Saturday, April 30, 2016

McGuane times two

A good writer is a magician of sorts, a fabulist who can make the trite seem, well, fabulous.

Thomas McGuane certainly qualifies as a good writer and, back in the 1970s, he produced two scripts seemingly married to the same essential plotline.

Released a year apart, Frank Perry's "Rancho DeLuxe" (1975) and Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) are both original scripts about cattle rustlers and land barons. Both are Westerns but the former is modern, comedic and, at 93 minutes, rather breezy, while the latter is darker, more traditional and, at 126 minutes, something of a trial to sit through.

While it's never been acknowledged that both are based on the same material, it's compelling to compare and contrast, observing how McGuane creatively moved his pieces - his characters - around, changing relationships while adhering to a tale told twice. Here goes...

Point One

In "Rancho DeLuxe," Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play two contemporary cattle rustlers who, perhaps unwisely, set their sights on the livestock of the newly transplanted Clifton James and wife Elizabeth Ashley, who came to Montana from Scehnectady, New York.

In "The Missouri Breaks," Jack Nicholson leads a cattle-rustling ring and decides - again, perhaps unwisely - to take on cattle baron John McLiam, a widower with a grown daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

Point Two

In "Rancho DeLuxe," James hires pokey old Slim Pickens to ensnare rustlers Bridges and Waterston. Traveling with Pickens is his niece, Charlene Dallas, who is what James Agee would have called "a dish." Ah, but Pickens and Dallas are not exactly what they seem to be.

In "The Missouri Breaks," McLiam hires Marlon Brando, a cattle-rustling regulator with an eccentric way of handling the job. He dons disguises to dispatch his unfortunate prey. In both films, the hired hand recruited to entrap the rustlers engages in a kind of play-acting. Both Pickens and Brando play characters who consider their line of work a "sport," approaching it in highly theatrical ways that are not all that dissimilar.

Point Three

In terms of "love interest," in "The Missouri Breaks," Nicholson forges a relationship with Lloyd, while in "Rancho DeLuxe," one of James' goons, played by Harry Dean Stanton, becomes smitten with Dallas. (Note in Passing: Richard Bright plays James' other goon - Burt to Stanton's Curt.)

In both cases, the romance is doomed by deceit and betrayal.

Point Four

The respective endings is what sets the two films apart. "The Missouri Breaks" ends on a note that's bloodier than anything that preceded it, as difficult as that is to image." "Rancho DeLuxe," on the the other hand, ends without violence, with the two heroes rather blissfully in jail, a dénouement that, oddly enough, recalls the ending of ... "The Producers."

Point Five

Oh, yes, and the two films were released by United Artists. And perhaps not coincidentally, Elliott Kastner was a producer on both films.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

elvis & ann & george & janet

The curious split-screen finale of "Viva Las Vegas"

In "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir" (Three Rivers Press), Dick Van Dyke reminisces about his debut movie, "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), and director George Sidney's infatuation with Ann-Margret.

In one chapter, Van Dyke describes the moment when he and co-star Janet Leigh walked on to a sound stage to find Ann-Margret sitting on Sidney's lap.  Both looked at each other and, in unison, said, "Uh-oh."

Later, after the first preview of the film, Leigh (who was supposed to be the star of the film and who had worked with Sidney on several films prior to "Birdie") walked up to Sidney and asked, "Where did that song come from?"  She was referring to the new title song that (1) was never in the stage version, (2) apparently was filmed in secrecy and (3) shamelessly showcases A-M. There were other reports - althought not in Van Dyke's book - that Leigh then slapped Sidney across the face. She felt betrayed.

The film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" got off to a bumpy start.  It was supposed to be directed by Gower Champion, who helmed it on Broadway. It was to be his first as a filmmaker.  Champion hoped to cast Jack Lemmon and Debbie Reynolds in the leads. He had wanted Lemmon for the stage version - the two had co-starred years before in a Betty Grable musical, "Three for the Show" (1955) - but Lemmon was already committed to a straight play, "Face of a Hero," the same season. 

And so the stage role went to Dick Van Dyke. Chita Rivera, of course, was his co-star on Broadway, playing the self-described "Spanish Rose."  I've been critical of Ann-Margret's miscasting in the film - and I've no idea if that decision was made by Champion or Sidney - because she's supposed to be playing a character who is either 15 or 16.  But Leigh was also serioulsy miscast as a Latina, as would have been Debbie Reynolds.

