Archive for the ‘Musical’ Category

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

To call this one of “the best bad films I’ve seen” would probably be grossly inappropriate on my part, and grossly unfair to Russ Meyer, who three films into his filmography by now I realize was certainly shlocky and exploitative, but that’s certainly not enough evidence to call his films “bad”, but rather merely far, far separated from accepted convention. Obviously I don’t claim to be an expert on the late 60s/early 70s underground Hollywood scene, and thus my claim that the “lack of realism” of the increasingly bizarre situations that these girls find themselves in, and the dialogue in general, particularly from the Shakespeare/hipster-spewing Z-Man, is little more than a leap of faith on my part. That it all came from the mind of Roger Ebert, who I can’t help but look at as that nerdy film critic from Illinois, tempts me to believe that this compilation of depravity and a sex-starved/obsessed culture was penned by a clear outsider, someone whose knowledge of the seediness of Hollywood is confined to pulpy fiction rather than actual experiences and based his screenplay on such, for which reason the “lack of realism” comes shining through from the opening moments. But hey, the whole thing is about the outsider status of Kelly, Casey, and Petronella, and how these innocent girls are caught in the whirlpool of sex, drugs, and REALLY clever, pulpy, and downright poetic conversations – a bizarre place and time from the point of view of uninitiated outsiders becoming inured to and corrupted by that bizarre place and time, so perhaps seeing that bizarre place and time from the point of view of a seemingly uninitiated nerdy film critic from Illinois is appropriate.

Or it’s just an incredibly clever satire.


A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)

What was great:

– the famous scene where 8 billion people are all crowding into the cabin on the ship (above picture)
– the big climax, combining brilliant physical comedy, perfect timing, and impressive (aka expensive) production value
– the disappearing beds scene
– Chico’s piano playing and Harpo’s harp playing

all of the above were pretty much brilliant tour-de-forces of physical comedy, with Harpo taking most of the cake (crawling up the curtain, the rope scene, basically challenging the conductor to a duel right before the opera starts, etc.), and enormously entertaining. The rest? Well, I’ll defer to a much wiser person than myself, whose comments about Dr. Strangelove pretty much mirror my exact sentiments about “A Night at the Opera” outside of those scenes I just listed:

“Dr. Strangelove didn’t make me laugh once and i guess it was supposed to be a comedy…  ”

“I’ve seen the whole thing for Dr. Strangelove tho, Simon. OWNED! Didn’t laugh 1ONE1 freakin’ TIME.   ”


I mean seriously, Groucho Marx REALLY needs to shut the fuck up and stop trying to be funny with lame one-liner after lame one-liner  And the whole Kitty Carlisle subplot? *shudder*

This was my first Marx Brothers film, and a very uneven experience for me. Even when I knew that I liked the scenes like the crowded room and the disappearing beds and the mayhem at the opera while I was watching it, I was so bored with everything else that that boredom poured over and I desperately wanted it to end. Yet now that it’s over, my memories are fond overall, and I’m telling myself that I really liked this stuff, even though I didn’t. Odd. This score I’m giving is really, really hesitant, ‘cuz I have a feeling that when I see more Marx Brothers and get more of a feel for what they’re all about, my opinion of this one will change, either positively or negatively. Time and viewings will tell.

And if Chico and Harpo were really playing the piano and harp like that, much props to them for being so musically gifted. But if it was fake, fuck that shit SO much, and fuck Groucho Marx and his stupid puns that’re a step or two above Schwarzenegger’s in Batman and Robin (though at least Groucho, unlike Arnold, had good delivery and the gift of gab, even if the material didn’t hold up to that mile-a-minute delivery), and fuck everything else in this movie that’s not a physical comedy-driven set-piece.

7/10 (?)

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

I caught “The Red Shoes” on TCM the other night and just watched it on a whim.  Call me a pompous heterosexual pig, but I wasn’t gonna watch a movie from the ‘40s about a ballerina and her love for a composer any other way, even though my previous encounters with Michael Powell, “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Peeping Tom,” were enormously impressive.  Well whaddya know, I like “The Red Shoes.”  No, I fucking loved “The Red Shoes.”  During a time when Hollywood films and their screenplays were at their most contrived and clichéd, leave it to the Brits to make a masterpiece like this.  Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay is incredibly intelligent and free of much of those hackneyed dialogue and situations that plagued Hollywood’s movies, and oh, there’s the little matter of this being one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.  Well thank god I got over my insecurities over watching a so-called chick flick from the ‘40s, ‘cuz “The Red Shoes” is just about flawless.

