Thursday, December 30, 2010

Alfie on You Tube

This has been up for well over a year now, so I'm assuming Paramount is OK with it. Well, either that, or some studio employees who should be looking out for this sort of thing are asleep at the switch. In any event, if you've ever wanted to watch the original Alfie -- either again or for the first time -- here's your chance. But don't be surprised if it's not available much longer.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All the President's Men joins all the worthy movies in the National Film Registry

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit at the outset that I was a journalism major in college –- Loyola University in New Orleans, where my mentor was the late, great Tom Bell -- during the tragicomic sideshow of Watergate. So my view of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as true-blue American heroes – as fearless and relentless seekers of truth who helped to bring down the most corrupt President in U.S. history – is, perhaps, a bit skewed.

But trust me: That isn’t the only reason why I consider Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men to be first among equals in the batch of movies announced today as this year’s selections for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.

The simple fact is, just as Woodward and Bernstein (collectively nicknamed Woodstein) set new standards for American journalism, and inspired thousands of idealists – along with more than a few amoral glory-hounds – to follow in their paths, All the President’s Men established a new paradigm for big-screen docudramas in general, and true-life tales of uncovered malfeasance in particular. (Just wait until you read all the allusions to Pakula’s classic – and the 1974 Woodward-Bernstein book on which it’s based -- when critics write about the inevitable Wikileaks movie.)

Just as important, Pakula’s 1976 masterwork also provided an invaluable and long overdue counterbalance to the stereotypical movie image of newspaper reporters as boozy buccaneers who talk fast, crack wise and raise hell while they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (A stereotype, it should be noted, that was indelibly defined in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play The Front Page -- which inspired a 1931 film that, coincidentally or otherwise, also is included in this year’s National Film Registry honor roll.) In the world according to Pakula, reporters spend most of their time getting doors slammed in their faces, digging through voluminous records, and walking or driving endless miles to follow leads that go nowhere.

Glamorous, it ain’t.

Robert Redford (who also produced the picture) plays Woodward, Dustin Hoffman plays Bernstein, and they’re both terrific. (Hoffman is slightly more terrific, if only because he gets some meatier, showier scenes, but never mind.) And Jason Robards is a hoot in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee, who pops up periodically to remind Woodstein – and the audience – just how high the stakes are. (“We are about to accuse Bob Halderman – who only happens to be the second most important man in this country – of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right.”) But the leads give full-blooded performances, not one-dimensional star turns, and the movie’s enduring stature has relatively little to do with their celebrity.

Given the task of fashioning a compelling narrative from events at once overly familiar and off-puttingly confusing to a 1976 moviegoing public, screenwriter William Goldman earned an Academy Award by rising brilliantly to the challenge of imposing structure and generating suspense. Director Pakula -- whose thrillers Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) can be viewed in retrospect as warm-up exercises – does his utmost to ensure that every scene of All the President’s Men percolates with paranoia. At the same time, though, he strives for a realistic, even semi-documentary look, and rarely invokes his dramatic license to hype the truth with Hollywooden hyperbole.

On a couple of occasions, Pakula and ace cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) artfully underscore the against-all-odds nature of the Woodstein investigation by viewing the reporters at a distance, from far, far overhead. (Note the casually brilliant sequence in the Library of Congress, as the camera pulls further and further back to show the dutifully plodding duo seeking the truth in the very center of a labyrinth.) And while the two reporters spend much of their time in dimly illuminated rooms and shadow-streaked garages while following their leads, the Washington Post newsroom set always remains brightly lit – underscoring the newspaper’s importance (in this movie, at least) as a beacon of truth.

More often, however, Pakula eschews stylistic flourishes and goes for unvarnished verisimilitude, occasionally allowing scenes to unfold in what feels like real time.

About midway through the movie, there’s a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game played by Bernstein and a Committee to Re-Elect the President bookkeeper (Oscar-nominated Jane Alexander) who’s too sacred to be forthcoming, but too honest to be deceptive. Bernstein finagles his way into the woman’s living room, and plants himself on her couch while her sister – obviously no fan of the bookkeeper’s bosses – brings him coffee. The CREEP bookkeeper refuses to talk. Bernstein insists he will listen. And then, gradually, the ice starts to melt.

