Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ave Maria Baby

I queued up Jersey Boys (2014) because we had a friend visiting who likes to talk through movies - and I figured we wouldn't mind for this. It turned out that we didn't watch it with her, and I'm glad we did. I'm not a big Frankie Valli fan, but he had some great songs, and he sure could sing. And director Clint Eastwood has the kind of love for music that really comes through.

It's the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, from street hoods to their reunion concert. It starts with Tommy Devito talking direct to the audience, and we get a bit of that from everyone. In Devito's mind, he was Frankie's mentor, which mostly involved dumb crimes. Everyone goes to prison except Frankie - he's a good boy whose parents want him home early.

They are also under the patronage of mob boss Christopher Walken, who has maybe never been Christopher Walkenier. He loves Frankie's voice, and we soon find out just how lovely it is. Then one of their lowlife friends suggests that they get together with Bob Gaudio, who wrote "Short Shorts" - even though he is from Bergenfeld, not the Neighborhood. With Nick Massi on bass vocals and bass guitar, they were the Four Somethings. It becomes Four Seasons when a misfiring neon sign that seems to say "our sons" lights up as "Four Seasons".

That's the kind of goofy stuff that comes from a Marshall Brickman (Manhattan) screenplay. There's some real slapstick stuff in there. The scene where they steal a safe and load it into the trunk, which lifts the car off it's front wheels, so that it slams into a jewelry store window - that should give you an idea. But there's some real stuff there too, mostly Tommy being a jerk, with Gaudio wanting to get serious about music, and Nick wanting to start his own band. Actually, Nick is kind of boring, which is interesting. He is played by Michael Lomenda, who has a kind of Nat Pendleton vibe - kind of dumb and easygoing, but not just background.

There's some comedy, some drama, and a lot of great music. The singing was all filmed live - not lipsynced. The cast does their own singing, and mostly come from the Broadway or touring cast. We get to know a little bit about Bob Gaudio, who wrote most of the songs, and their producer, the flamboyantly gay Bob Crewe. I love to learn about that side of the music biz.

There's a scene with the guys making fun for "Walk Like a Man" - I always laugh about the mismatch between the girlish voice and the macho lyrics, and I guess they get the joke too. Still a great song.

I feel like Valli himself is a bit of a void at the heart of this movie. He seems like a quiet type, keeps to himself. He's serious and works hard and doesn't let a lot of pride or frustration show. Then it all comes out in his soaring falsetto.

Still, it all make me think, just a little, of Paul Anka in Girls Town.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Magnificent!

I don't know why people keep remaking awesome movies. Why did they need to remake Seven Samurai as a western? Why did they remake The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughan RIP) as a space opera (Robert Vaughan RIP)? And why make The Magnificent Seven (2016)? Maybe because it's awesome?

In this version, there is a gold mining company trying to push the townspeople out. They massacre the menfolk, burn the church and give the rest 3 weeks to get out. So spunky widow Haley Bennett sets out to gather an army to defend the town. SPOILER - she comes up with seven.

They are led by Denzel Washington, head badass, and Chris Pratt, head wiseass. There's a psycho mountain-man injun killer, a Mexican, a damaged Reb by the euphonious appellation of Goodnight Robicheaux and his Asian associate, and an Indian named after the Dash Hammett story, Red Harvest. As usual, the plan is to turn the town into a kill box for the bad guys. Since the town is a few buildings on one street on a broad flat valley, that will be hard.

The big fight at the end was pretty good, but in my opinion it was the seven that really made this movie. They were a bit more diverse, a little more fun than the original team - maybe just a little more extreme. Like Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest shooting up the invaders with his bow and arrow - so iconic. And like a good classic western, there were lots of scenes of the crew galloping across the plains to the strains of Elmer Bernstein's classic theme.

