Friday, May 31, 2013

When Disaster Gabs

Wise: Werth, where's your life jacket?  

Werth: With my yacht. 

Wise: It's the anniversary of both the launch of the Titanic and the Johnstown Flood which makes it highly probable that something disastrous is going to happen today.  

Werth: You can't avoid disaster, Wise.  But you can prepare yourself by indulging in some classic disaster flicks and gleaning some tips for making it out alive.  

Wise: San Francisco (1936) is one of the first great disaster flicks, setting the template for all the films that follow its lead.  The film opens on New Year's Eve 1904, and stars Clark Gable as Blackie Norton, a casino owner from the wrong side of town, and Spencer Tracy as his best friend Father Mullin who happens to be the local parish priest.  Blackie has no time for religion, but he is determined to spend his wealth trying to make things better for anyone down on his luck.  After a fire ravages a run-down boarding house, Blackie offers a job to displaced chanteuse Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) who has dreams of singing in the local opera house.  
Soon, the two fall in love, but Mary flees into the arms of Jack Holt (Jack Burley), the richest man in town, when she realizes that she'll lose good-girl image if she becomes Jackie's bride.  What she doesn't know is that her new beau made his fortune building shoddy tenements, leaving the city vulnerable to catastrophe. 

Werth: Never date a contractor.

Wise: When that catastrophe strikes in the form of the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1905, the city is thrown into chaos and only those with quick wits and good morals survive.  Gable plays a variation of his famous tough-guy persona, but he's also a man on a spiritual journey.  
Contemptuous of religion, the tragedy forces him to confront both despair and the threat of losing the two people he loves most.  Cast in the familiar role of the understanding clergyman, Tracy has less of an emotional arc, but his palpable chemistry with Gable makes them believable lifelong friends.  MacDonald was the biggest star of the three at the time of the film, and it's interesting to see how MGM's star diva stepped away from the operettas for which she was famous and into a grubby, frontier town.  

Werth: "As she stood in the ruins and sang. A-A-And saaannnggg!"

Wise: To be honest, for years I thought San Francisco was something of a joke, based mostly on the fun Judy Garland made of it when she sang the title song.  But it's actually quite moving, full of the spectacle and big emotions that have become characteristic of this type of film.  Nothing about it is subtle, but it's full of passion, of Clark Gable's snarls and tenderness, of Spencer Tracy's wry morality, and the peculiar—yet compelling—sight of Jeanette MacDonald stooping to a project she clearly felt beneath her, but still having a grand time.
Werth: San Francisco must be ground zero for cinematic disasters because Irwin Allen's hit epic, The Towering Inferno (1974), is also set there. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) is ready to leave the rat race behind after designing a 138 story skyscraper for building guru Jim Duncan (William Holden.) 
But he soon uncovers some shady building practices that Duncan's son-in-law, the corner-cutting queen Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain in a rare unlikeable role) has been implementing to lower costs and pocket kickbacks, threatening the safety of the building. Unfortunately, while a red carpet opening event is in full swing on the top floor, an electrical box in a storage room that just happens to contain buckets of flammable material, a wall of Krylon spray-paint cans, and what looks like someone's discarded wedding dress bursts into flame and an evening of blazing terror in the world's tallest building begins.

Wise: Shelley Winters' swim team gold ain't gonna fix this mess. 

Werth: After striking box office gold with The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, Allen stuck to his hit-making blueprint and stocked Inferno with just about every star in Hollywood. Aside from Newman and Holden, there's Steve McQueen as tough-as-nails Fire Chief O'Hallorhan; Faye Dunaway as Roberts' over-sexed wife; Fred Astaire as a dapper, washed-up con man; 
Jennifer Jones as an art tutor with cheek implants that would make Madonna jealous; Robert Wagner as an executive who dips into the secretarial pool; and even O.J. Simpson as a take charge security officer who can't resist rescuing a kitten.

Wise: Making this scene the most ironic in Hollywood history. 

