Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fashion Makes the Gab

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  

Werth: Hello, Wise.  You look exhausted.  And what's with all the bags?  

Wise: It was Fashion Week here in New York last week, and I've been inspired to live with a greater sense of style.  So, I've been out shopping, trying to discover my very own je ne se quoi.  

Werth: And what have you found?  

Wise: That fashion is probably best left to the professionals and the teenage gazelles that inspire them.  Still, it's nice to look good, and when I can't afford the latest from Lanvin, I like to return to one of the style icons of the Silver Screen: William Powell in The Thin Man.  

Werth: You've sung the stylish praises of Nick and Nora Charles once before. 

Wise: Which is part of the pleasure of MGM's greatest detective duo: there's always another sequel to enjoy.  After the Thin Man (1936) begins a few days after the events of the first film as Nick (Powell) and Nora (the ever delightful Myrna Loy) alight from the train in their hometown of San Francisco, anxious to begin celebrating New Year's Eve. 
But first they have to overcome two obstacles: the crowd of unruly uninvited guests already jammed into their home and a last-minute invitation to dinner from Nora's strident Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph).  Once there, they discover that Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) is miserable because her two-timing husband has been missing for days.  Even her childhood sweetheart David Graham (Jimmy Stewart) can't seem to cheer her up. 

Werth: Maybe she should try jumping off a bridge and being saved by an angel.

Wise: Escaping Selma's tears (and Aunt Katherine's stultifying guests) Nick and Nora head to a nightclub where they find Selma's ne'er do well husband Robert (Alan Marshall) making time with a two-bit nightclub singer (Dorothy McNulty who later took the name Penny Singleton and provided the voice for Jane Jetson).  Robert recently convinced David to pay him off for leaving Selma, and when he turns up with a bullet in his back, Selma is the number one suspect, and Nick and Nora begin to investigate. 
Their search turns up an assortment of petty thieves, gangster lowlifes, stereotyped evil Asians, and a load of slapstick provided by Powell's tippling and their loyal dog Asta's not-so-loyal doggie wife.

Werth: That bitch.

Wise: As in the first film, the clues don't exactly lead up to the final revelation, but who really cares when the detectives are as charming as these? 
Not exactly a matinee idol, Powell and his tailor managed to transform him into one of the most debonair figures in Hollywood history: handsome, elegant, and charming no matter how much hooch he's poured down his gullet.  His trademark pencil mustache and swank double breasted suits with sharp lapels make him the epitome of style no matter the era.  And Myrna Loy, who began her career as little more than a pretty face, livens her beauty with crack comic timing, making her the fantasy wife of millions of moviegoers.  (She also gets to wear a jaw-dropping sequined gown that reveals plenty of décolletage and almost all of her back.)  Their pairing makes the perfect fashion statement, whatever the season.  

Werth: The fashion statement of Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (1998) would be a tad more overstated than Mr. Powell's. Set in the wild era of 70's glam-rock and after, Goldmine follows reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he tries to find out whatever happened to his rock idol, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) ten years after his 1974 feathery, faked assassination. The film becomes a glittery trip down memory lane as Stuart interviews an old manager (Michael Feast) and Slade's sycophantic ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) about the time they spent with the ego-maniacal performer.

Wise: So, sort of a disco-era Citizen Kane, only this time Rosebud's a Moog synthesizer

Werth: The timeline gets all jumbled as flashbacks collide and Stuart's own personal memories become intertwined with the saga of Brian Slade. The film's exploration of "otherness" and adoration is a mass of intense visual design, erotica, and fashion.
Sandy Powell's Oscar-nominated costumes bring the age back to vivid life with platform shoes and boots, boas, neckscarves, tight jeans, velvet jackets, and glitter adorning nearly every character, with the exception of when Ewan McGregor bares it all (and I mean all) on stage as the savage Curt Wild.

Wise: That's one rock show I'd pay to see.

Werth: Slade's show costumes are inspired constructions reminiscent of the creations from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period. Bowie himself pulled his support of the film when he realized Haynes was basing it on unauthorized bios of Bowie, but the resemblances to infamous performers like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and even Kurt Cobain are unmistakeable.
Goldmine feels like an extended music video at times, but then, looking back, perhaps that's the best way to depict that era. Haynes' focus on fashion goes beyond simple replication and celebrates the sense of identity, sexuality, and freedom that clothing can bring. So even if I wouldn't be caught dead in sequin-studded tights with thigh-high purple platform boots and a Louis XIV velvet jacket

Wise: You wouldn't?

Werth: Maybe for next week's Film Gab.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Romantic Gab-edy

Werth: Happy post-Valentine's Day, Wise!

Wise: Happy post-Valentine's Day, Werth. Did you do anything romantic yesterday?