The story’s pretty much just as I described: a ballerina falls for the man who composes the ballet that makes her famous, while at the same time dancing for an impresario who’s obsessed with making her a star.  So simple on paper, but portrayed so naturally and gracefully, in a way that really was far ahead of its time.  At the center of it all is…what, a love triangle?  No, I don’t think you can call it a love triangle, exactly.  Victoria the ballerina and Julian the composer love each other, sure…but then there’s Boris Lermontov, the impresario.  What the hell do you make of this guy?  Whatever his motive (if he even has any), one thing’s for sure, he’s a piece of work.  I suppose you could call him ‘obsessive’ as my cable company’s plot description did, but at least at the outset, any kind of obsession with Victoria (or Julian, perhaps?) is subtle.  He’s charming and suave, but almost in a fatherly kind of way, always well-dressed, and certainly seems to have his company’s best interests at heart.  But then there’s the little things that clue you in that something’s not quite right with this guy – refusing an exhausted Victoria a glass of water practically as an afterthought, forcing (or through his charm, merely suggesting) Victoria to listen to the ballet’s score at all hours, even while she’s eating (“nothing matters but the music!”), enticing a now-happily married Victoria with the possibilities of a grand return to the limelight.  This man’s neuroses and obsessions with his lead ballerina and the man she loves are so subtle, hidden so well behind a polished, charming exterior, until he can’t contain it anymore and he goes into full-on Robert de Niro-as-Jake La Motta mode.  There’s the mirror break, his obsessively trying to convince Victoria to dance again as he and Julian act as her two consciences, one on each shoulder, and that look of jealousy, rage, despair, and disappointment all rolled into one when he first learns that Victoria and Julian are seeing each other.  What’s this guy’s angle?  Does he long for Victoria and become wildly jealous when she falls for Julian?  Does he want to experience fame and success vicariously through her?  Is he just obsessed with his ballet company succeeding, with her as the headliner?  You can’t know for sure, which is why this isn’t a run-of-the-mill love triangle, but something much more psychologically complex and thought provoking.  To try to read this man and that haunting and disturbing face upon the big revelation is both enticing and impossible.  This is a great performance by Anton Walbrook.

Surprisingly little screen time is given to the actual love story between Victoria and Julian, but what we do see is a touching, plausible courtship, with nice chemistry between Moira Shearer and Marius Goring.  But I think there’s so little time spent on the actual romance because the main focus of this movie is on one thing: Victoria.  Victoria, and how she sees the world around her.  To pull that off, this movie needed a hell of an actress giving a hell of a performance, and Moira Shearer fits the bill.  Powell considered her a natural for the screen (it helped in this case that she was a professional ballerina), and in many ways she’s just that (which makes it all the more disappointing that she decided to appear in so few films after this).  Some of her dialogue delivery might be stilted or even irritating, but the natural part comes in her expressions, her face, her eyes.  When she learns Lermontov has given her the lead in “The Red Shoes,” her smile lights up the screen.  When she’s dancing, she’s carefree and in her own world.  When she’s being torn between Lermontov and Julian, between fame and love, she’s in a complete panic, her eyes widening to ungodly levels in an astonishing extreme close-up.  Victoria runs the gamut of emotions as she experiences the sublimest of the sublime (fame, love), the lowest of the low, and everything in between, and Moira Shearer, her face in particular, is like a mood ring with a different emotion given off every few moments.  If Anton Walbrook’s great performance is in the subtlety and the deceptive charm, then Shearer’s great performance is in the eyes.