Werth: All of those stars certainly attract attention, but unfortunately, there are too many of them to allow much character development. Newman and McQueen mix up a welcome testosterone cocktail whenever they are together, but for the most part the fragmented stories don't allow for the cohesion that Allen achieved in Poseidon. Inferno is too complicated and too cynical to achieve the heartfelt catharsis of its predecessor, but that doesn't stop it from being a hoot. 
Like a cinematic flume ride, Inferno flies through its sometimes ridiculous plot providing the audience with the thrills it desires—mainly stars (and extras) screaming, falling and burning... in a couple cases all three at the same time. 
While it falls short of the heights achieved in Poseidon, Inferno earned eight Oscar noms, winning three—including one for best song, "We May Never Love Like This Again" which, if you think sounds familiar, it's because it was both written and sung by the same folks who brought you the Oscar-winning song from Poseidon, "The Morning After."

Wise: With all this talk of disaster, maybe we should check out this week's premiere of After Earth.

Werth: I'd rather sit through the San Francisco earthquake... on fire...

Wise: Check back next week for more earth-shaking Film Gab!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Summer-Gab, Summer-Gab Sum-Sum Summer-Gab

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  It's Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of summer.  Do you have your flip flops, towels and sunscreen ready?  

Werth: Um, don't you mean my mosquito repellant and travel wine?  

Wise: I forgot that while I'm taking in some seaside sun, you'll be headed to the mountains.  But there's one thing we can always agree on: Great Summer Movies!

Werth: My pick this week might have been great, but too many choice ingredients made Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) a sweaty hodge podge of a movie. Suddenly's pedigree certainly pointed towards greatness. You could have swung a dead cat and hit a legend. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a script written by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, and starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge, producer Sam Spiegel must have smelled Oscar gold. But his nose would wind-up smelling something less fragrant.

Wise: Maybe that dead cat you're swinging around. 

Werth: Suddenly opens in the moist setting of New Orleans where brain surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) is summoned for an audience with hospital benefactress and all-around rich bitch, Violet Venable (Hepburn). Venable descends in a two-floor elevator to tell the good doctor that she will give money to his failing hospital if he retrieves her niece Catherine (Taylor) from a nun-run mental institution and promptly give her a lobotomy so she will stop saying crazy things about Venable's beloved dead son, Sebastian. 

Wise: Because nothing says "I love you" more than severing the frontal lobe. 

Werth: As Venable gives Cukrowicz a tour of the Eden-ic garden that her son designed, we get the sense that Sebastian and his mom were a little too close for comfort. And when Cukrowicz meets Catherine to find not a raging lunatic, but a fragile, willful beauty who has been shocked into amnesia regarding Sebastian's mysterious death, Cukrowicz smells something fishy. It doesn't help that Catherine's own mother (McCambridge) urges her to get the lobotomy so that they won't be written out of Violet's lucrative will. 

Wise: I'm sure that fishy smell wasn't her White Diamonds perfume. 

Werth: Cukrowicz of course falls in love with Catherine because it's impossible not to fall in love with the luminous, young Elizabeth Taylor, and has a final showdown in front of the family where a little sodium pentothal reveals what really happened to dear Sebastian... kind of. 
The ending of Suddenly was as ripe for parody as it was for head-scratching and contributed to the overall sense of audience and critical confusion about the film. The offscreen history probably didn't help. Clift was still in recovery from a car accident that messed up his face and found it difficult to perform long takes. Mankiewicz was rumored to have been so cruel to Clift, that at the end of shooting, Hepburn spit in Mankiewicz's face. 
And troubles with the Production Code meant Williams and Vidal (but apparently entirely Vidal) had to write the script so it dealt with incest, cannibalism and homosexuality without pissing off the Legion of Decency. The film wound-up garnering Oscar noms for Hepburn and Taylor and for the art and set design of Sebastian's gothic garden. But overall, this summer film landed in the winter of Hollywood's discontent.

