Sunday, August 7, 2016

DVD Review | Women He's Undressed

After a Fashion
by Thomas Delapa

In today’s dressed-down, flip-flops and uber-casual world, we seldom hear that “clothes make the man” anymore. But in classic Hollywood, fashion not only made the man—and the woman—but it made the movies too.
Where would The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale be without her ruby slippers, Joan Crawford sans her shoulder pads, Marilyn Monroe less (ahem) her skin-tight gowns or Cary Grant minus those impeccably tailored suits?

Like other low-profile collaborators, especially in our grandiose age of the director as auteur, motion-picture costume directors rarely grab the spotlight and even less the microphone. Classic film fans may be familiar with the celebrated career of Edith Head, but otherwise public knowledge of Hollywood’s leading costume designers is skimpy if not threadbare.

Despite its odd-fitting title, Women He’s Undressed means to makeover that legacy, taking the measure of Australian-born Orry-Kelly, who for three decades was one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life, A-list designers. His career included a long, tempestuous stint at the Warner Bros. studio, dressing such stars as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Olivia de Havilland, and was crowned by three Oscars for costume design, the last for Some Like It Hot in 1959.
An Australian-made documentary directed by the veteran Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, My Brilliant Career), Undressed won’t win ribbons for opulence, but it does stitch together the life and times of Orry-Kelly, born Orry George Kelly in New South Wales. Armstrong’s style clashes in spots, starting with the fanciful inclusion of her subject (Darren Gilshenan) addressing the camera while paddling in a rowboat. As an allegory of his roiling ups and downs it is, well, a bit out to sea.

As a gay man in Hollywood who rarely hid in the closet—at least among his friends— "Jack" Orry-Kelly was renowned for his talents, tart tongue and artistic tantrums. He could be difficult and demanding, but he managed to navigate the treacherous shores of the studio-system fiefdoms. While most found his boss Jack Warner a tight-fisted, crass (and macho) tyrant, Orry-Kelly formed an uneasy alliance, smoothed over by his long friendship with Warner’s wife, Ann. Undoubtedly his most famous work was with the notoriously prickly Bette Davis, including the brazen “red” ball dress her character flitted about in the 1938’s black-and-white Jezebel

Except for that foundering rowboat, Undressed is outfitted in a conventional style, embroidered with interviews (among them, Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury), newsreel footage and photos. But it’s also spangled with fascinating tidbits about fashion design in Hollywood’s bygone Golden Age. Especially revealing are the sleight-of-hand tricks Orry-Kelly used to transform diva Davis (she of a large but “limp” bosom) that showed off the positive while cloaking the negative.

Glamour, illusion and fantasy were Orry-Kelly’s stock in trade, but his private life was bold as brass, despite begin hemmed in by a homophobic culture that threatened exposure for anyone—especially men—daring to tip-toe out of the closet. Armstrong and her writer Katherine Thomson sew the villain badge on Englishman Cary Grant (né Archibald Leach), who turned his back on Orry-Kelly once he became a matinee idol. While it is now well-known that Grant and Western star Randolph Scott lived together as roommates and more, the film speciously suggests that Grant’s subsequent marriages were strictly a cover for his homosexuality.

What’s most durable in Armstrong’s material is the flamboyant character of Orry-Kelly as both artist and survivor. Fired from Warners in 1944, he hit the bottle hard, successfully chased by rehab (“sanatoriums” back then) and surfacing in a wave of comebacks in the 1950s, culminating in the sparkling triumph of Some Like It Hot. Not only did he outfit Marilyn Monroe in those diaphanous, barely-there gowns that seared the screen, but he also dragged cross-dressing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis into hilarious movie history.

Orry-Kelly was also a brash and oft-catty wit who was loath to keep his mouth zipped—he famously quipped that “Hell must be filled with beautiful women and no mirrors.” In old Hollywood’s bright firmament, you can still see Orry-Kelly’s twinkling reflection in the timelessly elegant fashions he created. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Film Review | Money Monster

Write it off
by Thomas Delapa

Looking for a hot insider tip on Money Monster?

Then save your eight bucks. This George Clooney/Julia Roberts Wall Street suspense satire is flat, warmed-over road kill.

While two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jodie Foster uneasily returns to the director’s chair for her fourth feature, she strands her under-performing stars in what adds up (or down) to a low-caliber shotgun merger between Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The China Syndrome. Unless Foster has her own hedge fund, she shouldn’t look for career dividends any time soon.

