Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Dog Stars

Here's a great video from The New York Times profiling two scene stealers from two very different Oscar-winning films:  

If only everyone from the movie colony was this charismatic and well trained.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

We Had Faces Then...

To warm you up for Sunday's Oscar glamour-fest, U.K. paper The Telegraph has a great photo collection online of past winners of the Academy Award with their statuettes. Where else will you see Barbra Streisand kissing John Wayne?

Hooray for Hollygab!

Werth: It's time, Wise!

Wise: It's time, Werth!

Werth: For the annual celebration of Hollywood—the Oscars!

Wise: And this year's celebration of Hollywood is actually a celebration of Hollywood. With nominated movies like Hugo, My Week with Marilyn and The Artist plumbing movie history to tell their stories and move the audience—

Werth: And Oscar-nominated classic Hollywood-folk like Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Meryl Streep (yes, she's been around long enough to fall into the Classic category) on the bill, this year's Oscars promises to be a hat-tipping frenzy to good ol' Tinseltown.

Wise: No town does self-adulation like Hollywood does, but if there's anything La La Land likes better than a salute to its own grandeur, it's a sordid examination of its seamy underbelly.  And no film better captures the glory and the gutter of the film capital than L.A. Confidential (1997).  Based on James Ellroy's 1990 novel, the film depicts the intersection of silver screen dreams gone bust, organized crime and police corruption.  

Werth: Wasn't Peter Lawford's house at that intersection?

Wise: While on a liquor run for the precinct Christmas party, tough guy LAPD Detective Bud White (Russell Crowe) encounters glamorous Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) who bears a striking resemblance to Hollywood noir moll Veronica Lake, and later discovers that she's part of a ring of high class hookers dolled up to look like stars.  Meanwhile, smarmy Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who acts as technical adviser to the square cop drama Badge of Honor (obviously a burlesque of Dragnet), gets a tip from gossip rag publisher Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) and busts a starlet and her beau for pot possession amid a blaze of flashbulbs. 
Back at the precinct, by-the-books sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) rats on his fellow cops against the advice of his Captain (James Cromwell) in a bid to advance his career.  

Werth: So many juicy plot threads—so many fine character actors.  

Wise: The three men eventually discover they're all following the same trail of corruption and reluctantly join forces.  Together they uncover a web of dirty dealings and backroom alliances that threatens both the Hollywood mythos and the good standing of the LAPD.  

Werth: It's enough dirt to fill even the tawdriest celeb-news rag.

Wise: Hollywood obviously loved this lurid self portrait because L.A. Confidential garnered nine Oscar noms—Basinger took the prize for Best Supporting Actress while director Curtis Hanson and his collaborator Brian Helgeland won Best Adapted Screenplay.  That adulation, I think, comes from Hanson's carefully calibrated balance of trash and tinsel, where even the worst offenders look great in close-up. 

Werth: When I think of tinsel-y trash in Hollywood only one movie comes to mind. When it was released in 1967, Valley of the Dolls was one of the most anticipated films of the year. Based on the hugely popular Jacqueline Susann book, Dolls tells the story of three young actresses who climb the ladder of fame and fortune only to find booze, pills, egos and the occasional unfaithful gay husband.

Wise: At least they look fabulous throughout the histrionics. 

Werth: With stunts like holding the premiere on a cruise ship, Twentieth Century Fox expected a massive hit. Bomb enthusiasts would have you believe that Dolls sank faster than the Costa Concordia, but when you look at the box office receipts for 1967, it ranked right behind The Dirty Dozen at 6th with $20 million, which was plenty of scratch in that era.

Wise: Enough to buy dolls and a wig for Susan Hayward.

