Friday, July 29, 2011

Built Ford Tough

Werth: Hi there, Wise!

Wise:  Hello, Werth. Is that poorly wrapped gift you're holding for me?

Werth: No. I forgot Harrison Ford's birthday two weeks ago and now I'm wondering if it's too late to give him his present.

Wise: He might be a bit busy with the premiere of his new movie, Cowboys and Aliens.

Werth: Oh right! Ford and Daniel Craig play a couple of cowboys lookin' to rassle up some cussed invaders of the outer space variety.

Wise: Ford's career has been full of heroes who've had to deal with aliens in one form or another.

Werth: Wookies, Nazis and the Amish—he's dealt with them all—but one of my favorite roles is the one where he goes up against "skin jobs."

Wise: Sounds like something that happens at a frat house on Wednesday night. 

Werth: After creating his two most iconic characters in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ford wanted to break away from Han and Indy and do something with a little more gravitas. So when Steven Spielberg recommended him to Ridley Scott for the film version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ford took the gig.

Wise: Androids and electric sheep sound less like gravitas and more like nerd farming.

Werth: At first glance, I'd agree, but Scott's Blade Runner (1982) really transcends the sci-fi genre. After blending horror and sci-fi so successfully in Alien (1979), Scott did something very interesting. With his production team he took the science fiction aspects of Dick's novel and infused them with the elements of film noir giving birth to what some call "tech noir." Rick Deckard is a blade runner—a quasi-cop who hunts down and terminates errant androids. 
But rather than sporting space suits and jet packs, Deckard is the quintessential hard-boiled private eye. He's not too talkative, wears a trench coat, smokes, drinks whiskey and has an eye for the ladies. But like P.I. heroes Bogey and Mitchum, his hard surface conceals a thoughtful soul, with a tarnished sense of right and wrong. As he hunts down these androids who look just like us, he begins to question just what makes us—or them—human?

Wise: I wonder that every time I watch America's Next Top Model

Werth: Art designer David L. Snyder, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, and set decorator Linda DeScenna seamlessly melded the L.A. of the future with its crime-ridden past. Ziggurat-like buildings pierce the bright gloom created by flaming gas jets high above the city, while below, wrecked art deco and classical architecture crumble beneath the gaze of towering Japanese video ads and monotonous blimp messages. 
Metal fan blades and ceiling fans whip through smoke-filled air as if the year was 1941 and not 2019. Costumes designed by Michael Kaplan and Charles Node are visions of shoulder pads, knee-length skirts and fur collars as if they were dressing Joan Crawford and not Sean Young. 
Young's red lips and upswept hair speak of another era while she walks down a crowded, rain-covered street populated by air-cars and videophones. Even the Vangelis soundtrack is a synthesizer re-working of noir instruments like the piano and sax. It's a masterwork of setting that blends the look and dark themes of these two genres together.

Wise: The atmosphere is so richly layered that it sometimes threatens to overshadow the actors.

Werth: Some critics at the time thought so. But Ford's tough guy with a sensitive side routine is effortless, Sean Young's beautiful and damaged Rachael portended an acting career that never materialized, Daryl Hannah's gymnastic performance as a "pleasure model" is a sadist's delight and 
Rutger Hauer is so creepy in his Aryan other-ness that it requires no leap of faith to imagine that he is a mad machine, killing people until he can find the answers he is seeking. With a dedicated cult following and renewed critical appreciation, Blade Runner's lackluster box office performance at the time probably had more to do with a misleading marketing campaign and its summer competition (a little movie called E.T.) than with the actual quality of the film.

Wise: Ford has had his share of blockbuster hits. What's interesting is that his star persona has always been something of a reluctant hero.  While his early roles leavened his courage with a witty sardonicism, his latter roles required him to play the quiet, noble man who gets pushed too far.  And no role typifies this change more than President James Marshall in Air Force One (1997).  

Werth: The Electoral College does radically change a man.  

