Sunday, January 14, 2018

cinema obscura: Fritz Lang's "Der Müde Tod" (1921)

Fritz Lang thrusts the viewer into an intense emotional whirlpool in his 1921 silent film, "Der Müde Tod," for a while one of the lesser known titles in his canon of work but, with a recent restoration and release on DVD and Blu-ray (via Kino Lorber), now recognized as the resource and foundation utilized by other filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel.

Personally, it's an achievement that I've always found utterly fascinating  and compulsively watchable - but almost impossible to see in recent years.

Its long inaccessibility had much to do with the fact that the rep houses and campus film programs which would regularly screen the film (sadly) went out of business, one by one, during the past couple decades.

"Der Müde Tod," which translates, tellingly, as "The Tired Death," was released as "Destiny" when it premiered in the United States in 1924 - on July 6th in New York - and is largely known by that title.

"Destiny" is the kind of film that, on paper, can sound positively purple. Initially a dream-like tale of two lovers, the film is dimmed when their future together is threatened by Death (Bernhard Goetzke) who materializes to snatch the nameless Young Man (Walter Janssen).

The Young Woman (Lil Dagover) contemplates suicide when Death challenges her with a deal that she can hardly refuse: There's a boy and there are also these three candles, each representing a human life.

As each candle is extinguished, someone dies. But if one candle stays lighted, the boy will be spared and survive.

This main storyline gives way to three subplots - set in ancient Persia, Renaissance Venice and China - that are both wildly methaphorical and metaphysical as the woman frantically searches for someone to give up their life once the boy's is spared. The elderly, who are already too uncomfortably close to death, run from her. Of course they do.

There is some alert, unexpected humor in this death-drenched fable as the heroine confronts some carefully-designed stumbling blocks - until she and her lover are reunited in a way that can be described only as supremely Lang-ian. Relax. No spoiler here.

I've always been struck by the methodical pace and overriding sense of calm of this very dark, moody fairy tale. Lang kept things in check here, via both his creative direction of the material and the performances of his game cast.

The result is an impressively muted work, in which a master filmmaker brilliantly deconstructs the notion of "romantic cinema."

 * * * * *
(from top)

~Bernhard Goetzke as Death and Lil Dagover as The Young Woman in a scene from "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tod"

~Dagover and Goetzke (as death in disguise) in another scene

~photography: Decla-Bioscop AG 1921 © & Kino Lorder 2016©

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

the attack of the late-night hosts

Since it hasn't been addressed by anyone in the entertainment media to date, I suppose that I'll be the messenger and announce the bad news - namely, the latest annoying trend of the in-progress awards season.

It appears that the major awards shows have been co-opted by the networks that air them and are now obliged to use in-house talent as hosts.  Jimmy Fallon, who oversees NBC's "The Tonight Show," hosted NBC's Golden Globes telecast in 2017 and, this year, NBC enlisted Seth Meyers, star of NBC's "Late Night with Seth Meyers," to do the job.

Did I remember to mention NBC?

Meanwhile, over at ABC, seemingly the permanent home of the annual Oscarcast, Jimmy Kimmel - star of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" - hosted the ABC telecast last year and will do the honors again this year for ABC.

That's ABC, like the alphabet.

Not to be outdone, CBS, with The Grammys on its schedule, has invited James Corden, the star of CBS's "The Late Late Show with James Corden," for a repeat performance. Corden hosted the CBS telecast last year.

CBS, got that?

It seems that a dubious precedent has been set and that this is now a permanent arrangement between the awards shows and the networks. The problem is, these late-night hosts can been seen on television every night.

There's nothing special about them. Nothing.

Who can we expect to host future awards show, specifically those devoted to TV and film? An evening news anchor? David Muir? Is Michael Strahan next? George Stephanopoulos perhaps? At least the umpteen country music awards shows are always hosted by country music talent. Same with The Tonys (but, then, no one seems to care about the poor Tonys).

Gone are the days of an actual, bona-fide movie star hosting the Oscars - Steve Martin, Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Frank Sinatra, Chris Rock, David Niven. David who? And of course, the pro, Bob Hope.

Heck, as disappointing as Seth McFarlane and Ann Hathaway & James Franco were on the Oscarcasts, at least they represented risky, original thinking. Seth Meyers? He was barely competent, boring actually. Yawn.