Werth: But critics savaged its sleazy soap opera storyline and hammy performances. So Dolls has become one of those camp classics that is more famous for its over-the-top scenes of mod hair-spray adverts, booze-filled pools and wig flushing. But with all that—or more accurately, because of it—the performances are a real treat to watch with or without your red dolls.
Patty Duke as starry-eyed performer Neely O'Hara gets to go from ambitious, hard-working singer to drug-addicted bitch and back again with real verve.
Susan Hayward as old school Broadway belter Helen Lawson almost makes you forget that Judy Garland was originally supposed to play the role.

Wise: Unfortunately, poor Judy was living Valley of the Dolls at the time, plus, at least according to Duke, she was tortured by the director Mark Robson. 

Werth: Lee Grant gives teeth to protective manager Miriam Polar and knowing poor Sharon Tate's sad real-life ending gives her portrayal of tragic, well-busted Jennifer North an un-planned layer of sorrow. The music by Andre and recently passed Dore Previn earned John Williams his first arranging Oscar nomination. I'll be watching on Sunday to see if he wins his sixth Oscar for War Horse or The Adventures of Tintin. Wise, are you coming over to watch the show in your tux?

Wise: If you're going to wear your strapless gown.

Werth: I need to find a matching stole.

Wise: Filmgabbers, make sure you wear the appropriate attire when you join us next week as we do our 2nd Annual Oscar Losers Film Gab! 

Werth: Top hats and low gowns please!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Good the Bad and the Gabby

Werth: Hello, Wise.  

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  

Werth: What's with the glassy-eyed gaze?  

Wise: This year I've been a little delinquent in my movie-watching, and I'm trying to catch up on all the big flicks I missed.  But I have to admit that I'm feeling a little sideswiped by all the cute dogs, the sassy black maids, the steely ladies, the winking George Clooney-isms, the lifetime achievement awards disguised as supporting actor noms—and to top it all off, I just saw Shame.  

Werth: Are you sure your vapors weren't brought on by seeing Michael Fassbender's bidness?  

Wise: Mr. Fassbender's anatomy has certainly become—justifiably—its own cause célèbre this awards season, but it didn't get him the best actor nomination that many were expecting.  

Werth: I expect he gets plenty of other rewards.  

Wise: Undeniably.  But it brings up a larger point— 

Werth: His larger point always brings up.  

Wise: —of movies that may have great performances—

Werth: Like Fassbender in bed.  

Wise: —while the film as a whole just doesn't come together.  

Werth: You make this too easy, Wise.  

Wise: Quit it.  
In Shame, Fassbender plays Brandon, a thirty-something who works in a sleek Manhattan office and lives in an even more sleek highrise in midtown.  He's also a sex addict.  And has an emotionally needy sister named, conveniently, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who turns up unannounced and creates havoc in his life by sleeping with his married boss and generally having spectacular breakdowns.  
Sissy's presence drives Brandon into violent rages, lugubrious melancholy, and ever more impersonal sex acts with strangers and prostitutes.  

Werth: Which makes him no different from the average Frat guys hanging out down the block at Brother Jimmy's BBQ.

Wise: Exactly.  The camera loves Fassbender, and he delivers some virtuoso moments, but no matter how good he is in the role, the film's lack of depth sabotages his work.  There's a vague allusion to his character's past, plus he has a discomforting familiarity with his sister (a shower scene almost as cringe-inducing as Psycho), but nothing that unlocks his agony for the audience.  
The director and co-writer of Shame, Steve McQueen, began his career as a visual artist, and that kind of attention to surface detail is everywhere apparent.  Shame, at times, is a very beautiful film, but one that is not very deep.  

Werth: I don't know about you, but when I think of bad movies that are made better by a good actor showing a little skin, I think of Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970).

Wise: Okay, that's not exactly what I was talking about, but I'll let it slide.

Werth: Clear Day was based on a middling Broadway show of the same name whose movie rights were bought up as Hollywood went nuts for musicals after My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) cleaned up at the box office. Unfortunately, Clear Day was not in the same league as these two cinematic cash machines.  
Clear Day tells the tale of professor cum hypnotherapist Dr. Chabot (Yves Montand) who inadvertently hypnotizes kooky student Daisy Gamble (Streisand) during one of his classes. 
Upon further sessions he discovers that Daisy has startling ESP abilities, can make flowers grow, and is the current incarnation of seductive Napoleonic Era social climber Melinda Tentrees (also Streisand) who the good doctor somehow falls in love with across time while Daisy falls in love with him.