Nobody yells “Attica! Attica!” or “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” out the window, but Foster’s scriptwriters borrow from so many topical 1970s dramas that they must be paying a monster interest rate. For starters, he-e-e-re’s Lee Gates (Clooney) the slick, smarmy host of a cable-TV financials show, a man so vacuously fatuous that you know he’s a sure bet for a coast-to-coast comeuppance. Next up is uninvited surprise guest Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a Queens palooka who’s, yes, mad as hell at the damn rich since he lost his life savings on one of Gates’ bum stock tips. Standing tall, very tall, behind them is Roberts’ Patty Fenn, the show’s sharp, super-cool, alpha-female producer and Foster’s moral conscience in the vast wasteland of 24-7 tabloid TV.

Reunited from their cash-cow Ocean’s Eleven reboots, Clooney and Roberts slowly sink carrying the star ballast, though they can hardly shoulder all the blame. If Clooney once had promise as a cheeky Hollywood throwback to the likes of Clark Gable, he’s now so annoyingly mannered (cocking his head for every emphatic line), that by now his performances are all reruns. If Foster got a bum tip from her agent before buying into this project, she doesn’t do her leads any favors either, inflating the story with overwrought acting and a manic shooting style that papers over the yawning holes in the story’s junk-bond rated logic.

The net result is a cheap, remote-controlled financial thriller that chews up and spits out every populist cliché this side of Oliver Stone and Bernie Sanders. Not a few minutes into Gates’ “Money Monster” daily show, Budwell crashes the set, armed with handgun, made-for-TV hysteria, and an explosive vest designed with the now-cowering host in mind. With the whole world watching—absurdly, even in distant Iceland and Korea—Budwell shouts his million-dollar hostage demands, profanely punctuated with slogans (“The system is rigged!”) that could be coming from both the left and right in today’s angry, un-moneyed U.S. electorate.

Foster is too busy tossing mud and her camera around to seriously ask why (or even if) a blue-collar bud like Budwell would foolishly blow everything he has on a stock-market whim. Those are the sort of questions she simply runs over, content to feed us clichéd lines like those printed on Gates’ cue cards or whispered in his earpiece by his all-knowing, all-seeing producer. No, it’s enough for us to get that Gates is a boorish show-biz charlatan and behind him lurks an even bigger, villainous one—the uber-greedy CEO (Dominic West) of a shadowy finance company that suspiciously lost $800 million in stock value overnight. This guy isn’t just a capitalist pig but a chauvinist one to boot, treating his leggy staffer and mistress (Caitriona Balfe) with oily “That’s my girl” patriarchal condescension.

Foster wears her gender politics on her rolled-up left sleeve, bluntly separating not the men from the boys, but her sharp, ultra-capable females from their obvious lessers—their clueless, often-monstrous male counterparts. Not only does Roberts serve as Foster’s quietly heroic center, she’s the real power behind Gates’ chintzy Dow Jones throne, feeding him lines and keeping him and everyone else cool under crisis pressure. Her partner in distaff kickass-ness is that model-thin staffer, who instantly evolves from corporate mouthpiece and concubine into crusading detective faster you can say Erin Brockovich, digging up the dirt on her boss’ shady globe-trotting missions in his private jet. Back at the studio, the New York City SWAT cops called to the scene recklessly reach for their guns and insults first; it’s no surprise the only exception is a lowly (black) policewoman whom Foster calls to duty only to blow the whistle on her trigger-happy blue crew.

Hollywood insiders might think that with Foster, Clooney & Roberts in charge, Money Monster would be too big to fail. But that’s what they said about Enron, AIG , Lehman Brothers and Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger.

In other words, don’t bet on a box-office bail-out. My money is on audiences bailing out.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

From the Archives: Ken Burns on How He Handled the Holocaust in his World War II Documentary

By Steven Rosen
Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn't want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of "The Good War." And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of "The Good War" -- a term originating with Studs Terkel's 1984 oral history -- or Tom Brokaw's 1998 "The Greatest Generation," about the GIs who fought in that war.
"It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called 'The Good War,' when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars," Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives -- a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.
"The War," as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns' previous PBS films about the American experience include "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz."
"We used the words 'bearing witness' for what we wanted to do," he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. "We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people -- those who fought and those who stayed at home -- and to get to their experiences as it happened."
The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war. 
Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers -- and friends and family at home -- experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, "A World Without War," when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center -- "the beating heart," in Burns' words -- of that episode.
That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan's surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact. 
Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust. 
In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.
Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war "was conducted in defense of some noble idea."
Burns called that a "searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment."
The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the "The War's" ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen. 
If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn't need to "construct" religions. 
"No evil, no God," he says. "Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals."
Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs' concentrated food, died from "overwhelming their systems." He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller's comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme -- the complicity of nearby civilians and the church. 
"They could smell the camp in town," he says. "The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie." 
In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. "So they would never forget," he says.
He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: "These people in this country who say it didn't happen, it did happen; I saw it."
The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum. 
"No apology will ever atone for what I saw," he says.
"At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old's fury when he says that," Burns said. 
A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust's scope. Some two-thirds of Europe's 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah's Witnesses. 
In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific. 
In the end, it doesn't get that much time -- about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. "It sought its own length," Burns said. "I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Forgotten Films: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra


By Steven Rosen
(2004; previously published)

LOS ANGELES – When people saw the weird and hilarious trailer for “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” they assumed it was a joke. There was no such movie, they thought – which could have been one reason this strange movie did so poorly in theaters earlier this year.

