Friday, July 27, 2012

Summertime and the Gabbin' is Easy

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Howdy, Wise. Hot enough for ya'?

Wise: It's that half-way point of the summer, where you're just not sure you can make it to September.

Werth: July—the Wednesday of the seasonal calendar.

Wise: But there's nothing better for a hot summer day than crashing in your air-conditioned apartment and watching a little summer romance unspool on your TV.  And few films capture the feeling of sun-kissed puppy love like Edge of Seventeen (1998).

Werth: Are we headed into Stevie Nicks territory here?

Wise: Set in 1984, Seventeen depicts the coming of age of Eric (Chris Stafford), a New Wave-obsessed teenager who takes a summer job at the local amusement park along with his best gal pal Maggie (Tina Holmes).  Eric falls hard for college-age cutie Rod (Andersen Gabrych), but is also the object of Maggie's affections.

Werth: Clearly going for extra credit in his summer of love.
Wise: Frustrated by Rod's unavailability and a disastrous turn in his relationship with Maggie, Eric turns to Angie (Lea DeLaria), his boss at work and—fortuitously—the manager at the local gay bar.  Angie gives him a pep talk and introduces him to the world beyond conservative rural Ohio.

Werth: When in doubt, call a lesbian.

Wise: Shot in the candy-colored neon of the early 80's and suffused with teenage hijinks, the film veers away from pop nostalgia and instead captures the melancholy exaltation of first love.  Eric experiences all the sun dappled joys of romance, but also must face the more sombre truths of approaching autumn.  Stafford makes an appealing hero with his gangly looks and puppy-dog eyes, but the real stand-out here is Holmes' Maggie.  Taking what could have been yet another depressing portrait in fag-haggery, Holmes invests her role with steel-jawed determination that highlights the bitter moral choices of growing up.  Director David Moreton does a fine balancing act, capturing summer passions and cold-eyed regret.

Werth: The oppressively wet New York City heat always makes me think of some tropical backwater—which always makes me think of the 1932 sizzling drama, Rain. Joan Crawford is Sadie Thompson, a hooker sans a heart of gold who, because of a cholera outbreak, gets quarantined in a cheap hotel in the South Pacific town of Pago Pago.

Wise: Not a great way to start your vacation.

Werth: And this village would not inspire any postcards. The tropical isle has the weather of a Turkish steam bath and the other hotel guests are not very temperate either. Mr. and Mrs. Davidson (Walter Huston and an excruciatingly pious Beulah Bondi) are a couple of tea-totaling missionaries who don't approve of anything more exciting than a knitting circle.

Wise: I don't even want to know what they think of Tiddlywinks. 

Werth: But to pinch a popular web-saying, "Honey-Sadie don't care." Right away Sadie is hosting a gang of marines in her room with the booze flowing and the phonograph howling. Davidson is so offended by this display that he uses all his righteous influence to try and have Sadie deported.
A battle of wills ensues with Davidson and Thompson sparring with all the heat that polar opposites can generate. The critics and audiences at the time all turned their noses up at Rain, and Crawford was so devastated by the reception that she ever-after repudiated the film and her performance, if you could get her to talk about the film at all. Maybe it was some sort of cultural myopia, but I think Rain was a movie ahead of its time.
From the first shot of Crawford's bangle-covered wrist and cheap, high-heeled shoes, she struts across the screen with a reckless abandon that would have made Mildred Pierce blush. Crawford's Sadie is an unapologetic whore and her disregard for what anyone thinks of it is exciting. Her hungry glares and brash physicality generate as much heat as the sweltering weather—making us long for a tall, cool drink to refresh oursevles before diving back into her boudoir.
Crawford is young and vital and the screen captures her female energy like a thousand-watt bulb. Sadie winds-up questioning herself, and while director Lewis Milestone may have been trying to make Sadie more human, in the end he brings a force of nature down to earth where she doesn't belong.

Wise: Well I know where I belong right now—in front of my television with a cool pint of watermelon sorbet. 

Werth: Just make sure you save some of your cool for next week's Film Gab!

