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THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, Epic, G, Motion Pictures on June 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Ernest Cossart, Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Nat Pendleton, Buddy Doyle, A.A. Trimble

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

From the beginning of the 20th Century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the entertainment world was focused not just on New York City, but on one man who can arguably be attributed to giving Broadway its charm, luster, and appeal, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. He was a charming man, but at the same time he was very reckless. If he had two nickels to rub together, he’d spend it. His shows (most of them a series of “Ziegfeld Follies“) were renowned the world over, but Ziegfeld himself never kept any money. He spent it on lavish production pieces, the cast and crew, his women, and of course, the many wolves knocking at his door. He died a poor man in 1932, forcing his widow, Billie Burke, to work in motion pictures to pay off his debts. But his influence in show business has since reached out even today, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld opened nationwide, and the next year, it became the first biographical motion picture to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The story opens during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where a young Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his friend and rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) hold court at their respective booths, barking for their shows. At first Billings, with his exotic dancer known as Little Egypt, is drawing the large crowds, while Ziegfeld’s show, featuring muscleman The Great Sandow, has been threatened with eviction from the midway. Then, as if by miracle, a female admirer approached Sandow and asked to feel his muscles; from that moment on, he became a sensation, and Ziegfeld was on his was way to bigger and better things. The movie then traces what would be the final 30 or so years of Ziegfeld’s life, including his relationship with Anna Held (Best Actress Luise Rainer), the creation of the Follies, his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and his fall after the Crash of 1929.

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) recruits Anna Held (Luise Rainer) to perform on Broadway

Let me get this out of the way now: Though full of musical numbers, The Great Ziegfeld is not a musical. It a dramatic motion picture of a man who gave the world groundbreaking entertainment on such a lavish scale, that some examples of his work (and a few tributes as well) were added to the story. For example, the centerpiece of this movie is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, an elaborate seven-minute long trek up a spinning spiral staircase featuring additional music by Strauss, Liszt, Dvorák, and Gershwin (among others). It plays out as a staged production, and is not a song Florenz Ziegfeld sings to upstart actress Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), who, by the way, was the titular “Pretty Girl” at the top of those stairs.

What I can tell you about this movie is that it’s a costume designer’s dream. Every Ziegfeld number is a veritable orgy of sequins, silk, and silver lamé, each one more extravagant than the last. And another of the musical numbers, entitled “You Never Looked So Beautiful”, features a parade of costumed beauties in the Ziegfeld style, with ornate trains and flamboyant headdresses (some weighing as much as 50 pounds!). Each of the sets for these numbers was equally elaborate, including one which redefined the term “thrust stage” by having five individual sections of the stage come out toward the audience, choreographed and on cue, even while dancers were performing on them. By far, this and the “Pretty Girl” number are among the most ambitious musical set pieces ever performed in motion picture history, and by themselves, just might be worth the price.

But the drawback to these set pieces is they sometime take away from the movie’s intent. William Powell’s performance of Flo Ziegfeld was nearly spot-on; he even bore a slight resemblance to the great showman. Billie Burke made sure that the screenplay didn’t tarnish her late husband’s image, but that didn’t stop Virginia Bruce from chewing the scenery (wine bottle in hand) as a composite of Ziegfeld’s mistresses. And though Ms. Burke did not appear in the movie, she was competently played by Powell’s favorite screen partner, Myrna Loy (They made 14 movies together). This leaves Luise Rainer’s performance of Anna Held. At the time, Ms. Rainer had never heard of the legendary French-Polish actress, so she drew her performance from the script, resulting in an overdramatic characterization that falls nothing short of potential diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder, including the prototypical and now-famous “good luck through the tears” phone call in her last scene.

The Great Ziegfeld also features scenes of famous performers of the early 20th Century. Aside from Eugen Sandow (for whom the Mr. Olympia trophy is named), Anna Held and Billie Burke, singer/dancer Eddie Cantor (Buddy Doyle) and legendary humorist Will Rogers (A.A. Trimble) are placed on exhibit in brief scenes. And, as an added treat, both Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger play themselves as a tribute to Ziegfeld, and both shine in their respective performances.

