Monday, May 31, 2010

A perfectly cast Streisand - at the top of her game - makes for a delicious CLEAR DAY

Barbra Streisand combined the kooky and classic sides of her personality perfectly when playing both Daisy and Melinda in her third film, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. Described in Paramount Pictures production notes as a “delightful combination of comedy, drama, fantasy and music, the film deals with a psychiatrist (Yves Montand) who becomes professionally and emotionally involved with a remarkable female patient, who possesses extrasensory powers and relives, under hypnosis, an earlier incarnation.”

Based on the 1965 Broadway success by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane which originally starred Barbara Harris and John Cullum, the producers made some significant changes when transferring the play to the screen. Lerner revised his original story to accommodate the film's director, Vincente Minnelli (Gigi, An American in Paris), who requested that the regression sequences be changed from a Restoration to a Regency setting. Minnelli felt that “white wigs and writing with feathers gets to be very boring.” He wanted to make it Regency, because “the world was more inviting.” Also, several songs from the Broadway show were jettisoned while several new ones were added -and then cut!

Designed to be a sumptuous musical in the tradition of My Fair Lady and Camelot, On A Clear Day was originally meant to be a three hour “road show” release. Road show films were a special theatrical format treated as an event. Most road shows were shown with an overture, an intermission, an Entre Acte and “exit” music. Also, road shows usually had lengthy running times which limited the number of showings per day and therefore cut into studio and theater profit margins. But if a road show film was successful, it could mean a healthy run and large returns. (Think The Sound of Music.) Movie theaters also sold expensive keepsake programs featuring photos and articles about the film to generate even more revenue.

However, by 1970, the world of movies had changed and films began to tackle more contemporary issues. Lacking faith that an "old fashioned" property like Clear Day could attract a large audience, Paramount Pictures decided to abandon the road show format and delivered the film to theaters with an abreviated running time of 129 minutes. This meant that it could squeeze more showings into a day. This also meant that several filmed sequences had to be sacrificed to whittle down the film’s three hour running time. Sadly, Clear Day lost several key musical numbers, subplots, and scenes. It's for this reason that the film has attained a cult status among fans - somewhat like the “lost” version of Judy Garland’s A Star is Born. But unlike A Star is BornOn A Clear Day has never been restored. In fact, the cut sequences have never seen the light of day. It's doubtful that the missing footage still exists, unless the Minnelli estate — or Streisand herself — has preserved them somewhere.

Despite studio interference, Minnelli did an extraordinary job with what would become his last musical. The film is well cast with Jack Nicholson, Larry Blyden, Simon Oakland, Lew Ayers, Mabel Albertson and Bob Newhart lending expert support and Streisand is both reserved and natural as well as remarkably adroit at playing two radically different women in the same body. The colors are glorious. Streisand's period costumes are spectacular. And then there's that score; Magnificent! (The Broadway cast album won the Grammy.) Next to his sublime score to Finian's RainbowClear Day contains composer Burton Lane's most memorable work for the theatre. And while we fans of the film will never stop hoping for the original three hour road show to miraculously turn up on home video one day, all in all, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever is a joy to behold -- in any incarnation.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

Playing in the sand: ‘Prince of Persia’ is delicious summer movie fluff

First the United States invaded the Middle East, and now Hollywood has swooped in to finish the job: one day after the Sex and the City ladies landed in the Abu Dhabi doo-doo, setting off a dust storm of critical hate, PRINCE OF PERSIA: The Sands of Time seems primed to raise huffy hackles with a swords-and-sandals-style spectacular in ancient Iran. Based on a gulf-war-era video game, Prince of Persia stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular warrior who, scrambling up walls and vaulting across roofs amid camels, pomegranates and whirling dervishes, helps lead the search in wartime for, Praise Bruckheimer, weapons of not-quite-mass destruction.

As an example of the new pop-cultural crusades Prince of Persia is at once generically insulting and relatively innocuous. Set in the sixth century, the story involves Dastan (Mr. Gyllenhaal), the adopted son of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who plucked the wee boy out of the streets to raise the child alongside his royal spawn, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). The film, directed by Mike Newell and written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, pays dutiful if cursory attention to the family angle. The father imparts wise words, and the brothers clasp hands and lock gazes, but the fraternal bonds are shredded after they invade a holy city and Dastan is ensnared in a palace intrigue.

Cut and chiseled, his pumped-up pectorals flashing, Mr. Gyllenhaal offers an updated spin on the mysterious Oriental lover of cinematic yesteryear. More butch than the silent-screen god Valentino (best known for playing the Sheik, an Arab rather than a Persian heartbreaker), Mr. Gyllenhaal instead follows — and runs and leaps — in the robustly muscular and acrobatic tradition of Douglas Fairbanks, the silent-film star whose Middle Eastern exploits were aggressively masculine. Granted, the resurrection of a sexpot Middle Eastern hero (even one played by a non-Persian actor) might not seem like progress. But given the strained relations between the United States and Iran, it’s a representation worth noting, particularly since Dastan’s worth is finally measured by his more peaceable actions.

