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RIP Blake Edwards

This week’s box office preview has been canceled both by some hopefully not at all serious health-related family tasks I’m handling today and also by the death of a truly notable filmmaker.  Aside from being both extremely talented and extremely inconsistent, he was a sort of bridge between the classic Hollywood era and post-”Bonnie and Clyde” era of film school auteurs that arrived just his career faced its first major crisis.  He was a little too hip and raunchy for the old school crowd and a little too old school for the hip crowd, and I think that was Blake Edwards’ most interesting quality.

Excessive consistency was not one of Edwards hobgoblins. I have to admit there are a number of his films — mostly from his later career — that I haven’t seen primarily because their reputation isn’t so good. I’ve probably forgotten a couple that I have seen by an act of will. At his best, though, there are very few Hollywood directors who could claim anything half as marvelous as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the brilliant slapstick set-pieces of “Return of the Pink Panther” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” and, most of all, 1982′s “Victor/Victoria,” a film that was both aggressively old-fashioned and easily the most bold pro-gay, pro-tolerance film ever to be made by mainstream Hollywood to that point. It was also simply topnotch entertainment, a work of hilarious compassion, and a joy forever.

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Of course, that’s merely scratching the surface of Edwards’ films. Some of his less perfect pieces are nevertheless hugely entertaining and, in their own way, fascinating documents of their time. Prolific as a writer, producer and director from the 1950s until the 1990s, he had a career that supposedly went back to helping Orson Welles write the 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast when he was still a young teenager and continued into television in the fifties, so there’s quite a lot to go through. The assertively naive-yet-sophisticated silliness of “The Great Race,” a childhood favorite of mine from numerous TV viewings, still holds up, and looks better in widescreen than those panned-and-scanned TV prints I grew up with. “S.O.B.” is famous as the film in which Julie Andrews’ naked breasts all but received top billing; they certainly got a stars’ entrance. It’s also is a fascinating case study in how Edwards got caught in the crossfire of the Hollywood generational wars and is one of the most interesting anti-Hollywood films made in Hollywood. (I’d love it if you took a look at my 2008 thumbsucker about “S.O.B.” over my currently dormant blog.)

Largely because of Audrey Hepburn’s lingering fame and greatness, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a lot of people’s favorite movie and it’s not hard to see why. It can be breathtakingly wistful. Because of Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top godawful portrayal of a sex-crazed Japanese neighbor, it’s also not hard to see why none of those people are Asian. Bert Kwouk’s far more human, relatively competent and hilarious Kato in “The Pink Panther” series is a small consolation, but still a consolation.

Blake Edwards really was a hugely contradictory director. Deeply cynical, terribly romantic, a champion of tolerance and capable of creating stereotypes so vicious they stand-out even among films of their day, lacking in an obvious “style” but nevertheless a notable auteur in his versatile way, Edwards was just weird enough to be, maybe, truly great.

As usual, David Hudson over at MUBI has much, much more.

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RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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The end-of-week movie news dump vs. the world

It’s been somewhat surprising, even given my own innate skepticism about practically everything, that for the last week or so there’s been very little compelling movie news — really very little that I could bring myself to even mention here. To be honest, I kind of liked that way. Much less time consuming and more fun to just throw trailers and stuff at you guys. The last 24 hours or so, however, have been a very different story.

* I often wonder where George Lucas went wrong in a number of departments. Today he’s King Midas in reverse with actors — who else could actually make Samuel L. Jackson boring? — but he directed the very well acted “American Graffitti.” His first two “Star Wars” movies were imperfect but great, great fun — and he had the great good sense to bring in the best writers available, and a very strong director, for the second one. He insisted on doing the three prequels himself, however, and in my opinion and lots of other people’s, showed how borderline unwatchable a space opera could be.

What went wrong? I don’t know but one thing that did happen to Lucas was the departure of producer Gary Kurtz, he of the Abe Lincoln beard who I honestly haven’t thought about in decades.

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“Robin and Marian” — your weekend online viewing tip

Crackle is offering up the entirety of what I’m pretty sure will stand as the greatest revisionist film about Robin Hood ever made. Directed by the underrated Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night,” among many others) and with a knockout, if not 100% taut, screenplay by James Goldman (‘The Lion in Winter”), this clearly post-Vietnam view of Robin Hood is bitter and comic and bracingly cynical about the bloodthirsty nature of power, while being ravishingly romantic about true love. It helped solidify Sean Connery’s post-Bond career and started a late career comeback for 47 year-old Audrey Hepburn, more moving than ever.  Since this was the mid-seventies, Robert Shaw was the villain — though Richard Harris’s genocidal Lionheart wasn’t exactly nice — and was absolutely perfect as a badass Sheriff of Nottingham. Imperfect, perhaps, but all in all, pretty hard to top.

If you just want a taste right now, here’s a slightly corny trailer that will give you some idea of what you’re in for.

H/t to my currently blog-less friend Zayne for this one.

