Archive for Chicago

The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

The Sunday Intertitle: Reaction Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by dcairns

THE NIGHT CLUB (1925) isn’t very well plotted, the gags aren’t brilliantly clever, the title is utterly irrelevant and the direction is decent but mostly uninspired, but it is nevertheless a film at which to laugh off one’s ass.

The reason is Raymond Griffith, near-forgotten silent comedy star, whose ability to react entertainingly to whatever’s going on around him means that the actual action of the film needn’t be particularly funny. This is established early on, when RG is jilted at the altar, a particularly good situation for this unusual comic: he has no interest in our sympathy, so he can simply exploit the sutuation, moment for moment, to get the maximum comedy out of it. As I’ve said before, his reaction upon learning that he stands to inherit a million dollars allows him to make a rapid recovery from heartbreak and demonstrate an amazing mastery of detail and nuance and lightning-change emotional quicksilvering.

Resolving to escape women, and particularly the one he’s now expected to marry in order to inherit (yes, this is one of those “unbelievable farce-type plots” Buster Keaton inveighed against), Ray takes off on holiday and runs smack into the girl. They fall in love at once, and then the plot has to keep inventing obstacles to what promises to be the most premature happy ending on record, occurring as it does somewhere near the end of act I. Complications include a murderous Mexican bandit played by Wallace Beery, a man who imbibed gusto with his mother’s milk. Louise Fazenda plays Carmen, the hot-blooded spitfire/stereotype.

Directors Paul Iribe and Frank Urson, who made the splendid DeMille production of CHICAGO, keep the thing moving as fast as possible to hide the threadbare narrative, and do deliver on an exciting chase, which has some of the accelerated-motion POV thrills that make the climax of Griffith’s PATHS TO PARADISE so breathtaking. Fight scenes are notable for the use of floppy dummies to substitute for RG during the dangerous bits, which always cracks me up. It’s cheating, of course, and the kind of thing which Keaton would never settle for, but it’s still very funny. Griffith is pretty brave when it comes to falling off tables and such, but he clearly had no intention of getting himself killed. His acrobatics lack Chaplin’s balletic elegance or Keaton’s simpler flap-shoe grace — unlike his contemporaries, Griffith was at his very best in scenes of talk, emotion, embarrassment and general medium-shot facial expressiveness. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd or Langdon or Stan and Ollie couldn’t do those things, just that it’s an area of special emphasis with Ray G.

Sublime fatuity.

When pre-codes go Bad #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by dcairns

Number two in our short, possibly two-part, study of those unsettling moments when the edgy interplay of cute and spicy in pre-code Hollywood cinema of the ’30s takes a sharp downturn into moral horror.

The film is PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, a strangely shrill comedy with no likable characters. Ginger Rogers plays a radio star, frustrated by her own squeaky clean image and entourage of managers etc, all preventing her from having a good time in Harlem for fear of scandal. When she learns that marriage might allow her greater freedom, she accepts a stage-managed wedding to a country galoot who’s written her a touching love letter. He’s initially presented as an appealing innocent caught up in the schemes of these big-city sophisticates (Frank McHugh, Franklin Pangborn — devilish conspirators to a man), then this scene comes along and pretty well wrecks any chance he has of hoovering up our free-floating sympathies ~

OK, so the sight of Ginger in her scanties is… not displeasing. Taunting her new hubby with her unabashed semi-nudity… I can get behind that. The spanking… well, it was a different era… this is really just softcore porn, isn’t it, though? … kinda hard to defend because it’s a co-mingling of porn and domestic violence… not light s&m play, she’s definitely not a consenting party… still… HEY!

He shouldn’t ought to have done that.

Granted, NOTHING SACRED has a moment where Frederic March socks Carole Lombard into slumberland — but that scene’s playing on our shock, his character is something of a sonofabitch already, and she does get to slug him back soon after, with equally devastating effect.

Further developments in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART — after this rocky start, Ginger and her hubbie settle down in connubial bliss in her cabin, and in desperation, the A&R guys hire her maid, Theresa Harris, to replace her. The black girl’s sultry, hoochy-coochy delivery affects hubbie strangely. As he sways his body dreamily to the radio’s rhythms, he momentarily snaps to full consciousness: “Say, they oughtn’t allow that on the radio!”

The spectacle of a black woman arousing a white man, even by voice alone, is a startling one. Ginger, smitten with jealousy, returns to her old career, and Theresa Harris, the most enjoyable performer in the film, disappears from the movie — flung back into obscurity and domestic service, presumably.

A couple things of further note —

(1) The screenplay is by newspaperwoman Maurine Dallas Howard Watkins, who originated Chicago. In that thrice-filmed hit play, MDH’s savage portrayal of her female characters feels like a satirical critique. Here, it nudges over into misogyny. The director’s fault, or uncredited rewriting, or Howard’s own sensibility?

(2) Theresa Harris is uncredited, despite having more lines and a more significant role than, say, Pangborn. She had a thirty-year acting career, making 78 movies in which she received screen credit thirteen times. Her debut is as the Black Cat Nightclub’s singer in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT, and you can also see her in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and OUT OF THE PAST. She’s always a full-on, radiant presence, grabbing whatever moments of immortality she can. Even if nobody learned her name, there was a chance they’d remember her smile.