White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

(USA 1983)

“Now, I have something to tell you…I’m not like other guys.”

— Michael Jackson

A very young Michael Jackson on a date with…his girlfriend (Ola Ray)? Jackson playing a werewolf, a zombie, and a lizard-eyed creature? Vincent Price reading an outro? Bad ’80s hair? You know it’s thriller, thriller night!

It’s not his best song, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a fucking cool video. It features all the showmanship he’s known for — the dancing, the weirdness, the bigness of the whole thing, that red jacket and those white socks, oh and a setting in the midst of seedy urban decay, this time a cemetery apparently somewhere downtown. Directed by John Landis, Thriller is clever: what starts as a cheesy horror movie turns out to be…a cheesy horror movie. Loaded with references to Night of the Living Dead and An American Werewolf in London, Thriller demonstrates that Jackson actually had a sense of humor.

I don’t put a music video on my blog every day. In fact, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is (so far) the only one. Why? In my quest to see as much as possible on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, I am obligated to include the final single and title track from the legendary pop star’s massive blockbuster album Thriller (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thriller_(Michael_Jackson_album) ). The song was not written by Jackson — Rod Temperton came up with it.

This video truly was a “seismic shift” — longer, more dramatic, and reaching beyond the song, it proved that music videos could be more than promotional clips; they literally could be little movies — or as here, bona fide events — that attract a huge audience, and thus worthy of a big budget. I can cite a number of artists who followed the template that Jackson set with Thriller.

In 2009, the United States Library of Congress deemed Michael Jackson’s Thriller “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Marcea Lane, Kim Blank, Lorraine Fields, Tony Fields, Michele Simmons, Vincent Peters, Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, Michael De Lorenzo, Ben Lokey, John Command, Richard Gaines, Mark Sellers, Suzan Stadner, Diane Geroni, Suga Pop

Production: MJJ Productions, Optimum Productions

Distribution: Epic Records, Vestron Video

14 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes) A


Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser]

(France 2016)

The second film of a holiday double feature date, Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser], is a cute little Marxist musical about the trials and tribulations of the working class in rural France. The story follows millennial Julie (Pauline Etienne), who snags a job at a factory for a high end shoe designer, Jacques Couture. The job has potential to become permanent, which sounds good to her — she was “downsized” from her job at a shoe store before that, and it took awhile to find another one.

Unbeknownst to Julie — or anyone else in the factory for that matter — the company’s ruthlessly corporate CEO, Xavier (Loïc Corbery), plans to move production to China because it’s cheaper. The factory manager, Félicien (François Morel), is trying to dissuade him. The gals on the production line read about it in the paper, though, and plan a strike. In her first week on the job, Julie finds herself pushed to pick sides, which gets in the way of her budding romance with charming and strapping delivery driver Samy (Olivier Chantreau).

More London Road (https://moviebloke.com/2016/09/21/london-road/) than La La Land (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/13/la-la-land/), Footnotes is pleasant and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite take off. Cowriters-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut keep it light, obviously borrowing from classic Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s. The songs are about crappy jobs, taking pride in one’s work, making ends meet, organizing into collective bargaining unit, and striving for a better life. The lyrics are fun, but the samba-flavored tunes are otherwise bland and forgettable. So is the choreography, which except for one scene (it involves bright Kinky Boots red shoes) is clumsy and lackluster.

Come to think of it, so are the sets. As would be expected, much of the action takes place in big industrial spaces. Nothing is done to emphasize anything about them; they stay in the background. It’s a huge contrast to a movie like Office (https://moviebloke.com/2015/12/09/office-hua-li-shang-ban-zu/), which went over the top highlighting the size and scope and efficiency of the office building where it took place, and even had at its center a huge clock as if to say “time is money.” Nothing like that here. Frustratingly, the decision Julie makes at the end totally throws off what the story gets at and seems to build toward the entire time.

I wanted to love Footnotes. I didn’t. A little more pizzazz would’ve been a huge improvement.

With Julie Victor, Clémentine Yelnik, Vladimir Granov, Laure Crochet-Sernieclaes, Elodie Escarmelle, Nuch Grenet, Eve Hanus, Valérie Layani, Valérie Masset, Michèle Prélonge, Sophie Tabakov, Yasmine Youcef, Jazmin Londoño Castañeda, Paul Laffont

Production: Loin Derrière L’Oural, France 3 Cinéma, Région Rhône-Alpes, La Banque Postale Image 9

Distribution: Rézo Films (France), Monument Releasing (USA / Canada), Longride (Japan)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C


Anchors Aweigh

(USA 1945)

“What a time we had tonight, mmm!” In his 1945 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Anchors Aweigh a “Gay Musical Film” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE3DC103BEE3BBC4851DFB166838E659EDE). Well, duh!

I doubt Crowther meant “gay” in the current sense of the word, but he certainly wasn’t wrong either way: between all the singing, dancing, handsome sailors in tight pants, and a very young and wide-eyed Frank Sinatra acting out a creepy attachment to Gene Kelly, the only thing that could make Anchors Aweigh any gayer would be an appearance by Judy Garland. Or a raunchy sex scene with all those sailors and the admiral who, in one number (“We Hate to Leave”), said he would beat them with a whip. I half expected and kinda wanted it to happen, but of course it didn’t. Oh well.

As a reward for their bravery, Navy seamen Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) are given a four-day leave in Hollywood. Joe plans to hook up with his dame, Lola. After stalking him on the streets of Los Angeles, sweet and naive ex choir boy Clarence asks the apparently more experienced Joe to teach him how to meet girls.

Enter Donald (Dean Stockwell, whom most of us know as a middle-aged man from his many ’80s and ’90s movies), a little tyke who’s running away from home to join the navy. Our boys take him home, where Donald lives with his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), a nice girl trying to get into the movie industry—if only she could catch a break. Clarence immediately falls head over heels and enlists Joe’s assistance in wooing her, which provides the story here.

Even though (and probably because) the characters, plot, and dialogue are totally corny, Anchors Aweigh is truly a frothy blast—it’s exactly the kind of film that comes to mind when I think of classic Hollywood. A vivacious affair, director George Sidney keeps everything about it big: the sets, the songs, the dance numbers. I was particularly taken by one sequence involving Kelly and various animated figures—it culminates in an awesome song-and-dance with none other than Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Flawless!

The whole spectacle is tied up in an amazing Technicolor bow; Charles Boyle and Robert Planck’s color palette is gorgeous, and seeing it on a nitrate print literally left me breathless. From a sensory perspective, Anchors Aweigh was hands down my favorite film at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show.

As a side note, I must confess that one thing threw me for a loop: Kelly and Sinatra (and Grayson, for that matter) are young and beautiful here—not the old timers I’m accustomed to seeing having grown up when I did. They’re actually hot, even by today’s standards. Kelly upstages Sinatra throughout the entire film, which I found bizarre and quite amusing.

With José Iturbi, Pamela Britton, Grady Sutton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, William Forrest

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

143 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A-

Nitrate Picture Show

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration [Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration]

(USA 2016)

Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.

Production: 11 Dollar Bill


4 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) B