Well, I've changed my tune on that point since becoming a civilian moviegoer.  For one thing, the sheer number of movies being produced these days - and the ones lucky enough to get theatrical play are just the tip of the iceberg - makes it impractical to see eveyrhing.  But even if the vagaries of film distribution were more reasonable, I've come to realize that there are certain genres in which I have absolutely no interest.

Nothing could entice me, for example, to sit through a "sword and sandals" epic or anything set in "middle earth."  Life is way too short.

But more remarkable is that I have no interest in any film about animals which, may seem odd, because I love animals and consider myself something of an animal advocate.  I don't want to see any movie that's about a dog, cat, horse or lion.  Sorry, Elsa.  This occurred to me after I wrote my previous essay on a potential remake of ”Born Free.”

The fact is, movies about animals are always - always - sad and disturbing.  Awful things traditionally happen to the animal star.  The MGM/Lassie films are the worst.  "Old Yeller" is the pits. (Blasphemy!) I do like Asta in the "Thin Man" series and Pyewacket in "Bell, Book and Candle," but those films really aren't about them, are they?

And David Frankel's “Marley and Me,” for me, remains a great film because it is about a life - in this case, a dog from puppyhood to death - and because of its complete, unapologetic empathy for the animal.

It is such an intelligent, acute depiction of what's like to have a relationship with an animal and how the sudden absence of an animal companion can make one feel so terribly desolate because, well, the animal is always, reliably there - a point driven home in the scene where stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson watch home videos after Marley's passing.

In one of the videos, Aniston is standing at a kitchen counter talking to a friend.  She has a baby on her hip and eating food off the counter.  Marley is behind her and, almost absent-mindedly, without thinking, she gives Marley some of the food - because she knew he would be there.

A truly under-appreciated film, the only "animal movie" I can tolerate.

Note in Passing: Regarding the use of animals in films, check out this eye-opening, jaw-dropping exposé, "No Animals Were Harmed," that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.
Marley in his prime, always there

Thursday, August 27, 2015

fantasy remake: "Born Free" with Julia and George

  Roberts and Clooney on the cover of the December, 2001 Esquire

A favorite parlor game - at least among movie geeks - is the fantasy remake. That's when you daydream aloud with friends about who you would cast in a remake. I've been playing this game for years and thought it might make a playful recurring feature on this blog.

Case in point: "Born Free," first made in 1966 by director James Hill and released by Columbia Pictures

Nearly everyone knows the story. Based on the book by Joy Adamson, the film chronicled how Adamson and her husband, George, a game warden in Kenya, save, adopt and raise a lion cub who they name Elsa.

As Elsa nears maturity and yearns for freedom, the Adamsons have a tough decision to make - releasing Elsa back into the wild, even though she has come to depend on them and love them.


More to the point, they've come to depend on and love her.

The decision to re-educate Elsa so that she can survive the wild is a painful one - and one that has touched just about everyone, but especially children and animal lovers, for years. The material also makes even animal lovers complicit in the incarceration/captivity, however thoughtful, of creatures who were born free - and deserve to be free.

"Born Free" screams out to be remade - a big remake, one positioned during the family-friendly Christmas holiday season.

The topping would be my cast.

In the '66 film, the real-life husband-and-wife team, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, played the Adamsons. My cast? Drum roll, please.

Julia Roberts and George Clooney.

Why?

Well, first, they work well together and would be extemely effective, both together and individually, in these roles.

Secondly, Roberts loves animals, as evidenced by her poignant turns on two episodes of the "Nature" TV series - "From Orphan to King" (2005) and "Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts" (2000). Her feelings for animals in these episodes are downright palpable.

So, a remake of "Born Free" would not only satisfy Roberts' affection for animals, but would also put her in a hugely commercial story for family audiences, opposite a close friend and one of her favorite leading men.

I say, "Do it!"  End of fantasy.

Friday, August 21, 2015

i'm sick of it already

CBS's relentless promotion of its "Modern Family" wannabe personifies the adage, "Familiarity breeds contempt."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

the summer of '62

credit © 1962 Bert Stern
Marilyn Monroe in late June 1962, six weeks before her death, as photographed by Bert Stern for Vogue magazine

Forgive me, but I plan to traipse down memory lane today (and seriously date myself).

