Category: Showbiz Comedies


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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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Nightcrawler1

(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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TheresNoBusinessLikeShowBusiness1

One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

I get far too metatextual in my reviews but without explicit posted explanations of the way that I operate sometimes I feel the need to explain things. For example, I don’t have a strictly posted and enforced editorial policy about what my grades for movies/books/TV shows/etc mean. “A+” is pretty obvious. It means that I think the film is practically perfect and one of the best films I’ve ever seen. “A” films are also phenomenal but might have one or two smaller flaws keeping them from perfection (or there’s nothing about it that is “A+” caliber). “A-” are great films with a more significant flaw. “B+” are films that are good on the verge of being great but not quite there. “B” films are simply enjoyable films but there’s not necessarily anything fantastic about them. “B-” movies are good but with serious problems although at the end of the day, I think their good qualities outweigh their bad ones. “C+” and below are a little more amorphous. Generally, this is reserved for films I didn’t enjoy and each step down from “C+” is a comment on how few redeeming factors the film had. However, this doesn’t really mean they’re genuinely bad films. Sometimes, they’re just so mediocre that they leave absolutely zero emotional impact on me. That’s what happened with the 1980s showbiz dramedy, Irreconcilable Differences, which was neither bad nor good (although the acting was pretty awful). It was just completely forgettable.

Nominally centered on the divorce case (though more accurately the “emancipation of a minor” case) between 10 year old Casey Brotsky (Drew Barrymore) and her self-absorbed Hollywood parents Albert (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy (Cheers‘ Shelley Long) who have long since abandoned any pretense of actually caring about their daughter, Irreconcilable Differences is actually more of the story of the blooming romance between Albert and Lucy and the Hollywood excess and greed that drives them to their current situation. A film history professor at UCLA, Albert met Lucy while hitchhiking across the country to start his new job, and although she was engaged at the time, they fell in love on the trip and were soon married. After being invited to screen a Hollywood producer’s movie, Albert’s encyclopedic insight into cinema lands him a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood and before long, he’s writing and directing (with the help of Lucy) a long-gestating film that becomes a smash hit. However, when it comes time to make their second film, Albert falls in love with the movie’s young starlet (Sharon Stone in her debut role) and leaves Lucy. While Albert becomes incredibly wealthy, Lucy’s life begins to fall apart and neither parents gives any attention to their young daughter Casey who becomes just another fixture in their lives and a pawn in their battles with each other.

Drew Barrymore is not a good actress. I’m sorry but it’s true. She has the emotional range of a professional wrestler. Actually, they can at least fake anger and machismo. All she can do is cloying adorableness. That’s all she has going for her. And that’s grown-up Drew Barrymore I’m talking about. She was ten years old in this film and just a complete wreck to watch. I don’t know how she’s had a thirty year career in Hollywood. It defies the laws of the logic. We’re supposed to sympathize with her plight, but because Barrymore’s acting was so rigid and dull, I just didn’t give a shit. Ryan O’Neal wasn’t much better. His Hollywood royalty status aside, he shamelessly mugged for the camera, and the number of scenes where he was hammishly overacting were innumerable. If he flashed that awful, fake smile  one more time directly at the camera, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film. Shelley Long was better but not by much. Lucy isn’t nearly as interesting a character as say Diane Chambers from Cheers, and Lucy just tended to swing from neurotic to hysterical. At least Shelley Long was able to nail those emotions.

Surprisingly, the beginning of the film was actually fairly enjoyable. Watching Albert and Lucy fall in love on the road and experience their entry in the world of Hollywood had some freshness. It’s obvious that the film’s screenwriter is a movie lover, and there are a plethora of little tidbits about Hollywood lore and moviemaking scattered throughout the film. And, I definitely bought the fledgling romance of Albert and Lucy as he was hitchhiking. Then, once you got to the actual dramatic moments of the film where the characters were supposed to change for the worse, much of it felt artificial and forced. I could not buy the drastic change in character these individuals experienced. It seemed incredibly unrealistic. Also, the film is obviously meant to be satirical of Hollywood egos and excess and what not. The film’s not funny… at all. I don’t think I even chuckled once the entire film. The only moments in the entire film to make any sort of emotional response were the romance scenes between Lucy and Albert and once that was abandoned the film became more cliched and trite almost magically. Also, no judge in his right mind would actually grant the emancipation case requested in this film. The lack of legal realism was pretty absurd.

