Friday, August 26, 2011

Adapt This!

Werth: How-do Wise?

Wise: Mighty fine, Werth. How about y'all?

Werth: I'm still thinking about our conversation over chardonnay, pizza and currywurst about the pros and cons of literary adaptations in films like The Help.

Wise:  It's a sticky wicket, trying both to be faithful to the original material and original enough to attract a new audience. 

Werth: What I hate is when people complain that a movie isn't exactly the same as a book. Of course it's not! They are two totally different media with different intellectual and sensual purposes. A good illustration of this is one of my favorite literary adaptations, Steven Spielberg's cinematic re-working of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1985).

Wise: Which, as a novel, is about as far from Hollywood's traditional three act structure as you can get. 

Werth: The Color Purple, as written by Walker, is a collection of letters to God written by a Southern black woman named Celie in the early 20th Century. Celie's life story is told through her halting, uneducated—yet insightful—voice. She is emotionally raw, pure and real,  giving the reader a lovely sense of intimacy, as if Celie were sitting with us, telling us of the heartache, the abuse and the hope she endured. But to make it into a movie, Spielberg would have to create the setting and the people around Celie without losing the personal spirit or her story.

Wise: A setting that didn't involve sharks, impetuous archaeologists, or aliens.  

Werth: Part of why his movies do so well is that behind the giant booby traps, Reeses Pieces and UFO's, Spielberg's characters are eminently relatable. On The Color Purple,  he used his keen casting skills to discover two soon-to-be uber-relatable personalities—Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

Wise: The deep emotional connection audiences felt for both actresses certainly boosted their subsequent successes in the daytime talk genre. 

Werth: Whoopi was known as a stand-up comic, but as Celie, she does so much more than crack jokes. Her wry, goofy grin, accompanied by an agonizingly sad and finally angry performance, fully realizes the quality of Walker's Celie. Goldberg is beautifully homely as the outsider who has "the ugliest smile this side of Creation."

Wise: And I thought that was Steve Buscemi.

Werth: Spielberg's other stand-out discovery, Oprah, huffs and puffs through the cornfield as the blustery Sofia—a strong black woman whose strength condemns her to prison and servitude. Spielberg coaxed a performance from her that I feel she's never given again.

Wise: Unless you count her interview with Tom Cruise.

Werth: Danny Glover, Margaret Avery and Dana Ivey also give passionate life to the people Celie talks about, but whom we never meet in the book. And to create the world these characters inhabit, Spielberg shot parts of the movie in the fields and dusty backroads of Anson County, North Carolina, giving authenticity to the places Celie references. 
His opening shot of Celie and her sister running through a seemingly endless field of purple flowers elevates Celie's description and creates a view that few readers' fertile imaginations could create. Spielberg took the emotional soul of the book and added vivid colors, vistas and characters while Quincy Jones added a jazz and orchestral soundtrack, to craft a visual and aural experience. Although different in some plot points (Spielberg himself regrets only hinting at the lesbian elements), The Color Purple expands the world of the book to tug at the heart in a way that is unique to film... even if it didn't win a single Oscar out of its 11 nominations.

Wise: Another book that transforms carefully wrought prose into the language of cinema is Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, a memoir of the time she spent in a mental hospital during the 1960's.  Told in a series of discursive essays rather than chronologically, the book is more of collage than a straight narrative: characters come and go, important details reveal themselves at unexpected moments, all while the author meditates on the confusion of living in post-Camelot America.  

Werth: I like when you use the word "collage."  

Wise: The book was a best-seller, and when early fan Winona Ryder was unable to secure the film rights herself, she teamed with producer Douglas Wick to bring the book to the screen.  The two approached James Mangold to write and direct, and after some initial reluctance, he agreed. Mangold has since directed Walk the Line, the 3:10 to Yuma re-make and is currently working on the X-men spin-off The Wolverine.  

Werth: Spin-off, re-boot or prequel? I've lost track.

