Friday, June 29, 2012

Magic Gab

Werth: Howdy, Wise!

Wise: Howdy, Werth! You got your singles ready?

Werth: I sure do! Friday's release of Steven Soderbergh's much-hyped Magic Mike is likely to make male-stripper enthusiasts everywhere toss their money at the screen with gleeful abandon.

Wise: Filling the theater with the most squeals since Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds went for a canoe ride in Georgia. 

Werth: With some of Hollywood's hottest male properties taking it all off, I thought we here at Film Gab should salute our favorite movies that celebrate the male form. Wise, if you please...

Wise: With pleasure!

Wise's Favorite Male-Order Movies

Splendor in the Grass (1961)— Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty play teenage sweethearts in rural 1920's Kansas: she's the town good girl who winds up in the insane asylum when Beatty's football star heads to Yale instead of the back seat of his Rambler with her. 

The Heiress (1949)—After years of romantic disappointment, awkward spinster Olivia de Haviland falls hard for doe-eyed possible gold digger Montgomery Clift who could make the dustiest old maid long to raise her petticoats.  

The Opposite of Sex (1998)—Christina Ricci takes sibling rivalry to new kinky lows when she seduces her brother's boyfriend played by bee-stung-lipped Ivan Sergei who spends most of his time tanning his abs by the pool.

Singing in the Rain (1952)— Normally I find Gene Kelly too brash to be beautiful, but when he looks past Debbie Reynolds and into Donald O'Connor's twinkling Irish eyes, I get a little short of breath.  Plus: dude could wear pants. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)— Patricia Highsmith's charismatic yet sociopathic killer may not be human enough to actually feel love, but Anthony Minghella's adaptation of her first Ripley novel transforms Jude Law into a golden object of desire that could stir feelings in even the blackest heart. 

Werth's Favorite Bare Beefcake Flicks

Dirty Dancing (1987)— If seeing Patrick Swayze dance in the water with his shirt off isn't enough, there's always the peek-a-boo bottom you see when he gets out of bed with Jennifer Grey.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)— Olympic swimmer-turned Hollywood hearthrob Johnny Weissmuller swings, runs and wrestles through the jungle with his loincloth holding on for dear life.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)— I challenge anyone to find a man who is sexier in a t-shirt than Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. He doesn't even need to take it off to raise your heart rate.

Querelle (1982)— Fassbinder is a stylistic perv. But the way his camera ravishes Brad Davis' cocky sailor makes you overlook the depravity.

Watchmen (2009)— I didn't think I could get excited by a giant, blue, CGI superhero, but Billy Crudup's nude Dr. Manhattan makes me want to request a physical.

Wise: Werth, after this post, I need to take a cold shower.

Werth: Go right aheadjust don't take your dollar bills in there with you. And make sure you're squeaky clean for next week's Film Gab!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Gab But Were Afraid to Ask

Wise: Howdy, Werth!  Are you excited about Woody Allen's latest, To Rome With Love?  

Werth: Am I? It's going to be so much fun watching Alec Baldwin stutter and soliloquize, and I don't mean his performance on David Letterman.  

Wise: Woody Allen is one of our greatest filmmakers, responsible for some of the best films of the last forty years.  

Werth: There are a few stinkers.  But you're right.  Whatever mistakes Mr. Allen may have made in his personal life, he is truly one of the great directors of American cinema. One of my favorites is 1984's Broadway Danny Rose. The film opens with a gaggle of comics kvetching at the Carnegie Deli when one comic relates the funniest "Danny Rose" story.

Wise: Does it open with, "Two Presbyterians, a rabbi and a priest walk into a bar?"

Werth: Danny Rose (Allen) is a former Catskills comic who is a personal manager for a wild array of variety acts: a blind xylophonist, a one-legged tap-dancer, and the Jascha Heifetz of musical wine glasses.

Wise: Sounds like one of your cocktail parties.

Werth: Danny's best act is a mediocre Italian crooner, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) who is getting ready to sing his signature song "Agita" for a big performance that could bring him back to the big time, courtesy of Milton Berle.

Wise: Uncle Miltie knows quality.

Werth: Lou can't give his best performance unless his mistress Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow) is present, so Danny gives his client the personal touch by driving out to New Jersey to get his squeeze and bring her to the show. Only Tina isn't so anxious to come.

Wise: A mediocre Italian crooner? Who could blame her?

Werth: So Danny pulls out all the stops to convince Tina to come see Lou—and in the process winds-up being chased by hitmen through the wilds of New Jersey after he is mistakenly fingered as Tina's boyfriend.

Wise: That's happened to me a couple times.

