Saturday, March 31, 2012

Save Pickford/Fairbanks Studio!

Film Gab friend Steve Vaught has posted an urgent call to arms on his blog, Paradise Leased about the imminent destruction of a piece of Hollywood History- the legendary Pickford/Fairbanks Studios. Film Gab joins him and many others by urging you to sign this petition to stop the demolition of the place where so many luminaries of the film community worked and sweated to bring us unforgettable cinema.

Friday, March 30, 2012

My Gab Will Go On

Wise: Werth, I noticed today's Film Gab title and I just want you to know that I will not be posing with you stretched over the bow of a ship.

Werth: Trust me, Wise. I won't let you fall in our filmic tribute to the April 4th 3D release of the second biggest movie moneymaker of all time.

Wise: In which Kate Winslet shows her own two biggest moneymakers.  

Werth: Being an historic obsessive about the Titanic tragedy, I was impressed by James Cameron's attention to detail and the beauty of the ship—not to mention getting my glasses all wet as I projectile boo-hoo'ed when the ship went down.

Wise: While the Titanic story may be the most famous, plenty of other ships have made appearances in great movies... and also in some not-so-great movies, like Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977).  

Werth: Wise, we're talking about one of the most successful disaster films of all time and you bring up a kiddie flick about dolls.  

Wise: It may be a kid flick, but it was a huge disaster, prominently features a pirate ship, plus it sank at the box office as soon as it arrived in theaters.  And—as you well know—I'll use any excuse to talk about insane kid movies.  

Werth: Well, when you put it that way...  

Wise: The film opens on Marcella's seventh birthday and all the toys in the playroom are curious about the enormous present that has arrived from Paris.  After the package is opened and pouty porcelain poupée Babette is introduced, a pirate captain escapes from his snow globe, kidnaps the new doll, and sails away in his sea rover.  Raggedy Ann and Andy then set out to rescue Babette and save Marcella's birthday.  

Werth: Please tell me Marcella takes them on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic... in third class.

Wise: Oh, believe me, even the Carpathia wouldn't have picked up this bedraggled mess.  Raggedy Ann had been a beloved character since she was first introduced by Johnny Gruelle in 1915, but aside from a couple animated shorts in the early 1940's, she had languished as a toy and a moderately successful publishing enterprise for many years.  In the 1970's, however, the popularity of Ann and her brother Andy was on the rise, and The Bobbs-Merrill Company, which owned the rights to the characters, was anxious to bring them to an even wider audience.  

Werth: It's strange to think that the decade that brought us KISS and Star Wars also brought us this red-haired bag of fluff.  

Wise: Because Bobbs-Merrill had such high hopes for the project, they enlisted some top talent: Muppet collaborator Joe Raposo to write the music; a pre-Grease Didi Conn as the voice of Ann; and a host of animators from the Golden Age of Disney and Warner Bros. to bring the characters to life.  
But despite this surplus of skill, the film is a wreck with underdeveloped characters, an overabundance of songs, plus the most trippily psychedelic sea of living taffy you can imagine.  

Werth: I would need psychedelics to sit through it... 

Wise:  Director Richard Williams (who went on to win an Oscar for directing the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), fought endlessly with the producers trying to get a better script and more time for the animators to work, but was forced from the project when the producers grew tired of delays.  That contentiousness reveals itself in the final film where most of the minor characters are unappealing, if not downright repulsive.  
Still, there are some wonderful moments like the transition from the live-action frame story to the animated middle where the toys come to life and the wonderfully absurd Camel with the Wrinkled Knees.  It's not a great movie—not even a good one—but in some ways it predicted the phenomenal success of the Toy Story franchise, and it sticks with me as a sentimental favorite.  

Werth: One of my favorite boat movies isn't always remembered as such. The Empire State Building bogarts most of the attention in Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember (1957), but the majority of the action takes place on a transatlantic cruise aboard the S.S. Constitution. Cary Grant plays Nickie Ferrante a frustrated playboy who isn't finding life in the fast-lane all that fulfilling.