This topical hook doesn’t sink very deep, admittedly; like a lot of action flicks, Prince of Persia exploits the headlines for familiar genre high jinks. Dastan hooks up with a pouty princess (an unfortunate Gemma Arterton) and engages in some funny business with a shady wise-cracking sheik (Alfred Molina, fortunately). Ben Kingsley shows up as Basil Rathbone, or rather Nizam, the king’s silky, suspicious brother. Shot in Morocco and in Pinewood Studios in Britain, the film is crammed with swirling sand, milling crowds, computer-generated cities and assorted narrative bits and pieces, some borrowed from the studio playbook (everyone speaks in a British accent, even, alas, Mr. Gyllenhaal), others recycled from the video game series by Jordan Mechner, who has a story credit.

The movie’s video game roots are most evident in the mechanized feel of many of the whiplash camera movements, which sharply zig and zag as if created by algorithms. Considering that he made the move from the art house to the blockbuster a few years ago with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mr. Newell surely knew what he was getting himself into when he signed on with the producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Save for Michael Bay, who parted company with Mr. Bruckheimer a while ago, no director ever gets to put his own fingerprints on a Bruckheimer production. As usual, the talent in Prince of Persia is generally top notch — from the cinematographer John Seale to the parkour expert David Belle — but the ingredients have been masticated so heavily the results are mush.

For the most part this is perfectly painless mush. The movie is irrepressibly silly — what were you expecting? — but a few hours of Mr. Gyllenhaal jumping around in leather and fluttering his long lashes has its dumb-fun appeal, as does the sight of Mr. Molina planting a kiss on an ostrich in a big-screen spectacle that’s as much indebted to newfangled technologies as to old-fashioned Hollywood narrative strategies. If nothing else, it’s entertaining to think about how this mash-up of ancient Persian heroics and headline news might sit with the Iranian powers that be. In March 2009 a spokesman for the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanded an apology from Hollywood for “insults and accusations against the Iranian nation” over the last 30 years. Clearly, they had no idea they were about to be Bruckheimer-ed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Downey's performance makes the 1987 fan favorite LESS THAN ZERO into something compelling and watchable.

It is not quite the compliment it may sound to say that Robert Downey Jr. steals every scene in Less Than Zero (even the ones he's not in). His co-stars in this botched film version of the infamous Bret Easton Ellis novel are Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, both of whom so completely embody their characters' blankness that they leave two voids at the center of the story. Downey could mistakenly be judged to have walked off with the acting honors by default, the easiest victory since Theresa Russell (in a very similar role) wrested The Razor's Edge away from Bill Murray and Catherine Hicks. This, however, would be to severely underrate Downey's careful recreation of a life out of control. An accident waiting to happen, Downey's Julian roars with the painful last gasp of a party boy for whom time is running out. Lying upside down in McCarthy's red convertible, singing screwed-up Christmas carols as they cruise L.A. after dark, Downey portrays the side of drug use that the "Just Say No" folks most dread: It's fun to be high (that is, until it's not). Despite the screenplay's watered-down insistence that Downey and McCarthy are competing for the favors of Gertz's character, Downey instead slyly plays his part like it's torn from the scorched pages of the novel, where the two boys are lovers, not just friends. It's a bold choice that brings his character to vivid life: In addition to all the other emotional ravages he evokes, he shows us with his panicky, sad eyes that he knows he's losing McCarthy to Gertz. Not that all of this aspect of his character is in the subtext; to pay his debts off to his dealer Rip (James Spader), Julian acts as a prostitute for Rip's other male clients.

In his absurdly cheerful holiday shirt, the incorrigible Julian offers us the flip side of those too-neat TV movie plots about parents practicing "tough love" on their addict children; seen here from the helplessly self-destructive kid's point of view, the familiar tale is unbearably painful to watch. But Downey's energetic charisma keeps us from looking away, even when he takes us into the horror show of what it looks like when Julian overdoses. Downey makes us care how Julian, cut off by his family and hunted by his creditors, lives before he dies.

In the film's most resonant image, the sweating, shell-shocked Julian is feeling so like a cornered animal that even the reflections off a swimming pool take on the appearance of bars that entrap him. He won't, can't, go inside to a Christmas party: "I feel like Tiny fuckin' Tim," he says, so despondent that it's clear he knows no help will come, although he never stops lying outwardly. "It's not going to happen again, this; it's over," he'll tell anyone who'll listen, and Downey gives just the right hollow cadence to this automatic lie that fools no one. "I'm gonna probably go back into rehab." Downey conveys the physical hysteria of the hopeless addict with equal finesse. Long after the movie is over, one is haunted by the scene of Downey alone (his pals are doing Christmas dinner with their dysfunctional families), doing a lonely little soft-shoe routine. Simple, understated, unforgettable. It is a sublime moment.

It has been said that Downey's take on Julian was probably a case of life imitaing art. Perhaps. . . But that only makes the performance much more astonishing. Plenty of Hollywood's elite have tried their hands at the same type of role and come up wanting, even though they too were "living the role in real life." (Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls anyone?)

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