Wise: Because of the book's non-traditional shape and because of middle America's presumed need for a clear beginning, middle and end, the film beefs up the dramatic elements of Kaysen's story while nodding to her elliptical style by using fades between scenes, jump cuts among various locations and times, and swirling camera moves.  

Werth: I love a good swirling camera.  

Wise: The blurriness definitely could have gone off the rails, but Mangold makes interesting use of a Hollywood classic to add ballast to the more ethereal moments of the film.  

Werth: Let me guess, The Wizard of Oz?  

Wise: Much like Quentin Tarantino uses a host of gangster, kung fu, war and revenge flicks to guide audiences through his pop fantasias, Mangold takes advantage of Oz's Golden Age construction and near-universal familiarity to transform Kaysen's ruminations into a journey from a bleak homeland to a confusing yet compelling fantasyland and back again.  

Werth: Are you sure you aren't having Return to Oz flashbacks?  

Wise: Just look at Jeffrey Tambor's bald and blustering Dr. Melvin Potts who is supposed to have the power to send Susanna home; Vanessa Redgrave's wise and all-knowing Dr. Wick who provides Susanna with vital knowledge about herself and her strengths; 
and, most of all, Angelina Jolie's snarling, irresistible, Oscar-winning Lisa who materializes in a fire-y ball of wrath to exploit the characters' vulnerabilities and whom Susanna must defeat before making her escape.  

Werth:  Well done, Wise, but who is Whoopi Goldberg's Nurse Val supposed to represent?  Toto?  

Wise: Hilarious, Werth.  Better watch out for stray buckets of water between now and next week's Film Gab.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gabbing in the Rain!

Werth: Hi, Wise.

Wise: Hi, Werth. What's with the long puss?

Werth: I feel like we let our readers down last weekend.

Wise: We didn't mention Joan Crawford enough in the weekly post?

Werth: No. I just didn't realize how rainy the entire weekend was going to be. We could have dug into our "For a Rainy Day" movie vault. And now this weekend is going to be sunny.

Wise: I say we open the vault! It's got to be raining somewhere.

Werth: Yay!—'cause I watched the perfect rainy day movie last weekend—1986's Little Shop of Horrors. Frank Oz's off-Broadway to screen adaptation isn't just a great rainy day movie because it starts off with a thunderstorm, but it also combines two of the best rainy day film genres—horror and musicals.

Wise: Isn't that also why you like Marie's Crisis so much? 

Werth: Rick Moranis stars as nerdy Seymour Krelborn who is a self-confirmed "slob" working at a failing florist shop run by the gruff Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). When Seymour brings in an exotic-looking, bulbous flower he found, miraculously, business picks up. He is soon getting lots of attention from the press, Mr. Mushnik, and comely store assistant, Audrey (Ellen Greene). But the rapidly growing celebrity plant begins to show its true colors and if Seymour wants to keep his new-found fame, fortune and arm-candy, he'll need to feed his plant much more than mulch.

Wise: There's a manure joke hiding in there somewhere...

Werth: The entire production is a fun '50's musical fantasy that reveres rather than lampoons the campy drive-in horror genre. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman received the first of many Oscar noms for their rollicking and soulful songs that elevate these stock characters (and a plant) to a higher performance level.  Greene is luminous as the fragile, stupid Audrey who dates a sadist but dreams of moving to someplace fancy, "not like Levittown." 
Steve Martin is hysterical as the aforementioned sadistic dentist and in a small scene with a masochistic dental patient (Bill Murray) both actors bring a classic SNL quality to the proceedings.

Wise: They're just two wild and crazy guys. 

Werth: And amazingly enough, the alien plant Audrey II (fashioned and operated by former members of Jim Henson's crew) grimaces, leers and chews his way into our hearts in a startlingly "human" fashion. Even though the original off-Broadway ending was changed to suit the less-theatre-y movie audience, Little Shop will leave you singing "Suddenly Seymour" no matter what the weather is doing.  

Wise: My favorite rainy day movie is Singing in the Rain (1952).  

