Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Year's Bio-Pic-nic!

Wise: Happy New Year, Werth!  How was your Christmas?  

Werth: It was busy. I single-handedly re-vamped the FBI, shot a film with Laurence Olivier, and this weekend I become the first female Prime Minister of England!

Wise: It sounds like someone's been catching up on the bio-pics of 2011.

Werth: It's a bumper-crop of bio-pics this Oscar season with Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Wise: All three should compete in the Best Actress category.

Werth: Hollywood loves movies about famous people, and why not?  Their stories are full of inspiration, real-life challenges, and strange accents—roles that actors and actresses love to sink their teeth into. And no one takes a juicier bite of history than George C. Scott in director Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton (1970).

Wise: From Maggie Thatcher to Old Blood and Guts. Is the testosterone increasing or decreasing?

Werth: Patton is a bio-pic tailor-made for the man in all of us. Chronicling the WWII African and European campaigns of General George S. Patton, the film is an action-packed smorgasbord with well-choreographed battle scenes that thrill, but also remind us of the horror and indignity of war. The scope of the filming is epic with wide camera vistas, rousing score (by Oscar Goldsmith), and a three-hour running time complete with intermission.

Wise: Let's go out to the lobby, indeed.

Werth: But eclipsing all of that is Scott. His portrayal of Patton is so expertly transcendent that he even towers over the invasion of Sicily. Patton was a brilliant hardass who rallied his troops to do impossible feats in the midst of impossible circumstances. Scott stomps around with his riding crop and boots, spouting French and theories on reincarnation, scowling with a jaw of granite one moment then breaking into a cocky grin the next, making us willingly fall in line—even if we think he's a Napoleonic blowhard. 
The iconic opening scene in front of an immense American flag perfectly encapsulates Scott's ability to horrify and charm his audience with a performance that defines the power of conviction. Scott doesn't make Patton human as much as he makes his legend real. And the film feels amazingly fresh in the context of our current wars and questions about the nature of patriotism. Patton won seven Oscars including best Director and Best Picture, but Scott refused to accept his statuette because he didn't feel actors should be in competition with each other. It's probably not a stance that the medal-loving George S. would have taken.

Wise: Although Elizabeth (1998) purports to be a biography of the most famous queen of England, it's really more of an historical fever-dream about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett).  Director Shekhar Kapur began his career making Bollywood flicks and that frenzied, colorful style definitely influenced this film, transforming the traditionally staid British historical drama into something exotic.  The film also catapulted Australian actor Blanchett to international stardom and provided a delightful bit of irony in having a native of a former colony playing The Virgin Queen.  

Werth: Coincidentally, a role I often played when I first moved to New York.  

Wise: Blanchett is terrific in the role.  Bio-pics are uniformly about Overcoming Adversity and Achieving Success Despite the Odds, but Blanchett invests her performance with an amazing amount of subtlety despite all the drama swirling around her.  Plus, she easily withstands the scenery-chewing supporting turns from the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Sir John Gielgud and Richard Attenborough.  She is even able to overcome the elaborate period costumes which have swallowed up many a lesser actress.  

Werth: I want a poisoned dress...

Wise: Quibblers can pick out the inaccuracies of the film, but in movies like these, slavish respect to the past is beside the point.  They're all about big gestures, big set pieces and big emotions, but it's the truly good ones that transform all the pageantry into something real.

Werth: All this talk about 'big' makes me want to start work on a cheese dip for tomorrow night.

Wise: Tune in to next week's Film Gab to see how 'larger-than-life' we get. Happy New Year Everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holi-Gabs!

Werth: Ho! Ho! Ho! Wise!

Wise: And a very Merry Christmas to you too, Werth. Are you getting your usual Holiday buzz on?

Werth: I sure am! Especially since it's time for our annual Film Gab Holiday Movie Spectacular!

Wise: Nothing makes the holidays sweeter than a good Christmas flick.

Werth: This year, my cinematic Christmas treat is sweet and tart. Based on the successful Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman Broadway play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) is a raucous, witty Christmas stocking full of laughs. Famed radio personality, critic, and bon vivant Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is forced to make a press stop at the Mesalia, Ohio home of "Midwestern barbarians" Mr. & Mrs. Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke). "Sherry's" well-bred annoyance turns to horror as he slips on their icy doorstep and is forced to convalesce in their home for a whole month.

