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Welcome to the Sixties
Big, bubbly, euphoria-filled musical based on John Waters' most accessible, even beloved, 1988 film. There's not a bum number in the Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman Broadway score, all wonderfully enhanced in this soundtrack, brilliantly lampooning a variety of 60s pop styles and Broadway classic showtunes. (Sadly, three numbers were trimmed for time.) An excellent cast of young talent and old vets, notably Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken (who knew he was such a good dancer?) and Allison Janney. Divine left big fluffy slippers to fill and, though I had my reservations, John Travolta fills them nicely indeed, bringing new depth to the Edna Turnblad character. When it comes time for Edna to bust a move, we're in delicious anticipation; this IS Travolta after all! And we're not left disappointed by his showmanship. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky stars as Tracy, Edna's urban Gidget-as-chubette daughter, whose optimism and idealism transform the existence of those around her in Kennedy-era Baltimore. Addictive, gotta-sing-gotta-dance, Technicolor hullabaloo with a positive message that'll have you wanting to move your feet and sing out, Louise. Welcome to the Sixties!
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Before Bokeback Mountain: Sexual Enigmas of the Old West
Johnny Guitar, as played by Sterling Hayden, is but a secondary character to Joan Crawford's Vienna in this star-vehicle Western unlike any other. Crawford's nemesis is Mercedes McCambridge's Emma Small, and all the menfolk kowtow to these women, basically p-whipped throughout. This 1954 film has correctly been called both an allegory about McCarthyism and a Freudian parable.
Crawford is referred to as "more man than woman" early in the film, but she becomes feminized by the closing credits as she smiles, staring lovingly into Johnny Guitar's eyes. Taking place over 3 days, Act 1/Day 1 is set almost completely within Vienna's saloon. We first see Vienna in a mannish black outfit: blouse, slacks & boots. Later, rekindling her affair with Johnny, she is seen in a burgundy nightgown under a parted black cape, her passion beginning to show. By the end of the second Act/Day 2, Vienna is dressed in a white gown, purified by the love she has cast out of her life. She becomes a Christ figure when betrayed by a Judas in her midst and sentenced to hang (crucifixion).
Rescued by Johnny, Crawford is resurrected and must don a man's outfit on the third Day/Act 3 -- yellow shirt, blue jeans -- and ultimately duel to the death with Emma, a mannish and sexually inhibited woman who may well be seen as her "other half," as they strap on their six-shooters. (Phallic symbolism anyone?) Character motivation in this film oftentimes seems demented and Joan's emotions turn on a dime. But the film's fascinating realism lies in its subtext of sexual identity.
A film in which the cowboys are named Dancing Kid, Corey, Turkey and Johnny Guitar, and in which the women exhibit more machismo than the men, is certainly toying with gender. Johnny Guitar plays and the Dancing Kid -- whose admiration for Johnny turns to aggression -- dances for him with Emma in a waltz of sexual ambiguity.
Vividly directed by Nicholas Ray, this is, in a sense, the "Brokeback Mountain" of its day; audacious and groundbreaking.
Charming Disney Fantasy
An extremely charming fantasy from Disney with accents straight out of an Irish Spring commercial. Darby O'Gill, teller of tall tales, captures the king of the leprechauns and hopes to get his pot'o'gold. The cast of character actors are a delight to watch -- Albert Sharpe as Darby, Jimmy O'Dea as the leprechaun, Estelle Winwood, Kieron Moore, Walter Fitzgerald and Denis O'Dea. Sean Connery and Janet Munro ("The Crawling Eye") are the romantic leads. The ending, complete with scary banshees and a death coach, approaches the death of Bambi's mother on the childhood-traumameter, and will possibly leave adults and kids alike teary-eyed.
Slumming Down The Amazon
While a giant anaconda devours people whole, Jon Voight chews up the scenery in this monster movie that's better than average thanks to its game cast. Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Owen Wilson and Jonathan Hyde slum along with Voight down the Amazon in this entertaining outing that moves along at a clip.
Time has rendered the CGI effects almost quaint; nonetheless, the film has its share of thrills and is, if nothing else, amusing, thanks largely to Voight's histrionic bad-guy.
Watching Voight get eaten, then regurgitated, by the title creature is certainly one of those guilty-pleasure movie moments.
Imitation of Life (1959)
This 1959 remake of the 1934 weeper glams up the Fanny Hurst story. Lana Turner's comeback in the wake of the Johnny Stompanato murder and director Douglas Sirk's American swan song, "Imitation of Life" is both deluxe Hollywood star vehicle and expressionistic auteur cinema.