Werth: Appropriately enough.  

Wise: One of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Singing in the Rain throbs with the top talent producer Arthur Freed could muster at the greatest of all the movie musical factories, MGM.  
Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a silent film star at the top of his game, whose career is suddenly threatened by the advent of sound.  With his hardscrabble beginnings as a Vaudeville song and dance man, Don seems to have the wherewithal to survive the transition from silents to talkies, although his beautiful but dim co-star Lina Lamont (in a hilarious and high-pitched performance from Jean Hagen) might not be so lucky.  
Along the way Don falls for scrappy, but sensitive chorus girl Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds in her star-making role.  

Werth: Long before she was a broad or a collector of Hollywood memorabilia.  

Wise: Like a lot of the big budget musicals of the time, Singing in the Rain is a portmanteau of greatest hits—in this case, the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrangled a script from the most memorable collaborations of producer Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown.  Despite this patchwork past, the film plays as a seamless work of art, mostly because of the exuberant performances of the entire cast.  Gene Kelly—

Werth: Who was probably second only to Mickey Rooney in scenery chewing.  

Wise: —and uses that brashness to flesh out his role while Debbie Reynold's own hunger to be a star makes her Kathy all the more believable.  But it's not just the stars who make the film, it's all the character parts too: Mallard Mitchell's dour studio head, Cyd Charisse as Don's dance partner, and Madge Blake's delightful burlesque of Luella Parsons.  
Best of all, however, is Donald O'Connor's as Cosmo Brown, Don's former dance partner and current studio chum.  While technically a second banana role, O'Connor shines in the both the comedic and dramatic bits, but most spectacularly in the dance numbers where his head-spinning gymnastics provides the perfect compliment to Kelly's aggressive and athletic style.  

Werth: Sounds like we have our next rainy weekend already planned.  

Wise: I never need an excuse to indulge in a little musical film festival.  

Werth: Remember to bring your rain boots and check in next week for more film forecasts from Film Gab.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Actors That Sing

Werth: Hey, Wise!

Wise: Howdy, Werth!

Werth: Wasn't the screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's on Monday at the A.M.P.A.S. screening room a hoot?

Wise: I loved everything about it—except Mickey Rooney.

Werth: Mr. Yunioshi notwithstanding, I was struck by a part of the film that I hadn't thought about before. There's this really sweet moment when Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly sits on her fire escape, strums a guitar and sings a no vocal-frills rendition of "Moon River."

Wise: She exudes melancholy and vulnerability, using the song to communicate the entire tortured history of the character more efficiently and tenderly than any dialogue could.

Werth: It made me think of how other actors who aren't popular singers wind up using song successfully. Take, for instance, Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Belle Epoque, Camille-turned musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001). Before appearing as the red-eyed Satine, Kidman was known for her striking beauty in roles ranging from woman in danger (Dead Calm (1989)) to dangerous woman (To Die For (1995)), but she was not known as a singer. 

Wise: You wouldn't sing either if you were married to Tom Cruise.

Werth: But Moulin Rouge! was a musical, so once cast, she had to do more than look pretty—and she did. Kidman's singing voice, while far from powerful, was able to convey the disparate aspects of this lost showgirl who wants success and love but will ultimately be denied both. In "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" she is cheeky, coy and sexy, but in more somber songs like "One Day I'll Fly Away" she emotes a tenderness and dread that help us understand this torn creature. Her voice at times tries too hard, much like this doomed courtesan who thinks she can go from "entertaining" rich men in a glorified whorehouse to treading the boards like Bernhardt.

Wise: Tuberculosis makes her do the wackiest things. 

Werth: And Kidman isn't alone. Her co-stars Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo and Jim Broadbent do some actor-ly signing of their own. Broadbent gives us a charming surprise as the portly Harold Zidler who teaches a musical lesson in love to the tune of "Like a Virgin." 
McGregor's rock vocals had already been showcased in Velvet Goldmine (1998), so it is no surprise that he hits all the right notes as the lovestruck Christian (his name, not his religious affiliation) in numbers like the pop mash-up "Elephant Love Medley". Luhrmann, by casting actors instead of singers, seems to be saying you don't need a Judy Garland, Julie Andrews or a Barbra Streisand to make an affecting musical. You just need someone who can act through a tune.

