Archive for the ‘MUSICAL NUMBERS’ Category

Sing & Moana

29 Jan


Sing – directed by Garth Jennings. Animated feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.


Moanadirected by Ron Clements and John Musker. Animated Feature. 110 minutes Color 2016.


Stories: Both stories deal with ambitions thwarted and then triumphed.


Both films are perfectly suited to adults. And where I sat, the children were as quietly attentive as the adults that accompanied them. Why is that?

A maximum of surprises, movement, angles, colors.

An amplitude of wit.

And they supply – worse than any live action film can – horrendous catastrophe. In Sing it’s a catastrophic flood. In Moana it’s deified lava.

But the young hero and heroine surmount all difficulties. Not without unlikely escapes and rescues and a sentimentality that would crush a nun dressed as a dragon. (Neither of these feature such a creature.)

In Sing, to save his theatre, the young Koala Bear owner must put on a talent show. In Moana, a young woman must bring back a talisman to save her island people.

I enjoyed myself no end. I simply wandering in to sample them while waiting for the feature I’d paid for to start. Remained riveted to my seat.

In the watching, these films dwell on nothing. Remarkable individual beauties and Voltaire-like coups of imagination flit by in sumptuous plentitude. I wish they’d wait for me – I was reared on Pinocchio.

 My favorite character of all was played, in Sing, by the director Garth Jennings as Mrs Crawly, a superannuated loyal iguana secretary with a wandering glass eye. Every time the old woman meandered on in her well-meaning way, I rejoiced.

Such films are rightly called “animated.” For they animate the variety and particularity of the truth and comedy of human gesture in a way that no straight film actor can achieve – because animators are more daring than actors. Because more shameless.

In animation, we expect over-acting. Which means more acting than is necessary. Animation cannot achieve depth of performance, which is what human screen acting can, but it can achieve breadth of performance, which is what human screen acting avoids like Swiss cheese.

In Sing the characters are animals; in Moana, humans. I notice the animals in Sing are more human than the humans in Moana. But I quibble not.

I loved them, and you won’t waste your time, nor is time wasted on you, should you drag your inner or outer child to either or both.


Magic Mike XXL

31 Jul

Magic Mike XXL – directed by Gregory Jacobs. Comedrama. 115 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: A gaggle of male strippers veers to Florida for a grand finale to their careers.


A picaresque backstage musical – or perhaps we should say buttstage musical – or backside musical. For Channing Tatum when he drops his drawers sure is callipygian.

But don’t expect no full Monties here. Their private personalities remain studiously reserved behind sequined pouches. And this puts the show on a different footing from what actual male stripper shows offer, which is pornography in the flesh. Pornography is unearned nudity. The price of admission to this movie does not include this on the menu.

Instead, we get a level of comedy, drama, and human interest of a parallel order, not too distant from smut, fortunately, because what’s low-down in life may have the robustness of its own vulgarity to recommend it and can be a lot of fun to boot.

The boys are aging burlesque kings. They have exhausted their talents, mislaid them, or mis-apprised them. So the drama consists of their getting their acts together in such a way that each of those acts becomes truly personal to each performer.

In a pal’s taco truck, they make a journey down the East Coast to The Big Florida Competition. On their way they take a detour or two.

One of them is the plantation of a free wheeling widow, gorgeously played by Andie McDowell. She allows herself a flutter with the title character, XXL, an Adonis, saddened because so overly endowed that no woman has ever quite fitted him.

Another detour spots the fellows in a sex club run by Jada Pinkett Smith – and, if for no other reason, the film is worth seeing because of her. She’s the former doyenne of Tatum. She carries a torch. She also operates an establishment in which all the women are treated to male-flesh danced before them in tribute to their wildest dreams. Smith’s creation of her relation to Tatum is something to behold, the space she seizes for the character to operate in and be known is a lesson in acting command and dignity. I’m going to see the film again just to watch her make room for herself.

To watch her character be wrong, and the actress dare to let this happen. You’ll see.

Anyhow. she plays a great big part in the film. Jada Pinkett Smith is clearly an actor who should be declared a National Park. Yellowstone The Black Canyon Of The Gunnison, Jada Pinkett Smith – we must preserve these treasures with our attention.