Either change the backstory of the character or hire a Hispanic actress.  Why not Rivera?  Or Rita Moreno who has just won an Oscar?

But the casting became a moot point after Champion read Irving Brecher's bowdlerized adaptation of the play and quite the Columbia production, taking Reynolds with him. They went over to Paramount where they made "My Six Loves" instead, which would be Champion's debut as a director. 

And "Birdie" was inherited by Sidney, an old movie-musical veteran who, for some reason, tried to turn the property into a Frank Tashlin film.

But George Sidney was no Frank Tashlin.

It was a huge success, so much so that Sidney and A-M went off to Metro to participate in an Elvis Presley property, "Viva Las Vegas," in which A-M plays a character closer to her own age. The pairing of Elvis and A-M seemed perfect, given that they were essentially mirror images of each other, gender notwithstanding. And publicists wasted no time implying that they were romantically involved, although Elvis himself never verified it.

Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs a fascinating featurette in which Elvis's surviving handlers discuss the making of "Viva Las Vegas" and Geroge Sidney's "crush" (their words) on Ann-Margaret in particular.

There were apparently problems with Sidney giving A-M more close-ups than Elvis until his people tuned him up and explained to Sidney that "Viva Las Vegas" was an Elvis Presley film, not an Ann-Margret vehicle.

Which makes one wonder if there ever was a "relationship."

The final scene in "Viva Las Vegas" is particularly telling.  It's a reprise of the title number featuring Elvis and A-M but they aren't actually in the same shot together, although they are both on screen.

Why?

My guess is that Elvis' people wanted this to be his moment and vetoed the idea of his filming it with A-M.  So did Sidney get around this dictum by filming Elvis separately and then adding A-M to the scene with a split screen?  Whatever the explanation, it's an incredibly awkward finale. 

For those who care, Turner is airing both "Viva Las Vega" and "Bye Bye Birdie" back-to-back Thursday (April 28), starting @ 4:30 p.m. (est).

Friday, April 22, 2016

cinema obscura: prince's "under the cherry moon" (1986)

The death of Prince brings to mind his misunderstood movie masterwork, "Under the Cherry Moon," released by Warner Bros. in 1986.  At the time, it was as reviled as his 1984 debut film, "Purple Rain," was overpraised.

"Rain" was directed by Albert Magnoli, who would make five other theatrical films, but "Cherry Moon" was directed by Prince himself, who would helm only two other titles - the documentary "Sign 'o' the Times" (1987) and "Graffiti Bridge" (1990). Much like Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), Prince's movie largely drew sneers from outraged critics.  But unlike the Hitchcock, "Under the Cherry Moon" has never been sought out for a serious reassessment and undeservedly remains a lost film.

Strikingly photographed in black-&-white by Michael Ballhaus, Prince's movie is part Antonioni, part Hawks, part Warhol, part whatzit - all jumbled together and seemingly influenced also by the mental landscape of its kinetic, eccentric auteur.  Prince's decidedly modernist presence is never quite embraced by his own film's nostalgic Art Deco elements. It's a movie involved in a moody tug-of-war with itself. Which is hugely affecting.

Thirty years later, "Cherry Moon" remains gnawingly elusive, difficult to contain but now has a timelessness. And 30 years later, I still like it. A lot.

The film gets off to a rather curious start with a sequence in which everyone on screen is behaving like a vampire from one of those trendy Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey horror collaborations from the 1970s.  When bats appear - flying into a cabaret in France, no less - the joke is made clear: This is Prince's "Portrait of the Expatriat as a Young Zombie."

After the bats appear, liberating everyone, "Under the Cherry Moon" settles into what it really is - a stylish romp that could be titled ... "Two Gals in Paris." Only in this case, we get two guys - Prince and sidekick Jerome Benton. Only they're not in Paris, but in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur.

It could have been glib and amoral but instead has a vulnerable charm.

The boys, gigolos hoping to sponge off the jet set and get rich themselves, are shrewd male variations on the characters played by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953).

That's right.

Prince is Christopher Tracy, an entertainer who performs nightly in a piano bar and dares to fall in love with a swell (Kristen Scott-Thomas), much to her parents' chagrin, and he plays the part with a mixture of his usual wild-eyed randiness and a certain '50s insouciance.

There's no question in my mind that Prince is doing Monroe here (at times, he affects the same sweet, startled, slightly addled facial expression) or that the speedboat escape at the end smacks of the finale of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959). This is gender-bending at its most creative.

