Friday, April 26, 2013

The "Ands" Have It

Werth: Howdy, Wise.  Whatcha writing?  

 Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  The new Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson movie Pain and Gain has me thinking about some of my favorite pairs: Fred and Ginger, peanut butter and jelly, vodka and ginger ale.  Some things are just better as twosomes. 

Werth:  As early as 1919's Male and Female, Hollywood has been pairing up great things with just those three little letters.  

Wise: Just think of Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Tracy and Hepburn, Wayne and Garth—the list is endless.  

Werth: My favorite "and" flick would have to be Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude. Harold (Bud Cort) is a melancholic teen who is obsessed with death. Whether he's faking his own suicide, turning a Jaguar into a hearse, or attending a total stranger's funeral, Harold matter-of-factly rebels against his stuffy upper-class upbringing and his socially rapacious mother (Vivian Pickles and yes, that's a real actress) by making death more interesting than life. When almost eighty-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) befriends him at a funeral for someone she doesn't know either, one of Hollywood's strangest couples is born.

Wise: Although her marriage to her screenwriting partner Garson Kanin evidently had plenty of quirks. 

Werth: Maude is like Auntie Mame meets Little Edie as she shows Harold the freedom that life offers by stealing cars, rescuing trees, smoking a hookah, posing nude for an ice sculptor and just generally doing whatever she wants. Harold, and we, are enchanted by this vivacious old gal and without even a moment of over-sentimentality, this film is one of the most life-affirming stories put on film. 
Ashby was a master of directing these strange comedies where the odd and the different wind-up being exalted in a way that makes them feel charmingly normal. Cort's face moves from dull stupor to impish glee with skillful ease, Gordon is energetically
kooky, and Pickles is hysterical as a mother who is so used to her son pretending to commit suicide that she will swim past his body in the pool as if it's not there at all. But none of these characters feel like they are too much. They are rooted so strongly in the reality of the world writer Colin Higgins has created, that we never doubt their strangeness.

Wise: I've been a fan of bodies in swimming pools since Sunset Boulevard

Werth: John A. Alonzo's camerawork is ingenious with juxtaposed shots of fields of daisies and a military cemetery visually hinting at an anti-war sentiment and gorgeous horizons that evoke Maude's credo to "L-I-V-E." The Cat Stevens soundtrack is worth a listen as well, perfectly pairing sad undertones with joyous guitar and piano. Harold and Maude proves you can make a funny and touching movie about Life and Death.

Wise: Life and death also figure prominently in another movie, this time based on the most recognizable couple in all of English letters: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Werth: "+"'s and and's are interchangeable, n'est pas? 

Wise: The filmmaker's unusual punctuation signals his desire to do away with heavily sentimentalized versions of Shakespeare's classic and inject a contemporary edge to the drama while still remaining faithful to the original play.  
This isn't Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer decked out in lacy Adrian threads; instead, Luhrmann pairs actual teenagers Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and exchanges Renaissance Italy for a late 20th Century battle scarred metropolis (the film was shot in Miami and Mexico City and enhanced with a lot of dust and wind machines).  
The elder Capulets and the Montagues head rival  corporations while the younger generations form gangs and battle over turf with their slick firearms cleverly branded "Sword." 

Werth: There's a gun control argument to be made here, but I'm too excited by the gunplay to make it.

Wise: The soundtrack is awash with hit acts from the '90s—Garbage, Radiohead, Everclear, Des'ree, The Cardiganswhich propels the action and lends rhythm to the scenes.  Luhrmann and his cinematographer Donald McAlpine use the camera agressively, zooming into closeups, swirling kaleidoscopically during action sequences or hovering tentatively in quieter moments, compelling the audience to pay close attention to what the actors are saying. Luhrmann also stages the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool, which sounds preposterous, but turns out to have been a brilliant transformation.

Werth: I like his use of an aquarium in the meeting of the two ill-fated heart-throbs. 

Wise: I have kind of mixed feelings about the movie as a whole.  A number of Luhrmann's decisions seem hopelessly dated (like DiCaprio's bowling shirts), while others feel just as fresh now as they did almost two decades ago.  
The central conceit placing the action amidst gang warfare can feel a bit forced at times, but Luhrmann's real strength is in drawing compelling performances from his actorsJohn Leguizamo is electric as hot-headed Tybalt, pouring his antic charisma into Juliet's short-tempered cousin.  Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino make suitable rivals as the heads of the Montegues and the Capulets, respectively.  
But it is DiCaprio and Danes who do the most compelling work, revealing both the passion of these young lovers and their childishness, a combination that proves tragic in the end. 

 Werth: All this talk of "ands" makes me think of my favorite pairing.

Wise: Joan Crawford and Pepsi?

