Archive for the MUSIC Category

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.

Guillotine Spirit

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2016 by dcairns

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I am seriously way behind in my viewing of the late Andrzej Wajda’s work, to the extent that I’m too embarrassed to even tell you. But last time I was in New York I got to rampage through the Criterion Collection’s famous cupboard, and emerged clutching a DVD of DANTON (as well as a sack of other stuff, of course: I’m Scottish, I like fee stuff). Then all that remained was to watch it, which of course took a very long time indeed to get around to (also embarrassing). But I finally did it, and was not disappointed. Catching up with the film seemed even more belated since I can remember it coming out in 1983. I can’t remember why I didn’t see it then — maybe I only heard about it in a review of the year’s best films, or something.

Amusingly, the film begins where Rex Ingram’s SCARAMOUCHE ends, at a Parisian checkpoint at the time of the Revolution. We’re thrust into an alien world, a society in inexplicable turmoil, an effect created largely by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle’s costumes and Jean Podromides’ music. The costumes transport a lot of real French locations back in time, as well as contributing to a sense of the grotesque, of puppet-show. The music transports us – where? Into a kind of nightmare.

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I love tarpaulins. The sight of Madame Guillotine under her hood makes, on the one hand, a fairly bold and obvious form of Dramatic Foreshadowing when Gerard Depardieu’s Danton looks wistfully at it at the start. But it’s also just a beautiful image, ominous and shrouded and made unfamiliar. See also THE DEVILS for the best tarp ever, and the sheeted heap of furniture in LAST TANGO IN PARIS. We used a tarp for budgetary reasons in my recent short but we got it wrong, hanging it like a drap rather than bulking it out with underneath stuff to make it a mystery. A hanging curtain adds mystery, but a hanging tarp looks like a cost-saving device, which it was.

Ancient wheelchairs and printing presses and briefcases and other action props!

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You have to get over the fact that some of the cast is acting in French and some in Polish, dubbed. Wojciech Pszoniak (dunno) plays Robespierre, the other half of the drama, and it’s in the scenes with Depardieu that you most notice lip-flap. The actor dubbing him is great, you believe it’s his voice, but clearly the facial shapes made by Polish do not resemble those made by French and so the mismatch of plosives and fricatives is pretty glaring. But it’s a small irritation in a grand scheme.

Robespierre: thin hair, thin lips, thin blood, feverish. Contrasting with the fleshiness of Depardieu, who is mid-morph between his early sculptural beauty-or-is-it? period (face like a nest of elbows) to his later bulbous eruption. This is actually his most humanoid phase.

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The slomo decapitations at the end are decently staged, and the powerful score lifts the sequence into the stratosphere, but the inevitability of the sequence works against it slightly — but Wajda has an ace up his sleeve, cunningly planted earlier, allowing the true ending of the film to be a thrilling, terrifying fade to white on a child’s face, as the credits role. This is savagely brilliant filmmaking, sidestepping the literal-minded and taking us into a startling poetry.

Hmm, maybe a slightly worrying film to watch at this particular historical moment: a reminder that stuff like this happens periodically (in fact, always seems to be happening somewhere).

Abbot and Costello Go To Earth

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by dcairns

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ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)

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We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~

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Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.

Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.

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Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.

Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.