Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Imagine that Wise's hard-drive didn't die and this was actually posted 11/26/10). 

Wise: Happy Thanksgiving, Werth! 

Werth: Happy Thanksgiving, Wise! 

Wise: Sorry if I’m a little distracted this week, but I’ve just reached the crisis point with my turkey.  It’s decision time and I can’t decide whether to slow roast or deep fry.  

Werth: They both sound scrumptious. 

Wise: Scrumptious isn’t the point.  I’m more interested in bragging to my foodie friends about what a pain making the turkey is.  In the past I’ve roasted, dry roasted, butter roasted, butterflied, brined, salted, rubbed, grilled, injected, smoked, stuffed, herb-crusted, honey-glazed, and citrus-braised.  Thanksgiving just gives you the chance to put a lot of effort into something that might turn out terrible.  

Werth: It’s funny you say that, because when I think of Thanksgiving, I think of—

Wise: Let me guess…

Werth: Blockbuster movie releases!

Wise: How did I know?

Werth: Thanksgiving is the gateway drug to the big Christmas narcotics stash that gets sold to us on every street corner until we’re snorting and shooting up in every theater in the country! Sometimes it’s the good stuff- 

Wise:- and sometimes it’s cut with Drano

Werth: I mean, look at this week! The first half of the final Harry Potter movie! A run-away train flick with Denzel and Captain Kirk! A serious Oscar® contender about stuttering King George! A Disney re-telling of Rapunzel-

Wise: Don’t forget Cher and Christina Aguilera in Burlesque.

Werth: Oh I didn’t forget…

 Wise: Here it comes.

 Werth: —I’ve been pondering lately how often music stars try to crossover into the movie business in an attempt to make oodles of cinematic cash. Al Jolson—

 Wise: Doris Day—

 Werth: Elvis—

Wise: Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.  

Werth: Even Liberace made a movie! 

Wise: Really?

Werth: 1955’s Sincerely Yours. There’s a piano-shaped pool in it.  But one of my favorite music star vehicles is the 1972 bio-pic of jazz giant Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues starring Motown diva Diana Ross. Now it’s no secret that Diana Ross is ambitious and Berry Gordy liked to make money, so once the Supremes were finished, it makes perfect sense that Diana and her svengali would turn to Hollywood. 

 Wise: But Diana Ross as Billie Holiday?

Werth: True, both stars dealt with racism and that special brand of sexism that comes with not being classically good-looking, but the smooth sound of Ross’ pop vocals bear little resemblance to the rough, soul-exposing sounds of Holiday. And just ‘cause you stick a gardenia in your hair, doesn’t mean you look like Billie Holiday. Despite these discrepancies, Motown and Paramount were determined to make Diana Ross the music star into Diana Ross the moviestar. Movie posters for Lady Sings the Blues trumpeted far and wide, “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.” And you know what? 

 Wise: The movie’s fantastic?

 Werth: The movie’s fantastic! Ross portrays the complicated life story of Holiday with surprising gusto. She is scrappy as she works her way from prostitute to cabaret singer to jazz star. She is tender and coy as she falls for the slick Louis McKay played with devilish charm by everyone’s favorite beer spokesperson, Billy Dee Williams. 

Wise: I do love an ice-cold Colt 45

Werth: And she is heartbreaking as the heroin addict who can’t escape the grip of addiction. Her fits of mania when she can’t get her “shiiitttt!!!!” are stunning. Legend has it that Ross turned to her co-star Richard Pryor to find out what it was like to do heroin. She must have gone to the right place. Her performance earned her an Academy Award® nod for Best Actress and the film itself would garner another 4 nominations. 

Wise: What about the songs?

Werth: Ross’s take on the Holiday songs that fill the soundtrack, while not dead-ringers for Holiday’s sound, are great interpretations of the material. Ross’ take on pathos is less primal and more sedate- but effective nonetheless. Before I ever saw the movie, I was very fond of Ross’s “Good Morning Heartache” and would play it any chance I got when I DJ’d at the local Adult Contemporary radio station. 

