Alan Smithee Podcast 76: I Married a Witch (1942, René Clair) / Bewitched (2005, Nora Ephron)

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Regular listeners of An Alan Smithee Podcast know that we’re pretty shameless when it comes to being topical. When your movie podcast is basically about whatever the hell movies you feel like talking about, you have to be a little topically trendy to catch new listeners. However, don’t assume that this episode’s choice of Nora Ephron’s worst movie (probably) was chosen to dishonor her memory. This is mere coincidence and frankly, we do a fine enough job dishonoring her memory with ad hominem insults (mostly mine, Andrew has class) when we were under the assumption she’d live at least another week or so.

In deference towards Ephron’s M.O. – after the fact – let’s say this episode is sort of about feminism, vis-a-vis the short niche history of romantic farces about women with magic powers and the zany predicaments they put their men into. On stage and screen the concept doesn’t date back much further than Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, in which a séance brings back the ghost of a man’s nagging wife. This play was only produced a year before the 1942 film I Married A Witch, surely one of the most famous romantic comedy fantasies that people know by name without having watched. As a key work in her career’s meteoric rise and fall, Veronica Lake plays heavily into that as the titular witch. In the long run, the film begat Bell, Book and Candle (1958), with Kim Novak as another romantic trickster witch, which then begat the TV series Bewtiched in 1964.

I Married A Witch is a devious, playful and tart treat. Veronica Lake is not an innocent sugar cookie like Elizabeth Montgomery, initially intending to torment rather than marry the hapless Fredric March until literally falling in love with him by accident. The story and dialogue are as brisk and witty as any great screwball classic from Hollywood’s golden age and director Clair, who began in the silent era, devises a good deal of photographic tricks and practical effects to bring the magical elements to life. The battle of the sexes at play here carries a lot more weight than the Grant-Hepburn variety, as essentially March’s soul is on the line. Only March’s bitchy fiancé Susan Hayward makes Lake look likable by comparison, which doesn’t exactly present the ideal picture of womanhood between the two of them. They are both STRONG women, however, which is less than can be said for the women in the bad movie of this episode…

Bewitched is, without hyperbole, a failure on every conceivable level. Worse, one wonders what dramatic or comedic purposes Nora Ephron and her co-writer sister Delia Ephron even had in mind. A Marxist critic in 1942 would probably hate our being asked to identify with an opportunistic politician of family money and connections; Frederic March is running for governor and that’s not exactly necessary for the story of his love triangle between a cold fish and a Satanic nymph. However, only a commoner with no ability for class critique whatsoever could stomach, let alone enjoy the sucking vortex of insulated world views that comprise the scenario of Bewitched 2005. Forget for a moment that literally not a single character in this film is not rich, famous or endowed with magical powers. Could the meta-story of a Bewitched movie being about the remaking of the Bewitched TV show possibly be any more unnecessarily convoluted? Exactly what aspect of this plot could anyone possibly relate to?

Here’s the only corpse kicking that needs to be done: Nora and Delia Ephron wrote a story in which the unlimited powers of witch Nicole Kidman and her warlock father Michael Caine are unconsciously represent the privileged life they grew up in. Mister and Mrs. Ephron were East Coast professional screenwriters who moved lil’ Nora and Delia (those NAMES, good gravy!) to Beverly Hills as small children, where they proceeded to graduate from Beverly Hills High School. Afterwards, Nora fled back across flyover country to one of the most snobby elitist schools in America, Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She then interned at the JFK White House, presumably performing executive maintenance functions alongside Mimi Beardsley. After starting her career as an essayist, she married Carl Bernstein and divorced him before finally following in mom and dad’s footsteps as a screenwriter. She then defined the modern brainless-in-Seattle rom-com chick-flick with When Harry Met Sally and, yes, Sleepless In Seattle. Phillip Wylie, Robert Crumb and Rush Limbaugh combined couldn’t conceive a more exaggerated parody of a liberal feminist Jewess than this woman’s life.