Werth: I was too busy being overwhelmed by all the romantic movies that are out right now: Josh Duhamel and some blond girl in Nicholas Sparks' latest romantic schlock Safe Haven; a teen witch falls in love with a human in Beautiful Creatures; even a zombie gets impaled by Cupid in the zom-rom-com Warm Bodies.

Wise: Better Russell Stovers than trying to eat your date's brains. 

Werth: Romance and the silver screen have had a long affair—almost from the very beginning with the scandalous short The Kiss (1896). One of my favorite romantic comedies gave the genre a re-boot in 1959. Pillow Talk stars Doris Day as Jan Morrow, an interior decorator (they weren't desginers yet) who lives the single-girl life in New York City.

Wise: Sex and the studio-back-lot-version-of-the-city. 

Werth: Complicating her nights out with handsy Phi Beta Kappa boys and marriage-proposing clients is the fact that she can't use her phone because the man she shares it with (they were called party lines, kids... and the phones had rotary dials) is too busy wooing chippies with mediocre love tunes.

Wise: Now there's an app for that.

Werth: But what Jan doesn't know is that her unwanted phone pal, Brad Allen (handsome as all get-out Rock Hudson) has, through a set of coinicidences that could only happen in a Fifties Romatic Comedy, found out who she is and decides to woo her by pretending to be a visiting Texas cowpoke. 
With an accent that would make Hudson's character from Giant see red, Brad proceeds to sweep Jan off her feet to get back at her for putting a crimp in his bachelor lifestyle. What makes this film more intriguing than some of its corny predecessors is how it explores a freer sexuality while at the same time maintaining a sense of Fifties sexless decorum. 
Split-screen scenes with Jan and Brad on the phone take place in bed and even the bathtub, the two seemingly touching sudsy feet across the telephone line.

Wise: FaceTime on the iPhone just isn't nearly as alluring. 

Werth: Brad's swinging lifestyle—complete with living room switches that activate record players, mood lighting, extendable beds and a rape-tastic door lock—is smoothed out by the boyish charm that Hudson exudes. 
His scene where he tries to make Jan think he is gay is so meta in its depiciton of a gay man playing a straight man playing a gay man who's not really gay, that you can't help but sing "You Lied" along with Perry Blackwell. Day is pluckily prim as Jan, the sexuality she is smothering always ready to come flaming back to life for the right guy. 
Expert character work from Tony Randall as a millionaire mama's boy and Thelma Ritter as Jan's drunk maid add to the fun in this flick that is tentatively turning the corner of the Eisenhower Fifties to the Swingin' Sixties. 

Wise: Since then lots of films have aspired to the heights of the iconic Day/Hudson pairing, but one film aspired harder than most: Down With Love (2003) attempts to recreate the winking sexuality of its predecessors while also layering on its own winks to telegraph an even wink-ier level of camp

Werth: That's a lot of winking  

Wise: Renée Zellweger stars as Barbara Novak, a single gal and successful author of the titular tome advising women to forget love and enjoy a single life unfettered by the prim mores of the past.  Of course, this seditious talk brings the social and commercial life of New York to a grinding halt as women flee both their sweethearts and their Selectrics.  
The only hope for the city is caddish magazine writer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) who has a talent for the ladies and timely exposés.  Disguising himself as a chaste astronaut, Catcher attempts to turn the tables on Barbara by driving her so wild with unfulfilled desire that she'll admit to wanting a husband more than a career.  

Werth: I'd admit that to Ewan McGregor before the opening credits were through.  

Wise: The film's designers beautifully recreate the color saturated look of idealized 60's New York, particularly in Barbara's costumes and Catcher's swank bachelor pad.  
David Hyde Pierce turns up in the Tony Randall role as Catcher's fey and fumbling boss, and would have stolen the show had not the real Tony Randall appeared in cameo as Barbara's stentorian publisher.   
The plot is jam-packed with the kind of plot twists, missed connections and mistaken identities that once made audiences cheer for the inevitable coupling of Doris and Rock, but something about the pairing of Zellweger and McGregor falls flat.  
Zellweger's pout and determined squint seem a poor match to Day's pixie sharpness, and while McGregor fares better with his boyish charm, he lacks Hudson's broad-shouldered masculinity. Still, the film ends on a high note with the pair singing a swinging love duet that hints at the chemistry the two might have displayed in a film better suited to their charms.  

Werth: I hope all this talk about romantic movies doesn't give you a love hangover.  

Wise: Just a handful of leftover Sweethearts candy and a cup of joe and I'll be more than ready for next week's Film Gab.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Naughtiest Year Ever!