So, pretty awesome movie  - I'll leave it at that, and ask a question: Best kill box movie? There's a lot to be said for Seven Samurai, or maybe something like Home Alone (think about it). But I'm going to say 13 Assassins.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

I Love the Night Life

Carrying on with Whit Stillman's Yuppie Trilogy, we watched The Last Days of Disco (1998). If you are smarter than me, you realize that we skipped the second movie (Barcelona) and went straight to the third. But you don't really need to watch these in order.

To recap, Stillman made a loose trilogy about over-educated upper-class but not necessarily rich kids in New York. This one focuses on the scene at a popular disco, essentially Studio 54. One guy works at the club, and sneaks his friends in. One guy works at an ad agency; he uses the first guy to get his clients in - that's basically his job description: can get people into Studio 54. Another one works for the DA, and really believes in disco, he just doesn't have time to go that much.

And then there are the women: two girls who prepped together. Kate Beckinsale is a reader at a publishing office, and wants to help Chloe Sevigny so that everyone doesn't hate her like they did at Hampshire. But Chloe has to understand that people hate it when you are critical.

Now, I visited Hampshire College at lot in the 70s. It's a hippy school near Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. We called it the "cocaine, suede and waterbeds" school. So it's understandable that she would be critical. But when Beckinsale tells her that, she just gets defensive and, well, more critical. So even when nice guys buy her drinks, she has to criticize. She doesn't want a vodka tonic, she wants a ... And in the pause, you see she doesn't know what she wants. She just doesn't want to be ordinary or predictable.

She is really the focus of the movie - all the guys eventually fall for her. But it's more than a character study (although it does that really well) or a story about life in New York: the railroad apartments, the subways, the corner bar when you can't get into the disco. It's also a comedy.

There's the cult of disco, with so many characters rhapsodizing over the concept of a club where you can meet people and dance. Talking about the philosophy of disco, and how it can never die if it lives on in the hearts of young men and women. Then there's the demonization of advertising people. It doesn't matter if you are black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, but if you are in advertising, you are scum.

It is a bit slow moving, meandering, but it isn't plotless - it's just that the plot doesn't matter a whole lot. And it seems kind of slice-of-life, but it's really almost absurdist comedy. And Sevigny is really quite gorgeous, in a mopey, self-conscious, low-self-esteem kind of way.

And the music is great - now that disco is dead, I don't mind admitting that. But let me tell you, none of these kids can dance worth a damn.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Painless

We went and did it, we watched Suicide Squad (2016), and I don't see what everyone is complaining about. Well, I do and I don't.

To briefly recap the plot: Superman is dead (BvM) and Viola Davis needs to protect America from super-powered metahumans. What if they are evil? So she takes a bunch of super-villains, who are evil but not all super-powered, and aims to set them against any threat she perceives. This may sound like a terrible plan to you, but don't worry, everyone agrees - it is a terrible plan.

She gets:
  • Will Smith as Deadshot: a never-miss assassin. He's got the best role, best back story, and best back chat.
  • Margot Robbie as Harly Quinn: a psycho-candy Suicide Girl in love with the Joker. No, she's got the best role. Cute, spunky, punky, and violent.
  • Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc: A guy with crocodile skin. Very pretty.
  • Jai Courtenay as Captain Boomerang: His superpower is being Australian. Always seen with a can of beer in hand.
  • Jay Hernandez as Diablo: A cholo gang-banger with his face tattooed like a skull, who can create huge fires but has sworn off violence.
  • Cara Delevingne as Enchantress: A transdimensional goddess who inhabits the body of an innocent anthropologist.
  • Assorted redshirts.
On the side of good, we have:
  • Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flagg: One of those skinny Arkansas-looking SEAL types with a scruffy beard. He rides herd on the squad.
  • Karen Fukuhara as Katana: Wears half a kabuki mask, carries a soul-eating sword. 
And that doesn't even include Jared Leto as the Joker, because this isn't really his story. He's just background for Harly.