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Gab

Werth: Greetings, Citizen.

Wise: Werth, I see you're in the your cape and tights again. Can I take this to mean we're going to gab about superhero movies... or should I call the men in the white coats?

Werth: Put your phone away, Wise, because in honor of the premiere of Christopher Nolan's finale to his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to give a Film Gab salute to the Caped Crusader. As early as 1943, Batman and Robin were BAM-ing and POW-ing their way through villains on the big screen in serialized shorts based on the popular DC Comics characters. 

Wise: Which were almost as popular as the Boy Wonder's shorts.  

Werth: And in 1966 the Dynamic Duo swung onto the silver screen again with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their successful television personae along with a bevy of villainous character actors.

Wise: Particularly the sourball delights of Burgess Meredith's Penguin and Cesar Romero's Joker. 

Werth: Then Tim Burton resurrected the franchise in 1989 with his hugely successful Batman before Joel Schumacher took over with Batman Forever (1995) and Christopher Nolan gave a grittier, more realistic take to the crimefighter in 2005 with Batman Begins.

Wise: Batman's had more facelifts than Jocelyn Wildenstein

Werth: But the Batman movie that I'm most fond of is Burton's 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. Burton returns to Gotham City with even more visual punches than he served up in his first film. Batman (a stern Michael Keaton) is celebrating Christmas by trying to save the city from a trio of Scrooges: The Penguin (disgusting Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle "Cat Nip" Pfeffier) and city power-grabber (literally) Max Schreck (a be-wigged Christopher Walken). 

Wise: Even Tiny Tim couldn't reform that crew.  

Werth: The plot is pretty silly, but what makes this film work is Burton's grasp of the mix of the dark and the fantasticalwhich has been one of the draws of comic books from their inception. On one hand you have The Penguin attempting to blow up the city using hundreds of adorable missle-wearing penguins, but on the other, you have two very touching origination stories. 
One about a deformed child who was tossed into the sewers by his 1% parents and the other, a lonely woman who is shoved out a window to her "death" after being taken advantage of by every man she's ever come across. The Penguin and Catwoman aren't just mean-spirited baddiesthey're victims. 

Wise: I almost felt bad for them... until Halle Berry made us her victim

Werth: And because of comic book touches like Catwoman's hardcore, latex, fetish-wear costume, Batman Returns dances nimbly between comic-book fantasy, and dark, sexual  melodrama.  
Bo Welch's production design makes the whole thing look gorgeous, gracefully merging a snow-capped Gothic cityscape with a host of circus and carnival sideshow touches that make this film dark, but fun enough not to be taken too seriously.

Wise: Batman may be the DC star getting the most attention this summer, but for a long time the company's main attraction was the Man of Steel himself. Hollywoodland (2006) acknowledges the power of cinematic superheros, but also examines the costs in bringing these comic book champions to the screen.  The film presents a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the death of TV's first Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck).  A second-tier actor who always seemed to be on the cusp of something bigger, Reeves became an idol to millions of 1950s children, but found that defending Truth, Justice, and the American way prevented him from being taken seriously as an actor.

Werth: Ronald Reagan had the same problem.

Wise: His champion, and lover, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) supports him through the bad times, but also complicates his relationship to Hollywood because her husband Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) is one of the MGM studio chiefs and his displeasure could spell disaster for Reeves career.

Werth: That's why sleeping with the boss' wife is always a bad idea... even if you're Superman.

Wise: Interlaced with scenes from Reeves' life is a second narrative following ramshackle (and entirely invented) private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as he descends into the mysteries surrounding Reeves' death from a gunshot wound in his Beverly Hills home.  Simo has an ex-wife, a kid obsessed with the dead guy in tights, and a bad habit of being on the losing end of a fistfight.  Still, he's determined to expose the sordid underbelly of the Tinseltown in his search for the truth.

Werth: Sounds a lot like L.A. Confidential.