Every year, as the summer movie season begins to wind down in August, I become nostalgic for the bittersweet season of 1962.  Ah, yes, 1962...

I vividly remember my father driving me to Mass on Sunday, August 5th in '62 and picking me up an hour later with the announcement that Marilyn Monroe had died.  Marilyn.  MM. My first movie crush. Dead.

A profound loss that was very personal to me.

That summer, my parents enrolled me at Steelman's Business School to learn typing (because the Catholic school that I attended allowed only girls to take typing classes) and also signed me up at a Rick's Gym (because I was a skinny movie nerd).  I went to Steelman's at 8 a.m., the gym at 10 and then I'd have lunch at a cozy little place called Calico Kitchen.

My lunch was always the same - a Texas Tommy and a black-&-white milk shake. I believe that the Texas Tommy sandwich no longer exists, but it was fab-u-lous - a hot dog, split down the center with a strip of pickle and cheese tucked in, and then wrapped in bacon and stuffed inside a bun.

Plus fries.

I'm amazed that I survived puberty.

Then I'd go to a noon movie at one of two theaters in downtown Camden, New Jersey - the Stanley, a sprawling palace, or the art-deco Savar (which was conveniently next-door to Calico Kitchen).

On August 6th, the day after Marilyn passed, instead of working out at Rick's, I spent most of my time there reading about her in all the local papers - The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Philadelphia Inquire, The Daily News and the Camden Courier-Post.  I clipped out the articles to keep.

I was heartbroken and reluctant to see a movie that day. I felt guilty. It seemed wrong. But the Savar was showing a Jack Lemmon comedy, "The Notorious Landlady," and, given that I loved Lemmon, I couldn't resist.  So I had my Texas Tommy and fries and spent the next two hours with Jack.

"The Notorious Landlady" remains one of my all-time favorite films, not just because it's a terrific, clever comedy but largely because of the situation, the time and the place, that embrace it.  It's a special movie that perhaps no one else views - or can appreciate - quite the way I do.

I binged-watched it that summer, seeing it multiple times.

But the summer of '62 also holds a special place in my heart because of the rich array of films that moved in and out of the local theaters - "The Music Man" ... "Lolita" ... "Advise and Consent" ... "Hatari" ... "Lonely Are the Brave" ... "Five Finger Exercise" ... "The Counterfeit Traitor" ... "That Touch of Mink" ... "My Geisha" ... "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" ... "David and Lisa" ... "Birdman of Alcatraz" ... "The Interns" ... Cinerama's "The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm" ... the Hope-Crosby reunion comeback, "The Road to Hong Kong" ... Elvis' version of "Kid Galahad."

And Kim Novak had two films released within the same month - "Boys' Night Out," which her company Kimco produced, and a comedy directed by her then-significant other, Richard Quine, and co-starring her frequent screen partner, Jack Lemmon ... "The Notorious Landlady."

It's a film that I watch every August 6th.

Note in Passing: The movie year 1962, in general, is arguably the greatest in film history, surpassing (yes) even 1939 - something which I addressed back in 2012 in this essay.

The Marilyn Artwork: Photographer Bert Stern had three sessions with Marilyn Monroe for Vogue magazine in late June 1962, six weeks before her death. These sessions, as evidenced here, produced extraordinarily beautiful and unique images of Marilyn.



Tuesday, August 11, 2015

façade: gary cooper (and his brothers)

It's a given.  Extroverts have always been well-liked, admired, even celebrated, while introverts remain unpopular and, quite often, suspect.  And social media has only exaggerated these extremes by simple virtue of the fact that it is more compatible with narcissism than with modesty.

I bring up the extroversion/introversion contrast because, to a degree, it applies to actors. Much like show "American Idol," whose participants predictably belt, shout and scream unmemorable songs to the rafters, acting in modern American movies has become a matter of overkill.

More is not enough.

For years now, whenever actors speak of what performer from the past they most admire, the usual suspect is invoked - that master of overacting, Marlon Brando. Every actor has delusions of being the next Brando or his itchy protégé, James Dean - men you can see "acting."