Wise: Summer Stock (1950) is not Judy Garland's best film, but it may be her sunniest.  As farmer Jane Falbury, she reluctantly allows her younger sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) to bring a theater troupe to stay at the farm to rehearse a new show; in return, the actors promise to lend a hand around the struggling farm.  The director of the troupe, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly), notices Jane's singing and dancing talent and encourages her to perform in the show the troupe is rehearsing, 
much to the chagrin of Jane's stodgy fiancé Orville (Eddie Bracken) and his even stodgier father Jasper Wingait (the always wonderful Ray Collins).  The town fathers attempt to drive off the theater folk, but eventually cooler heads—and some swinging dance numbers—prevail.  

Werth: Dance numbers always prevail.

Wise: The plot may be silly, but Summer Stock is chock full of great music and performances.  Kelly performs a career defining solo in a darkened barn, using a creaky board and an old newspaper as props.  The concept doesn't sound very promising, but Kelly's ability to transform the ordinary into something transcendent became part of his signature style. 
He and Garland share one of their best dance duets in "Portland Fancy" by turning an old folk tune into swing.  Phil Silvers has some fun comic moments as Kelly's sidekick, but the best laughs go to Marjorie Main as Garland's housekeeper.  

Werth: Don't forget handsome MGM musical chorusboy Carleton Carpenter. He's a delightful gentleman who can add old school glamor to a night at Marie's Crisis.

Wise: In some ways, it's surprising that Summer Stock is Garland's last film at MGM, the studio that had nurtured (and occasionally tortured) her from adolescence and into stardom.  She sings with gusto and brings both her crack comic timing and her tender vulnerability to a role that was designed to be an easy fit after her spectacular flame-out in the preparation for Annie Get Your Gun.  But off-screen, all the familiar problems plagued the production, and once the shoot was over, Garland and MGM parted ways.  
Even so, Summer Stock contains some memorable performances, including an impeccably timed number on a tractor and the legendary "Get Happy" which proved that Garland could sizzle hotter than the August sun.  

Werth: All this talk about summer is making me want to turn on my AC and strip down to my unmentionables.

Wise: Tune in next week for more fun in the sun with Film Gab!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Das Re-Boot!

Werth: Oh, Wise...

Wise: Yes, Werth?

Werth: I was just sitting here with my tri-corder and adhesive Spock ears thinking about all the re-boots that have been happening of late. 

Wise: There are a lot. Along with the hugely successful J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise, there's Batman, Spider-Man, Superman—

Werth: The Alien quadrilogy got a new "beginning" with Prometheus—

Wise: Arthur got a new look care of Russell Brand—

Werth: And then there's the Psycho prequel on A&E.

Wise: Speaking of Hitchcock there's talk of a re-make of his 1940 classic Rebecca.

Werth: All these re-makes, re-boots and prequels make me wonder what Hollywood classic I would re-imagine if I ran the world.

Wise: The first film that pops into my mind is not a classic, but it is based on a classic fantasy series for teens. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series combines Arthurian legend, mysterious villains, compelling (and distinctive) young heroes, and the supernatural to depict the eternal battle between the forces of Light and Dark. In a world where Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are smash hits in both the bookstore and the multiplex, Cooper's beloved series should prove irresistible to filmmakers. 
Unfortunately, that allure proved tempting to the wrong people resulting in the cinematic mishmash The Seeker (2007).

Werth: I want to name my first baby Mishmash.

Wise: Based on the second book in the series, the film follows Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) an American teenager living in rural England who discovers that he is the latest in a long line of warriors destined to battle the forces of the Dark led by The Rider (Christopher Eccleston).  
Helping him in this quest is the mysterious butler from a nearby manor Merryman Lyon (Ian McShane) as well as the lady of the manor Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy) who teach Will how to use his powers and instruct him in his mission to discover The Six Signs before the Dark forces can use them to destroy humanity.

Werth: Sounds like Downton Abbey meets Harry Potter. 

Wise: While film adaptations are necessarily different from the books upon which they are based, director David Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge overlarded The Seeker with superfluous teen angst, distracting family dysfunction, gory action sequences, and even bastardized major plot points from Cooper's novels.  
They changed the hero's age, his nationality, and even shoehorned in a band of vikings when they found themselves unable to capture Cooper's foreboding tone. Fans of the books (and the author) cried foul and audiences not familiar with the series couldn't make sense of what they saw on the screen, and the lack of support from both corners made the film a flop. 
Which is a shame because the books still cry out for a more faithful adaption, perhaps directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has a way with fantastical dread, or Alfonso Cuarón, who recognizes the mystical power of childhood. 
Returning to the books' late 1960's setting would also assist the portrayal of world at the cusp of good and evil, as would returning Will to his preteen age in the books instead of making him a moody teenager. Perhaps the best thing about The Seeker is that is provides a useful template for any future filmmaker of exactly what not to do.