All in all, The Great Ziegfeld is a prime example of ROI (return on investment) in motion pictures. Opening to critical and popular acclaim, this movie, budgeted at $2 million, made about $40 million in its initial release. Can you think of a movie made by a major studio in the last 30 years that recouped 20 times its budget (or more) on just its first-run domestic theatrical release? With the exceptions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which grossed 33.2 times its $10.5 million dollar budget, and Airplane! (1980), which brought in 23.8 times its $3.5 million budget, you’d be hard pressed to find one.

The Great Ziegfeld is a spectacle which has some substance, though you may need to find it upon occasion. A bit on the long side (just over three hours, including the Overture and Exit Music), it is still a worthy member of the best that Oscar has to offer.

4 (out of 5)

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THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

CRAZY HEART (2009)

In C, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

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STUDIO
– Fox Searchlight

CAST – Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jack Nation

DIRECTOR – Scott Cooper

MPAA Rating: R

In the days before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was watching TV at my mother’s house, when the trailer for Crazy Heart came on. After seeing the trailer only once, I said “I have got to see this movie!” I immediately put it into my Queue, and when Jeff Bridges took home the Best Actor Award a few weeks later, I moved it up. Now that I have seen this movie, I can say it is worth the wait.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a once-famous country music star who, because of years of hard living (and hard drinking), has been relegated to playing bars and bowling alleys to make a living. Traveling by himself cross-country, just him, his guitars, and his ’78 Chevy Suburban, a day in Bad’s life constitutes wandering into town, meeting the pick-up band of the night, checking into a motel, procuring his nightly bottle of McClure’s, doing the show (with the occasional emergency trip off-stage to throw up), then finishing off the bottle, quietly leaving the groupie of the night asleep at the motel the next morning. Not exactly what you would call a glamorous life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) performs in Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter from the local newspaper (and niece of the keyboard player in the local band). At first, their relationship is professional (she’s there to interview him), but they quickly form an unlikely bond. Soon, his agent has him diverted to Phoenix, where he is slated to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s one-time protégé, who is now a major recording star in his own right. Bad resists at first, but the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people again (and getting decent pay doing it) appeals to him, so he agrees. Later, on his way home to Houston, he makes plans to stop over at Jean’s for a few days.

To venture any further into the story would mean spoilers, but I will say that Crazy Heart is a movie about living a hard life and paying dues. I think many of us can relate to that in one way or another; I can say that I’ve been paying my dues for some time. Anyway, Bad likes doing what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like where he does it (As stated earlier, his first performance in the movie is at a bowling alley), but he keeps plugging away, hoping his next gig is better than his last.

His relationship with Tommy seems to have some drama involved, but I don’t think it had to do with Tommy himself. From the looks of things, the rift between them was actually caused by the record label, but when your blood is 80-Proof, your judgment get clouded and you don’t see the outside influence; you only see what’s in front of you. In Phoenix, Bad and Tommy talk about the old times, and that night’s show went off pretty much without a hitch, so it’s obvious these two really still like each other. But Bad is set in his ways, much to the chagrin of those around him.

I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges. He has an easygoing way about him that makes him look so natural on the screen. Here, his performance is very solid, and his portrayal of Bad (who says his given name will be on his tombstone) is among the best of any movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Those of you who are familiar with country music from the 1970s will recognize the name Kris Kristosfferson, himself a one-time hard-drinking former star who later got a second chance. Bridges channels Kristofferson so well that in some of the performance scenes, he nearly looks like him. By the way, both Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell did their own singing, and from the looks of it, all the performances were recorded live on location (either that, or the sound editors were vastly underpaid for their services).

Though this may be considered a romance film, I put this in that rare field of “romance films for men”. It’s a movie told from a man’s perspective, it’s not a “five-tissue” movie (though it is still powerfully emotional), and it doesn’t have a typical romantic ending. In fact, I think the ending is about as realistic as can be, given the circumstances surrounding a key incident between Bad and Jean regarding her son, Buddy (Jack Nation). There is also an influence from the movie Tender Mercies, thanks to co-star and producer Robert Duvall (who won his Oscar in that movie). The songs are all very good, too. One of them, “The Weary Kind”, written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, resulted in this movie’s second Oscar. On a side note, it isn’t often that a character and a real person who share the same name are mentioned at the same Academy Awards ceremony (Goerge Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was also named Ryan Bingham).

