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Friday, February 16, 2018

The 90th Academy Awards: Best Actress

About November or so the Best Actress race looked promising to be suspenseful. But, as so often happens, the precursors have suggested that the vote has coalesced around one nominee, and this year that nominee is Frances McDormand, for her fierce portrayal of a woman enraged by the lack of progress of the investigation of her daughter's killer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The nominees were easy to predict this year, and only Meryl Streep, as Katherine Graham in The Post, could be immediately x-ed out, because she's already won three times. Maybe she'll win a fourth, as Katharine Hepburn did, but not this year.

The other three nominees had some juice, but that seems to be all squeezed out now. Saorsie Ronan won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical, but her film, Lady Bird, has been shut down ever since. Margot Robbie was thought to be a possible spoiler for her turn as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, but there is no evidence to put forward a prediction for her win. And Sally Hawkins, as the mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a sea monster in The Shape of Water, figured to have a better chance because: she's in the Best Picture front-runner, and she doesn't speak. Oscar has a fascination for silent performances.

McDormand, who won twenty years for Fargo, just will not be denied. I can't quite put my finger on why. I suppose of the five she does the most acting, getting big scenes and plenty of opportunity for Oscar clips. This group of actresses, aside from Ronan, are unusually old (two women sixty or over) so perhaps that's a factor--this category has a history of anointing ingenues (three of the last five winners were in their twenties) so maybe this is a course correction.

As I wrote in the Best Supporting Actor post, the racial blowback against Three Billboards has not seemed to affect the actors. I would be very surprised if McDormand doesn't win. I'm pulling for Ronan or Robbie, though. But all five are worthy.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

I Know Where I'm Going!

It being Valentine's Day I thought I'd watch a movie appropriate for the day. Glenn Kenny of the New York Times wrote an article proposing some choices that were streaming, and I picked I Know Where I'm Going! (the British love titles in the first person and with exclamation points), an early film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was an interesting film, that slowly built to a powerful climax.

The film stars Wendy Hiller as a woman who has always known what she wants and goes and gets it. In droll British humor, she is shown doing that in her early life, even as a baby crawling straight forward. By the age of twenty-five she's working at a large chemical company, and has managed to snare the owner, whom she will marry on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides.

When she gets to the isle of Mull, she's stuck because of the weather. She meets Torquill McNeil (Roger Livesey), who happens to be the laird of the island (he's leasing it to her fiance). As she waits out a gale, she becomes immersed in the local citizens, who have far different values than her--money isn't everything to them. She realizes she's falling for Livesey and has to get across to that island, even if it means risking her life.

I'm a sucker for remote islands, and have always wanted to visit the Hebrides, so I was fascinated. Powell and Pressburger make interesting visual choices. For instance, a five or so minute montage of Hiller traveling from one train to another to a boat is brilliant, including a transition from a stovepipe hat to a train engine.

Though shot in black and white, I Know Where I'm Going! has some stunning photography. It was shot on location, and includes real places like Corrywhacken, a large whirlpool, and Moy Castle, where Livesey can't go in because any laird to crosses its threshold is cursed.

What is best about the film, though, is how it treats the residents. Many films about Scots or Irish have them as some twinkly creatures like leprechauns. To be sure, we get the full treatment, including a "calleigh," where there is much singing and dancing (this scene is expertly edited). But they are also real people with real problems and don't possess any magic. But they do teach Hiller a lesson.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Victoria & Abdul

Getting back to Oscar nominees I've missed, I turn to Victoria & Abdul, which was nominated for Best Makeup and Hair Design and Best Costumes. It is the story, mostly true, of how Queen Victoria befriended an Indian servant and set everyone around her into a tizzy.

Judi Dench stars as Victoria, just as she did 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown, and the story is very similar: a lonely Queen turns to a commoner as a confidant, and everyone gets into a snit. This time it's even worse because the confidant is "colored."

It's 1887, the year of her golden jubilee. India, part of the British Empire, is sending a two-man delegation to present her with a commemorative coin. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent because he's the tallest one available. Another man (Adeel Akhtar) is sent because the other tallest man fell off an elephant. Victoria is tired and can barely stay awake, but when Fazal's gaze meets hers she gets a little spark.

Soon she has made him her footman, and then her "munshi," a teacher. He teachers her Urdu and the Koran many other things about Indian and Muslim culture. She transforms one room of a palace into a chamber of Indian art. Her personal secretary, Sir Henry (Tim Pigott-Smith) and her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard) are aghast, and scheme to get rid of him. They almost succeed a few times, but she likes Abdul and wants him around.

