Beyond the Sea
Kevin Spacey is a weird case. He used to be so cool, so mysterious. Everyone had a theory about him. Though he had been kicking around the fringes of the film and television industry for years it wasn’t until his succession of three brilliant roles —as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995), John Doe in Se7en (1995), and Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997)—that he seemed to arrive as a fully formed movie star. Any one of those show stealing roles would have made any actor famous but to claim all three and make each performance so memorably iconic is a tribute to Spacey’s versatility as a performer and to his incredible knack for knowing how to sustain an audience’s interest without giving too much away.
But fame, though he clearly sought it, began to intrude on his privacy. His coy question dodging as to whether he was gay or not seemed par for the course ten years ago when closeted celebrities insisted they weren’t closeted while refusing to just say they were gay (think Rosie O’Donnell and Ricky Martin). But Spacey, whose golden years are well past him at this point, insisted again only recently that he shouldn’t have to disclose his sexual orientation—an act of self-censorship no heterosexual would ever dream of having to play along with. Would anyone really care one way or the other at this point? It reminds me of the Onion article about the “Area Man Who Thinks He’s Still in The Closet.”Continue Reading
Busby Berkeley Bonus Disc (Busby Berkeley Collection)
It may seem like cheating to skip over the five films featured in the first Busby Berkeley Collection and single out the bonus disc included with the collection as a “Movie We Like,” but the very fact that Warner Brothers bothered to include the extra disc comprised solely of the musical numbers from Berkeley’s films indicates that they were eager to facilitate the pure rush of cinematic delirium that occurs when watching the crazy things back to back. Berkeley didn’t write or direct most of the films included in the box set collections that bear his name but his authorial hallmark is stamped right across all of them. He created and staged the musical numbers for the films and it’s these musical numbers that gave him immortality as one of the great film architects of glamorous spectacle and Hollywood mythology. The best of Berkeley’s musical numbers are pre-Production Code wonders of erotic reverie and paradisaical splendor. They looked like nothing that had come before though they have certainly been imitated and paid homage to by directors entranced by their bizarre majesty ever since. Berkeley turned song and dance numbers that bridged the scenes of what could have been generic studio musicals into glittering ecstatic pageants that rendered the lovely legs of chorus girls into a kaleidoscopic “ballet mechanique,” filling the entire screen in one hallucinatory art deco fantasia after another. There is beauty to Berkeley’s approach but there is also darkness that creeps in, such as in the desperate city-dwelling throngs killing, thieving, and hustling to the title song of 42nd Street. Fellow practitioners of the dark arts of Kino Delirium, Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin, owe this guy a lot and I would assume that they would be the first to admit it.
The plots of Berkeley’s films are mostly variations on the backstage musical archetype with a make it or break it “let’s put on a show!” finale. The films themselves - such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 with stars like James Cagney and Ruby Keeler - are a lot of fun, if a little slow between the numbers. I once saw Gold Diggers… screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and seeing the film with booze, surrounded by the graves of Hollywood luminaries at night was several great things made more so by their combination. But it’s the musical numbers that everyone wants to see, and so to get the purest expression of Berkeley’s genius it’s nice to be able to skip right to the whiz bang heart of it and luxuriate in the delights of “We’re In the Money,” “By A Waterfall,” and the very weird and wonderful “Pettin’ In the Park,” which serves as unimpeachable evidence, if any was necessary, that the 1930s was as sexually frank an era as any before or since.Continue Reading
Follow The Fleet
Follow the Fleet is not the formula that the Astaire/Rogers team is best known for. He's a sailor, and she's single gal making a living in the busy port of San Fransisco as a dance hall girl. Theirs isn't even the the only love story. Historically it's a piece that goes back a picture to when they were the lovable comic relief playing second fiddle to the more glamorous duo, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, in Roberta.
However, Fleet is loaded with adult humor and childish charm. Astaire in a sailor suit is hilarious. He looks so young and tiny compared to the bulky and once again co-lead, Scott, and Rogers seems a little crass standing next to the lithesome beauty of a young Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet fame). However their chemistry and spunk make the other two seem as flat and as interesting as soggy pancakes.Continue Reading
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a darkly comical rock musical about the trials and tribulations of an East German transsexual songwriter. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, young Hansel was raised by a cowering G.I. father and a cold-hearted German mother. Once grown, he falls in love with an American soldier, who promises to marry him and take him to the states. The one catch is he has to be a woman to flee the country.
