Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Big Screen in the Sky

We here at Film Gab are sad to announce that the wonderful character actress Eileen Brennan has passed. The wide-eyed, quirky Brennan got her start in television, but quickly made a name for herself in her first screen outing, The Last Picture Show (1971). She would go on to appear in such memorable films as The Sting (1973), Murder By Death (1976), Clue (1985) and would earn an Oscar nom for her portrayal of tough-as-balls Captain Lewis in Private Benjamin (1981). She was able to accomplish the great feat of creating memorable, funny characters without stealing focus from her co-stars. Today, our focus is on her long and versatile career.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Birthday Apocalypse!

Here at Film Gab we are a little obsessed with Classic Hollywood birthdays, and today, July 26th is such a goldmine of cake and ice cream, we couldn't stand to leave any star out. So put on your party hats and get ready to gab!

Blake Edwards- This wise-cracking director started off with comedies like Operation Petticoat (1959), but moved on to direct more complex films like Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). He's most remembered for the goofball Pink Panther series (he directed 6 of them, 7 if you count A Shot in the Dark (1964)) but Victor Victoria (1982) will always hold a special place in Werth's little drag heart. 

Stanley Kubrick- One of the greatest filmmakers of all-time (without winning a single directing Oscar) this native New Yorker turned ex-pat took the art of film iconography to new heights in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980). We here at Film Gab also think you should check out some of his less quotable works like The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Barry Lyndon (1975).

Kevin Spacey- Whether on the big screen or in the middle of the night in a London park, Kevin Spacey is the consummate actor. Starting with his breakthrough role in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Spacey has crafted complex male characters who are damaged goods, fighting to get ahead in this ratrace we call life. He got gold statues for his roles in The Usual Suspects (1995) and American Beauty (1999), but he's also worth checking out in Swimming With Sharks (1994), Se7en (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). While it didn't fly with audiences, his Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006) has the necessary camp and toupee chops.

Helen Mirren- While she happily displays her sex-bomb figure in the tabloids, Helen Mirren began her career doing serious theater, first in Britain's National Youth Theatre and then in the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has continued her theater work on both Broadway and the West End, while also appearing in films from kicky, teenage junk like Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999) to the Oscar-winning The Queen (2006). Other film roles include Gosford Park (2001), The Madness of King George (1994), Hitchcock (2012), and senior citizen spy series RED (2010) and RED II (in theaters now).

Sandra Bullock- Perhaps one of Hollywood's busiest actresses, Bullock shot to stardom in Speed (1994) playing a woman trapped on a bus rigged to explode by terrorists. Building on that success and on her girl-next-door persona, Bullock has played a wide variety of roles, from romantic comedies—While You Were Sleeping (1995), Miss Congeniality (2000) and Two Weeks Notice (2002)—to indies—Crash (2004) and Infamous (2006)—to her Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side (2009). Never one to allow glamour to get in the way of a good role, Bullock has managed to keep her relatable charm while becoming one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.

That should be enough Hollywood birthday cake for one post, but we'll be back next week for more cinema celebration here at Film Gab.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Ax to Gab

Werth: Hello, Wise...

Wise: Should I be more scared of the ax you're holding or the blouse and skirt combo you're wearing?

Werth: Women with axes are scary. Just ask today's birthday gal, Lizzie Borden.

Wise: Old L.B. is about to get the Lifetime treatment care of Christina Ricci.

Werth: Lizzie got some small screen attention care of Elizabeth Montgomery in 1975, but she's never sliced up the big screen like some other axe-totin' gals. In 1964, Joan Crawford "brought out the ax" in William Castle's chopped ham-fest, Strait-Jacket.

Wise: Which, unfortunately, did not feature Adrian-designed shoulder pads. 

Werth: Crawford is Lucy Harbin, a woman who has just been let out of an insane asylum after a twenty year sentence for chopping off the heads of her two-timing husband (a barely glimpsed Lee Majors) and his chippie. 
Lucy's young daughter Carol (a pre-Silence of the Lambs Diane "Love your suit" Baker) is anxious to help the mother she never knew and moves Lucy into the country home of her aunt and uncle. Carol hopes that surrounding her mother with a loving family and a bunch of chickens, will help her start a new lifeone free of brutal ax-murders.

Wise: I have a feeling that's not going to end so well.