Wise: Little Voice (1998) is another example of an actor using her singing to create a fully rounded character.  Jane Horrocks plays Laura Hoff, a young woman who retreats into silence after the untimely death of her father.  Her mother Mari (Brenda Blethyn) has no patience for Laura's sorrow, spending evenings with an unending string of rough trade lovers and mocking Laura's habit of listening to her father's record collection by calling her "Little Voice."  When Mari takes up with local man on the make Ray Say (Michael Caine), he recognizes that Laura's ability to mimic the great torch singers of the past is an opportunity to make some cash.  Little do Mari and Ray know that by pushing Little Voice out of her room and onto the stage provides her with the confidence to escape their abuse.

Werth: Much like I sing in the bathtub to escape the abuse of people who think Mommie Dearest is non-fiction.

Wise: Helping Little Voice along with generous good intentions is Billy (Ewan McGregor), a shy assistant TV repairman who sees Laura as a person and not just as a cash machine.

Werth: Ewan McGregor should appear twice in all our Film Gab postings.  

Wise: Based on the stage play by Jim Cartwright, Little Voice never really escapes its theatrical origins—the characters are broad, the plot overwrought—but Jane Horrocks' ability to channel the vocal styles of Shirley Bassey, Édith Piaf and Judy Garland makes this film an addictive entertainment.  She uses their performances as an escape hatch from the tawdry life her mother has forced upon her.  
The rest of the film is a little glum, with Blethyn and Caine camping up their barroom high-jinks and an oily turn from Jim Broadbent as a seedy nightclub owner.

Werth: I wish I could get a fantastic permed mullet like his. 

Wise: Despite the occasional misstep, Little Voice provides an excellent showcase for the transformative power of music, elevating what could have been a forgettably droll Brit-com into joyful entertainment.  

Werth: All this talk of singing makes me want to take a trip to Marie's Crisis.

Wise: I'll grab a barstool. The rest of you Film Gabbers grab us again next week!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Some Like It Tony

For those of you who loved the late Tony Curtis so much that you would like to own a piece of his estate, check out this Julien's Live Auction! If you could, please pick up Tony's yacht jacket from Some Like It Hot for Werth.   

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Lucy!

Although more well known for her prowess on the small-screen, Lucille Ball first started out as a hopeful silver screen actress, appearing in a multitude of uncredited chorus girl roles for RKO and MGM. Her non-traditional comedy talent didn't translate to the big screen and she became known as "Queen of the B's" for the many roles she played in lower-level pictures. In 1953, however, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz would create a little TV show called I Love Lucy, and the world was never the same again. Now firmly ensconced in a television persona, Ball would make fewer forays onto the big screen, including the Vincente Minnelli comedy The Long, Long Trailer (1953) (with Arnaz), Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) (with Henry Fonda), and the movie musical version of Mame (1974) (with Bea Arthur). 
But her links to the Hollywood movie community remained strong and her television show would often feature guest stars who played themselves to the delight of Lucy herself and fans everywhere. Episodes with William Holden, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Crawford are wonderful reminders that the First Lady of Television started off on a much bigger screen. Lucille Ball would have turned 100 today.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gab and Switch

Werth: Hi, Wise.  Would you mind grabbing this jumper cable?  

Wise: It depends on what you plan on doing next.  

Werth: The Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds comedy The Change Up opens today and I thought we could have a little fun if we switched bodies for the day and learned valuable lessons about each others' lives.  

Wise: You mean you want me to spend the day loving Joan instead of Bette?  

Werth: Exactly.  

Wise: Why don't we just discuss our favorite body swapping comedies instead?  

Werth: But just think how much more fun Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be.  

