Friday, April 29, 2011

Like, Totally Gab Me with a Spoon!

Wise: Hey there, Werth.

Werth: Oh, hi, Wise.

Wise: Why so glum?  

Werth: Because tonight is the last night of 1984, the fabled NYC 80’s dance party at The Pyramid where I spent many happy nights busting a move.  

Wise: Does this mean I can never break out the dance moves to Thriller ever again?  

Werth: Not unless you’ve installed a light-up dance floor in your apartment.  

Wise: I’ll work on that. 

Werth: I think the only way we can deal with this wrench thrown into our dancing machines is to gab about a movie from that more innocent, neon-colored time.

Wise: Let me slip into a pair of parachute pants.

Werth; Picture it—May 28—the opening of the 1984 Summer Movie Blockbuster Season. I’m still too young for braces, but old enough to want to see one of the most anticipated sequels of the time: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

Wise: Not Cannonball Run II?

Werth: I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and I couldn’t wait to see what exciting, whip-cracking archaeological adventures Han Solo—I mean Harrison Ford—would embark on.

Wise: Too bad Chewbacca got stuck at the university teaching a summer course.   

Werth: The film opens with Indy in glamorous 1935 Shanghai at a Busby Berkley-inspired dinner club. While chasing down a precious diamond and a poison cure at the same time, Indy makes the acquaintance of Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), nightclub singer, chronic whiner and future wife of Steven Spielberg. It isn’t long before they are joined on the run by Indy’s industrious, pint-sized sidekick, Short Round played with Oriental pluck by Jonathan Ke Quan. Something about Jonathan’s performance zeal spoke to me, so I put a poster of Short Round on the door in my closet.

Wise: There are so many things I could say here.

Werth: After foiling certain death by jumping out of a plane and skiing down the Himalayas in an inflatable raft, the intrepid crew comes upon a poverty-stricken village that implores the famous Dr. Jones to retrieve three rocks known as the Sankara Stones that will restore prosperity to their lives... oh and all the kids in the village have been kidnapped and taken to the Taj Mahal up the hill.

Wise: There’s a lot going on in this script.

Werth: That’s not the half of it! But that was the allure of the Indiana Jones films. Spielberg and George Lucas combined fantastic, retro action/adventure-packed stories with cutting-edge special effects to create non-stop cinematic thrill rides. In fact some of the sequences in Temple were considered too thrilling. The scenes of “traditional” Indian haute cuisine and hearts being ripped out of living human sacrifices caused some parents groups to rage that the film’s PG rating was not strong enough. So the MPAA invented the PG-13 rating, assuaging parents and helping blockbuster filmmakers find a comfortable box-office sweetspot between PG and R ratings.

Wise: Because who doesn’t love a theater packed with thirteen year old boys?  

Werth: Fans of the Indiana Jones Trilogy (no, I don't count that recent, stillborn cinematic blunder Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) frequently rate Temple of Doom as their least favorite—maligning Capshaw's spoiled princess character. However, I personally relate to Capshaw's non-adventuress. If I was trapped in a floor-to-ceiling, bug-covered room or dropped into the mouth of a live volcano by a skull-wearing nutjob, I'd be a little peevish too. And I think the choice to break away from Karen Allen’s brilliant “capable dame” performance in Raiders, if nothing else, provides some comic relief from the unrelenting pace. And Capshaw’s Chinese language version of "Anything Goes" is a hoot.

Wise: I often find myself humming along to Mandarin versions of Cole Porter tunes.  
Werth: Time goes by and new technologies have made movies faster, noisier and more like theme park rides than ever before, but nothing can ever really diminish that special pre-adolescent thrill that Temple inspired in this dorky kid from the Heartland. What 1984 flick inspired your dorkiness, Wise?

