Archive | September, 2012

Remembering Andy Williams (1927 – 2012): He Sang it, We Believed It, and That Settles It

30 Sep

Per the Recording Industry Association of America’s database, Andy Williams recorded 18 gold albums (500, 000 + copies sold) and 3 platinum albums (one million +) as a solo artist. His platinum titles include his original 1963 Christmas album and the Love Story album; his gold titles include two collections of movie related songs, Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes along with Days of Wine and Roses and Other TV Requests.

I love my job, but there are drawbacks to teaching 2-3 fast track writing classes at a local community college.  One of those drawbacks is that famous people don’t often have the foresight to consult with me before they die; therefore, when I’m in the deepest throes of grading persuasive essays on the topic of  whether learning history in school holds relevance, personal narratives about the most important day in my students’ lives, or one paragraph assignments about “My Favorite Restaurant,” I’m just not able to drop everything to blog about the death of crooner Andy Williams of all people. Not only that, I was trying to squeeze in a piece, in whatever spare time I could find, about Jessica Lange, who just won her second Emmy for Chrissakes.

Now, it’s the weekend, I’ve finished grading, and Andy Williams is still dead. Still dead. Of course, I grew up with Andy Williams. He was that nice looking “Moon River” guy.  I heard his famous cover version of 1961’s Oscar winning Best Song (music by Henry Mancini; lyrics by Johnny Mercer) well before I ever saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film in which it was first performed though, of course, it is/was not William’s “silky” signature version that played in the film. No, that plaintive rendition was performed–exquisitely–by Audrey Hepburn in one of her most famous roles, the oh-so-elegant sometime model and Manhattan party girl (and paid escort for those willing to read between the lines), Holly Golightly.  Williams’s version was a fluke.  When the song was nominated for an Oscar in 1962, Williams was invited to sing it on that year’s telecast. Reportedly, his label got the smart idea to record the song–at breakneck speed–along with other famous movie themes–and release the whole collection just in time, and I do mean just in  time, for the ceremony. As famous as his version was, and as popular as the Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes album was was, by all accounts, Williams’s “Moon River” was never actually released as a single–not that it mattered.  Williams “owned” the song.  The huckleberry spell was cast forever and always.

Of course, Williams, who began singing as a youngster with his brother,  had already performed movie music well before Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He and his brothers recorded the Oscar winning “Swinging on a Star,” with Bing Crosby (from 1944’s Going My Way). There also exists a popular tale that young Andy Williams recorded a song for To Have and Have Not  (also 1944) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yes, it is true that the idea was for young Williams to dub Bacall’s singing voice; however, because it was obvious that the stunt would not work, Williams’s vocal–if it were ever recorded at all–was not used in the completed film though, again,  the legend persists.

I guess the success of “Moon River” helped Williams fill a specific niche in pop music as he went on to become–arguably–the foremost interpreter of movie themes, many of them Oscar winners and/or nominees, some of which did not necessarily feature lyrics in their original versions.  I mean, seriously, it was like, to borrow from a popular bumper sticker: Williams sang it; we believed it; that settled it. Here is a vintage Williams sampler:

^ “The Days of Wine and Roses” from the 1962 film of the same name; music by Henry Mancini; lyrics by Johnny Mercer; Academy Award winner for Best Song. This cover appeared on Williams’s Grammy nominated album, Days of Wine and Roses and Other TV Requests.

^ Williams sings “Born Free,” the Oscar winning song from the 1966 movie of the same name; music by John Barry; lyrics by Don Black.

^ “(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story” is based on Francis Lai’s haunting, Oscar winning theme to the 1970 blockbuster Love Story; the lyrics by Carl Sigman were added after the movie’s release.

^ “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather (1972);  Composer Nino Rota infamously cribbed his score from one of his earlier works and was consequently disqualified for Oscar consideration–after originally being announced as one of the finalists. The lyrics are by Larry Kusik.

Some of Williams’s other famous movie theme covers include “Call Me Irresponsible,” from 1963’s Papa’s Delicate Condition (another Oscar winner); “The Shadow of Your Smile from 1965’s The Sandpiper (yet another Oscar winner), and “The Summer Knows,” based on Michel Legrand’s stirring, Oscar winning score for Summer of ’42 (1971).  Williams also released a version of “A Time for Us” from Franco Zeffirelli’s much lauded  1968 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet; however, as familiar as the aforementioned Nino Rota’s score for that movie is, it was not an Oscar nominee back in the day, and the song w/lyrics heard on the soundtrack is entitled “What Is Youth?,”  and not “A Time for Us.” I don’t know what all happened with that one.  Interestingly, there was no “Best Song” nomination for the romantic comedy  I’d Rather be Rich (1964), in which Williams co-starred with Sandra Dee and Robert Goulet. I loved that movie as a child, btw, and I used watched it all the time on TV.  Just as interesting is that despite all his top selling gold albums, Williams never earned a Grammy though he was reportedly nominated a total of six times.  Even so, he was long considered the face of the Grammy awards as he hosted the event’s first live telecast  in 1971 and went on to host six more times.  Furthermore, Williams’s  long-running variety show (1962-1967) won three Emmys in the musical-variety category during its regular run, and Williams was twice nominated for his work as a performer; the show was eventually relegated to a series of recurring specials.

Of course, besides all of the above, Williams is will remain in the public consciousness for his Christmas specials and his great Christmas album, or albums, and his standard, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother had his first Christmas album. I can’t ever remember a time when that particular song, my favorite of the whole album, was not part of my own personal sounds of Christmas.  Forever and always, Andy. That settles it.