I've referenced a lot of film titles and filmmakers here and, yes, Prince the director is able to mesh them all.  "Under the Cherry Moon" was a daring risk following the success of "Purple Rain" and in the weeks prior to its release, the buzz labeled it stinker.  Far from it.  It was the boldest film of the summer of 1986.  As well as the most misundersood. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

... and, now, about kelly...

Michael Strahan may be ABC's superhero, but the personality who’s really indispensable in the very strange world of Daytime Television is the peerless Kelly.  Yes, Kelly Ripa

Let's talk TV today - daytime TV, to be specific.

Now, before you ask what daytime TV has to do with movies, I hasten to note that there are no longer any barriers that separate the various arts from each other or from the assorted media (including, and especially, social media).  And on daytime TV, it's all one giant mash-up of bold-faced names, film clips, tie-ins, name-dropping and shameless self-promotion.

It's also - except for a quartet of exceptions - dated, repetitious and as depressing as hell.  You have ABC's solitary soap, "General Hospital," which has been an unwatchable mess for about a decade now; the network's "The View," which should be put out of its misery (and misery is indeed the operative word here) and CBS's antiquated game shows "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal" where, with scant encouragement, the contestants are more than happy to behave like hapless buffoons.

And so, it came as no surprise that the The 43rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards (scheduled for May 1st ) would not be televised this year.  I mean, really, how often can one watch the same game shows, the same talk shows and the same soaps win awards that interest no one?

BTW, there are currently only four soap operas remaining on daytime TV and guess how many of them have been nominated this year.

That's right - all four, only one of which is notable.

That would be CBS's "The Young and the Restless," one of the aforementioned four exceptions that make daytime TV bearable and a top TV drama in general (although it is currently being overseen by refugees from the unfortunate "General Hospital," a reason for pause).

The other three are CBS's "The Talk" (despite the fact its five co-hosts, all incredibly personable, have taken it on themselves to do non-stop damage control for spoiled celebrities who pay people to do exactly that for them); Rachel Ray's fabulous food-and-talk show on ABC, and, in a class all by itself, "Live with Kelly and Michael," also on ABC. ("Rachel" and "Live" are both Disney-syndicated but air on ABC channels exclusively.)

The Kelly and Michael of the title are, of course, the peerless Kelly Ripa and the ever-surprising Michael Strahan, a former NFL star who has evolved into an unexpectedly pleasing TV personality - so much so that ABC has elected to remove Strahan from "Live" and situate him on its more valuable morning show, "Good Morning, America," which is arguably the definitive mash-up of all those ingredients listed in the second paragraph here (plus some sociopolitical news for legitimacy).

Strahan has been a twice-a-week contributor on GMA, starting there approximately the same time he joined "Live," where he replaced Regis Philbin.  The pairing of Kelly and Michael, which seemed wildly off-beat on paper, turned out to beterrific -  a match of perfection.

According to Wikipedia, after Strahan teamed with Ripa, "ratings instantly surged, impressively generating year-over-year time slot gains across all key demographics, towering over its nearest competition, the fourth hour of NBC's 'Today Show,' by 87 percent."  As it is with Wikipedia, I'm not exactly sure who wrote this impressive info/blurb, possibly a Strahan assistant. Anyway, ABC apparently took note and, shortly after his debut on "Live," Strahan joined GMA for occasional weekly appearances.

Since then, Strahan has been seemingly everywhere and dabbling in seemingly everything. He has an eponymous men's clothing line and a motivational book, "Wake Up Happy: The Dream Big, Win Big Guide to Transforming Your Life"; he's been the spokesperson for the P&G Meta products; and his other TV work includes his role as a FOX NFL Sunday analyst and the host of the upcoming ABC (yes, ABC) game-show reboot, "The $100,000 Pyramid," airing this summer. Have I missed anything?

Whew!

So his ascension to a top spot on GMA is just the latest stride for Michael Strahan and, while no one would begrudge his apparently unquenchable ambition, the circumstances surrounding this latest move seem dubious at best.  It's great that Strahan is going to GMA and terrible that he's leaving "Live."  What's disturbing in the secrecy about the move - so secret that reportedly (if one is to believe reports) not even Ripa or (reportedly) "Live" producer Michael Gelman knew about it until it was announced by an ABC honcho, James Goldston, president of its news division.