Leading this troupe into the dance lists of Florida is Channing Tatum, who at 35 is a ripe fig about to fall. So this film comes at just the right moment for him.

Two things make him good. The first is that he is a natural dancer – a talent demonstrated at the start when, although well established in a new career, he first hears of the Florida completion, and tosses his body into the nostalgic moves.

The second thing is that he is an excellent natural actor, having learned his craft through a bunch of films. His endowment consists of a sensibility which is fluid, responsive, witty, open. He’s so good looking you might think he’s not worth watching, but his face is more interesting than handsome, but flexible and alive, because the actor himself is these things.

I am not turned on by burlesque, male or female. But, male chauvinism be-damned, one of the aspects women love in males is the sexual rooster. Here these males preen it in their gaudiest feathers.

And perhaps the dances these blokes do in the faces of all these ladies are really no more than valentines to honor the sexual liberty every creature has a right to. The prig, the prude, and the puritan have their place in this world. But so does the God Priapus. For, if this film is any indication, the God Priapus has a much better sense of humor.



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Posted in Andie McDowell, Channing Tatum, Jada Pinkett Smith, MUSICAL NUMBERS



16 Jan

Annie – directed and written by Will Gluck. Musical. 118 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: An orphan becomes publicizable as a prop to a politician’s election.


In silent film there was a lot of noise. People on the screen were talking all the time. The most famous film stars whose work we see nowadays were mimes: Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but most films then involved dialogue. In dramas, melodramas, westerns, and straight comedies, there was lots of words exchanged, and always lots of music from the piano player in front of the audience, following sheet music written to ornament the scenes. Of course, you couldn’t hear a word anyone said.

Annie is just like that. When they are singing, you can’t hear a word anyone said. Oh, a word may drift into intelligibility from time to time, but for the most part, the singers are as mute as Mary Pickford. The orchestrations crush them. The booming sound system of the multiplex cooks them to death.

So what I did, and I counsel you to do the same, is to sit back into the inevitable and enjoy yourself.

For there is much to enjoy. Having to set aside the songs and the music, one expects to see a dance musical, but to call the dancing dance is to misapply strutting for choreography. It is not a dance musical. It is a prance musical.

But as such it is imaginative and entertaining. The prancing is original and daring and fun. Everyone is good at it. And once you get the gist of it from a song’s title, everything fits in real good. I would almost say it’s the most entertaining thing about Annie.

Except we have a couple of delightful players up there. Two people who belong in film work like anything! Two people the rest of us humans pay willingly to just to watch. Two humans we want to get close to because they have so much human juice available to them. Two naturally gifted entertainers.

The one is Mr, Jamie Foxx. The other is the inestimable Quvenzhané Wallis, whom we were privileged first to meet in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. She’s just entrancing. She is a great star. She will led the nation to freedom. But only if she never reads this. She is about 10.


Strawberry Blond

21 Nov

Strawberry Blond – directed by Raoul Walsh. Period Comedy. A bad-tempered dentist falls afoul of a beautiful woman and a con man. 97 minutes Black and White 1941.


A Whitman’s Sampler of 1910: beer halls, high button shoes, brass bands, barber shop quartets, and Irish wildness.

Perc Westmore did Rita Hayworth’s makeup and discovered that her hair was so abundant that she could never wear a wig. But he dyed it to make her the title character, which she carries off beautifully. This is her second A-film, having just made Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. She is very young. She is flabbergasteringly beautiful. She is perfect as the phony flirt and even better as the rolling-pin wife of Jack Carson.

James Wong Howe upgraded every film he filmed, and you can see it in this one, which otherwise might have been a Fox Betty Grable musical. He colors scenes with shadow, the play of leaves across a face, and this gives them a romantic importance which they actually inherently possess and need.

For as with all of Raoul Walsh’s films, the love story grounds the project. Walsh tells the story imaginatively and crisply, as usual, and his actors are on the mark – free and liberal in their choices. It is entirely without the crass Irish sentimentality you find in Ford and McCrary. Walsh was great with actors. He did not watch their scenes; he only listened to them off-stage. The great stage director George S. Kaufman did the same. If the truth was heard, it would be seen. The result is the actors shine. And this is Walsh’s favorite picture.