Someone at NBC must really, really love him.
As for the Golden Globes, frankly, I enjoyed the show more during the Ken Shapiro era when there was no host, just an unseen announcer. It was lean and clean. There was really no point to bringing on Ricky Gervais to host, other than to mimic the Oscars. (It should be the other way around: The hopeless Oscarcast should be actively working to be more like the lively Golden Globes.) But, admittedly, Gervais was huge fun, as always - and so were Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who followed him.

And so, I anticipate, with some dread, exactly what network golden boy will be foisted on us and the next unsuspecting awards show. 

 * * * * *
(from top)

~Bob Hope and Oscar
~photography: The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 1971©

~Amy Poehler and Tina Fey with a couple of Golden Globes
~photography: The Hollywood Foreign Press 2015©

Friday, January 05, 2018

cinema obscura: James L. Brooks' "I'll Do Anything" (1994) - The Unseen Musical Version

James L. Brooks' 1994 "I'll Do Anything" is long overdue as a home entertainment candidate in its original form as a musical, something that has evaded this re-worked work. And for more than 20 years now.

You may not remember but this Columbia release started life as a full-fledged original musical, featuring nine songs written by Prince, Sinead O'Connor and Carole King, accompanied by choreography by Twyla Tharp.

However, when test audiences proved resistant to the musical numbers, Brooks methodically started to remove them, screening after screening.

One by one by one...

By the time Brooks got through, all of the songs were gone, except for a snippet of one King contribution sung by child actress Whittni Wright, who plays the daughter of Nick Nolte's struggling actor in the movie.

The weird thing is, "I'll Do Anything" is an inside tale all about Hollywood and its symbiotic relationship with the aforementioned test screenings -  and about how principles are sacrificed for the bottom line, namely to please paying audiences (who often don't know what they really want). In short, the film ironically turned into exactly what it was cynically critiquing.

While Brooks apparently has closely guarded the deleted songs, making sure no one sees or even hears them, a resourceful buff can locate glimpses of the musical numbers. Case in point: Certain old VHS tapes of Columbia titles include the trailer for the film when it was planned to be released as a musical. (Check out Paul Mazursky's "The Pickle" on video.) And the  laser disc version of the movie includes a "making of" documentary which shows co-stars Albert Brooks and Julie Kavner performing in numbers.

Also, for a while, bootleg copies of the soundtrack were floating around.

Back on February, 20th, 1994, reliable Chris Willman wrote an article for The Los Angeles Times, titled "Princely Bootleg: Some People'll Do Anything to Hear These Songs," about those bootleg CDs.  Willman wrote:

"Albert Brooks croons two songs: 'I'll Do Anything' (lyric: 'What good is a captain if he ain't got a crew / What good is a me if I AIN'T . . . GOT . . . A YOU!') and 'There Is Lonely.' Brooks' singing voice has been described charitably as gravitating toward the Jimmy Durante or Tom Waits end of the gravelly scale, and less charitably as an Oscar the Grouch affectation.

"There are two more torturous tunes that draw the greatest winces from illicit listeners. One is Julie Kavner's 'My Little Pill,' a sort of update of 'Mother's Little Helper,' related to the truncated drug subplot, and recited in a maddeningly childlike sing-song voice. The other is Whittni Wright's rendition of Sinead O'Connor's mopey 'This Lonely Life' that won't have anyone comparing her to the other singing Whitney."

Apparently, Prince wrote something called "WoW!," for which Willman printed the lyric in its entirety. Not good. Still, I'd give anything to see and hear Nolte's singing debut on a song called "Be My Mirror."

Maybe one day... But, then, maybe not.

Notes in Passing:  One of the outstanding non-musical moments in the film involves a meeting during which a few studio honchos and underlings discuss actors who have auditioned for a role, including Nolte.  They are ruthless in their assessment of him.  One of the underlings, played by Jolie Richardson, who had been dating Nolte and likes him, is asked if she finds him sexy and if she would sleep with him. (The studio person doesn't put it that quite gently, however.) No one in the room is aware of her relationship with Nolte, of course. Too weak to challenge the popular opinion in the room, Richardson says "No" without missing a beat.

An utterly unforgettable moment in an otherwise forgotten film.

Speaking of missing scenes in Columbia films, after something like 33 years, Kevin Costner's sequence (sequences?) in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" has (have?) also failed to see the light of day on home entertainment, either reinstated into the film or as added features.

