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
British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.
Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.Continue Reading
Less standard follow-your-dreams dancical than sleek spandex-clad killing machine, the movie Flashdance is as exhilarating as it is nihilistic. Jennifer Beals has a honeyed glow and a natural, sexy charisma in the role of Alex, the hot young welder who moonlights as an exotic dancer at a Pittsburgh dive bar. Her dancing is her “art” and though I think it’s supposed to be erotic it’s really more schizo-aerobic.
The girls who dance with Alex at the club all have some kind of new wave performance art aspect to what they do and the set pieces are hilariously elaborate. One girl goes for a zany kabuki new wave effect and, well, it’s just weird. For a movie about a dancer in the sticks hoping to make it big we don’t get much of a sense of dance as an art form revolving around the body. The dancing is really about the editing which is best described as epileptic while the film’s narrative goes forward at such a robotic, lockstep pace – with plenty of music video-like detours comparable to commercial breaks – that it’s not so much a movie that you see as one that you have done to you. In that sense, you might say it’s ahead of its time because the film provided a basic blueprint for the way Hollywood movies are made now. The characters’ emotions are signaled with delicious Giorgio Moroder-produced instrumentals and the clichés of the basic kid with a dream story who must “risk everything” are cheerfully, mindlessly, and ferociously utilized.
Flashdance was nominated for four Oscars including Best Cinematography (Donald Peterman), Best Film Editing (Bud S. Smith, Mulconery), and Best Music, Original Song (Mich...
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