Against her better judgment, and despite her worst fears, the bookkeeper speaks volumes with tremulous nods and half-whispered monosyllables. Bernstein listens attentively, sympathetically. All you have to do is look at his eyes to tell what the guy is thinking – “Jeez, I can’t believe what I’m hearing! God, don’t let me screw this up!” – and note his tense body posture to appreciate what an effort he’s making to appear relaxed. But his smile remains pleasant and deferential; his voice, noncommittal but gently prodding. He’s not merely coaxing information from her – he’s seducing her into doing what she really wants to do.

Ever wonder how reporters get ordinary people to make extraordinary revelations? Pay close attention to this scene, which should be mandatory viewing at every journalism school.

Other scenes – including some of the movie’s funniest -- resound with a similar ring of truth. At one point, Woodward makes a cold call to a GOP official, and is so amazed when the official himself answers the phone that he’s momentarily lost for words. (He vamps, none too effectively, by twice introducing himself as “Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.”) Later, as the Woodstein team questions Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins), a former White House insider, Sloan insists that he’s a good Republican. “So am I,” Woodward interjects, obviously trying to ingratiate himself. Bernstein says nothing, but shoots his partner an ambiguous glance that can be read as hectoring skepticism (“What a crock!”) or stunned disbelief (“You’re a what?”)

Pakula and Goldman wisely chose to conclude All the President’s Men shortly after Woodward and Bernstein make a major goof that briefly stalls their investigation. It’s a daring move, ending a movie when it appears the protagonists have been defeated. (It’s also a quintessentially ’70s touch that few contemporary filmmakers would or could risk.) But the final image of Woodward and Bernstein at work in the newsroom, pounding away at their typewriters as a televised Richard M. Nixon looms triumphantly, is a masterstroke. We don’t need to read the newswire bulletins that, in the movie’s final moments, chart Nixon’s eventual downfall. All we need to see are the two reporters doggedly pursuing the truth, illustrating how doing the right thing entails so much hard, thankless and seemingly unexciting work.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Chris Carter, creator-producer of The X-Files, freely admits his cult TV series and its movie spin-offs were strongly influenced by All the President’s Men. Indeed, the Cigarette Smoking Man, a figure who looms large in the X-Files mythos, is an explicit hat-tip to Pakula’s film noirish depiction of “Deep Throat,” the cryptic informer (memorably played by Hal Holbrook) who pointedly warns Woodward to “follow the money.”

All the President’s Men “was a great film that just broke so many rules,” Carter told Variety in a 1999 interview. “To use the non-dramatic image of someone sitting on a telephone trying to glean information took some guts. And as a former journalist interested in investigative journalism as a young man, that kind of storytelling and investigative approach fascinated me.”

Trouble is, Carter added, “It’s a kind of entertainment that largely doesn't play anymore. Tabloidization has had a great impact, unfortunately. We’re not interested in journalists who adhere to a standard of their own. So you couldn’t do an All the President’s Men anymore.”

But thanks to the Library of Congress, you’ll always have the chance to see it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa Claus -- The 1898 version, not the one with Dudley Moore as an elf

Talk about your blast from the past: Just three years after Auguste and Louis Lumiere unveiled their cinématographe in Paris, British film pioneer G.A. Smith made this extraordinary short. As Michael Brooke writes for the British Film Institute, Santa Claus "is a film of considerable technical ambition and accomplishment for the period. A former magic lanternist and hypnotist, Smith was one of the first British filmmakers -- indeed, one of the first filmmakers anywhere -- to make extensive use of special effects to create fantastical scenes... It comes as little surprise that Smith corresponded with the French pioneer Georges Méliès at about this time, as the two men shared a common goal in terms of creating an authentic cinema of illusion." As I said: Extraordinary.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Remembering Snow White -- and the woman who gave her a voice

It was 73 years ago today that Walt Disney premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, arguably one of the most influential and undeniably one of the most enchanting movies ever made. By now, it’s become so indelibly etched on our collective pop-culture consciousness that it may be hard, if not impossible, to imagine a world without it. But consider this: At the time of its production, it was considered by many to be Uncle Walt’s folly, because conventional wisdom dictated that audiences simply wouldn’t have the patience – or even the desire – to sit through a feature-length cartoon.