Werth: Yesand next week's Werth and Wise.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Cuckoo for Cukor!

Werth: Hello, Wise.

Wise: Hello, Werth. Still basking in the glow of our weekend movie marathon?

Werth: Yes, and my cranberry sparkly cocktail.

Wise: It was great fun to watch the American Masters documentary On Cukor (2000) as well as one of his masterworks, The Philadelphia Story starring his frequent collaborator and longtime friend Katharine Hepburn.  Based on the Broadway smash by Philip Barry, the film opens with one of the most recognizable (and funny) scenes in all of screwball comedy.
Hepburn plays Tracy Samantha Lord, an imperious socialite from the Philadelphia Main Line, who divorces her first husband, playboy C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), and chooses self-made man George Kittredge (John Howard) as her next fiancé.  The nuptuals attract the attention of the tabloid press and with the help of Dexter, reporter Macauly Conner (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) finagle invitations under assumed names sparking a series of madcap adventures, revelations, and hijinks that eventually lead to happily ever after.  

Werth: Don't forget the drunken shenanigans!

Wise: After rapidly ascending the Hollywood ladder in the mid-30's, Hepburn's star had been somewhat tarnished by a series of misfires and flops at the end of the decade, prompting theater owners to label her "box office poison."  Hepburn retreated to the stage, found a hit in Barry's play, and with the help of then-sweetheart Howard Hughes, she purchased the film rights and brought the project back to MGM where she insisted that Cukor direct. 
It turns out to have been a savvy decision because his guidance helped her forge a performance that embraced both her somewhat prickly image as well as her more tender, romantic side.  

Werth: Not to mention directing Stewart to his only competitive Oscar win.

Wise: The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent.  Grant deploys all his usual charms, although he mutes his performance with a tinge of sadness, marking him as a heel who has seen the error of his ways.  Stewart also shows unsuspected facets of his personality, leavening his everyman quality with a romantic passion that makes him alluring to Tracy.  Cukor's hand is everywhere evident in the finished film, coaxing greater nuance from his actors and allowing the camera to linger on their faces, bringing the film's drama and humor into greater focus.

Werth: I found it interesting that On Cukor neglected to mention the long relationship Cukor enjoyed with film queen Joan Crawford. Starting with his pinch-hitting direction of 1935's No More Ladies, Cukor would direct Crawford only four times, but his work with her on 1939's The Women helped catapault Crawford into a new phase of her career, and started a lifelong friendship.
Crawford credited Cukor with helping her give more depth to her roles, and the Cukor Effect is on full display in their 1941 collaboration, A Woman's Face. A re-make of a 1938 Swedish film that helped launched Ingrid Bergman's career, A Woman's Face begins in a Swedish courtroom where Anna Holm (Crawford) is on trial for murder.

Wise: Sounds like Mildred Pierce meets the Swedish Chef.

Werth: Witness testimonies kickstart the flashback where Anna meets spendy playboy Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) as he struggles to pay his check at her restaurant, a Hansel and Gretel-esque setting with Anna as the waiting witch. We also see a fantastic makeup job as shadows and Anna's turned head are undone and we discover that half of her face is horribly disfigured.
The scarring is repellant and made more dramatic by the fact that we can still see half of Crawford's legendary face—a constant reminder of the beauty that might have been. Shunned and mistreated all her life, Anna's soul is as disfigured as her face, so she makes a living as a blackmailer and falls in love with the no-good Torsten.

Wise: I guess absconding with sopranos to the basement of the Paris Opera House was out of the question. 

Werth: During a blackmail touch gone wrong, Anna meets plastic surgeon Dr.Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) who decides to re-make Anna's face. Like a Pygmalion of the soul, Dr. Segert hopes that by restoring the beauty to Anna's face, he can restore the beauty to her conscience. But Anna is now torn between two men and herself. Crawford often played tough cookies who were bad because they'd been made that way. But in no other film is this theme given such graphic visual expression.
Anna is coarse, cold-blooded and, in one particular slapping scene, vicious. But we see the grisly reason why: Crawford's innate sense of "otherness" is given a physical reality, so when her face is returned to normal (if Crawford's unique features could ever be considered normal) Crawford gives a great performance struggling to undo the hard exterior she'd formed to protect herself and become a woman deserving of love.

Wise: If only Faye Dunaway had been half as successful in removing her horrifyingly deformed mask

Werth: Cukor was not usually known for thrillers, but the melodrama in A Woman's Face winds up going in that direction. Cukor made the unique decision not to include underscoring in some of the tensest scenes, letting the environmental sounds of a waterfall and jangling sleighbells give an eeriness to the proceedings.
It's not entirely successful, but A Woman's Face is clearly a warm-up for Cukor who three years later would make one of the best psychological thrillers of the Forties, Gaslight.  

