White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

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Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.

Summer Holiday (1963)

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Who forgot to buy the bread?!  Don (Cliff Richard) and his friends (Melvyn Hayes, Teddy Green and Jeremy Bulloch) are London Transport bus mechanics. During a miserably wet British summer lunch break, Don arrives, having persuaded their employers to lend him and his friends a double-decker bus which they convert into a holiday caravan, which they drive across continental Europe, intending to reach the Riviera. However, their eventual destination is Athens. On the way, they are joined by a trio of young women singers (Una Stubbs, Pamela Hart and Jacqueline Daryl) whose car has broken down and a runaway singer (Lauri Peters), who initially pretends to be a 14-year old boy called Bobby, pursued by her voracious stage mother (Madge Ryan) and agent (Lionel Murton). There are chases, dogs, singalongs, dance sequences with Cliff’s band The Shadows, a misunderstanding almost causing a marriage to a moustachioed shepherdess and problems at border crossings. Written by Peter Myers and Ronald Cass with musical orchestration by Stanley Black, this is chock-a-block with songs – Bachelor Boy was added to increase the running time. It’s genial, hokey stuff with England’s biggest rock ‘n’ roller Cliff making for a charming lead. His opposite number Lauri Peters was never a big name but she’d established the role of Liesel in the 1959 Broadway production of The Sound of Music where she sang Sixteen Going On Seventeen to teen Nazi Rolf played by Jon Voight who became her husband. She was overdubbed here by Grazina Frame who did the same job in Cliff’s previous film The Young Ones. The dance numbers were choreographed by Herbert Ross who made quite the director himself.  This was huge in the UK but in the US it played to empty houses – hardly surprising when you consider it was released there 54 years ago, November 24th 1963, two days after the assassination of JFK. Directed by debutant Peter Yates, this is why we all love red double-decker London buses!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

American Graffiti (1973)

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You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

Deception (1946)

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It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner. The stars and director of Now, Voyager were happily reunited for this melodrama that has a definite inclination towards film noir. Pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) discovers that her former lover cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) is not dead on a WW2 battlefield as she previously thought but alive and well and performing in NYC. When they reunite she doesn’t want him to know that she spent years as the mistress of sadistic composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) whose voluminous loft she inhabits after becoming a kept woman. Hollenius tries to prise the couple apart following their marriage by getting nervous Karel to perform his Cello Concerto (written by studio composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and Christine’s lies go deeper and deeper to try and keep her husband from finding out the truth about her past … This adaptation of Louis Verneuil’s play by John Collier and Joseph Than changed Karel’s profession from painter and this permits the three neurotics at the centre of this love triangle to each perform music with a ferocity rarely seen on film (Davis had trained at piano, Henreid was hopeless at cello and other people’s arms are used to fake his part!) In fact it’s a musical in all but name which may have contributed to its relative box office failure since it is a paean to the classical mode.  The framing of Davis’ fabulously physical performance in these luxe interiors (her loft was based on Leonard Bernstein’s NYC pad) is a supreme example of classical Hollywood staging (art directed by Anton Grot) and her sparring with Rains is high comedy.  He relishes his role as this man tipping on the edges of crazy, stroking his Siamese cat and indulging in frightful bullying at the table in an hilariously horrible restaurant scene. The noir tropes of staircases and mirrors are brilliantly used to heighten Christine’s deceitful core, indeed the ending had to be changed to get past the censors so Christine’s actions must be punished! Director of photography Ernest Haller did his best for Davis whom he had been shooting since Dangerous as she was newly married, pregnant and under-confident of her jowly thirty-eight year old appearance. She was outfitted in stunning gowns and furs by Bernard Newman and when Henreid got his heart’s desire to become a director  years later she acted for him in one of her truly dualistic roles as identical twins in Dead Ringer which Haller also shot and you can read about it here:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_2.

Born to be Blue (2015)

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This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Kill Your Friends (2015)

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How far would you go? John Niven’s 2008 novel is a tour de force of misanthropy, monstrousness and murder. The ragged tale of a ruthless A&R in London at the height of Britpop, it allegedly served as a gloss on the author’s own experiences in the music biz. It comes off as a vaguely more realistic take on American Psycho and indeed Steven Stelfox (played here by Nicholas Hoult) does have a whiff of Patrick Bateman about him. It’s also uproariously funny. Onscreen the humour is a little hard to detect in a production directed by Owen Harris from Niven’s own adaptation – somehow, while all the words are right, and the scenes fit, they don’t add up to a tonally correct film.  It simply lacks the coke-addled energy of the writing. As Stelfox cuts a swathe through his rivals inside his record company including James Corden, Tom Riley and (gruesomely) Georgia King while keeping an inveterately nosy copper (Ed Hogg) at bay with a publishing deal, there is a grim look to this which obviates the point of the novel – the lustre of the industry, the lure of fame and the sheer joy of being off your face. Shame! But the songs, the songs …