Wise: Swanning around in a tuxedo is definitely hard work.

Werth: Enter the lovely Deborah Kerr as Terry McKay, a former nightclub singer whose no nonsense approach to life should repel Mr. Ferrante and his expensive cigarette case— but of course, it doesn't. Love blossoms as the two flirt and canoodle from stem to stern being careful to be discreet, because both of them are already publicly involved with someone else.

Wise: Why are the best ones always taken?

Werth: A shore-leave excursion to the enchanted Mediterranean garden and home of Nickie's grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt) seals the deal and by the end of the cruise Nickie and Terry have realized that what was missing in their lives was each other. 
So the two set a date six months later, and if they have dumped their current sugar-daddy/mommy and found a way to earn their own money, they will meet at the top of the Empire State Building to live happily ever after.

Wise: But everyone knows that doesn't happen.

Werth: Yes, thanks to spoilers from Tom Hanks and Co. everyone knows that the two don't meet at the Empire State Building. 
But what is really memorable about Affair is what happens after Nick leaves the ESB alone. The crippling doubt coupled with unlikely hope gives the film an emotional depth other happy-ending romances just don't have. And with the impeccable Grant and Kerr on board, this is one ship movie that I want to sail on over and over. 

Wise: Unless we hit an iceberg, we'll be sailing full speed ahead to next week's Film Gab!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Lucille!

Werth just can't let March 23rd go by without wishing his favorite dead celeb a Happy Birthday! Whether little Lucille Fay LeSueur was born in 1908 (like she told everyone), 1905 (what IMDB says) or 1906 (what Crawford historian Neil Maciejewski believes), Joan Crawford's appeal is ageless... except perhaps to Christina. Happy Birthday Joan Crawford!

The Hunger Gabs

Werth: Hi, Wise.  

Wise: Tell me, Werth.  Do you have...The Hunger?  

Werth: While I do have an extensive video collection, I tend to shy away from vampire lesbian flicks.  

Wise: No, I meant The Hunger Games—the new movie based on Suzanne Collins's ballyhooed dystopian teen series where a bunch of pouty-lipped pre-adults are forced to fight each other to the death.  

Werth: Sounds like the sales rack at Abercrombie & Fitch.  But I do love any good flick that takes place in the bleak near-future where individuals must battle each other for survival.  

Wise: I know, The Vow was awesome.  

Werth: I was thinking more along the lines of John Carpenter's Escape from New York. Picture it. 1997. America's at war with the Commies and Manhattan's crime rate is so high the whole island is turned into a maximum security prison.

Wise: Wait1997? I thought this blog was about the future?

Werth: The movie was made in 1981so back then 1997 was the future. Donald Pleasance is the President and his plane gets shot down by a terrorist worker's group and crash lands in Battery Park where the prisoners take him hostage.

Wise: This is so '97.

Werth: So the only man that Manhattan Prison Warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) can turn to is war-hero turned bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Snake only has 24 hours to sneak into the city, find the President and rescue him and get a full pardon before Snake's head explodes.

Wise: What?

Werth: It's complicated, but John Carpenter has always been a writer/director who didn't necessarily rely on plot believability. His knack for creating fast-paced action-horror movies revolved around creating a hero and a cast of characters that stood out from the seemingly pointless point A to point B stories. 
Russell was practically a Carpenter muse portraying several studly heroes in classics like The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and sequel Escape from L.A. (1996). In Escape from New York Russell unashamedly relishes playing the un-repentant anti-hero. He doesn't so much wink at the audience as wink, sexily snarl and then blow some dirtbag's head off.

Wise: I assume that's how he snagged Goldie.