Werth: The movie is a nostalgic joy—with amazing, seemingly real characters who populate a performance culture long gone. Mia Farrow is a revelation—practically unrecognizable as a gum-chewing, big-haired Jersey girl who believes you should stick it to the world before it sticks it to you. 
And Allen does something unique in the annals of his neurotic characters: he comes off as lovable. The whiff of the judge-y intellectual is nowhere to be seen in Danny. He is a hard-working, eager beaver who's willing to go to the mat for his clients, but who never seems to get his reward in the end. The whole film is shot in black and white with Allen's intimate, cunningly casual camerawork making this world feel like a piece of verite, while at the same time cloaking it in the nostalgia of Italian novelty songs
It's a love-letter written to the by-gone era of variety showmanship, by a man who bridged the gap between that era and modern comedy... and someone who can appreciate the genius of a gunfight in a helium balloon warehouse.

Wise: In The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, an inept waitress in Depression-era New Jersey stuck in a loveless marriage to Monk (Danny Aiello).  To escape her dreary life, she retreats to the local movie house where she spends hours fantasizing about the glamorous lives of the characters onscreen, especially Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), a dashing archaeologist in the titular film.  
After a particularly disastrous day at the diner, Cecilia is fired, but instead of going home and facing her husband's abuse, she returns to the theater.  The character Tom recognizes her, and after a brief conversation, he steps off the screen to join her in real life.  
The film, bereft a major character, comes to a chaotic halt, but Tom and Cecilia embark on a romantic adventure in New York, only to be interrupted by Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom (also Jeff Daniels), who insists that Tom return to the confines of the picture.  In the end, Cecilia must decide between the fictional world of Tom and factual world of Gil. 

Werth: I pick the world with Zoe Caldwell as The Countess!

Wise: At first, the overt fantasy may feel uncharacteristic of Allen, but as the film progresses, it begins to seem barely a step beyond the usual golden-tinged nostalgia that sweetens so much of his work.  The breezy pace of the dialogue helps prevent the plot from running aground, although it's the performances that really make this picture shine.  
Edward Hermann and Hollywood vet Van Johnson plays denizens of the cornball film-within-a-film with a playful orotundity, while Allen regular Dianne Wiest has a ball playing a hooker attempting to seduce straight-laced Tom.  
But it is Farrow who does most of the heavy lifting here, crafting a performance that is both melancholy and gilded by the madcap pluck characteristic of the films she adores.  

Werth: He shoulda never left that girl... for her daughter.

Wise: Daniels also turns in fine work in his dual roles, creating two distinct characters that happen to be the same person.  Allen began shooting the film with Michael Keaton in the roles, but after a week he decided that Keaton's performance felt too contemporary and replaced the actor with Daniels.  Daniels earned a nomination for Best Actor, nimbly treading among his early comic scenes before arriving at his devastating final one. 

Werth: And if all of this isn't enough Woody Allen for you, Film Gabbers, Annie Hall is showing at Film Forum starting today. So enjoy Woodypalooza!

Wise: And come back next week for more Film Gab...
even if we use words like "Woodypalooza."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Big Screen in the Sky

We here at Film Gab take off our hats to a legendary Film Gabber who helped shape film criticism and in some ways, the way we watch films. Film critic Andrew Sarris passed away this morning from complications from an infection. In a lifetime of film criticism Sarris was able to help create the canon of great American Films and their Filmmakers, often crossing swords with other critics—most notably with the equally opinionated Pauline Kael. In a world where everyone is a film critic (ahem) Sarris was a symbol of the heights film criticism could attain. He may not be welcomed by everyone he meets at the Pearly Gates, but he will most certainly be respected.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Order in the Gab!

Wise: Hi there, Werth.  Why the glum face?

Werth: Oh, hello, Wise.  I've been doing jury duty all week and I'm bored, bored, bored.

Wise: Aren't you excited by fulfilling your civic duty?

Werth: I'd only be excited by my civic duty if it involved Christopher Meloni and the patented Dick Wolf sting.

Wise: Come on, Werth.  It's your chance to participate in the wheels of justice.  And, of course, it's the perfect opportunity to salute the pleasures of cinematic courtroom drama, like Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957).  Adapted from Agatha Christie's West End hit dramatization of her own short story, Witness stars Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a brilliant English barrister just returned from a months-long stay in the hospital after a heart attack.  

Famous for his unconventional tactics, Sir Wilfrid cannot resist—despite the strenuous objections of his nurse Miss Plimsoll (Laughton's real-life wife Elsa Lanchester)—when an intriguing case falls into his lap.

Werth: Thinking of Elsa and Charles together in flagrante makes me want to object.

