Movie Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)


Title: A Hard Day’s Night 
Release Date: 6 July 1964
Director:  Richard Lester
Production Company: Walter Shenson Films | Proscenium Films
Summary/Review:

Growing up in the 1980s meant constantly being aware that it was the 20th anniversary of something that happened in the in 1960s.  The Beatles were a frequent topic of these retrospectives and I remember watching A Hard Day’s Night during a Beatles nostalgia event on tv.  I remember it being pretty good (and that their other film, Help!, was not).

Revisiting A Hard Day’s Night, I find it even better than I remember.  In a couple of years John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had gone from gigging in Hamburg to becoming stars in their hometown of Liverpool to being UK hitmakers to being a global phenomenon.  And now they’re appearing in a movie, filmed in a vérité style with quippy dialogue that makes it feel improvised.

The movie purports to be a day in the life as the lads travel to London to rehearse and perform on a TV program. And as miserable as it may be to feel trapped in trains, hotel rooms, and studios, unable to escape the screaming fans, the lads seem to be having fun. Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell is cast as Paul’s fiction grandfather, “a clean old man” who acts as an added chaos agent.  Hijinks ensue.  And also, one of the great bands of all time perform some classic tunes.

Some things stand out on this watch as being relevant to today.

This quote from John Lennon:

“The older generation are leading this country to galloping ruin!”

The scene where George essentially calls out influencers.

The scene when Grandfather comes very close to saying ACAB.  “Ah, sure, that’s what they want you to think. All coppers are villains.”

Of course, my favorite scene will always be John playing with toy boats in the bathtub.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)


Title: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I went into Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hesitantly because I feared cringeworthy sexual politics.  On the surface that is true, but this is a more subversive movie than it appears.  At its heart, the movie is about a friendship between two women, Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), and the women are calling the shots.  The men in this movie are almost tangential characters: Gus (Tommy Noonan), the meek heir engaged to Lorelei; Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), the detective hired by Gus’ father to see if Lorelei is up to no good who also becomes a love interest for Dorothy; and Piggy (Charles Coburn), an aged diamond baron who is enchanted by Lorelei.

The basic plot of the movie is that Lorelei is going to Europe to marry Gus, and Dorothy is her chaperone.  Lorelei is drawn to wealthy men, and particularly diamonds, but Dorothy prefers men handsome and strong. They sail on a transatlantic liner along with USA men’s Olympic team and the aforementioned Malone and Piggy.  Hijinks ensue.

I particularly like the movie’s song and dance numbers.  “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is the most famous and iconic, but what is up with the women posing as light fixtures?  “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” is extremely funny and somehow combines the female gaze with perhaps the gayest thing ever shown in a Hollywood film up to that point.  But my favorite number is when Russell and Monroe duet in in a Parisian cafe on “When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right.”

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but I think that Russell steals the show with her seemingly effortless and wry performance.  That’s not to knock Monroe, who’s character is written to be dumb, but she undercuts this characterization delightfully with her performance.  There’s a lot about this movie that I’m surprised made it past the production code in 1953.  I mean they probably have plausible deniability that Dorothy and Lorelei don’t actually marry one another at the end of the movie, but it seems perfectly rational to interpret it that way.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Top Secret! (1984)


Title: Top Secret! 
Release Date: June 22, 1984
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The team of Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker followed up their hit Airplane! with this comedy that turned out to be a flop.  It’s a bit unfortunate because I feel that in some ways it is better than Airplane! While the previous movie was a straightforward disaster movie spoof, Top Secret! is a more esoteric parody of Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley musicals that evolves into a strange pastiche of World War II resistance movies.

Val Kilmer makes his film debut as American rock star Nick Rivers who is invited to perform at a cultural festival in East Germany.  He ends up caught up in the attempts of resistance member Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge, who appears to mostly work in British theatre and tv) to escape the authorities.  Hijinks ensue. There are a lot of great gags, but among them the opening song “Skeet Surfin'” and the Swedish bookstore scene are absolute classics of the genre.  At the more lowbrow end, there are a lot of jokes about breasts and penises.

This was not the type of movie Kilmer wanted to make, but nevertheless puts his all into the role making him the perfect straight man for all the nonsense.  Veteran actors Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough all appear in small but memorable roles.  And the rock and roll parody songs are all pretty hilarious. Plus there’s always something going on in the background that’s worth watching.