This is my roundabout way of honoring Gary Cooper, an actor often described as "laid-back," meaning that he largely underacted, never so effectively than in his 1941 Oscar winner, Howard Hawks' compulsively watchable, "Sergeant York." Given the heated acting climate today, where actors underline and italicize everything, it's difficult to image this particular Cooper performance commanding any respect from people who should know better (read: other actors and, yes, movie critics).

Cooper's quiet acting style represented an ineffable brand of manhood that's also gone missing: He effortlessly projected strong innocence and innocent strength. Yes, innocence - now an undesirable trait for men/actors to embody (as evident in the dubious acting choices of Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Robert Downey, Jr. and - well, I could go on).

Gary Cooper has had his on-screen heirs but they've also been largely underrated and dismissed. I'm thinking of Kevin Costner and his appealingly casual acting style (as well as his penchant for socially-conscious material), and Steve McQueen, who found stillness in his tough-guy roles and was even better in his atypical parts ("Baby, The Rain Must Fall," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "The Reivers").

These are men you can't catch "acting."  Not for a second. Coop's boys.

Note in Passing: My friend and colleague, Carrie Rickey, wrote a compelling essay on this subject for her Flickgrrl site on 26 January, 2011 when she was reviewing for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the piece, Carrie questioned, "Is the Oscar for Best Acting or Most Acting?," anchoring her query to the over-the-top, Oscar-winning work of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in David O. Russell's "The Fighter."  It's an astute question, given that Mark Wahlberg's quiet title-role performance is actually the most satisfying one in that entertaining, if somewhat chaotic, film.

But few people acknowledged Wahlberg's work back in '11 - or his subtly comic performance in Russell's "I ♥ Huckabee" which, for my money, was arguably the best male performance of 2004.  Again, no-frills acting.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

cinema obscura: The Director's Cut of Colin Higgins' "Best Little Whorehouse..." (1982)

Back in the day, I interviewed Burt Reynolds on the Charlotte, N.C. set of what would become (arguably) one of his lesser films, "Stroker Ace."

It was 1982 and Burt's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" had just opened. He was very high on it and, after the interview in his trailer, he put on a cassette of "Whorehouse" outtakes - all musical stuff, including a different song written for the opening credits by Dolly Parton- "Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch" - in lieu of  the song that subsequently opened the movie, "20 Fans" (by Carol Hall who wrote all the songs for the original Broadway production) - and a soulful solo by Burt called "(Where) Stallions Run" which never made it into the truncated theatrical release. I've never quite grasped why studios "tweak" their musicals by editing out ... music.


You know, the reason musicals are made - the song and dance numbers.

Anyway, way back in 2002, when Universal released Colin Higgins' film on DVD, advertising "outtakes" among the bonus features, I fully expected those outtakes to be the amazing stuff that filled Burt's VHS tape. Wrong. The outtakes were the kind of blooper reels that Burt regularly screened for Johnny Carson's and Mike Douglas' TV audiences during the 1970s and '80s - you know, stuff of Charles Durning flubbing his lines, Dolly coming on like Mae West and Burt breaking up over some Dom DeLuise gaff. Strictly mundane. What the heck happened to all the missing musical goodies?

Surprisingly, not even "(Where) Stallions Run" made the disc - surprising because the song was reinstated for the film's TV broadcasts, presumably to fill it out after the more randy material was excised by the TV censors.

In his comments on the film on Amazon.com, Greg M. Pasqua reports that "over 30 minutes of film was cut from the Director's print" prior to its release in '82. (The release print of the film clocks in at 115 minutes.)

Among the missing numbers noted by Pasqua are two written for the film by Parton - "A Gamble Either Way" and "Stallions' Ways," both of which appear on Parton's "Burlap and Satin" album. Actually, the title of the song on Parton's album isn't
"Stallions' Ways," but "A Cowboy's Ways,"
which, it turns out, is an alternative title for the aforementioned "(Where) Stallions Run," which was reworked for Reynolds by Parton. (Got that?)

Pasqua reports that an entire subplot from the play, involving the hiring of a shy girl (Andrea Pike) who grows into a woman during the course of the storyline, was elminated, along with one of the better-known songs from the stage production, "Girl, You're a Woman," inspired by that subplot.  