Wise: Hapless veteran Leonard Vole (a very sweaty Tyrone Power) stands accused of murdering a rich spinster who had just made him the beneficiary of her will.  His only alibi in the face of mounting circumstantial evidence is the testimony of his frigid German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich).  
Recognizing that Christine's chilly demeanor will only stymie his defense, Sir Wilfrid instead pokes holes in the prosecutor's theories and seems close to winning until Christine is called to testify against her husband.  At the last minute, a mysterious phone call leads to evidence securing Leonard's exoneration, but it also raises Sir Wilfred's suspicions, culminating in a series of shocking reversals that theater owners warned viewers not to reveal.

Werth: The only mysterious phone call in my jury session was some old lady's marimba ringtone.

Wise: Part of Christie's genius is her ability to indulge in stereotypes as well as subvert them: Sir Wilfrid is both a blustering fool and a canny defender; Christine is both heartless and undone by her emotions.  Wilder capitalizes on this by heightening both the drama and the campy-ness—even creating the role of the nurse to take advantage of Lanchester's chemistry with Laughton—making Witness probably the best film version of any Christie property.

Werth: Even better than Murder on the Orient Express?
Wise: Yes, because I think Witness really captures Christie's sense of humor.  Her books feature some brutal crimes, but they're leavened by a certain tongue in cheek quality that the plummier adaptations of her work miss.  For all its pleasures, Orient Express overindulges in nostalgia for 1930's Deco Britain, and misses the point (that Wilder so brilliantly captures) that Dame Agatha's idealized England is the conveyance for murderous hijinks and not the destination itself.
Werth: If you're in the mood for hijinks, no courtroom has more of them than the Tracy-Hepburn classic, Adam's Rib (1949). Adam (Tracy) and Amanda (Hepburn) are married lawyers who find themselves on the opposite sides of the table at an attempted murder trial. Adam wants to throw the book at ditzy, would-be murderess Doris Attinger (a sparkling Judy Holliday), but Amanda defends her, turning the trial into a crusade for women's equality.

Wise: I love when homicide transforms into urbane wit. 

Werth: Written by married screenscribes Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Adam's Rib mines the seemingly endless gold that the Tracy-Hepburn screen-teaming produced.Tracy is gruff and charming as a somewhat old-fashioned man who loves and respects his wife—but believes that the law is the law. Hepburn is regal in her defense of womanhood, but at the same time a giddy woman in love with her man. 
The courtroom moves into the bedroom and vice versa as the two butt heads and soon these two legal eagle love birds are pecking each other's eyes out. The famous massage scene culminates with the heinie smack heard around the world.

Wise: The happy ending joke writes itself.

Werth: By the end we are less worried about who wins the case and more about how these two people who are made for each other will find their way back to a happy marriage. Tracy and Hepburn were so good at these battle of the sexes flicks because they gave their comedy a serious side. 
If he was just a sexist pig and she an overheated women's libber, these movies would never work. But these two actors were so skilled at working their love and respect for each other into their characters that Adam and Amanda feel more full and real—making us see both sides and wanting to find a way for both of them to be right. 
Director George Cukor also wisely enlisted the comic abilities of Holliday and fey-neighbor extraordinaire David Wayne to heighten the level of comedy in the picture without making Tracy and Hepburn shoulder all the humor. Many feel Adam's Rib is the best display of the Tracy and Hepburn magic, and this juror is happy to find in their favor.

Wise: So did your jury service end with you hooking up with Cher like Dennis Quaid did in Suspect (1987)?

Werth: Only the jury box knows for sure. Tune in next week for more legal shenanigans from Film Gab!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Big Screen in the Sky

Film Gab is saddened to learn of the death of Ann Rutherford who played both Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister Careen in Gone with the Wind (1939) and the devoted girlfriend of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy series.  She was never an icon of the silver screen, but she was often an accomplice to greatness, shining in smaller roles and making the most of whatever screen time she got.  In the early 1940's, she left the cocoon of MGM to seek out more challenging parts and eventually secured a plum comedic spot opposite Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).  Largely retiring from the screen in 1950, she did return for a few guest spots on The Bob Newhart Show playing Suzanne Pleshette's mother and was offered the role of old Rose in Titanic (1997) before it went to Gloria Stuart.  In later years, she became a fixture at events celebrating GWTW, sharing stories about her part in that film and about her connections to the old studio system.  In some ways, retirement was Rutherford's greatest role because it allowed her to star as an ambassador to the dreamland of Hollywood's past.   

Friday, June 8, 2012

In Space, No One Can Hear You Gab

Werth: It's here, Wise!