Fortunately for all of us, this was one Mickey Mouse notion that Disney chose to reject.

Still magical after all these decades, Snow White is best enjoyed in a spacious movie theater with Dolby Stereo, or a comfy den with a world-class home theater system, alongside as many children as you can reasonably corral. But if you can’t find any kids to watch it with, don’t let that stop you: Do yourself a favor and enjoy it on your own.

What’s that? You say you’re too old for fairy tales? Well, that’s a shame. But, OK, be that way: You can still admire Disney’s Snow White for its sheer technique. In terms of depth, detail and delicate play of light and shadow, the supple artistry of this must-see movie has seldom been equaled, even in an era of computer-generated imagery.

A few sequences are simply unforgettable: Snow White, racing through a shadow-streaked forest, sees threatening alligators in floating branches and wild-eyed monsters in rotting tree trunks. The Wicked Queen, transformed into a cackling crone, drifts through the gray fog of a pale dawn on her mission of murder. The height-challenged yet ever-hearty Seven Dwarfs, alerted at their mine by anxious forest animals, race back to their cottage to save Snow White while, thanks to crosscutting worthy of D.W. Griffith, we see our heroine being offered The Poisoned Apple.

Show Snow White to children of an impressionable age, and they’ll never be satisfied with the corner-cutting animation on view in reruns of ‘60s and ‘70s TV cartoon shows. See it yourself, and you’ll be reminded of the hand-made impressionistic beauty that prospered under Uncle Walt, long before animators at Disney and elsewhere discovered the magic of CGI. Indeed, the animation is so effective in Snow White that very small youngsters may be frightened by some scenes, especially when The Fairest of Them All runs through the seemingly haunted woods.

Granted, there’s not much even the Disney animators can do to make Prince Charming appear anything but white-bread bland. (It always requires a leap of faith to believe that Snow White, or any other animated heroine, could ever live happily ever after with such a stiff.) On the other hand, it’s not entirely the poor hero’s fault: The Dwarfs -- Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Sneezy and Bashful -- upstage everybody, even the radiant heroine, with highly individualized personalities that are the byproducts of meticulously detailed artistry.

Nitpickers have a point when they complain that this precedent-setting classic – the mother of all animated movies -- firmly established the convention of stuffing a slew of “original songs” into almost every Disney or non-Disney animated feature. Still, even Grumpy would have to agree that the wall-to-wall musical score in Snow White is cheerily pleasant, with some songs (“Whistle While You Work,” “Heigh-Ho” and “I'm Wishing”) as endearing and immortal as the movie that introduced them. And if you can remain dry-eyed throughout the climactic rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” well, you’re made of sterner stuff than this grumpy film critic.

By the way: Have I ever told you that I once met the real Snow White?

No, don’t worry, I haven’t been sampling some of Dopey’s private stash. There was a time when the folks at Walt Disney Productions would periodically re-release their animated classics in theaters and drive-ins everywhere. And whenever it was time to reissue Snow White, they’d usually book a promotional tour for Adriana Caselotti – the singer-actress who provided the sweetly trilling voice for the fairest princess of them all. Which is why, back in 1983, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I had opportunity to dine and dialogue with Caselotti over lunch at Brennan’s Restaurant.

Better still, I had the honor of my own private serenade: As I approached her table, she greeted me an impossibly sweet rendition of – yes, you guessed it! – “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

By that time, Snow White had already outlived its creator -- Walt Disney died in 1966 -- and many of the dedicated artists who drew the enchanting fairy tale more than four decades earlier. But Caselotti was still around, still vivacious and loquacious. And even though she never really had a showbiz career after Snow White, she was willing – nay, extremely eager -- to share anecdotes about her animated alter ego whenever the Disney studio would send her out on the road.