Film Forum is tipping its hat to the "naughtiest" year in Hollywood with a 4 week film festival. 1933 was the last year that Hollywood ignored the infamous Production Code, so many of the films contain blushable moments, sharp dialogue and controversial topics from rape, prostitution and suicide to the length of a gal's skirt.
Check out gems like Gold Diggers of 1933, Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, Baby Face, Footlight Parade, Duck Soup, She Done Him Wrong, The Story of Temple Drake, Dancing Lady, and I Cover the Waterfront.
On Monday, February 18th, Film Forum is giving an extra special Pre-Code treat with a reading of the notrious film Convention City, which is unfortunately a lost film.

It's a festival only Joseph I. Breen couldn't love.

A Good Day to Gab Hard

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Hello, Wisewait I'm getting this strong sense of déjà vu.

Wise: Because we do this every Friday?

Werth: Because I am yet again seeing Bruce Willis as NY detective John McClane running around shooting guns, dodging explosions and uttering variations of his famous "Yippe-ki-yay" catchphrase.

Wise: The fifth entry in the Die Hard franchise does open next week.

Werth: The day after Valentine's Day. 'Cause nothing says, "I love you" like a sequel.

Wise: Sequels are very often valentines to the original movies—attempting to rekindle audiences' passions by revisiting past cinematic loves—but other times a sequel transforms its predecessor, offering deeper shades to the characters and greater obstacles to overcome.  And few sequels succeed so brilliantly as Babe: Pig in the City (1998).  

Werth: My favorite pork-related sequel happens to be bacon.

Wise: The first Babe (1995), one of the rare kiddie flicks that became a critical darling as well as a worldwide blockbuster, follows the adventures of the titular pig who escapes his smokehouse destiny, overcomes his insecurities and, with the aid of the other farm animals, becomes a champion sheepdoger, pig. 
The second film makes a sly nod to its predecessor's success by showing Babe (E.G. Daily taking over for Christine Cavanaugh) so puffed up by triumph that he causes an accident endangering the life of Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) and driving the farm into bankruptcy.  

Werth: I'm still thinking about bacon...  

Wise: In an effort to raise money, Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) journeys with our porcine hero to an unnamed metropolis where she hopes to capitalize on Babe's fame.  A series of mishaps lands the pair in a (literal) fleabag hotel where things go from bad to worse, and Mrs. Hoggett winds up in jail while Babe leads a breakout from an animal testing lab. 
The plot sounds grim (which is part of the reason why the film flopped at the box office), but the characterizations by the voice actors (particuarly Danny Mann's Ferdinand the Duck) and George Miller's deft direction and nimble screenplay (skills honed on the Mad Max franchise) focuses attention on the characters' heroics rather than their troubles. 
Plus, the film is packed with so many oddball delights like Dean Martin-obsessed mice; operatic cats; the doomed romance between a floozy poodle and a pitbull; a morose orangutang; as well as Mickey Rooney playing a mute clown.  

Werth: It must have been difficult for him to chew the scenery with his mouth shut.  

Wise: The film is definitely strange, but it's a gem, transcending its kiddie origins to make thoughtful arguments about morality and mortality without ever descending into the hammy.  

Werth: My favorite sequel belongs to a film franchise that has re-invented itself not once but twice. Now spanning 12 movies (if you count this summer's Into Darkness) the Star Trek film juggernaut just keeps living long and prospering. But with all the different captains, and timeline verisons of captains (don't ask) my favorite of the Trek series has always been Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Wise: And not just because of the fine Corinthian leather

Werth: Released after the TV series made its leap to the big screen in 1979 under the direction of Robert Wise, Khan continues the story of the crew of the starship Enterprise by re-visiting an old episode from the original series.
Khan (Ricardo Montalban) is a 21st Century genetically engineered super-criminal who was marooned on a planet by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) fifteen years ago, and he is pissed.
When he gets his chance to escape with a planet-destroying/creating weapon, he goes after Kirk and the Enterprise with a vengeance that can best be described as obsessive.

Wise:Eerily similar to the way Kirk obsesses over alien babes. 

Werth: What makes this movie so much more than Trekkie fodder is how director Nicholas Meyer creates a wonderful balance between special-effects-laden space battles and flesh and blood characters. Shatner's typical bravado gets a kick in the balls as he realizes he is getting old. 
His deep friendship with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) takes on a focus that is the apogee of a relationship we've watched grow for years. His scenes with Nimoy expose the scared and unsure man behind Shatner's posturing and campy line readings, giving depth to a character that was previously little more than an "overgrown Boy Scout." 
But in case this is all sounding too serious for you sci-fi fans, Montalban's Melville-quoting Khan outcamps Kirk with a glee that rivals the best Bond villains. Khan may be a Star Trek movie, but it is a sequel that transcends its own geeky predecessor... and reminds us of the dangers of earwigs.  

