Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pagan Rites and Wrongs

Mind your own business. Tend to your own garden. Judge not lest ye be judged. Curiosity killed the....well, you get the drift.  

The Wicker Man (1973) depicts the potentially horrifying consequences of meddling in other people’s affairs. A brilliantly satiric reversal of the conventional morality tale, this darkly humorous and thought-provoking masterpiece delves deeply into the quaint Celtic traditions and rituals of the ancient pagan holiday of May Day, as observed in countless small villages in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Filmed on location in and around Scotland, The Wicker Man takes place in a picturesque fictional seaside locale. Here on Summerisle, modernity takes a backseat to tradition, and the denizens of the island seem all the happier for it. They live simply, love freely, and eat, drink and make merry with lusty abandon, especially during the annual spring festivities.

Through the eyes of our protagonist, an uptight Protestant police detective investigating the case of a missing child, we learn the origins of delightful Celtic spring revelries such as dancing round the Maypole, and the quaint superstitious beliefs and practices of the earthy village folk who follow the Old Ways.  

When Sergeant Howie (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Woodward) arrives on Summerisle to probe the townspeople about the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl named Rowan Morrison, he is met with blank stares. No one here has ever even heard of Rowan Morrison, it seems. There must be some mistake. (Herein lies Howie’s first opportunity to walk away from the situation and let sleeping dogs lie.) Stubbornly and stonily, Howie refuses to accept this verdict, and doggedly trudges onward to uncover the secrets of this queer little village. 

Howie’s persistence pays off, as he grills one strange character after another. We meet the schoolteacher who instructs the young children on the joys of sex (played by Diane Cilento); the lusty barmaid at the inn (gorgeous Britt Ekland, who bares all her charms in a seductive and spellbinding song and dance); and best of all, the elegant Lord Summerisle himself (Christopher Lee in the finest performance of his career), who, as the owner of the fruit groves that give the island its livelihood, presides over both the material and spiritual well-being of his Summerisle subjects.  

Howie receives a new piece of the puzzle from each encounter, and is more convinced than ever that something evil is afoot. Yet each time Sergeant Howie hits a brick wall in his investigation, he’s given ample reason and opportunity to wrap up his inquest and return to the mainland. He refuses. 

The God-fearing and closed-minded Howie grows more and more disgusted by what he perceives as their wanton pagan practices, and begins to fear the worst: that the townspeople will use the virgin Rowan Morrison (still unseen) as a human sacrifice to help Summerisle’s failing crops grow.  

Of course, Howie’s sixth sense will prove true, but at his own expense.  All at once, just as he finds the mysterious Rowan, the holier-than-thou Howie seals his fate with his fatal error of succumbing to pride, arrogance and self-righteousness. 

The film is a study in subtle artistry, and sneaks up upon the viewer with an oddly gentle appeal, with its lilting folk music, ribald humor and sexy situations. Then, at the point of no return, it hurtles unapologetically to its shocking and horrifying climax. 

We have the indomitable Mr. Christopher Lee to thank for this fine film; it was Lee who brought the story to British Lion Films and shepherded its production. Written by the über-clever Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) and directed by Robin Hardy, with memorable performances by Lee, Woodward, Cilento, Ekland and Ingrid Pitt, The Wicker Man is a true modern horror classic.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Full Moon Magic

A lovingly crafted script, the deft touch of a director from old Hollywood, and a cast of committed actors conspired to create movie magic in 1987’s Moonstruck. A blockbuster moneymaker sans gimmicks— no special effects, no serial killer, no nudity or shocking twist —this modest little film, set to the music of La Boheme, Dean Martin and Vicki Carr, relaunched a cottage industry of modern romantic comedies that continues to this day (with varying degrees of artistry).

This where Cher, flamboyant singing TV superstar of the 70s, cemented her place as one of the finest screen actresses of the 1980s, after startling and acclaimed performances in Silkwood and Mask earned her Oscar nods. Oddly, she has made relatively few films since and has never recaptured the magic of Moonstruck in the years that followed. (At least, not yet.) For Moonstruck, Cher took home the gold as Best Actress of the year.

Director Norman Jewison stresses the ensemble nature of this story of an upper-middle-class Italian-American family. As the star of the film, Cher dominates with her perfectly realized Loretta Castorini, who is transformed by the power of unexpected love under a full moon. But, like classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, this Cinderella story is a star vehicle bolstered by strongly written and acted supporting characters that give the film its nuance and heart.

Here, each and every actor, even those with one-line bit parts, is given a dimensional characterization in Shanley’s inspired screenplay, from Loretta’s funeral director client  (“I make them look better than they did in real life.”), to girls who work in the Cammerari Bakery (“I love this man”)  to the old crone Loretta chats with at the airport  (“You got someone on that plane? I put a curse on that plane!”).  

As Ronny Cammerari, Nicolas Cage is raw talent and charisma...he’s like a wild beast poached from the untamed forest and set loose on a soundstage, the perfect choice for releasing the explosively primitive energy in Cher herself.... pure fireworks. (On the DVD commentary, Cher hints at some difficulty in working with Cage, but the result is crackling, electric onscreen chemistry.)

