Saturday, May 28, 2016
"THE CAT'S MEOW" (2001) Review
There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince's birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in "THE CAT'S MEOW", Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros' stage play.
The movie takes place aboard Hearst's yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince's 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst's longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher's Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.
After watching "THE CAT'S MEOW", I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. "THE CAT'S MEOW"struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic - including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst's official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros' screenplay and Bogdanovich's direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of "THE CAT'S MEOW" was that many of the characters' agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.
For costume drama fans such as myself, "THE CAT'S MEOW" offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie's production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos' work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny's set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie's 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white - as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.
Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. "THE CAT'S MEOW" featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince's frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst's minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince's sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.
But in my opinion, the three best performances in "THE CAT'S MEOW" came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst's performance so remarkable was that she was the only one - as far as I know - who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, "CITIZEN KANE". I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies' true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst's performance. Cary Elwes gave - in my opinion - the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes' performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince's desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst's nature - sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst's desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.
I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince's birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn's theory about the "California Curse":
"The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California ... so pay close attention, my dear. You see this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace."
As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms - seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why did she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich's decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.
But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called "California Curse". Why? Because "THE CAT'S MEOW" remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years."Hooray for Hollywood!".
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1960s:
TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1960s
1. "Saving Mr. Banks" (2013) - Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks starred in this superb biopic about the struggles between author P.L. Travers and producer Walt Disney over the film rights for the "Mary Poppins" stories. John Lee Hancock directed.
2. "Men in Black 3" (2012) - In this very entertaining and intriguing addition to the MEN IN BLACK movie franchise, Agent "J" has to go back in time to 1969 and prevent his partner's murder, which could enable the invasion of Earth. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the movie starred Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin.
3. "That Thing You Do!" (1996) - Tom Hanks directed and starred in this very entertaining look at the rise and fall of a "one-hit wonder" rock band in the mid 1960s. Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler co-starred. The movie earned a Best Song Oscar nomination.
4. "The Butler" (2013) - Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey starred in this excellent historical drama about a butler's experiences working at the White House and with his family over a period of decades. Lee Daniels directed.
5. "Operation Dumbo Drop" (1995) - Simon Wincer directed this comedic and entertaining adaptation of U.S. Army Major Jim Morris' Vietnam War experiences regarding the transportation of an elephant to a local South Vietnamese village that helps American forces monitor Viet Cong activity. Ray Liotta and Danny Glover starred.
6. "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (2015) - Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.
7. "Infamous" (2006) - Douglas McGrath wrote and directed this excellent movie about Truman Capote's research for his 1966 book, "In Cold Blood". Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig starred.
8. "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) - Oscar winner Ang Lee directed this marvelous adaptation of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story about the twenty-year love affair between two cowboys that began in the 1960s. Oscar nominees Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred.
9. "The Right Stuff" (1983) - Philip Kaufman wrote and directed this fascinating adaptation of Tom Wolfe's 1979 book about NASA's Mercury program during the early 1960s. The Oscar nominated movie starred Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris and Sam Shepard.
10. "Dreamgirls" (2006) - Bill Condon directed this first-rate adaptation of the 1981 Broadway play about the evolution of American Rhythm and Blues through the eyes of a female singing group from the mid 20th century. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy starred.
Honorable Mention: "Capote" (2005) - Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the other biopic about Truman Capote's research for his 1966 book, "In Cold Blood". The movie was directed by Bennett Miller and written by Oscar nominee Dan Futterman.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Below are images from Wes Anderson's 2014 film, "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL". The movie starred Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori:
"THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" (2014) Photo Gallery
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
"THUNDERBALL" (1965) Review
I had just viewed the 1965 Bond movie, “THUNDERBALL” for the first time in several years. And I can see why this movie is considered to be one of my all time favorite Bond flicks. But I do not think I can state why in one or two sentences.