Wise: Just hearing about earwigs makes me shivver.  

Werth: Get some earplugs and make sure you're around for next week's Film Gab. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

When Nature Attacks!

Wise: Werth, I found it!  

Werth: What?  All the Oz: The Great and Powerful merch you've been trolling Toys 'R' Us and the Disney Store for?  

Wise: Not yet, but I did find a movie I've been hunting for years.  Back in the 80's, Superstation TBS used to program "Friday Night Frights," an anthology of all the best—and maybe I mean worst—horror films of the disco era that showed classics like the original Piranha (1978) and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978). 
Werth: I love a good killer animals flick! 

Wise: I'm not a fan of scary movies, but as a kid I used to sneak downstairs to see how far past the opening credits I could last.  Most nights I was scurrying back to bed within minutes, but one film had me hooked.  This was long before the age of the internet, and if you missed the title of a late night movie, you could wait years hoping someday you'd stumble across it again.  And all I could remember about this flick—aside from my own abject terror—was that it was told in three parts and involved killer cats enacting revenge.  

Werth: Oh, you mean Cat's Eye (1985).   

Wise: Actually, Cat's Eye was the stumbling block to my search because it has a similar structure and theme.  And because it was written by Stephen King and starred a young Drew Barrymore, it had a level of fame that obscured the film I was looking for.  But thanks to YouTube and an overlong search for cute kitten videos that turned down a dark alley of cat attacks caught on tape, I found my prize: The Uncanny (1977).  

Werth: Dark alleys and pussycats. Your therapist is gonna have a field day.

Wise: Peter Cushing plays a milquetoast sci-fi novelist who has made the terrifying discovery that cats are really an alien life form bent on human destruction, and ventures to his publisher's (Ray Milland) house late one night to discuss three examples of feline perfidiousness.  In the first, a housemaid kills her wealthy mistress 
(Joan Greenwood) in the hope that she and the woman's ne-er do well nephew can collect the inheritance and marry, only to be mauled by the old lady's cats.  In the second, an orphan uses witchcraft to punish her aunt and uncle for disposing of her cat.  
And in the third, an actress murdered by her husband is avenged by her cat.  The film is pretty schlocky with deep shadows to cover the cheap sets and most of the cat wrangling is just about as terrifying as a commercial for Fancy Feast—but the score by British TV vet Wilfred Joshephs is spine tingling, and whoever designed the sound effects of cats shredding human flesh either deserves an Oscar or a long rest in tightly locked sanitarium.  

Werth: All this late night, animal terror talk reminds me of one of my favorite horror moviesThem! from 1954. 

Wise: Is that the prequel to Us!?  Or the sequel to Object of the Proposition!?

Werth: Them! is the first US "giant monster" flick and actually came out the same year as Godzilla. But the two movies are very different. Where Godzilla revels in showing a giant rubber costume stomping on Japanese cities and lots of Japanese people running and screaming, Them! starts small in the barren, beautiful New Mexican desert. 
A young girl clutching a battered doll is found wandering in a somnambulist state, unable to tell kindly Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) what has happened. Peterson finds out soon enough as they come upon the shredded remains of the mobile trailer of her parents, the body of the eviscerated trailer standing in for bodies of her parents that aren't there. The only clue is a pile of sugar.

Wise: Maybe they were baking a cake.

Werth: It doesn't take long for the intrepid sergeant and FBI agent Robert Graham (the ever-so-tall James Arness) to stumble upon an unbelievable discovery. The atom bomb tests at White Sands nine years ago have created a colony of giant ants, and with the help of ant know-it-all Dr.Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn sans Santa whiskers) and his assistant daughter Pat (Joan Weldon) this brave team attempts to save the world from being wiped out of existence by a species that is just as vicious as we are.

Wise: But maybe not Michael Musto.
Werth: What is so timeless about Them! is how it thrills and scares by not showing us the giant villains. The strange trill-like sound they make crescendos on the wind, making us imagine the terrible creatures several times before the mostly believable monsters are shown. What Them! gets right is how to scare us by hiding what we're up against. These monsters don't stomp on cars and eat radio towers on a sunny day in front of a lot of tourists with their Kodachromes.  
They lurk in the sewers, taking their victims at night, remaining hidden. The warning about the unseen dangers of messing with nature's tiniest element, the atom, is not lost amongst the sci-fi plot and car-sized, wiggily six-legged creations of what is still today, a genuinely scary movie.  

Wise: Ugh!  I'm not sure I'll be able to sleep tonight.  

Werth: Buck up, Wise.  Just count Oz water bottles until you fall asleep and meet back next week for more Film Gab.