Wise: Based on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name, The Natural recounts the story of nineteen-year-old baseball prodigy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) who, while on his way to try out for the Chicago Cubs, strikes out a Babe Ruth-like ballplayer at a carnival and is subsequently shot by Harriet Byrd (Barbara Hershey), a madwoman who sees it as her mission to wipe out arrogant baseball players.  The film flashes ahead sixteen years to 1939, when an older, chastened Hobbs appears at tryouts for the fictional New York Knights.  After a rocky start, he eventually impresses the coaching staff, played with cuddly gruffness by Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth, and joins the team as a “middle aged rookie.” 

Werth: Baseball? Wise? Alan Wise?

Wise: Despite his age, Hobbs eventually becomes the star of the team which puts him in the bad graces of the club’s owner The Judge who has a financial stake in the Knights losing the pennant.  When Hobbs refuses a bribe to throw the season, The Judge sends Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) to seduce Hobbs and ruin his career, but a chance encounter with his childhood sweetheart Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) restores his faith in playing ball.  The Judge continues to up the ante, and Hobbs eventually must decide between his health and the game he loves.  

Werth: What’s next? Field of Dreams? Eight Men Out?... Major League II?!

Wise: A number of critics have pointed out how the movie romanticizes the bleakness of Malamud’s novel, but The Natural was clearly made as a star vehicle for Robert Redford and the liberties the producers took in their adaptation seem entirely appropriate to a Hollywood golden boy who was in the early stages of taking a more active role behind the camera.  Both Hobbs and Redford were sterling talents who learned to appreciate the quieter, more hard-won pleasures that come with maturity.  

Werth: Who are you?! Where is my Judy Garland, Oz-loving friend, Alan?! 

Wise: I should also mention how perfect the entire supporting cast is, especially Glenn Close’s Oscar nominated performance which breathed life and humanity into what could have been a merely symbolic role.  Also worthy of a mention is Randy Newman’s soaring yet deeply personal score as well as Caleb Deschanel’s dreamy cinematography.  Has our trip down 1984 memory lane made you feel less depressed about the closing of your favorite danceclub?

Werth: Yes, but now that you’ve exposed your masculine side, I want you to get to work on building that dancefloor.

Wise: Tune in next week for more Popping and Gabbing!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Greatest Story Ever Gabbed

Werth: Hey there, Wise.  What are you doing?  

Wise: Oh, just filling my basket with jelly beans, candy eggs, Marshmallow Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and popcorn for my Springtime Holiday Film Festival.  

Werth: Um, isn’t that a laundry basket?  
Wise: Maybe.  But there are a lot of movies on my list, films that the big three television networks used to broadcast every year that celebrated rebirth, second chances, the importance of family—

Werth: All sponsored by the Cadbury bunny.  

Wise: Long before any joker could watch Saw III on his smart phone while riding the subway, most Americans had to wait for the annual broadcast of great films like The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sound of Music, Ben Hur, and Easter Parade.  But the one I looked forward to most was Cecil B. DeMille’s  The Ten Commandments.  

Werth: The movie that made the book of Exodus fun.

Wise: Commandments accomplishes what so few of these giant Biblical epics ever achieve: the perfect balance between corny bombast and heartfelt sentiment.  After the Pharaoh issues an edict condemning all first-born Hebrew males, the older sister of baby Moses places him in a basket and sets him adrift in the Nile.  Found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised in the palace as a favorite of the royal family until his heritage is discovered and he is banished from Egypt.  After wandering in the desert, he marries and settles into the life of a shepherd until one day he encounters a burning bush that speaks the words of God commanding Moses to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from their bondage. 

Werth: I was in bondage once when I saw a burning bush.

Wise: Of course, since Moses is played by Charlton Heston, he succeeds, although not without Heston’s signature blend of orotundity and virility.  He did tend to play this sort of character repeatedly during his career, but Commandments allows him to reveal a more tender side by expressing both reluctance and the residual terrors of having been chosen by God.  Part of this greater depth comes from the casting of Yul Brynner as a rival prince who inherits the throne. 
Both these actors were almost absurdly masculine, and the chemistry from  their testosterone-laden one-up-manship imbues the rest of the picture with a vitality it might not otherwise have had.  