“THUNDERBALL” turned out to be director Terrence Young’s third and last Bond film. Most Bond fans consider it to be his least superior film, but I consider it to be his second best, following 1963’s “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. The story, based upon an unfinished script called “Warhead”, co-written by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. The unfinished script eventually became Fleming’s 1961 novel, “Thunderball”. This resulted in a major lawsuit between McClory and Fleming and eventually, EON Productions became dragged into it. The story is about SPECTRE’s theft of NATO nuclear warheads and how they used it to blackmail the U.S. and British government for the sum of 100,000,000 pounds. Naturally, MI-6 sends all of their “00” agents to recover the warheads before SPECTRE can carry out its threat to detonate the weapons on U.S. and British soil. Many moviegoers found the movie’s plot a little hard to buy and viewed it as part of the realm of fantasy. But considering the current obsession of terrorism and the high illegal weapons market, “THUNDERBALL” is probably one of the more relevant plots of any Bond film.
Aside from the underwater sequences, “THUNDERBALL” turned out to be an elegant and exciting thriller with excellent drama, a solid plot that managed to avoid any major plotholes, a classy score by John Barry and a first-class cast. Sean Connery portrayed James Bond for the fourth time in this film. Thankfully, he seemed to be at his top game in this one. It is a vast improvement over his performance in 1964’s “GOLDFINGER”, in which he seemed to come off as an immature prat. And he is ably assisted by a first-class cast – Claudine Auger as Domino Duval, Adolfo Celi as villain Emile Largo (SPECTRE’s Number 2), Rik Van Nutter as CIA Agent Felix Leiter and especially Luciana Paluzzi as villainess Fiona Volpe.
Below is a list of positive and negative aspects of the film. I have decided to start with the negative, since there was little that I did not care about the movie:
*Rik Van Nutter as Felix Leiter – Do not get me wrong. Van Nutter’s performance as Leiter was competent and very personable. My problem was that his role was written as a “less-than-bright” sidekick of Bond’s, instead of an ally. Bond has been assisted by Leiter in other movies, but they have never come off as some dumb sidekick . . . except for Cec Linder in “GOLDFINGER”.
*Theme Song – I will not deny that the movie’s theme song, performed by Tom Jones is slightly catchy. But I also found the lyrics to be slightly sexist and off-putting.
*Underwater Sequences – Yes, the underwater sequences had threatened to drag the movie a bit. Actually, I can point out two sequences that came close to boring me – the sequence that featured Largo’s acquisition of the warheads and the final battle between Largo’s men and U.S. Navy frogmen.
Blackmail of Patricia Fearing - James Bond's attempt to seduce Shrublands Clinic nurse, Patricia Fearing, came off as disturbing and tacky. It was bad enough to watch him make attempts to kiss the very professional Ms. Fearing without her consent. But when he resorted to blackmail - willingness to conceal his near death experience with the physiotherapy machine aka "the rack" in exchange for sex - the whole situation became rather sordid.
*Luciana Paluzzi – Let us be honest, folks. The red-haired Paluzzi came dangerously close to stealing the picture from Connery. Like Honor Blackman before her, she radiated sexiness and a strong on-screen presence. She seemed to be even more of a threat than Emile Largo and his men.
*Adolpo Celi – What I like about Celi’s performance is that he does not come off as an over-the-top villain. He was elegant, intelligent, ruthless and egotistical. Perfect villain.
*Nassau Setting – The setting in Nassau gave the movie an exotic, yet elegant feel that really added substance to the movie.
*Villain's Goal - Many critics have claimed that the villain's goal in the movie - nuclear blackmail for money - seemed unrealistic, due to a belief there was little chance that an organization like SPECTRE could get its hands on a nuclear bomb from a NATO strategic bomber. And yet, I have never considered such a scenario unrealistic. Especially in today's world. In a way, this scenario seems much more possible than some of scenarios featured in other Bond movies from the same period.
*Dialogue – The dialogue in this movie was unusually sharp and witty. But what really appealed to me was that Connery’s puns did not come out of his mouth every other minute, as it did in his previous two movies. In fact, the movie featured what I consider to be one of Connery’s best lines during his tenure with the franchise.</i>
Speaking of dialogue, below is what I consider to be some of my favorite lines:
* Moneypenny: In the conference room. Something pretty big. Every double-o man in Europe has been rushed in. And the home secretary too!
Bond: His wife probably lost her dog.
*Bond: My dear, uncooperative Domino.
Domino: How do you know that? How do you know my friends call me Domino?
Bond: It's on the bracelet on your ankle.
Domino: So... what sharp little eyes you've got.