Wise: It could be fun depending on how good the food is.

Werth: Sherry turns the whole house upside-down making it the central office of his massive media empire driving the Stanleys, his long-suffering assistant Maggie (Bette Davis), and his oft-abused nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes) to mental breakdowns. 
In between phone calls from Winston Churchill, meetings with Chinese diplomats, receiving gifts of penguins sent by Admiral Byrd, and preparing for his live Christmas Eve Broadcast from the Stanley's living room, Sherry finds the time to disrupt his assistant's new corn-fed romance with handsome journalist Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) and even to convince the Stanley's nearly adult children to fly the coop for better lives outside Mesalia, OH.

Wise: I'm exhausted just reading that.

Werth: That's part of the fun of this film. Something new is always popping up, and I haven't even gotten to Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante. The Man Who Came to Dinner is laugh-out-loud funny with Woolley's portrayal of the Alexander Woollcott-inspired Sherry stealing the show. 
Honed by performing the role on Broadway, Woolley makes Sherry's acid tongue and literate insults charmingly endearing—all the while rattling off a veritable encyclopedia of 1940's pop culture references. The supporting cast is magnificent with Billie Burke fluttering, Sheridan slinking, and Davis smoking through a holiday film that looked like oodles of fun to make—almost as much fun as it is to watch.

Wise: Also packed with a full roster of stars and character actors, Love Actually (2003), is actually a compilation of ten different love stories woven together to highlight how they intersect, how they diverge, and how romance and ordinary life can make such a potent combination, especially during the countdown to Christmas.  While it certainly wasn't the first film to cobble together a multiplicity of plots, it does seem to have brought the idea to the romantic comedy genre, producing such star-studded holiday trifles as New Year's Eve (2011) and Valentine's Day (2010).

Werth: I don't know if we should thank or slap Love Actually for that... 

Wise: I'd agree that the descendants of the film have tended toward treacle, but Love Actually itself is a more nourishing bit of cinema with real complications and real sorrows that only leaven the stories that end up happily.

Werth: Because not all of them do? 

Wise: There's a great, sad storyline between Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman playing a stolid married couple whose relationship is suddenly upended when she discovers that he's having an affair with a shopgirl.  

Werth: It sounds like The Women (1939).  Does the shopgirl look like Joan Crawford?  

Wise: No, she doesn't, but it's not the only story that was probably cribbed from another source because these multi-thread films rely on viewer expectations: offering familiar film tropes and either subverting or succumbing to them.  Hugh Grant plays a lonely Prime Minister, but he's really a prince searching for Cinderella; Andrew Lincoln has a beautiful moment expressing his unrequited love to Keira Knightly; and Liam Neeson's cinematic stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) gets to indulge in the biggest movie cliché of them all: a declaration of love and a final kiss at the airport.  
Cramming all this into a single movie could have been a disaster, but veteran British writer/director Richard Curtis keeps the action moving, refusing to get bogged down in either sadness or joy.  And the final film—full of bittersweet moments and intense pleasures—feels a bit like the holidays themselves: happy, bewildering, a little sad, but always full of life.  

Werth: I don't know about you, Wise, but I'm so full of holiday movie cheer that I may bust open like a Christmas pinata.

Wise: As long as there is candy inside. Happy Holidays to all our Film Gab Readers!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Day with My Week with Marilyn

Werth here. Normally here at Film Gab we don't do reviews of recent films, but I know that many of our loyal readers have been going mad wondering, "What did Film Gab's resident Marilyn-phile think of My Week with Marilyn?" So to make you all feel better, here are a couple thoughts I had about the film. It is a very watchable period piece with fine performances by Kenneth Branagh, Dame Judi Dench and Eddie "Why Isn't He Naked?" Redmayne. 
Michelle Williams has been getting a lot of attention for playing Monroe- and she deserves it. More than just resembling her, Williams really takes on the chore of "becoming" Monroe, focusing on that "little girl lost" quality that has become part of the Monroe mythos. Unfortunately, the film's script does not allow her to explore the many other facets of Monroe. Alluded to but not shown is the business woman, the viciously angry wife, and the ambitious actress. So what we see on the screen seems incomplete. But even one facet of Monroe is worth a look.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Silent Night, Gabby Night

Wise: Hi there, Werth.  Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?  Or did more people make Santa's naughty list than his nice one?  