Thanks for your consideration…

The official website for Andy Williams and his Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri:

http://www.andywilliamstheatre.com/#!home/mainPage

Andy Williams at GRAMMY.com: http://www.grammy.com/news/andy-williams-1927-2012

More of Andy Williams at GRAMMY.com: http://www.grammy.com/news/thought-youd-never-ask-andy-williams

Williams obituary at Hollywood Reporter.com: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/andy-williams-dead-bladder-cancer-moon-river-374335

Williams on the RIAA Searchable database:

http://www.riaa.com/goldandplatinumdata.php?table=SEARCH_RESULTS&artist=Andy%20Williams&go=Search&perPage=50

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What the Hitch?

23 Sep

Good evening. Is the world ready for a movie about the making of Psycho starring Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock? Fox Searchlight seems to think so; moreover, the studio believes it has what could be a major Oscar contender on its hands.

So, there I was 2-3 days ago, perusing the latest entertainment news on google when I saw a headline that made me do a double take. Apparently,  Fox Searchlight Pictures is jumping into this year’s Oscar race by more or less rush-releasing Hitchcock into theatres as early as November.  Well, what the heck?

This new movie is not necessarily a biography of legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, it purports to be a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the making of 1960’s convention-shattering suspense classic, Psycho.  Hmmm…well, I guess the first among many questions I had was, “Who is playing Hitchcock?” Answer: Anthony Hopkins.  Stop snickering. I get it. The man who won an Oscar for playing Hannibal the Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs is back on board as the master of the macabre.  How lovely would it be if no less than Jodie Foster, Hopkins’s Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs co-star,  had been cast as Janet Leigh, who played Psycho‘s unfortunate leading lady, Marion Crane–but, of course, Foster, approaching fiftyish is now much older than Leigh was at the time, so that’s not the best fit. Instead, Scarlett Johansson will assume the Leigh role, and that seems just about right. Leigh was in her early 30s when she made Psycho; Johansson is right at 28.  Not an exact match, but close enough. I can visualize a resemblance, and I don’t doubt Johansson’s talent. Btw: the new film’s makers have also apparently thought better than to cast Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh’s daughter–a fetching and popular actress in her own right–in the film as well. Party-poopers.

My second question was,  “Why?” Why make a new movie about this particular slice of cinema genius in the first place?  Didn’t anybody learn anything a decade or so ago when Gus Van Sant decided to embark on a virtual scene for scene, line for line, shot by shot Psycho remake with Anne Heche as Marion and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, the seemingly nice mama’s boy turned crazed killer?  What about all those dreadful sequels in the 1980s?  Psycho, like The Silence of the Lambs and Carrie, is so complete and so enduring that it does not need to be second-guessed. I don’t need a re-creation of Psycho as long as I still have access to the original–and you know I do.

Left to Right: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and director Alfred Hitchcock on the set of 1954’s Rear Window, this movie fan’s absolute favorite Hitchcock film.

That noted, I’d rather see a movie about the making of Rear Window. You know, the logistics of designing, building, and shooting on that enormous set–most of which was constructed below street level on a studio soundstage–with its courtyard surrounded by a handful of walk-up apartment buildings, several of them featuring what appear to be fully functioning flats seemingly big enough to allow actors to walk around in–or more.  Dance-turned-actress Georgine Darcy, who played the stunning “Miss Torso” reportedly “lived all day” in her character’s dwelling, per the IMDb.  A film about Rear Window would also no doubt spotlight Hitchcock’s alleged fascination with magnificent Grace Kelly (the director reportedly told famed costume designer to treat Kelly as a piece of Dresden china), and that would also be cool for Johansson since she’s already done her version of Grace Kelly, via Rear Window specifically, in a 2008 Vanity Fair photo feature shot by Annie Leibovitz.

Of  course, we’ve all become so accustomed to Psycho that we almost take its genius for granted, meaning we forget just how daring it was in its day–and not just because of that shocking stabbing-in-the-shower scene.  Consider the following:

  • Marion Crane, the woman believed to be the protagonist, played by high-profile actress Janet Leigh, is first seen wearing a bra, clearly in the rushed afterglow of an afternoon romp in a hotel with her boyfriend.  This might not seem like a big deal now, but it was definitely unexpected in a movie starring a well-known leading lady from a top Hollywood director working for a major Hollywood studio.

    Scarlett Johnasson (l) and Javier Bardem (r) in Annie Liebowitz’s re-creation of Kelly and Stewart in Rear Window.

