Friday, October 26, 2012

Film Gab's Leading Ladies

Wise: Good day, Werth.

Werth: Good day, Wise. Have you finished signing our birthday card to Hillary Clinton?

Wise: I got distracted by one of those memes of her texting in sunglasses.

Werth: I really enjoy watching her strut through press conferences in her power pantsuits. But then I've always found women in politics excitingespecially if they are women in politics in the movies!
Take the role of Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) in the 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. Eleanor's son Raymond (Laurence Harvey) has just returned from being a prisoner of war in Korea and she immediately turns his Medal of Honor arrival into a band-playing, banner-waving photo op for her husband, the McCarthy-esque Senator, John Iselin (James Gregory). 

Wise: Wouldn't a pot roast have been easier? 

Werth: Eleanor's political ambitions to be the wife of a Vice-President know no bounds and include trying to keep her son away from a left-wing politician's daughter who Raymond takes a fancy to.
But Raymond is acting very strangely and some of the men from his company have started having nightmares where they are having tea in a New Jersey garden club with the top brass of the Soviet and Chinese Communist Party who turn into little old ladies who tell Raymond to kill his own men.

Wise: That sounds like Bayonne to me.  

Werth: Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatrawho also produced) begins to investigate and soon discovers that he and his patrol are cards in a deadly game of solitaire. John Frankenheimer's taut direction and iconic visual punch make this film one of the great suspense classics of all time.
All the performances are first-rate—but Lansbury dominates this film. Her portrayal of Eleanor as a woman whose naked ambition is lightly clothed in good ol' American maternal sentiment as she icily barks orders at her son, her husband and anyone who stands in her way should have won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year. Patty Duke walked away with it for The Miracle Worker, but I've always felt that Landsbury was robbed... even if it was by Helen Keller.
Wise: The Young Victoria (2009) charts the political and personal growth of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) in the years just previous to and just following her ascension to the throne.  Growing up sheltered by her mother The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her mother's adviser Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), she finds herself struggling against the political machinations that surround her.  
Her uncle King William IV (Jim Broadbent) wants to exert more influence upon her before passing on the throne while her other uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) hopes to ally the two kingdoms with the marriage of his son Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) to Victoria.  Meanwhile, the seductive Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) attempts to charm his way into Victoria's good graces, proving to be both friend and foe.

Werth: Sounds like a political gangbang.  

Wise: The film is a surprising hybrid of women's picture and political thriller, almost as if Joan Crawford had been directed by Oliver Stone.  It's not alone in that category (recent examples include Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and The Duchess and reach at least as far back as Bette Davis in Juarez), but it is one of the few to take the affairs of state just as seriously as the romantic kind.  

Werth: There must be a Hillary film in the works. Notting Hill-ary?

Wise: Part of the film's success in portraying the rigors of statecraft comes from the intelligence of the performances.  Emily Blunt indulges in all the requisite bosom heaving and tempestuous dialogue, but makes Victoria as passionate about Parliament as she is about her prince.  
And somehow Rupert Friend turns a buttoned up wonk into a dashing matinee idol who smolders while proposing social reforms.  Both actors resemble their historical counterparts to an almost shocking degree, particularly Friend who studied contemporary accounts in order to capture Albert's somewhat prickly demeanor and awkward habits. 

Werth: Hamburger Hill-ary.

Wise: Julian Fellowes's script artfully balances the personal and the political, cleverly highlighting the effect human desire (both petty and profound) plays in shaping public policy.  Director Jean-Marc Vallée also performs a balancing act: giving each scene a contemporary dash while still lingering over the sumptuous period detail (particularly Sandy Powell's gorgeous and authentic costumes).  
But perhaps the best example of how this film epitomizes the surprising union of seeming opposites is that its producers include Martin Scorsese and the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson (who knows more than a little about the perils of being a princess). 

Werth: The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill-ary But Came Down a  Mountain.

Wise: Tune in to Film Gab next week when hopefully Werth will have run out of spoof Hillary movie titles.