And one would think that Ripa and Gelman, of all people, deserved the courtesy of a heads-up at the very least. Strahan's stock has risen largely because of "Live" in general and his chemistry with Ripa in particular.

Strahan has been admired for his accessible "everyguy" demeanor and I guess ABC is counting on that quality to help GMA as it struggles to surmount its rival, NBC's "Today Show," which has snapped up the "people between 25 and 54" demographic so valued by advertisers.

But the questionable way this has been handled, the perceived deception, is not something that viewers associate with Strahan's "brand."  (Full disclosure: Having worked for newspapers for an unhealthy number of years, I'm accustomed to overpaid people making bad decisions.)

This could be potentially damaging.

As for Kelly Ripa, I have every confidence that she will do just fine.  She has that rare ability to pair up perfectly with just about everyone, not just Michael Strahan, as evidence by the revolving-door of guys who auditioned for the seat that Strahan successfully won four years ago and who have replaced him during his days off.  Plus, unlike many of her co-hosts (Strahan included), Ripa is quick on her feet and a natural comic.  And she's immensely likable. I guess what I'm saying is, she's perfect.

Or at least, the perfect TV host.  And on morning TV, she's like a tonic.

She's also a pro, a top professional.  But even a pro can be pushed too far.  And so it came as no surprise that, the day after Goldston's big Strahan announcment, Kelly was absent from today's "Live" telecast. Ana Gasteyer filled in. She was competent.  But she's no Kelly Ripa.

Michael Strahan will be easy to replace - I have no doubt about that - but "Live" is unthinkable without Kelly. And so, the next time ABC and Goldston are looking to clandestinely snare someone away from an ABC syndicated show, I suggest that they aim higher (read: Kelly Ripa).

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

doris & gig & shirley & dean

There are screen teams - and then there are screen teams.

My interest is in those teams who haven't been aknowledged as teams.

Per se.

Let's take Doris Day, as an example. She is most identified with Rock Hudson, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson and James Garner but she actually appeared in more films with ... Gig Young:

-Gordon Douglas's "Young at Heart" (1954)

-George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet" (1958)

-Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love" (1958)

-Delbert Mann's "That Touch of Mink" (1962).

These four titles would make a nice, tidy Saturday-afternoon film festival.


Then there's Shirley MacLaine, most closely linked with Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon.

Her most frequent co-star, however, was Dean Martin who shared seven - count 'em - seven films with her:

-Frank Tashlin's "Artists and Models" (1955)

-Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running" (1958)

-Joseph Anthony's "Career" (1959)

-Lewis Milestone's "Ocean's Eleven" (1960)

-Joseph Anthony's "All in a Night's Work" (1961)

-J. Lee Thompson's "What a Way to Go!" (1964)

-Hal Needham's "Cannonball Run 2" (1984).

And, oh yes, Shirley and Gig teamed up in Charles Walters' "Ask Any Girl" (1959).

From top to bottom:
Doris Day and Clark Gable prop up Gig Young in George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet"; Young and Elisabeth Fraser surprise Day and Richard Widmark in Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love"; Shirley and Dean team in "All in a Night's Work" and "Career," both directed by Joseph Anthony

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

adventures in movie reviewing: "caddyshack"

From Cindy Morgan's Twitter page
Co-stars Cindy Morgan, Scott Colomby and Bill Murray at the "Caddyshack" premiere in New York 

One of the highlights of my movie-reviewing career was the 1980 New York press junket for Harold Ramis's "Caddyshack," which included the film's premiere on a summer Friday night at the Lowes' State theater (prior to its national release) and an interview session the following Saturday morning at Dangerfield's, a club owned by one of its stars.

But the event was a highlight in ways that I didn't quite expect...

It started off well. The premiere was smashing, free-form and informal and appropriately chaotic.  The entire cast showed up, as well as the comedy ensemble that was currently appearing on "Saturday Night Live," in attendance to support their cohorts Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray.  Sitting in front of me were Al Franken and Tom Davis. 

The movie itself, which remains a favorite of mine, was a treat, deliriously funny - a sort of live-action Looney Tune.  Which is apt since Warner Bros. released it. Murray was/is the film's standout, improvising a variation on Wylie Cayote opposite a little animatronic gopher's Road Runner. Bliss.

The next day, a bus was waiting outside the hotel to whisk the press off to Dangerfield's.  Here's where matters got strange.  I'm in the hotel elevator with about six other people.  One guy, thirtysomething, is talking particularly loud and sounds angry.  There's profanity.  Then I notice that he's looking at me.  He's yelling at me. Huh?  I assume he's drunk.  Or on drugs. I get on the bus and he's there, too, still lashing out.  But why?