  • Also a biggie for the time was that Leigh’s Marion is actually seen flushing a toilet, virtually unheard of back in the day to put a camera in such close proximity to a commode if you can believe that. Imagine the story conference on that one.
  • Of course, more shocking than that is the fact that the character the audience believes is the film’s protagonist is killed roughly 45 minutes into the story. Shocking? You bet!
  • Then, of course, there’s that shower scene. Sure, we’ve seen a lot more violence in the 50 years since Psycho, but even though the shock of it has more to do with illusion, the power of suggestion, since the audience never sees a knife piercing any skin directly, it still packs a wallop because of the threat of danger and the feelings of being trapped and vulnerable, what with all those terrifying closeups–not to mention Bernard Hermann’s shrieking violins on the soundtrack. Even Janet Leigh famously vowed never to shower again after she saw the finished product.
  • Then there’s graphic artist Saul Bass’s long held–and long denied by almost anyone and everyone else associated with the movie, especially Leigh–claim that it was he, and not Hitchcock, who actually directed the shower scene.
  • Hitchcock shot the film in black and white partially as a cost-cutting measure but also because he thought the bloody shower scene might be too much in color–but that he did shoot the movie in black and white only contributes to its lore, as, again, Hitchcock was a major Hollywood player who had not shot a movie in black and white for several years at that point.
  • Furthermore, even though Psycho was indeed a Paramount production, it was famously filmed on the Universal lot (now a major tourist attraction), Hitchcock’s soon-to-be homebase as Psycho was his last offering under his contract with Paramount. Of course, there was no doubt some rumbling along the Paramount corridors since Hitchcock’s previous film, North by Northwest (1959), was actually an MGM picture. The suits at Paramount were probably not feeling the love as this low-budget black and white movie seemingly had nothing to offer.
  • Another piece of the film’s lore is that Hitchcock and/or the studio implemented a policy that no one would be admitted after the movie started. Can you imagine something like that in today’s consumerist society? Not bloody likely. Of course, there were also long lines of people eagerly waiting to get inside theatres once the picture was released and word-of-mouth spread like gangbusters, thereby increasing audience anticipation and fueling the hype.

Will the new ‘Hitchcock’ movie score as well or better with Oscar voters as 1960’s Psycho once did? The earlier film garnered four nominations including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh); it was the director’s fifth and final nomination before being honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. That Anthony Perkins (above) was  overlooked for a nod is one of the Academy’s greatest blunders. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and in the early 60s, honoring an actor for playing a crossdressing psychopath might have been more than Academy members could rationalize, yet Perkins clearly paved the way for Oscar voters to seriously consider the value of  Anthony Hopkins’s cold-blooded flesh-eater some 30 years later; moreover, sure, Perkins’s Norman Bates is one of cinema’s most memorable villains, second only to, again, Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, per the American Film Institute, but, of course, Perkins does not play Bates as a villain. Instead, he’s a seemingly kind if skittish young man, trying hard to maintain a calm exterior even though he’s clearly troubled. Audiences who’ve never seen Psycho, or have not read too much about it, almost feel sorry for him–at first–what with his gangly frame and “Aw shucks” demeanor.  Casting a good looking actor known for “sensitive” portrayals  (including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1956’s  Friendly Persuasion) was a brilliant move on Hitchcock’s part as it defied audience expectations, especially since the character was presented much differently, more stereotypically “bad,”  in the book upon which the film is based (older, heavier, balder). If you want to know just how good Perkins in the original, measure his greatness in it to the work in those sequels from the 1980s; meanwhile, Danny Peary tries to right the Academy’s wrong by awarding Perkins the “Alternate” Best Actor Oscar for 1960: “There have been countless portrayals of maniacs in movie history, but […] none was played with such skill and imagination, or got under our skins, haunted us, or made us care so much as Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates in Psycho.”

So, yes, I guess there’s enough material for a feature film, but I’d still prefer to watch a movie about the making of Rear Window or even Rope, Hitchcock’s first ever color film which unfolds in real-time with a series of long, virtually uninterrupted takes on a single set with movable walls, its homoerotic plot loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, but even though the possibility of watching such a movie intrigues me,  I’d probably rather just watch Rope, Rear Window, and Psycho for their own magic. Additionally, the Hitchcock DVDs offer enough features to fill in most of the details. Almost every item I reported in the above list comes straight from a documentary on the Psycho DVD.  A dramatization might be redundant–or worse.

Of course, Hitchcock could very well be a gamble that pays off handsomely for Fox Searchlight, again, the allegedly “indie” film branch of the Fox media empire. The Searchlight brand has had lots of pull with Oscar voters since its early days back in the mid 90s, beginning with 1997’s “surprise” Best Picture nominee The Full Monty and on up to a recent string of such Oscar nominated hits as Sideways (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), Crazy Heart (2009), and Black Swan (2010)–those last two, of course, won Best Actress (Natalie Portman) and Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), respectively. Additionally, Black Swan was in line for the Best Picture Oscar that ultimately went to The King’s Speech.  In 2008, the company’s Slumdog Millionaire became not only a crowd pleasing hit, it also snatched away the top prize from the year’s most nominated flick, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Of course, this viewer didn’t care too much for either of those offerings, but I digress. On the other hand, last year, Searchlight’s well regarded The Descendants, starring George Clooney, reaped a handful of nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, but it snagged only one prize (for Best Adapted Screenplay, shared by director Alexander Payne and co-writers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). If you’ll recall, the Academy was instead going gaga for movies about movies, such as The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, both of them from the Weinstein company (not to mention Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the year’s most nominated offering, which was preoccupied with France’s silent film innovator, Georges Méliès).  Maybe the suits at Fox Searchlight want to somehow even the score by getting into the movies-about-movies game.

If for some reason you have not yet caught up with Anthony Hopkins’s magnificent performances in a pair of 1993 prestige offerings, you would do well to make the investment. In The Remains of the Day (above), he plays an impeccably civilized butler whose reluctance to give into his feelings becomes his sad undoing. As C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, he portrays a man whose recognition of his feelings becomes his salvation. Though Oscar nominated only for The Remains of the Day, Hopkins was honored by such groups as the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Board of Review for both performances.  He lost the Oscar, not necessarily undeservedly, to Tom Hanks’s powerful turn in Philadelphia. Interestingly, Hopkins’s  female co-stars in each  of those 1993 films, Emma Thompson and Debra Winger respectively, were  nominated for Best Actress by their peers in the Academy. Some feat, that.