The movie’s all about Victoria and her moral quandaries, all brought about by mixed signals from this, the wild world of…ballet dancing.  Yes, “The Red Shoes” puts quite the emphasis on the world of ballet dancing, on every nook and cranny of it, thoroughly establishing it as a way of life – one with ups and downs that Victoria must juggle and contemplate in deciding what’s most important in her life.  What I really liked about this movie, especially in its first half or so, was how it took its time, never rushed headlong into the plot, but sat back and simply showed us every aspect of what goes on backstage at a ballet rehearsal.  The pace is incredibly leisurely, as a number of scenes simply have the camera move from one part of the stage to the other as we witness the everyday life of dancers, the crew, the orchestra, Lermontov, and everybody in-between, as they practice or chit-chat or this and that.  I suppose it takes away from time that could’ve been spent getting to know the really important characters like Lermontov or Victoria or Julian, but this is all here for a reason.  At this pace, we’re thoroughly ensconced in this world that Victoria now finds herself in, seeing everything as she would see it, from the mundane to the awe-inspiring.  And, with such ordinary, everyday moments, we can see that the Lermontov ballet company, at least when it’s not quite show time, is a business – an ordinary, mundane business that requires a lot of details and grunt work to get working.  Not quite as glorious as the innocent, wide-eyed Victoria might be led to believe, eh?  Maybe not quite worth all the fame? Maybe more worth it to drop it all and ride off into the sunset with Julian?

Well, tell that to Victoria once the curtains go up.  Things might be mundane and commonplace between rehearsals, but once Julian’s version of “The Red Shoes” starts and Victoria’s able to do her thing, this movie treats us to one of the most spectacular music sequences in any film.  Hell, it’s one of the most spectacular sequences of any kind in any film.  For about fifteen minutes non-stop, the entire narrative of this movie is brought to a halt so that we can see the totality of the ballet-within-a-movie…but not exactly.  We don’t see what the audience sees, we see what Victoria sees, what she feels.  The Hans Christian Andersen story of a magic pair of shoes that make a girl dance herself ragged is transformed by Julian’s music and Victoria’s dancing into a lovely ballet, and in turn, Powell & Pressburger transform that lovely ballet into a thing that is completely sublime, and dreamlike, and sensational.  With seamless special effects, cinematography, and set design, this is one of the most visually arresting and convincing “dream / fantasy sequences” I’ve ever seen…and it was made sixty years ago.  How ‘bout that?  Dancers turn into flowers and birds and back into dancers, with the grace of watercolors.  Victoria dances alongside a life-sized, man-shaped sheet of paper that turns into a man seamlessly, and just as seamlessly back into paper.  The audience that Victoria dances in front of transforms into a torrential sea.  A simple paper backdrop of a town and mountain transforms into a maze of mirrors and colors as the dancing, red shoes-donning Victoria is transported to a world completely separate from reality – and it’s all set to the film’s Oscar-winning score.  Never have I felt so fortunate for a fifteen+ minute sequence that completely disrupts a film’s narrative.  Such a thing is unspeakable in just about any other movie, but it works here because, well, it looks so damn good.  But more importantly, it works because all of these spectacular images are emanating from Victoria’s mindset – they’re a projection of her peace and her happiness once she’s in her element.  The nervousness she feels right before the curtains go up are lifted once she starts twirling – and once she dons the red shoes – as the audience of the movie is treated to a glimpse of something that cannot be seen by the audience within the movie.  If scenes before and after the extended ballet sequence show Victoria leaning towards giving it all up to run off with Julian, then this sequence shows the other side of the coin – Victoria doing something she (thinks she) loves.  Ballet dancing is like her meditation – she is able to retreat within herself, to be at peace if only for a little while, and we’re able to retreat there with her.

The ending of the film is sudden and abrupt, and comes as a shock…but does it really?  Victoria is being pulled like a tug-of-war rope between the obsessed and demanding Lermontov and the loving (but just as demanding) Julian.  I’ll say one thing, though: the final fate that does befall Victoria falls way outside that 2-choice double-edged sword.  At least she maintains her independence, makes her own 3rd choice that’s unexpected, right?  But, you could look it all as Powell and Pressburger’s grand treatise supporting the concept of fate – in this case, Victoria’s sudden yet inescapable fate that’s far too akin to the source material – it’s all in the shoes.  She loves the ballet, she loves Julian – the rules dictate she can’t have both.  She makes her choice, runs from both – but cannot escape either one.  In the end, the red shoes do their job.  Life imitates art.