Well, now that I've listed the cast, I don't have any time for the plot. Which is just about as over-stuffed as the cast. The Movie Sign with the Mads podcast did an episode on this and they kept finding out that the part that explains this or that was cut out. So the movie director David Ayer thought he was making isn't what wound up on the screen, partly because a wacko trailer was so popular, they recut.

Still, the final movie is a lot of fun - even if you can't call it a good movie. I liked the villains (I mean antagonists, pretty much everyone's a villain), loved Harly. Robbie uses a great voice for her - Kind of a Judy Holliday whine with a bit of scratchy roughness. The Diablo subplot was good, partly because Hernandez brought something to the sort of standard "esse" role. I was not as impressed by Leto's Joker, but that's OK, he was a minor character.

There was a lot of silliness ("If he kills me, I want you to shoot him and erase my browser history."), lot's of classic rock on the soundtrack (not all from Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy), plenty of action and CGI, bizarre tattoos, even a car chase. It worked for us.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Paris When it Fizzles

Sixties sex farces should be just my cup of tea, but I don't find many that I really like. Take A New Kind of Love (1963). It was directed by Melville Shavelson, who was responsible for a lot this kind of thing (Houseboat, Yours, Mine and Ours). It stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, so how bad could it be.

Woodward is a fashion designer specializing in ripping off couture designs for a mid-market department store run by George Tobias (with the help of Thelma Ritter). These three are going to Paris to buy or steal some schmatta.  Newman is a Norman-Mailer-esque newspaper columnist, who spends his time drinking, going to sporting matches, and womanizing, usually all at once. When he beds the wrong woman, he gets sent by his editor to Paris in exile.

They meet for the first time on the plane over. Woodward is a "semi-maiden" - tried love once and didn't like it. She dresses androgynously and wears her hair shaggy and studded with pencils. Frankly she looks awesome - very modern, a little Velvet Underground. But Newman calls her "mister" before he gets a good look at her, and they don't hit it off.

The movie spends a bit of time on their separate Paris adventures: Her at fashion runways, him at strip club runways. They are contrasted in split screen scenes is pretty cute. Also, the mid-century fashions are quite sweet, if you like Dior, Lanvin, etc, you'll enjoy those parts.

How Woodward and Newman meet is a bit complicated. Tobias starts running around with sexy Eva Gabor, and Thelma Ritter confides in Woodward that she always loved Tobias and was now in despair about her love life. (But she can't hate Gabor because she is so nice.) Woodward has a religious epiphany during the Feast of St. Catherine, patron saint of unmarried woman. So she decides to get a makeover - hairdo, dresses, all that. This is silly, but not an insult to the character.

She is out in a cafe all dolled when Newman mistakes her for a "fille de joie", who he decides to interview to get his column back on track. She recognizes him and plays along, at first for revenge, then because she kind of likes being an infamous woman of pleasure. I'm sure you will guess that this all leads to a put up/shut up sex panic, just like a Doris Day movie.

Some of you are probably thinking, Funny Face: unconventional, unfeminine woman needs a man to make her fashionable and pretty. Yes, but. Astaire was playing a David-Avedon-like photographer who saw the beauty in Hepburn right away (not so difficult). Newman is parodying a self-important, hyper-masculine writer (at least I hope it's a parody), who ignores or scorns a woman who isn't frilly - not really likable. I feel like it's closer to Paris When it Sizzles: supposed romance spoiled by a sour misogyny.

Woodward's character holds up fairly well, even if she is a bit retro. Newman's doesn't - especially in the fantasy sequences when Woodward imagines him as a growling, animalistic football player. He doesn't seem to be getting it. Maybe he's just not that retro.

Still, some fun fashions, and Thelma Ritter gets a much deeper role than usual. Also, I liked Marvin Kaplan as Newman's thick-glassed, shlubby Jewish buddy. I'm not ready to give up on Sixties sex farces.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keep On Pushing

Just to keep the noir going, Pushover (1954). Directed by Richard Quine, it starts Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak, and it does have a touch of Double Indemnity in it.