Positioning Anthony Hopkins, as noted, a previous Oscar winner, among the Best Actor hopefuls is a bit of a risk. That race, at this early date, already seems dominated by the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both in The Master, in addition to buzzworthy turns by the great John Hawkes in Sessions, the incomparable Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and the never-before nominated Richard Gere in Arbitrage, along with Ben Affleck, doing double duty as actor and director with Argo and Bradley Cooper, recently earning raves at the Tornonto Film Festival for The Silver Linings Playbook (keeping in mind that such recent big Oscar winners as Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech also nabbed accolades at the Toronto fest).  So, there’s always that. On the other hand, Hopkins is Hopkins, and while he does seem like the ideal choice to play a paradoxical real-life figure such as Hitchcock, he could very well be a disaster. When Hopkins is good, as in Silence of the Lambs, he’s great–and sometimes, as in his back-to-back 1993 offerings, The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands, he’s brilliant, but, oh, just like the the late Laurence Olivier, when Hopkins is bad, he’s dreadful, and by dreadful I mean bombastic as evidenced by his turn as Captain Bligh in 1984’s unfortunate The Bounty (aka Mutiny on the Bounty), and even his ghastly re-creation of former President Richard Nixon (1995’s Nixon). To be fair, Hopkins was fighting an uphill battle in that one as he was working against the tangled, paranoid excesses of director Oliver Stone–and even at that, he still snagged an Oscar nomination, not surprising given Hollywood’s predisposition to loathe Nixon and believe the worst about him, thereby buying into Stone’s wretched vision. (I’m not defending the real Nixon at this late date, by the way; I just couldn’t stomach too much of Stone’s film. I think Frank Langella’s Oscar nominated turn in 2008’s Frost/Nixon comes closer to showing Nixon’s flawed humanity.) My fear is that Hopkins and the rest of the film will devolve into a campy mess that tries to turn Hitchcock into a madman, a monster, or  some kind of bumbling, if droll, idiot.  I also worry that Hopkin’s performance might be overwhelmed by whatever prosthetics are required for him to replicate Hitchcock’s familiar rotund, jowly, silhouette. That noted, I’m sure I’ll watch it unless the notices are dreadful.

Hitchcock is directed by Sacha Gervasi, who has little in the way of traditional feature films to his credit but who has had some success as a documentarian, most notably 2008’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil, for which Gervasi earned a Director’s Guild nomination.  I have high hopes for Johansson in this; after all, Leigh earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in Psycho, losing to Shirley Jones’s change-of-pace role in Elmer Gantry. I’ve actually had high hopes for Johansson for awhile. I thought she gave a performance worthy of awards consideration in 2005’s Match Point, but that did not happen though she snagged a Globe nod. Besides Johansson and Hopkins, the rest of the Hitchcock cast includes James D’Arcy (as Tony Perkins, the quirky, yet handsome, rising young actor given the role of a lifetime ) Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles, the former beauty queen who embarked on a successful acting career, briefly becoming a favorite of Hitchcock who cast her as Marion’s  suspicious sister),  Helen Mirren (as Alma Reville, the director’s wife and frequent collaborator), strapping newcomer Josh Yeo (as hunky John Gavin in the role of Marion’s commitment-shy stud-muffin), Toni Collett (as Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s real-life assistant),  Michael Wincott (as Ed Gein, of all people, the real-life serial killer upon whom writer Robert Bloch based his Psycho novel ),  Ralph Macchio (as screenwriter Joe Stefano), Wallace Langham (as Saul Bass, the innovative graphic artist who designed title sequences for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Pyscho, among others),  Paul Schackman (as composer Bernard Hermann), Richard Chassler (as respected character actor–and future Oscar winner–Martin Balsam [1]), and Mary Anne McGarry (as influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper).

Meanwhile, poor Toby Jones, right? The versatile British born actor had the unfortunate luck of playing writer Truman Capote in a biopic that hit theatres a year after Philip Seymour’s Oscar winning turn in Capote. (See my own article from August 29, 2011.) Now, I’ve also learned that Jones will appear as Hitchcock in a telefilm based on the director’s growing obsession with glamorous model-actress Tippi Hedren while shooting The Birds, Hitchcock’s wildly popular follow-up to Psycho.  Of course, there’s no doubt that filming The Birds was fraught with logistical drama, if not outright peril. Could be interesting. Of course, for Jones the real peril is once again stepping into the shoes of a real-life legend only to be beat to the punch by a better known actor in a vehicle tailor made for awards consideration. What an unfortunate turn. I’m sure Hitchcock would be amused.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – Best Supporting Actor for A Thousand Clowns (1965)

If It’s Sunday, This Must Be Venice

9 Sep

Look familiar? Poster for director Kim Ki’duk’s Pietà [Mercy]. Yep, that seems about right.

Well, here we are right in the middle of film festival season. The annual shindigs in Montreal, Telluride, and Venice  have just concluded while the one in Toronto is just getting started. New York’s fest is still a few weeks away, and these are just a few of the higher profile events. Studio executives and filmmakers love this time of year as they descend upon these fests in hopes of generating significant buzz, especially awards buzz, for their year-end prestige pics, which are typically more complex and adult-oriented than the rote summer blockbuster menu of spectacular action flicks, animated extravaganzas, and wascally comedies. For example, last year Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, starring George Clooney, was screened at both the Telluride and Toronto fests, becoming prime Oscar bait in the process; similarly, Gary Oldman’s Oscar nominated turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy earned early raves at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Two years ago, Oscar’s big winner, The King’s Speech, likewise wowed audiences at Telluride and Toronto. As far back as 1999, American Beauty set the Oscar race in motion by picking up an award in Toronto, and so it goes.. (Thanks, Linda Ellerbe).