I put Top Secret! on my 250 favorite movies list earlier this year.  If I revised the list now, it might not make the cut, but it’s wouldn’t be too far off.

Rating: ****

Performance Review: Come From Away


Come From Awayperformed at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City on April 17, 2022.

On Easter Sunday, my mother and I took my daughter to her first Broadway musical.  Come From Away is based on the true-life events in Gander, Newfoundland in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.  Gander is home to a large airport that was a significant refueling stop for passenger planes crossing the Atlantic but became little used after planes were built to carry enough fuel for their entire journey.  After the United States closed all air traffic, 38 planes were diverted to Gander stranding 7000 people for several days.  Come From Away tells stories of the passengers and the locals from the communities around the airport who scrambled to provide aid and comfort to their unexpected guests.

The stories in show are drawn from real life experiences.  This includes Beverley Bass, the first woman to be a captain for American Airlines.  There are also stories of love found (a woman from Texas and a man from England who strike up a romance) and love lost (two men named Kevin whose relationship is strained to the breaking point by the experience).  A Newfoundland woman whose son is a firefighter bonds with the mother of a firefighter who’s among the missing in New York.  A local veterinarian also works hard to care for the many dogs, cats, and even bonobos in the holds of the airplanes.

The show doesn’t shy away from the discrimination against Arabic and Islamic people.  And in one of the most memorable scenes, people of different religious backgrounds pray side by side on the stage, albeit in different houses of worship in reality.  The show has a lot of warmth and humor as the passengers enjoy the hospitality of their Newfoundland hosts and some are initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders in a raucous ceremony.  The contrast of the great joy of community arising as a result of atrocity comes from the line:

My dad asks: “Were you okay where you were stranded?”
How do I tell him that I wasn’t just okay
I was so much better

The amazing part of the show is that there’s only a dozen actors but they seamlessly transition into different characters with changes in costume and lighting.  The simple rustic set is also quickly reset as the interior of airplanes, cafes, and shelters among other things.  The music is a great blend of Broadway show tunes with the traditional Celtic music style of Newfoundland.  The band performs on stage and interacts with the cast adding to the party atmosphere of some of the scenes.

It’s a terrific show and I feel fortunate to get to see it on Broadway with three generations of family.

Recent Movie Marathon: Encanto (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Encanto
Release Date: November 24, 2021
Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

In Disney’s latest animated musical, we meet the Madrigal family of Columbia who have magical abilities and live in an enchanted house (“Casita”).   The main character is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a 15-year-old who is the only member of the family who did not receive a magical gift.  The premise is simple, Mirabel must use her natural gifts of empathy and resourcefulness to hold the family together during a crisis.

This is one of those movies where a summary would not do the film justice.  This is partly because much of the “magic” of this film is the bright colors and beautiful visuals.  It’s also blessed with catch tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who seems to be everywhere these days).  Finally the interrelation of the large, extended family each with individual talents and personality quirks just won’t translate to a list.

I enjoyed Encanto and it’s a worthy addition to the growing library of Disney animated features.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: tick, tick… BOOM!
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment | 5000 Broadway Productions
Summary/Review:

tick, tick… BOOM! is a biopic about Jonathan Larson done in the style of a Jonathan Larson musical, and based on Larson’s own “rock monologue” produced on-stage in 1992.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead role, cleverly renamed as “Jon,” as an ambitious playwright/composer  trying to get his sci-fi musical Superbia produced in 1990, but running into brick walls.  The title tick, tick…BOOM! refers to Jon’s upcoming 30th birthday and his feeling that he’s running out time to make it big in musical theater.  We in the audience know that the real Larson was running out of time as he would tragically die at the age of 35 just before his hit musical Rent made its Off-Broadway debut.

Garfield’s performance is full of charisma and anxiety, and he does not shy away from portraying how Jon’s monomaniacal focus can make him be quite a douche to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). But he never becomes unsympathetic.  In addition to a strong cast, there are a number of cameos by Broadway luminaries, including the original cast of Rent. The music is strong overall, similar in style to the music of Rent, so if you like one you’ll like the other.  The song “Why,” where Jon reflects on his childhood memories with Michael while playing piano in an empty Delacorte Theatre slayed me.