Wise: We'll have to watch that one on our next Cukor Festival.

Werth: I'll get the cocktails ready. Film Gabbers, what director-focused film festival would you like to gab about?

Friday, April 12, 2013

It's Miller Time!

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  Have a piece of cake!  

Werth: Is it already birthday time again at Film Gab?  No wonder I can't fit into my Z. Cavaricci jeans.

Wise: Quit your bellyaching and put on these tap shoes.  It's Ann Miller's birthday.  

Werth: Why didn't you say so in the first place?  Make it a big piece of cake and I'll break out my dancing fan.  

Wise: Just be sure to leave some room for soup.  

Werth: All that's missing from that number is a giant saltine.

Wise: Miller's career really took off in the late 40's when she landed at MGM.  Her tough girl style and gorgeous gams injected a jolt of electricity into the sumptuous musicals produced by Arthur Freed, but few films take as full advantage of her talents as On the Town (1949).  The film follows three sailors on shore leave—Gene Kelly as Gabey, Frank Sinatra as Chip, and Jules Munshin as Ozzie—as they sing, dance and find sweethearts while exploring New York City.  
Miller plays Claire, an anthropologist with a penchant for prehistoric man, who eventually falls for Ozzie, while Chips falls for Hildy (Betty Garrett) and Gabey falls for the elusive Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen).  This was the first movie that Gene Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen, and his signature, muscular style of dancing infuses the film with the kind of aggressive exuberance that was so much a part of his persona.  

Werth: You say aggressive exuberance, I say unrelenting ham.

Wise: At Kelly's insistence, a fair amount of the film was shot on location in New York—most notably the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge—instead of recreating those landmarks in the studio, and, surprisingly, the juxtaposition of the real and the manufactured works incredibly well.  
Cinematographer Harold Rossen makes the city look like a picture postcard, transforming the streets and avenues into a fantasy landscape that blends seamlessly with the Hollywood sets.  

Werth: The one downside of shooting on location was the crowd of screaming fans that showed-up wherever Sinatra appeared.

Wise: The screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is full of zest and wit while highlighting each member of the leading sextet.  Sinatra shares a duet with Betty Garrett that manages to be both funny and touching, and Kelly leads Vera-Ellen in one of the dream ballets that were rapidly becoming part of his movie signature.  
But it's Ann Miller who steals scene after scene, not just with her top notch dancing skills, but with the incredible force of her personality as it bursts from the screen.

Werth: Before Miller was known for tap-dancing her way through scenery, she appeared in 1938's Best Picture Oscar-winner, You Can't Take It with You. Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning George S. Kaufman play of the same name, You Can't stars Jean Arthur as Alice Sycamore, a secretary who has a yen for her young boss, Tony Kirby (a pre-Mr. Smith James Stewart.) Their romance is running hot and heavy until Tony tries to introduce his upper-crust mother and father to Alice's bohemian family.

Wise: This is beginning to sound like the plot to a Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell flick.

Werth: Besides the fact that the Sycamore clan is a bunch of artistic, anarchist goofballs led by the folksy Grandpa Vanderhof (a usually seated Lionel Barrymore), their home is the last holdout on the block that Tony's dad (Edward Arnold) is attempting to buy out before demolishing it to make way for his new munitions plant. 
This makes for an uncomfortable dinner, made even more uncomfortable by sister Essie's (Miller) clumsy attempts at ballet in the living room. According to her teacher, Kolenkhov, "Confidentially, it steenks."

Wise: I'm sure Ann Miller mostly smelled of Jean Naté and shoe polish.

Werth: Social stratum collide in a courtroom and love has to find a way to overcome the gap between the haves and the have-nots all while Essie twirls and falls on the carpet. The little man versus corporate greed story was one that director Frank Capra made his stock in trade. 
He'd already won two Oscars for Best Director (It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and the Academy would add another one to his mantle for You Can't. Capra had a knack for kooky characters, like the denizens of the Sycamore home, and created supportive, tough communities on screen that resembled his ideal of America.  
You Can't isn't as compelling as Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), or It's a Wonderful Life (1946), partly because it feels preachy in a way that those other films don't. But it's still a great example of the successful post-Depression/pre-WWII films that gave cinematic voice to the political struggle going on in America, all while audiences munched away on their popcorn.

Wise: And on that note, I think I'll try to hunt down a video of Ann Miller with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies.

Werth: You're welcome. Tune-in next week for more fancy footwork here at Film Gab. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tea Time!

Werth is a featured guest writer about tea and cinema on the wonderful Tea Happiness blog!
Pour a cup and check it out!

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Gab Whisperer

Werth: Hi, Wise!

Wise: Hi, Werth!