Wise: While on a state visit to Russia, President Marshall abandons a prepared speech to denounce the war crimes of imprisoned General Ivan Radek.  This breech prompts a minor diplomatic crisis, and when the First Family boards Air Force One, a rogue group of Radek's loyalists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) hijack the plane and take the President, his family and the cabinet hostage.  

Werth: Are all the Russians named Ivan in this film? 

Wise: After a skirmish, President Marshall is hustled to an escape pod by the Secret Service, and the hijackers contact the White House where Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) skillfully manages the power grabs and protocol while Washington roils over the possibility that the President has been killed.  Of course, Marshall hasn't run off to safety, but instead has secreted himself on the plane while he steels himself to outfox and outfight his captors.  

Werth: After dealing with Calista Flockhart, it should be a breeze.  

Wise: Of course it is, but director Wolfgang Petersen stages the action with constantly escalating intensity, and while the final outcome is never in doubt, when victory does come, it feels both cathartic and hard-earned.  But it's definitely Harrison Ford's performance that transforms what could have been a run-of-the-mill action movie into something worth watching.  
Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe provided all the typical thrills and double-crosses de rigueur to action films of this stripe, but Ford's charisma brings nobility and an almost imperceptible wink of humor to the project, preventing it from falling into an overblown fantasia of revenge.  

Werth: Too bad Petersen couldn't create any excitement in his remake of The Poseidon Adventure.  

Wise: He also directed Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story, so he must either be a genre genius—  

Werth: Or a madman.  Speaking of, do you think I would look crazy if I went to the Cowboys and Aliens premiere to give Harrison Ford his present?  

Wise: Why don't you just saddle up for next week's adventure at Film Gab?  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Get Well Soon, Mr. Osbourne!

Film Gab would like to send its best wishes out to Robert Osborne as he undergoes surgery. The venerable spokesperson for old Hollywood will take a vacation from his hosting duties on Turner Classic Movies to recuperate, and probably to watch some old movies. Hey Robert! Feel free to catch-up on some of the Film Gabs you've missed.
Werth & Wise

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dear Mr. Gab-le...

Wise: Happy Friday, Werth!

Werth: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!

Wise: Someone's still on a Clark Gable high after seeing The Misfits last Sunday.

Werth: All Hail the King!

Wise: Even at nearly twice his co-star's age, Gable still exudes a magnetic sex-appeal that makes him a formidable match to Monroe's golden goddess routine.

Werth: Gable always had a way with the ladies. To quote his co-star and on-and-off lover Joan Crawford, Gable had "balls." Gable's matinee idol looks and masculine performances were so recognizable and influential that it's hard to imagine old Hollywood without him. One of his early films, 1932's Red Dust contains the cinematic recipe for Gable's long and successful career, and coincidentally is being shown at Film Forum August 5th. After being paired a year earlier with Greta Garbo (Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall) and Crawford (Possessed), MGM cast Gable with one of their biggest female stars, Jean Harlow. The combination of these two irresistible smart-asses was electric. In Red Dust Gable plays Dennis Carson, the owner of a rubber plantation in the armpit of Indochina.

Wise: It's certainly no Tara. 

Werth: When Vantine (Harlow), a platinum-blond, wise-cracking floozy on the run, winds up on his front step, Gable does what any red-blooded rubber plantation owner would do—

Wise: Rubber?  He hardly knows her. 

Werth: But their budding romance is interrupted by the arrival of a new manager (Gene Raymond) and his wife (the masterful Mary Astor.) 
Astor's icy prim and proper act is like cheese to Gable's rat, so when a conveniently-timed monsoon soaks them both, Gable can't help but take a big, wet bite. Soon he is busy juggling these two personifications of the Madonna-Whore Complex, a jealous husband, and a failing rubber crop.

Wise: That's a lot of balls in the air. 

Werth: Directed by the also man-ly Victor Fleming, Red Dust crackles with adventure, sex and wit. Gable cemented the screen persona that would stay with him most of his career- the lovable cad who can tromp through the jungle one minute and make sweet love to a woman the next. And Harlow is Gable's perfect foil, unable to resist him at the same time she's telling him to get lost. 
Her famous pre-Code water barrel scene gave the Catholic League conniption fits and is as fresh and flirty today as it was in 1932. For those who enjoy their Asian stereotypes turned up to 11, don't miss Willie Fung as the houseboy you wish you could understand.

