Friday, November 30, 2012

Britannia Rules the Gab!

Werth: Cheerio, Wise. 

Wise: Pip, pip, Werth.

Werth: It's good to see you already in your tweeds and mackintosh, ready to celebrate the birthday of one of Great Britain's greatest sons: Sir Winston Churchill.

Wise: Oh, actually I was inspired to get my Saville kit on because of my new Dame Judy Dench eau de cologne.  It's smells of violets and withering sarcasm.  

Werth: Whatever your reason, a celebration of British film is always in order.  The Revolutionary War may have separated our two nations politically, but nothing could sever us cinematically. 

Wise: Except possibly a second Brüno movie.

Werth: Nothing is more British than "Boy Wonder" director, Alfred Hitchcock and his film, The Lady Vanishes (1938). His second-to-last film shot in England before he came to our jolly shores is not as spine-tingling as some of his later knife-wielding fare, but what Lady lacks in scares, it makes up for in pure, English charm. Young playgirl Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is headed back to England to wed her dull as dishwater fiancé, when she befriends sweet little old lady Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) on the train.

Wise: Because air travel just isn't suitable for afgans, kittens and knitting.  

Werth: After a cup of tea in the dining car with her chatty new travel companion, Iris passes out—and when she awakens she discovers Miss Froy is missing. And when I say "missing" I mean nobody on the train remembers her ever being there.
The only person who semi-believes that Iris' Miss Froy ever existed is folkdance enthusiast and romantic lead, Gilbert (Vanessa and Lynn's papa, Michael Redgrave.)

Wise: I guess he boned up his investigative skills while dancing the mazurka. 

Werth: As Iris and Gilbert endeavor to find out what became of Miss Froy they find themselves entangled in a web of lies and intrigue that only the great Hitchcock himself could untangle. Film theorists have suggested the film is actually Hitchcock's wake-up call to England to stop appeasing Hitler and get ready for war.
But Hitch was never asked that question, so we are left to wonder if the camaraderie of all the English train passengers against the Italian and vaguely Teutonic villains (including a magician, a surgeon, a nun in heels and a highly-coiffed wife of the Minister of Propaganda) was political rhetoric or just good clean fun. But however you watch The Lady Vanishes, you are sure to walk away pleased by its generous helpings of Anglo appeal and who-dunnit-ry.

Wise: Sometimes a film that seems veddy, veddy British on the surface, is actually an American film in disguise.  Emma (1996), despite the Jane Austen source material and the cast jam-packed with Shakeaspearian thespians, stars Los Angeles-born Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular misguided matchmaker and was written and directed by Douglas McGrath who cuts his teeth behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live.

Werth: What? Roseanne Roseannadanna wasn't the cinematographer?

Wise: Originally conceived as a contemporary version of the Austen classic, McGrath decided to make a period film after learning that Amy Heckerling's Clueless was already in production. Still, the finished film feels very modern.  Paltrow's Emma, displaying a creditable English accent, spars both verbally and physically (they are both, somewhat surprisingly, ardent archers) with Mr. Knightly (Jeremy Northam). 
She also has a giddy flirtation with Ewan McGregor's Frank Churchill and is pursued by a very persistent Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton.  


Werth: I can tell you right now who would I would rather take to the Cock & Bull.

Wise: Although there are moments that feel more like a Laura Ashley catalog than like a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen, the film is generally a pleasure, particularly Paltrow's chemistry with Northam who displays a sly wit along with Knightly's requisite bluster. 
Toni Collette, who's great is just about everything she does, has a lot of fun as Harriet Smith, Emma's moony and readily manipulated friend.  

Werth: Nothing's better than being moony and readily manipulated.

Wise: Much of credit for the film's freshness goes to McGrath's energetic direction.  Obviously not bogged down by reverence for lugubrious period detail, McGrath manages the action with alacrity and wit, emphasizing the humor of the characters rather than replicating 19th Century manners. 

Werth: I think we should watch our proper manners, and thank all our Film Gab readers terribly, terribly much for reading and whatnot.

Wise: And bid them to return next week for crumpets and gab.

Werth: Indubitably.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Love, Marilyn

Film Forum has just announced that it is showing the new HBO Documentary, Love, Marilyn November 30th through December 11th. Documentaries about Monroe are nothing new, but this one is unique in that it uses her recently discovered letters to construct a personal view of the iconic Hollywood figure. It focuses not just on the usual images and film footage, but on her words—an idea that makes this documentary worth checking out.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanks-gabbing 2012!