Werth: Are you excited for the old classic that's returning to movie theaters this weekend?

Wise: Are you referring to The Evil Dead?

Werth: Yes... and Robert Redford's in a new movie too.

Wise: Oh, The Company You Keep, Redford's latest directorial effort where he plays a former sixties radical with a new identity who goes on the run when reporter Shia Labeouf begins sniffing around his past. 

Werth: Redford's been pretty picky about what film projects he'll do of late. His last trip to the big screen was 2005's stinker Lions for Lambs.

Wise: He also kept himself busy off-screen directing a film about the assassination of Lincoln.
Werth: One of Redford's films was assassinated in 1974. Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, the third film version of F. Scoot Fitzgerald's Jazz Age bible The Great Gatsby stars Redford as wealthy entrepreneur/con man Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as his long-lost love Daisy Buchanan. Going over the plot feels silly, since I know everyone had to read the book in high school, so instead I'll gab about how the film is as disappointing as a glass of bad bathtub gin.

Wise: There's no such thing as bad bathtub gin, just bad mixer.
Werth: I'm going to Charleston around the great books vs. movies debate by saying movies based on iconic literature can be successful if they either nail the visuals that the book evokes or re-imagine them. Gatsby does neither of these things. 
The parties and the people in Fitzgerald's novel are so vivid, that it's shocking to see that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shot everything with a bland, fuzzy wash that makes the entire picture look like a Seventies Olan Mills family portrait. Perhaps Slocombe was going for the idea that Fitzgerald's world was dreamlike, but what he winds-up with is a film that lacks visual depth. 
The party scenes shot on the finest lawns of Newport, Rhode Island, in particular, lack color and energy and evoke forced fun rather than a decade that is burning itself up with the ecstasy of champagne and short skirts. 
Floating about in designs by Ralph Lauren and Oscar-winner Theoni V. Aldredge, Redford and Farrow use their best assets to bring Gatsby and Daisy to life, but their screen personae get in the way of fully realizing Fitzgerald's doomed lovers. Farrow captures the child-like, dreamy quality of Daisy, but she doesn't bring the necessary mercenary flapper mentality to the screen. 
Redford looks the part of an unbelievably handsome man searching for something he lost, but Redford's frank, earthy qualities that made him a superstar in the late Sixties and Seventies clash with the calculating, dishonest enigma that is supposed to be Gatsby.

Wise: Gatsby's no Sundance Kid.

Werth: The film does have some bright spots. Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker is sultry and sensuous, like a frosty temptress who might melt you, but never herself. And Karen Black is perfect as Myrtle Wilson, her imperfect beauty and innate cheapness making this gas station mistress as tragic a figure as she should be. 
Clayton gets the visuals right for the Valley of Ashes and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg, capturing elements of the fantastic that exist in the minds of Fitzgerald's readers. But the green light at the end of Daisy's dock isn't bright enough to make this film the definitive depiction of The Great Gatsby. We'll see how Baz Luhrmann does with it.
Wise: Redford had better luck directing and playing the title role in The Horse Whisperer (1998).  As Tom Booker, a strong, silent type with a penchant for healing traumatized equines, he's called upon by Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), a New York editor who believes that his methods are the only chance her daughter Grace (a young Scarlett Johansson) has to recover from a serious riding accident.  
Annie and Grace move to Montana with Grace's troubled horse Pilgrim and embark on a journey of self-discovery.  Along the way and with Annie's help, Tom begins to address his own past traumas . 

Werth: Did he not get the pony he always wanted when he was a little boy?

Wise: The film never quite finds the correct balance between Tom's cowboy stoicism and the more emotional drama of Annie and Grace.  Still, there are some great performances, particularly by Redford who epitomizes male tortured beauty.  
Kristin Scott Tomas is fantastic in whatever she does, although she's hampered here by an unfortunate, although period appropriate haircut, that in retrospect makes her look less like hard-edged career woman and more like a Wilson Phillips superfan. 

Werth: Hold on for one more day, Kristin.

Wise: Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest have small, yet pivotal roles in the film as part of Tom's extended family.  Scarlett Johansson doesn't have much to do besides look sullen and haunted which she does adequately, but whenever the script calls for more emotion, she begins to perform something more like a Theda Bara impersonator, although without the subtlety. 
The main reasons to see the film are Redford and Scott Thomas's performances, plus the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson who captures both the harsh angularity of New York as well as the gorgeous yet forbidding Montana landscape.  The Horse Whisperer isn't one of Redford's best, but it does have an addictive quality to it that makes it a familiar pleasure to return to.  

Werth: Kind of like returning each week for a brand new Film Gab.

Wise: Wild horses couldn't keep me away, although too much Scarlett Johanssen might.