Madeline Saves Summer; Out of Sight ‘s George Clooney, Man of Two Expressions

Madeline Saves Summer

Finally, a summer bonbon for imaginative moppets: Madeline , the popular children’s book illustrated and written in 1939 by the late, great Ludwig Bemelmans, has been brought to the screen with uncommon style and charm. Madeline, a Paris cousin to Kay Thompson’s Eloise, is a spunky, mischievous and courageous orphan whose adventures have enthralled kids everywhere (selling more than 15 million copies to date, and still counting). She lives with 11 other little girls in a vine-covered old mansion near the Eiffel Tower that has been converted into an exclusive girls’ school. The girls are looked after and protected by the wealthy, kindhearted Lady Covington (Stéphane Audran), taught by a devoted, long-suffering and easily flustered nun (Frances McDormand) and menaced by the villainous Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne), who hates children.

When their sponsor dies, it’s up to Madeline and the other girls to stop the old goat from selling the school. While Madeline orchestrates her schemes, she also loses her appendix, falls into the Seine and is saved from drowning by a dog named Genevieve, gets kidnapped by a gang of circus clowns known as the Idiots Popopov, and saves the school with the aid of the boy next door, who is the son of the Spanish Ambassador.

With a lush score by Michel Legrand, rich sets and costumes right out of Gigi , and the adorable Hatty Jones in the title role, Madeline evokes the Paris of Colette, Punch-and-Judy shows in the Bois de Boulogne, and the spirit of being young and innocent in a refined, less stressful age. It’s a harmless romp and the actual Bemelmans watercolors come to life with affectionate joy and color. Children who aren’t cynical, dysfunctional or glued to computer databases by the age of 9 may still find themselves falling for Madeline.

Yes, Clooney Has Two Expressions

Like the wannabes in The X-Files , George Clooney works at the hopeless transition from living room to screening room like a desperate student tackling a law exam. In one bad movie after another, he barely passes with the lowest grades in the class. In Out of Sight , he fails completely. This time I can’t blame him. Here is another of those incomprehensible Elmore Leonard crime stories that is unactable, even by Hollywood standards. What appeals to readers of this man’s sophomorically contrived caper novels on paper never manages to translate to film despite the best salutatory endorsements of the kind of deluded critics “industry experts” who voted such swill as Rocky and Dances With Wolves into the American Film Institute’s list of laughable “100 Greatest American Movies.” This turkey actually got some good reviews, but I suspect it will be up to the video stores to make a hit out of both Mr. Clooney and Out of Sight .

In this bloated, pretentious yawn from Steven Soderbergh, the overrated director of Sex, Lies and Videotape , Mr. Clooney plays a bank robber who escapes from a Florida prison on the track of $5 million in uncut diamonds stashed in the Detroit home of a crooked Wall Street financier, played by Albert Brooks in a series of hokey wigs that make him look like Martha Raye on a bad hair day. Jennifer Lopez is the foxy Federal marshal he takes hostage in the getaway car. With their thighs pressed together in the trunk, they fall in love, and she spends the rest of this interminable endurance test torn between taking him to bed or taking him back to jail. Her hormones say one thing, her loyalty oath says another, and a feminist’s duty being what it is, you don’t need two hours to figure how she plays it out.

This is a simple story, but Mr. Soderbergh doesn’t know how to tell any kind of story, much less a simple one, so into the stew is tossed a parade of superfluous minor characters spouting a lot of smartass one-liners to inflate the film beyond its limit. A rival gang of real killers arrives to muscle in on the heist. Then there’s Mr. Clooney’s sidekick (Ving Rhames, playing Danny Glover to the star’s Mel Gibson), Ms. Lopez’s father (Dennis Farina, who is more believable in car commercials), Mr. Clooney’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener), a floozy who works as a magician’s assistant, a wimpy, whining crook (Steve Zahn), a coldblooded psychopathic crook (Don Cheadle) and a host of others too boring to mention. The whole talent budget must have cost about $39 and carfare.