It is James Cagney’s film, and he abounds; scarcely a scene he does not appear in. He was after a change of pace, and balked fiercely about doing this, until Hal Wallis and Jack Warner offered him 10% of the profits and brought in the Epstein brothers to rewrite it. It had been a stage play and then Gary Cooper’s only flop. They switched the milieu from the Midwest to New York City, where, of course, Cagney belonged.

Cagney is a curious actor. He acting personality is one who wants to be ahead of the game. This means that he is not actually a responsive actor, since he always has his fear for the possible in mind. His definition of acting was: “Look ‘em in the eye and tell the truth” – which is fine if you are a machine gun. So I find it hard to acknowledge his talent; I do but I find it hard to. His headlong “personality” worked well here, since he plays a man consistently duped. He was high-waisted, long legged, and short, and carried himself  step-dancing tall at all times, which is nice. His scenes with Alan Hale as his Irish blarney drunk father are scrumptious. Hale is just terrific in the part, and Cagney plays along with him almost bursting out laughing at Hale’s inventiveness.

But it is Olivia de Havilland who carries the film. She is full of mischief, sweet, pretty, and real. Raoul Walsh’s acknowledgement of the truth of her love is the waking moment always. James Wong Howe films her like the bonbon she is, full of flavor, rich, molded to a shape, and toothsome. The passage of feeling across her face validates this charming comedy, and carries its value as an entertainment right to this day.


Roadhouse – 1948 version

05 Apr

Roadhouse – 1948 version — directed by Jean Negulesco. Noir. A sexy chanteuse is brought into a nightclub run by two war buddies, both of whom fall for her. 95 minutes Black and White 1948.


Ida Lupino is 30 when she makes this, her greatest film performance. The more hard-bitten, the ruder, the more insolent she is, the more you go along with her and care about her. She brings to the picture a twitching sexuality and the nuance of humor behind her eyes and a presence with the other performers that win her a posthumous Oscar here. When, years later, I told Celeste Holm how much I loved this picture when it came out, she told me it was junk, and, of course, it is; it is pulp, but then, then, most Hollywood films were. She said this perhaps because, after her Oscar, she is kicked to the side as a sidekick here in a thankless role. But I loved her in it. I loved everyone collectively and individually in it when it came out. Cornell Wilde with his sweet and masculine nature playing the stalwart, until he has a furious scene packing a suitcase. Richard Widmark as the unpredictable maniac. Expect the film to fall apart between the arrest and the trial scene — because there is no evidence — but expect also a superbly played finale. And rejoice in Ida Lupino. Listen to her sing “Again” and “One For The Road” – what aplomb, what wit, what negotiation of her cigarette! Nothing like it has been seen on the screen before or since, and the last shot of her in the picture is a review of that sad truth. The film is closer to Gilda in its triangle, in its nightclub setting, in its boss/lackey set-up between Widmark and Wilde, in its beat-up lady with a past. What makes it noir is not Widmark, but the presence of a woman working at a job no man could do, when during the War she would have worked at a defense plant, the males away. By which I mean, even as a nightclub singer, she would have wielded a power the return of the warriors reft her of. Both men are adolescent. Lupino alone is grown-up, too grown-up: she is without hope. And this is what makes it noir. She is a walking doom. Take it as Lupino’s polemic on the entertainment industry of which she was a knowing adjunct in Hollywood, but also take it as a bone deep characterization. Watch her weariness, her irony, listen to her skeptical grunts, her use and release of her sexual power as a barrier, and above all her wit in every move. “Wit is educated insolence,” as Aristotle said. Take Lupino’s work here as a great piece of method acting outside the Method, and don’t miss this richly comic performance.