In Bewitched, Nicole Kidman wants the execrable Will Ferrell to love her LITERALLY because he’s a “helpless” dope and as a super-powered witch dabbling in civilian life, any helpless dope will do – even if he’s a movie star. After using her magic powers to conjure a home worth millions in Los Angeles, she resolves not to use her powers to make Ferrell fall in love with her, except she changes her mind about that, twice. Ferrell and his Hollywood ilk in this film are vulgar Hollywood stereotypes, not like those sophisticated and literate New Yorkers who agree to write the scripts for meta-remakes of 1960s sitcoms. So far as Ephron’s feminist street cred, Kidman’s utter lack of personality whatsoever should posthumously wipe the record clean. She’s merely a cipher for Ferrell, whom Ephron presumably had more interest in working with. Arguably the show itself was similarly constructed – with Dick Powell and Dick York getting all the laughs in reaction to Samantha’s antics – except Ferrell doesn’t even know Kidman is a witch until the last 20 minutes of the horrific 101 minute running time. So there’s no farce, and at least Elizabeth Montgomery had some kind of charm.

Presumably, had Bewitched been a hit, Ephron’s version of I Dream of Jeannie would be about Billy Crystal finding a real genie to star on an off-broadway musical remake of the TV show, who then blogs about it on The New York Times Magazine website. Blecchhh.

NEXT EPISODE: SPACE BABE SPECIAL! BARBARELLA (1968, ROGER VADIM) & GALAXINA (1980, WILLIAM SACHS)

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Episode 38: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) / Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

Where would Hollywood be without the literary adaptation?

Accusing the system of unoriginality has never been out of style and with good reason: before there was other media to plunder, turning books into movies was a great way to turn a profit, from Gone With The Wind to the bible. During the golden age of the airport novelist, which came and went between the creation of television and the ability to watch Lost on a Game Boy, pulpy imaginations like that of Stephen King and Tom Clancy ruled the skies. Our movies in this episode reflect the best and worst of the mass-produced page turner seat filler fodder – fifty years, a thousand worlds and one Frank apart.

This Gun For Hire came from the pen of The Third Man author Graham Greene under the original, subtler title of A Gun For Sale. Partially fashioned as a showcase for the up and coming Veronica Lake, the scant 80 minute story allows her two nightclub song and magic numbers before throwing her on the lam with Alan Ladd in a fast paced plot of espionage and cold blooded revenge. Rumors have persisted that this pairing was conceived in consideration of the two rising stars’ relatively low stature – literally 4″11′ (hers) and 5″6′ (his).

Lake is every bit as wry and sexy as she was in Sullivan’s Travels but the show surprisingly belongs to Ladd, whose morally shifty hitman makes the film one of the most formative early works of fim noir. Also great is Tuttle’s direction and the supporting cast, particularly Laird Cregar as the slimy, corpulent double-crosser whom Ladd is gunning for.

Despite a more prolific involvement in film from the very beginning of his career than Greene, Michael Crichton still had to wait 15 years to see the film version of his 1980 thriller Congo. Upon seeing the results he may well have preferred to wait longer or not to have begun the process at all. This film is an abject disaster on every conceivable level, failing to produce either the escapist fantasy the filmmakers intended or an unintentional work of hilarious incompetence.

Being produced on the heels of Jurassic Park, one gets the sense that the studio responsible felt that Crichton’s name alone guaranteed a hit. Thus the low cost casting of b-movie hired guns like Joe Don Baker, Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell alongside low cost indy darlings like Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. Even more cynical is the withholding of the story’s star creatures, a bunch of marauding killer gorillas, until literally the final 15 minutes of the film. Jurassic Park would not be the same film with only 15 minutes of dinosaurs, and killer apes are a poor substitute for dinosaurs in the first place.

To make the children of America who only wanted to see more people being chased through jungles by PG-13 monsters wait through over an hour of idiotic banter between Ernie Hudson and an animatronic gorilla is nothing short of fraud. For sheer lack of even the most rudimentary distracting spectacle, Congo is perhaps the worst film of 1990s Summer blockbuster era.

NEXT WEEK: PSYCHO SPECIAL! PSYCHO II (1983, RICHARD FRANKLIN) & PSYCHO (1998, GUS VAN SANT)

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Episode 36: The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) / Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001, Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith and Orson Welles have a lot in common. Firstly, they’ve both written and directed many of their own films. Secondly, they star in their own films. Thirdly, they like to eat. Okay, so they have three things in common.