Werth: I missed some of that because I had to cover my eyes during the “staff turned into a snake” scene.

Wise: Of course the rest of the cast is great too.  DeMille manages to coax both comedy and pathos  in equal measure without allowing everything to fall into a round of cornball line readings.  Yvonne De Carlo is particularly tender and effective as Moses’ wife Sephora, while Anne Baxter vamps it up as a vain princess who wants Moses all the more now that he’s been touched by God.  Vincent Price gives a delightfully oily turn as Baka, an Egyptian functionary who delights in his evil ways.  And, Film Gab favorite Judith Anderson plays a venomous maid hellbent on exposing Moses’ past.  

Werth: And don’t forget grumpy old Edward G. Robinson as everyone’s favorite fickle follower, Dathan. “Where’s your Moses now?” indeed.

Wise: I’m not sure that I could watch The Ten Commandments more than once a year, but its mixture of reverence and campiness makes it a delight worth returning to.  
Werth: I’m glad you’ve covered the Old Testament, because my favorite Easter flick is from the New one. It’s not just Good Friday, it’s a Super Friday with 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Wise: I don’t think this was covered in my catechism class.

Werth: After their initial successful recordings of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, budding Brit musical titan Andrew Lloyd Weber and his writing partner Tim Rice returned to the Good Book to see if they could put some guitar licks into the life of Jesus.

Wise: Because a messiah is only as good as his amp. 

Werth: But before producing an actual musical, in 1970 Lloyd Weber and Rice created what was known back in the day as a concept album. It was basically a way to throw your music out in front of the public to see if it stuck—and it did. It spawned the hit single “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” for Yvonne Elliman and later for Helen Reddy. So Superstar was Broadway and inevitably, Hollywood-bound.

Wise: It’s almost like the Last Supper took place at the Chateau Marmont. 

Werth: Director Norman Jewison (no, the irony is not lost on me) shot the entire film on location in Israel. It’s an amazing choice, because the stark, beautiful, ancient setting gives the film a real sense of gravitas. Superstar starts off with a small bus arriving in the desert and a rag-tag group of performers exit and put on their costumes, like a hippy bus and truck tour performing a passion play. It’s an interesting concept that eases the audience into seeing Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene sing rock songs. The production design is a blended assortment of period robes and fabrics, bell bottoms and scarves, and strange, S&M-like pharisee hats and harnesses, updating the story of the last days of Jesus without abandoning its roots.

Wise: Which prompted a certain segment of the audience to call the project a desecration, I’m sure.  

Werth: Of course it did, but I don’t understand the hullabalo. For me, Superstar does an amazing job of making Jesus and his followers human. Several of Lloyd Weber’s songs give us a unique insight into these characters obscured by history and dogma. Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again, Please” are plaintive pleas to reach and understand the man she loves. Judas’ “Damned for All Time” is a wonderfully well-rounded look at one the world’s greatest villains. And “The Crucifixion” and “John Nineteen: Forty-One” mix music and scriptural elements powerfully.

Wise: I’m surprised that Sunday schools everywhere don’t have matinee showings.

Werth: Well... there is “King Herod’s Song” performed by the delightfully fey Josh “Son of Zero” Mostel which might confuse the kiddies, but all in all, I think Superstar raises some excellent questions about faith and religion. And I challenge anyone not to get up and jive to the title track “Superstar.” If nothing else, Superstar is much more fun to watch than the other 1973 Jesus-ical, Godspell.

Wise: I’d need a truckload of peanut butter eggs to make it through that double feature.

Werth: Hand me some of those jelly beans. Tune in next week for more religious film experiences with Film Gab!

Friday, April 15, 2011

I’m as Gab as Hell...

Werth: Hey there, Wise.

Wise: Hi there, Werth. 

Werth: Ever since Sidney Lumet died last Saturday, I can’t stop thinking about his movies.

Wise: He was a masterful, prolific filmmaker.