Bond: Wait 'til you get to my teeth.
*Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead.
*M: I've assigned you to Station "C" Canada.
Bond: Sir, I'd respectfully request that you change my assignment to Nassau.
M:Is there any other reason, besides your enthusiasm for water sports?
*Pat Fearing: James, where are you going?
Bond: Oh, nowhere. I just thought I'd take a little, uh... exercise.
Pat Fearing: You must be joking.
*But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue...[she steps on Bond's foot]... but not this one.
I would like to conclude with this little note. In 1983, Kevin McClory – one of the original authors of “Warhead” - produced his own movie version of the story, which starred Connery as Bond. The movie, "NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN" was not exactly terrible, but it almost seemed like an overblown version of the 1965 movie.
Friday, May 13, 2016
"CASHELMARA" (1974) Book Review
My experiences with novels by Susan Howatch are rather limited. If I must be honest, I have only finished three of her novels. I tried reading two other novels - "THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT" (1977) and the first novel in The Starbridge Series, "GLITTERING IMAGES" (1987). However, I could not maintain any interest in the last two novels. Neither focused upon the history of an upper-class British family, which happened to be my main interest when I was in my late teens and early twenties.
One of the three novels I did finish was 1974's "CASHELMARA", a saga that focused upon an Anglo-Irish family called the De Salis. The story began in 1859 when Edward Baron de Salis journeyed to antebellum New York City to visit his late wife's cousins, the Marriotts; and ends some 32 years later in 1891 with his grandson Edward, resorting to extraordinary means to regain control of the family's Irish estate called Cashelmara. During this 32 year journey, readers become acquainted with six main characters and a fascinating cast of supporting characters that add to Howatch's tale.
Before reading "CASHELMARA", one has to understand that it is one of three novels that are based upon one of the British Royal Family's royal houses - that of the Plantagenets. The 1971 novel, "PENMARRIC" focused on characters based upon the Plantagenet line that stretched from King Henry II to one of his younger sons, King John. However, Howatch skimped a generation and decided to continue her focus on the Plantagenet line with John's grandson, King Edward I and finished the novel with a character based upon the latter's grandson, King Edward III. "CASHELMARA" is divided into six segments. Those segments are narrated by the following characters:
*Edward, Baron de Salis - a middle-aged English aristocrat and owner of both Woodhammer Hall (in England) and Cashelmara (based upon King Edward I)
*Marguerite Marriott, Baroness de Salis - a 17-18 year-old adolescent from a wealthy New York family who becomes Edward's second wife (based upon Margaret of France, later Edward I's second consort)
*Patrick, Baron de Salis - Edward's only surviving son, who loses Woodhammer Hall ten years after his father's death via gambling debts (based upon King Edward II)
*Sarah Marriott, Baroness de Salis - Marguerite's oldest niece and Patrick's wife (based upon Isabella of France, later Edward II's consort)
*Maxwell Drummond - an Irish tenant farmer on the Cashelmara estate, who becomes Sarah's lover and Patrick's enemy (based upon Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Isabella's lover)
*Edward "Ned", Baron de Salis - Patrick and Sarah's oldest son (based upon King Edward III)
Another aspect about "CASHELMARA" that Howatch fans might find fascinating is that "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" could be considered a direct sequel to the former novel. Remember . . . "CASHELMARA" ended with Ned as the novel's narrator. And Ned is supposed to be based upon Edward III. "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" began with Robert Goodwin, who is based uponEdward the Black Prince, Edward III's oldest son. Since Robert's father was still alive in the first half of the 1984 novel, this means that Howatch based two characters on Edward III - Ned de Salis and "Bobby" Goodwin. Really, one might as well view "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" as more of a direct sequel to "CASHELMARA" than "PENMARRIC". In fact, Bobby Goodwin's background story in the 1984 novel is practically a re-enactment of what happened between Ned and his parents, Patrick and Sarah in "CASHELMARA", but with a few changes.