Crazy Heart isn’t for everyone, but this is one of the better films of 2009 that I have seen so far. Anyone who has an appreciation for country and/or blues should see it. I may not be a country fan, but I do like the blues, and this movie is definitely about having the blues!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

In Comedy, D, Independent, Motion Pictures on June 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

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STUDIO – Universal/Gramercy 

CAST – Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Shawn Andrews, Michelle Burke, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Christin Hinojosa, Sasha Jenson, Milla Jovovich, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ribisi, Wiley Wiggins 

DIRECTOR – Richard Linklater 

MPAA Rating: R 

Every so often, a movie comes along and takes a nostalgic look at the innocent days of youth from years long past. Arguably, the greatest example of this is George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In 1993, writer/director Richard Linklater tweaked the Graffiti formula, relocated it to Austin, Texas, set it in 1976, added lots of beer and grass, and gave us Dazed and Confused

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, starting on May 28, 1976. But this isn’t just any day picked at random; it is the last day of school for students in Austin, Texas. At Lee High School, the outgoing juniors are preparing to wreak havoc on the new crop of freshmen. For the girls, it’s a series of humiliating, yet relatively harmless, stunts, including being covered in ketchup, mustard, and oatmeal. then cleaning off at a car wash. But for the boys, it’s being hunted down like prey by gangs of upper-classmen and getting swatted with custom-made paddles. One of the new seniors, star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) seems less interested in the hazing than he is in the so-called “team pledge” he feels he is forced to sign so he can play football next season. Meanwhile, one of the freshmen, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), starts to blend in with the upper-classmen after getting “busted” earlier in the day. But everyone is geared up for the event of the year: an end-of-school-year blowout at Kevin Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) house. But the beer arrived early, his parents cancelled their trip, and the party got nixed before it even started. Bummer! Enter David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), an old-school party animal who quickly rustles up the gang for an impromptu gathering at the Moon Tower. Before long, everyone is drinking beer, smoking pot, and making out at the party. 

Dawson, Wooderson, Pink, and Mitch (Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins) hang out at the Emporium

 It goes without saying that Dazed and Confused is a very loose movie. Basically, the plot has at least five different story lines. First, “Pink” Floyd doesn’t want to sign a written pledge made out by his coach to stay off drugs, though his teammates want him to. Next is a small group of freshmen trying to evade getting “busted” by the seniors (with mixed results). Then there are the three intellectuals (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sabrina Ribisi), who try to fit in, even though they can’t stand anyone else but each other. There is the two-time senior – and major jerk – Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) who gets his comeuppance, masterminded by freshman Mitch Kramer. And, of course, there is the aforementioned party that got busted and relocated. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this move, so much that it took two screenings to get it all. I had seen this movie before several years ago, and quite frankly, I didn’t get it. After watching again, there are some things I now understand, and others that make me think “My God, were things really that anarchistic in the ’70s?” Behaviors exhibited in this movie clearly demonstrated how lax things were back then. Public hazing, pot smoking, underage beer consumption, and an apparent lack of curfew were among the many things that were not only not enforced, but in some cases even encouraged (as evidenced by one junior-high teacher who smiled when the seniors came over to announce their intentions). I wonder how today’s kids would view this movie. Would they inspired into some kind of radical behavior, or would they look at their parents (and even grandparents!) in awe at imagining them doing even some of the things seen here? Given that the school year is wrapping up here in Southern California, and that my car got egged while I was working this evening, I’m more inclined toward the latter. Egging a car? Not very original… 

Upon viewing this movie, I started drawing comparisons to my own high school experiences. No one got paddled my freshman year. The preferred method of hazing was called “trash-canning” (I got it twice; the second time, they tied my laces together). Drugs were pretty pervasive my first two years in high school; there was a spot near the girls’ locker room known as “the field”, where hundreds of students would get stoned during recess. The seniors in my freshman year were quite rowdy, too; the Senior Class President was actually forced to resign when he was busted for shellacking Playboy centerfolds onto the school’s lunch tables! Mind you, this was the late-70s and early-80s, not 1976, but there are some similarties, nonetheless. 

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s personal American Graffiti. Some would argue the movie is semi-autobiographical. Several residents in Austin, Texas, tried to file a defamation lawsuit against Linklater and Universal Studios because some of the characters had names similar to theirs, but the statute of limitations had passed. Still, Dazed and Confused launched the careers of some of today’s more popular Hollywood stars (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey), and it is an amusing and nostalgic look back to a time when our whole lives were ahead of us, even if momentary terror made it appear otherwise. 