Werth: Forget holiday shopping; I'm more interested in all the Oscar-bait, must-see, end-of-year movies.  And at the top of my list is Michel Hazanavicius' salute to silent films, The Artist.  A huge hit at Cannes, it threatens to upset the entire race to the Academy Awards.  

Wise: The film world is certainly buzzing about it and the movie's star Jean Dujardin, but all the chatter reminds me of how great so many old Hollywood silents really were and what a perfect antidote they can be to the frenzied holiday season.  

Werth: Antidote for the holiday season? My favorite silent film is more disturbing than Macy's on December 24th. Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927) is one of those films that is so bizarre, it can only exist in the silent era. Browning, who would go on to direct Dracula (1931) and cult-favorite Freaks (1932) wrote and directed this sick, obsessive love story set in, of course, a circus.

Wise: Circuses sort of attract sick, obsessive love stories.

Werth: Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, an armless man who throws knives in a carnival. But he isn't content tossing knives with his tootsies. He falls in love with his assistant, the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a young Joan Crawford.

Wise: Joan Crawford? Does she throw the knives back at him?

Werth: No, Crawford here is young and fresh. She is one year from 1928's Our Dancing Daughters, so what we see is a woman on the verge of Hollywood stardom. For all those who think Crawford is just the celluloid harridan depicted in Mommie Dearest, this movie is a refreshing wake-up call that reminds us that Crawford was a striking presence, whose abilities for expression were quite accomplished before the advent of sound. Her eyes and gutsy physicality are perfect, making her Nanon a sexy creature of complication, rather than simple coquetry.

Wise: During the summer I like to play coquetry.

Werth: Nanon doesn't mind Alonzo throwing knives at her, but she gets real cheesed when strongman, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), starts to grab at her. Having been pawed at by lusty lads all her life, she has a phobia of hands, so of course, armless Alonzo would seem the perfect match for her.

Wise: Of course.

Werth: But Alonzo the Armless isn't what he appears, and considering his carnival sidekick is a dwarf dressed like the devil, it doesn't take long to figure out that something is rotten with this act. Alonzo, it turns out, is actually a murderer on the run who not only has two good arms, but two thumbs on one hand. 

Wise: That's just weird.

Werth: Chaney's physical ability to twist his body into a shape that resembles limblessness is expert and as he falls madly in love with Nanon, the monstrosity of his performance requires no makeup, only the contortions of his face. Alonzo's idea for how to make sure that Nanon doesn't find out that he has arms on the wedding night is gruesome, and I won't spoil the clever plot by revealing very much here. Watching The Unknown feels like a priveleged event- You get to see Chaney's mastery of the silent film medium and Crawford taking her first silent steps to Hollywood imortality.

Wise: My favorite silent movie is also an indelible Chaney performance. Eager to reproduce the enormous success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Universal Studios prepared to adapt Gaston Leroux's 1909 novel The Phantom of the Opera for Lon Chaney.  Similarly set in Paris and focusing on a deformed and misunderstood central character who falls for and kidnaps the virginal heroine, Phantom allowed Chaney to once again create a character bother heartfelt and horrific.  

Werth: Like Katherine Heigl in most of her roles.  

Wise: Unfortunately, production did not go smoothly because director Rupert Julian and his cast did not get along resulting in a picture that failed to impress its audience during its first round of previews.  Julian was fired and the cast reassembled for a series of reshoots, plus filming additional comic scenes that were supposed to relieve some of the tension.  Re-edited and released, Phantom was a huge success, and although the film can seem a mishmash of styles and tone, Chaney's mesmerizing performance makes everything fall into place.  

Werth: He makes me want to run out and buy some moisturizer. 

Wise: Much like the original novel, the Phantom doesn't appear until well into the action.  Instead, he is revealed slowly in silhouettes and shadows, by mysterious hands emerging from secret compartments, even by his spidery handwriting in notes threatening the foundations of the Paris Opera House and promoting his love, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), to become its star.  
When he is finally unmasked by Christine, the shock is enormous, and not just because of Chaney's terrifyingly effective make-up; the revelation transforms the gently romantic masked lover into the cadaverous monster lurking below.  

Werth: So, Wise, with all this gab about silents are you going to take some holiday vacation time to go to the silent film festival at Film Forum?

Wise: Only if you'll hold my popcorn.  