Finally, whatever happened to Whittni Wright? She was adorable - and a good little actress.
 * * * * *
(from top)

~Poster art for "I'll Do Anything"

~Nick Nolte in a scene from the film 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1994©

Monday, January 01, 2018

character counts: the two arthurs

In the 1950s, your average male movie star was nothing less than iconic - bigger than life and capable of making his fans seem small and childlike. I mean, few men off-screen measured up to Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas.

They were too intimidating to be our friends. Almost scary.

Closer to real life, as always, were the reliable character actors, and few were as relatable or as memorable as the two Arthurs - Kennedy and O'Connell - men who effortlessly inhabited a world and situations that were as familiar as our own. They were also polar opposites of each other, with Kennedy's characters often trapped in a discordant, dangerous psychological struggle with themselves, while O'Connell's seemingly innate easy-goingness made the viewer feel safe and comfortable.
Kennedy is particuarly unforgettable as the bad fathers in Mark Robson's "Peyton Place" (1957) and Delmer Dave's "A Summer Place" (1959) and as Frank Sinatra's cowardly brother in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1958), for which he was nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award.

Arthur K. is also compulsively watchable in Joseph Pevney's "Twilight of the Gods" (1958), Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960), Gordon Douglas' "Claudelle Inglish" (1961), David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and Robson's "Trial" (1955), among many other titles.

O'Connell, who appeared in something like 130 films, excelled in two in particular, both directed by Joshua Logan - "Picnic" (1955), as Rosalind Russell's reluctant, way-too pliable boyfriend, and "Bus Stop" (1956), as an old stallion trying to keep a young buck in line. He is bumbling and funny in Richard Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), solid and funny in Blake Edwards' "Operation Petticoat" (1959) and typically supportive opposite James Stewart and Eve Arden in Otto Preminger's peerless courtroom classic, "Anatomy of a Murder" (also 1959).

The good, gray, seemingly ageless O'Connell also had a curious knack for creating chemistry with the teen stars of his day - as Pat Boone's disapproving uncle in Henry Levin's "April Love" (1957); in Don Siegel's "Hound-Dog Man" (1959) which had him sharing scenes with Fabian and Carol Lynley; in Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), opposite Ann-Margret (as her faux "royal" stepfather) and, most telling, as the cozy fathers of Sandra Dee and Elvis Presley in Paul Wendkos' "Gidget" (1959) and Gordon Douglas' "Follow That Dream" (1962), respectively. To use a word of which his characters decidedly would not approve, he was sublime.
 * * * * *
(from top)

~Arthur Kennedy with Nancy Gates in a scene  from "Some Came Running..."
~photography: MGM 1958©

~Two publicity shots of Kennedy, circa the early 1950s 

~Arthur O'Connell in a publicity shot for "Follow That Dream" 
 ~photography: United Artists 1962©

~Publicity shot of O'Connell, circa the late 1940s

~O'Connell with James Stewart in a scene from "Anatomy of a Murder"
 ~photography: Columbia Pictures 1959©

Sunday, December 31, 2017


It was a lousy year in general and, as is usually the case, the year was reflected by its films. The public needed a respite - something, anything, that would delude/distract them - and the studios obliged by producing hugely expensive DC/Marvel-based escapist flicks by the dozens.

But, apparently, potential moviegoers escaped elsewhere. Alcohol maybe? Drugs? Box-office was down. Films expected to gross a ga-zillon dollars took in only a ba-zillion. Hmmm. Exactly who or what was to blame?

Hollywood pointed the finger at Rotten Tomatoes, where "critics" actually do number in the ga-zillions. Or perhaps it was Harvey who put people off with his seemingly insatiable member. Or maybe filmmakers were too demoralized and stressed to make anything with an intricate narrative.

Or it could be that moviegoers simply stopped believing in superheroes. Whatever the reason, singling out the worthwhile of 2017 is a no-brainer.

And it helps that I exposed myself to precious few movies during the year - and not the brain-dead ones the public half-heartedly supported or those titles for which critics managed to feign any semblance of enthusiasm.

"Life's way too short" became my mantra whenever my wife would suggest a movie to see. In 2017, I became impossibly selective.