This is clearly a verbal assault.

OK, now we're at Dangerfield's.  It's packed.  Murray shows up needing a shave, wearing a swim suit and matching top and carrying a pizza.  Rodney Dangerfield plays maître d, seating everyone. Memorable.  But that serpentine guy, now sitting in the back of the place, is still yelling at me. Everyone is staring.  Studio people try to quiet him to little avail.

By now, he knows who I am - that I'm with the press - but the irrational attack continues. I'm told his identity by a Warners person.  He's someone important, very important, someone intimately involved with the film.

Wow.

"Is this guy nuts?," I think.  "I'm here to help him sell his film."  And, let's get something straight, contrary to Hollywood legend, it is decidedly not part of a critic's job to help sell a film. (At least, it shouldn't be.)

When I get back to the office the following Monday, I receive phone calls from Elijah "Lige" Brien, the head of Warners publicity in the New York office at the time, and from his colleague, Carl Samrock, both apologizing for the bad behavior.  My editor asked me how everything went.  I tell him about the incident and we agree that instead of running any interviews, I'd write something else: a column about how good-natured films are often made by mean-spirited people - a dichotomy that still fascinates me.

The movie industry has never been big on decency.  It's never been able to cope with success and power.  But what happened to protocol?  In the bad old days, a Harry Cohn or a Jack Warner would have fired the guy.

I wrote the essay but never named the person involved.  What was the point?  It didn't matter.  He was one of many movie people who disappoint and disillusion. And I won't name him here. He passed a while ago.

Back in the 1970s, Sydney J. Harris, then columnist for the Chicago Daily News, summed up the entertainment industry most succinctly when he wrote:

"There's no business like show business - and it's a good thing there isn't ... No other business engages in so much public boasting about its 'big heart' and indulges in so much private malice with its little head."  Amen.

Note in Passing: Warners Bros. never addressed my column or questioned why we didn't run any interviews, but it was less less than happy when a colleague (who reviewed for the Wilmington News Journal) wrote about the same incident. That critic was unfairly admonished.

Typical.

Friday, April 01, 2016

cinema obscura: Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers" (1984)

Five years before Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" took Sundance by storm in 1989, officially kicking off the New American Indie Wave, there were two provocative "in-between" films that, well, sadly fell through the cracks. By "in-between," I'm referring to those identity-crisis movies that are neither studio titles nor strictly independent ventures. There's something mainstream about them and yet they really aren't mainstream.

Coyote! He's Blue, the lanky, not-exactly-sensitive artist

The titles in question, both released in 1984, are Alan Rudolph's "Choose Me," which opens with Jan Kiesser's "swoony cinematography" (Pauline Kael's expression) following along with Lesley Ann Warren's sensual movements as she sashays down a noir street, and Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers," a provocative piece about something that's seemingly impossible - namely, true friendship among men.

I'm less concerned with "Choose Me," because Rudolph went on to have something of a career (albeit in the shadow of his mentor, Robert Altman) and, therefore, his films are remembered. Well, sort of.

Roth, on the other hand, made a detour into TV and pretty much stayed there, his most impressive title being the HBO movie, "Baja Oklahoma" (1988), adapted by Dan Jenkins from his novel and starring Warren and Julia Roberts, compelling as mother and daughter. Peter Coyote, who co-starred, is also one of Roth's two male leads in "Heartbreakers."

Coyote is Blue, a lanky, overgrown boy who ostensibly works as an artist but is not commercially successful at it. He's the kind of guy who easily attracts women, but Blue stuck with one woman, someone who finally could no longer take his rampant immaturity and left. Nick Mancuso is Eli, a driven, successful businessman (he's largely in the "son" business) and experienced womanizer. Women are drawn to him, too.

These are an odd pair to be friends but this is the kind of situation where one guy fills in the blanks of the other.

Their supposed friendship is tested when a new woman - France's Carol Laure (from Bertrand Blier's "Préparez vos mouchoirs"/"Get Out Your Handkerchiefs") - comes on the scene, and both respond to her.

Roth, who made one small impressive feature prior to this ("The Boss's Son," starring Asher Brauner as a possibly autobiographical character named ... Bobby Rose), economically conveys the competitiveness between the two men in an early gym scene where they stand in front of a mirror, both shirtless, sizing up each other's chests.

