It might seem strange to see a 1930s Soviet slapstick big band musical ostensibly made just for fun, but that’s what Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s Vesyole Rebyata [Весёлые ребята] [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows] is. Frankly, it is strange, or at least not anything I expected.
A sort of Depression Era communist Three’s Company, the humor here is crude: sex, mistaken identity, and class are the backbone of this comedy about a bizarre love triangle between a shepherd (Leonid Utyosov), a privileged diplomat’s daughter (Mariya Strelkova), and her housemaid (Lyubov Orlova).
Moscow Laughs is silly as hell, and it works on a certain level, to a certain point. The whole story — Lena (Strelkova), an opportunistic wannabe singer, woos Kostya (Utyosov), a shepherd whom she thinks is a famous Italian jazz conductor when she meets him on a beach — is funny at first. She invites him to her fancy hotel for dinner, calling him “maestro” and flattering him every way she can. Of course, he’s smitten.
Kostya shows up in a borrowed suit. Lena’s servant, Anyuta (Orlova), recognizes him because she’s admired him from afar for awhile — and she knows he’s not bourgeois. Kostya makes the boneheaded error of playing his pan pipe when asked to perform — the same pipe he plays to corral the animals under his charge. Hearing him play, the animals — pigs, sheep, goats, and cows — bust out of their kolkhoz and crash the party, literally. Hilarity ensues.
Unfortunately, Moscow Laughs loses steam once the setup is complete. The story rambles on through a few more episodes separated by cute animated shorts of the moon dancing and some time. Things get wacky. A bit too wacky for my taste.
Technically, Moscow Laughs reads as a transitional work; Aleksandrov clearly executes big ideas but maybe seems to operate from a mindset geared toward silent film. Stalin approved this film, and I can see why: the screenplay, written by Aleksandrov with Nikolay Erdman and Vladimir Mass, criticizes class and capitalism. The hammer and sickle prominently displayed above the stage removes any doubt that this is propaganda — it’s just social and not overtly political. It’s also very cheerful.
With Elena Tyapkina, Fyodor Kurikhin, Arnold, Robert Erdman, Marya Ivanovna, Emmanuil Geller
“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”
— Elmer Fudd
Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.
What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”
Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.
For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.
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
“For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now… well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!”
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”
—The Wicked With of the West
“Only bad witches are ugly.”
“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.”
“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”
“You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”
—The Wizard of Oz
Growing up when I did, The Wizard of Oz aired on TV every year, and only once a year. It was a special event. I distinctly remember it being on Thanksgiving, but digging around online contradicts me—while some sources back me up, others say Easter, February, and even Christmas. Whatever. I’ve seen it so many times, I know it by heart. So do many people. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/26/willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory/ ), The Wizard of Oz is a celluloid relic from my childhood that still stirs something in me.
This annual tradition stopped sometime in the ’90s, probably because home video and cable allowed one to see it anytime. So, I was downright thrilled to see a screening near me over a different holiday weekend this year: Memorial Day. I’ve only seen this film on the big screen once or maybe twice before, so I couldn’t resist.
This is where I usually launch into the story, where I might get into some of the details of Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her weird Technicolor odyssey to the Emerald City after a tornado lifts her, Toto (Terry), and her farmhouse out of Kansas and drops her somewhere over the rainbow in Munchkinland—right on top of the unseen Wicked Witch of the East, whose crazy striped socks and shriveled feet are permanently etched in my memory—provoking the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) thanks to a pair of ruby slippers.
Let’s be honest, though: we all know the story. Does anything more need to be said about The Wizard of Oz, which is probably the best known and most seen film, ever? Classic and iconic, it set a cinematic benchmark that hasn’t been surpassed nearly a century on, and probably never will be. Loaded with character, song, color, and cool props, it’s a one of a kind spectacle. Its magic continues to inspire.
Harold Rosson’s cinematography is top notch. Seeing it today, I was wowed by the sepiatone Kansas scenes, which were plain old black and white on TV. I always feel a rush when Dorothy opens the door after she crashes, but seeing Munchkinland on the big screen is so much more awesome. So is that scene in the poppy field, and so is the Emerald City with its otherworldy green glow—like paranormal depression glass. Marvelous!
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
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the opening night presentation for the Chicago International Film Festival. I like its stars—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are great in just about everything they’re in; in fact, they both have the rare ability to elevate even superb material. I adore Los Angeles, too. I figured at worst, I’d have some decent eye candy and some lovely scenery to take in.