Wise: Freaky Friday (1976) is the granddaddy of the life switch comedies and stars Jodie Foster as teenage tomboy Annabel and Barbara Harris as her frazzled mother.  After a quarrel, they both wish they had the other's life, and suddenly (and with no explanation), they do.  Annabel spends the day contending with all the frustrations of running a house, while her mother has madcap adventures adjusting to the complexities of being a teenager.  Of course, this being a late 70's Disney film, the action devolves into chaos, a car chase of unlikely vehicles erupts and lessons are learned.  

Werth: Disney always wanted you to learn something. Look at That Darn Cat! (1965)

Wise: Right, but Freaky Friday does have a lot of charm.  Based on the book of the same name, it was adapted by its author Mary Rodgers, daughter of legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, who also had a successful career writing music for the stage.  

Werth: Nepotism, I say. Nepotism.

Wise: Released the same year as Taxi Driver, Foster eschews the adolescent sexpot routine in favor of a fresh-faced earnestness that's sharpened by coming of age in a post-Betty Friedan world.  She's a star of the field hockey team and an ace in her photography class, but she still has time to indulge her crush on her neighbor Boris (Marc McClure).  

Werth: Who later played Jimmy Olsen in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.  

Wise: While Annabel is the central role in the movie, Barbara Harris makes the most of what could have been a dowdy hausfrau.  An early member of Chicago's The Second City comedy troupe, Harris had a successful career on Broadway before turning to film.  In Friday, she plays something of a stereotypical homemaker, caught up in housework and certain that Annabel would be much happier if she ditched dungarees for dresses.  
But the transformation has a subtle effect on her—at the least the way Harris plays it—because it liberates her perspective and she blossoms not just into a better mother, but a better human being.  

Werth: There are no better human beings in my favorite switch movie, which should please you because it stars Bette Davis.  

Wise: She's always the tonic for what ails me.  

Werth: Dead Ringer (1964) showcases the aging actress as not one, but two greedy ladies. In what was hoped to be a triumph of mid-60's technical and acting achievement, Davis played identical twin sisters Edith and Margaret.

Wise: I just hope the Olsen twins never hear about this.  

Werth: Edith is a down-on-her-luck bar-owner who runs into her well-to-do twin sister at the funeral of Margaret's husband. Of course, Margaret stole her now-dead hubby from Edith 18 years ago, and, of course, Edith is still sore about it.  

Wise: Of course.  

Werth: So, of course, Edith takes this opportunity to murder Margaret and switch identities.  

Wise: Um, of course?  

Werth: This whole movie is full of weird plot points. But what makes it truly watchable is Davis. After her comeback turn in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962),  Davis seemed to relish roles where she could be ugly. In this film she plays not only the greedy, spoiled sister, but also the greedy sister who wants to be spoiled. 
With a plethora of state-of-the-art '60's film tricks like doubles, voice-overs, reverse over-the-shoulder shots and split-screens, Davis smokes and vamps her way through this Doublemint feature. With total abandon, she screeches, pops her eyes, laughs grainily, and says lines like,"a wino" in her legendary patois, "a why-no!"  

Wise: Careers have been made on a lot less.  

Werth: Davis was never known for subtlety, but some of her post-Baby Jane movies took her performance to the level of camp, with only a few moments of genuine regret for murdering her sister visible in this performance. Despite that, Davis' iconic mannerisms are worth the watch—like when Edith creatively uses a red-hot firepoker to solve the quandary of how to sign documents like her dead sister.  

Wise: I'm assuming that doesn't involve taking a penmanship class. 

Werth:  Dead Ringer is one of those films that you can't help laughing at, unintentionally.  Still, you wonder if, while Davis was cashing the paychecks, she knew what she was doing—slyly winking at the audience as she took yet another drag from her cigarette. So you're sure you don't want to attempt my jumper cables idea?  

Wise: Why don't we just plan a double feature of Burnt Offerings and Trog?  

Werth: Fine, as long as we're back next week for more Film Gab.