And on a somewhat related note:


I think it’s uncanny, but everyone else thinks I’m nuts 😕

A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

What an exuberant, imaginative, exciting delight this movie was!  What a refreshingly original film to watch, especially given today’s day and age when you see so many music superstars getting milked for all they’re worth, being advertised as movie stars when they’re clearly not talented in that area and used as mere marketing devices.  “A Hard Day’s Night” is not a marketing device for the Beatles, who in ’64 were rapidly becoming music and cultural icons, nor is it a typical rock musical.  What it is is a wildly original piece of cinema, where the youthful, carefree energy of four burgeoning superstars can’t possibly be contained and the attitude of an entire era is chronicled in a single 90-minute film.  Does any of it make sense?  In terms of your typical beginning-middle-end, rising action-climax-denouement film structure, not for a second.  But that’s the point entirely: the Beatles were fast becoming a phenomenon and would later become the most successful musicians of all-time, and they themselves were caught in an absolute whirlwind of fame.  And “A Hard Day’s Night” captures that whirlwind perfectly.  You talk about a time capsule film, this is the time capsule of Britain’s young generation in the mid 60s, and I bought into it for every second.

I don’t think I could possibly explain in words the exact kind of glee that “A Hard Day’s Night” gave me, or for that matter the reason why I knew from the get-go that this was truly a great, great film.  The last film I saw that I enjoyed this much, to the point where I couldn’t put that enjoyment into words other than lots and lots of exclamation marks, was “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Ironically, that was another of what I’d call a time capsule film, perfectly capturing the Great Depression.  If the glorified, zany adventures of the screen’s Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed exaggerated, that’s because that movie wasn’t an exact representation of an exact time and place, but rather a mindset: a subjective viewpoint of a terrible time in our history where a couple of crooks gave America hope as modern-day Robin Hoods.  That movie broke just about every cinema convention and to this day might be the best film in the genre of…what?  Crime?  Drama?  Dark comedy?  The point I’m making is that “Bonnie and Clyde” defied conventional genre to become something completely unique, and that’s exactly what “A Hard Day’s Night” does too (thought I completely forgot about the movie at hand, didn’t you? 😛 ).  It’s not a typical musical.  It’s not a straight-up comedy.  It’s not a mockumentary a la “This is Spinal Tap” (though “Spinal Tap” owes a hell of a lot to “A Hard Day’s Night”’s form).  It just…is.  I don’t know how to explain it better.  Thanks to its relatively plot-less structure and documentary-like feel, it really is like no movie before it, and just as “Bonnie and Clyde” was a snapshot of the mindset (if not necessarily the landscape) of Depression-era America, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a snapshot of the mindset of carefree, vigorous Britain on the cusp of the free-love generation.

For such a genre-bending film, the “story” structure is remarkably simple: it’s just one day in the lives of our fab four as they drift from one situation to the next, with the occasional narrative-stoppage or our boys to break into song.  What little “plot” there is involves Paul’s “clean” pest of a grandfather (Wilrid Brambell), the boys trying to keep the grandfather out of trouble, and the band’s two worrisome managers trying to keep everything in line.  But this isn’t a movie about “plot,” it’s a chance for we the audience to put the youthful, exuberant music to youthful, exuberant faces.  And what we get is a deeply personal-feeling film where we get right into the everyday lives of these four guys, despite so many wacky turns.  The cinematography and Richard Lester’s direction gets right in on the action with that herky-jerkiness you’d expect in a documentarian following a subject as closely as possible (like when they split up to look for Paul’s lecherous grandfather on a cramped train), but with enough professionalism (through excellent black-and-white cinematography, I might add) to remind you that this is after all a work of fiction, despite how real its larger-than-life subjects might seem.  But in that reality-bending world that Richard Lester (who’s claim to fame after this, sadly, was directing the woeful Superman sequels 😦 ) and his stars have created, something as mundane as The Beatles exploring a train becomes as compelling to watch as the final concert: a musical scene that’s as great as any concert film I’ve seen, where some of the best music ever sung combines with these guys’ incredible stage presence and the raw energy of the screaming, worshipful fans.