She was home with her father, Guido Caselotti, an Italian-born, Los Angeles-based vocal coach, when Disney casting director Roy Scott phoned Mr. Caselotti in 1935. Scott was seeking someone with a child-like singing voice for an upcoming cartoon project. (Deanna Durbin, just before starting her movie career at Universal, was briefly considered for the job, but rejected because she sounded too mature.) Did Mr. Caselotti, by any chance, know of someone who might fit the bill?

“I was listening in on the extension phone,'' Caselotti remembered. ''And I said, 'Papa, what about me?’”

Papa Caselotti told his daughter to get off the line. But by then it was too late -- Scott was intrigued by her girlish voice, and asked young Adriana to come by the studio for an audition.

So she did just that. Some 150 other girls also were considered for the job. But after repeated tests, everyone at the studio -- even Uncle Walt -- agreed Caselotti was the perfect choice.

Caselotti recalled Walt Disney as “a very natural, down-to-earth fellow. When you first met him, he didn't even want you to know he was Walt Disney. He wanted you to relax, I think.”

There was only one problem: Disney repeatedly stressed he wanted a Snow White who sounded all of 14 years old. When the time came to actually record voices for the film, however, Caselotti was 18.

“So I didn't tell anyone my age,” she says. “Whenever they called at home, I answered in my little girl voice, the voice of Snow White. It's not my normal voice. I had to push it up, to get that never-never-land quality Mr. Disney was looking for. It was easy for me to do, because of my operatic training.

“Actually, I worked very few days on the picture. All the dialogue and musical portions were done in a rather short period of time. Then there was a little dubbing to do after the animation was finished.

“But I have always felt very much a part of the Disney family -- even though I probably didn't work at the studio for more than a week or two.”

Adrianna Caselotti died in 1997, at age 80. As I indicated earlier, she didn’t do much of note as a professional performer after providing the singing and speaking voice for Snow White. But, really, what more need a person do to ensure herself some degree of immortality?

Adriana Caselotti (1916-1997)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

They like him! They really like him!

When the Houston Film Critics Society announced Saturday their choice of a tune from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- "We Are Sex Bob-Omb!" -- as Best Original Song, many folks attending the HFCS awards show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, were surprised and delighted. But the surprises didn't end there.

HFCS had already tipped off the film's director, Edgar Wright, about the upset victory. And Wright in turn graciously taped a thank-you speech (duly played for the MFAH audience) in which he praised the song's composer and lyricist (Beck), proclaimed HFCS members to be the coolest film critics in the known universe -- and, inexplicably, underscored his gratitude by brandishing a banana.

Of course, as Monty Python fans well know, it can be a tricky thing to defend yourself against a man brandishing a banana.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

RIP: Blake Edwards (1922-2010)

At the time of his death Wednesday evening at age 88, Blake Edwards, the Tulsa-born filmmaker who shrewdly balanced slapstick and sophistication throughout a Hollywood career spanning five decades, had at least three legitimate claims to pop-culture immortality. You can read my CultureMap obit here. And if, after reading it, you're hankering to take another look at Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's, well, thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you are in luck.

Society loves Social

One week before Christmas, the Houston Film Critics Society decided to make the makers of The Social Network very merry indeed. You can read my CultureMap Houston report here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Additional dialogue: Anthony Perkins on Psycho

While preparing to introduce Psycho this Wednesday as a Culture Map Night at the Movies offering at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks, I've been reminded of how ambivalent Anthony Perkins felt about being typecast by the role of a lifetime: Norman Bates, the boyishly shy motelkeeper who loved his mother not wisely but far too well. Indeed, for more than a decade after he starred in the film, he deeply resented the lasting legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterwork.