Wise: I need someone to snap her fingers and wake me up from this plot.
Werth: I won't even go into the myriad of complications like Daisy  has a fiancee and a step-brother (Jack Nicholson—yes, Jack Nicholson in a musical) who has a yen for her or the fact that the university is having riots over these past-life experiments.

Wise: I'm surprised movie audiences didn't riot.

Werth: They didn't, 'cause very few of them even saw the movie. But Streisand was a hot commodity. She'd just come off mega-hit Funny Girl (1968), and popular (though money-losing due to its over-sized budget) Hello Dolly (1969) and those performances seemed to propel her into Clear Day like she'd been shot out of a cannon. She's wonderfully quirky as chain-smoking, addle-brained Daisy and aggressively seductive as Melinda. 
The dining scene where she runs a wine glass along her ample, exposed cleavage makes one question the PG rating. And her voice is powerful, sure and emotive, tender one minute, fiery the next. "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" is a showstopper, and Vincente Minnelli pulls it off by focusing on Streisand in one room the entire song, his expertly mobile camerawork and blocking moving us through Daisy's indecision without making us feel like nothing's happening.

Wise: Sometimes I dream about being in a Minnelli tracking shot. 

Werth: Unfortunately no amount of Minnelli's skill and decorative visuals could reincarnate wooden leading man Yves Montand or this jumbled mish-mash of a musical. It would be Minnelli's final musical at a time when he and his work were becoming symbols of an old Hollywood that new Hollywood felt it had moved beyond. But like the plucky Daisy, Babs and her bosom would go on to thrive in that new world, continuing to live out many lives in front of (and behind) the camera.

Wise: I don't know about reincarnation, but I do know you and I will be coming back next week for more Film Gab!

Werth: Michael Fassbender comes back, too.

Wise: Oh, Werth...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Well, Well, Wellman!

Werth: How do, Wise?

Wise: I do fine, Werth. What scintillating cinematic synopses do we have planned this week?

Werth: Once again, Film Forum is the mother of invention, because starting today they are showing the films of early director William A. Wellman.

Wise: I'll be sure to expect screwball hijinks, fisticuffs and a lot of aeronautics.  

Werth: Part of the reason Wellman's style isn't as well-known as some of his contemporaries is because he shot such a wide range of film genres—action, comedy, drama, western. In fact, one of my Wellman favorites mixes comedy and mystery in, of all places, an old burlesque house.

Wise: Something tells me a lot of your favorite things are connected to burlesque. 

Werth: Lady of Burlesque (1943) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy, a burlesque-stripper with a heart of gold and a mouth of brass. What starts off as a backstage comedy full of dressing room catfights, randy musical numbers and a fast-talking, improbable romance between Dixie and novelty comic Biff Brannigan (played by over-smiler Michael O'Shea), soon turns dark as strippers are found strangled to death with their own g-strings.  

Wise: What a way to go!  

Werth: In what can best be described as "Ten Little Strippers," all the suspects are gathered in the dressing room to find out whodunnit before the next victim falls prey to the panty-wielding maniac. Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's successful book, "The G-String Murders," the film suffers from its vacillation between showbiz comedy and grisly murder mystery—only half-successfully achieving the comedy portion. Wellman skips grand, Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers and instead goes for a more realistic approach staging unpolished, almost amateur numbers with girls who look like they're used to taking it off—  

Wise: But had to leave it on, thanks to the Production Code.  