The oldest of these film festivals is the Venice International Film Festival, which actually predates the much more famous Cannes Film Festival. The former was launched in 1932; the latter in 1947. As this year’s Venice fest is listed as its 69th annual, my math tells me that it has not always been held annually. The presentation of awards at Venice, as we now know them, did not begin until the late 1940s. (I’ll assume the fest was put on hiatus during WWII)

This year’s Venice winners include:

  • Golden Lion for Best Picture – Pietà by Kim Ki-duk (Republic of Korea)
  • Silver Lion for Best Director – The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson (U.S.A.)
  • Special Jury Prize – Paradies: Glaube [Paradise: Faith] by Ulrich Seidl (Austria, Germany, France)
  • Best Actress –  Hadras Yaron (Lemale Et Ha’Chalal, [Fill the Void] Israel)
  • Best Actor – TIE: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
  • Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Actor or Actress – Fabrizio Falco (Bella Addormentata [Dormant Beauty] and E Stato Il Figlio [It Was the Son], Italy)
  • Best Screenplay – Olivier Assayas (Apres Mai [Something in the Air], France)
  • Best Cinematography –  Daniele Cipri (E Stato Il Figlio)
  • Lion of the Future Award for Best Debut Film – Küf [Mold] by Ali Aydin (Turkey, Germany)
  • Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement – Francesco Rosi (Salvatrore Giuliano, Hands over the City, Lucky Luciano, Three Brothers, Carmen, The Truce, etc.)
  • Jaeger-LeColtre Glory to the Filmmaker Award  – Spike Lee (U.S.A)

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman recently shared Best Actor honors at the Venice International Film Festival for their performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, opening soon. The movie also stars Amy Adams, seen here on the poster with Phoenix and Hoffman.

Most intriguing to me is the shared award for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Seven years ago, these two actors duked it out for the Academy’s Best Actor Oscar. Hoffman, of course, won for starring in Capote, a biopic of writer Truman Capote, while Joaquin Phoenix was similarly nominated for playing a real-life figure, country-western singing legend Johnny Cash (Walk the Line). I would have easily, easily, honored Phoenix any day of the week over Hoffman, but that’s just me. Now, they might both find themselves in yet another Oscar race, though something tells me the studio releasing the film (the Weinstein group) will position the actors in separate categories: Phoenix as the leading actor, and Hoffman as supporting.  The Master is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since 2007’s amazing There Will Be Blood, which starred Daniel Day Lewis in an Oscar winning performance that simply rocks my world.

I’m super-excited about Anderson’s new film. Not only am I waiting to see Phoenix onscreen again, I’m curious about the look of The Master as Anderson has reached back in time for some old-school film magic. What this means is that Anderson, with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.,  shot his movie on film stock–as opposed to shooting it digitally–and, to up the ante, he actually worked in a true 70mm format. Okay, technically, it’s a 65mm format since the magnetic sound track comprises the other five milimeters. I think that’s right. Though a number of movies have been presented in 70mm for decades–less so now since the advent of digital technology–many of those offerings were not actually photographed in 70 but were simply blown-up from a 35mm negative. The wider 7omm image is generally robust: sharper and more detailed than its conventional counterpart. Of course, 70mm is also more expensive to produce. The Master is reportedly the first true 70mm film since Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet in 1996 (cinematography by Alex Thomson); prior to that, Ron Howard’s Far and Away (1992) was the first film since David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) to actually be filmed in 70. Lean’s usual cinematographer, the great Freddie Young, won an Oscar for the latter–to go along with the Oscars he also won for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).  I can’t wait! Luckily, I won’t have to as the Weinsteins are bucking tradition and rolling out The Master sooner rather than later, that is, the movie is set to open as early as Sept. 14th in some markets as opposed to the usual Nov.-Dec crush of Oscar hopefuls. As such, a potentially difficult movie now has time to generate significant momentum rather than struggle during a season in which a movie about cults (see below) might seem…unseasonable, thereby getting lost in the shuffle. (The downside, as I have learned, is that the 70mm prints will likely not be uniformly distributed across the country–the proper equipment is seldom used, after all–which probably means that the prints will be optically tricked out with special projector lenses to simulate a 70mm look–and this, ladies and gentlemen, is about the easiest way to explain how this stuff works.)

Actor and sometime director–not to mention Oscar winning screenwriter–Ben Affleck is currently garnering praise for this third directorial effort, Argo, an account about a CIA plan to rescue Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis that began there in 1979. Affleck is certainly no stranger to the festival circuit. He won the 2006 Best Actor award at Venice for his moving performance as the late George Reeves, TV’s original Superman, in Hollywoodland, a movie that explored the life and mysterious death of the much loved actor. If you have not yet seen this film, which co-stars Adrien Brody and Diane Lane, you should consider doing so if only to marvel at Affleck’s unexpectedly poignant portrayal of a man at odds with his most famous creation and his place in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Of course, many people are curious about Anderson’s work for none of the above reasons but are curious to see what appears to be a film about the early days of the infamous Church of Scientology. Apparently, Phoenix plays a volatile–troubled–World War II vet whose path crosses that of Hoffman’s charismatic cult leader.  For his part, Anderson freely admits that Hoffman’s character was/is inspired by Scientology’s founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard; however, Anderson is quick to add that the movie is not an exposé of Scientology, per se, but is more focused on the relationship between the two characters. Says Anderson in a recent widely reported interview from Venice:

  • “I really don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now […] But I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters.” [1]