Wise: That's the inevitable comparison—and, most likely, Hollywoodland probably benefited from Curtis Hanson's success—but the two films are actually quite different.  Director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum are more interested in meditating on the nature of fame and the need to be heroic in private life than in the double backing plot twists that makes Confidential such an entertaining thriller.  
What both films do have in common, besides their period and setting, are great performances: Diane Lane is amazing as a woman well aware of her shelf life and determined to make the most of it; 
Ben Affleck mostly tamps down his tendency toward glibness and reveals the sorrows of a man who playacts the dreams of others while unable to achieve his own; and Bob Hoskins snacks on the scenery as an exalted thug with a tender spot for beauty.

Werth: I notice you're not mentioning Brody.

Wise: Brody does fine work here, although his sections feel a bit overlarded with incident.  Films with parallel plots are difficult to balance, especially when one half is much more compelling than the other, as is the case here with Reeves, or when the normally delightful Amy Adams ran smack onto a Meryl Streep juggernaut.

Werth: It's hard to make duos work. Luckily neither you nor I are Meryl Streep.

Wise: Tune in next week for more Film Gab from blogdom's Dynamic Duo!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Universal-Packed Weekend!

For anyone who's not squeezing into the megaplex to see The Dark Knight Rises, don't forget that Film Forum's Universal Studios tribute continues, and this weekend is a doozy!

It's got something for everyone: Deadly animals courtesy of Jaws (1975) and The Birds (1963); Belly-laughs with My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Bank Dick (1940); Rootin' tootin' cowboys (and girls) with Winchester '73 (1950) and Destry Rides Again (1939); Old Man River-singin' in Show Boat (1936);
Film Noir with Scarlet Street (1945), Russian Roulette with The Deer Hunter (1978); and lots of Roman innuendo with Spartacus (1960). I could go into Film Forum tomorrow and not come out until late Sunday. 
Does Film Fourm have showers...?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Big Screen in the Sky

One of Hollywood's most regal actresses has passed away today. Celeste Holm is probably best remembered as the best friend of Broadway diva Margot Channing in All About Eve (1950), but Holm had a long and memorable career starring in the original stage production of Oklahoma! before going to Hollywood to earn an Oscar in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and roles in classics like The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956). She transitioned to television with appearances throughout the '50's and '60's including a stint on her own show, Honestly Celeste! (1954). Through it all, Holm was the personification of classwhen Holm greeted Bette Davis for the first time on the set of All About Eve with "Good Morning," Davis said, "Oh shit. Good manners." Film Gab bids a fond farewell to one heck of a lady.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Big Screen in the Sky

Film Gab is sad to report that producer and all-around hollywood mover and shaker Richard Zanuck has passed away. Behind such great films as The Sound of Music (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), M*A*S*H (1972), The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Big Fish (2003), Zanuck admirably emerged from the shadow of his legendary studio chief father Darryl Zanuck to carve his own name in the Hollywood history books. Saint Peter, you're going to need a bigger boat.

BAM Graces Grace

As if today's launch of Film Forum's tribute to Universal Studios wasn't enough, BAM is celebrating one of cinema's coolest blondes with a Grace Kelly Film Festival. With such great classics as High Noon (1952), Rear Window(1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and her oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl (1954) on the bill, Grace is sure to give you a cool escape from the summer heat. 

Honoring Ernie

Werth:  Hiya, Wise!

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  I thought you'd be a little more glum this week after hearing about the passing of Ernest Borgnine.

Werth: It's always sad when a Hollywood legend heads for the heavenly box office, but it's also a chance to salute that artist's accomplishments. And with a talent as big as Borgnine, there's a lot to celebrate.

Wise: Although often remembered today for the broad humor of his WWII-set sitcom McHale's Navy (1962), Borgnine was a talented actor, deploying his gap-toothed smile and hulking shoulders indelibly in countless roles, whether comedic or dramatic.

Werth: I would say that Borgnine's television career actually took a backseat to his film success with classics like From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Catered Affair (1956) pre-dating McHale and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and Escape from NewYork (1981) coming after. Perhaps most laudable is the movie he won the Best Actor Oscar for, Marty (1955).

Wise: Oscars trump Airwolf every time.