Werth: What elevates this film is the presence of Stanwyck. Like Stanwyck's hilarious turn as Dixie's "sistah from another movie," Sugarpuss O'Shea in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), Stanwyck adds a hard-bitten class to the role that makes her a match for anyone on either side of the tracks. She growls her ridiculously crass song "Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String" and struts through the film supremely confident, but refreshingly genuine. Her tight little body is gorgeous—dressed by costume designer extrordinaire Edith Head.
Head camouflaged Stanwyck's unusually long waist and low rear with cleverly designed waistlines and large belts that tapered in the back, making Stanwyck one of Head's frequent clotheshorses both in front of and away from the camera. The supporting cast of fun, gum-chewing broads is also dressed and un-dressed to the hilt, proving that all you need for a good time is hats, heels and hose... and Barbara Stanwyck.  

Wise: Wellman routinely brought out the best in his leading ladies, but one of the most luminous performances came from Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937).  As Hazel Flagg, she plays a woman from small-town Vermont supposedly stricken by radium poisoning.  When disgraced New York reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) discovers her plight, he sweeps her off to New York City where he embarks on a series of florid profiles, turning this country nobody into the darling of the big city demimonde. 
Things get even more complicated for Hazel when she discovers that her tippling hometown physician, Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) has misdiagnosed her, forcing her to obscure her health and disguise her increasingly tender feelings for Wally.  

Werth: Who knew that cancer, press manipulation and alcoholic medical misdiagnosis could be so funny?  

Wise: The shocking thing about this film is how contemporary it feels, and a lot of the credit for that, I think, goes to Lombard.  Unlike the more polished comedy personas of her screwball peers (Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, and Katherine Hepburn), Lombard feels artless, dissolving into tears, undone by anxiety, frantic in desperate straits.  By comparison, Babs, Roz and Kate always seemed to have another trick up their sleeve, while the stakes feel a little higher for Lombard; there's big trouble as her schemes burst apart.  

Werth: Scheme-bursting was de rigeur for Lombard in many of her best comedies—Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and To Have and Have Not (1942).

Wise: The screenplay by Ben Hecht (with some polishing by Dorothy Parker, Sidney Howard and Moss Hart) is full of knowing jabs at New York, lampooning the excesses of tabloid journalism and the insincerity of society life. 
But he doesn't let the rural folk off any easier; Margaret Hamilton has a particularly juicy scene as the town druggist whose sanctimoniousness is matched only by the sharpness of her tongue.  

Werth: And possibly her nose.  

Wise: Wellman liked to work fast, wrangling articulate films from a jumble of plotlines, actions sequences and performances.  Several actors accused him of being a bully, but whatever the chaos on set, onscreen his stars were magic (take, for example, the pyrotechnics Hattie McDaniel makes of a single line).  He may not have been one of Hollywood's most sophisticated directors, but the quick character studies and rapid-fire pace he demanded are still with us today.  

Werth: And that's why you should go check out some of Wellman's best movies at the Film Forum until March 1st or at a DVD player near you.

Wise: And check out Film Gab next Friday for more films with radioactive strippers!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Piper Bowl 2012

Werth: Howdy, Wise.  

Wise: Hello, Werth.  Is that a little pig's blood on your collar? 

Werth: It might be.  Last weekend I got to have one of those great cinematic experiences that only the big screen can offer when the Loews Landmark Theatre did a screening of Brian De Palma's 1976 masterwork, Carrie. With Margaret White herself, Piper Laurie, on hand to talk about making this horror classic, the evening was a revelation—like seeing this thrilling picture for the first time.

Wise: Piper Laurie seems so nice when she's interviewed, but she's turned in some of the most terrifying portrayals of maternal love ever committed to the screen.  And her role in Carrie is probably the apogee of her bad-mommy roles. 