Wise: You were a radio DJ?

Werth: That’s a story for another time. Ross would only make two more movies and while she certainly chewed the scenery to shreds in Mahogany and threw her stick-like legs around in The Wiz, she never topped her performance as Lady Day. She would continue to make money (and headlines) in her music career, but this chanteuse’s reign as a movie queen was short-lived.

Wise: But isn’t that true for most singers who try to make it in the movies?  Vocal talent demands a dramatic story, and if the music star can’t act the same emotions that she’s able to sing, then the whole movie suffers. Casting radio stars in movies is a tricky business.  

Werth: It sounds like you have someone in mind.  

Wise: Actually, I do.  Madonna.  Because she’s terrible in some movies, yet she’s great in others.  

Werth: Should I bust out a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”?  

Wise: That would be lovely, but I was thinking about Madonna as Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy.  

Werth: I love Madonna in that movie.

Wise: She’s really great in it, I think, not because she’s acting very much, but because she’s using her star persona to inform the character.  She basically plays a talented sexpot who’s trying to lure Dick Tracy to the bad side while hoping for a chance to make good.  

Werth: While in real life—

Wise: She’s a talented sexpot who’s luring Warren Beatty into tempestuous affair while hoping to make good in one of her biggest screen roles.  

Werth: Not really a stretch.  

Wise: But it doesn’t have to be.  She is at the height of her fame and beauty at this point, and she uses her already familiar talents to infuse this role with a quality it wouldn’t have had with another actress in that role.  Plus she has some great Stephen Sondheim tunes to sing.

Werth: So you like Dick?  

Wise: Parts of it- and yes I got your joke, but I'm ignoring it. Dick Tracy is beautifully designed and there are a couple witty performances, but it’s one of those movies where all the good ancillary ideas kind of drown out any focus the movie has.  

Werth: I think that happens a lot with these comic book movies.  The best of them have one hero and one villain and everything else serves the main conflict.  Too often there’s just too much going on. 

Wise: And Dick Tracy is packed with minor characters, all of them played by Warren Beatty’s famous friends in elaborate make-up.  There’s Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Kathy Bates, Dick van Dyke, Catherine O’Hara, Mandy Patinkin, and one of my favorite actresses as Dick Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart, Gleanne Headly.  When every role is filled by a big name star, though, there’s nothing to telegraph who’s important to the plot and who’s not.  And while that kind of casting might work in a more nuanced film, these caricatured parts demand flamboyant performances in order to work. 

Werth: So it’s not Dinner at Eight.
Wise: Not exactly, but there’s lots to enjoy.  And like I said, Madonna is pretty special in it. 

Werth: This must have been before Abel Ferrara ruined her acting forever in Dangerous Game

Wise: Right.  I mean, she’s not playing Lady Macbeth, but she gets to chew a little scenery, toss off some witty barbs, and yet has a pretty affecting scene at the end. 

Werth: So you wouldn’t call Madonna’s performance a turkey? 

Wise: Are the food jokes just going to get worse as we get deeper into the holiday season? 

Werth: Do you think my jokes are corny or just canned? 

Wise: More like overstuffed. 

Werth: Touche.  Enjoy your holiday and join us next week for more Film Gab with Werth and Wise. 

The Big Screen in The Sky

Sadly here at Film  Gab we occasionally have to take off our hats and bow our heads to mark the passing of film greats who have made movies and lived lives worth remembering.
Today we say goodbye to two unique Hollywood talents.

Yesterday 11/28 marked the passing of actor Leslie Nielsen at the age of 84. Many people have spent their lives laughing at Nielsen's comic interpretation of the lovable, overly-serious buffoon since he appeared in the 1980 disaster-comedy classic Aiprlane! His career changed almost overnight into what any comic actor would give his eyes, nose and throat for with credits like the TV series Police Squad (1982) and the three Naked Gun movies that followed. Nielsen was a brilliant comic, but what makes his life even more interesting, is that until 1980, he wasn't always funny. Starting with his 1950 television debut on a program called The Actor's Studio (no, James Lipton was not involved) his resume was chocked full of genres. Dramatic parts like Ransom! (1956). Sci-fi terror in Forbidden Planet (1956). Westerns. Soap opera in TV's Peyton Place. And he even appeared in the grand-daddy of all disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure (1972). It took Hollywood 30 years to figure out that Nielsen was a comedy gem. Today, movie fans everywhere are grateful for the phrase, "Better late than never."