During this period, it should be noted, Perkins enjoyed a wide range of roles on Broadway, playing leads in The Star-Spangled Girl, Equus and Romantic Comedy. In films, however, he usually was hired to play some variety of neurotic, psychotic or arrested adolescent, most notably in The Fool Killer (1965), WUSA (1970), the cult-fave Pretty Poison  (1968) and (opposite no less a leading lady than Diana Ross) Mahogany (1975). It was almost enough to drive him – well, psycho.

It required a serious attitude adjustment on his part – and the encouragement of his supportive wife, photographer Berry Berenson – for Perkins to fully appreciate the upside of achieving immortality in a classic movie. By the mid-1970s, he was ready to embrace his notoriety, and even mock himself in a classic Saturday Night Live sketch. (“Here at the Norman Bates School of Motel Management….”) By 1983, three years after Hitchcock’s death, he was willing to re-open the Bates Motel in Psycho II.Two years later, he took full control of his destiny as director and star of Psycho III.

Perkins, who died of AIDS in 1992, seldom discussed his private life or sexual proclivities with interviewers. In the 1980s, however, he offered some astonishingly candid revelations in a People magazine profile. The son of film and stage actor Osgood Perkins, he was raised by his smotheringly protective mother after his father died when Anthony was 5. Inadvertently, she aroused ambivalent, sexually charged feelings in her son, feelings often accompanied by pangs of Oedipal guilt. In later years, Perkins told People, he was emotionally ill-equipped to sustain relationships with women. (That changed in 1971, he claimed, when he met Berry – who, in a horrible twist of fate, eventually died aboard one of the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.) On the other hand, Perkins’ traumatic childhood may have helped to make him a true soul mate of The Master of Suspense.

Perkins addressed the latter issue, among others, during a 1985 interview with me at his Universal Pictures production office shortly before he started work on Psycho III.

Q: Alfred Hitchcock once said actors should be treated like cattle. How do you think he would feel about cattle taking over the corral as directors?

A: That’s a good question. Actually, when we made the first Psycho, he was tremendously on my side with everything that I tried to bring to the picture. He encouraged my co-operation and collaboration with him at every turn. And I know that was not his well-known way of being. So maybe there was something between the two of us that he responded to. Or maybe he simply was tired of hearing what a dictator he appeared to be, and how actors resented his lack of communication.

Q: Do you think he may have seen a little bit of himself in you? According to Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock also had to contend with ambivalent feelings about a domineering mother.

A: That’s an inventive idea. I hate speculative answers, but I like that as a theory. It’s possible, I suppose. But how will we ever know? I certainly have wondered why he was so kind to me, and would accept my suggestions. It was strange: He wouldn’t even be curious about what changes I wanted to make. He’d say, “Enchant me on the set.” He didn’t want to know about them before.

At one point, when we were filming the scene where Norman finds Marion Crane’s body in the bathroom, I jump back and sort of huddle against the door. Well, when I did it the first time, a picture fell off the wall, and hit the floor. Hitch was setting something else up, so I said, “Look, this bird picture fell off the wall. Why don’t we include that? We could even do an insert shot of this picture hitting the floor…?” And suddenly, that got the entire set quiet. Because it’s one thing to fool around with the dialogue, or do your own clothes. But when you tell The Master of Suspense to shoot an insert, you may be sticking your head into the lion’s mouth.

But all he said was “Oh, lovely. We’ll do that.” So, to answer your question: Yes, it was spooky how far he went with me. And I, of course, never tried to take advantage of his generosity.

Q: Do you know why he cast you as Norman Bates?

A: Well, Hitchcock was unique in those days – and probably in these days as well. He never used to cast actors from readings or auditions of any kind. He cast them from seeing them in other pictures and previous roles. That was his way. He’d seen me in Fear Strikes Out (1957), in which I played Jim Piersall – the baseball player who had a nervous breakdown. So, by the time of my first meeting with him, I already more or less had the part.