Hansel’s sex change operation is blotched and he becomes “Hedwig,” left with only “an angry inch.” Once free of communism, her husband leaves her and she scrapes by babysitting for a military family. The teenage son, Tommy (Michael Pitt), is enchanted with her and they fall in love. That is until he steals her songs and becomes a superstar known as “Tommy Gnosis.”Continue Reading
A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.
A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.Continue Reading
Meet Me In St. Louis
Judy Garland, in my book, has always been one interesting persona to watch on screen. Her eyes glitter when she sings, she is always bathed in some wonderful soft light, and somehow the camera is always doing the best dolly moves when she’s on screen. She’s also a separate entity from the real world, so it seems. Her films, just as fascinating to me as Busby Berkeley musicals, are no less from the escapist realm. It’s amazing that 1945 marked the end of World War II, and, well, also produced the completely irrelevant musical, Meet Me In St. Louis. Meet Me in St. Louis is directed by Vincente Minnelli, who married Garland after working with her on set. The story is set in St. Louis, Missouri, in the year before the 1904 World Fair. The middle-class Smith family leads a comfortable and happy life. The four daughters are equally charming in their own separate ways. There’s Rose, Esther (Garland), Agnes, and the youngest, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). The family anxiously awaits the World’s Fair in their hometown, yet the father breaks the news that they must move to New York City to find a job. The story follows the family’s devastation in the end of summer through their lessons of life, love, and family well into the Christmas holidays, where they make the decision that breaks or makes their bond as a family.
The film features some tunes and dance-numbers, just as pie in the sky as the daughters’ names, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Under the Bamboo Tree."Continue Reading
Once is a love story masquerading as a musical disguised as a documentary. It is pure bliss from start to finish. Two lost souls find one another through music and then nudge each other back into life. I never once thought about the budget (which was tiny) or the acting (by 2 musicians) or even the director (who is amazing because he is completely invisible). From the opening scene where one of our heroes is unabashedly singing out his broken heart to its counterpoint towards the end where the other quietly lets out her own, I was snugly fitted into the camera lens that follows, captures and reveals them at tender, quiet, and charmingly awkward moments.
The movie is 60 percent music but it doesn't feel like a musical. It feels like a movie with a really good soundtrack. Better than any montage, each song is laden with romantic reminiscence and searching allowing us to stretch closer to the characters . This leaves enough mystery, enabling the story to unfold without compromise. If you hate the singer/songwriter Once might not be for you. But if you have an ounce of sentiment and a dash of a want-to-be-musician jones this is it.Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading
The Sound Of Music
Once upon a time in Hollywood, in the 1960s, big lavish adaptations of Broadway musicals were the hot ticket in movies, not just at the box-office but on Oscar night as well. Luckily Easy Rider, young driven counterculture, and the fall of the big studios eventually put an end to the era. Though I’m not generally a fan of musicals, I do have a lot of affection for The Sound Of Music. The film is carried by the charmingly virginal Julie Andrews as Maria, whose beautiful singing voice and pleasant manner take her from a charming nunnery to being nanny to a bunch of Austrian would-be Shirley Temples, and through song she cools the heels of their stern father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), eventually wedding him. By Act Two, hours later, the happy Partridge-esq family now must flee Nazis taking over their beloved Alps homeland, but not before singing a few more songs to an adoring public. As hard as it may be to believe, shot by director Robert Wise in big, brash 70mm style, this is incredibly entertaining fluff.
Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is in a huff because the rebellious Maria is bringing chaos to the Abby with her constant singing, so she wisely sends her off to bring her pep to the gloomy widowed Von Trapp and his passel of blond haired marching children. When around he treats his kids like young cadets, even the teensy ones, although he is usually hanging with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker, who later played three different characters on three episodes of TV’s Fantasy Island), a middle aged divorcee on the make with her scheming partner, the music promoter Max (Richard Haydn of Young Frankenstein). Maria quickly figures out all these young scamps need is love…. and music. Before you can say "Do-Re-Mi" she has them in Tabernacle Choir shape. At first Von Trapp is put off by Maria’s groovy ways but when he hears his kid’s powerful acapella version of “The Sound Of Music” this breaks the ice and he becomes a father of the year candidate. All is going well, Max even offers to manage the new musical family act. But the baroness feels threatened by the obviously younger and less leathery Maria, and convinces her to pack her bags, leave the family, and go back to Nunville. Dramatic! End of Act One.Continue Reading
The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...Continue Reading