Werth: As a Christmas present to you, I will hold your popcorn and soda during next week's Film Gab.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Spartacus!

Werth: Happy Friday, Wise!

Wise: Happy Friday, Werth. Why are you wearing a toga?

Werth: Because when you throw a birthday party for Spartacus, you've got to go Roman.

Wise: Kirk Douglas' 95th birthday is certainly an event worth celebrating.

Werth: I'll say. The legendary Hollywood leading man and producer has been growling on the big screen since he first appeared in 1946 in the classic drama-noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Wise: He even growled at Anne Hathaway at this year's Oscars.

Werth: With a charisma and an energy that few could match, Douglas often plays men who go after what they want. In 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas used every ounce of tenacity and charm in his arsenal to play Jonathan Shields, a young Hollywood producer who has a Tinseltown-sized axe to grind. 
Shields' father died a ruined and reviled producer, and young Jonathan vows to do what his father couldn't: rule Hollywood. To do this, Shields does what any good producer does—he finds undiscovered talent, creates a huge success with it, and then tosses it into the gutter.

Wise: Sounds like a Kardashian wedding.

Werth: Told in flashback, Shields' three greatest discoveries—director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), and actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner)—convene to hear out their old mentor, now nemesis, one last time. It's a smart dramatic set-up that director Vincente Minnelli milks for all it's worth. As we watch Shields' courageous rise to power, we already know something will go horribly wrong and we can't wait to see it. 
Minnelli is at the peak of his non-musical directorial powers here creating a Hollywood he knew all too well with his overly-fussy sets, sly Oedipal hints, and clever use of hiding and revealing his stars—figuratively and visually. Dick Powell seems effortless as the southern writer who gets wrecked by the Hollywood game. The always complex Gloria Grahame won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Amiel's starstruck wife. 
And Lana Turner kicks the idea that she was just sweater-filler straight to the curb. Her harrowing car ride in a thunderstorm after Shields betrays her is an all-time favorite.

Wise: Every time I watch it, I want to buy a car, a mink, and a cyclorama. 

Werth: And at the center of it all, Douglas was nominated as Best Actor for playing Shields as a cad whose passion and electricity is so magnetic that we aren't repulsed by his greed for power. Instead, we actually want to see him succeed—even if that means Lana Turner getting wet. Winning five Oscars and becoming a box-office hit thanks in part to Douglas' gusto-filled performance, The Bad and the Beautiful is all good.  

Wise: Douglas got all wet himself two years later in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).  Based on the Jules Verne classic, the film was one of Walt Disney's earliest (and most successful) forays into live-action film.  Dispensing with the cheap-y aesthetic of kiddie serials and B-picture Westerns, the film features clever design, spectacular underwater shots and a high profile cast including Douglas as roguish sailor Ned Land, James Mason as the mysterious Captain Nemo, and Peter Lorre as the creepy sidekick, Conseil.  

Werth: If there was a Best Creepy Sidekick Oscar, Lorre would have won it... for every movie he starred in.

Wise: The plot is mostly episodic, but it does feature some of Verne's classic leitmotifs: a dim-witted but honorable scientist plunging into the unknown (in this case Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax); a glib adventurer who learns heroism (Douglas); and the gentleman genius whose unwavering ideals condemn him to death (Mason).  
Director Richard Fleischer remained faithful to the source material, but ramped up the action sequences including gun battles, shipwrecks, and James Mason wrestling with a giant squid.  

Werth: Great preparation for working with Judy Garland in A Star is Born the same year.  

Wise: Mason certainly made a career of playing both tortured and noble, but it's Douglas who does the most interesting work here.  Normally so tightly wound in his roles, Leagues allows Douglas a bit more space to be playful: he sings, he plays guitar, he's awestruck by both science and the sea.  Sure, there's still plenty of his typical fisticuffs, but the vulnerability gives the picture an added depth.  

Werth: Depth of say, 20,000 leagues?

Wise: There's just something about a man making puns in a toga.

Werth: Tune in for more costumed cinematic wordplay in next week's Film Gab.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Punch and Gabby

Werth: Hey, Wise, what's with the pearls and pig ears?  

Wise: I'm celebrating the return of Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo, Scooter and the rest of the Muppet gang to the multiplex.  They've been languishing since the death of their creator Jim Henson in 1990, and it's great to see their zany, furry faces back on the big screen.

