Browse Category

Musicals

Fab film at 50: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The rock movie was never the same after A Hard Day’s Night opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.

Before A Hard Day’s Night, there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the “Beach Party” model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.

A Hard Day’s Night was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn’t how they were in real life, it’s how we wanted them to be.

Continue reading at Today Entertainment

Film Review: ‘Begin Again’

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley

The 2006 film Once, which won an Oscar for best song, was something of a mystery. That little Irish picture featured unfamiliar actors, an obscure director and an unusual approach to the movie musical. Was it just a one-off? Filmmaker John Carney has worked since then, without making much of a splash. His new one, Begin Again, suggests that Once was not a fluke.

This is another music film, deep in its bones. It’s got a dangerously recognizable storyline, but the treatment is heartfelt and its actors engaging. Plus, the music’s pretty good.

Continue reading at The Herald

DVD: ‘Show Boat’ (1936)

The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.

Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerant life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Blu-ray: ‘Second Chorus’

The American musical is anything but a homogenized genre. Second Chorus (1940) is one of the stranger riffs on the genre, not for any stylistic daring or musical experimentation, mind you, but for its weird twist on the buddy film / romantic triangle. Trumpeters Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) are ostensibly partners in a successful college dance band but they harbor such a competitive streak that they become vicious rivals who turn on one another at every turn with a wicked vindictiveness. And it is all played for comedy.

Paulette Goddard, surely one of the most underrated stars of the classical Hollywood era, is Ellen Miller, is a smart, savvy woman who plays on Danny’s vanity to great effect in the opening scene and goes on to manage their band to even greater effect. She shifts personas with every sales call and comes off just as dazzling with each role, more playful than mercenary as she applies her sex appeal to the art of making a deal. Under her management, their college swing band, Danny O’Neill’s Perennials, becomes a hot regional favorite and the only thing that could ruin their success is graduating college, something they been able to put off for years. Sure enough, professional and romantic rivalry sends Danny and Hank sabotaging one another, first in school, then in auditions with Artie Shaw’s band. Ellen is one of these sweet and sexy screen women whose affection for these tirelessly competitive and annoyingly (and unjustifiably) arrogant two men allows her to forgive the most juvenile, self-centered, and cruel behavior, but their feud finally pushes past her limits when they go about sabotaging her own life and career out purely selfish, short-sighted reasons.

That kind of brutal edge is nothing new to comedy partners out of the vaudeville tradition — it’s the foundation of such classic team-ups as Abbott & Costello and Hope & Crosby — and Fred Astaire is no stranger to playing the cocky opportunist, but these boys (and these actors are playing men much younger than their actual years) are utterly self-centered, ruthlessly mercenary, and reflexively destructive. They aren’t pals, they are unstable elements in a combustible relationship that explode upon contact with any outside object or force, be it success, opportunity, or a pretty girl. The only time they manage to work together is when they have mutual goals. In those instances they manage to double-team with the best of them, whether it’s a dual onslaught of double-talk or a scheme worthy of con-artists targeting a patsy.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

DVD: ‘Having at Wild Weekend’

Having a Wild Weekend (Warner Archive), the Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night, has a title that suggests the knock-about fun and goofy banter of The Beatles on film. To some extent you’ll find that here. The five boys live in what appears to be, at various times, an old church, an abandoned farmhouse, a run-down manor, and a rummage sale in a school gymnasium (thus the trampoline in the middle of the room), but instead of playing music, they play stunt men and extras in a beef industry ad campaign branded “Meat for Go,” which are conspicuously absent of any actual meat in the ads. What the ads seem to sell is the blond charm of poster girl Dinah (Barbara Ferris) and the puckish spirit of five mod young men leaping goofily around her.

Dave Clark is the ostensible lead as Steve, one of the stunt men and the only member of quintet to get something approaching a distinctive character (the other four boys goof around the margins), and he kicks off the story by driving off the commercial in a sports car with a willing Dinah. She’s the bubbly starlet as free spirit next to Clark’s brooding would-be rebel Steve, but Clark has, shall we say, a deficit of screen presence, let alone personality or charisma. Ferris effortlessly dominates by sheer personality and energy. Maybe that’s why Dave Clark never made another film.