More recently, in Toronto he elaborated:

  • “I don’t consider that we’re dealing with a cult […] The area of this story after the war is like food and drink to me in terms of an opportunity for a lot of good stuff to tell a story. It’s a mix of a tremendous bout of optimism, but an incredibly large bodycount behind you – how can you feel really great about a victory with so much death around you? So it gets you to a spot where you’ve gotta figure out where all the bodies are going and this creates a situation where people want to talk about past lives, about where we go after we die, past lives, and those kinds of ideas that the Master is putting forward – time travel is possible – those are great ideas. They’re hopeful ideas and stuff that was fascinating to write the story around.” [2]

Given a recent tawdry cover story from a seemingly respectable national magazine, maybe I should care more about who is/isn’t a Scientologist, but I think the media’s fascination is mostly crap that preys upon people’s fear of that which is different and unknown, especially when it comes to that old bugaboo, religion. Well, I, for one, am more concerned about the beliefs and policies of, say, someone trying to get into the White House, which does affect me, than I am in hashing out the details of the beliefs and policies of a movie star who has absolutely no bearing on my life, but that’s just me. That noted, I am NEVER in favor of a religion, cult, or other organization that abuses its members and violates their human rights; however, I can’t even say I’m truly sympathetic regarding adults who join cults even though they have every good reason not to–ugh, why am I even writing about this? Is Rock of Ages on DVD yet? Jeeze!

Well, I just want to see The Master: it’s been five years since Anderson has released a movie, and it’s been four years since Phoenix starred in a traditional feature film–seven years since his brilliant turn in Walk the Line, and that’s all the inducement I need.

[1] – http://www.hitfix.com/news/venice-p-t-anderson-acknowledges-the-masters-scientology-connection

[2] – http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/i-dont-consider-that-were-dealing-with-a-cult-paul-thomas-anderson-talks-about-the-master-at-tiff-20120909

A brief Huffington Post piece on 70mm: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/07/paul-thomas-anderson-the-master_n_1862890.html

Venice International Film Festival Official Site: http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/festival/awards/

The One with the Mustache

1 Sep

Well, after a few weeks of false starts and/or missed opportunities, Michael and I finally caught up with Ruby Sparks, a contemporary update on the old Pygmalion and Galetea tale in which a sculptor falls in love with one of his creations–a statue of an idealized female–and brings it to life.  This latest incarnation was written by actress Zoe Kazan as a vehicle for her and her longtime s.o., Paul Dano. (Yep, in case you’re wondering, she’s the granddaughter of the late Elia Kazan.) The film is directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, who previously collaborated with Dano on 2006’s Oscar nominated Little Miss Sunshine. In this instance, Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a novelist who hit it big while still in his teens but has only written intermittently in the decade since then; of course, he’s been dealing with some heavy stuff in that time: the death of a parent, a messy breakup, etc. Kazan’s Ruby first comes to Calvin in a dream, which eventually inspires him to write again. Ruby’s actual manifestation arrives in stages, and soon she and Calvin are living in one-sided bliss; after all, Calvin knows more about Ruby than she knows about herself. Plus, he can write her to be whatever he wants or needs at any given time. Naturally, complications ensue.

I liked Ruby Sparks, but I did not love it. On a scale of 1-10, I would give it a 6, maybe; I don’t think I would watch it again, either. I like Dano a lot, but I feel like too much of this movie is recycled from other sources, which  it clearly is, but aside from the obvious mythological allusions, there are a few others. Dano is likable in his role, and he’s markedly different from the characters he played in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, but his anxious–befuddled–writer recalls Ryan O’Neal’s nerdy professor in 1972’s What’s up Doc? (maybe it’s the specs); of course, die-hard film fanatics know that What’s Up Doc? is the cinematic descendant of 1938’s Bringing Up Baby–now recognized as a screwball classic–and that O’Neal’s performance is itself a sly tribute to Cary Grant’s portrayal of a buttoned-down paleontologist increasingly flustered by the antics of Katherine Hepburn’s dizzy heiress. While watching this new offering, I didn’t mind the idea that I felt like I’d already seen Dano’s performance in other, better, movies, but it did seem a little, well, old hat.

Kazan’s Ruby, on the other hand, was even less endearing. Something about the way the character has been conceived–by Kazan herself, don’t forget–struck me as way too reminiscent of Zooey Deschanel’s beguiling “Summer” in 500 Days of Summer (both characters are recent LA. transplants, their “backgrounds” are established with a few newsreel-like flashes, including sifting through pages in a yearbook, and they both favor bicycles)  and while Dano appears to be borrowing from movies that are well older than he is, Kazan seems to be cribbing from something that only came out a few years ago. (Some IMDb enthusiasts have commented about the similarities to 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I digress) I don’t get it. Dano’s character is supposed to be a brilliant writer, but he (as outlined by Kazan) didn’t really stretch too much to create this girlie-woman that he fancies to the extreme. On the other hand,  Kazan did see fit to include one big “acting class demonstration” moment for Ruby, and she delivers the goods with showy abandon, but so what? I also hated the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you, but I don’t have to because it’s the most predictable ending in the world. You should see it coming well before it happens, which is another thing: the movie is anywhere from 15-20 minutes too long. A sequence involving Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother could be scrapped entirely. It does provide a little character development, but it doesn’t really advance the plot. On the other hand, it could no doubt boost tourism in Big Sur. I thought–I was hoping–that the movie was going to end twice before it actually did, and when it did end, it was just as bad as I feared it would be.  There should have been at least one final twist to give the conclusion, you know, a spark of some kind.