The Stranger is quizzically one of Welles’ lesser known works despite being one of his most accessible. In a plot seemingly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, Welles himself portrays a Nazi war criminal hiding undetected in the milieu of small town America while plotting his future schemes. He’s so evil he kicks dogs! Hot on his trail is Edward G. Robinson, who nyaah sees through his perfect American accent and begins to turn the screws on Welles’ newly married bride, the lovely Loretta Young. When confronted, Welles strings her along as long as he can. But for how long?

Many sophisticated crane and tracking shots distinguish this modestly budgeted thriller as a warmup for later Welles classics such as Touch Of Evil. Despite his own dismissal the project as mere work for hire – which it certainly is – work for hire from Orson Welles amounts to an entertaining thriller easily in league with any other. While Robinson’s character is not particularly developed, Young’s is a minor masterpiece of tragic love for a man she has begun to understand is bad without fathoming the true extent of his evil. Welles does not give so much as a single noble quality to his beast.

Unlike a work-for-hire job, Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is nothing less than one man’s completely unwarranted magnum ode to himself. Back in 2001, Miramax was far from bankruptcy and was actually willing to fund such folly. This is 22 million dollars they probably wish they had back right now. Smith has never been a serious moneymaker screenwriter on the level of, say, Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black, but what he lacked in misogyny he made up for with good casting, unpretentious comedy and the cutting edge gimmick of having his characters talk about Star Wars and Marvel comics for no reason.

His accumulated goodwill as the comic writer-director for geeks in the 90s finally put him over into the mainstream with Dogma. Then he had a choice to make. Either branch out beyond his New Jersey buddy comedy that began with Clerks five years earlier, or do more of the same. Promising to his lovingly patronized merchandise-consuming online fan following that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back would be the final film in that mold – replete with cameos by the characters of each previous film – he wrote a stream of consciousness ripoff of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure starring himself. Then he broke his promise with Clerks 2 after Jersey Girl bombed.

We give a little extra time in this episode to his evisceration, but only because we were once fans ourselves.

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NEXT WEEK: MEAN STREETS (1973, MARTIN SCORCESE) & SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991, MARK L. LESTER)

Episode 29: The Bank Dick (1940, Edward F. Cline) / The Beach (2000, Danny Boyle)

This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast, the great W.C. Fields makes a grand return and Leonardo DiCaprio does some dopey navel gazing.

The Bank Dick like many Fields pictures is the story of a man who never meant anyone a bit of harm, whom the whole world has conspired against to keep from his next drink. With the sudden opportunity to be mistaken for a hero, he takes it. With the sudden opportunity to better himself and his family, he wastes it. With some good production value from Universal, there’s a little more traditional plotting happening than at Paramount Pictures in 1934 (the place of his last film we saw, It’s A Gift) but Field’s fractured, unique approach to funny screenwriting is perfect onto himself: never before has one man been so besieged by everyday life and taken it so laconically.

As if he needed it, Fields is joined by an excellent supporting cast of comic supporting actors like Preston Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn as J. Pinkerton Snoopington, baby faced Grady Sutton as Og Oggilby, chorus girl Una Merkel and spinster Cora Witherspoon as Agatha and Myrtle Souse, and America’s least favorite stooge, Shemp Howard as Fields’ faithful bartender.

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From 1997 to 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio was the biggest movie star in the world thanks to a little sleeper called Titanic and every 12 year old girl who saw it 12 times each. By not starring in any movies during that period, he rode a rising tide of expectations for his next role as one in a series of many great roles to come. Then he starred in The Beach, a completely pointless exercise in Thai island cinematography. As an aimless jerk, DiCaprio travels to a secret island that’s an exclusive club apparently for underwear models, where everyone can party all day and all night and look fabulous. How boring is the dark secret behind this seeming paradise? More boring than you can possibly imagine, and not even really a secret. There’s actually sharks in the water, and that’s not even the dark secret. What dark secret is about to harsh Leo’s mellow buzz?

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If this hipster porn came out today it’d be a huge hit, and would still suck.

NEXT WEEK: SLAP SHOT (1977, GEORGE ROY HILL) & CRUISING (1980, WILLIAM FRIEDKIN)

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