Wise: My Wizard of Oz press-on nails?

Werth: No, the much anticipated Ridley Scott-directed Alien prequel Prometheus!

Wise: Oh, then perhaps you'll be interested in this crocheted Alien wall-decor.

Werth: I'm excited to see the new moviebut I'm trying to keep my expectations low. I fear Scott's budgets and storytelling have evolved into monster-sized messes.

Wise: With recent disappointments like Robin Hood (2010)and Body of Lies (2008) to his credit, why would you think that?

Werth: I guess it can all be chalked up to Hollywood success, but Scott's career didn't start off so extravagantly. Scott's second film, Alien (1979) spawned a dynasty of six movies and counting, comic books, videogames and a rabid fanbase of fan fiction writers, expanding the film's story into epic, Star Wars-like proportions. But despite all of that, the first Alien is amazingly simple. 

The crew of the deep-space mining vessel Nostromo is awakened from their cryogenic sleep midway through their journey home by the ship's computer, Mother, because she has intercepted a distress call.

Wise: Making it the worst bit of Mother's advice since Janet Leigh stepped into that shower.
Werth: What the crew finds on the planet surface below is far from in trouble, however, and soon they are fighting for their lives against a seemingly unstoppable alien with two sets of choppers.

Wise: Martha Raye?

Werth: What made Alien so unique was that it was more than just a horror movie in space. Scott wove themes of feminism into the film by making the hero a heroine. Ripley as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver is not a terrified girl who screams and bites her hand when she is confronted by danger (that role is left to Veronica Cartwright who plays Lambert). Ripley is smart and inventive and it is her caution and chutzpah that allow her to survive.

Wise: That and the prospect of starring in three sequels. 

Werth: While many horror/sci-fi movies from that period look like they were made on a shoestring budget and practically beg the audience to laugh at them, Alien takes itself seriouslyin a good way. H.R. Geiger's set and alien designs are works of art. Scott's shooting style is elegant and purposeful with a slow-building tension that pays-off brilliantly with one of the best "gotcha" moments in film history. 
Its gore is startling, but not excessive, making the audience grip their seats more from what Scott doesn't show, than from what he exposes. Watching James Cameron's steroid-injected sequel Aliens (1986), really highlights how Scott's use of less in the first film was more. 
I have a feeling that when I sit in my stadium seat with my IMAX 3D glasses and watch Scott attempt to recapture Alien's magic through CGI sunsets and Charlize Theron's skintight jumpsuit, I'll be nostalgic for a simpler time.

Wise: Things are never simple in Black Hawk Down (2001), Scott's adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name by Mark Bowden about the United Nations' 1993 peacekeeping mission to Somalia where a devastating famine erupted into civil war.  The film depicts an attempt by U.S. forces to capture two top lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid after the withdrawal of the majority of the peacekeepers.  During the raid, a series of mistakes, compounded by extraordinary bad luck, tumbles the mission into chaos, and eventually results in a re-evaluation of then-President Clinton's foreign policy strategy.  

Werth: Try taking that to a pitch meeting.  

Wise: It's a complicated film addressing complex issues and a tangled chain of actions and reactions.  And even though a raft of screenwriters whittled the 100 key characters from the book into a more manageable 39 role, the film still feels overstuffed.  
Josh Hartnett plays Staff Sergeant Matthew Eversman who takes command of his first mission after his lieutenant is felled by a seizure; Ewan McGregor plays nebbishy desk clerk John Grimes, nervously taking on his first battle; 
Orlando Bloom plays teenage recruit Todd Blackburn who quickly realizes he is in over his head; and Eric Bana plays swaggering Delta Force Sergeant Norm Gibson.   

Werth: Without all the war stuff, it could have been another Magic Mike.

Wise: While the cast may be a look book of handsome young Hollywood, Scott refuses to allow the picture to devolve into war film clichés by documenting the terror and stupidity of war as well as the heroics.  
There are gorgeous shots of helicopters zooming across dusty plains, a city haunted by civil unrest, and close-ups of men facing down terrors worse than they've ever imagined.  In some ways, Black Hawk Down resembles Alien without all the sci-fi trappings: the characters battle a faceless enemy that lurks around every corner, as well as the enemy that lurks inside. 
And like John Hurt's famously gut-busting encounter with the alien, these soldiers must confront the possibility that they have already succumbed to the horror that surrounds them.  

 Werth: So, Wise, are you ready to succumb to the Prometheus juggernaut?  

Wise: I'll keep pretending it's just Michigan J. Frog.  

Werth: Just bring your straw hat and cane to next week's Film Gab.