Only four titles jumped out at me, so to speak, largely because one of the studios, Paramount, didn't try to comfort moviegoers but instead released a trio of allegories that creatively commented on the ills of the times - and because Fox Searchlight supported the R-rated treatment of a film that could have easily been facile family entertainment.

  • Paramount's bracing triumvirate... 
  • "Downsizing"
  •  "mother!"
  •  "Suburbicon" 
  • Fox Searchlight's socially-conscious (in multiple ways) fever dream about love without boundaries... 
  • "The Shape of Water"
  • And... 
  •  “Beatriz at Dinner” / "The Beguiled” / "The Dinner" / “The Founder” / "Get Out” / “Lady Bird” / “Lady MacBeth” / “Personal Shopper” / "Three Bill Boards Outside Ebbing,  Missouri” / “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” / “Your Name"
  • Jim Belushi ("Wonder Wheel") / Steve Coogan ("The Dinner") / Hong Chau ("Downsizing") / Matt Damon ("Suburbicon" & "Downsizing") / Jennifer Garner ("The Tribes of Palos Verdes") / McKenna Grace ("Gifted") / Woody Harrelson  ("Three Bill Boards Outside Ebbing,  Missouri”) / Sally Hawkins ("The Shape of Water") / Salma Hayek ("Beatriz at Dinner" & "How to be a Latin Lover") /  Allison Janney ("I, Tonya") / Richard Jenkins ("The Shape of Water") / Noah Jupe ("Suburbicon") / Michael Keaton ("The Founder") / Tracy Letts ("Lady Bird") / Francis McDormand ("Three Bill Boards Outside Ebbing,  Missouri”) / Laurie Metcalf ("Lady Bird") / Michelle Pfeiffer ("mother!") / Florence Pugh ("Lady MacBeth") / Margot Robbie ("I, Tonya") / Sam Rockwell ("Three Bill Boards Outside Ebbing,  Missouri”) / Saoirse Ronan ("Lady Bird") / Lois Smith ("Marjorie Prime" / Kristen Stewart ("Personal Shopper") / Vince Vaughn (Brawl in Cellblock 99") 

If there are notable omissions here, it's because, as I said, I sought out films cautiously - only those movies that promised a hint of something different. The only disappointment was "The Big Sick" which has been the critics darling ever since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival but which struck me as nothing much and left me emotionally uninvolved despite its coy insistence that I care about its characters. I didn't. Still, it's interesting that it struck a nerve with moviegoers, given that its title pretty much sums up 2017 both as a year and as time when movies needed a doctor.

C'est fini: Turner Classic Movies' current "TCM Remembers" is especially well-done and inclusive this year. (And Gary Meyer's Eat Drink Films site does a beautiful job honoring it.) The reminder of the number of film personalities who pass every year is always sobering, but this year, I am especially saddened by the French losses - Emmanuelle Rive, Danielle Darrieux, Mirielle Darc, Jean Rochefort, Michelle Morgan and particularly Jeanne Moreau. A mournful au revoir to them all.

et le musique: Speaking of the French, the always remarkable Alexander Desplat deserves" bravos!" for two of the year's best background scores - for "The Shape of Water" and for "Suburbicon" in particular.
* * * * *
(from top)

~Head of the U.S.

~Jeanne Moreau, circa 1962

Thursday, December 28, 2017

thoroughly awful

I thought enough time had gone by - yipes! 50 years! - and that I'd finally find it irresistible. But, no, this disturbing curiosity is definitely resistible.

I'm referring to George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the 1967 pseudo-musical which has been disinterred and will air on TCM @ 12:30 a.m. Saturday and that has decidedly not improved with age.

In fact, it's now much worse and it remains an affront that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for throwing away Oscars, saw fit to nominate it for seven - count 'em - seven Academy Awards, including one for Carol Channing's amateurish supporting turn. (There's a reason why some stage performers never make it in movies.)

Aside from being a prime example of.•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.forced fun•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.
 "Thoroughly Modern Millie" remains jaw-dropping in its blatant racism.

The presentation of Asians here, as personified by the wince-producing performances of Jack Soo and Pat Morita, is unconscionable - almost as unwatchable as Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally beloved "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961).

Of course, this brand of racist entertainment had been tossed off as innocent fun by Hollywood for years.  Consider the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

I know - it was a different culture 60-70 years ago when "Babes" and "Rose" were produced. However, times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made in the enlightened late '60s.