After all, how can clips from what looks like a forgotten low-low-budget black-and-white sci-fi movie from the early 1950s be promoting an alleged new movie? And one “from the company that brought you ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’” This has got to be a put-on, right?

Now that “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is being released on DVD on June 22 in a special edition, people will see it is a joke. The movie is a loving spoof of clumsy but inadvertently inspired sci-fi movies of the 1950s like “Robot Monster” and Ed Wood’s “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” The kind of movies kids used to spend Sunday afternoons seeing at neighborhood-theater triple-bills.

The plot, according to the production notes, features “foil-covered aliens, space toys and a Fay Wray-esque heroine who actually feels for the misunderstood mutant.” And that’s just the start – there’s also an evil skeleton and a woman who is actually a human incarnation of several wild animals. (And she eats dinner like a wild animal.)

The trailer takes the overall spoof one step beyond. Michael Schlesinger, a Dayton native who as vice president of repertory sales for Sony Pictures discovered the independently made film, is responsible for that. And he’s proud of it.

He licensed music from 1940s-era Universal Pictures horror movies to give the trailer a sense of nostalgic gravity. And he wrote a self-consciously portentous voice-over script that promises “a cast of thousands” and “cost of millions’’ even as the trailer itself pictures four actors in a plywood space ship.

The trailer also says the film was shot in the non-existent camera process known as Skeletorama. And, since Sony is releasing the film under its Tristar banner, Schlesinger felt free to promote “Skeleton” as coming from the same company that brought audiences “Lawrence of Arabia.” (That was from Columbia Pictures, now part of Sony.)

The result? “Some people aren’t sure from the trailer if the movie is real,” Schlesinger said. “I went to see ‘Triplets of Belleville,’ and four people in front of me were watching the trailer and a woman asked that.”

He helpfully leaned over and told her “Skeleton” was indeed a real movie. “I told her the rights to Skeletorama alone cost a fortune,” he said, laughing.

But others get the goof and consider it a riotous exception in a field – movie trailers – that usually seeks to portray its product as a virtual shoo-in for Oscars. Even if the film is a dead-on-arrival stinker.

“Matt Groening said the trailer was the funniest thing he had ever seen, which is now officially the best compliment I’ve ever had,” Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger, a 53-year-old film buff, is the chief studio backer of “Lost Skeleton.” The movie was made independently by writer/director/star Larry Blamire, producer F. Miguel Valenti and a game if small cast in various Los Angeles locations. Schlesinger saw it at a Thursday-night independent-film screening at Hollywood’s American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, where he is a board member. “I get in free,” he said.

He found the movie amusing. “One thing I like is that it’s good-natured, not mean-spirited in the way so many spoofs are these days,” Schlesinger said. He also liked the way the premise is played straight-faced, like a Christopher Guest movie.

The crowd at that screening also loved the film, and the discussion that followed was enthusiastic. And when Schlesinger learned during the question-and-answer period that “Skeleton” had been made for about $100,000, he really flipped.

“That’s when I said to myself, I’ve got to have this movie,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to be a cult classic, and maybe it could be something more. And since it only cost $100,000, how could it lose? I went to Sony, and they said, ‘Sure,’ but I’d have to do all the work on it myself.”

Schlesinger was ready. He had moved to Los Angeles in 1981, having previously booked in the mid-1970s an experimental Cincinnati repertory-cinema program while working in Dayton for the theater’s owner. That earned him a job with a Cincinnati film-booking agency – eventually he became a part-owned of The Movies art houses in Cincinnati and Dayton. Since arriving here, he has handled theatrical bookings of classic films for several studios. (For the past 10 years, he has been at Sony Pictures.)

He was involved in the 50th anniversary re-release of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and the subsequent green-lighting of “It’s All True,” a documentary about Welles’ aborted film project in Brazil.

That documentary filled in a crucial missing episode in film history. Welles was in Brazil, working on a never-finished project also called “It’s All True,” when his studio butchered his follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Many say Welles never regained his standing in Hollywood, or his confidence in his work, after that experience.

“Lost Skeleton” is hardly Wellesian in its ambitions or accomplishments. But it is a lot of fun – and Schlesinger is having a lot of fun trying to market it. “So far, everybody who sees it seems to love it,” he said.

And he’s talking about the film, not just his trailer.

(Steven Rosen’s E-mail address is

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is It the Best or Worst of Times for Film Restoration?

Is It the Best or the Worst Time for Film Restoration?