^ Now playing in theatres and also available for home viewing: Bernie starring (l-r) Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, and Shirley MacLaine. Though the year-end glut of awards worthy performances is still a month or so away, no less than Roger Ebert has already proclaimed Black’s performance as one of 2012’s best.

The same day that Michael and I saw Ruby Sparks, I was surprised to find that Austin-based Richlard Linklater’s Bernie was newly available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Now, Bernie is a movie I can support 100%. “Really,” you ask, “on DVD already? Isn’t it still playing in theatres?” Yep, that’s right. Indeed, our Ruby Sparks box office cashier was answering questions about Bernie for another  customer while we were in line. The cashier called the movie, “a local phenomenon” and added that it was currently in its 17th week at that theatre, and I happen to know that other theatres all over the metroplex are also enjoying long-running engagements with the same film. When I saw the movie in July–a belated b’day treat with a longtime friend–it had already been playing for awhile; now, as I write this just over a week since it came out on DVD, Bernie continues its run on local screens. It’s stuff like this that makes me sometimes miss working in the movie biz; meanwhile, Ruby Sparks has come and gone in a flash.

What’s all the fuss? Well, Bernie, in case you haven’t heard, is a true-crime story set in small-town Carthage, out there in the pines of East Texas. Bernie Tiede’s saga first became big-time news in a 1998 Texas Monthly investigative piece penned by Skip Hollandsworth: “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” a clumsy allusion to John Berendt’s sublime account of a scandalous murder trial in the beautiful old Southern city of Savannah, GA. Bernie’s tale might be a tad more gruesome than the one in Berendt’s mammoth bestseller (and subsequent movie) though it lacks that story’s well defined cast of colorful characters, but the eccentric Texana flourishes are all there in Linklater’s latest– as if Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil were merged with Greater Tuna or, per Linklater, the Coens’ classic Fargo (1996).

Simply, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) was and is the proverbial big fish in a small pond: an assistant funeral director who excels at all aspects of his job (prepping the deceased for viewing, redecorating the funeral parlor, comforting the bereaved, and sometimes even conducting services); an active member of his church–especially the choir–besides being a highly visible presence in the community theater scene, a tireless promoter of  local arts events, and the go-to person for the town’s “official” Christmas festivities; generous to a fault. Bernie is such a sweet-natured,  delightful dumpling, he can’t help but attract the attention of the ladies though he is most solicitous of wealthy widows. Soon enough, Bernie endears himself to Carthage’s richest–and reportedly meanest–dowager, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Seemingly inseparable, the relationship between the pair becomes the scandalous talk-of-the-town. Are they lovers? Is he using her? Is she using him? Isn’t the one with the mustache a homosexual? With Bernie as her personal stylist, Marjorie’s appearance softens though she’s no less ornery; nonetheless, the two embark upon lavish, luxurious trips all across the globe as established in a deliberately hokey montage that is as effective as it brief (it gets the job done), but just how long can these fools’ paradise last? (Btw: Any resemblance to Calvin’s need to control Ruby and Marjorie’s need to control Bernie are purely coincidental.)

I’ll stop there. Of course, this is a fairly well-known story, so even if you haven’t seen the movie, you might already know about its bizarre twists and turns from reading the Hollandsworth article, some movie reviews, or from seeing it played out in a TV true-crime documentary.  If you have encountered none of the above, good for you.  Let me just add that Bernie’s outrageous crime is certainly more than matched by the reaction of the community to it, and the resulting trial is a circus of Looney Tunes proportions.

Director Richard Linklater first worked with Jack Black (above) on 2003’s School of Rock, an uncharacteristically mainstream endeavor for Linklater, the Texas filmmaker best known for such low-budgeted, modestly scaled and–mostly–indie
offerings as Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), and its follow-up, 2004’s Before Sunset. Linklater was Oscar nominated for co-writing the latter’s screenplay with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who also starred in the movie as well. School of Rock was, prior to Bernie, the  best vehicle for Black, who also performs as part of a rock band known as Tenacious D.

Make no mistake, Bernie is Jack Black’s movie, a dream role for this gifted if unconventional–and not always easy to cast–actor.  Of course, Bernie Tiede is quite a ridiculous figure, but Black doesn’t make a mockery of him (which would be easy), but he doesn’t entirely let him off the hook either. I don’t know that audiences laugh with Bernie instead of at him–since I don’t think Bernie is laughing in the first place–but I do think Black invites us to be amused and delighted, which is different. Black’s Bernie is almost always “on” whether he’s belting out gospel songs in church, performing show tunes in theater productions, singing along full throttle with his car radio, demonstrating the “art” of mortuary cosmetizing,  or conducting a cooking class; at other times, he’s soft-soaping someone or another with his own brand of patented sincerity. Oh, and the way he moves: everything about him is crisp, efficient, and just ever so slightly prissy (nothing too terribly overdone). Watch how methodical he is even when folding underwear. He also manages a convincing Southern accent. Plus, he has a few scenes which require him to be a slobbering, blubbering mess.  The role also offers Black a chance to physically transform himself just a bit as Bernie sports  jet black “helmet” hair. (He’s no doubt a vintage Consort man…google it) Though portly, he’s always neatly–if starchly–attired. Lots of Tommy Hilfiger. Beautiful. Naturally, I’ve never meet the real Bernie Tiede, but I have had the weird fortune to cross paths with more than a few middle-aged, doughy gay men who work as boy toys for well-to-do society ladies–don’t ask me how that happens–and Black seems to know exactly what he’s doing; per the DVD, he actually had an opportunity to confer with Tiede during pre-production. I sincerely hope that Black’s performance in this true sleeper generates some awards buzz at year’s end. An Oscar nomination might be too much to hope for, what with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix (Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master)  and Daniel Day Lewis (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) in more noticeably heavyweight, Academy friendly material–but a little Golden Globe consideration would be nice.