Werth: Lucy seems tame enough at first, but once Carol gives her a makeover which consists of a form-fitting dress, a stylish wig, and a set of bracelets that can be heard a mile off, Lucy begins to not act her age. When Lucy practically dry humps Carol's fiance over cocktails, it's clear that Lucy might need a little extra time in the booby hatch. And once a shadowy figure starts taking the heads off of a nosy doctor and a lecherous handyman (George Kennedy) it's clear that this family needs to hide their sharp implements.

Wise: Except for the shovel.
Werth: Crawford by this point was enjoying a career resurgence thanks to her role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), but the roles she was being offered gave her little opportunity for serious acting. Films like Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970) were B-Level schlock at best, and are best viewed with a camp sensibility. 
But with all the outrageousness of the script and Crawford's  bigger-than-the-part persona there is a tinge of sadness. Crawford refuses to be in on the joke of how bad Strait-Jacket is. Her sense of professionalism (or obsession?) made her work just as diligently portraying Lucy Harbin inching her way from fragility to sanity, as when she played Mildred Pierce clawing her way through social classes and motherhood. 
The scene where Lucy flirts with Carol's beau could describe Crawford's cinematic existencean older woman fighting to be young and relevant, seducing men and an audience in the same determined way she always had. Crawford never stopped giving her audience the best she had, even if Hollywood had axed her long ago.
Wise: Women on the verge of a homicidal breakdown also feature prominently in So I Married an Axe Murderer (19993), the first film project for Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers after the success of Wayne's World (1992).  The role of latter-day beat poet Charlie Mackenzie landed in Myers' lap only after the role had been circled by Woody Allen, Chevy Chase, Albert Brooks and Martin Short.  

Once Myers was on board, the script underwent heavy revisions was tailored to his abilities, becoming more broadly comic and less about paranoia.  Afraid of commitment, Charley nevertheless falls for the demure Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher with a sister, Rose (Amanda Plummer), who's clearly off her rocker.  

Werth: Never date a butcher with a screwy sister.

Wise: Everything seems perfect until Charley begins to suspect that Harriet is actually an axe murderer.  His best friend Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), a bumbling cop with aspirations to be Serpico, tries to convince him that he's just getting cold feet.  His doubts barely assuaged, Charley goes through with the marriage only to face his worst fears on his wedding night.  

Werth: His worst fears? Imagine having to sleep with Mike Myers.

Wise: The film is full of flannel and Doc Martens, plaid skirts, coffee houses, bad music, and the kind of asinine humor audiences have come to expect from a particular kind of mid-90's SNL flick. But even with all the one-liners and sight gags (including an hilarious Phil Hartman cameo), there's still something deeply charming about the film.  
Myers is awkward and sweet as a twentysomething looking for love, yet still able to launch himself into the over-the-top funny in the dual role of Charley's booming Scottish father.  
Nancy Travis makes a lovely ingenue, but is sill twitchy enough to make the audience wonder if she might really be the wielder of the titular axe.  
The film was a flop at the box office, but gained a following once it was released on video because, one suspects, of the affectionate fun it pokes at the excesses of Generation X, who feared adulthood almost as much as Charley feared that axe.  

Werth: I fear my skirt is riding up. Hold my ax while I adjust myself.

Wise: Tune in next week for more cinematic slicing and dicing with Film Gab.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robotic Gab

Werth: Domo arigato, Wise.  

Wise: Oh, dear.  I hope we're not about to descend into some Paula Deen-style racial hijinks.  

Werth: I'm just making a reference to the 1980's pop tune as a way of nodding to the giant robots in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim which opens today.  
Robots found their way into films fairly early on in outings like 1919's The Master Mystery starring Harry Houdini and, of course who could forget the robot-chick in Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece, Metropolis (1927)?

Wise: It's like the best opium dream I've never had. 
Werth: If you prefer your robots on the more comely side, you couldn't ask for more shapely automatons than the ones in the 1975 camp classic, The Stepford Wives. Based on a book by Ira Levin (the same guy who wrote Rosemary's Baby) Stepford opens on the Eberhart family escaping New York City for a new home in the quaint town of Stepford, Connecticut. Joanna (Katherine Ross) is reluctant from the start, but accedes to her husband Walter's (Peter Masterson) desires to start a new life free of the stresses and acid rain of the big city.

Wise: And probably to get away from Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, too

Werth: It doesn't take long, however, for Joanna to realize that something isn't quite right in this picturesque town. The perfectly groomed, compliant wives of Stepford creep her out with their empty smiles and rejection of even the most basic of feminist stances. 
Her new friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and she begin to suspect the husbands of Stepford are doing something to their wives to make them the perfect models of Eisenhower-Era wifery, but that sounds crazy, right?