Werth: Happy Post-Thanksgiving, Wise!

Wise: Happy Post-Thanksgiving, Werth! Are you ready to give our Film Gab readers a dose of tryptophan-laced movie thankfulness?

Werth: I am indeed—and it's not just one movie—it's 23 of them! 
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the film release of Dr. No (1962), and from his first screen appearance to this year's Skyfall, Bond, James Bond has been thrilling film audiences around the world. 
The Bond Formula is simple: Take one dashing English actor (Scottish if you like), add in a variety of scantily clad vixens (some on your side, some not), an ample dosage of scenery-chewing super-villains, a smidge of techno gadgets that can kill 
you while looking like 
something totally innocuous (don't get me started on the aqua-car from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)), and a pinch of spy-thriller action adventure, and you've got a Bond Movie.

Wise: Sounds like a much more appealing recipe than this crackpot desecration of Thanksgiving leftovers.
Werth: The Bond Films have always been an easy watch—and the change-ups in actors that played Bond have been a wonderful source of entertainment—not the least of which watching Bond geeks argue who the best Bond is.  
While this year's Skyfall puts Daniel Craig in the running for the top spot on that list, the movie also does something much more ingenious to the Bond formula—it adds depth. Most Bond movies move quickly from exotic locale to exotic locale with the stylish plot points speeding you towards the imminent saving-of-the-world ending with short stop-offs to get busy with a couple high-test hotties. 
But director Sam Mendes was not content to just follow that time-honored script. Skyfall starts off with an amazing adrenaline-infused Turkish car/train chase, but after Bond is "killed" Mendes works to explore this enigmatic character and his relationship with the boss he calls "Mum" (Judy Dench). 

Wise: Hopefully it's a bit less fraught than the relationship between Norman Bates and his mom.
Werth: It was really a shock to watch these iconic characters go a little deeper, and by the time Bond visits his old childhood home, we get the feeling that for the last fifty years, we never knew Bond. 
Mendes leavens thrill-ride-worthy action sequences with amazing, stop-and-take-a-deep-breath cinematography to make Skyfall feel like a fuller, richer, more "serious" Bond film. My lil' ol' cinematic heart is at odds with this, though. 
The film is great (it could stand a bit of editing to make it less time-consuming) but I wonder if a Bond film is supposed to be as deep as American Beauty
Part of the joy of the previous Bond flicks was that no matter how well (or not so well, Timothy Dalton) they were executed, they were just plain, old fun. We didn't have to worry about getting too emotionally involved with Bond, Pussy Galore, Blofeld or M. But we do here, and not since the ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) have I felt the need to reach for my Kleenex in a Bond film. 
And I'm not convinced I should have to do that. But I am convinced that Skyfall is a superbly unique addition to a film franchise that I couldn't be more thankful for.  

Wise: I needed a whole box of Kleenex to make my way through Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  A coming-of-age story about silent, awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman), whose best friend killed himself leaving Charlie to face the tribulations of high school stigmatized and alone.  Eventually, Charlie falls in with a crowd of misfits—including Patrick (Ezra Miller) who rides hell for leather into fabulousness and his stepsister Sam (a transcendent Emma Watson)—and eventually comes to realize that his social ineptitude is actually an asset.  

Werth: Like when I realized a perm and shorts with loafers were an asset.

Wise: While the novel is told in a series of letters to Charlie's unnamed confident, Chbosky, who also directed, wisely opened up the film by only using the letters as a frame and allowing Charlie—and the viewer—a bit more freedom from his neuroses. 
Most notably, a tragedy in Charlie's past which feels almost insurmountable in the book becomes much more manageable in the film by the respectful distance provided by the camera.  
The film also allows Charlie's friends to come much more vividly to life, particularly Miller's Patrick who is the first cinematic teen I have ever witnessed to embody both the frenetic joys of adolescence as well as the sorrows without indulging in caricature.  

Werth: What about Molly Ringwald?
Wise: The supporting cast is almost uniformly excellent, particularly Paul Rudd as a sympathetic teacher, and Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh as Charlie's concerned but loving parents.  Joan Cusack has a few good moments at the end of the film as a psychiatrist who helps Charlie face a painful revelation.  
Werth:Joan Cusack always has at least a few good moments in anything she's in.