Werth: The House on Haunted Hill-ary!  


Friday, October 19, 2012

Kate's Closet

If you're a fan of old Hollywood and happen to be in New York City this fall, do yourself a favor and check out a special exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's costumes and personal effects at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  Hepburn, who seems to have been something of a pack rat, was deeply interested in the way costume could help an actor enrich her portrayal of a character.  Plus, her personal style is legendary.  

From The New York Times' write-up of the show: 
Organized by the Kent State University Museum, which acquired her performance clothes (as well as personal items like khakis, shoes and makeup) after her death in 2003, “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” includes more than 40 costumes and other pieces she wore in plays and movies like “The Philadelphia Story,” “Adam’s Rib” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Also on display are letters, scripts and research notes that Hepburn made, and which are part of the library’s collection of her stage papers.
If your travel plans don't include the Big Apple, you can still pick up the accompanying book with essays by the curators discussing this iconic star and and her equally famous wardrobe. 

Escape from New York!

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Hi, Wise. What's with the mega-jumbo-latte and the Times' real estate section?

Wise: My insomnia has been acting up lately, and I've been fantasizing about a boondock cottage somewhere I can catch up on sleep.

Werth: One thing all New Yorkers have in common is the urge to sprint for the nearest railroad station to catch a train to our favorite out-of-town refuge whenever New York City life gets a little too... well, New York City.

Wise: Based on Peter Cameron's novel, The Weekend (1999) follows Lyle (David Conrad) as he and his new (and much younger) boyfriend Robert (James Duval) flee New York City for a quiet getaway at the upstate home of his old friends Marian and John (Deborah Kara Unger and Madmen's Jared Harris).  Unfortunately, the weekend retreat turns out to be anything but quiet as long held frustrations, sorrows and resentments begin to surface, particularly Marion's complicated feelings for Lyle's deceased partner Tony (D.B. Sweeney).

Werth: She obviously watched The Cutting Edge one too many times.

Wise: Adding to the tumult is their glamorous but sharp-tonged neighbor Laura Ponti (Gena Rowlands), her snappish actress daughter Nina (Brooke Shields), and Nina's married lover Thierry (Gary Dourdan).  Despite the large cast, the film is composed mostly of small scenes between pairs of characters, interspersed occasionally with blued-tinged flashbacks to Tony's past bons mots that feel something like an old Calvin Klein fragrance ad.

Werth: Don't you mean like an old Calvin Klein jeans ad?

Wise: I have to admit that I've avoided this film for over a decade because the novel it's based on is one of my favorites, and I was worried that Cameron's treasure box could only be butchered onscreen.  And it turns out that I was only half right.  Writer/director Brian Skeet has an instinctive feel for the rhythms of Cameron's prose, capturing the languorous feeling of the country after escaping the fetid heat of the city.  If anything, he's perhaps too respectful of Cameron's words, cramming in entire passages of dialogue that feel spare within the expanse of a novel, but overblown on film.

Werth: Show it, don't say it, Skeet!

Wise: Still, Skeet gets a lot more more right than wrong.  He is not slavishly faithful to his source, adapting and enriching the more cinematic parts of the book, eliding the rest.  The cast is almost uniformly excellent, particularly Rowlands, who is at the center of the most lively scenes, and Unger, who manages to portray both her character's unlikability and her emotional frailty.  Less successful is Sweeney who is forced to play more of a symbol than a character and whose Long Island inflection makes a stark contrast to Tony's platitudinousness while being posed like The Dying Gaul.

Werth: At the beginning of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) the main character is also packing for a trip to the country to get away from New York City. But Don Birnam (Ray Milland) quickly decides that instead of leaving by way of Metro North, he will take his usual escape route through a bottle of rye. You see, Don is a raging alcoholic.

Wise: Which is a lot cheaper than a house in the Hamptons. 