By Steven Rosen | IndiewireMarch 11, 2015 at 11:05AM
Some good news on the film restoration front: Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" is getting a 4K restoration and Janus Films is planning a theatrical release.
Satyajit Ray
image courtesy of Janus FilmsSatyajit Ray
Charles Dickens could have been referring to the current state of film restoration when he wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
For, as was made clear – literally – at the recent Cinema Revival: A Festival of Film Restoration at Columbus, Ohio's Wexner Center for the Arts, proponents of digital restoration believe the high quality and clarity of 4K (4,000 pixels per horizontal scan line) resolution is making it the new aesthetic standard. 
Its rise has been recent. But it comes at a time of falling sales for DVDs, and also when many people are more interested in the convenience of watching movies anywhere – on their smart phones and in cars – than in seeing them in optimum conditions. 
Lee Kline, technical director for The Criterion Collection, told festival attendees that with the growing adoption of the 4K standard, "We can finally call these (true) restorations." 
That's because 4K digital scanning of source material, preferably but not always old film negatives, comes close to the same image quality as traditional 35-millimeter film prints. And it is twice that of the previous (and still prevalent) high standard for digital restorations, 2K. Criterion's first 4K release, "A Hard Day’s Night," came just last year.
"If you're trying to preserve something with the highest quality restoration, you have to be working with 4K," Kline said.
"Pather Panchali"
Image courtesy of Janus Films"Pather Panchali"
One point made at the festival was that the term "film" is becoming a misnomer – new film negatives of digitally restored titles are not always made now.
Kline had arrived in Columbus via a 16-hour flight from Mumbai, the latest international trip in his current project to supervise a 4K restoration of the three films comprising the late Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s classic "Apu Trilogy"– 1955's "Pather Panchali," (1955) "Aparajito" (1956) and "Apur Sansar" (1959), also known as "The World of Apu."
Kline screened brief clips showing how the ongoing restoration is helping save Ray's films, since parts of the source material had been damaged or lost. The odyssey to restore the film began with Ray's lifetime achievement Academy Award in 1992. The following year, the films, en route from India to Los Angeles to be preserved, were ironically damaged in a fire at Hendersons Film Laboratories in South London. Despite being damaged, the films were shipped to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, where they were stored in vaults for the next 20 years (Read Kline's essay on how he pulled off the restoration here).
Janus Films is planning a theatrical release of "Apu Trilogy,” presumably using many theaters (like the Wexner’s) with 4K digital projectors. Criterion will follow with consumer discs.
But if all this is positive news for restoration, there's a downside. The time and money increases with 4K scanning – as does the "writing" of information to hard drives. Yet while regular DVD/Blu-ray players and high-definition TVs can play 4K discs, it's only at their standard resolution (although the quality of what they’re showing is much better). There is a growing market for 4K ultra-high definition televisions, especially for home theaters, but they are still expensive.
"The plan is to have people see things and buy things – so there are marketing concerns," said Grover Crisp, Sony Pictures’ executive vice president in charge of film restoration and digital mastering, during his festival presentation. "And the market for DVD and Blu-ray has gone [down] in recent years, so they're not putting out so many titles." 
Still, Crisp expressed hope that the existing cinematheques equipped with 4K projectors – such as the Wexner and Indiana University's Cinema in the Midwest – will help build a growing theatrical circuit for such restorations.
"Days of Heaven"
Paramount Pictures"Days of Heaven"
At the festival, Sony provided two recent 4K restorations of black-and-white classics – Luchino Visconti's "Sandra," which stars Claudia Cardinale and debuted at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, where the then-new film won the Golden Lion in 1965; and Howard Hawks' classic 1939 "Only Angels Have Wings," with Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and Jean Arthur. 
The former, Crisp said, was restored photochemically about 12 years ago, but all the prints were unsteady – the originals were made on unsteady printers and couldn't be corrected. Now, with digital restoration, "We were able to stabilize these images," he said. 
And "Angels" partly needed to await digital restoration to repair damage to its negative, since Crisp could recreate missing frames by "stealing" information from the surrounding ones.
Kline shared some fascinating "war stories" about working with the creators of films that Criterion had restored. He recalled that Terrence Malick insisted on reducing the color saturation of "Days of Heaven" during a digital restoration. 
Because the film had been hailed on its 1979 release for its brilliant color, Kline questioned him. Malick refused to reconsider. "I realized he was right – the film has a better look without it," Kline said.
And on last year’s 2K restoration of Liliana Cavani’s 1974 "The Night Porter," Kline said he wanted to remove a production mistake – a hair that got on a lens during a key shot. "I said we probably have the technology to remove it. She said, 'You know what? It's part of the movie,'" he said.
THIS ARTICLE IS RELATED TO: Satyajit RayCriterion CollectionCriterionRestorationJanus Films