Wise: The film is also a love letter to Pittsburgh and the pleasures of being a teen in the early 90's when there was a inkling that a good song on the radio and the opportunity to drag it up at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show might make high school bearable after all.  

Werth: The only thing that could have made high school bearable for me was knowing that I'd get to live in NYC and write a film blog with a brilliant wallflower like you.

Wise: And that's something for us both to be thankful for. Join us next week for turkey leftovers and more Film Gab!


Friday, November 16, 2012

Two Gabba Gabba

Werth: Happy Film Gab-iversary, Wise!  Our little celluloid-loving blog has just turned two!

Wise: Happy Gab-iversary to you too, Werth.  It's hard to believe that another year has passed, full of thrills, chills, and the eternal cage match between Joan and Bette.  

Werth: Joan would never put herself in a cage.  

Wise: And what better way to kick off a celebration of ourselves, except by revisiting some of our most popular posts from the past year, including one celebrating the birthday of one of Hollywood's biggest stars: Kirk Douglas.  There's nothing better than sharing some cake with a guy who looks great in a loincloth and whose talent is even bigger than the cleft in his chin.  

Werth: But we're not all about lantern jaws here at Film Gab because sometimes we get a hankering for the softer side of things, like dudes in dresses.  

Wise: Or the stranger side, like when we discussed Hollywood's oddball auteur David Lynch.  

Werth: Fun Film Gab fact: Kyle MacLachlan's tuckus is almost as popular among Film Gab readers as Julian Sands' rump.   

Wise: Talk about a celebrity cage match! 

Werth: One of the biggest defeats at the box office this year was Disney's John Carter, a sci-fi flop overstuffed with Martians, mayhem, and Taylor Kitsch attempting to act through his abs.  We had much better luck with our voyages with time and space traveling hunks.  

Wise: Of course we're not adverse to disasters, especially when it gives us a chance to revisit a modern classic like Titanic and plunge into shipboard romances of various stripes.

Werth: Maybe they would have had better luck forming a ragtag band of misfits determined to fight injustice instead of getting caught up in the pitfalls of romance.  

Wise: Some of the most enduring Tinsel Town romances are between celebrities and their political party, much like a certain tap-dancing tot or particular tough guy with brains and a penchant for fast-talking showgirls.  

Werth: We here at Film Gab have a penchant for great actresses, especially those with long and varied careers who aren't afraid to get a little pig's blood on their hands.  

Wise: So, Werth, are there any entries from the past year that you wish had attracted more readers?  

Werth: Well I'm still mourning the loss of gap-toothed classic Ernest Borgnine. A 61-year career in Hollywood deserves props... even with films like Bunny O'Hare on his resume. What about you, Wise?  

Wise: I'd have to say that our salute to Hollywood's funny ladies is one of my favorites.  It's just too bad that a giggly blonde never got a chance to share the big screen with a legendary fast-talking brunette.  

Werth: I know one silver screen pair that's destined for more laughs.

Wise: Join us for another rollicking year of leading ladies, Hollywood toughs, big budget bonanzas, gut busting comedies—

Werth: —And the finer side of Julian Sands.  


Friday, November 9, 2012

Gab to the Chief!

Werth: A very Presidential day to you, Wise.

Wise: A very Presidential day to you, Werth. It feels so good to have all this election mess behind us.

Werth: And if a Presidential election wasn't enough, Steven Speilberg is releasing his opus to Lincoln today.

Wise: An emancipator and vampire hunter. 

Werth: Presidential movies could almost be a genre unto themselves. One in particular that stuck with me was Oliver Stone's mother-of-all conspiracies flick, JFK (1991). Riding high from critical and box office successes like Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Stone decided to tackle the story of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison who in 1966, attempted to uncover the hidden details of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by trying local businessman Clay Shaw for his supposed involvement in the shooting.
What starts off like a documentary complete with Martin Sheen voice-over quickly becomes an involved murder-mystery with Kevin Costner as New Orleans' answer to Jessica Fletcher.

Wise: Does he ride a bike with a basket?