But I didn’t realize that he would be so relaxed to the point of where he would pull $100 out of his pocket and say, “Here, now that we’ve talked, I have to be on to some other business. But why don’t you go down to a store and buy what you think Norman Bates would wear, and give it to the wardrobe man? Those can be your costumes.” I thought that was awfully good of him to trust me that way, first of all. And second of all, it was good of him to demonstrate that trust, not by just saying “I’m sure you’re gonna be wonderful, and I’m looking forward to this,” but by doing something pragmatic and evidential of his trust.

I immediately went out and bought $100 worth of – well, I don’t want to say low-class stuff. But it was definitely the slouchy early ’60s look. And Hitchcock barely looked at it when I returned with it.

Q: Despite his actions, Norman had always remained an oddly sympathetic character. Why do you think that’s so?

A: Well, I think one of the things that made the first Psycho an enduring film is that Norman’s crimes were always committed out of love, out of an excess of love, rather than an excess of hate. Norman never hated anyone. And he’s not a person who works from the emotion of hate, or even responds to it. So I think that is one thing that has kept audiences kind of on Norman’s side, because they realize he’s been pushed to these extremes out of love. Also, it’s because Hitchcock had the brainstorm to cast the role not as it was written in the original Robert Bloch novel, as an older, overweight, disconsolate sort of half-stupefied man. Instead, he made Norman a younger, more sympathetic character. I think that was a very intelligent thing for him to do.

Look, over the years, maybe tens of thousands of people have come up to me in airports and theater lobbies and hotel lobbies and restaurants. And no one has ever walked up to me with anything but a smile. That’s because they found Norman was someone they could warm up to. No one has ever seen me and cried, “Oh, my God! It’s Norman Bates!”

Q: Even so, weren’t you resentful for a long time at being so closely associated with Norman Bates? I have the impression you weren’t able to resign yourself to your image until well into the 1970s, when you spoofed Norman on Saturday Night Live.

A: I have definitely made peace with it. Years ago, my wife pointed out to me that the more resistance I had to the public association of me and Norman Bates – and vice-versa – the more people would come away from an encounter with me confirmed that their suspicions were correct. And from that very casual remark of hers on, it’s been very much easier for me to accept that people still literally say, “Hi, Norman,” when they meet me. Actually, it’s an honor to be associated with a movie that has lasted and gone on through a generation, and is still able to quicken the pulse. I think it’s great. I prefer that to walking down the street and having people say, “Oh, look, that’s… that’s… uhhhhh…”

Once Mad magazine has done you, and Saturday Night Live has done you, and once you’ve been anthologized in everything, and your sequences are shown to film schools – you’re just part of the national grain, that’s all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gwyneth Paltrow shakes her thing

For reasons I don't quite understand -- but, frankly, lead me to expect the worst -- Country Strong, the musical drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a troubled country music superstar and Tim McGraw as her anxious manager-husband, is rapidly approaching its year-end release date with a conspicuous lack of hype and hoopla. At one point, there was some loose talk about Paltrow's potential as a Best Actress contender. But now? Well, I can't say I've heard any of that talk for quite some time. On the other hand, I have heard Paltrow on the Country Strong soundtrack CD -- which also features some Grade-A cuts by Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Trace Adkins and Hank Williams Jr. -- and she certainly sounds convincing as a contemporary country artist. Better still, as you can see in above music video, she looks the part as well. That, along with the fact that Country Strong was directed by Shana Feste, whose criminally under-rated drama The Greatest was one of my favorite offerings at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival, gives me at least some reason to hope that we all have a pleasant surprise in store for us.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Warrior's Way

Although it’s much more likely to be embraced by fan boys and film buffs than mainstream audiences, The Warrior’s Way impresses as a visually inspired and audaciously stylized multi-genre amalgamation, a borderline-surreal folly that suggests a martial-arts action-adventure co-directed by Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini. First-time feature director Sngmoo Lee, working from his own wildly eclectic screenplay, dawdles during an extended swath of his narrative, and doesn’t fully utilize some of his more colorful characters and dramatic conceits. Overall, however, this arrestingly outlandish concoction appears entirely capable of attracting an appreciative cult on homevideo after a modestly lucrative theatrical run. You can read my Variety review here.