Werth: Marty is one of those movies that I can't believe ever got made. It tells the story of a Bronx butcher (Borgnine) who gets harrassed by everyone from his brother, to his mother, to his customers about being a 34 year old bachelor. Choruses of "What's the matter with you?" dog him wherever he goes.

Wise: I'm sure Clifton Webb could relate.

Werth: Marty winds up at a dancehall where he rescues fellow sad-sack Clara (Best Supporting Actress nominee and wife of Gene Kelly, Betsy Blair) from being dumped by her date. The two begin a conversation with talk about how neither one of them is such a dog, their thoughts of suicide and crying, and how kindness is what's important in a relationship.

Wise: Try putting that in your OkCupid profile.

Werth: The movie has shockingly little to push its plot forward. It literally is the story of how two plain people find each other in a world obsessed with looks and coupling. Previously a television movie aired in 1953, Paddy Chayefsky authored the simple plot and dialogue, making Marty and Clara unassuming heroes for anyone who's ever felt forgotten or overlooked. Without being maudlin or preachy, Marty celebrates those in the world who aren't lucky enough to have big dreams and ambition, but still yearn for a human connection.
It's a beautiful exercise in restraint and Borgnine brilliantly worked a soft side into his typically hyper-toughie character. It's a film totally bereft of glitz and glamour and it rightfully earned four Oscars including Best Director (Delbert Mann) and Best Picture.

Wise: In Bunny O' Hare (1979) Borgnine plays Bill Green, a junkman with a past who turns up to scavenge the plumbing fixtures from recently foreclosed houses before they get bulldozed.  Things get complicated when he starts to feel sorry for the titular character, a mild-mannered widow played by Bette Davis.

Werth: What?  Davis is mild-mannered?

Wise: Bunny is also a non-smoker.  Which do you think was the bigger challenge?  Anyway, the two embark on a road trip in Bill's rattletrap camper, and they form a grudging friendship after Bunny discovers Bill's past as a bank robber and convinces him to teach her how to pull heists to get revenge on the bank that took her house.  Instead of keeping the money, Bunny sends it to her deadbeat adult children, Lulu (Reva Rose) and Ad (John Astin as a creepy playboy with a gambling habit and a penchant for bimbos and silk bathrobes).

Werth: I hope people who are currently having mortgage problems are paying attention. 

Wise: Of course their crime spree doesn't go unnoticed by the local police, especially Lieutenant Greeley (Jack Cassidy).  Greeley vows to haul in the criminals despite being distracted by his Nixonian paranoia toward hippies and by his fixation on his recently hired, pert-nosed criminologist assistant (Joan Delaney).

Werth: Joans are very distracting. Just ask Bette.

Wise: Photographed in a cheapo 70's aesthetic with awkward camera moves and flat lighting, the film is about as visually interesting as the kind of home movies that turn up in a rummage sale.

Werth: Sort of the Me Decade's cinéma vérité.

Wise: More like cinema charité.  Still, it's impressive what two pros like Borgnine and Davis can do despite the mediocre film that surrounds them.  He transforms from a suspicious loner to noble daredevil, while Davis blooms from a downtrodden housewife into woman who throws off drudgery in favor of happiness.  Their romantic chemistry doesn't exactly shoot off fireworks, but both actors give deeply humane performances and elevate this junky fluff into something special. 

Werth: I don't know if Ernie gets Film Gab where he's at now, but I hope he knows how much happiness he brought to millions of movie lovers everywhere. Rest in Peace Mr. Borgnine

Wise: And thank you.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Universal Fun!

Film Forum is throwing a heck of a party for Universal Studios' 100th birthday! From this Friday, 7/13 until Aug 9th, New York City's premiere revival house will be showing some of the best films from Universal Studios' storied history, starting with two of the studio's most legendary films Dracula and Frankenstein (1931). We here at Film Gab will give you periodic recommendations for when our favorites are playing, so stay tuned to Film Gab! Carl Laemmle would want you to.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Movies You've Never Gabbed

Werth: Hiya, Wise.  Whatcha reading?  