Directed by Stephen Frears, Victoria & Abdul is a solid work that is engaging without being transcendent. Dench has played Victoria before and is very good, although she brinks a twinkle to characters that sometimes seems the same over and over again. I liked Akhtar, too, who hates England and the whole Empire, but is forced to stay because Fazal likes it there.

Remarkably this is a true story, although of course some things are fudged. Time passing is difficult to gauge--the film goes from 1887 to her death in 1901, although it doesn't seem that long in the film. Also, Victoria outlived Sir Henry, which is not shown here.

Victoria & Abdul is nothing to get excited about, but it does have lovely costumes and for those who like British period films it hits the target square.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks first screwball comedy, and indeed one of the first of that genre, was 1934's Twentieth Century, also based on a play. It is enlivened by two deliriously over-the-top performances by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.

Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a theatrical impresario (based on David Belasco) who is mounting a new play. He has plucked a lingerie model (Lombard) to play the lead role, though his employees think she can't act. He makes her a star, though, but is often cruel and bullying. But they enter a personal relationship and have a string of hits. But he when he hires a private detective to follow her, she breaks it off and goes to Hollywood.

Cut to four years later. Barrymore has had a string of flops, and Lombard is a movie star. He has debts after a disaster in Chicago, so has to don a disguise to get on the train of the title, headed for New York City. By coincidence, Lombard is also on the train, and when Barrymore finds out he tries to get her to sign a contract to play Mary Magdalene.

Twentieth Century isn't as brilliant as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it's amusing to watch the two leads throw everything at the wall. Barrymore in particular is a joy to watch, enunciating with the utmost precision, his passion for the theater trumping all. He has two employees who are also great stock types--Walter Connolly as his long-suffering accountant, who constantly gets fired (whenever he fires someone, Barrymore dramatically says, "I close the iron door on you" miming a closing door) and Roscoe Karns as some kind of fixer, who is constantly drunk.

There are other running gags in the film, such as an old man (Etienne Girardot) who is running around the train sticking "Repent!" stickers everywhere, even on the backs of the conductors.

Lombard, who was only 26 at the time, is perhaps too over-the-top, so much so that it becomes kind of a gag. She was one of the pre-eminent comedic actors of her day, and a beauty, to boot. If I had been around then I think I would have had a huge crush on her.

The film was turned into a Broadway musical in the '80s, for which Kevin Kline won a Tony as Jaffe.

Monday, February 12, 2018

His Girl Friday

Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors. Leonard Maltin called him, "The greatest American director who is not a household name." He received only one Academy Award nomination (for Sergeant York) but the only Oscar he received was an honorary one. Yet he directed a lot of films that are well known, and in almost every genre. He directed one of the greatest gangster pictures, Scarface, one of the greatest noirs, The Big Sleep, one of the greatest Westerns, Red River, and perhaps the greatest screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

He directed a few other screwball comedies, and Filmstruck is featuring them this month. I've written about Bringing Up Baby, but there are three others worth watching, and I'll start with His Girl Friday.

It's kind of hard to believe I had never seen this one before, as it is a benchmark film. A remake of The Front Page, which was a play and then a film (and several films after), it's about two reporters hot on the story of an escaped man from death row. The Front Page was about two men, but His Girl Friday turns one of them into a woman. The result is cinematic gold, with two great lead performances.

Cary Grant is Walter Burns, the editor of the Morning Post. His paper has been championing the reprieve of Earl Williams, who killed a policeman in a fit of despair. The script is a bit daring, because he killed a black policeman, and Burns is accusing the politicians of trying to win the black vote. (this being 1940, the term "colored" is used, as is the word "pickaninny").

Rosalind Russell is Hildy Johnson, ex-wife of Grant and a star reporter. She comes to see him to tell him she is done with him and the paper, as she is marrying the decent but square Ralph Bellamy (in an ad-libbed joke, Grant tells someone that her fiance looks like that actor--Ralph Bellamy). Grant schemes to keep Russell from getting on a train to Albany, knowing she is newspaper "man" forever, and of course she is.

His Girl Friday is known for its rapid-fire dialogue. I watch movies with subtitles because I've been to too many rock concerts, and they had a hard time keeping up. There is a brilliant scene about halfway through when three people are talking at once that reminded me of the Marx Brothers at their best. The scene lasts a couple of minutes, and you can be dizzy with exhilaration after its over.

What's interesting about the switching of genders is that a woman reporter is not treated as anything out of the ordinary. Russell is one of the boys at the county courthouse press room. The script also has a supporter of Williams, Helen Mack, entering the room to give the reporters a dressing down for writing lies about her. They callously disregard her,but after she leaves, they sit in silence for a moment, uncomfortable because they know she's right.