NINE (2009)

In Drama, Motion Pictures, Musical, N, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 12, 2010 at 1:19 am

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STUDIO – The Weinstein Company

CASTDaniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson

DIRECTOR – Rob Marshall

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In 1982, Raul Julia took the Broadway stage to star in a musical based on the Federico Fellini classic . It won four Tony Awards, and ran for over 800 performances. Then, in 2003, Antonio Banderas starred in the Broadway revival of the production, which garnered two more Tonys. And in 2009, Chicago director Rob Marshall has brought Nine to the big screen, this time with two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as tormented film director Guido Contini.

It is 1965, and the celebrated auteur has been hounded by his staff, the producers, and his regular star and muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman), to produce a script (or at least reveal some plot points) for his latest project, to be entitled “Italia”. But there is one small issue: There is no script. During a press conference, Guido slips out and drives to a remote spa hotel to try to unwind from the all of the pressure. He’s so stressed, he invites both his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) to join him. Before he knows it, the whole production staff shows up, and they have set up shop at the hotel to work out the details of the new movie.

Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) greets Luisa (Marion Cotillard) at the hotel

I found Nine to be quite entertaining. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to competently channel Marcello Mastroianni with ease. The casting bore a few surprises, and admittedly a few raised eyebrows. Nearly all the musical numbers were showstoppers. In particular, I give “thumbs-up” (sorry, Mr. Ebert) to four daring numbers. First is Cruz’s smoldering “Call From the Vatican”, a playful, flirtatious, and not-innocent-at-all phone sex romp that was one clever camera angle shy of giving this movie an “R” rating. Kate Hudson was a pleasant surprise playing Stephanie, a star-struck fashion reporter convinced that Guido is Italy, and her number “Cinema Italiano” (written specifically for the movie), is the highlight of the movie. The next performance piece of note goes to Fergie (yes, as in Black-Eyed Peas) as Saraghina, and her number “Be Italian”, in which she (and her ladies) instruct young Guido and his classmates on the ways of love. Finally, Marion Cotillard had two songs in Nine, but it is her second number, “Take It All”, an angry striptease directed at Guido, that got my attention.

And the other women? You couldn’t get much better than Dame Judi Dench as costume designer Lilli, and the incomparable Sophia Loren as Guido’s mother. By the way, I think casting Sophia Loren in this movie gives it validation, as she has been associated with Italian cinema for her entire illustrious career, including a couple of movies directed by Fellini himself.

Nine was filmed both on location in Italy, and in a partially-constructed set for “Italia”, which serves as the stage for the musical numbers, each showing the set in various stages of construction. It also functions as Guido’s imagination, dark, fragmented, and full of sexual energy. This actually helped to make the story easier to follow than your average musical. Director Rob Marshall (himself a Broadway veteran) employed this tactic with Chicago, but here I think worked with greater effect.

There are a few weak spots in this movie. For example, I felt that one of the more pivotal scenes, in which Luisa spots Carla in the restaurant, seemed somewhat contrived. There are also plot differences between Nine and , some of which worked and some which did not. I will not spoil those plot points here, so I will only recommend you screen both movies (like I did) and spot them yourself. Besides, the basic story is still the same, as well as most of the characters’ motivations.

The DVD’s special features include rehearsal and audition footage for the movie, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the choreography of selected songs, and even a few music videos. I know I’ve already stated this, but I was particularly impressed with Kate Hudson’s number. In one featurette, she explains that even she didn’t know she had it in her, but then again her mother was a go-go dancer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” back in the 1960s (Yes, that really is Goldie Hawn in body paint and a bikini).

Nine is a competent retelling of one of Fellini’s greatest movies, but where is succeeds in production value, it does lack a bit in the pacing of the non-musical portions of the movie. Still, it is an irreverently sexy spectacle, sure to please both the eyes and the ears. Oh, by the way, I think Fergie needs to tackle Broadway and more film projects; she is far too talented to have a pop music career.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

8½ (1963)

In #, Classic, Comedy, Foreign, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

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STUDIO – Embassy Pictures

CASTMarcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rosella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia

DIRECTORFederico Fellini

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

For many years, I have heard about , the acclaimed film by Italian director Federico Fellini. But because I generally have an aversion to non-English-speaking movies (I confess, a rather unhealthy centrist conceit), I avoided this movie for fear that I would not understand it. I had seen only a couple of European movies before (specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1949 French movie Gigi, which would later be remade into the Best Picture of 1958). It takes a certain kind of talent to read subtitles and still be able to follow the movie; recall that I had a little difficulty with Inglourious Basterds a few months ago. So, sitting through a film like would appear to pose a unique challenge, and rather than stay safely in my American hole, I took a chance and expanded my horizons.