So, they could sure as hell sing (millions upon millions of albums sold to this day tells us that much), but could these four guys who look and dress the same actually act?  Actually, “A Hard Day’s Night” doesn’t answer that question, because it doesn’t even seem like they’re acting at all.  This is, after all, a “day in the life” of Paul, John, George and Ringo, so of course they needn’t do anything but, well, be themselves.  And needless to say, they excel at that.  They’re four of the most convention-bending “performances” I’ve ever seen, as they just drift from situation to situation in one wild day, with not a care in the world and with the occasional sarcastic/apathetic quip here and there (“What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?”, a reporter asks Ringo, and practically in an aside, he responds, “Arthur”).  And on-screen, they’re naturals.  Half the time when they were together I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, but I suppose that’s the point.  They know each other better than they know themselves, and it shows.  They’re in on all of each other’s jokes, they know how to finish each other’s sentences, they carouse with showgirls like it’s second nature, and even when disaster looks like it’ll rear its ugly head mere minutes before the big show, there’s a uniform kind of calmness bordering on sarcastic indifference emanating from each of them.  It’s just as you’d expect them to be in real life, talking about everyday nonsense that 99% of the time would have no business being in a feature film (and kudos to writer Alun Owen for having the gumption to make his screenplay seem so improvised and unconventional, which would eventually earn him an Oscar nomination), so naturally that makes for perfect on-screen chemistry. 

And it’s that chemistry that’s absolutely vital to our buying into the absurd plausibility of “A Hard Day’s Night.”  When the camera catches something as trivial as George and his manager playing around with shaving cream in front of the mirror while John fools around in the bathtub behind them, we buy into it.  When they drop everything to all of a sudden break into “If I Fell,” we buy into it.  This is the world as they see it, and at the same time we see them the way millions of screaming fans would expect to see them.  It’s their world, so anything they do seems natural.  They might as well be one being inhabiting four bodies with how comfortable they are around one another, which is why it’s so jarring for both the remaining guys and the audience watching the film when Ringo strikes out on his own after Paul’s grandfather goats him into doing something with his life.  What follows is an incredibly touching and poignant, as well as joyous and carefree, scene where we watch Ringo wander the streets and the countryside, avoiding the gaze of adoring fans, and just observing some kids playing.  You can just sense in Ringo, and in the others throughout the film, that they’re just normal guys who want to hang out and have fun, and yet when one cog gets misplaced, the well-oiled machine that is Beatlemania is on the verge of collapse.  What appears as simply a day-long romp becomes something more, as four relaxed, innocent attitudes suddenly collide with the thrill ride of fame and adoration.

They’re never actually referred to as The Beatles in the movie (other than the logo stamped on Ringo’s drumset), and I suppose it woudn’tve been necessary to identify then as such since they were about to become four of the most famous men in the world.  But really, would it even matter to call them The Beatles?  Hell, in real life they were the symbol of an entire era, an in the wild world of “A Hard Day’s Night,” they really are the symbol of everything that the youthful, carefree generation of the 60s stood for.  It makes perfect sense, then, when the boys’ partying, set to “All My Loving”, is juxtaposed with grandfather and the other old squares, off gambling in relative silence.  When you put aside the performances of these all-of-a-sudden singers-turned-actors (for their performances are just about the only natural ones in the entire film), it’s the music that separates the life-loving youth from the no-fun grown-ups.  In a movie already bursting with energy as all four of the guys can’t sit still for a second, it helps when you include perhaps the best movie soundtrack of all time (which is pretty much a given since it’s just songs by the fucking Beatles 😛 ).  Obviously it’s not “realistic” when everything stops for an impromptu performance, but in a movie with no plot, there’s nothing to stop, so really it just makes for more opportunity to put these guys in this idyllically exciting mindset they find themselves in.  I mean, could you possibly get more wonderful and exuberantly joyful moments as when they frolic on a field after a practice session and later “rescue” Ringo from the police station, being chased by about a dozen policemen, all set to “Can’t Buy Me Love”?  Would you expect such a miracle of spontaneity to occur on any given day of somebody’s life, even if those somebodies were Britain’s superstars to end all superstars?  Probably not, which is why “A Hard Day’s Night” is indeed nothing more than a documentary-like work of fiction.  But you look at that throng of screaming teenage girls waiting to rip these guys to pieces outside their train or an even bigger mob of teary-eyed fans screaming their heads off during the big performance (and the complete exuberance in the faces and body language of the boys on stage), and I dare you to tell me that that adoration, that heavy a reaction to a culture-changing phenomenon, is fiction.