Or maybe it’s because Having a Wild Weekend is not the happy-go-lucky romp the gag-laden opening promises. Along their flight to freedom from the corporate appropriation of youth style for media consumption, they flee British bombs and soldiers who round up hippie squatters like they were enemy combatants, and are taken in by an older couple of swingers who seem poised to seduce the pretty young things. It’s written by playwright Peter Nichols, who brings an edge of social satire and a shadow of existential emptiness to the runaway road movie story. And it’s the directorial debut of John Boorman (of Point Blank, Deliverance, and Excalibur fame), who adds a kind of mod realism to the romp.

Having a Wild Weekend is like the mop top exploitation version of the social drama cinema that was all the rage in the mid-sixties, with a absurdity of modern life and the spiritual death of commercial compromise behind the driving beat and bright guitars of pop rock hits from The Dave Clark Five. Their climactic gesture may be false and heavyhanded (and almost inconsequential, given how little impression Clark and the boys have actually made in the movie as individuals, let alone as any kind of moral compass), but it certainly leaves the film with a sense of unease at the compromises of modern culture.

Available exclusively from Warner Archive: Having a Wild Weekend

Review: The Magic Flute

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

While in the past I’ve been struck by a certain, sometimes openly self-conscious interplay between roles and “reality” in Bergman’s films—and while I’ve often felt sorely put upon to endure its exposition—it’s a similar sense of an interface between what is real and what is staged in The Magic Flute that prepares for one of the film’s most delightful achievements: to have us thinking, by the time it’s all over, that all the seemingly different shadings of both Bergman’s and our perception finally rotate in the penumbra of Art. In other guises, maybe that has been Bergman’s “message” all along. The kingdom, though, is not self-enclosed this time, as it was in Cries and Whispers, nor is there that sometimes uneasily taut polarization between the stiflingly realistic overtones and the undercurrents of pure poetry running through the dialogue of Scenes from a Marriage. Nor, for that matter, is there much hint of existential parlor tricks à la Passion of Anna, wherein each of the four main characters, at some point during the movie, takes a moment to sit back, not as the character he/she portrays but as the performer he/she is, and reflect upon the part’s genesis within him-/herself.

Keep Reading

‘Step Up Revolution’ Still Has Some Moves

Reprising the franchise’s surefire money-minting strategy, Step Up Revolution detonates five or six hyperkinetic dance extravaganzas in dazzling 3-D, timed to obliterate a traditionally saggy story line. In the Step Up mythology, dreamers, losers and misfits always pull themselves up by their bootstraps, hoofing their way out of mean streets to fame — e.g., prizes, dance scholarships, Nike contracts. It’s a show-biz fairy tale as old as the movies; what’s surprising is how successfully this stale slice of the American Dream sells, in a marketplace supposedly dominated by the hip-kid demographic.

“It’s all about the dancing, stupid!”

But, then, Step Up ticket buyers might just crack wise(ly): “It’s all about the dancing, stupid!”

Here, the story hook is the threat of a big development company wiping out a downscale, multi-ethnic Miami neighborhood. The sons and daughters of this poor but happy community — bathed in warm gold-and-orange light and hot salsa — want to save their home, while the CEO’s kid yearns to dance her way out of her white-and-gray world, where practical-minded dad (Peter Gallagher, slumming) would like to freeze-frame her into a corporate cog. Loosed in various urban venues, the high-energy kinetic power of The Mob, a diverse community of flash dancers and performance artists from the hood, eventually dissolves all differences, creating one big happy family.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Review: That’s Entertainment, Part Two

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

That’s Entertainment, Part Two begins where the first compilation should have ended, with (a portion of) the first performance of “That’s Entertainment” by Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan and Oscar Levant in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Around this footage Saul Bass has devised one of the most delightful main titles seen in a long while—albeit one that seems, with its cast lists being washed out to sea by the tide or consumed by flames—to hark back to the elephants’-graveyard atmosphere of the first That’s Entertainment’s guest narrations filmed amid the crumbling and deserted MGM studios. The and-this-too-shall-pass-away suggestion proves inapt to an anthology that dwells very little on the fact that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and indeed pays little explicit homage to MGM itself (the only mention of Metro I can recall occurred in a song lyric, from long ago and far away). But MGM films are still the subject of That’s Entertainment, Part Two—and not only MGM musicals but also some of their comedies and, more glancingly, dramatic and adventure films.

Keep Reading

Dark Star in Hyperdrive and TV Is Frank Sinatra’s Lady – DVDs of the Week

Dark Star: The Hyperdrive Edition (VCI)

Think of Dark Star as John Carpenter’s answer to the glistening designs and metaphysical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Deglamorizing the allure of space-age technology by giving it a drab, industrial practicality, Carpenter and co-writer/special effects supervisor/actor Dan O’Bannon give us not heroic space jockeys bravely exploring the unknown but “truck drivers in space” stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission to blow up unstable planets.