Thankfully, La La Land is far better than the worst case scenario I imagined: it’s glossy, colorful, and pretty, even if it’s not Moulin Rouge. It starts out strong with a vibrant dance number that takes place in a traffic jam on a freeway, probably the 101. The scene reminds me of a more exuberant version of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video. Attention grabbed! This is where our heroes meet, one flipping the bird at the other.
We soon learn that both Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) are trying to make it, she as an actress and he as a jazz pianist. She puts herself out there; he doesn’t. They cross paths over the course of nearly a year, flirting and pulling back then flirting some more. Some of their interactions are hilarious, like Sebastian’s stint in an ’80s cover band playing at a party that Mia happens to attend. They finally click; it’s exciting to watch them come together. They have a real chemistry. They also have dreams and goals that require sacrifice. Sadly, nothing is what it’s built up be—neither dreams coming true, fame, nor love. At its heart, La La Land is a relationship film, and a tragically decent one at that.
Undeniably well-done, La La Land definitely has a certain magic to it. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is gorgeously eye popping; of all the films I’ve seen that came out this year, it’s second only to Hell or High Water. Some songs are better than others, but the acting all around makes up for it. John Legend has a role that turns out to be more than a cameo, and he’s actually pretty good. Essentially a love letter to Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of romantic moments here, not the least of which takes place floating midair under the stars at Griffith Observatory after closing time. Or in a movie theater for Mia and Sebastian’s first kiss.
The story is an emotional roller coaster that pulled me along through its ups and downs. The final scene got to me in a way that no film has in awhile—it actually fucking hurt. So in that sense, La La Land surely stands on its own. I question how memorable it will ultimately prove to be, though. I can’t put my finger on exactly what, but it lacks that extra element that would make it a truly great film. Perhaps its story is conventional, or perhaps its execution is too restrained and not over the top enough. I don’t know. As much as I enjoyed it, I can think of other movies the actors have done that are better. Time will tell where this one lands, but for now it’s worth the investment to see it.
“Everyone is very, very nervous. Um. And very unsure of everything, basically.”
“British,” “murder,” “mystery,” “thriller,” “comedy,” and “musical” are words that might sound dubious when used together to describe the same work. These elements, though, gel nicely in the amusingly quirky London Road, Rufus Norris’s adaptation of Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s musical theatre revolving around Steve Wright, the notorious Suffolk Strangler a.k.a. Ipswich Ripper.
The subject matter of London Road certainly isn’t anything to sing about: Wright moved to a modest working class neighborhood in Ipswich for ten weeks and killed five prostitutes during Autumn 2006. The bodies started showing up, casting paranoia over the small town. Wright was arrested just before Christmas, stressing out his neighbors on London Road, where the murders occurred in his house.
London Road could accurately be called an anatomy of a community directly affected by a macabre event, as the story is not really about Wright but rather his spooked neighbors. Based on actual interviews, the story traces their reactions to the murders and the fact that they occurred so close to home. Particularly hitting is the impact of the small street’s invasion by the police and the media on the various residents’ daily lives. Flowers bring them to their ultimate redemption.
London Road features Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Nick Holder, Paul Thornley, Michael Shaeffer, and Tom Hardy, whom I didn’t even recognize in his small role as a cab driver. Norris respects the characters’ dignity, letting them each have their own voice without putting them in a negative, unsophisticated light. The mood is a bit schizo, going from tense to darkly comic before erupting into song and choreographed numbers. The songs, by the way, are droll and clever, incorporating verbal ticks into the rhythm. They’re catchy, too—I’m still singing one of them two days later. I loved one scene in which a newscaster (Shaeffer) struggles in song to explain how forensics identified Wright through DNA in his semen, a word he can’t use during daytime TV—who knew the Brits have prudish broadcasting rules just like we Americans do?
Overall, London Road is an interesting experience unlike any other film I’ve seen lately. I laughed, I was intrigued, and the music pulled me in.
“I, Robert Sabetto,
To the lips
Of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
And to the decadence
For which it stands
One movie, under Richard O’Brien
With sensuous daydreams, erotic nightmares, and sins of the flesh for all.”
—The Rocky Pledge of Allegiance
Through high school and into college, a sure bet on a Saturday night was that two films would be playing at midnight: Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Every. Damned. Weekend. In the case of Rocky Horror, it’s no wonder: dressing up, shouting at the screen, throwing shit around the theater, and acting and singing along to the movie is more fun than a burlesque science fiction gothic drag hoedown—essentially what it was. At some point during the ’90s, it stopped. I couldn’t resist catching Rocky Horror again with a group of friends when it played at a theater near me.