"IoL" has a touchy issue at the core of its central drama. Released four years prior to the March on Washington, the film is, in good part, about race relations. Although detailing the friendship between two women, one black and one white, Lana is a glamorous, romantically desirable actress who attains super-stardom, swirling about in multiple drop-dead-gorgeous outfits. Juanita Moore, on the other hand, is plain, maternal, self-sacrificing and seemingly content to remain Lana's maid, schlepping around in frumpy frocks and cloth coats. Both women are mothers and, ironically, it is the black mother-and-daughter storyline that is the most interesting and best remembered.
Susan Kohner plays Ms Moore's light-skinned offspring, Sara Jane, determined to pass as white to the point of ditching her undeniably African-American mother. Kohner's desperation throughout is touching but it's her final scene that is guaranteed to make me cry every time I see this film, no matter how much hokum there is en route.
A somewhat overly peppy Sandra Dee assays the role of Lana's daughter, Susie. "You've given me everything a mother could, but the thing I wanted most -- your love," Miss Dee shouts, much to Lana's anguish, proving that white women have tsuris, too; all the main characters in this film have been chasing illusions (the "imitations of life") that only bring them sorrow.
In a bid to exploit Lana's real-life drama at the time -- another type of imitation of life to be certain -- the script calls for Susie to fall in love with Lana's boyfriend, Steve, portrayed by staggeringly stalwart John Gavin.
Another cinematic paean to a mother's love and sacrifices, "IoL" expertly hits a deep emotional chord with most viewers. On the way to the socko sentimental climax, however, there is much to be admired and to be entertained by: the use of Technicolor and widescreen to infer psychological states and the relationships between characters; Eleanore Griffin's dialog that never states something once if it can state it thrice for extra intensity ("I'm white! White! White!", "I'm not going up and down, up and down! I'm going up! And up! And up!"); Sara Jane's foolhardy downward spiral that results in her taking a job as a showgirl sipping from a chalice on a mobile lounge chair; and heartbreaking moments as when Sara Jane tells her mother, "And if we should pass on the street, just keep walking."
The Good German (2006)
A clever look: imitation vintage B-movie in black and white; Steven Soderbergh's appropriate, artful gimmick for this film set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of WWII.
Cate Blanchett turns in an apt theatrical performance given "The Bad German's" archly retro conceit. As the film's mother/whore femme fatale, Cate is sphinx-like, world-weary and made up like a drag queen at Mardi Gras. George Clooney, meanwhile, turns in his routine performance that is altogether too modern and casual. Put him in scrubs and he's ready again for the ER. Together, they create no chemistry nor any other natural science. Toby McGuire, as a sleazy, black-marketing GI, is so painfully hammy you'll find yourself begging for him to stop.
The storyline is awkwardly developed and unnecessarily opaque, its characters cold and remote. There's really nobody to cheer for or identify with; no emotions to hook us into this world. When was the last time that international intrigue, on-screen, was so unintriguing? It's too bad we've been served such an exciting cinematic look -- an overly lit, noir-like one -- only as window dressing on a story as bleak and dreary as the blitzkrieged landscapes on view.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
The amplified, dispassionate female voice could have been Leona Helmseley in heat but, no, it belongs to Allison Hayes as Nancy Archer, the 50-Foot Woman of the title. In the most infamous role of her film career, Allison's performance literally rips off the roof. In fact, make that a couple of roofs.
Jaw-droppingly tacky, "Aot50FW" is the tale of Nancy, a neurotic, boozy heiress and her loveless Lothario husband, Harry (William Hudson, who also co-starred opposite The Amazing Colossal Man). Nancy has a close encounter of the third kind, in the desert, with a bald giant from outer space who wears a mini-skirt and gladiator sandals, and who has a thing for Nancy's jewelry. What he does to her once he's carried her off is probably best left a mystery, but soon Nancy starts to grow.
Treading into the center of town on tranquilizers, tightly wrapped in nothing but the bed sheets, the buxom giantess heads toward the low-rent saloon where Harry is having a few laughs with a floozy named Honey (Yvette Vickers). The confrontation turns ugly.
The Poverty Row f/x make the alien giant and Nancy appear to be transparent due to incompetently transposed images. You'll understand why director Nathan Juran changed his name to Nathan Hertz on the credits. Juran was no stranger to directing giant creatures, human and non, having also directed "The Deadly Mantis," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," "Jack, the Giant Killer" plus several episodes of TV's "World of Giants" and "Land of the Giants."