I saw a Rent ages and ages ago and really liked it at the time.  I knew a bit about Larson, but this movie – even if its partially fictionalized – gives me a better appreciation for him as a person and his work.  The director of this movie is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m beginning to realize owes a lot to Larson.  It’s all the more sad that Larson never got to enjoy the same kind of success and admiration that Miranda is experiencing now.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1954)


Title: A Star Is Born
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Transcona Enterprises
Summary/Review:

The second of four Hollywood movies entitled A Star is Born, stars Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, a vocalist in a traveling big band.  Her performance entrances fading movie star and alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason) and he seeks her out to offer her a chance at a Hollywood career.  The svengali nature of his pursuit is very uncomfortable to watch and it’s enhanced by Mason being one of Classic Hollywood’s creepiest actors.  By the intermission, Esther is a star (given the stage name Vicki Lester). The second half of the movie deals with Norman’s deterioration as his career fades while Esther’s rises.  It’s a very honest depiction of alcoholism and depression, for the 50s.

The movie contains several song and dance set pieces that really allow Garland to shine.  But they don’t feel as if they support the movie’s plot so much as offer a distraction from it.  The one exception is when Esther recreates a big production number from her current film for Norman in their living room.  It’s really the only moment we get to see them having a sweet moment.  Otherwise A Star is Born is overlong, melodramatic, and a bit boring.

It’s a bit eerie how much the movie parallels Garland’s own troubled career.  Norman’s character is criticized for delaying production on his films but in real life Garland was delaying production of A Star is Born with her absences.  At the time this movie was made, Garland had been in show business for around 20 years and A Star is Born was supposed to be her big comeback.  She was only 32 years old.  That’s so messed up.

 

Rating:

Movie Review: Hello, Dolly! (1969)


Title: Hello, Dolly!
Release Date: December 16, 1969
Director: Gene Kelly
Production Company: Chenault Productions
Summary/Review:

Hello, Dolly! is the type of exorbitant, technicolor song & dance musical that I think was already old fashioned at the time of its release in 1969.  It may be the last musical of the classic style because in the 1970s, adaptations of Broadway musicals like Cabaret and Grease had a very different feel to them.  Hello, Dolly! has a long pedigree, going back to 1938 when Thornton Wilder wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, itself based on a century-old story.  Wilder rewrote the play as The Matchmaker in 1955, and in 1963 it was adapted once again as a Broadway musical starring Carol Channing.

In the film, Barbra Streisand stars as Dolly Levi, a widow who works as a matchmaker in New York City and is, as the kids these days say, so very extra!  Dolly sets forth with an elaborate plan to convince the prosperous but cranky Yonkers’ merchant Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) to marry her. She also convinces Horace’s hardworking store clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) to enjoy a day in New York with the milliners Irene (Marianne McAndrew) and Minnie (E. J. Peaker). Chaos ensues.  The movie also features a cameo by Louis Armstrong in his last movie role before his death. He sings the title song with Streisand, a song that he got to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, knocking The Beatles out of the top slot, because pop charts are weird and wonderful that way.

Hello, Dolly! is rather corny, and often very horny, and a lot of it doesn’t really make much sense. (What does Dolly see in Horace, anyway?)  But on pure spectacle, it’s a lot of fun with some great song and dance, so it’s worth a watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)


TitleMuppets Haunted Mansion
Release Date:  October 8, 2021
Director: Kirk Thatcher
Production Company: Soapbox Films | The Muppets Studio
Summary/Review: Kicking off this Halloween watch-a-thon with a brand new special on Disney+.

The Muppets and Disney’s Haunted Mansion are two of my favorite things, so bringing them together is right in my wheelhouse. The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) skip the Muppets’ Halloween party to take the challenge of staying in a haunted mansion overnight.  Will Arnett plays the ghost house and numerous other celebrities (many of whom I don’t recognize) make cameos.  Probably the best cameo for Haunted Mansion  fans is Kim Irvine, an imagineer whose mother Leota Toombs appears in the original attraction. There are a few jump scares, including one with John Stamos of all people, but for the most part the show is corny dad jokes and clever songs.  It starts off slow but it gets a lot better as it goes along.  Definitely worth adding to the annual Halloween viewing rotation.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2