Werth: Snake is dropped by glider into the hellish landscape of dilapidated, crook-murderer-psycho-infested New York City in the hopes of finding the President. Along the way he runs into a cavalcade of 1980's character actors like Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine and Adrienne Barbeauand her breasts. The whole film is good, dirty fun with shots of the desperate crew running through such cherished NY landmarks as a Chock Full 'o Nuts store. 
Considering the whole thing was shot on the lot in L.A. and in St. Louis, Missouri, the "NY feel" is better than it deserves to be. And with a classic, cheap-but-creepy synthesizer soundtrack composed by Carpenter himself, Escape is one of those cult '80's flicks that is a fun place to visit even if you don't want to live there.

Wise: In Children of Men (2006), Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, a civil servant in 2027 Great Britain—the last stable nation amid a worldwide crisis of pollution and infertility.  Kidnapped by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) who now runs a militant immigrant rights splinter group, Theo makes a deal to smuggle Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young pregnant refugee, out of the country and to a medical community sequestered in the Azores.  

Werth: I wish someone would do the same with Snooki.

Wise: Loosely based on P.D. James's novel of the same name and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is a compelling mix of the possible and the improbable, filled with everyday details seamlessly mixed with futuristic contraptions that make the film's grim view of the future seem particularly close at hand.  This is the guy who directed the third, and best, Harry Potter movie, and he's made his career finding the perfect balance of conflicting tones.

Werth: Which in cinema usually means really dark lighting.

Wise: Even more vital to communicating Cuarón's vision is Owen's performance: casting off his matinee idol looks, Owen transforms Theo from a man riven by despair into a guardian of a hope he never knew he possessed.  This isn't the typical sci-fi action hero bluster—although there's plenty of gun play and chase scenes—instead Owen creates a man who had lost his soul, but now finds his way.  
And he's not the only one showing off his acting chops: Michael Caine has a delightfully daffy role as a pot smoking eccentric; and Julianne Moore uses her fragile beauty to portray a woman who's lost everything but her ideals.  

Werth: Speaking of losing ideals, are you ready to battle your way through the crush of teens to see The Hunger Games?  

Wise: I think I'll save my fighting spirit for next week's Film Gab.


Friday, March 16, 2012

When Irish Eyes are Gabbing

Werth: Top o' the morning to ye, Wise.

Wise: Hello there, Werth.  I'm assuming that the shamrocks and shillelagh are part of your tasteful nod to Saint Patrick's Day.  

Werth: Faith an' Begorrah!  Did ye not notice me green knickers, tailcoat and top hat?  

Wise: Very subtle.  

Werth: It's all to pay tribute to our favorite Irish actors of the silver screen. One of my favorite Irish actors has been giving us wonderful performances for almost 60 years. Apparently Peter O'Toole isn't sure if he was actually born in Ireland—he has a birth certificate from Connemara County, Ireland and Leeds, England. But with those sparkling eyes, effervescent charm and a name like O'Toole, there's no doubt where he gets his spunk.

Wise: Sounds like you're setting me up for a double O'Tendre.

Werth: O'Toole has given performances in such great films as Beckett (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), My Favorite Year (1982), The Last Emperor (1986) and Ratatouille (2007) and has been nominated for eight Oscars—finally earning an Honorary Academy Award in 2003. But he is still best remembered for his first big role, that of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean's epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Lean had proven his visual mastery in films like Summertime (1955) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). But Venice and the jungles of Indochina wilt in the hot, stark sun of the desert in Lawrence. With scenery design by God, Lean's panoramic shots of the deserts of Northern Africa are breathtaking, truly putting any green-screen chicanery to shame.

Wise: Take that, Avatar!

Werth: The scene where a lone rider appears on the horizon, approaching the thirsty Lawrence at a well takes its sweet time in showing the unknown danger approach across a stunning, but godforsaken, vista. What makes Lawrence more than just an exotic travel magazine come to life is O'Toole. With his bright blue eyes shining, O'Toole produces an electric performance. Giant close-ups of his tanned, determined face give the sky and sand dunes a run for their money. 

Wise: I'd walk 10,000 miles to get back to that. 