Werth: And one film in particular has stuck in my craw.

Wise: Should I call your internist? 

Werth: That won’t be necessary.  One of my all-time favorite movies is Network (1976), and I know everybody talks about it, but I don’t think its praises can be sung enough.

Wise: Cue the chorus.

Werth: Network’s log line could read: A news agency deals with ratings, revolutionary groups and a messianic newscaster—but the movie deals with so much more than that. Max Schumacher (William Holden) is an aging newsman who finds himself inside bars downing shots of whiskey and reminiscing about his days with Walter Cronkite. His pal Howard Beale is fired for poor ratings by corporate news muckety-muck Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and ambitious succubus Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).
Something in Beale snaps (or is illuminated by the truth) and soon he is ending his final broadcast by pulling back the curtain and exposing the bullshit wizards of the corporate news world with a mad soliloquy. His rallying cry, “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” is shouted from the rooftops and makes the ratings skyrocket. 

Wise: Faye Dunaway makes a lot of people scream from the rooftops.  

Werth: Christensen knows good ratings when she sees them, and soon she re-organizes the nightly news with Beale’s ranting editorials, psychic hoo-haw, and a group of Symbionese Liberation Army wannabes—turning Beale’s cry for legitimate change into a program catchphrase.

Wise: Sounds like a day at the Fox News Network.
Werth: Exactly. Network is more than a smart, funny, pinpoint accurate satire of corporate news. It’s eerily prophetic. The emergence of nothing-is-sacred “reality news”, rabid, almost religious editorializing (whether it’s honest or not), and sacrificing hard news for ratings is so common now that it’s difficult to imagine the days when those elements were new inventions. Today in our 24 hour news cycle, the Cronkites, the Murrows and the Max Schumachers have all been eaten alive by the likes of Christensen’s new “whorehouse network.” 

Wise: What channel is that on Time Warner?

Werth: Paddy Chayefsky’s script is flawless. You could literally sit down and read it like a book. The performances by all the principles are pitch perfect (Holden and Ned Beatty were nominated for Oscars and Finch and Dunaway won). And the man who brought it all together, Lumet, was given his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. Like an experienced conductor, Lumet weaves together the different sounds of biting comedy (Dunaway’s orgasm scene and the contract negotiations with the Ecumenical Liberation Army),  manic passion (Finch’s inspired on-air orations), and nuanced pathos (Schumacher’s wife’s private and touching admonishment of her philandering spouse) without missing a beat, making a film that is still relevant, fresh and entertaining today. Network is a cautionary tale about a society where heroes are built-up and then chewed-up to appease us. It is an ugly reflection of our culture, one we should watch until we’re “as mad as Hell.” 

Wise: You know it’s funny because the Lumet film I’ve been thinking about this week examines many of those same themes—unlikely heroes, delirious arias about personal integrity, mistrust of talking heads—although in an entirely different way.  

Werth: Let me guess, The Wiz.  

Wise: No, The Wiz—wait, what?  How did you guess that?  Is it that obvious?

Werth: Let’s just say that like Lumet, you often return to the ideas that interest you most. 

Wise: I guess that is a trait all us geniuses share.  Anyway, after the success of the all-black Broadway musical version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, plans were made to translate it to film, and when Diana Ross expressed interest in playing Dorothy, the producers decided they needed to find a director of large enough stature to manage both the outsize production and Diana Ross’ fledgling acting career.  Lumet may not have been the obvious choice, but he certainly was an interesting choice because of the ways he transformed the project.  When it first appeared onstage, The Wiz remained much more faithful to Baum’s novel than did the beloved Judy Garland musical, albeit peppered with a jive-talking urban patois meant to reflect African-American experience.  Lumet brought on Joel Shumacher to write the screenplay—

Werth: You mean Joel “Nipples on the Bat-suit” Schumacher?

