Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

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What about my one-legged tap dancer? Take him for a weekend. My one-legged – alright, my one armed juggler? My one-armed juggler!  A bunch of ageing NYC vaudevillians reminisce about Danny Rose (Woody Allen) the variety agent for hopeless cases who never gave up on his protegés no matter how futile the cause. They recall one story in particular concerning his client clunky lounge singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) and his demanding mistress, mafia wife Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow) when Danny is mistaken for her lover by gangsters with a score to settle … I’m currently working with a parrot that sings “I Gotta Be Me”. And I got some very nice balloon-folders, you know. It’s interesting. Allen at his best in this combination of homage, pastiche and nostalgia in a beautiful monochrome comedy which is hilarious yet heartfelt from start to finish. Farrow gives her greatest performance as the nasal New Yorker in crimplene trousers and insectoid shades permaglued under her teetering hairdo who’s teed off with her lover’s vacillating; Allen is wonderful as the hapless hustling patsy loyal to the last; and it all plays tonally as though honed from precious metal. A jewel in Allen’s body of work and a great Eighties film, filled with memorable scenes, lines, humour, affection, friendship and humanity. You might call it a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. I know I do. You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, no question about it, but you gotta suffer a little too because otherwise you miss the whole point to life. And that’s how I feel

King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.This is notable for the first proper original Hollywood movie score, composed by Max Steiner.  It was beauty killed the beast

All That Jazz (1979)

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To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

Carol Channing 01/31/1921 -01/15/2019

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The death has taken place of the delightful, husky-voiced, unique comedienne and musical star Carol Elaine Channing, who originated the stage role of the apparently ditzy blonde gold digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn Monroe went to see it every night two weeks straight. Wouldn’t you? An effervescent, witty actress who made her bones in theatre where she created the indelible Hello, Dolly but also impressed on the big screen.  Rest in peace. Laughter is much more important than applause. Applause is almost a duty. Laughter is a reward.

Black Widow (1954)

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Writer/director/producer Nunnally Johnson had a great career as one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood but he made some mis-steps when he moved to producing and directing and this is one of them. At a theatre world party, ambitious young writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) weasels her way into the affections of married producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) whose actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) is away. She is then found dead in his apartment a presumed suicide but it swiftly becomes a murder investigation and Peter is the chief suspect. Neighbours Lottie Marin (Ginger Rogers) – another famous actress  – and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) are concerned for their friend’s situation. Nancy was staying with a brother John (Skip Homeier) and sister Claire (Virginia Leith) from the Amberlys, a wealthy family, and it appears from Peter’s investigations that she had designs on the brother, as well as any man who could give her a leg up, as it were, but there’s a letter produced from Nancy that states she is pregnant by a man with a famous wife called Iris. George Raft is the detective on the case … Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from Patrick Quentin’s novel and with a screenplay by Johnson himself, this manages to fail on many fronts despite wonderful star wattage on display albeit some of the performances are poor. There is no attempt to conjure the attractions of Broadway despite the location shoot and the widescreen process doesn’t aid the suspense. The most arresting characterisation comes from Leith who had a very short career and her most infamous appearance was in a sci-fi called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die as a decapitated head. That’s showbiz.

Easter Parade (1948)

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When Broadway star Fred Astaire’s dance partner Ann Miller leaves him for a solo act he wagers he can make a star of the next girl he sees – who happens to be Judy Garland. This sheerly delightful Irving Berlin musical comedy is a wonderful backstage romance and even the performance of Kennedy pimp Peter Lawford warbling A Fella with an Umbrella can’t ruin a gloriously atmospheric colourful romp in turn of the century New York. Highlights include the showstopper Steppin’ Out With My Baby and The Girl on the Magazine Cover, plus the final title number. From a story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Sheldon. Two accidents caused casting changes – Gene Kelly broke his ankle playing volleyball and suggested Astaire replace him, while Cyd Charisse’s broken leg meant Miller got her big break at MGM (as it were!). Gorgeous stuff as you’d expect from director Charles Walters. Easter blessings and chag Chanukah sameach.

All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis is theatre great Margo Channing, whose home is invaded by the unexpectedly venal Eve (Anne Baxter), a scheming no-name tramp who wants to take her place, steal her man and take over Broadway. Writer/director Joe Mankiewicz’ portrait of womanhood, ageing, rivlary, marriage, theatre and performance was based on industry scuttlebutt about the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during the Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth – or Elisabeth Bergner’s trouble with her secretary, depending on who you believe. Davis was in fact accused of imitating Bankhead – whose hairstyle she sports. In fact she had a cold when the film started and her director asked her to keep her voice like that. She only got the role because Claudette Colbert endured a back injury prior to production, in a case of life imitating art. Margo needs a new hit, written by her great friend Hugh Marlowe, whose wife (Celeste Holm) is her best friend. He’s always writing young, Margo’s getting older. Her lover is her director, Gary Merrill, a younger man, who just might up and run to Hollywood. Her ex-vaudevillian dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t trust Eve one little bit and once ingratiated into the group, Eve does her best to alienate everyone and isolate Margo. There are endlessly quotable lines, many from acerbic critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) with a wonderful walk-on from Marilyn Monroe as his latest protegee from the Copacabana Academy of Dramatic Art. Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve was published in 1946 and then adapted for radio three years later. She sold it to Fox and it was then adapted by Mankiewicz but she never received screen credit. She did however get an award from the Screen Writers Guild for Best Original Story. This is usually referred to as a Camp Classic – which is odd in a way because it’s about a woman asserting traditional femininity against a queer attack in an anti-fairytale (as it were). Davis is simply brilliant, whatever, reconciling the two facets of Margo – grand gestural movement (learned from Martha Graham) and closeup emotionality. Just classic.

Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!