Werth: Many scholars have poo-pooed the story, but watching Lawrence survive the desert of the Sinai, unite Arab tribes, and give a royal butt-kicking to the Germans in World War I only to succumb to the temptations of power and fame is worth the historical inaccuracies. O'Toole does an amazing job of making Lawrence at once mythic and human.
His performance seems even more realistic when compared to his co-stars. Alec Guinness as Arab Prince Faisal in brown face and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi in said brown face with a phony hatchet nose chew the scenery in their typical fun fashion, but are too much to be believed.

Only then-newcomer Omar Sharif approaches O'Toole's sheer natural charisma in a film that visually and (with a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre) aurally overwhelms its audience, making you grasp for your green beer as the sun burns the sand.

Wise: Despite having such a temperate climate, Ireland has certainly produced some scorching hot stars.  Consider Maureen O'Hara—her flaming hair and milky skin is the stuff of movie-going legend—who used her sexuality as just one of the tools in her fully stocked acting arsenal.  For example, she isn't the star of The Parent Trap (1961), but she is the film's emotional core.   Coming after a long run of playing exotic beauties and fiery foils to John Wayne, O'Hara steps away from her history of glamorous spitfires and into the more muted territory of Maggie McKendrick, a divorced mother of twin girls, Susan and Sharon (both played with impudent charm by Hayley Mills with the help of some split screen trickery). 
The girls meet at summer camp after being separated by their parents as infants, and take an instant dislike to each other, their turbulent rivalry threatening to topple the camp into chaos.  Only later do they discover their true relationship and immediately hatch a plan to switch places and scheme to bring their parents back together.  

Werth: Giving children of divorced families everywhere the vain hope that Mommy and Daddy will get back together again after a bloody divorce.

Wise: While the first half of the film is a paean to the kind of kid-friendly hijinks that were (and continue to be) bread-and-butter to this type of Disney teen-aimed flicks, once O'Hara appears on screen, the film takes on a decidedly more adult tone.  

Werth: Yeah. She shows her ankle.

Wise: When Susan arrives in Boston to meet the mother she has never known, she discovers a prim divorcée completely unlike the masculine and free-spirited father (Brian Keith) with whom she grew up.  But through persistence (and an unfamiliarity with Brahmin social codes), she brings about a gradual defrosting, and by the time Susan and Maggie arrive in California to undo the switch, O'Hara has allowed her brittle shell to crack and allowed the more toothsome woman to emerge.  

Werth: I like my gals toothsome. 

Wise: The sensual rapport between Keith and O'Hara is frankly shocking in a kid flick, and the lustful gaze with which he appreciates her body would be lewd if it weren't comically mirrored by the droll local reverend (the marvelous Leo G. Carroll) doing the same thing.  It is also part of the movie's theme—the reunion of halves split asunder—ostensibly about the shenanigans of two tween girls each finding her twin, but more deeply about the bond between two people united in love.  

Werth: Wise, let's bond with a couple shots o' Jameson's.  

Wise: Just pass me a Shamrock Shake and we'll be sure to reunite next week for more Film Gab. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pricey Posters!

For those of you who like to go big with your movie memorabilia purchases, the UK's Guardian has a list of the top ten most expensive classic movie posters. Feel free to buy one for your favorite Gabber.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Science Fiction Double Feature

Werth: Howdy, Wise.

Wise: Howdy, Werth.

Werth: Are you ready?

Wise: Ready?  For an early spring at the farm market and an eagerly awaited pea and radish salad?

Werth: No, for the much-hyped birth of Disney's new sci-fi franchise, John Carter?  

Wise: It's hard to tell from the cacophonous ad campaign, but John Carter is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi novel from 1917, A Princess of Mars, which has been cited by writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury and Junot Díaz as inspiration for their careers.  

Werth: One of my favorite sci-fi franchises also started with a book. In 1963 author Pierre Boulle wrote a science fiction novel called, La planete des singes and in 1968, Hollywood released the movie version au anglais, Planet of the Apes.  

Wise: Visions of a dystopian future just sound so much more alluring in French.  