The film’s other two major roles are played by Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. As previously noted, MacLaine portrays crusty Marjorie Nugent. It’s a thankless, sketchily written role, but MacLaine is a pro with a strong enough presence to fill in some of the gaps. Plus, her history of  bringing to life superficially similar sourpusses in Terms of Endearment (1983), Steel Magnolias (1989), and even Guarding Tess (1994) adds just the right amount of extra baggage. The audience believes her because she has played this type before and played it well; she won an Oscar for her performance as Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, and she scored a Golden Globe nod for playing a former First Lady engaged in a battle of wills with a Secret Service agent (Nicolas Cage) in Guarding Tess.  Of course, her work as Steel Magnolia‘s high maintenance Ouiser Boudreaux exists in a realm all by its spectacular self. On the other hand, MacLaine doesn’t really look as matronly as the real Nugent; however, both women have red hair, fair skin, and freckles, so the resemblance is passable. McConaughey takes on the role of the improbably named real-life district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson.  A smug, self-satisfied showboater, Buck prepares for the biggest case of his career by mustering up as much righteous indignation as possible in the face of the public’s skewed fascination in the Tiede case. Texas native McConaughey, who got his first break as the so-smooth-he’s-oily “Wooderson” in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), plays the whole thing ever-so-slyly when, like Black with Bernie, it would be easy to go a little too far into the ham-zone. Plus, he lets the audience see that despite Davidson’s cocky exterior, he hasn’t lost touch with his humanity.  After years of playing in formulaic drivel, McConaughey seems to have found a handful of new projects to excite his imagination. Oh sure, he also appeared as a stripper in Steve Soderbergh’s Magic Mike over the summer, but he’s also been busy with the likes of Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Dallas Buyer’s Club. Recent photos show the actor looking surprisingly gaunt as he plays an HIV patient in the latter. Hmmmmmmm……

Besides the three major players, the cast is rounded out by a mix of professional actors, many of them regionally based, such as Brady Coleman (as Bernie’s lawyer, Clifton L. “Scrappy” Holmes), Sonny Carl Davis (a particularly opinionated townie  named Lonny), the magnificent Richard Robichaux (as Lloyd Hornbuckle, the thorn in Bernie’s side), and the late Rick Dial (as Bernie’s mortuary boss); meanwhile, the roles of Carthage’s hilariously gossipy residents are played by real-life members of the community (and surrounding areas), many of whom share their actual recollections of both Tiede and Nugent in one of the DVD’s extra features. Surely, among those, Kay “Baby” Epperson makes a grand impression as a no b.s. type who actually needs a better b.s. detector. She has one of the movie’s best zingers, which Linklater says was an ad-lib.

bernie2

Black (l) and McConaughey (r) appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly’s May 2012 issue.

The film was shot in and around Carthage as well as Austin. I’ve now read more than one account of Bernie’s story, and I’ve watched a rerun of  the A & E/Biography channel’s City Confidential episode about the case in addition to the various DVD extras, so I think the film’s look is pretty much exactly as it should be. Either the filmmakers were given permission to shoot in some of the actual locations, or they managed to find convincing stand-ins. The exterior of the Nugent home is spot-on; the interior is a hoot, a taxidermist’s delight that provides a wicked bit of foreshadowing. Just enjoy.

Linklater collaborated with Hollandsworth on the screenplay, and while a few liberties have been taken with some of the real story’s incidental details, by most accounts the more pertinent, more outrageous, bits are pretty much exactly as Hollandsworth originally outlined; one of Marjorie Nugent’s relatives actually praises the movie’s veracity in a New York Times piece. Of course, even with a story as well researched as this one, a leap of faith is required by the audience since not every party involved has a voice–and we know, clearly, that the person that does have a voice is not necessarily a reliable narrator. That’s a fact. Interestingly, per the DVD, Hollandsworth and Linklater actually met years and years ago just after Hollandsworth wrote his article. As Linklater explains, at the time of Hollandsworth’s original report the outcome of the Tiede case was not yet known, and Linklater travelled to San Augustin county in order to witness the trial first-hand. Knowing that Linklater actually sat in the courtroom and observed the action as it lumbered to its conclusion gives the movie even more authenticity–and fills me with twisted delight. I just like knowing that Linklater was that close to the event and that he and Hollandsworth never lost sight of wanting to film Bernie’s story. Part of the delay, as Linklater explains, was finding the right actor to play Bernie. Once Black became part of the equation, the director even waited awhile longer to make sure the actor aged into the role in order to be as convincing as possible. The real Bernie Tiede would no doubt agree: in performance as well as in crime, timing is everything.

Thanks for your consideration…

“Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth: http://www.texasmonthly.com/1998-01-01/feature4.php

Q & A with Skip Hollandsworth: http://www.texasmonthly.com/2012-05-01/webextra3.php

Marjorie Nugent’s nephew writes about both his aunt and the movie in the New York Times: http://tinyurl.com/7uxezxh

A timeline of the Tiede case per the Longview News Journal:

http://www.news-journal.com/panola/news/the-killer-inside-him/article_166195b0-6211-50dd-bc89-31b62c55a4c9.html

Roger Ebert reviews Bernie:

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120516/REVIEWS/120509995