Wise: Oh, it's an article in the July 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly discussing "The 50 Best Movies You've Never Seen."  

Werth: Of course you have to read on to find out they mean movies you've never seen that were made in the last two decades.  EW could at least try to pretend the world existed before hipsters roamed the Earth.

Wise: One of my favorites from the EW list is Cold Comfort Farm (1995) starring a teenage Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste, a society girl banished from her high-rolling city life who must make a new life for herself among her backwards relations.

Werth: Before it was remade into Party Girl

Wise: While there are some similarities to the Parker Posey classic, Cold Comfort Farm is actually based on the novel of the same name published by Stella Gibbons in 1932.  Both the novel and the film take advantage of the nostalgia surrounding 19th Century English pastoral novels, sending up the conventions and clichés so beloved by lit majors.

Werth: And sending the rest of us rushing for the Cliff's Notes.

Wise: While a background in the western cannon might tease out a few subtleties, just about anyone who survived high school English (or the 90's Jane Austen renaissance) will immediately appreciate the film's droll take on lusty farm hands, unsuitable society marriages, plodding suitors, verse-addicted girls given over to sylvan fantasies, dour preachers, and crazy old ladies in the attic.

Werth: Droll, plodding, sylvan and dour. It sounds like Jane Austen wrote that last sentence.

Wise: Even though some of the jokes are broad, the performances are incredibly precise.  The cast list includes some of Britain's most renowned actors, and each uses the skills honed on Shakespeare and those plummy BBC adaptations to make their roles totally authentic and totally hilarious.
Rufus Sewell does a lot of shirtless brooding; Ian McKellen's brimstone preacher has his sights set on celestial glory; Joanna Lumley dispenses madcap advice; Stephen Fry fumbles romance.
But it is Eileen Atkins who has the juiciest part as the doom-y matriarch of the family who must contend with the haunted lady upstairs, her lusty sons, and Flora's pert machinations to modernize the farm.

Werth: You had me at Joanna Lumley. There are definitely some interesting films on EW's list, but for sheer "nobody's seen it" magic, I am going to go back to a time when films weren't even in color.

Wise: When they saved all the color for the dialogue. 

Werth: 1950's Caged has re-appeared of late as a "cult classic," which is exactly why I went to see it at Film Forum a couple years ago. I figured a women's prison movie with Agnes Moorehead as the warden had to be worth some laughs.

Wise: Endora running a prison. What's not to like?

Werth: While there are definitely some good campy moments, what floored me was how astonishingly touching and dark this film is. Young Marie Allen (Sound of Music's own Baroness, Eleanor Parker) winds up in the clink for helping her no-good husband commit armed robbery. But this naive dope is all tears and remorse so a quick "reform-girl with a heart of gold" ending appears imminent. But Caged couldn't have made my jaw drop further.

Wise: Your jaw dropping in a prison movie. Too easy.

Werth: Marie is thrown in with a bunch of hardened felons and an even harder ward matron (the delightfully giant Hope Emerson). No peep-show shower scenes here, as the cast is positively ugly with their faces only slightly more grizzled than their souls. Marie is soon being subjected to the horrors of prison and more lesbian overtures than any movie I've seen of the era.

Wise: Except, of course, for Rebecca.

Werth: Any hope that the over-worked, but idealistic, warden (Moorehead) has that she can make a difference in Marie's or any other inmate's life soon withers and dies as prison life takes a hold of these women. Director John Cromwell does an amazing job of simulating "reality." 
The cast (with the exception of the ethereal Parker) looks like a casting-call for washed-up people, and Cromwell shoots the picture with the stark contrast of a noir, not always worried about showing everything. The performances are deftly large and subtle with both Parker and Emerson receiving Oscar nods for their work. Caged is one of those hidden gems that shocked and surprised me, and I can't recommend more insistently that Gabbers everywhere see it.

Wise: More insistently than EW recommends Hachi: A Dog's Tale (2010)?

Werth: Tune in next week for more flick recs from your friends here at Film Gab!