The supporting cast includes Kathryn Harrold, Max Gail, George Morfogen and the invaluable Carol Wayne, excellent here. The great Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography; Tangerine Dream the music. It's troubling that this fine film remains virtually unknown.
Mancuso! He's Eli, the killer-businessman, utterly driven

Note in Passing: Roth's "Heartbreakers" is not to be confused with David Mirkin's 2001 comedy, "Heartbreakers," starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee and Gene Hackman.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

cinema obscura: Fred Coe's "Me, Natalie" (1969)

The sad passing Patty Duke brings to mind a lost film that is, arguably, her best movie, one that made the most of her potential and promise.

Fred Coe's "Me, Natalie" (1969) was something that should have rehabilitated her professional reputation after the disaster of Mark Robson's "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) but didn't. Too bad. The film is a minor gem and Duke tears into her role of an ugly duckling with the kind of passion that almost always wins Oscars - or is supposed to.

But she did receive a well-deserved Golden Globe for her affecting performance.

She plays Natalie Miller, a girl with what she perceives to be a nose problem. Her nose isn't big, but it does have a hump. (Duke initially wears a prosthetic nose and teeth created by Dick Smith in the film.) And this, she believes, is the source of all her problems, her self-deprecating humor and her general discontent. When she moves out of her parents' home and into her own apartment, Natalie finally comes into her own.

For one thing, she meets James Farentino's handsome David, whose attention gives her the confidence she needs but whose presence creates a different set of problems. Farentino, a hugely underrated actor, is effortlessly dashing as a guy who seems too good to be true - and who, sadly, actually is.

Surrounding Duke is a stellar New York cast - Nancy Marchand and Phil Sterling as her doting, clueless parents; Martin Balsam as her understanding uncle; Solome Jens as Natalie's co-worker at a club questionably called the Topless Bottom Club; Elsa Lanchester as her eccentric landlady; then-newcomers Bob Balaban, Catherine Burns and Deborah Winters as assorted denizens in Natalie's universe, and for all you trivia freaks out there, Al Pacino entirely memorably in his first film role (and single scene) as a charismatic, hyper jerk who toys with Natalie. The cad.

"Me, Natalie" was produced by Stanley Shapiro who wrote a couple of Doris Day's popular '60s comedies and who also came up with the story here, fleshed out by scenarist A. Martin Zweiback.

Director Coe, meanwhile, was noted largely as a Broadway producer - he oversaw Anne Bancroft and Duke on stage in "The Miracle Worker" (and Bancroft in "Two for the Seesaw") and produced the 1962 film version of "Worker," again directed by Arthur Penn. But he actually began his professional life as a television director-producer in the late 1940s and throughout the '50s and is beloved for the classic "Mr. Peepers" TV series.

Coe made an auspicious movie directing debut in 1965 with "A Thousand Clowns," followed by "Me, Natalie." He also directed the 1971 TV movie version of  "All the Way Home," based on Tad Mosel's play (by way of the James Agee novel) that he produced on Broadway.

"Me, Natalie," a Cinema Center release, remains teasingly inaccessible on home entertainment. Long missing, it took the sad news of Patty Duke to restore its fleeting pleasures to my memory.

And to remind me of the wonderful actress herself.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

cinema obscura: Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts" (1994)

I know, I know.

"Mixed Nuts" isn't exactly a lost film. I mean, it's available on DVD but, for more than 20 years now, this nimble comedy has been willfully ignored.

And a new HBO documentary about its maker, Nora Ephron, who passed in 2012, isn't helping matters. Ephron, largely a writer, penned 16 screenplays but directed a scant eight films, all of them pretty good in my opinion. Of those eight, only three have generated any respect from critics - "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), "You've Got Mail" (1998) and her final title, "Julie and Julia" (2009).

Ephron's first film, the charming "This Is My Life" (1992), is barely remembered, while "Michael" (1995), "Lucky Numbers" (2000) and "Bewitched" (2005) were all immediately dismissed. If I had to pick the least of all her movies, I would reluctantly point to "Bewitched."  But for some reason, the HBO documentary singles out the singular "Mixed Nuts" (1994) as her worst, with hardly a mention of the aforementioned three.