Other songs from Carol Hall's stage score that were eliminated from the film include "Watch Dog," "Doatsy Mae," "No Lies," "Good Old Girl," "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'" and "The Bus From Amarillo."

 

"Also," writes Pasqua, "smaller roles from the Broadway show were cut, including the abbreviated role of Angel (played by Valerie Leigh Bilxer), the (prostitute) who wants to see her little boy for Christmas, and other scenes involving Dolly and the (ranch) girls. Longer cuts of the big musical numbers also exist ('The Aggie Song,' '20 Fans' and 'Little Bitty Pissant Country Place'). All of these would make for a pretty good Special Edition."

Agreed.  And, for the record, I like the film, always did - even at the time of its release when it was unfashionable for any critic to admit so.

And now that the 2002 DVD is out-of-print, it would be great if Universal finally releases the director's cut on Blu-ray - or at least include the deleted and unused musical numbers as outtakes.


My advice: Just call Burt.  He has them. Or once did.
Note in Passing:  Becoming a film was not easy for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  Universal was reportedly so enthusiastic about the property that it rather hastily agreed that the movie version would be co-directed by two men who oversaw the Broadway production, actor Peter Masterson and song-and dance wiz, Tommy Tune (who also choreographed the stage show).  Burt Reynolds, the first star to be cast, was apparently fine with the idea, but matters seemed to change when Dolly Parton signed on as its leading lady and I guess Burt backed her up.

“Whorehouse” was Parton’s second film, following her debut in “Nine to Five” (1980), which was Colin Higgins's second film as a director (after having written the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” of 1971 and directed Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase in “Foul Play” in 1978.)

My hunch is that Parton felt connected to Higgins and preferred him to guide her in her second film, given that she did such memorable work for him in “Nine to Five.”  So, Higgins came on board as director. He would direct only three films, "Best Little Whorehouse" being his third and last.

Colin Higgins died in 1988 of AIDS.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

indelible moment: "Strangers on a Train"



Hitchcock, working without the benefit of CGI

Friday, July 24, 2015

façade: steve m. & steve c.

credit © 2015 Jim Ruymen/UPI 
Steve Carell and his wife Nancy at the American Film Institute's 43rd Life Achievement Award tribute to Steve Martin at the Dolby Theatre on June 4, 2015

I call them The Two Steves.

Steve Martin and Steve Carell.

Although they are a good generation apart, they have a lot in common.  Both are good actors and sly comics, with a certain sophistication that sets them apart.  And the career trajectory of each man is noticeably similar.  I guess what I'm saying is that Steve Carell is the new millennium's Steve Martin.

Ah, yes, Steve Martin in the 1980s-early '90s.  Mr. Reliable.  One of the few reasons to go to a movie a couple decades ago.

There were such inventive, savvy screen comedies (listed in no particular order) as ... “Roxanne” ... “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” ... "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" ... "HouseSitter" ... “Parenthood” ... “L.A. Story” ... "All of Me" ... “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” ... “The Man with Two Brains” ... “Grand Canyon” and ... most audacious of all, a couple of screen musicals, “Little Shop of Horrors” and the singular “Pennies from Heaven."

Heck, I even love such underrated, little-seen Martin titles as “Movers and Shakers," “My Blue Heaven,” “Leap of Faith,” “The Lonely Guy” and "Mixed Nuts" - especially “The Lonely Guy” and "Mixed Nuts," both of which I'm convinced are primed for major rediscoveries/reëvaluations.

And these were all made when he was appearing regularly on television, as a recurring guest host on "Saturday Night Live," its resident "wild and crazy guy."

He was once on a roll.  But the good times rarely last.  Unexpectedly, during the 1990s, Martin segued into what I call his "toxic family-friendly" period - appearing in the wince-producing “Father of the Bride” duo and the unwatchable “Cheaper by the Dozens” twins.  Nothing seemed the same. I mean, need I mention “Sgt. Bilko” or the unnecessary remakes of "The Out-of-Towners" and “The Pink Panther (1 & 2)"?