Wise: If mechanization worked for Swanson TV dinners, why not for the old ball and chain?

Werth: Stepford is the '70's answer to the classic Female Gothic genre of the '40's. Like a Rebecca in hip-huggers, Joanna has to question her sanity and whether she is in grave danger from her own husbandand men as a whole. The film is fascinating in how it challenges the notion of the "good wife" in the midst of the Second Wave of feminism. 
Feminist guru Betty Friedan famously decried the movie as a "rip-off" of the Feminist Movement, and perhaps that reaction came from the outlandishness of the story and the horrifying, yet strangely nostalgic ending. But director Bryan Forbes intended Stepford to be a reaction against the critics of feminism, and was surprised that the movie wasn't embraced by the feminist community. 
Unfortunately, the camp aspects of the dialogue, fashion, and acting (Prentiss' performance is so perfectly '70's it feels like she just walked off the set of the Mike Douglas Show) overshadow the serious points Forbes was trying to make. 
But when you have Tina Louise playing an over-sexed housewife (yes, that Tina Louise) and Carol Van Sant losing her shit over a recipe, you kind of forget about burning your bra.
Wise: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is another film that speculates about the relationship between man and machine.  In the early 1970's, Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights to Brian Aldiss's short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" and hired the author to write an adaptation, but delays and creative differences caused Kubrick to fire Aldiss, and the project lingered in development until Kubrick's death when Steven Spielberg, who had been attached to the film in various capacities for many years, was convinced to take on the project himself.  
Spielberg attempted to take on as many of Kubrick's idiosyncrasies as possible during production—banning press from the set, releasing only portions of the script to the actors, and requiring confidentiality agreements—in an attempt to capture the flavor of the film his mentor might have made.  

Werth: Did Spielberg yell at Shelley Duvall?

Wise: Haley Joel Osment plays David, a robot programmed to love, who comes to live with Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) whose son Martin has been cryogenically frozen for many years until a cure is found for his rare ailment. 
When Martin returns home, a rivalry develops between the robot and human boys.  Tricked by Martin into performing threatening acts against Henry and Monica, it is decided that David must be returned to the factory and destroyed.  But Monica has grown to love David, and instead she sends him away with his mechanical teddy bear in the hope that he will find companionship among the unregistered Mecha that live apart from humans. 
Determined to become a real boy, David sets off to find the Blue Fairy from Pinnochio, helped along by the mechanical prostitute Gigolo Joe (Jude Law).  

Werth: Traveling to see a mysterious being who grants wishes with a walking teddy bear and a metal hooker. All you need is some guy made out of straw and you have a trip to see the Wizard.

Wise: The film is incredibly beautiful, portraying a future Earth succumbed to global warming where sleek technology offers solace from the threatening natural world.  
Haley Joel Osment, fresh off his eerie success in The Sixth Sense (1999), is both endearing and slightly creepy, capturing precisely both the appeal and the terror of ever more lifelike mechanical beings.  
And Jude Law is incredibly magnetic, radiating not only his programmed sexual appeal, but also a growing tenderness toward David.  This being Spielberg, the film hits hard on his usual themes of childhood longing and the tentative—and sometimes prickly—relationship between humans and outsiders, but unlike the usual Spielberg, the film doesn't build to a satisfying conclusion.  
Perhaps burdened by his wish to be faithful to Kubrick's vision, the last third of the picture is increasingly messy, and instead of a rousing climax, he offers a wrenching metaphor about the perishability of love.  

Werth: If love doesn't perish during a two and a half hour runtime, nothing can kill it. So admit it, Wise. You have the Styx song stuck in your head.

Wise: No, but I am thinking of a specific dance move. Tune in next week for more Film Gab you'll never forget. 


Friday, July 5, 2013

The Hench-Backs of Notre Gab

Werth: Hi,Wise!

Wise: Hi, Werth! Are you enjoying your Fourth of July vacation?

Werth: I sure am. I even found the time to squeeze in a movie between all the burgers, potato salad, and vodka-spiked lemonade.

Wise: I hope you left room for cake.

Werth: The movie was chosen by my pre-teen niece and nephew so I had to watch Despicable Me 2. While I normally avoid the kiddie set, I did find the little green multi-character Minions to be charming enough to make it worth sitting in a theater full of pint-sized film critics.