Werth: Planet of the Apes begins with a trio of astronauts led by George Taylor (an eternally biblical Charlton Heston) who awaken to find themselves crash-landed on an alien planet in the year 3978. But they are not alone. They quickly find themselves part of a pack of primitive, loincloth-covered humans being hunted by gun-toting apes on horseback.

Wise: I wonder if Heston's support of the Second Amendment extended to primates.

Werth: Probably not, because Taylor is shot in the throat and faints as he hears an ape tell his companions to "Smile," before their picture is snapped in front of their daily catch. 
Taylor awakens again in a medical facility where he is the object of human study by chimp scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zera (Kim Hunter). Nicknaming him "Bright Eyes" the primate probers soon learn they have a very unique find and Taylor quickly takes advantage of them so he can make his escape—only to discover a shocking truth about this "alien" world. 

Wise: I'd give a spoiler alert, but who doesn't already know about the ending?

Werth: From the oft-quoted "filthy apes" line to the cultural touchstone ending, Planet of the Apes is the perfect example of how good sci-fi transcends simple popcorn entertainment. Through unorthodox use of storytelling, classic sci-fi's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) can communicate socially relevant themes not through overt soap-boxing, but by having it seep into our cultural consciousness under the guise of alien invaders or simian fascists.  
Beneath the driving, tribal Jerry Goldsmith score and the amazing, Special Oscar-winning makeup of John  Chambers is a clever depiction of the race issue in America and the inhumanity of nuclear proliferation. Spawning four sequels, a television series, an animated series, a Tim Burton re-make and a recent successful prequel, Planet of the Apes also proved that sci-fi was big business—long before Luke Skywalker looked out over the horizon of Tatooine.  

Wise: The Time Machine (1960) is another classic sci-fi film that portrays future worlds while cleverly commenting on the present.  Based on H.G. Wells' 1895 novella, it stars ruggedly handsome Rod Taylor as H. George Wells—  

Werth: Rod's one man I'd like to squeeze into a time machine with...  

Wise: —a ruggedly handsome Victorian inventor who attempts to convince his friends that he has been to the future—and survived.  

Werth: I sometimes wonder how I survive when I'm in a  horseless carriage with some chirpy girl on her cellphone.

Wise: Of course his friends are skeptical, and he launches into his tale, describing pending wars, natural catastrophes and women's hemlines reaching above the knee.  These disasters buffet him far into the future, until finally he descends into the normal timeline in the year 802,701.  He discovers that the world has become a paradise, filled with riotous flowers, bounteous fruits, and the Eloi, a race of gorgeous, golden humans with not much going on upstairs.  

Werth: Add a drive-in movie theater and it sounds like heaven to me.  

Wise: The only wrench in this prospective paradise is that the Eloi are occasionally harvested for dinner by the Morlocks, a subterranean breed of monstrous humanoids.  

Werth: Subterranean humanoids spoil everything.  

Wise: Of course, Taylor leaps into action, battles the Morlocks, rouses the Eloi from their stupor, and falls for the planet's prime sex kitten (Yvette Mimieux), only to be forced back to his present day where his dubious friends are waiting.  Only the loyal Filby (a brogue-ing Alan Young rehearsing for his future career as Scrooge McDuck), believes him, and in frustration, Taylor decides to abandon his stultifying gentleman's life and goes back to the future for adventure.  

Werth: I go Back to the Future for Crispin Glover.

Wise: Director George Pal did have plans for a sequel, but that never came to fruition.  Instead, there have been multiple re-makes for both television and theaters, documentaries, fan fictions, and the entire steampunk movement.  Still, the best way to enjoy this classic is with repeated viewings, returning again and again to Pal's charming (and Oscar-winning) stop motion special effects, Taylor's lantern-jawed sensitivity, and especially Russell Garcia's romantic, yet restrained, score.  

Werth: Wow, Wise, we make the future sound so classic.  

Wise: The only future I'm anticipating is next week's Film Gab.