What's disconcerting is that "Millie" was produced by Ross Hunter who presented Asians in such a relatively positive light six year earlier in Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), whose entire cast (except for one Caucasian in a brief supporting role - Herman Rudin, who played the vagrant who robs Benson Fong) is composed of Asian performers exclusively, Jack Soo among them.

In "Flower Drum Song," Hunter and Koster nudged the talented Soo towards a winning performance that's best described as Martinesque (as in Dean Martin). One can only guess why Hunter and Hill elected to diminish Soo (and Morita) in such a cruel way in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Its brand of casual racism remains unacceptable.

Ditto for "Babes in Arms" and "My Wild Irish Rose." And I could care less about the "iconic" people who directed and performed in them.
* * * * *

~The poster art for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
Universal 1967© 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

alexander payne's double-bill

Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" completes a triptych that Paramount Pictures started with Darren Aronofsky's ”mother!” and George Clooney's ”Suburbicon.” Whether intended or not, all three function as creative sociopolitical commentaries on the pervasive contentiousness of the times.

Not surprisingly, each one, whose respective narratives could be called confrontational, has been misunderstood by critics and audiences alike - with the latter taking to CinemaScore and Rotten Tomatoes to harumph.

Of the three, "Downsizing" is the most complicated and, by entension, alienating because Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor have concocted not necessarily a two-act film but two movies - one light and airy and the other rather dark and sobering. And, from where I sit, each film (or part, if you prefer) represents one of the major political parties.

"Downsizing" is a red state/blue state movie.

The brighter first half deals with the notion of literal downsizing, wherein a person volunteers to be miniaturized, ostensibly as a way to produce less waste and thereby save the planet. But the real draw of downsizing is that one can acquire more for less and experience a more privileged life. Money goes further. A few thousand dollars in real life translates into millions in Leisureworld, one of the tracts with Barbie dream houses where the miniaturized are ensconced - or rather, more accurately, segregated.

It's the blatant materialistic side of downsizing that attracts Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), particularly Audrey who dreams of living large in a McMansion. It's the first half of "Downsizing" that drives the trailers for the film, giving the impression that it is strictly a cheery sitcom; virtually nothing from the film's more thoughtful (and potentially off-putting) second half, during which Paul becomes enlightened and radicalized, is included.

There's no denying that Payne makes an abrupt left-hand turn with his narrative or that audiences expecting one kind of film have every right to be angered when they're lured into another, altogether different movie.

Suddenly, Leisureworld isn't the haven as it was advertised to be. Paul discovers a huge Trumpian wall - huge! - that separates the newly elites from the undesirables, who are largely people of color. Paul meets Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who was miniaturized against her will, left with only one usable leg, but who has a work ethic and conviction that were once celebrated as American virtues but are now associated with "losers," a word favored by the powerful. 

The heaviness of this part of "Downsizing" is lightened considerably by Hong Chau's remarkable, exhilarating performance as Tran - and by the comic relief provided by the ever-game Christoph Waltz as a displaced, downsized playboy, whose character's cynicism and resourcefulness complete Payne's less-than-flattering vision of America in its current state.

And Matt Damon takes his affable everyguy persona into a new realm as he telegraphs Paul's confusion and the realization that he's always been "small" but can now do something about it. He plays a simple man who is humbled into doing something that matters - something of consequence.

And it's humbling to witness this actor express so much so quietly - and with such little effort.

No, "Downsizing" is not the larky sitcom promised by its trailers, not a Disney-esque sitcom about the joys and riches of being only five-inches-tall. It's actually taller than that. (Forgive the shameless pun, but it was absolutely intended.) Its social consciousness is big and very progressive.

To sum it up, I liked it. Thanks, Paramount, for this terrific holiday gift.

That said, "Downsizing" joins a select group of titles about the miniaturized, as evidenced by this little album of stills:

* * * * *
(from top)

~The poster art for "Downsizing"

~Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig in a scene from the film
 ~Hong Chau and Damon in a scene from the film
 ~photography: George Kraychyk / Paramount 2017©

~Grant Williams and a feline predator in "The Incredible Shrinking Man"
 ~photography: Universal -International  1957©

~Lily Tomlin in "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"
 ~photography: Universal 1981©

~A scene from "Attack of the Puppet People"
 ~photography: MGM 1958©

~A lobby card from "The Devil Doll"
 ~photography: MGM 1936©