This movie opens at a health spa at a remote location somewhere in Italy, where film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to escape the rigors of his everyday life and prepare for his next movie at the same time. Reporters, gossip columnists, producers, diva actresses, his wife, his mistress, and even a Cardinal all play their parts in both running interference and contributing to the movie’s creation. At the same time, Guido’s dreams of escapism and sexually-charged recalled memories from childhood step in to influence his decision-making process. To make things even more twisted, Guido starts incorporating these dreams and fantasies into his movie, causing everyone to wonder just what Guido’s movie is all about.

Guido and his wife Luisa (Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée) at the café

Confused yet? To blur the lines between art and reality even further, is a movie about the making of… . Now, you’re all mixed up, aren’t you? Well, considering that the working title of this movie was La Bella Confusione (“The Beautiful Confusion”), it is easy to spot that Fellini himself wasn’t sure which direction this movie was going, either. Officially, this is Fellini’s ninth movie, but because it’s a left-turn from his usual fare, and because it is somewhat autobiographical, the title is based on his notion that it’s “movie 8½” to him, nestled between La Dolce Vita (1960) and Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965). As a result, is about as “meta” a movie can become, with disjointed imagery that actually forms a cohesive whole. For example, early in the movie, Guido and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), are engaging in a little sexual role play. At one point, he takes her eyeliner and draws garish eyebrows onto her forehead. This is a deliberate reference to a beach-dwelling prostitute he’d known when he was a child; she was called “La Saraghina” (Eddra Gale), who is later introduced during a flashback.

Fellini’s use of imagery, from the claustrophobic dream of the traffic jam at the beginning of the movie, to the Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into the spa’s steam room all carry significance; of course, some are more obvious than others. In a fantasy, we first see the lovely Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as wholesome and pure, dressed in white; when we finally meet her in person, she is glamorous and sexy, dressed flamboyantly in black. It is also no coincidence that Fellini peppered with quick glimpses of a mysterious woman, one of which bearing her likeness on a Virgin Mary. This woman was Caterina Boratto, a renowned Italian actress and Fellini’s “dream girl” from his own childhood.

Now, I’m not about to try to examine this movie. There are college courses in Italian cinema because of , and numerous students have dissected this movie in their Masters theses for over 40 years. But watching this movie was indeed an eye-opening experience, filled to the brim with unconventional cuts, shots, dialogue, and editing, all of which seem to give a life of its own. I screened it twice, first by watching the movie itself, then by listening to the essay commentary which provided some of the tidbits of information I have learned. The commentary examines the reasons why old women were cast as Catholic priests in one scene, and in another the Cardinal (Tito Masini) is shown as nothing more than a naked old man. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the giant scaffolding which is to become a launchpad for a rocket in Guido’s movie. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I knew something was up when a producer shows a two-foot tall matte painting of a rocket to be superimposed onto the full-scale launchpad shown under construction. According to the commentary, Fellini had ordered the scaffolding to be built as high as the workers could get it, but even he had no idea what he was going to do with it.

The two-disk set comes packed with features, including interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, who recounts her 17-year love affair with Fellini (even after she had married someone else), assistant director Lina Wertmüller, who went on to have a distinguished career of her own, and three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shared his thoughts on how Fellini achieved his vision on-screen. There is also a 1969 pseudo-documentary by Fellini which aired on NBC; in it, he traces the creative process in the casting of his next project. It plays off as a mini-, complete with reporters, actors, and producers all vying for an audience with Fellini.

But what fascinated me was a German documentary about composer Nino Rota, a reclusive musical savant best known for two things. First was his famous collaboration with Fellini, which rivals that of Spielberg and Williams, or Burton and Elfman. A typical meeting between Fellini and Rota would have the two at a piano, trying to hammer out a composition for a given movie, only to give up hours later, exasperated. Then, as Fellini would leave the room, Rota would improvise a piece (probably just to relax after a hard day), and Fellini would exclaim “That’s it! That’s the music I want!” But Nino Rota was also notorious for recycling his music. Did you know that his Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score for The Godfather was withdrawn because it was based on his score for Fortunella (1958)? Listen for yourself, and you will recognize it!