Werth: Another template for what-not-to-do is cinematic stinker Barbarella (1968). Jane Fonda went against the light romantic comedy roles she was previously associated with to star as Barbarella, a sexy space agent who is on a mission to save the universe.

Wise: It couldn't be anymore ridiculous than Monster-in-Law.

Werth: Barbarella crash lands on an alien planet while looking for missing weapons developer Durand-Durand whose positronic ray could be used as a dreadful weapon to throw the whole universe back into a war-like state. As she hunts for the elusive scientist she is attacked by toothy dollies; has sex with a man in a fur suit; is saved by a blind, half-naked winged guy; has sex with the blind, 
half-naked winged guy; is attacked by a room full of cockatiels; has hand sex with a befuddled revolutuionary named Dildano; is sexually tortured by a musical organ—


Wise: I'm sensing a trend here.

Werth: Jane is very busy in this movie. Filmed by her then husband Roger Vadim, it seems plotted solely to give opportunities for Fonda to be naked and/or have her clothes torn off. Jane looks fantastic. But even her sexy, zero-gravity striptease can't keep this film from being pure spacejunk. The film is based on a French comic book which probably loses something in the translation.
The film takes the obvious road of spoofing the sci-fi genre instead of liberating it by more fully developing its female heroine. The polystyrene sets, the costumes that would make Cirque de Soleil cringe, and the pedantic dialogue are successful only as campy Sixties send-up.
Vadim misses the opportunity to make Barbarella a culture-clashing heroine who can save the universe with guile, sharp-shooting, and style instead of what amounts to a space-age bimbo who screws her way out of every predicament.

Wise: Just like you in the old days.

Werth: I think a smart director who can respect the genre while at the same time re-inventing it (Joss Whedon immediately comes to mind) would be perfect to re-boot Barbarella. Lord knows action/sci-fi flicks that require a lot of CGI are de rigeur these days.
You could get Emma Stone to play Barbarella, Channing Tatum to play winged hottie Pygar, Steve Carell as Dildano, and Jane Fonda could even appear as The Great Tyrant to lend some nostalgia to the proceedings. Trust me. Today's Hollywood couldn't do any worse than the molten canola oil villain Matmos that's in the original.

Wise: Careful, Werth. I think one of your Spock ears is coming unglued.


Werth: I'm getting over-heated. Would you hand me that bottle of spirit gum?

Wise: Tune in next week to see what sticks on Film Gab!

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mother of All Page to Screen Blogs

Werth: Twenty-three Skidoo, Wise.  Have some bathtub gin and let's toast the opening of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby by gabbing about literary adaptations from page to screen.  

Wise: Um, don't you mean, let's put on old bathrobes and have lumpy pancakes in bed?  

Werth: Are you hungover?

Wise: It's Mother's Day on Sunday, and shouldn't we be celebrating the ladies who make it all possible?  

Werth: Let's compromise and do literary mothers on the big screen. 

Wise: I'm all for that, as long as it doesn't turn into a glam rock disco anthem.

Werth: This means I will have to discuss the biggest mommie book turned into a movie of all time. Yes, that day has come. I will gab about Mommie Dearest (1981).

Wise: I've already fastened my seatbelt. 

Werth: I'll be blunt. I think Christina Crawford's hit tell-all 1978 book Mommie Dearest is opportunistic exaggeration. It and the subsequent movie have supplanted an image of Joan Crawford in the public's mind that has eclipsed the talents of this hard-working, dedicated actress. 
But let me be clear, Joan Crawford was no saint. She was a control freak, a mean drunk, obsessively strict with her children and so invested in her image that it's likely there was no difference between Joan Crawford movie star and Joan Crawford human being. That's one of the reasons it is so much fun to watch Faye Dunaway "become" Joan Crawford.