A movie version of Riff-Raff/Richard O’Brien’s stage musical, the story is silly—stupid, even: a newlywed couple, Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), are forced off the road during a rainstorm. I love that Janet reads The Plain Dealer in the car. Anyway, they end up at the castle of mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)—he’s just a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania—who’s about to unveil his newest creation that took him just seven days to make: Rocky (Peter Hinwood), a gorgeous tan man with muscles and tight gold shorts. A strange journey of an evening tinged with sexual tension, motorcycles, and music and dance ensues.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show bombed when it was originally released, but an astute marketing person recognized its potential in a different format—the rest is history. It’s an okay movie, but what goes along with it makes it a truly unique experience. Audience participation is a concept created here, and nothing else ever will be—or can be—quite the same.
I’m generally not into musicals, but West Side Story is an exception. I saw it in high school, and I liked its retro cheese factor. Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I love it—for quite a few reasons I didn’t appreciate back in high school.
The cast here is flawless. Russ Tamblyn as gang leader Riff—well, he’s a Jet all the way ‘til his last dying day. Richard Beymer brings a sweet and likable innocence to Tony. George Chakiris as Bernardo oozes mystery, menace, and machismo. Susan Oakes plays Anybodys with just the right amount of sexual ambiguity. Somehow, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican, works. And who doesn’t love Rita Moreno as Anita?
The story is clever: a modern, urban American adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Manhattan street gangs the Jets and the Sharks instead of Verona houses the Montagues and the Capulets—an S.E. Hinton novel with dancing. Very cool!
Dance at the Gym
Speaking of dancing, yes—gang members snapping their fingers and pulling ballet moves as if they’re in a Michael Jackson video is corny. But it works. Jerome Robbins does breathtaking choreography here. The shots are big, colorful, energetic, and visually stunning. My favorites are the exteriors at the beginning: I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine. West Side Story is definitely a film for the big screen.
Needless to say, the songs are classic. I’ve known them forever—some before I knew West Side Story. Written with Leonard Bernstein, this was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story). His trademark wit shines through the lyrics and the rhythms. I’ll always think of my friend Frank, who sang songs from West Side Story as he did dishes when we were roommates in college.
Despite its silly corniness—a large part of its charm—West Side Story is dark. It raises a lot of issues still prevalent today: race, delinquency (though we call it “thuggery” today), hate toward “immigrants.” Despite the many light moments here, the dramatic scenes are dramatic; they make you forget, albeit momentarily, the light stuff. The gym dance, the rumble, and the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s store to give a message to Tony are all suspenseful and intense. The final scene in the basketball court is a real tearjerker.
A large part of West Side Story was filmed on a soundstage, but it still nails the look and feel a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore.
Johnnie To has made a ton of movies—more than 80 in 35 years. Known mainly for gangster/crime action films, Office [华丽上班族], his adaptation of Sylvia Chang’s 2008 play Design for Living, is atypical To; his only other film even remotely similar is the ultra cool Sparrow, which introduced me to him.
Set at the flashy headquarters of fictional Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn on the verge of its poorly timed IPO that just so happens to coincide with the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008, Office is a visually stunning musical soap opera depicting the sordid lives and interactions of those who make up the firm, from brown-nosing go-getter intern Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) to chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun Fat) and MILFy CEO Cheung Wai (Chang). Some subplots and characters are more interesting than others—the storyline with Suen Keung (Cheung Siu-fai) and his embezzlement scheme stands out—but overall Office is fun and engaging, and you really do want to see what happens next. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.
The sets are amazing: big, bright spaces with lots of clean lines and curves, minimalist and modern and moving like a well-oiled piece of machinery—imagine an updated Mad Men amped up on steroids, and you’ve got the idea. It’s arty. An enormous clock straight out of Metropolis serves as a clever nod to what To might be getting at here. If there’s a moral to this story, it might be ‘capitalism has casualties’ or ‘to thine own self be true,’ as To examines things like class, hierarchy, ambition, upward mobility, work, ethics, and honor. I doubt it goes that deep, though. Office is hardly a complicated story and the songs are nothing special, but they don’t need to be: this film churns out enough energy to keep it going for its two-hour running time.