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Happy birthday, Mr. Donen

I’m just a hair late but, as I write this director Stanley Donen’s 86th birthday has just wrapped up. The man largely responsible for several of the greatest musicals ever made always seemed to excel especially at cafe scenes, and this send-up of modern dance from 1957′s “Funny Face,” with a frustrated Audrey Hepburn “expressing herself” is certainly one of them.

Mr. Donen will be in attendance at a screening of his most famous and perhaps greatest musical classic, “Singin’ in the Rain,” at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, on Saturday, April 24. Should be amazing.

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Broken Embraces

Behind every great actor is a great director. Leonardo DiCaprio has Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp has Tim Burton, and Penélope Cruz has Pedro Almodóvar. Cruz, in particular, is a completely different actress when working with the Spanish director. Whether it’s the material he writes for her or the fact that she’s acting in her native language, every time they get together, something magical happens. Their latest collaboration, “Broken Embraces,” isn’t their strongest project to date, but it’s much better as result of Cruz’s involvement. A time-spanning love story filled with passion and revenge, the film stars Lluis Homar as Harry Caine, a blind screenwriter who recalls the story of falling in love with an aspiring actress (Cruz) while on the set of his latest movie, even though she was the mistress of his jealous financier (José Luis Gómez). The principal cast all turn in solid performances – Cruz channels an Audrey Hepburn-like innocence as the object of both men’s affection, Homar brings grace to an otherwise unlikeable character, and Gómez is a real villain’s villain – but the story just isn’t that compelling. Though Almodóvar infuses his film with bright colors and some hypnotically beautiful shots of his leading lady, the story dangerously borders on becoming a cheesy telenovella. It never quite reaches that point, but it’s enough to suggest you won’t love “Broken Embraces” nearly as much as fans of the director were expecting.

Click to buy “Broken Embraces”

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Your end of week movie news dump

A ton has happened since my last of these posts and I’m sure I’m missing plenty, but here are just a few of the interesting things going on in the movie world as this rather loony week finally ends.

* Bryan Singer will be producing, not directing, the next “X-Men” prequel. He’ll be directing “Jack, the Giant Killer” instead. And another Mike Fleming story, an exclusive this time: “Paranormal Activity 2″ has a director. He’s Tod Williams, best known for “The Door in the Floor.” Sounds to me like Paramount is keeping things modest, wisely.

* The very ill Dennis Hopper got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today.  Amy Kaufman has video of the ceremony which included Hopper rather gently chiding the paparazzi for an incident which caused him to fall. The video itself ends with photographers yelling “Viggo!” and “Jack!”

* Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe as Robin will be opening Cannes this year. The plot description put me somewhat in mind of the angle the great director Richard Lester and writer James Goldman took on the legend in a film I’m quite partial to, “Robin and Marian,” which starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn.

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RIP Jean Simmons

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If things had gone a bit differently, she might well have been as huge a superstar as such contemporaries as Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood — she certainly had the talent and screen presence to do so. However, as I’m reminded by her New York Times obituary, an ugly situation involving a sexual proposition the married actress got from Howard Hughes may have prevented Jean Simmons from reaching the super-stardom she deserved as much as anyone. The vindictive aviation and filmmaking magnate may have deliberately put her in films he thought were inferior and refused to allow his film studio to lend her out for the lead in “Roman Holiday,” the role that deservedly made Audrey Hepburn a more or less instant star.

Nevertheless, Ms. Simmons, who sadly passed on yesterday at age 80 from lung cancer, outlasted her Hughes contract and gave witty and altogether enchanting performances in numerous and diverse films, ranging from break-out teenage performances as the young Estella in David Lean’s still-definitive 1946 version of “Great Expectations” (she’d eventually play Mrs. Havisham in a TV production) and as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” As a puckishly beautiful adult actress who pretty much owned the word “luminous,” she had no problem quietly stealing scenes on an epic scale from the likes of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s underrated “The Big Country,” and, most famously these days, Marlon Brando in her only musical appearance, “Guys and Dolls.” Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior, but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment.

An admitted survivor of alcoholism, Simmons was a class act on every level who famously complimented Hepburn on her great “Roman Holiday” performance, as painful as it must have been to watch and even though it’s not clear that she wouldn’t have been just as good in the role. She kept working through most of her life — her last significant role was her voice work in the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and her loss to the world of entertainment is not a small one. She was often low-key, but she was never dull.

There’s more from David Hudson, Edward Copeland, Jose at the Film Experience, and Glenn Kenny. The L.A. Times also has an excellent and very detailed obituary.

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Princess movie moment #1

In honor of this weekend’s beyond certain box office victor, I thought I’d go with two or three scenes from non-Disney movies about younger female monarchs to be.

Below, from Roman Holiday,” Gregory Peck shows how you should treat a drugged princess (Audrey Hepburn, of course) you happen upon randomly — and who you don’t know is a princess.

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