The rest of His Girl Friday is constant zaniness. I especially enjoyed Billy Gilbert, who was discovered by Stan Laurel, as a messenger. Gilbert does some nice scene-stealing, talking about his wife and resisting a bribe by the mayor and sheriff (a very good Gene Lockhart). One of the reporters is played by Cliff Edwards. Who's he? He's Jiminy Cricket, that's who.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

My Favorite Beatles' Songs

I've been listening to a lot of Beatles music this weekend. The Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM has been playing the top 50 love songs of the Beatles, as voted on by fans. By the way, for whomever voted for it, "Dear Prudence" is not a love song, it's about Mia Farrow's sister having a breakdown in India. For the record, the top vote getter was "Something."

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which rocketed their stardom into the stratosphere in America. There is also an interview with Quincy Jones in which he states that the Beatles were lousy musicians. I heard this from one of my favorite DJs, Meg Griffin, who quoted Jones as saying they were "no play motherfuckers." I think I was more shocked by the saintly Griffin saying the word motherfucker. She wondered if Jones is right in the head. I say fuck Quincy Jones. Who cares if they were great musicians or not? They've written more memorable songs than Jones has.

So as I was driving around today I mentally compiled my list of favorite Beatles songs. The Fab Four recorded 307 songs, 237 original compositions. I have been listening to the Beatles religiously for almost fifty years, so I don't need to relisten to choose them. Except for the top four or five, the order is almost random:

10. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" I prefer the late Beatles, but I wanted to include one Beatlemania song. I have a distant memory of my aunt, who was about sixteen at the time, playing this record for me when I was a very small child. Of all the early songs, it's the one that seems freshest to me. I had a professor who spoke of how it seemed that The Beatles invented a new color, and this song comes closest to that description. I love the way it opens, as if it is in mid-song, with the lyrics starting two beats early.

9. "Strawberry Fields Forever" A sonic masterpiece, this was supposed to be on the Sgt. Pepper album but was rushed out as a single. John knew a place called Strawberry Fields in Liverpool, and there is an eerie and ominous nostalgia to it. His vocal was slowed down to give it an otherworldly quality, and this was a song full of experimentation, using a mellotron and an Indian instrument called the swarmandal. The song fades out and then has a coda that sounds like a jumble of instruments, and then ends with John's cryptic words that may or may not be "I bury Paul." He says it was "cranberry sauce."

8. "Yesterday" The most recorded song of all time, Paul McCartney would be a very rich man even if this is the only song he ever wrote. The song is stunning in it's simplicity, and would be one of the few (if not only) song ever recorded by only one Beatle participating. It's just Paul on guitar and a string quartet. Every Beatle fan knows the story about how Paul had the melody, and for a while the working title was "Scrambled Eggs."

7. I'll stick with Paul and strings with "Eleanor Rigby," which was on the Revolver album and may, more than any other song, startle traditional music fans to realizing that The Beatles were more than a pop band. The instrumentation, a double string quartet, is a marvel, and Paul's lyrics about loneliness show an increasing sophistication. I think I could listen to this song every hour and not get sick of it.

6. I wouldn't want to leave George Harrison out, and my favorite song of his is "Here Comes the Sun." He was usually limited to two songs an album, but he made the best of it on Abbey Road, with this one and "Something." Inspired one morning when he was sitting in his garden with Eric Clapton, this song is one of the best expressions of hope and optimism that I've ever heard.

5. "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" The second side of Abbey Road, which begins with "Here Comes the Sun," is like a supernova, an musical explosion that was the end of the group (Abbey Road was recorded after Let It Be, though the latter was released later). Much of the side is a medley of songs that bleed one into the other, with this trio ending it (the ditty "Her Majesty" kind of ruins it). "Golden Slumbers" is a lullaby, the lyrics pinched from Thomas Dekker's poem. Paul saw the lyrics on a sheet of music on his dad's piano, and since he couldn't read music, wrote a tune of his own. The poignancy and power of his vocals give me chills. "Carry That Weight" is a bridge to "The End," which really was the end; it was the last song all four Beatles performed on. Each member has a solo, with the three guitarists doing an around the horn type thing, and Ringo getting the only drum solo of the band's history. This wasn't a slight of Ringo--he didn't like drum solos, and thought of himself as drummer that suited the song. Then the song ends in one of Paul's greatest lines: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

4. "For No One" This is probably the most obscure song on my list, as it doesn't get much airplay and was not on a single. From Revolver, it is Paul again, writing a song about an ended affair that, if you're in the wrong frame of mind, could wound you deeply. Written in a baroque style in a bathroom in Switzerland, the lyrics are again very poignant, and is marked by a French horn solo. John, who could be withering in his criticism of Paul, thought it was one his finest. Fun fact: in college I wrote a play called "A Love That Should Have Lasted Years," which was a line in the song. The play never did get produced.