A lot of laughs for all the wrong reasons.
Fah talai jone (2000)
Mind-bending Genre Parody, Thai Style
"Tears of the Black Tiger" is a florid, mind-bending and highly cinematic parody of genres. East meets West and Sam Peckinpah meets Douglas Sirk in Wisit Sasanatieng's brilliant, highly stylized work.
In an outrageous palette of costumes, make-up, sets and colors (hot neons and cool pastels, some digitally manufactured), this is the tale of Rumpoey, a girl born into wealth, and her love for Dum, a peasant boy. As young adults, Dum (Thai heartthrob Chartchai Ngansam) joins a gun-slinging outlaw band known as The Tigers, while Rumpoey is betrothed to a slick, handsome police captain, Kumjorn.
Much of the film appears to be set in the early 1960s, though its outlaws are strictly of the American Wild West variety (albeit with hand-held rocket launchers). Imbued with a sense of great fun, "Tears of the Black Tiger" is camp, absurd, surreal, melodramatic and strangely poignant, served up in a sumptuous, candy-colored coating.
Fish and Lishardsh
It is said Bette Davis commented that if she had found herself starring in "Trog," she'd commit suicide. Alas, poor Joan Crawford, who obviously felt she couldn't be fussy if she wanted the work, descended to this cut-rate, Herman Cohen-produced monster movie. Ironically released in the States by Warner Brothers (on the bottom half of a double-bill with "The Torture Garden"), the studio for which Ms Crawford made several of her hits including "Mildred Pierce", the only scary thing about "Trog" is the sight of a once-glamorous, legendary leading lady schlepping around in a lab coat (she plays an anthropologist), obviously tipsy as she slurs inane lines like "Trog lives on a diet of fish and lishardsh." Let's face it: under the circumstances, you'd drink, too.
Trog is cutesy for troglodyte: a primitive missing-link cave-dweller portrayed by a burly actor in an Alley Oop-like caveman get-up and an over-the-head, dime-store Halloween mask. Discovered by a hunky and shirtless, albeit unfortunate, team of spelunking college students, Trog is captured and put under the observation of Dr Brockton (Joan).
The true villain of this piece is Michael Gough (also slumming it), a representative of the opposing townspeople who, in a public confrontation with Joan, causes her to explode in a moment of impassioned fury. Regrettably, she does not give Gough her trademark slap in the face.
Trog eventually escapes to wreak some customary monster-movie havoc and Joan hunts him down with her "hypo-gun" across the bleak fields of the northern English countryside and down into his cavern, dressed in a smartly tailored tan jacket, slacks and boots ensemble.
Hollywood Royalty? Joan tries to maintain her dignity and poise despite having to deliver lines like, "Put the child down, Trog!" and occasionally looking a little woozy. This sad swan song to a long, brilliant career, amid the preposterous mise en scene, gives "Trog" the feeling of a tragi-comedy. Like one of her memorable screen characters, the real Joan Crawford endeavors to be strong and, ultimately, to triumph against all odds.
The best movie based on a Broadway musical since "Cabaret," "Dreamgirls" is simply dreamy. It's about the Rise and Fall of the Rainbow Records Empire (a fictionalized Motown), spanning the 1960s and '70s. The central drama involves the girl group, The Dreams, and the lives of its singers: Deena, Effie and Lorrell.
As Effie, Jennifer Hudson virtually steals the movie in the Jennifer Holiday stage role, making the show-stopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" her own. The number is the most eloquent, heart-wrenching nervous breakdown ever filmed and it signals the beginning of the end of Rainbow Records.
Written and directed by Bill Condon from a book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger, the play's underlying gay sensibility remains intact. The Dreams are a mythical Supremes-like group (with a touch of Ronnie and Phil Spector thrown in as the marriage of Deena to Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx)), and their saga is nothing short of fabulous. The songs are mostly strong, though in the style of show tunes more than pop. They include new material from Krieger, including "Listen," Beyonce Knowles' big number. The film's look is rich and color-drenched, the emotions are big and the story a quickly moving epic, all with show costumes and wigs galore.
Like Condon's "Gods and Monsters", which was a point-perfect film treatment of Christopher Bramm's novel, "Father of Frankenstein," the choices made in the screen adaption of "Dreamgirls" are flawless. The sense of racial bigotry and strife surrounding the characters during turbulent times is definitely more strongly developed and powerfully portrayed in this movie.
It is doubtful you would leave this film emotionally untouched or aesthetically unimpressed.
p.s.: Eddie Murphy's performance and singing herein was a total revelation to me.