"Everything Is Copy," credited to one of Ephron's sons, Jacob Bernstein, and a co-director, Nick Hooker, includes a sequence in which Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert carry on about the awfulness of "Mixed Nuts."  Gene and Roger were frequent acquaintances, nice guys and terrific critics, but few things are as off-putting as a movie reviewer in a huff over an essentially harmless film.

I don't know why "Mixed Nuts" was so handily dismissed by Roger, Gene and other critics but my guess is that perhaps they had tired of Nora Ephron - and "Mixed Nuts" made her ripe for a bit of hero(ine) reduction.

I also suspect that if Christopher Guest's name was on this film as director, instead of Ephron's, it would have been viewed from a different, more receptive perspective. Everyone would have "got" it.

The alert "Mixed Nuts" would actually fit rather snugly into Guest's cockeyed oeuvre and it would certainly suit his cast of regulars.

Full disclosure: I have my biases, too.  At the time of its release, I was a sucker for the film's star, Steve Martin, and anything that he made during this period - "L.A. Story," "HouseSitter," "Roxanne," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Leap of Faith," "Parenthood," "My Blue Heaven" and "Mixed Nuts," companionable films all released within a six- or seven-year span.

A very faithful remake of Jean-Marie Poiré's 1982 French farce, "La Père Noël est une ordure," Ephron's movie is set in Venice, Ca. at Christmastime and, right there, it earned a valid smile from me. More specifically, it is set within the cozy confines of a suicide crisis hotline in Venice, overseen by Steve Martin (with brown hair here), a very pleasing, subtly neurotic Rita Wilson (pictured below with Martin) and the inimitable Madeline Kahn in one of her last screen roles as a flighty dame named Mrs. Munchnik.

Among the assorted "mixed" nuts who dash in and out, looking for help and making trouble, are Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia as a deadpan (and very pregnant) couple straight out of New Yawk; Adam Sandler (in his first legitimate screen role) doing his singing man-child bit which proves most apt here; a game and surprising Liev Schreiber (pictured in top photo with Martin) in an early screen appearance as a cross-dresser interested in Martin, and Robert Klein, Rob Reiner, Jon Stewart, Joely Fisher, Michael Badalucco, Parker Posey, Garry Shandling, Steven Wright, a very young Haley Joel Osment - plus the voices of Caroline Aaron, Mary Gross and Victor Garber as comically desperate people who phone the hotline.

A daisy chain of fractured relationships make up the film, giving it a breezy reason for being, even though a serial strangler is on the loose and the hotline gang face eviction. It's absolutely loopy and I love it.

OK, I'll say it: It's Ephron's best movie, period. Hands-down.

Sorry, Roger & Gene.

Note in Passing: Among the writers on Poiré's original were actors Josiane Balasko and Thierry Lhermitte, who also appear in Poiré's film - which was something of an all-star to-do in France as well.

Ephron's stellar cast (at least, some of it)

Monday, March 14, 2016

indelible moment: Levine's "The Night Before"

© Sarah Shatz/Columbis Pictures
 Gordon-Levitt and Cyrus, crooning

There are certain comedy genres that are irresistible, one of which is the "night on the town" comedy as exemplified by everything from Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985) to Chris Columbus' "Adventures in Babysitting" (1987) - movies in which a night goes on seemingly forever.

One of the best (and an all-around terrific comedy in general) is Jonathan Levine's "The Night Before" (2015), about three guys - played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan and Anthony Mackie - who traditionally stretch every Christmas Eve into a night-long tradition of brief encounters and non-stop fun, again another blissful night that goes on seemingly forever.

Jonathan Levine is a name that is new to me and, despite his youth, he brings a certain sophistication and gracefulness to the on-going carousing in his film, helped in no small measure by Brando Trost's shimmering cinematography.  This hip movie looks like the fabulous party that it is.

The film's penultimate moment comes in a club where just about the film's entire cast congregates - Gordon-Levitt, Rogan, Mackie, Mindy Kaling, James Franco, Lizzy Caplan and the singular Miley Cyrus, who is performing at the club.  When Gordon-Levitt jumps on stage to join Miley in a duet of "Wrecking Ball," his way of proposing to Caplan, the moment becomes magical.  Although they're not in this sequence, one can feel the presence of co-stars Michael Shannon, Jillian Bell, Lorraine Toussaint and the incorrigible Ilana Glazer ("Broad City"!), who plays a Christmas-hating street-prowler named ... Rebecca Grinch. A companionable bunch all.

Levine also has a shrewd eye for casting.  This is a hip, terrific ensemble here. Companionable indeed.