There are too many standout performances to cover.... Oscar nominations went deservedly to Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis, unforgettably brilliant as Loretta’s parents (Dukakis won), but Danny Aiello, John Mahoney, Julie Bovasso and Anita Gillette are all just as uniformly excellent. Together, all these gifted actors create a convincing yet comic portrait of a family that puts the fun in dysfunction.  

This is writer John Patrick Shanley’s masterwork: thoughtful, humorous and character-driven, richly realized by all the artists involved. (Shanley’s recent play and film of Doubt, though much acclaimed, has a joyless heavy-handedness and is devoid of Moonstruck’s warmth and humanity.) Here, Shanley touchingly and ingeniously articulates how romantic love may be magical but not all-powerful, but family is forever.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Murder by Laughter

If I ever die laughing, I could well be watching a Neil Simon play or film.

Simon is the undisputed king of the deceptively simple one-line zinger...he understands how to set up and pay off a joke so quickly and cleverly that audiences never even see it coming—instead, they dissolve into delightedly surprised laughter. For within every Neil Simon witticism is the human truth that makes it funny. In his plays and films, Simon creates a context in which the most mundane and banal situations are pregnant with humorous possibility.

Unlike his warmhearted romantic comedies about ordinary New Yorkers like Barefoot in the Park, Come Blow Your Horn and The Goodbye Girl, Murder By Death (1976) is a breezy lark with no basis in reality, in which he takes beloved literary stereotypes and imbues them with his earthy humor. The plot is pure mystery movie cliché—a wealthy eccentric invites a group of the world’s greatest detectives to solve a murder that has yet to be committed. The result is nonstop fun.

In this über-clever mystery satire, Simon and a stellar cast bring human failings and foibles to the stock storybook characters that mystery readers know as well as they know themselves—and then Simon performs his magic trick of mining the comedy gold via rapid-fire, rapier-witted dialogue. To breathe life into the story, Simon and director Robert Moore assembled a  talented ensemble of actors, almost all of whom were also stage veterans, adept at fashioning a character and blessed with lightning-accurate timing and feel for pace, rhythm and style. Watching these disparate group of actors working together is a joy to behold.

Guinness and Walker: "My Name Is Yetta. I Cannot Hear or Speak"

Smith and Niven: "A blind butler? Don't let him park the car, Dickie."

Falk: "I think we picked ourselves a queer bird, angel."

Lanchester: "Up yours, fella!"

Coco: "He's dead, all right. That was one of my funniest faces."

Sellers: "Conversation like television set on honeymoon. Unnecessary."
Imagine Sir Alec Guinness as a blind butler saddled with Nancy Walker as a deaf mute cook. Maggie Smith and David Niven as elegant Dick and Dora Charleston, complete with an Asta-lookalike dog.  Peter Falk as the Bogie-inspired Sam Diamond. Elsa Lanchester and James Coco essaying the Agatha Christie-esque characters of British Jessica Marbles and Belgian Milo Perrier. And as the inscrutable Chinese gumshoe Sidney Wang, notorious scene stealer Peter Sellers, so uniquely gifted that he threatens to walk off with the entire film every time he opens his mouth to spout Simon’s fortune-cookie aphorisms. (In spite of his dazzling performance, Sellers reportedly hated making this film, and wrongly predicted it would be a huge flop.)

Capote: "You all mistake what you assume. They never left the dining room!"
Flamboyant Truman Capote, who looks as if he just wandered onto the set from The Merv Griffin Show, was savaged by critics for his performance, unfairly, in my opinion—Capote was forever being (homophobically) excoriated for something, for just being his outrageous self. Here, he strikes the perfect note in his cameo role of Lionel Twain (the name itself a Simon joke, whenever spoken by Sellers’s Sidney Wang). Thank the pop culture gods we have this celluloid remembrance of the famed author and raconteur captured on film.

With their period costumes and stylized portrayals, films like this can really turn off audiences—compare the soufflé light Murder By Death to the execrable and leaden Clue a few years later...or even Simon’s own failure The Cheap Detective. There is, after all, a not-so-subtle distinction between a satire and a spoof.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Star Reborn

A Star Is Born (1954) will go down in film history as a vandalized masterpiece. Intended as Judy Garland’s triumphant return to film, produced by husband Sid Luft and released by Warner Brothers, the project had all the ingredients for critical and financial success. With a cast including James Mason, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan and Jack Carson; songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin; screenplay by Moss Hart and legendary director George Cukor at the helm, there was little chance that it could fail.

The story was a classic that had been filmed several times, most notably by David O. Selznick in 1937. But the new Garland musical version would be far more spectacular, boasting a budget that swelled to more than $6 million and filmed in the brand-new widescreen process of Cinemascope. The plot was a familiar Hollywood fable—fading actor falls in love with fresh new talent. She rises, he falls. Mason would play alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine, and Judy would portray singer Esther Blodgett, who is transformed into movie superstar Vicki Lester.