How do I feel about "CASHELMARA"? I thought Howatch had created a very fascinating tale. On one level, she took a family saga and placed it within a setting that gave readers a look at how British Imperial policy worked in Ireland. And we saw this policy in motion via the viewpoint of an aristocratic family - except for the Maxwell Drummond character. And although there are many novels set within the British Empire - even in Ireland - "CASHELMARA" is probably the only one that I can recall that had been written by Howatch. More importantly, Howatch's description of the Cashelmara estate left a stark image in my mind that I found rather interesting. It was interesting that half of the major characters regarded the Irish estate with a negative view. The other three major characters seemed to have different views of Cashelmara. Edward de Salis seemed to have a mixed view of the estate. Cashelmara reminded him of the period he had enjoyed as a child. Yet at the same time, it stood as a reminder of his failure to offer genuine help to his tenants during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Ironically, the de Salis family and their tenants would find themselves facing another famine over thirty years later. Maxwell Drummond seemed to regard Cashelmara as a symbol of his ambition to become a landowner and a gentleman. And he would try to achieve these goals through Sarah with disastrous results. As far as Ned de Salis was concerned, Cashelmara was his home, and a family legacy that he would go through great lengths to regain. After all, his father Patrick had lost the family's English estate, Woodhammer Hall, sometime before his birth.
Most of the novel proved to be interesting in its own right. The first two segments - narrated by Edward de Salis and his second wife, Marguerite - also proved to be interesting. Howatch did an excellent job in painting a portrait of both antebellum New York City and mid-Victorian England at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s. Readers got a peek into Edward's fascination with his future bride, along with his the disappointment he felt regarding his children. But I especially enjoyed Marguerite's narration. I found it interesting to read how this 18 year-old girl struggled to maintain a healthy and happy marriage with a man over thirty years her senior. Marguerite's narration also revealed the struggles that she had to endure as an American in a foreign country. Between others - including her husband - making assumptions about her American nationality, dealing with the British high society's reactions to the American Civil War, and struggling to act as a mediator between Edward and her stepchildren; the 1860s proved to be somewhat difficult for Marguerite. However, being a strong-willed young woman in her own right, she survived.
Also, I found "CASHELMARA" to be the most disturbing tale of the three family sagas written by the author. What made this novel so disturbing? It has to be the marriage between Patrick and Sarah de Salis. Howatch based their marriage on the lives of Edward II and his wife, Isabella. But from what I have read, the private lives of the Plantagenet monarch and his consort were not as disturbing as the marriage between Patrick and Sarah. The novel's third segment, told from Patrick's point-of-view, revealed their courtship and the first four years of their marriage. It also revealed how Sarah's spending and especially Patrick's gambling habits managed to dwindle away his fortune. Their financial problems had only added to the existing strain caused by Patrick's continuing friendship with his childhood friend, Derry Stranahan. But the segment narrated by Sarah also proved to be the novel's nadir in terms of what occurred and how low her marriage to Patrick had sunk. And for Sarah and Patrick, their marriage had sunk to alcoholism and loss of property for him; imprisonment and rape for her. Despite the ugliness that permeated Sarah's segment, the latter also proved to be one of the two most interesting in the novel.
Like "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", the novel's last segment proved to be the most difficult for me. Narrated by Sarah and Patrick's oldest child, Ned, I had some difficulty relating to the character. Perhaps Ned was simply too young. After all, he aged from thirteen to seventeen or eighteen years old during this last segment. But I recall that one of the segments of "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" had been narrated by a character named Christopher "Kester" Goodwin, who aged from nine to nineteen years old. I had no problems with the Kester character from "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", but I did with the Ned de Salis character. Why? Perhaps I did not find him that fascinating. Or perhaps I found his penchant to view his father as a hero, Maxwell Drummond as a villain and his mother as a stooge for Drummond a little too simple for me to stomach. I find it difficult to relate to characters who harbor one-dimensional views about life and other people. And because Howatch ensured that Ned never learned what his mother had endured at the hands of Patrick and the latter's lover/estate manager, Hugh McGowan, I found my ability to relate to him even more difficult.
I have read some reviews of "CASHELMARA' and discovered that a good number of readers managed to enjoy this family saga very much. Only a handful seemed to regard the characters as unsympathetic and not worthy of their interest. I believe that a first-rate author could create a sympathetic character with unpleasant traits, if he or she had a mind to do so. Susan Howatch certainly managed to create some very interesting characters - aside from one - for "CASHELMARA". She also created a first-rate family saga that still remains fresh after forty-one years.