Wise: That’s the one.  Gone was pre-teen Dorothy and her life on the Kansas farm, replaced by the decidedly mature Ross playing an excruciatingly shy 24-year old elementary school teacher who is swept from her apartment in Harlem to a fantasy version of seedy 1970’s New York City.  This change makes an odd kind of sense in the story, although it necessitated further adjustments to the script to make it even more appropriate to Ross’ talents.  The film becomes even more focused on her emotional arc, often to the detriment of the other characters.  Most significantly, it is now Dorothy who convinces her friends of their unrealized gifts, leaving Richard Pryor’s Wiz to cower in the background instead of performing something like the good-natured flimflam mastered by Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz.  

Werth: Pryor looks like he had plenty to occupy him off-camera. 

Wise: Dorothy’s three companions in Oz—Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, Nipsy Russell’s Tinman, and Ted Ross’ Cowardly Lion—each have marvelous moments even though their talents feel mostly underutilized.  Jackson, in particular, brings real warmth to his portrayal, true grace to the awkward Scarecrow, but he never has the opportunity to make the character fully real.  In his final good-bye to Dorothy, he is almost immediately brushed aside by Diana Ross instead of being allowed to connect with the audience before being shuffled away.  

Werth: Not even the Moonwalk can compete with Ross’ hinge-like, stick-leg, high kicks.

Wise: In some ways, it’s a shame that Lumet and Ross didn’t leave The Wiz to be made by someone else entirely while the two of them developed a film about a reluctant New Yorker who eventually allows both the magic and the mayhem of the city to release her inhibitions.  That would have been a picture ideally suited to Lumet’s affectionate dissections of the city and Ross’ twitchy drive.  

Werth: Maybe they could have called it Twitch and the City.  Or The Blair Twitch Project.  I know!  How about The Twitches of Eastwick?

Wise: Or maybe not... Check back next week for more Film Gab... and less twitching.

Werth: The Seven Year Twitch?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Big Screen in The Sky

Today we here at Film Gab hang our heads at the passing of director Sidney Lumet. He passed away in the Manhattan home he loved at age 86. Starting off in the, at the time, fledgling industry of television, Lumet directed several stage-to-little screen adaptations that made early television so interesting. It was only a matter of time before he brought his special brand of social consciousness to the big screen with his first film in 1957, 12 Angry Men. It was a homerun that garnered his first of five Oscar nominations. Although he never won a competitive directing Oscar, Lumet would go on to direct some of the most exciting films of the 60's and 70's: The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Wiz (1978) and his prophetic opus to the news industry Network (1976). If the only film Lumet had ever directed was Network, he would still stand as a giant among filmmakers. So, for Mr. Lumet, open up your windows today and shout, "I'm mad as Hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" It's the kind of heavenly chorus that Lumet deserves.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Stressed-out Gab

Werth: Hey there, Wise.  What’s with all the scented candles?  

Wise: Hello, Werth.  It’s Stress Awareness Month and I’m trying to bring a little enlightenment and peace into my world.  Care for some chamomile tea?  

Werth: Only if it’s spiked with vodka. Look, is this a bad time for Film Gab?  Because we can do this after you give yourself an oat bran facial or whatever else you have planned.  

Wise: No, I’m prepared.  Talking to a Friend is one of the Ten Strategies for Stress Reduction.  

Werth: So is Talking about Movies where Characters are more Stressed than You are.
Wise: And I have the perfect stressed-out damsel with Bette Davis in one of her most camp-tastic roles: the tragic southern belle driven crazy by a secret from her past in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Werth: I love a good ellipsis.

Wise: Planned as a follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the movie originally re-teamed Davis with Joan Crawford until either illness or on-set rivalry forced Crawford to drop out of the picture.  A number of replacements were considered, including Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh whose legendary response to the offer was: “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn't possibly look at Bette Davis.”  Instead, Olivia de Havilland got the role of the poor cousin returning to the ancestral home of Davis’s Charlotte who has lived as a mad recluse ever since her married lover was discovered hacked to bits in the summer house.  