Wise: Henchmen have often been the highlight of Hollywood films. From the tough guy goons in 1930's Warner Bros. gangster pics to the colorful and sinister assassins who are out to destroy James Bond to the Crazy 88s of Tarantino's Kill Bill 1 & 2, these dastardly adjutants bring humor and horror to their attempts to take out the hero.  But no henchman is as terrifying (and weirdly compelling) as the assassin Chigurh (Javier Bardeem) in Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of the Carmac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men ( 2007).  
A killer hired by an unnamed drug kingpin (Stephen Root) to recover $2 million from a deal gone wrong, Bardem brings the most terrifying dead eyes to the screen since Jaws.  

Werth: We're going to need a bigger pick-up truck.

Wise: Chigurh soon discovers that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a West Texas welder and Vietnam vet, has absconded with the cash and sets off in deadly pursuit.  
Moss barely manages to stay one step ahead of the killer, narrowly escaping a gunfight in a hotel room before trying to arrange a rendezvous with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) who tries to save his life by making a deal with the crooked, yet noble Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).  
The final confrontation is between Chigurh and Carla Jean whose terror and anguish have made her almost as soulless as her would-be killer, and thus makes her a worthy opponent.  

Werth: I find their showdown a little anti-climactic, but then it's not really the Coen Brothers' fault. The McCarthy book ending is equally deflating.

Wise: Saddled with a bizarre haircut and only a few terse lines, Bardem fashions menace from the ridiculous which is something of a specialty of the Coens, although Bardem manages to elevate the black humor into horror.  Chigurh is nothing to laugh at, and yet the Coens deftly employ their crack comic timing in creating this monster.  
Clowns and killers may be at opposites sides of the spectrum, but they both deal in surprise, sudden reversals and gut-busting flash.  Bardem and the Coens take full advantage of this connection, and make Chigurh into one of the most deadly, yet compelling henchmen of all time.
Werth: If I had to pick my favorite movie henchman it would have to be Marty Feldman's Igor from the Mel Brooks classic, Young Frankenstein. With his strange, googly eyes, Feldman found his way into television and film with a wicked sense of humor and sly sexuality. In his short career he starred in his own television show (1968-69) and such films as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and Silent Movie (1976).  

But it is as Dr. Frankenstein's (Gene Wilder) not-so-attentive henchmen that Feldman really makes his mark. Based on the script written by Wilder, Young Frankenstein is both an homage and a parody of the movie Frankenstein (1931) and all of its many sequels. 
The films opens on the young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein teaching a university class and  stumbling through a demonstration of nerve functions while also fielding questions about his infamous great-grandpapa.

Wise: Undergrads can be so nosy when they're not too busy getting drunk at frat parties. 

Werth: Frankenstein discovers that he has inherited his great-grandfather's estate and heads to Transylvania to see if he can figure out what his great paw-paw was up to. Igor greets him at the foggy train station in a strange hooded tunic and tights. Feldman cuts a disturbing figure, but he soon tosses out the old stereotype of the faithful, deformed servant by mocking his master, playing out vaudeville schtick and generally rolling his wild eyes at every opportunity, like Jimmy Durante with eyes a-bugging'. Feldman's ability to mock convention is perfect. 
His looks and his "What hump?" mentality poke fun at seriousness, making us question why Dr. Frankenstein (or anyone) could be so determined to do anything as monumental as creating life. 
Feldman is only one of a cast of characters who take their characters so seriously in a ridiculous way that the film feels less like a parody and more like a funnier realization of the source material. 

What Wilder and Brooks crafted was not just a deft homage, but a comedy that flaunts the hubris of the Frankenstein myth, bringing it down to earth with slapstick, Catskills-style reverie and an Irving Berlin tune.

Wise: Maybe a tap dance routine could have rescued a certain masked man at the box office. 
Werth: Wilder is ecstatic as the manic Dr. Frankenstein, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher needs only a pursed look to cause peals of laughter (and horse neighs), Kenneth Mars flings his arm around the set with reckless abandon as Inspector Kemp, Peter Boyle as The Monster is a scream, and 
Madeline Kahn as Frederick's anal fiance Elizabeth is nothing short of inspired. Her scene with Feldman where they first meet is an expert improvisation and watching the take where Kahn loses it is worth a look in the DVD's extras. 

Wise: So, Werth, are the idylls of Kansas tempting you to make a break from the isle of Manhattan? 

Werth: Boundless vistas, hot tubs, and firepits are tempting diversions. But I promise to make it back to New York for next week's Film Gab.