Flags on Planet Lucasfilm are also flying at half-mast today for 87 year-old director Irvin Kershner. Whenever the debate starts between Star Wars aficionados over which of the original Star Wars films is the best, chances are a majority of the time The Empire Strikes Back wins. The same year Nielsen was uttering the immortal line, "-And don't call me Shirley," Kershner directed the most anticipated sequel of all time. (Unless you count the release of the book Scarlett- which I don't.) Empire took the sci-fi fantasy world of the original Star Wars and brought it down to earth with melodrama we could all sink our teeth into. Love, betrayal, and the best "Who's Your Daddy?" scene of the era all came together to create a piece of pop sci-fi that grew beyond the boundaries of its fantastical genre into something even more universal. Clearly this was not due to Lucas, as he has sucked the life out of the rest of the Star Wars epic, so one must think that Kershner deserves a great big, "Thank you" for his direction of Empire. Not to mention that he made the 1978 fashion horror Eyes of Laura Mars with Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, and one of the screen's great effetes, Rene Auberjonois. So Mr. Kershner, Thank you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Be Gentle. It's Our First Time

Werth: Hi, Wise!
Wise: Hi, Werth!
Werth: Isn't this exciting? Our very first blog posting!
Wise: I know! I feel like our world's about to change in strange and amazing ways.
Werth: It's like we're Tony and Maria gazing at each other across the gym and the world turns all sparkly and magical!
Wise: Or like Dorothy opening the door from sepia-toned Kansas and stepping into Technicolor Munchinkinland.
Werth: Or like the girl at the end of All About Eve holding the Sarah Siddons Award and bowing to her infinitely multiplying reflection in the mirror.
Wise: Or like Charlton Heston opening up the sea as a way for the Israelites to escape. 
Werth: Or like Uma Thurman waking up from a coma as she's about to be raped by a filthy guy named Buck.
Wise: Um, I don’t think that’s the kind of metaphor we’re reaching for here-
Werth: And then there's Lieutenant Dan waking up missing his legs-
Wise: Since this is our first movie blog posting, how's about we discuss the first movie we remember seeing?
Werth: Oh- that's a good idea! Can we save the horror and dismemberment angle?
Wise: Definitely. 