When sneak-previewed for industry insiders, A Star Is Born received standing ovations at every performance, and earned reviews that artists and performers could only dream about. The critics ran out of superlatives for the film and its talented star.

But the film, at over three hours, was deemed too long by theater owners, and Warner Brothers was pressured to get the film down to a length that would allow more viewings (and dollars) per day. Director George Cukor begged to work with an editor to carefully “bleed out” minutes without harming the overall storyline, but head of production Harry Warner was impatient, and instead authorized a series of lethal cuts, excising not only scenes and songs but entire sequences wholesale. The nuances of the story were sacrificed for the almighty buck.

In the edited version, Mason hears Garland sing at the after-hours roadhouse and offers her a screen test, which (it seems) she takes the very next day. In the original version, however, Norman Maine is whisked away on location and Esther is forced to take a job as a waitress on roller skates after giving up her steady job singing with the band. It’s only many weeks later that Norman Maine finds her to make good his promise.  Another deleted scene had Esther asking Norman to pull over as they drove to a premiere of her first picture, so she could throw up.

Many more beautiful moments were cut.  So charming was the deleted scene in which Norman proposes to Esther in the recording studio on an open microphone in front of all their coworkers, as she lays down a track of “Here’s What I’m Here For,” that years later Barbra Streisand recreated the sequence around her own Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” in the 1976 Star Is Born remake.

Judy Garland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the picture, as many of the Academy members had been treated to the full-length preview version of the film. But Garland lost the Oscar that year to Grace Kelly, who won for The Country Girl. Most believe that Harry Warner’s bad decision to amputate the heart and soul of A Star Is Born lost Judy the Academy Award, which she deserved and badly wanted to crown her film comeback—and secure her volatile career and income potential. Judy Garland went on to make a few other films and a television series, but she never headlined a picture this big again.

In the early 1980s, film historian Ronald Haver went searching for the lost footage at Warner Brothers and partnered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to produce a restored version, which was released in 1983 to great acclaim. However, not all the deleted footage was found, and for many of the early scenes, production stills were used against a still-extant soundtrack of the dialogue. (Rumor had it that some of the surviving stars like James Mason and Lucy Marlow had even secretly rerecorded some dialogue, and that Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli had provided the speaking voice of Esther Blodgett for some of these sequences.) Fans didn’t seem to mind the stills, which filled in a lot of the narrative blanks in the story.

Today, when they buy or rent the DVD or Blu-Ray editions of A Star Is Born, audiences always see this restored and now-definitive version. No one ever bothered to sell the shortened, chopped-up Star, which Garland always joked that “Harry Warner gummed to death.”

Though not restored entirely to its former glory, the film now has a narrative that makes sense and the relationship of Mason and Garland has the depth and dimension originally intended to properly label this film one of the all-time tearjerkers, and Judy Garland’s most riveting and versatile film performance.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Heat Is On

With a plot that’s a mashup of Sunset Boulevard and Midnight CowboyHeat (1972) is the story of comely but down-on-his-luck young actor Joey Davis, who waits for his big break at a seedy Santa Monica motel run by an overweight diva with mood swings and peopled by sketchy low-life tenants. There he meets faded TV star Sally Todd, mother of one of the motel’s most neurotic residents, and begins an affair with her on her promises to introduce him to producers and directors. 

Produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Jed Johnson,  with a story developed by Paul Morrissey, Heat continues the Warhol film tradition of controlled spontaneity with its ad-libbed dialogue and cast of mostly nonprofessional actors. As in films like Flesh and Trash, the Warhol “superstars” awkardly make up the words as they go along, occasionally stumbling into pure entertainment gold.

Here,  long-haired, ridiculously good-looking Joe Dallesandro has perfected the role of hustler as his stock-in-trade, calmly resigned to offering his physical charms to anyone who can possibly help him. He scores a discount on the motel rent by servicing portly proprietress Pat Ast, who waves away the heat with a constantly fluttering Japanese fan and bawls out tenants between orgasms achieved by rubbing against the solid muscles of Little Joe. Mellow, low-voiced and positively wooden in his delivery, Dallesandro forms the apex around which the rest of the cast emotes unrestrainedly. 

Overall, Heat is a visual ode to the flawlessly beautiful Joe, but the engine providing the picture’s momentum is the gloriously brash and vulgar Sylvia Miles. As the aging Sally Todd, Miles bares her still-impressive breasts in nude love scenes with young Dallesandro and commands focus by plying her considerable acting skills, which are severely lacking in the rest of the cast. Miles’s dialogue improvisations are instinctively right on the money, always timed impeccably for maximum comic impact. The “lesbian” exchange with daughter Andrea Feldman and the “what you you mean, what do I mean?” scene with motel owner Pat Ast are among the most brilliant on-film improv scenes in the history of movies. And Miles’s artistry elevates her untrained costars’ performances as well.

With its campy cast of characters, uninhibited nude scenes and dozens of unforgettably funny and repulsive moments, this steamy cult classic is a must-see for fans of experimental film.