The bridge crew of Dark Star

The captain is dead (but still available for information, sort of, if he’s thawed from suspended animation), Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) has uncomfortably stepped into command (his working motto is “Who cares?”), the crew is slipping into apathy and entropy and only the annoying, slow-witted Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) showing any signs of social engagement or curiosity (which lands him in a battle wits with a flabby beach ball of an alien trickster). Any sense of purpose has degenerated into a race to get rid of the bombs so they can turn around and go him. This is not a wide-eyed celebration of the wonder of space but a state of stasis and depression cause by isolation and meaninglessness of their mission. “Waiting For Godot in Space,” is how one collaborator defined the film, a description even more indicative of Carpenter’s original version of the, when it was still an ambitious student short growing beyond its boundaries.

Keep Reading

Review: Saturday Night Fever

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

In intent and intensity, Saturday Night Fever falls somewhere between West Side Story and Mean Streets. The former film is specifically evoked by the dwelling on Romeo and Juliet. When disco king Tony Manero takes his prospective dance-contest partner Stephanie Mangano out to tea, she plays a humiliation game with him, saying that though their origins are the same, she is now of a different kind, and implying that she is too good for him. The lovers aren’t exactly star-crossed, but they have their share of differences to overcome; and contrary to what Stephanie would like to believe, the inadequacies aren’t all on Tony’s side. After all, wondering why Romeo was so quick to take the poison is a valid response to Romeo and Juliet—much more so than her tossed-off response that “That’s the way they did it in those days.”

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 2 – A Tale of Two Rock Bio-pics, plus quick notes

How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.

Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans know—John’s reconnection with his mother and the first shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen—but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sisters—both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboy—and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.

Keep Reading

California Dreamin’ and 30 years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – DVDs of the Week

California Dreamin’ (E1)

Director Cristian Nemescu was a rising star of what has been branded the Romanian New Wave when he and his sound editor were killed in a car wreck near the end of post-production of his first feature. As a tribute to Nemescu, the producer released California Dreamin’ as is. The director would likely have tightened the film up some but his dryly hilarious presentation of skewed cultural identity and appropriation, his blithely scathing portrait of bureaucratic impotence and ingrained corruption in post-CeauÅŸescu Romania (circa 1999), and the way he appreciates his characters even as he mercilessly satirizes their schemes and scams fills the film with a generosity of spirit and a richness of detail. Even at a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, there is plenty happening on screen.

Americans confront the new Romania in "California Dreamin'"

“Everyone has their reasons,” was the motto of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In Nemescu’s miserable little Romanian village, everyone has their agenda. NATO peacekeeping mission commander Captain Jones (Armand Assante in a gruff growl) wants to get his shipment of military equipment to Kosovo. Station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who runs his railroad position like a gangster and pillages every shipment that rolls through, blows off the government orders and sidelines them in a petty show of power and insolence (his reasons are slowly revealed in the flashbacks to World War II). His teenage daughter just wants to get out of the village and sees the arrival of the Americans as, if not her ticket out, at least a diversion for a while. The factory workers just want to stage their strike for maximum effect and find themselves stymied by Doiaru and overshadowed by the Americans. And the Mayor sees the captive audience as an unprecedented opportunity to promote his town and its absurd effort to transform into a high-concept tourist destination (complete with a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a Texas-themed hotel).

Keep Reading

Out of the Past: The Harder They Come

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Perry Henzell’s Jamaican film The Harder They Come invites comparison with Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus in its stylistic reliance upon pulsating rhythms to carry it along with a sense of inevitability, and in its literary use of the music and lifestyle of New World blacks as the milieu for a story of mythic heroism. But The Harder They Come, though never as self-consciously poetic as the Camus film, is much more fatalistic—as close to naturalism as such a stylized film can come. Black Orpheus increasingly restricts its meaning to the restaged Attic resurrection myth, while The Harder They Come consistently delimits its range of meaning to become not just a rehearsal of a mythic pattern but also a story of music, of crime and pursuit, of the uses and abuses of religion, and most importantly, of political impact. This may sound like a grab-bag of stylistic and thematic implication; but The Harder They Come is no pastiche—it’s a true Third World film in which every element relates to its central concern for the futile struggle of a people doomed to exploitation, whether in politics, crime, or business.

Keep Reading

Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

Keep Reading

Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

Keep Reading