Werth: Yay!
Wise: So, when I was in high school I went to see the theatrical re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and halfway through, I realized that I had seen it before.  I couldn’t have been any older than two, and I don’t have any articulable memories of that day—what the plot was or who took me to the theater—but some very specific images had stuck in my brain from that early viewing. 
Werth: Like what?
Wise: Mostly the main character’s feelings.  How terrified she was to be lost in the forest, how happy she was with the forest creatures.  But also the color of the film, the depth of what I was seeing.  I have this vivid sense of what Snow White’s dress must feel like, how her hair smells. 
Werth: How her hair smells?  That’s creepy. 
Wise: But it’s not.  Not really.  This was before the videocassette and the home theater revolution.  Disney movies could only be seen once a decade, and kids saw them when they had the chance, not whenever they felt like.  So of course something that big and rich and overwhelming would have to make a deep impact, even if I couldn’t recognize it until years later. 
Werth: I always thought the Evil Queen was so much more interesting than Snow White. 
Wise: Of course you would, but I think Snow White is one of the most fully characterized Disney heroines, at least until the late 80s animation Renaissance at Disney.  She has that crazy voice and a distinct look, plus her woodland creature friends are, ostensibly, real animals and not Borscht Belt mice or reggae crabs.  She’s weird and I think that’s what makes her so great. 
Werth: I still like the Evil Queen better. I was upset when she fell off the cliff.
Wise: That explains so much. But what's the first movie you remember seeing, Werth?
Werth: I remember snippits of Bambi and Star Wars, but the movie that I remember the most from actually seeing it in the theater was Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood when I was 6 or 7.
Wise: 6 or 7?
Werth: My parents relaxed the Rated R viewing age this one time. The whole family had been at a rodeo or some other Western-themed entertainment and we were supposed to go to a movie as a family that night. But my younger brother and sister were acting like little honyocks—
Wise: Honyocks?
Werth: A Germanism that my Dad was fond of. I think it means little a-holes or something. Anyway, so Dad abruptly canceled movie night, and I burst into tears because as usual I had behaved perfectly and didn’t deserve to be punished.
Wise: Ah, guilt—the gift that keeps on giving.
Werth: Correct. So my Dad shut me up by agreeing to take just me to the movies. Our theater only had two or three screens, so I don't know what the other two movies were, but Dad clearly decided to go to something HE wanted to see. So I wound up watching Escape from Alcatraz without any idea what my 6 yr. old eyes were in for.
In Escape, Clint Eastwood is Frank Morris, an imprisoned bank-robber who attempts with fellow inmates to escape the in-escapable Alcatraz. It's actually based on a true-story- and nobody knows if these guys actually got away or drowned in San Francisco Bay.
I remember the movie starting off with lots of darkness and shadow as Eastwood goes through booking on The Rock. And then he is stripped and a shaft of light fell across his bare behind. I was in shock. I hadn't seen a male bottom magnified to the size of a movie screen before. Then as the movie goes on, Eastwood has a line about a spoon being so dirty it looked like it had been up someone's ass. I usually lean towards nature in the nature versus nurture argument-
Wise: But it's possible Escape from Alcatraz made you gay?
Werth: Don't tell Clint. And to make things worse, Clint used home-made, papier-mache dummies with human hair to fool the guards into thinking he was in his bunk- which still creeps me out to this day.
Wise: An arts and crafts prison break?  Martha Stewart could have tried that.

Escape from Camp Cupcake. I haven't seen the movie since then, but I still retain a very soft spot in my heart for Clint Eastwood. It was a dark entry to his 70's growl-ey, bon line spouting, action-oriented filmwork. Don Siegel of Dirty Harry and Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame directed it, so I imagine it's a fun watch for adults... but maybe not 7 year olds... unless they're already gay.
Wise: The power of the movies.
Werth: Indeed.
Wise: Check back next week for more powerful Film Gab with Werth & Wise.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Get to Know Us!

Here's some info about Werth & Wise that the itsy "about field" just couldn't handle:

About Werth:
Werth is a corn and Velveeta-fed Midwestern transplant who lives in Manhattan and works at a cable television network. He is currently completing a CUNY BA in Classic Film History. In what little spare time he has, he likes to haunt Marie's Crisis, Penelope's Restaurant, and entertain friends with his Paul Lynde imitation.
Favorite Drama- The Color Purple
Favorite Comedy- The Palm Beach Story
Favorite Hitchcock- Lifeboat
Favorite Musical- West Side Story
Favorite Fantasy- LOTR The Fellowship of the Ring
Favorite Guilty Pleasure- Something Weird's Extra Weird Sampler (nothing clears out a party faster)
All-Time Favorite- Some Like It Hot
Joan or Bette?- Joan

About Wise:
Wise grew up stuck between the old money of the Philadelphia Main Line and the horse and buggy culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch.  After graduating from the College of William and Mary, he received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  A dedicated baker, book collector, and finder of lost things, he splits his professional pursuits between researching for a boutique PR firm and writing a novel.  He also would really like a puppy. 

Favorite Drama- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Favorite Comedy- Clueless
Favorite Hitchcock- Rebecca
Favorite Musical- Singing in the Rain
Favorite Fantasy- Pan's Labyrinth
Favorite Guilty Pleasure- Love, Actually
All Time Favorite- The Wizard of Oz
Joan or Bette?- Bette

Stay tuned for our first posting!