So, I have long last come to the conclusion of another long review. But, as is often the case, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fellini’s is a movie different from any other. Elements and inspirations from Citizen Kane, “Pinocchio”, Dante’s Inferno and even the Keystone Cops, as well as Fellini’s unique ability to draw from memory to feed his imagination, make a standout among classic cinema. You may need to watch it more than once to get it, but this one is worth the effort.

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

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STUDIO – Columbia

CAST – Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

When you hear the name “Clark Gable”, you most likely would recall the dashing and cocky Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. The name “Frank Capra” tends to conjure memories of Jimmy Stewart, thanks to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and You Can’t Take It With You. And the mention of Claudette Colbert’s name may recall the original Imitation of Life, or perhaps Cleopatra, both from 1934. But this was the movie that made them all famous.

It Happened One Night is the story of an impetuous heiress named Ellen Andrews (Colbert) who’d eloped with a smooth operator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) opposed the marriage and Westley, so he took her to Miami to get her to clear her head. Seizing an oppourtinity, she (literally) jumps ship and takes a bus back to New York to reunite with her husband. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a hard-nosed, hard-drinking newspaper reporter who’s down on his luck. Right away, they don’t get along. At a stopover in Jacksonville, he learns who she really is and, seizing an opportunity of his own, offers to help her to New York in exchange for an exclusive story.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) employs her special hitchhiking method as Peter Warne (Clark Gable) looks on

Every romantic comedy made since 1934, from Sleepless In Seattle to The Seven-Year Itch, owes its existence to this movie. It Happened One Night may not be the first-ever romantic comedy, but it was the first to perfect the formula: Two strong-willed leads wind up in a situation where they can’t get away from each other, only to fall in love with each other in the end. It sounds simple enough, but without good chemistry between the leads or a good script, it’s just two people bickering for an hour-and-a-half. And there may be plenty of bickering here, but there are also plenty of laughs!

This movie, made on a tight budget ($350,000, or around $5.5 million in today’s money) and an even tighter schedule (multiple location shoots in four weeks), spans from Miami to New York, as Gable and Colbert’s characters try to assert their respective ways on the other. Even today, with transportation and logistics down to a science, it would still be a major accomplishment to shoot a movie like this. And when you consider that Claudette Colbert, whose salary consisted of about 15% of the movie’s total shooting budget, hated working on this movie (she even told her friends and colleagues as much when she finished), the story becomes that much more astounding. At the time, Frank Capra was a “B-movie” director and Columbia was a “B-movie” studio, so you can imagine all the fervor when It Happened One Night became the first movie to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay. Suddenly, this little movie from a little studio became a true “dark horse” at the Oscars.

But on the screen, there was magic, and plenty of it! Gable and Colbert worked off each other brilliantly. The highlight of the movie is the scene that need only be described in two words, as quoted by Mr. Gable: “Quit bawlin’!” The hitchhiking scene, which features Alan Hale, who would later be best known as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (and whose son was the Skipper on that infamously fateful “three-hour tour” known as “Gilligan’s Island”), is also fun to watch, especially when Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable the best way to stop a car is by showing off a little leg.

Upon its release, It Happened One Night became an instant sensation. Here are some cool facts about this movie. Following the movie’s initial release, T-shirt sales plummeted, thanks to Mr. Gable’s choice not to wear a T-shirt for brevity’s sake during Peter’s undressing scene. It is also widely reported that elements from this movie formed the genesis of one of the most famous cartoon characters in history, Bugs Bunny; A gentleman named Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) spoke in a nasally voice and called everyone “Doc”, Peter dropped the name “Bugs” when he confronted Shapeley, and in one scene, Peter is eating carrots.

Without a doubt, It Happened One Night is funny, romantic, and a timeless classic. Okay, maybe riding the bus isn’t as fun as it used to be, and maybe today’s motels are far less prying when it comes to the affairs of their guests. But even now, few movies in this genre have dared to come close to this. Remember those Oscar nominations? Well, in the history of the Academy, only three movies won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one for the screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were the others). Not bad for a quickly slapped-together B-movie, huh?