Werth: Laurie's turn as Carrie's bible-stabbing mother is legendary. Quotes like, "And I liked it! I liked it!", "I can see your dirty pillows!" , and "They're all gonna laugh at you!" are familiar parts of our lexicon. 
But the visual experience of seeing this film on a large screen made the entire experience brand new again. The prom scene with De Palma's split-screen filming is transfixing, and with humiliated Carrie (Sissy Spacek) towering over the audience in her blood-stained prom gown like a giant Medea, we all looked around to see if the theater exits were open in case we were next. Not seeing these movies on such a monstrous scale—we forget how scary an image alone can be. As many times as I've seen the infamous ending, I screamed aloud along with everyone else in attendance as if I've never seen that arm pop out of the ground before.

Wise: Nice spoiler, Werth.

Werth: Anyone who hasn't seen or at least heard of that ending is probably stuck praying in a closet. Aside from the visuals, I also took note of how well-crafted the soundtrack is. Pino Donaggio may outright steal Bernard Herrmann's famous Psycho violin licks, but he does a superb job of alternating between tonal moods because at its core, Carrie isn't just a horror story. 
It is a tale about growing up, and the little joys we can find amidst all the teen angst of our high school years. Donaggio has great fun playing dreamy anthems and teen pop tunes as Carrie and Tommy (the white-fro'ed William Katt) dizzy-ingly spin around the dancefloor. In particular, the music as they approach the stage evokes all the golden possibilities we dreamed of when we were that age. 
And it is the knowledge that Chris (Nancy Allen) and her bucket of pig's blood await that teenage dream that makes the scene so tragically horrifying. If you ever get the chance to see Carrie on the big screen, throw on your best strappy prom gown or white tux and go. But if not, it's still one of those movies that you should pop into your DVD or Blu Ray player so you can re-live the tampon shower and Piper Laurie's orgasmic kitchen utensil crucifixion again and again.  

Wise: Piper Laurie plays a terrifying mother of a different stripe with her portrayal of Ethel Gumm in the TV movie bio of Judy Garland, Rainbow (1978).  

Werth: Wise... what do I always say about television movies?  

Wise: That they're more television than movies, but we've gabbed about TV movies before, plus Rainbow comes from the golden age of boob tube flicks when the genre had big budgets and tackled ambitious subjects—offering the kind of sofa-cinema that has become ubiquitous today.  Chock full of domestic drama, Hollywood gossip, Tin Pan Alley hits, Rainbow serves up just as many delights as any popcorn matinee binge.  

Werth: Your nostalgic description has convinced me to allow it.

Wise: Focusing on Judy's teenage years (and directed by Garland's old pal Jackie Cooper), Rainbow stars Andrea McArdle who had recently tossed aside the curly red wig she had worn playing Annie on Broadway.  

Werth: From one hard knock life to another.  

Wise:  Part of what's so fascinating about this film is that McArdle was at a similar point in her career: she and the Judy she was playing were little girls with big voices struggling to achieve the next level of stardom.  

Werth: Only Judy went somewhere in the 30's and Andrea McArdle went nowhere in the 70's.

Wise: Despite the heavy 1930's nostalgia that permeated the polyester decade, the image of girlhood epitomized by these two actresses couldn't be more different.  McArdle has the same smirking tomboyishness of Jodie Foster or Kristy McNichol, which seems precisely the wrong way to approach the yearning vulnerability of Judy's teenage years.  Plus her vocal style, though impressive, doesn't have the throbbing ache that Judy's did.  

Werth: Let's be honest. Nobody's voice has Judy's throbbing ache.

Wise: She certainly doesn't plumb the depths of Judy's soul, but she doesn't have to.  The film is really all about Piper Laurie's portrayal of Ethel Gumm.  She refuses to delve into the handy grab bag of harridan stage mother clichés; instead she makes Ethel a woman brimming with sexuality and ambition, but who's thwarted by a lack of talent and a husband who prefers the company of handsome young men.  She's at turns girlish, alluring and appalling—and she makes this hard-to-find gem worth the trouble of seeking it out.  

Werth: Make sure you seek out Film Gab next week when we will dig up even more cinematic gems

Wise: if Werth hasn't been hitting the "filthy roadhouse whiskey."