It starts with a bank robbery and murder. Then we cut to Kim Novak coming out of the movies. She is wrapped in furs, but all alone. When her car won't start, Fred MacMurray comes over to help. They both noticed each other in the theater and wondered why they were alone. Well, I'm wondering too. They have some sexy dialog, go to a bar, then his place, and the whole time, we don't know what's going on. Who are these people and what are they up to?

Spoiler - he's a cop and she's the moll of one of the bank robbers. MacMurray was assigned to get close to her, and I guess he is pretty good at it. Of course, she does catch on, in a great little scene where she spits, "You're a cop!" and slaps him. As she kicks him out, she says, "Well, it's been weird knowing you." But he isn't just sleeping with her because it's his job. He's starting to fall in love with her. So they start cooking up a scheme to take the money from the heist and run off together.

Meanwhile, MacMurray has to keep playing cop, doing surveillance along with partner Phil Carey. Carey spends most of his time watching the redhead next door to Novak, a wholesome nurse who puts up drapes in jeans and a man's shirt and hosts cocktail parties after a long day at work. She's played by Dorothy Malone, usually a bad girl. Her part starts out as something like comic relief, but turns into a little more.

This is no Double Indemnity - Novak is more a sex kitten than femme fatale, and MacMurray's cop doesn't have the depth of Walter Neff. But Novak is sexy and real and fun to watch. The cold open is odd and can throw you off balance. All in all, exemplary noir.

Ms. Spenser, on the other hand, was disappoint that nobody was actually push over anything, like off the roof.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brush Up on Your Shakespeare

Well, we seem to be working our way through Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare. This week's entry, Love's Labour's Lost (2000), is quite the oddball. If you haven't heard of it, it mixes one of Shakespeare's lesser known comedies with well-known musical numbers from Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Kern.

It is set in the early 20th century, before The War (one or the other), in the kingdom of Navarre. The king and three friends pledge to live in seclusion from woman and dedicate themselves to philosophy and fasting. As we learned in Siddhartha, it's what all the kids are into. This is all explained in a newsreel, something Branagh uses several times to condense and replace Shakespeare's exposition.

They all sign the pledge, but Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) doesn't think they will be able to keep it. In fact, right away, they have to make an exception, because the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) is coming to discuss a treaty. Although they make her and her three ladies in waiting camp outside the castle, they do meet with her. I'm sure you can guess what happens to these four men and four women.

That's right! Pillow fights and musical numbers! I Won't Dance, I Get a Kick Out of You, The Way You Look Tonight, and many others. Also, clowns, including Nathan Lane as an entertainer and Timothy Spall as Armado, a "fantastical Spaniard", who breaks the rules by falling for a peasant girl, saucy Stefania Rocca. A mix-up of letters leads to a musical number from Geraldine McEwan, a Shakespearean actress playing an elderly scholar (The Way You Look Tonight, quite lovely), and the boys infatuation is revealed. There are a few more mix-ups, an S&M-themed masked ball (Face the Music and Dance) and a surprisingly serious ending.

I'm not 100% sure this all works. About 3/4 of the original text is cut out, replaced with songs and newsreel. In places, you get the concept: Some of the dialog is in rhymes, and that leads smoothly into the tricky rhymes and rhythms of 30's musical standards. This play is known as one of Shakespeare's trickiest and frothiest, so that works.

The actors are half Shakespearean, half show-biz. You may not take to Silverstone reciting Shakespeare right away, but she does a neat trick where she acts like a smart girl acting like an airhead, acting all pompous and Shakespearean. It kind of works.

So we lose a lot of the original play, including the play within the play that the clowns put on. But in it's place, you get Anthony Lane singing There's No Business Like Show Business. I think it's a good trade-off.

Also, this is one of my favorite plays, because I once performed a 1-man, 1-woman version in a tree.