Werth: Soon the web of criminal lowlifes, gay hustlers, mafioso, Cuban militants, CIA, FBI and Pentagon Black Ops operatives ensnares Garrison and his crack team of investigators, revealing a confusing jumble of possible motives and participants in what was arguably one of the most significant events in modern American history.
Stone is fully invested in this tale that he's tellingand I am calling it a tale, because much of it is either unverifiable or has been disputed by various sources. On the one hand, this makes Stone look like a late-night public access television nutjob, but his cinematic exposé is so skillfully directed that it cannot be brushed-off so easily.
Stone cannily mixes documentary footage, traditional cinematic camerawork, and vérité-style recreations to give the appearance of visual truth to what he's saying. The flashbacks are dream-likehandheld camera and fast-cuts that make us feel as if we are remembering these fragments. It is a very smart technique that mixes the "truth" into what we are seeing, making us leave the theater with the feeling that we've discovered what really happened.

Wise: I'll bet it wasn't Colonel Mustard in the parlor with the third gunman. 

Werth: The film takes itself very seriously for over three hours. Costner's final "coup d'etat"-filled, patriotic appeal to the jury is painfullike a root canal performed by a civics teacher. But within this ode to paranoia and the essence of  America is a veritable who's-who of the best film actors from the Nineties.
The melange of Southern performances includes Sissy Spacek as Garrison's long-suffering wife; Joe Pesci as what is best described as a foul-mouthed grandmother with an ill-fitting wig and Joan Crawford scarebrows; Gary Oldman as marble-mouthed Lee Harvey Oswald; and
Best Supporting Actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones in a double-role as Shaw who is sanctimoniously butch while he is questioned, but an effete dandy in flashbacks where he paws Kevin Bacon and smokes a cigarette like Quentin Crisp.

Wise: Are you sure it was cigarettes that he was smoking?

Werth: JFK netted 8 Oscar noms including Best Picture and Best Director, but for Stone this marked the last time he has been seriously considered for either statuette. And if Stone has been haunted by this ill-fated president, so has Hollywood. 1992 saw the release of the Michelle Pfeiffer starrer Love Field about an unhappy Texas housewife who travels to the President's funeral,
Forrest Gump memorably (and digitally) met J.F.K. in 1994's Forrest Gump,  and Jonathan Demme has been reported to be involved in the screen adaptation of Stephen King's 11/22/63 about a man who travels back in time to try and stop the assassination.
Wise: Presidential assassinations must be irresistible to filmmakers because the crime unearths so much legal, political and personal drama.  In The Conspirator (2010), Robert Redford dramatizes the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who was accused of being part of the plot to assassinate Lincoln.  Defending her is young lawyer and Union Army veteran Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who only takes the case at the insistence of his mentor U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson delivering the requisite moonlight and magnolia as well as a certain noble porkiness)  

At first reluctant to take the case, Aiken is eventually convinced that a government plot is afoot to railroad Surratt to the gallows.  

Werth: Because every assassination movie requires a crusading lawyer.  

Wise: Despite a ragged beard and floppy bangs, McAvoy feels a bit anachronistic, particularly because of the obvious parallels the film makes to Abu Ghraib and and the prosecution of the current War on Terror.  The prisoners are shrouded by hoods, kept in dank cells, and denied a civilian trial.  
Kevin Kline plays sinister Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who manipulates events behind the scenes all in the name of providing stability in the face of national terror.  Director Robert Redford, who is almost as famous for his politics as for his storied film career, pays equal attention to both his historical and allegorical subjects, but has some trouble effectively weaving the two together. 

Werth: Speaking of weave, have you seem Redford's hair lately?

Wise: The best part of the film is Robin Wright's Surratt.  In addition to both looking and acting believably as a 19th Century woman, she also creates a stirring portrait of a mother who would rather face down an undeserved death than condemn her son to the noose.  
The rest of the cast is more or less successful: Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel have a few nice moments as Surratt's daughter and Aiken's fiancée, respectively, although Justin Long as one of Aiken's war buddies feels out of place despite his charms in other roles.  

Werth: It's hard to be a Mac Guy in the late 1800's.

Wise: Despite the title, the film never fully achieves the conspiracy-mindedness that can make this type of movie so satisfying.  Perhaps Redford tried to shoehorn too much nobility into the project and never allowed the secret dealings of either side to become truly unsettling.  Which is unfortunate because by neutering the plotters of their machinations, he robs the heroes of their virtue. 

Werth: Wise, I hope post-election exhaustion isn't going to rob me of your presence next week. 

Wise: I cannot tell a lie, nothing could ever keep me away from Film Gab.