Wise: It takes a lot of eyebrow pencil and even more cojones

Werth: Like the book, Mommie Dearest the movie tells the story of how Golden Age Hollywood movie star Joan Crawford adopted Christina (played as a teen and older adult by Diana Scarwid) and the subsequent wire-hanger-inspired abuse that followed. And as with the book, the scenes without Joan are a snooze. 
Dunaway is literally possessed by Crawford and translates Crawford's larger than life screen persona into her portrayal. Crawford doing something as simple as taking a shower or putting on elbow lotion becomes a full-scale MGM production. Almost everything in this movie looks like it's from a movie. There is no sense of reality... with the exception of one scene where Joan confesses to Chrisitna that she's broke. Dunaway tones down the makeup and the gestures to become what might be a glimpse of what Crawford was really like. Dunaway's physical resemblance to Crawford is eerie, especially when you add-in that Dunaway was the same age as Crawford at this time, was dealing with the same career issues, and had even just adopted a childalthough Dunaway lied to the press for years and claimed to have given birth to her son.

Wise: Art imitating life channeling crazy. 

Werth: Dunaway's unearthly connection to Crawford produces a portrayal that is so monstrous you can't take your eyes off it. The eyebrows, the lips, the held-back shoulders and perfectly timed puffs of smoke fill the screen. Unfortunately that over-the-top performance also turned what was supposed to be a dramatic treatment of child abuse into a camp classic that had gay men around the country shouting the lines back at the screen. 
In the end, no less than Christina Crawford herself denied that her mother acted like that. I don't like Mommie Dearest for what it did to Crawford's image, but I do have to give props to Dunaway, whose dedication to the part is something Joan Crawford would appreciate.

Wise: Little Children (2006) focuses on another bad mommy in an extreme situation.  Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) is a young suburban mother with a daughter she doesn't understand and an older husband who's become hooked on internet porn.  At the park one day she meets former college football star Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) who's supposed to be studying for the bar, but wastes his hours daydreaming about former glory. 
They begin a flirtation that quickly escalates into an affair, igniting a domestic firestorm when Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) catches on to their dalliance.  During all this, Brad's buddy Larry, a former cop, has a begun a campaign to expose and harass recently released sex offender Ronny McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley).
Werth: Sex offender, dead guy who kills you in your dreams, a super hero with a bag on his head. Jackie Earle Haley better be careful of typecasting.

Wise: Director Todd Field adapted Tom Perrotta's novel with  the help of the author, and it's interesting to see how the book and the film diverge.  Most of the plot points are the same, but the leap from page to screen erased some of the author's black humor while heightening the interconnectedness of the characters.  A scene at the local pool, for example, contrasts Sarah and Brad's growing romance with Ronny's own conflicting desires to become a regular member of society while indulging in his squirmy desires.  
The juxtaposition not only points out the risk that Sarah and Brad are taking, it also suggests the longings that all three characters have that can never be fulfilled.  

Werth: Seeing Wilson's rear end was fulfillment enough for me.

Wise: Winslet, who has made a career of great performances, is particularly good here, if a bit more subtle than in other films.  Her Sarah begins frumpy, shoulders hunched as if she is still poring over the feminist texts she studied in college.  
As the affair progresses, she becomes more golden, her body less lumpy and more voluptuous, while her speaking voice becomes less nasal and more direct.  This is no typical movie makeover scene, instead it's a carefully calibrated depiction of a woman discovering both what she wants and what she doesn't need.  
Wilson has a bit less to do, but manages to cast off his somewhat effete persona and play a believable jock plagued by regret.  
But it's Haley who's the real stunner here, transforming himself from a washed-up kid star to a character actor with incredible depth.  His Ronny is both poignant and tragic, slyly comic, and well deserving of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  

Werth: I hope you're satisfied that we covered both literature and motherhood in one fell gab.

Wise: Indeed we have, now let's get to those pancakes.

Werth: Tune in next week for more light and fluffy Film Gab!