Everyone eventually makes painful compromises for their jobs.  You go along to get along, as the saying goes, and actors probably know this better than anyone else.  As movie audiences have dumbed down, filmmakers have had to lower their standards.  (Movie critics have certainly given in, endorsing films that, a decade or two ago, they would have squarely dismissed - compromising so that their readers or, more to the point, their editors don't think of them as impossible-to-please elitists.)

But as the '90s closed, Martin bounced back.  The Oughts brought another string of stylish Steve Martin films, starting with "Bowfinger": "Joe Gould's Secret" ... "Novocaine"...  "The Spanish Prisoner" ... "It's Complicated" ...  and, even though they were major disappointments, "The Big Year" and the (Woody) Allen-esque“Shopgirl” (based on Martin's slim novel). "Bringing Down the House," on paper, seemed like it would be an embarrassment, but in performance, it somehow worked.

Carell, much like Martin, originally honed his talents on television, popping up as a guest player in assorted sitcoms. There were occasional bits in movies ("Curly Sue," his first film, "Bewitched" and Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda") and, then in rapid succession, came "The Office" on television and the movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” leading breathlessly to a smooth team-player turn in “Little Miss Sunshine” and a bravura star turn in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

His subsequent choices have been interesting - "Dan in Real Life" ... "Date Night" ... "Dinner for Schmucks" ... "Crazy Stupid Love" ... "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" ... "The Way Way Back" ... "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" ... "Hope Springs" and, of course, "Foxcatcher."

Carell hasn't quite yet hit the dry period of his movie career, although there was one 12-month time frame that included the groaners "Evan Almighty" and ... "Get Smart." Yes, Like Martin, he has his own dubious remake.

I’m hoping that these two represent only a blip, just a couple passing aberrations.

Note in Passing: Right now, matters look good for these farceurs extraordinaire. Carell has something called "Freeheld" coming up (with Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, his playmate from "Crazy Stupid Love"), and Martin has "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," an Ang Lee film (with Kristin Stewart). In the meantime, the American Film Institute's tribute to Steve Martin will be televised by Turner Classic Movies @ 8 p.m. (est) and 11:30 p.m. (est) on Thursday, July 30.

Monday, July 20, 2015

in praise of nicolle

ABC has it all wrong.

Instead of playing musical chairs with the hosts of its disintegrating daytime talk show, "The View," the network should be questioning the executives who are overpaid to apparently make dubious decisions.

Case in point: The show's latest fatality, Nicolle Wallace who, according to Variety, has been shown the door because, as its resident Republican, she failed to offer "enough dissent about political issues" and was "continually voicing her lack of knowledge about celebrities," such as the Kardashians.

She also failed to "generate buzz on social media."

And she wasn't shrill enough, a la Elizabeth Hasselbeck. But as Fox 411 so aptly put it, "being a not-shrill conservative is kind of Wallace’s thing."

And let's face it: Wallace was out of her league on the show.  She's way too good for "The View" - intelligent, reasonable, restrained, charming and comfortably attractive. She's dignified, not shrill. Wallace brought style and reserve to a show that's been in desperate need of both for nearly a decade now.  And she exhibited the enthusiasm of a team player, a rare quality that can't be easily applied to any of the other rotating hosts.

And I say this as a died-hard Democrat.

But it's not surprising that ABC was concerned about Kardashian trivia. This is the network responsible for two reality-show embarrassments - the "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Bachelor/Bachlorette" franchises.

Watching "The View" expire has not been easy.  It's been painful actually.

Barbara Walters debuted it originally as an affable homage to Virginia Graham's "Girl Talk" of the 1960s, with diverse women discussing diverse topics.  As its popularity grew, it became more politicized and ultimately more strident, hitting a few unpleasant peaks from which it has never fully recovered.  CBS, meanwhile, unveiled its own version, "The Talk," which is lighter, more companionable and less confrontational. Daytime perfect.

Given that "The View" is way beyond saving, being one of its hosts has become a thankless, futile job. But Nicolle Wallace gave it a try, providing it with a shot of smarts, an elusive quality no longer in demand at ABC.

It's anyone's guess who will replace Nicolle Wallace on "The View."  But I hear that Michelle Duggar is currently available.  That should certainly satisfy ABC's need for dissent and social media buzz.  Daytime imperfect.

Thursday, July 16, 2015