They all talk on cell phones and they’re all terrible. But not as terrible as the direction. Every time this meandering mess looks like it’s going to come alive long enough to introduce something resembling a plot development, the scene ends in another annoying freeze frame. Worse, the film is structured in a confusing jumble of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences–gimmicks first-year film students have learned to rely on when they have no cinematic knowledge or classical narrative technique of their own. Sometimes you find yourself watching events in Out of Sight that haven’t even happened yet. I’ve never seen so many intimate conversations in one movie between tangential characters–and none of them are worth repeating.

How long is George Clooney going to be able to get through a movie with only two facial expressions? The weirdest thing about this dead-on-arrival disaster is the appearance of Michael Keaton, a terrific actor with more faces than Lon Chaney, in a walk-on that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. He should be playing the lead. Meanwhile, Mr. Clooney, who is the star, fakes his way through each contrived scene handcuffed to every cliché in the book, including the obligatory Hollywood slow-motion make-out scene with everything discreetly concealed. Why aren’t these people content just to be millionaires?

It’s supposed to be a sly and sexy caper flick, but there’s nothing sly or sexy about it. Out of Sight is two hours of artificial padding and 10 minutes of worthless plot that makes you wish the title would come true an hour earlier.

A Pearl in a Sea Palace

From Pittsburgh, a throaty peach named Joyce Breach has been adding a new luster to Manhattan’s after-dark scene. Her husky voice and superb taste in songs are gracing half a dozen CDs on the market and although I just got around recently to catching her unique way with a classy tune in person, she’s worth waiting for. Danny’s Sea Palace, on West 46th Street, is where you can see and hear her during the month of July, and I urge you to do so pronto. Working with not one but two fine pianists–Keith Ingham, who once arranged for, accompanied and married Susannah McCorkle, and Tex Arnold, without whom Margaret Whiting never makes a musical move–she is intensely listenable, running through a first-rate repertoire of songs that sparkle like silver in a world of dirty old copper.

She has humor and class, and her material shows a keen knowledge and appreciation of songs from old movies and shows. She has a thrilling way of handling a complex lyric line, warm and soft of voice, with a rough texture around the edges that adds pain to a ballad instead of pattycake. Picture a jet-age stylist with argyle-sock-age roots. And her one-hour sets feature a fine-toothed comb selection of some of the most unusual and beguiling songs assembled for tired ears in many moons, each arranged to suit the mood it establishes, each sung with a different approach, a different comment, a different emotion.

So many of today’s crop of song stylists are brain-dead cold fish, far out or dangerously close to hysterics. Ms. Breach concentrates on intimacy, directness and tenderness. When she extends for a note she is not, like so many singers who are just showing off, reaching for the moon. As for the songs themselves, there isn’t one dud in the bunch. From Noel Coward’s “Room With a View” to a rarely performed Frank Loesser gem called “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made” (introduced by Ann Sheridan in the all-star Warner Brothers musical Thank Your Lucky Stars ), you can expect the unexpected. (By her own admission, Ms. Breach learns a lot from watching the Turner Classic Movies channel.) A Frank Sinatra medley proves she can stamp her own imprint on familiar standards like “That Old Feeling” and “The Second Time Around,” although I must admit Anita O’Day gets more out of “Just One of Those Things” with a slow crawl.

Ms. Breach’s real strength is best displayed on ballads, especially the obscure ones like “I’m Gonna Be Warm This Winter” and “The End of the Line,” both featured on her Audiophile CD “Lovers After All” with Richard Rodney Bennett. The highlight of the set I caught at Danny’s was an exquisitely phrased “Anyone Can Whistle” by Stephen Sondheim that is, technically and emotionally, flawless.

Joyce Breach is a singer paying her dues and reaping tertiary rewards; I doubt if there’s much in her pockets to keep her in groceries for all of her talent. Still, there’s something valiant about her dedication to quality that deserves a wider audience. Thank heaven she is around to breathe some life into an extraordinarily listless year in the cabaret business.

Madeline Saves Summer; Out of Sight ‘s George Clooney, Man of Two Expressions