By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: New Year’s Eve; Joyful Noise; Pillow Talk
I will reveal however that Robert De Niro does get wheeled out to the roof to watch the ball drop, in a highly improbable but amply telegraphed plot twist — but I won’t tell who wheels him up there. (A hint: It’s not Al Pacino.)
END OF ALERT
Garry Marshall, a king of the sitcom, godfathered TV’s “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple” and “Laverne and Shirley” (sister Penny does a cameo as herself here), before becoming a big-movie rom-com specialist with the likes of Pretty Woman and Frankie and Johnny. (My favorite Marshall movie is still his 1984 The Flamingo Kid.) There’s something likable about his movies even when they’re baloney factories like this one, and he‘s not ageist, like a lot of contemporary rom-commers. But I shudder to think what new holiday or national institution he and writer Fugate plan to waylay and ransack next. Christmas? Labor Day? Halloween? (What about an ensemble slasher movie with eight different maniacs prowling the streets of Burbank?)
The late Robert Altman used to make wonderful all-star ensemble movies like Nashville and Short Cuts and Gosford Park — movies that did exactly what New Year’s Eve and Valentine‘s Day try to but don’t. Though Altman’s pictures didn’t gross 200 million dollars, they told surprising, funny, intelligent stories with fascinating characters, and wove them together with gusto, artistry and ingenuity. These new holiday movies may be pulling in a lot of people (on DVDs as in the theatres), but they’re nothing special. They show us who they think we want to see, and tell us what they think we want to hear, in ways that we’ve seen before. If you took one of Altman’s ensemble shows, even one of the weaker ones, like Health, and ran it backwards and upside down, it might be more entertaining than this.
As it is, New Year’s Eve is another example of America’s rampaging star system obsession, or the tabloid syndrome. Ah well, let’s raise a glass and sing “Auld Lang Syne” for Bob Altman, the master of ensemble movies, the president of overlapping dialogue, the wizard of M*A*S*H, the pasha of Nashville, the Duke of Gosford Park. Here’s to you, Bob. Let me tell you: He wouldn’t have let us get stuck in an elevator with Ashton Kutcher.
There’s an odd subplot (for a movie about a church choir) in which unromanced singer Carla (Angela Grovey) proves to be the kiss of death after a night of bliss (played for laughs) with her hapless but weak-hearted Asian choirmate Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue), who loves her not wisely but too well, and not for long. There’s the movie’s would-be juicy dialogue, including Vi Rose’s incessant jokes about G. G.’s plastic surgery and Dolly‘s Hee Haw-style crack about how trying to fool her is “like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster.”
One of the more amazing things about the Pacashau Sacred Divinity choir though, is their repertoire, which includes Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,“ The Left Banke‘s “Walk Away Renee,” and a final killer contest medley that starts with Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take you Higher,” and climaxes with Stevie Wonder‘s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Hey, I love these songs too, but are they gospel? Maybe Stevie Wonder could make it in with a little revision — “Here I am, Lord God! Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours!”
But does writer director Todd Graff (who’s guilty of both Camp and Bandslam) know what Sly Stone was talking about, when he told us he wanted to take us higher? And what if somebody tries to sneak into the mix some James Brown (“Get Up, Like a God Machine”), Chuck Berry (“Johnny (Matty, Markie and Lukie) Be Good“) or Rolling Stones (“Let’s Spend Eternity Together”) into the mix? Hey, that might be like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster.
Pillow Talk (Blu-ray Book and DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Gordon, 1959 (Universal)
This huge, lewd, sparkly 1959 hit –the first in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie series — has fun with serial seduction, sex mania, telephone party lines, Manhattan careerism, intimations of gayness, bedroom and bathroom gags on split screens (watch Rock’s toe in the bathtub scene), and other American erotic/cinematic peculiarities. It’s well done — co-written by Stanley Shapiro and by Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series cohort Maurice Richlin — and well-directed by Michael Gordon, a black list victim who had guided Jose Ferrer to an Oscar in the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac.
The movie struck it rich, and Rock and Doris did make fine fizzy chemistry together. She was a swinging doll pop songstress and a blonde, bubbly mix of sexy, warm-hearted pixie and plucky career gal. He was a big, hunky guy whose homosexuality can be read under his extreme baritone charades of masculinity. She played a virgin; he played straight. (Tony Randall, the third member of the series trio, supplies a fussy, wittily neurotic counterpoint to Rock.) And 1959 Audiences went as crazy for Pillow Talk as they did for a much better movie sex farce with a much more obvious gay subtext, the great Some Like It Hot.
Pillow Talk has held up through all these years and all those revelations as a sort of classic, and the best of the Rock and Doris movies. But we can never take it straight any more – assuming we ever could. The supporting cast, a fine crew, includes salty Thelma Ritter, nervy Nick Adams, ’30s-’40s stalwarts Allen Jenkins and Lee Patrick, a bit of Frances Sternhagen, and a bit more of the great French actor Marcel Dalio (of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game). It’s still funny, maybe for different reasons. The Coen Brothers once named Pillow Talk as their favorite movie. Sure, Joel. Sure Ethan. And my favorite movie is Lover Come Back.
Speaking of favorite movies though, one of mine , genuinely, was a film I first saw in my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin: Akira Kurosawa’s great black-and-white period murder drama Rashomon. By chance, my roommate that year was a Japanese graduate student named Shuichi. Shuichi didn’t talk to me much; he thought I was too young and too messy. But I was eager to talk to him about this fantastic movie by his countryman, and indeed, he was familar with both the film and its director, to whom he referred, respectfully. as “Mr. Kurosawa.” Cautious deference though — and not the intense aesthetic excitement that Rashomon had awakened in me – is all Shuichi seemed to feel for Mr. Kurosawa and his masterpiece. A bit puzzled, I asked him which films he did like. I was even more surprised when Shuichi replied, “movies with Doris Day.”
I was truly dumfounded. Movies with stars like Doris Day (and Rock Hudson) were precisely what I thought I’d neen seeing too much in the little Wisconsin village of Williams Bay where I grew up. Although I read Dwight MacDonald in Esquire religiously, sneaking quick scans at the local drugstore magazine stand, I hadn’t been able to watch more than a handful of foreign films in the Bay area, all dubbed –which is one reason I was so thrilled by Rashomon.
My own favorites then (and now) included some pictures from that foreign language handful Id seen (Jules Dassin’s French Rififi and Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish The Magician), but mostly those more ambitious and stylish English language movies I’d seen in the nearby theaters and on TV by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and John Ford and David Lean and Billy Wilder and Carol Reed and Stanley Kubrick and Elia Kazan. I loved movies, but I already took them very seriously. My all-time favorite (then and now) was Citizen Kane.
So. “Why do you like Doris Day so much?” I asked my very serious Japanese roommate, genuinely stumped. With a big grin, Shuichi answered, “Oh, she’s so cute!”
Well, what can you say. She is cute. So was Tony Randall. As for Rock Hudson, he played straight man very well.
Extras: Commentary; featurettes; trailer.