3. Now we move into John songs. "In My Life" is regarded as one of the best Beatle songs by almost everyone, so no controversy here. Coming from Rubber Soul, it's again an indication that the group were more than pop song writers. The song came from a suggestion that John write about his childhood, and he said that it was the first song he wrote that was actually about him. There is some disagreement about who wrote the melody, which Paul takes credit for. There is also a classical middle eight, played on piano by George Martin. Fun fact: when my friend Bob got married he was trying to come up with a first dance song. I suggested "In My Life" and he and his wife went for it. Of course, if I ever get married I can't use it. I think I want to use Annie Lennox's "Love Song for a Vampire" anyway.

2: "A Day in the Life" Probably the song that most consider the Beatles' greatest accomplishment. It's a mash-up of two songs--John's commentary on the news, and Paul's bit about a man waking up and going to work. The references were to Tara Browne, a Guinness heir who died in a car crash, and a newspaper article about 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire. The song's greatest innovation was the very long fade out, with an orchestra told to get from point A to point B in a certain number of bars, but to do it anyway they liked. Then there's that lingering piano reverberation, supposedly followed by a dog whistle. This is the kind of song we used to listen to with our heads next to the stereo speaker, trying to figure it all out.

1. My favorite Beatle song is "I Am the Walrus." It's a salamagundi of nonsense verse, inspired by John's love for the work of Lewis Carroll. It is also purposely obscure. John heard someone was teaching a course on  his lyrics, so he decided to have some fun by writing lyrics that meant nothing. The opening bars were inspired by the sound of police sirens. As one might expect, Lennon wrote much of the song on an acid trip. The song is full of things to discover, such as the bit of Shakespeare that was recorded off the radio that appears in the fade out. It's from King Lear, and whether Lennon intended it or not, that play fits in perfectly with the "mad" nature of the song. Fun fact: I wrote a paper on "I Am the Walrus" for a college class (it was a class on Rock Music, so it wasn't a stretch). I dutifully researched the lyrics, and discovered that a pilchard is a type of fish. Still don't know what "Goo goo goo joob" means.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, is perfectly grooved for someone of my generation, who laughed like Beavis and Butt-Head at National Lampoon, who can quote whole passages of Animal House or Caddyshack, and steadfastly maintain that the original cast of Saturday Night Live is the best (it is). It is the story of Doug Kenney, who is toasted as being the founder of modern comedy. I don't know if that's true, because the film tells me that but doesn't show it.

Directed by David Wain, the film is meta, with constant breaking of fourth walls and much self-reference. The narrator is Kenney today, played by Martin Mull. If you're knowledgeable about this, it may bother you, because Kenney died in 1980, falling off a mountain in Hawaii when he was 33. Mull, later in the film, describes himself as a "narrative device."

Aside from a scene of Kenney attending his brother's funeral (the dead brother was the good one) starts with him at Harvard, where he and his best friend Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleason) working at the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, reluctant to actually have to work, he suggests that he and Henry continue the Lampoon. They go around pitching to publishers, and finally connect with Matty Simmons, who is the publisher of Weight Watcher's.

Eventually they are a huge success, spawning a radio show, and a live show, giving jobs to comedy legends like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (these actors are played by people who don't look like them, which the film gleefully admits). The writing staff includes Michael O'Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and Ann Beatts, who also went on to success in television (Hendra played the manager of Spinal Tap in that film). A black couple intrudes to wonder why they have no blacks on the staff, and Mull tells them, "If it's any consolation, there were very few Jews."

Kenney is played by Will Forte, who is depicted as a mellow guy who constantly speaks in one liners. Would a comic historian gather anything about him that indicates he was a comic genius? Hard to say. Mostly he sits at a typewriter and is shown as the creator of the food fight. We also see that he can't sustain a relationship, with either women or his friends, and is one to bolt when the going gets tough.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the title is a line from Animal House, but you knew that) is more interesting than entertaining. I did learn a few things, such as that Chevy Chase actually cared about Kenney, which belies his current image as a first-class jerk (he's played, in a bit of irony, by Joel McHale, his one-time Community co-star). A lot of recognizable characters fly by, like P.J. O'Rourke, Lorne Michaels, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, Chris Miller, Harold Ramis (who, addressing whether Kenney committed suicide or not, says, "He fell when he was looking for a place to jump") and Ivan Reitman.

This only goes so far, as the script crams so many characters in but doesn't really give us any insight, and the result is too airy. But I recommend it for nostalgic Baby Boomers.