Werth: Don handily ditches his well-meaning brother Wick (Phillip Terry, who at the time was spoused up with Joan Crawford) and his "best girl," the ritzy Helen St. James (the doe-eyed Jane Wyman wearing leopard courtesy of Edith Head) and begins a four day drinking binge that would put Mel Gibson to shame.

Before the film is done, Don is kicked out of his favorite bar, installed in a drunk tank, and roams up and down Third Avenue looking for a pawn shop that is open on Yom Kippur.

Wise: Clearly he should be taking the Day of atonement a bit more seriously. 

Werth: Before its treacly ending, Lost Weekend is a disturbing look at how the mind of an alcoholic worksor doesn't work. Milland doesn't play for sympathy, his silky, gentlemanly demeanor turning into a web of disgusting lies, selfishness and criminality as he descends into a gin-fueled spiral. But because he's Ray Milland, we also can't bring ourselves to hate this jerk. He knows how pathetic he is, he is just powerless to stop himself from pursuing the next drink. 
Wilder works his typical magic with story rather than a flashy cinematic style, but he does take the time to have fun with closeups on a booze-filled shot glass, water rings on the bar, and a DT fantasy with a bat and a mouse that is laughable until it's not. 
The film made quite an impact when it was releasedwinning four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Millandbut perhaps the most definitive proof of its popularity is that two years later the film was spoofed in the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Split Hare".

Wise: What's up, Drunk?

Werth: Whether you're packing your bags, or blacking out, join us next week for more Film Gab!


Friday, October 12, 2012

True to Life Film Gab

Werth: Hello, Wise.

Wise: Hello, Werth. What cinematic plans do you have for this weekend?

Werth: Well if I can recover from Film Gab favorite Chris Hill's birthday margaritas, I'd like to go see Argo.

Wise: Oh right. The new Affleck flick based on the recently declassified CIA mission to rescue U.S diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis while disguised as a Hollywood film crew.

Werth: It's perfectreal life imitating Hollywood when Hollywood has always enjoyed taking true stories and turning them into movies. But oftentimes movie-making has played fast and loose with the truth. David Lean's Oscar-winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a perfect example of a movie that people think is based on true eventsbut is actually more movie magic than reality.  
Kwai tells the story of a group of WWII British POWs led by stalwart Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) who endure torture and starvation in order to build a bridge for their Japanese captors.

Wise: Kind of like the last time I was at Uniqlo

Werth: Shears, a U.S. naval officer (the oft bare-chested William Holden) escapes and is soon leading a group of commandos to blow-up the bridge that Nicholson has taken such care to build. In typical Lean fashion, nature sets a stunning backdrop for this story of human chutzpah and conflict. 
Shot mostly in the dense jungles of Ceylon, the local flora provides a very real cage to trap these men (and actors) in. If you want to grab a bottle of water while watching Lawrence of Arabia, in Kwai you want to grab a moist towelette and a flyswatter. 
Part of Lean's genius was creating all-encompassing atmosphere by replacing sets made by man with sets designed by God.

Wise: Does God get credit for set design?

Werth: The other thing Lean did very well was choose and direct amazing actors. William Holden is as brash, smart-mouthed and rugged as ever—so American he should be made of apple pie. 
Former Asian silent film star Sessue Hayakawa earned an Oscar nom for his role as camp commander Colonel Saito, a cold bastard who finds his well-run deathcamp turned upside-down by Nicholson. 
Which brings me to Guinness. The ease with which Guinness portrays Nicholson is breathtaking. This career soldier's desire for rules and regulations is so deep that he will stand quoting a copy of the Geneva Convention while his captors focus a machine gun on him and his men. 
It should come off as comical how this man justifies building a bridge for the enemy so that he can keep his men's morale upBut Guinness inhabits the unbending role so completely there is no room for comedy. He rightly earned a Best Actor Oscar for making this complex character so real.

Wise: So what about the movie isn't true?