I don’t know what sort of crack the Golden Globes were smoking when they gave Drew Barrymore a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film (or even Shelley Long for Best Actress in a Comedy) but obviously, they weren’t thinking straight. I honestly can’t think of anyone in 2012 who could really find a film like this especially enjoyable, but I also thought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a completely joke and others fawned over it so what do I know. Maybe if you’re a really big Drew Barrymore fan (but at this point, you’ve stopped reading my review because of my complete lack of respect for her acting abilities) you should see the film. That’s about the only group I can recommend this movie to. I don’t think there are still big Ryan O’Neal or Shelley Long fans anymore. If there are, they probably aren’t big internet users or reading this blog. Everybody else can pass Irreconcilable Differences over and watch something more worthy of your valuable times.

Final Score: C

 I have very fierce opinions about the 1st Amendment and the evils of censoring our citizen’s free speech. Even people that I am diametrically opposed to intellectually and ethically have a right to share their beliefs. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh might be the biggest threats in America to actual liberty and our national principles but because this is America, they have their right to be dumb-asses. I’ve always had a deep admiration for performers that tried to push the boundaries of acceptable humor. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Larry David. These were guys that saw artificial limits on what was acceptable to say and said those limits shouldn’t be there. Well, Howard Stern might not be as prestigious a figure as the men I just mentioned and his biopic Private Parts might not be great cinema, but it’s an enjoyable and entertaining ode to the man that would forever change the voice of radio.

Private Parts is based off an autobiography that Howard Stern had written in the 90’s, and it actually has Howard playing himself in the film. Several members of Howard’s show reprise their roles as themselves in the production, including long time partners Robin Quivers and Fred Norris. The film follows Howard’s rise from a college radio disc jockey to being bounced around the whole country trying to find an audience for his off-beat brand of humor to his time as Washington, DC’s number one jocket to being shipped off to New York City where NBC hires him and tries to crush his soul to being the number one disc jockey in the nation. Along the way, you get an intimate look at the mind of a man whose humor is often deeply misunderstood and who had the courage to stand up to the censors and the networks for his right (and his audience’s right to listen) to his particular raunchy style. We also get a look at his relationship with his wife Alice and the vitriolic fight between him and his programming director at NBC, affectionately known as Pig Vomit (Paul Giamatti).

For a cast where three of the main players weren’t professional actors, they all slipped into their roles very nicely. I’m not saying that Howard is ever going to win any acting awards, but since he’s playing himself, he does a really believable job. He never seemed awkward or uncomfortable in front of the camera. Fred Norris, who doesn’t have a ton of lines outside of the radio scenes, is actually sort of scene-stealing in his own odd, sort of understated way. Paul Giamatti is one of my favorite character actors on the planet. Ever since Sideways and American Splendor, I’ve just thought he was one of the best. This isn’t one of his most memorable roles, but he turns a completely one-note character into another exploration of his fantastic acting ability. The fact that Paul Giamatti didn’t win an Oscar for Sideways is just a crime, but that’s a story for another day.

This movie is nearly two hours long, and I normally loathe biopics. However, the time actually just flew by while I was watching it. It’s legitimately funny and it constantly shows you a side of Howard that gets glossed over whenever he’s demonized by the far right in this country. If you like boundary-pushing comedy and are interested in an inside look into the life story of America’s biggest shock jock, this is a good watch. It’s not a great film, but I still have fun every time I pop it into my DVD player.

 Final Score: B+

 My relationship with romantic comedies is kind of complicated. Two out of my three favorite films are romantic comedies, Annie Hall and Chasing Amy, but they are very much the exception to the rule. For the most part, I think the genre is absolute school girl fantasy drivel where the same mix and match plot lines are recycled in and out and in and out. I would say that 75% of the films of the genre is simply unwatchable for me; 20% is bearable; and then there’s that miraculous 5% which is actually honest and sincere films. Well, I just finished watching 1999’s Notting Hill for the first time since it came out, and while it mostly falls under the watchable category of romantic comedy, it is turned into a genuinely enjoyable film on the strength of Hugh Grant’s undeniable charm and a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans.