Wise: Asian houseboys aside, part of what makes Gable so entertaining to watch is the humor he uses to leaven his rugged persona, and nowhere is his wit on better display than in It Happened One Night (1934).  Directed by Frank Capra, the film helped to set the pattern for the screwball comedies that would come to define the era.  Spoiled socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is kidnapped by her father (Walter Connolly) in an attempt to prevent her from marrying a fortune-hunting playboy.  

Werth: Similar to what's keeping me apart from Prince Harry.  

Wise: Escaping from her father's yacht, she is discovered by Peter Warne (Gable), a recently fired reporter who forces her to choose between giving him the exclusive story on her rebellion or contacting her father and collecting the reward.  
Reluctantly, Ellie agrees to the former and the two set off cross-country to deliver her back to her shiftless sweetheart in New York.  After a series of misadventures (including bus rides, doughnut dunking, haystack sleeping and a very famous scene where Ellie uses her gams to hitch a ride with Alan Hale), the two fall in love only to be separated by a misunderstanding at the last minute.  

Werth: Again, just like me and Harry.

Wise: Luckily this is Hollywood and they're reunited before the final fadeout.  It Happened One Night was the first movie to win all five top awards at the Oscars, and was the only picture to have done so until it was joined by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Silence of the Lambs.  It is also one of the most beloved films of old Hollywood with the requisite legends (Gable's fast-talking scene with a carrot inspired Bugs Bunny)—

Werth: Not to mention the cinema legend that the sight of a shirtless Gable made the sales of men's undershirts plummet.

Wise: —and homages (in everything from Grey's Anatomy to Spaceballs).   

Werth: It's great to see Gable appreciated by new generations of moviegoers.  

Wise: Those moviegoers should check in next week and appreciate another edition of Film Gab.

Werth: Now that's something I can give a damn about. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eat This Grauman's!

Amidst the tattoo shops, bong malls and karaoke joints on St. Mark's Place in New York City lies a hidden film history gem. Before DVD's and VHS tapes walked the earth, Theatre 80 was a popular revival house that showed classic films to an audience hungry for the oldies but goodies. The theater was so popular, in fact, that starting in the 70's, classic films stars who were still kicking would be invited to gala openings where they could meet their fans and try their hand at immortality by placing their hands or feet into wet cement on the sidewalk.
The last movie played at Theatre 80 over ten years ago, replaced by an off-off Broadway theater venue, but the marks of the stars are still present on the sidewalk outside- just waiting for an old film fan to come and relive the magic. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

It All Gabs...

Wise: Hello, Werth!

Werth: Howdy, Wise!

Wise: Do you have your wand, cape and broom ready?

Werth: Are you referring to the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie, or a janitorial drag show?

Wise: It's hard not to get swept up in the Potter Hype that's going on.

Werth: The completion of the film series is a great accomplishment, but I have to say I'm a little perturbed at how some of the stars are "Hogwarting" the spotlight.

Wise: I know!  Sure Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are the stars of these films, but let's talk about the adult actors who invest J. K. Rowling's fantastical world with humor and life.

Werth: Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon—

Wise: Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman—

Werth: Robbie Coltrane—

Wise: John Hurt—

Werth: Warwick Davis.

Wise: And let's not forget the man playing the biggest baddie of them all, Ralph Fiennes who brings a seductive serpentine malevolence to the role of Lord Voldemort.  

Werth: Oops! You mean He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  

Wise: It's totally worth naming Fiennes' work in these films because the frigid menace of his characterization counterbalances the everyman nobility of Harry, Hermione and Ron.  But Fiennes hasn't always played cold-blooded villains.  In fact, his work in The English Patient is lush, romantic as well as deeply tragic.  

Werth: And he gets to keep his nose.  