When Willie Comes Marching Home

10 Mar

When Willie Comes Marching Home — directed by John Ford. Farce. A patriotic soldier longs to get into the WW II action and then does so. 82 minutes Black and White 1950


It seems incredible that this World War II comedy was made in the year it was, five years after the War itself was over, but there it is, gawky and out of place, and too old for its own mental short pants – as is its star, Dan Dailey, who is clearly 35 when he plays Willie, the boy who wants to go to war. Dailey was one of show business’s most valiant performers, and he brings to the tale his huge ingratiating smile and his mastery of physical comedy time and time again, as he falls, faints, collapses, and dances about to escape the nips of a nasty dog. He has the lanky agility of Ray Bolger, and it almost saves the film. For the problem with the picture lies in how many areas? Aside from being out of date, the story is clearly a bad imitation of Preston Sturges’ masterpiece, Hail The Conquering Hero, of five years before. That might work – save for the treatment by the director. For, while the story is droll, what John Ford thinks is funny, aint. Or at least I am too hoity-toity to find it so. Ford finds patriotism funny. Ford finds drunkenness funny. He finds brawls funny. And he finds stupidity funny. And maybe they are – but Ford’s touch is ham-handed. His wit is on the level of The Three Stooges, not Preston Sturges, for Ford is beer-brained and out to please the lower orders – only. In fact, he is a dreadful snob. Five years later, he was to submit Mr. Roberts to the same wrecking ball of this sort of wit, until Henry Fonda put his foot down and Ford was taken off the film and replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. As soon as Ford enters a room, the mental climate lowers. You find this over and over again in his pictures. There is a terrible disconnect in him between what he thought entertainment was and what people are. Like all artists he saw entertainment as an idealization. But, lying behind that there’s got to be the guts of reality, and where they should be in Ford I find delusion and cowardice. I think of Stagecoach as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. And among its virtues is one that When Willie Comes Marching Home also possesses – pace. Ford knew how to move things forward, he knew where a camera should be placed in a scene to make it simple and clear and arresting, and he has a sense of broad spectacle. These are no small gifts. Ford started way back in the silents. But talkies changed film radically, no more so than with comedy. Drama changed somewhat, but comedy changed completely – from physical wit to verbal. This is why silent comedy is still watchable. But Ford didn’t change with it. He is a bum making films about bums and talking down to them all the while he does it. I feel in him a very gifted, hard-working hypocrite and bully. And I don’t like him.


A Song Is Born

08 Oct

A Song Is Born – Directed by Howard Hawks. A musical academic researching jazz falls foul of manipulative nightclub singer. 117 minutes Color 1948.

* *

You will have the memorable chance to hear Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnett, Louis Bellson, and Louis Armstrong jam together in a picture which you will find impossible to remember otherwise. Goldwyn paid Hawks a quarter of a million to direct it and it cost well over two million and it resembles a high school varsity show. Hawks jammed it between Red River and I Was A Male War Bride, and to film it we have the man who filmed Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland no less, but the picture is nothing other than a series of gaudy setups, which is what Goldwyn liked for his Danny Kaye series. Production stopped every day so Hawks could listen to the boys play, and so Kaye could go to his psychiatrist, which is perhaps why in this picture, except for a few facial gesticulations, he is not funny once. His voice is placed just under his nasal passages and is perpetually plaintive. Of course, Danny Kaye was not an actor at all, but an entertainer, a zany in the line of The Marx Brothers, Jonathan Winters, and Robin Williams, He was separated from his wife at the time this was made, and she, Sylvia Fine, wrote all his riffs. The writing seems astoundingly dull, although by Brackett and Wilder, although it didn’t when it fueled  Hawks’ Ball of Fire of which this is a remake..  But the War had intervened, and that changed everything. This sort of naive hokum was passé. It’s a lazy film, using the exact same script, set, setups, cameraman, and even Mary Field, excellent as Miss Totten once again. One can only talk around this movie; it defies criticism. Except perhaps to say that Steve Cochran and Virginia Mayo, neither of whom Hawks wanted, do just fine in it. Hawks made Mayo go to a warehouse and yell to lower her voice, which didn’t work, but she is dressed up and hair-doed as a Hawks woman, and she gives us a dame of fine sexual insolence such as we have come to rely on from Hawks. She watched Stanwyck’s performance in the earlier film over and over, but she does just fine on her own; it’s one of her best screen performances. A cast of brilliant supporting players, Felix Bressart and F. Hugh Herbert among others, founder when they are acting, and the musicians founder when they are not playing, but when they are you will hear Lionel Hampton do duets with Armstrong and with the redoubtable Goodman, and for a moment things almost seem worthwhile. For a short time, it was the number one box office draw in the nation. The Death Valley of the 50s was about to begin.