Werth: Try most of it. There was a bridge built by British POWs over the Mae Klong River (Thailand) in 1943, but that's where the similarities end. In fact, when the movie was originally released, veterans who worked on the bridge were fairly upset at the depiction, pointing out that there was no whistling in their camp, and the real-life Col. Nicholson, Phillip Toosey, actually worked to sabotage the bridge instead of building one he could be proud of.

Wise: Long before Peter Jackson was corralling Hobbits or remaking the greatest monkey pic from the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was busy examining the inner lives 1950's teenage girls.  

Werth: Something he has in common with Errol Flynn.  

Wise: Heavenly Creatures (1994) dramatizes the notorious Parker-Hulme murder case in which two New Zealand teenagers developed an incredibly intense friendship that led to the brutal beating death of one girl's mother.  

Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the privileged daughter of an English academic, and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), the beetle-browed offspring of working class parents, came from very different backgrounds, but they bond over childhood illnesses and a shared love for James Mason and Mario Lanza.  
Together they create an all-consuming fantasy world, and when their parents begin to worry that their fierce friendship would tip inevitably into lesbianism, plans were made to separate them.  Lashing out, the girls bludgeon Pauline's mother and hope to flee to Hollywood.  

Werth: It might have been easier for them to just wear tight sweaters and hang around the soda fountain.
Wise: This is the first film appearance of both Winslet and Lynskey, and it's incredible how committed they both are to their performances.  Winslet is by turns fragile and venomous, already displaying the talent that has made her the darling of awards season.  
And Lynskey, who has until recently been mostly confined to sidekick roles (including a long-running stint on Two and a Half Men), reveals the ferocity inside not-so-pretty girls who have something to prove.  

Werth: You'd be ferocious too if you had to act with Charlie Sheen for eight years.

Wise: But it is Peter Jackson himself who does the most amazing work here.  Writing the script with his longtime partner Fran Walsh, he finds the heart of the picture in the girls' friendship and not in the frenzy surrounding the trial.  Plus, as director, he is somehow able to seamlessly combine period piece, fantasy film, domestic drama, and murder mystery into a beautifully integrated whole. 
The film isn't about lurid details—although the scene with a brick in stocking bashing Pauline's mother's skull would turn anyone's stomach—but about the beauty and danger offered by the creative life.

Werth: Speaking of creative, I have to pick-out which flavor margarita I'm going to drink several of tonight.

Wise: Tune in next week for more salt or no-salt Film Gab!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mongo Say Bye-Bye

Dear Film Gabbers, it is with a heavy heart that we here at Film Gab bid adieu to someone very near and dear to us. Football player and character actor Alex Karras has passed away at the age of 77. While many might think of him as Webster's dad from the diminutive 80's television hit, or the horse-punching cretin Mongo from Blazing Saddles (1974), he was especially memorable to many of us 80's gays as the burly Chicago bodyguard Squash Bernstein who dares to be himself and come out of the closet in the beloved gender-bending comedy Victor Victoria (1982).  
Although built like a bear, Karras' characters always wound up exposing their lovable side, making him one of those unexpected joys to watch. Here's to you and Toddy sharing some champagne in Heaven!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Creature is in 3D!

This Friday, Film Forum is playing one of the greatest monster classics in eye-popping 3D! 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon has long been considered one of the great Saturday matinee monster movies that delighted and terrified the kid in us all. Of course Julie Adams' tight white bathing suit and the puffed-out exposed chests of Richard Carlson and Richard Denning appealed to a slightly older audience. But either way, Creature is one of those films that despite its clunky monster suit, inspired a generation of horror film makers and fans alike. So go see it! You may never swim in the Amazon again...

Friday, October 5, 2012

Stop Motion Burton

Werth: Hello, Wise.  

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  Do you happen to know if there's a Hot Topic here in Manhattan, or do I need to head to a mall somewhere in New Jersey?  

Werth: Are you all out of black nail polish and fishnet tights?  

Wise: Of course not, but I do need some supplies to get my goth fangirl on because Tim Burton's latest stop-motion animation film Frankenweenie opens today. This calls for a new Emily the Strange lunchbox!