Werth: While the Muppets have produced some great cinematic moments, they're not the first puppets to make their mark on Hollywood. I'm referring of course to the dapper Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy.

Wise: Bergen and McCarthy had cameos in The Muppet Movie (1979) because Jim Henson was such a longtime fan.

Werth: And if you watch the closing credits, you'll see the movie's dedicated to him. It's no surprise, because for about 20 years starting in the late 30's Bergen and monocled Charlie brought puppets and ventriloquism to a mass American audience. Starting off in radio

Wise:  A ventriloquist on a radio show?

Werth: It sounds counter-intuitive, but the listeners loved the sharp-tongued character of Charlie McCarthy more than they cared to see whether Bergen's lips movedwhich consequently they did. Bergen was a terrible ventriloquist which Charlie was quick to point out. 

Wise: Nothing like your own dummy pointing out your faults.

Werth: But in 1938 Bergen took his act to the silver screen in The Goldwyn Follies and watching the pair worked as well as listening to them, so a year later Bergen and Charlie were paired with W.C. Fields in the silly, slight comedy You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

Wise: Which is also the film Fields cited repeatedly during failed negotiations with MGM to cast him as the title role in The Wizard of Oz

Werth: You Can't Cheat is a bit of a rehash of what worked in Bergen and Fields' live acts. Fields is Larson E. (get it?) Whipsnade, the owner of the Whipsnade Circus Giganticus. Stumbling around drunk, flim-flamming audience members and despising children was a stock act for Fields, one he did with such skill that it never got old. With his flowery and witty dialogue Fields created a sort of sympathetic, rude clown who was born with a gin ladle in his mouth when it might have been a silver spoon.

Wise: Sometimes it seems that the only boozy comedian we have left is Lindsay Lohan. 

Werth: Bergen and Charlie give Fields a run for his money in the ham department, though. Fields had been a frequent visitor to the radio show, so the "Quiet or I'll throw a woodpecker at you!" animosity towards Charlie was a comfortable shoe for the whole cast to put on. Bergen and Charlie throw verbal barbs at Fields as fast as he can dodge themthat is of course when Charlie isn't busy trying to get a dame's phone number or ruin The Great Bergen's magic act. 
The movie is a strange mix of pratfalls, puns, double entendres, cross-dressing, lion-taming, and even a scene where Charlie does black-face, so the whole ridiculous affair feels a little dated. But there's just something about watching a bunch of grown actors having to deal with a precocious puppet.

Wise: Return to Oz (1985) doesn't use tuxedo-clad dummies as madcap sidekicks, but it does employ a host of animatronic creatures, marionettes, and puppets to fill out the majority of its cast.  Director Walter Murch (who began his career as a sound designer for Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) wanted to create a vision of Oz closer to L. Frank Baum's books rather than copy MGM's strategy of actors costumed rather obviously in funny suits.  

Werth: I liked the funny suits on the flying monkeys.

Wise: A strange hybrid of a sequel to the emotional afterglow of MGM's classic The Wizard of Oz and a concerted attempt to recreate Baum's Oz onscreen, Return to Oz follows confused, frustrated Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) as she is swept from a quack doctor's mental clinic in Kansas to an unfamiliar Oz.  
In order to save her friends and restore the Emerald City, she must battle howling Wheelers, a princess with thirty beautiful heads, and the nefarious Nome King who has turned everyone to stone.  

Werth: Sounds like the Saturday night crowd at Marie's Crisis.  

Wise: Working with production designer Norman Reynolds, who had created the look for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Murch made Dorothy's companions—magically animated dummy Jack Pumpkinhead; Billina, the yellow hen; and loyal robot soldier Tik-Tok—look like John R. Neill's original illustrations: comical and impossible characters drawn in a style influenced by both newspaper comics and Art Nouveau.  
For long stretches of the film, Dorothy is the only human character onscreen, but even though Balk was a ten-year-old novice actor, her performance imbues her mechanical friends with life.  Of course, this has a lot to do with the skill of puppeteers (including many veterans of Jim Henson projects), but this combination of acting, puppet design and some of Baum's most indelible characters makes this motley crew come alive.  

Werth: All this talk of puppets will probably give me nightmares along the lines of 1978's Magic.  

Wise: Tune in to next week's Film Gab to see who's pulling the strings.