Wise: But, oh, what a nose!  Cinematographer John Seale photographs Fiennes' face with with all loving attention he also brings to the Italian hills and the golden terrain of the desert, finding in each a landscape of passion.  Fiennes plays Count Lazlo de Almásy, a Polish geographer who travels to the Sahara only to fall in love with Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the expedition's sponsor, Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth).  Their torrid romance leads first to sensuous heights, but eventually devolves into fights, plane crashes, and betrayal to the Nazis.  

Werth: Nazis always ruin torrid romances.  

Wise: Based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje and adapted for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, the film honors the slipstream poetry of Ondaatje's prose, but literalizes the action without destroying the book's eloquence.  The film begins in Tuscany in the waning days of World War II with the Count confined to bed, scarred head to toe by fire and unable to remember his past life.  
Under the care of his nurse Hana (Juliet Binoche in a luminous, Oscar-winning performance), his memories emerge in a series of flashbacks.  

Werth: Flashbacks where his face isn't burned off, thankfully.

Wise: Woven into the narrative are a series of subplots including Hana's love affair with a bomb-diffusing Sikh (Lost's Naven Andrews) and the thief Caravaggio's (Willem Dafoe) hunt for those who double-crossed him.  But it is Fiennes' romantic, otherworldly yet fully grounded performance that prevents the film from falling into an overblown mishmash and allows it to emerge as a beautiful tone poem of love, loss, regret and devotion.  

Werth: The other Potter baddie who gets short-shrift at the red-carpet extravaganzas is the scrumptiously droll Alan Rickman.  

Wise: His Professor Snape combines villainy with a soupçon of sexy.  

Werth: Throughout his long career Rickman has used his haughty sneer and distinctly British disdain to create some of the screen's most lovable campy villains in films like Die Hard (1988), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).  
But one of my favorite Rickman performances allows him to be a hero instead of a ne'er do well, 1999's sci-fi comedy, Galaxy Quest. Now I know what you're thinking—  

Wise: That watching any non-Pixar movie starring Tim Allen is like poking a dull, fiery stick into your eye over and over and over?  

Werth: Normally, yes. But Galaxy Quest is different. Dreamed up at Dreamworks, Galaxy Quest poses a fun premise: What if aliens in a galaxy far, far away were getting re-runs of Star Trek, but thought it was a "historical document" instead of a TV broadcast? 
Enter the cast of the hit show Galaxy Quest, washed-up and sold-out as they go to conventions to eternally re-play hackneyed sci-fi archetypes for a rabid, costumed fanbase.  

Wise: Somebody needs to keep the geeks out of trouble on weekends.  

Werth: When a strange group of bobbed, perma-smile groupies (look for a young Rainn Wilson) approaches them and tells them they need their help to fight off an alien invasion on their homeworld, the actors go along thinking they are going to wind up in yet another convention hall to collect another meager paycheck. Instead they are transported to a spaceship and a world where everything they've done on TV has been taken as gospel and created for reals.  

Wise: But without all the duct tape and desperation basement-dwelling superfans most frequently use.  

Werth: This premise could be milked for either geekery and/or preciousness, but with the superb cast, this movie goes beyond spoof to genuine fun. Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shaloub and Sam Rockwell have a field day playing bad actors who have to literally live their parts. 
And leading the charge is Rickman who plays Alexander Dane, the Shakespearean actor who has become trapped by his Spock-like role of Dr. Lazarus, cringing and rolling his eyes at his prosthetic makeup and his catchphrase, "By Grapthar's Hammer!" Every look and gesture is pure derision and frustration, and it's marvelous.  

Wise: How is Tim Allen?  

Werth: They should have gotten William Shatner. But Galaxy Quest is an enjoyable cinematic send-up, both laughing at and paying tribute to a phenomenon that has become part of our culture's lexicon.  

Wise: Speaking of cultural lexicons, we'd better go get in line if we want to see HP7P2.  

Werth: Let me go get my broom. I might need to smack some wizards who can't keep quiet during the movie.  

Wise: Tune in next week for more film magic at Film Gab!