Werth: More than that, Wise.  It calls for a Film Gab salute to the multiple stop-motion animated films in Burton's oeuvre. 

Wise: I couldn't agree more.  Corpse Bride (2005) relates the unlikely tale of Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), the shy son of arriviste fish merchants who is pledged to marry the daughter of a titled but broke noble family (Emily Watson as a very plucky Victoria Everglott) only to have those plans interrupted by an accidental union with the titular decomposing lady (Helena Bonham Carter).  
The plot revolves around Victor's attempts to escape the underworld and reunite with his true love Victoria while Corpse Bride Emily attempts to persuade Victor of the many charms of the afterlife. 


Werth: Sounds like the presidential debate this week. 

Wise: The film marks Burton's first time as the director of a full-length stop-motion animation film (along with co-director Mike Johnson).  
In some ways, the format seems the perfect outlet for Burton's imagination—stylized puppets sing and emote in an endearingly creepy, toy-like fantasy world—but it's also a reminder of the kind of compassionate filmmaker he can be. Unlike the high-concept pageantry without a shred of human emotion in a live-action film like Alice in Wonderland, the heart of Corpse Bride focuses on hopes and disappointments, tragedy, trickery, despair and love.  
Plus, there's genuine humor, including Emily's maggot conscience that bears a striking resemblance to Peter Lorre. 


Werth: Everyone should have a Peter Lorre maggot as a conscience.

Wise: Depp is marvelous as a self-doubting introvert who gradually learns to express his emotions and to fight for his passions.  Watson has less to do, but is no less appealing as a damsel in distress who finds she has a lot more fortitude than anyone gave her credit for. 
Bonham Carter resurrects some of the spunky innocence she displayed as an ingenue in all those Merchant and Ivory films at the beginning of her career, but marries it to a macabre sexpot glamor that makes her the darling of the black eyeliner set.  

Werth: I bet her wardrobe at home looks more like the Corpse Bride's than Miss Honeychurch's.

Wise: Of course, no discussion of Corpse Bride would be complete without mentioning Danny Elfman's rollicking score.  He somehow manages to make his music appropriate to both Burton's gaudy Halloween world and to the characters' emotional lives.  He also provides the singing voice to Mr. Bonejangles, a one-eyed dancing skeleton (and a sly nod to Sammy Davis, Jr).  
The supporting players are uniformly great, filled with a roster of British talent that includes Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gough, and Christopher Lee.  But it's all these talents together, harnessed by Burton and Johnson that makes Corpse Bride such a pleasure.  

Werth: Frankenweenie and Corpse Bride may be his most recent forays into the world of stop-motion animation, but Burton has been working in the world of puppets and clay from his first days as a director. One of his first shorts made for Disney which you can catch on the Special Edition DVD of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (which Burton produced but didn't direct) shows exactly where this talented artist was going. Vincent (1982) is a darkly charming, black and white animated poem about a young boy named Vincent Malloy who wishes he was Vincent Price.

Wise: Like Bill Hader wishes he was Vincent Price.

Werth: Minus Gloria Swanson and James Mason. Vincent's imagination is a joyous trip into the macabre with little Vincent turning his mom into a waxwork, scouring dark alleys with his zombie dog, and realizing that his wife has been buried alive... all to narration spoken with a twinkle of irony by the one and only Vincent Price.

Wise: I guess Orson Welles was busy. 

Werth: What really makes this piece so unique is its impeccable design, which Burton did himself. The textures of the clothing and hair, the wild expressionism-by-way-of-Dr. Seuss sets, the cinematic lighting, even the little bags under Vincent's eyes are created with painstaking attention to detail. 
All of these qualities would make their way into Burton's stop-animation scenes in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) and his visionary production of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) (both directed by Coraline director, Henry Selick.)
Wise: So, Werth, I've got my ironic My Little Pony t-shirt and my wallet chain, and I'm ready join you at Frankenweenie

Werth: Who cares what you're wearing, as long as you join me next week for more Film Gab.