Werth: I hate when that happens.  
Wise: Charlotte has been shunned by the locals ever since the murder thirty years ago, and she gets no sympathy from her neighbors when the state serves her an eviction notice that orders the demolition of her plantation house to make way for a brand-new super highway.  Pinning her hopes on her cousin Miriam to save her home, Charlotte gradually realizes that her poor relation has grown into something more sinister.  With de Haviland’s Miriam on the scene, Charlotte begins having nightmarish visions, flashbacks to her lover’s dismembered corpse, but when she appeals to her cousin for help, the comfort that Miriam offers is cold indeed.  

Werth: And de Havilland definitely uses some of her goody-two-shoes routine from Gone With the Wind to chilling effect.
Wise: She really has some terrifying moments, especially when she’s dealing with Charlotte’s loyal maid, played with high Southern Gothic abandon by Agnes Moorehead who received her fourth Best Supporting Actress nomination for her efforts.  But she’s just part of a fantastic cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Victor Buono, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern, and an almost unrecognizable Mary Astor in her final film role as the bitter widow of Charlotte’s dead lover.   

Werth: Moonlight and magnolias mixed with an ax.

Wise: Living up to the myth of Scarlett O’Hara would make anyone anxious. 
Werth: Maybe that’s true, but there’s really nothing like the stress of being a woman of leisure in Edwardian England, and that’s why George Cukor’s 1944 thriller Gaslight really stresses me out.

Wise: Really?  I thought it would be the lack of electric lighting.  

Werth: Ingrid Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the blushing bride of handsome and romantic pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer.) They have returned from their honeymoon to live in her childhood home, nestled in a picturesque London square complete with crowing flower peddlers.

Wise: I feel the stress washing over me in waves.

Werth: Did I mention that as a child, Paula found her famous opera star aunt strangled to death in that same house, the murder never solved?

Wise: That could make being carried over the threshold a little creepy.

Werth: Soon poor Paula begins to forget and lose things, hear footsteps at night, and imagine that the gas lamps in her bedroom are dimming all because she is, as her husband so gently puts it,  “high-strung.”

Wise: I’ve heard about cures for high-strung Edwardian women...

Werth: The fun in this film comes from Cukor’s choice to let the audience in on what’s going on. Almost immediately he gives visual cues that the person behind Paula’s impending madness is none other than her loving husband. Playing against the French lover roles that made him famous, Boyer soon reveals that he is, what the French call, a douchebag. His refined sadism and controlling, condescending behavior falls only slightly short of the husband in The Burning Bed.

Wise: That sounds like an abandoned Calvin Klein fragrance. 

Werth: What really makes this thriller work is that even though we know who the villain is, Bergman’s Paula does not—and it is her superb performance as a woman struggling with self-doubt and the terror of encroaching madness that makes us climb the walls right along with her. In another actress’ hands we might say, “Hey, stupid. Look at the keylight shining on your husband’s evil, beady eyes,” but Bergman’s fragility and beauty makes audiences want to protect her—or at least to cheer her on when she decides to protect herself.  That year Bergman would beat no less than Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis to win her first of three Oscars. It was a warm-up for her part as another endangered female in master stress-maker Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Notorious which premiered a few months later.

Wise: Talk about out of the fire and into the Nazi espionage ring.

 Werth: In Gaslight, Bergman is joined by steadily working (but not-at-all British) Joseph Cotten, dithering nosy neighbor Dame May Witty, and in a star-making turn, the very young Angela Lansbury as snide, tartlet maid, Nancy. Cukor is not generally remembered for his thrillers, but it was clearly a genre that he understood. He very skillfully melded his “women’s picture” style with the mystery genre, sculpting nerve-wracking close-ups of Bergman as she strained to maintain her sanity under those maddening, flickering gaslamps.

Wise: Whew!  I’m not sure if delving into these stress-filled movies made me feel better or worse.  Maybe we should put on some Enya and journal about our experiences.   

Werth: You do the Orinoco Flow. I’ll think of themes for next week’s Film Gab.