Notting Hill is the story of an uptight and shy London book store owner named William Thacker (Hugh Grant) whose life is turned upside down when American movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) stumbles into his book store. After accidentally spilling coffee on her and inviting her back to his flat to clean herself up, an unlikely romance blooms, but Anna’s fame and the never-ending presence of the paparazzi threaten to tear their relationship apart. Rhys Ifan co-stars as William’s room mate, Spike, a raunchy and always half-naked Welshman who steals every second that he’s on screen.

Ever since Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant has securely sat atop the list of thinking women’s sex symbols. He’s made his career off of playing basically the exact same kind of stuttering, shy, but loveable Englishman. Yet, despite the fact that his career has had little variety, I still love Hugh Grant, and if he’s in a film, I can at least sit through it. When I was younger and my mom showed me Pretty Woman for the first time, I instantly fell in love with Julia Roberts, but her performance in this film, where she’s practically playing herself, is incredibly wooden and not all that impressive. Hugh Grant just out acts and out classes her in every scene.

Have you seen this story before? Yes. Does the plot go down any particularly unexpected paths? No. Is this the kind of chick flick that might actually have cross gender appeal? Not really. But I like Hugh Grant. I like dry British humor which this film has in spades. It’s even a little bit raunchy by your average chick flick standards because of Rhys Ifan’s presence. If you’re a girl, I’m guessing you’ve already seen it, and there aren’t too many guys I can recommend it to. But I don’t regret the time I just spent re-watching this film.

 Final Score: B

Music plays an incalculably important role in my life. Ever since I was a little kid and my dad put on his old Three Dog Night cassettes and “Joy to the World” came on, classic rock (and eventually more bands, famous and obscure than most people have ever heard of) became a corner stone of my existence. There is something about getting lost in epic riffs, psychadelic guitar solos and sonic landscapes that has formed an essential role in my life. I was born in the wrong decade. I could have been out there on tour with the Dead or Zeppelin or Floyd, and I would have been happier than any aspect of modern life could ever provide. So, it goes without saying that Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical tale of a 15-year old rock journalist who gets to live his dream and tour the country with rock gods is a sentimental favorite. 2000’s Almost Famous is probably way too long and could have used some slimming down, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a fun roller coaster ride into a rock and roll fantasy.

Almost Famous is loosely based on writer-director Cameron Crowe’s teenage years as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and particularly a stint he did touring the country with the greatest hard rock band in the history of music, Led Zeppelin. In this film, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit), stand-in for the real Cameron Crowe,  gets the opportunity of a lifetime to tour the country with up and coming band Stillwater, based off of Led Zeppelin. He goes on a whirlwind tour across the states and is introduced to the hard-partying and crazy life of soon to be rock gods. Throughout this journey, Stillwater and William are joined by a group of “Band-Aids” who are essentially groupies without the sex, or so they like to claim. The Band-Aids are led by the beautiful Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

The performances in this film are all-around fantastic and the casting was right on the money. Patrick Fugit embodies William with just the right amount of innocence and naivete for the fish out of water he is, and his emotional development over the film is very satisfying. Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand (who played William’s controlling mother) both deserved the Oscar nominations they recieved for the film. This is easily Kate Hudson’s single best performance and honestly her career has pretty much been all downhill from here. Billy Crudup does an exceptional job as the lead guitarist of Stillwater, Russell Hammond, and Jason Lee is also excellent as the jack ass lead singer, Jeff Bebe. There are a ton of awesome little cameos in the film from people who would be much more famous later on, like Anna Paquin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a lot of others.

The film captures the essence of early 70’s rock and roll with the sort of accuracy that the material required, and any real classic lover will spend a lot of the film nerding out at the various references to the music that you love. I don’t even want to start on the fantastic soundtrack. I wish I could get away with dressing in the period outfits that the film puts to great use. The early 70’s and the late 60’s were pretty much the best ever. If you have any sort of love for the time frame, seeing it brought to life so well in this movie is pretty much worth the price of admission alone.

Even in its original format, this movie was way too long, and the special edition that I watched clocked in at like 2 hours and 45 minutes. There are a ton of great scenes in the film, but there are a bunch that could have been left on the editing room floor. Don’t let that discourage you from watching this film if you’ve never seen it before though. This is the movie that I pop in whenever I feel the need to lose myself in the hey day of classic rock and the life style that I wish hadn’t disappeared. This is one of my favorite coming of age films to come out of the 2000’s and I heartily recommend it to all.

Final Score: A-