Lady Of Burlesque

27 Sep

Lady Of Burlesque – Directed by William Wellman. Murder Mystery. A burlesque queen and her colleagues are beset by a backstage slaying. 91 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine, and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class, and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she is not voluptuous, she does not have the machine-gun heart or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for three reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a destroyer surging across a duck pond. She had great humor, and she had the common touch. Iris Adrian adds her piquant lip to the burley-que life, which was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A G-string tells less than a three-foot hat! Highly entertaining, Wellman was a master of scene management — and rain, which occurs in many of his films. His scenic management alone, although one is not aware of it, is a treat, a delight, an encouragement, and a reassurance here. Check it out, It’s fun.





11 Aug

Jitterbugs – Directed by Malcolm St. Clair. Low Comedy. Laurel and Hardy indulge in a mission to con some grifters. 75 minutes Black and White. 1943.

* * * * *

Drolleries from beginning to end, many of them depending upon welcome improbabilities. Engaging in multiple disguises, the dignified duo moves from scrape to scrape, and who can deny them a smile? Not me. Vivian Blaine makes her film debut, all of 21 but quite at home in her craft and her medium. An excellent bonus feature accompanies the picture, and you’ll be a lot wiser after it, for Randy Skretvedt knows all there is to know about Laurel and Hardy and so much more – he knows about everyone else involved in the film, and his observations are cogent. For instance, he talks about Bob Baily who was dragged into the film from Radio, for there was a war-time dearth of young leading men in Hollywood. Skretvedt points out that Baily, who was very successful in Radio and went back to it after The War, actually gives a radio actor’s performance, meaning that his entire performance is vocal — and it’s true. I could hear it, once I was  told. In any case, it’s lovely to see these two clown around again, Oliver Hardy this time given the lion’s share of the acting opportunities as he plays a variety of scenes, performing a two-man orchestra, making mad Southern Colonel love to the great Lee Patrick, and dancing about with wild abandon more than once. What a dainty dish to set before a king! Can you resist it? I couldn’t.





The Bells Of Saint Mary’s

05 Jun

The Bells Of Saint Mary’s – Directed by Leon McCarey. Pious Comedy. A new priest comes to a school run by a long entrenched nun. 126 minutes Black and White 1945.

* * * *

This widely popular film delivered two superstars into vestments. The story which surrounds them is an Irish stew into which a liter of treacle has been dumped. It is supported by marvelous performances by certain character actors, namely Henry Travers who is richly internalized as the greedy landlord, and by Una O’Connor who is the wily and knowing rectory housekeeper, very funny in the opening scene. Ingrid Bergman’s husband did not want her to do it, because it was a sequel to Going My Way, but she hoped to learn something from McCarey and to work in comedy. One wonders what she learned. She brings to it an impeccable complexion and a wonderful glow, but seeing how little she is called upon to do, it is no wonder she steered towards Roberto Rossellini just as soon as her contract with Selznick expired. She has a brilliantly played exposition scene, in which the camera mercifully never takes its eye off her as she receives bad news that gets worse, and from the actors’ point of view the film is worth sitting through for this alone. The imperturbable Bing Crosby plays opposite her, but the trouble is that there is no temperamental or even philosophical difference between the two to make up a drama, for both of them are too inherently nice to present an opposition, so the “conflict” between them we must take on faith. Crosby is really a marvelous actor, and well suited to Bergman because she like he is naturalness incarnate. He has large eyes, a fine endowment for an actor, and the ability to play small. The entire film shines with the artificiality of the sound stage, and whole bunches of Hollywood children, who in that era, all play their parts as if they were drunk. Ya just can’t buy it. Bergman sings a song in Swedish and plays the piano, which she knew how to do, and Crosby does several renditions, which, of course, he knew how to do. It won some Oscars. Watch it at a risk to your waistline. So much sweetening will make you look like one of the bells.





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