Category Archives: Musical

Beauty is the beast: The Lure **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 18, 2017)

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As far as retro 1980s New Wave-flavored horror musicals about sexy flesh-eating mermaids go, I suppose you could do worse than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle March 24-26; check your local listings for possible limited engagements in your area). Needless to say…it is not for kids (this is a tale that would make Hans Christian Andersen plotz).

Near as I was able to discern the plot (thin enough to dissolve into sea foam at the slightest suggestion of an impending gale), two sultry sister-sirens are slithering about in the Baltic surf one evening, when they espy a Polish new wave band hanging around on the beach. As we all know, no man, be he a sailor or synth-popper, can resist the clarion call of a sexy Baltic Sea siren.

The band members have no option but to stash the sisters backstage at the strip club they gig at, until they can figure out their next move. Before long, the sleazy house manager discovers them and sees dollar signs. He unceremoniously demands that Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) show him their wares; however he quickly discerns certain elements of the mermaid’s human form to be, shall we say, un-formed…and incompatible with job requirements.

But before the manager can boot the freeloaders out, the band’s lead singer (Kinga Preis) intervenes on the sisters’ behalf. Feeling a maternal tug, she offers to take the young women under her wing, convincing the manager to begrudgingly hire them on as part of the band’s act. Naturally, the lovely sirens beguile the audiences and become an instant hit (A Starfish is Born?).

But alas, every Silver has a cloudy lining. Or in this case, sister Silver has a propensity for being a real man-eater. Literally. For now, Golden’s more feral instincts are being kept in check, because she finds herself falling in love with the bass player (it’s always the goddam bass player). As we’ve learned from many mermaid tales, bassists and mermaids are always star-crossed as lovers.

To label this film as “over the top” is an understatement. I’m not sure what to tell you. If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…this one’s several leagues below (no pun intended). There are a couple of jaunty numbers, and the splashes of bold color are suitably garish in a 80s retro kind of way, but for a film being billed as a “new wave rock musical”, I found the production lackadaisical in both music and choreography departments.

Still, those who lean toward midnight movies might find more to love. With its deadpan performances, 1980s vibe, cheesy horror elements and overall weirdness, I found the film reminiscent of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 punk rock sci-fi horror cult item, Liquid Sky (only in passing; Tskerman’s film is a genuine underground classic). Feel free to jump in at your own risk.

Like we did last summer: Top 11 Rock Musicals

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2016)

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Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off summer like a time-honored, all-American holiday that encourages the mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of highly explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with a case of Diet Dr. Pepper, a decent ration of Wha Guru Chews (I’m partial to cashew flavor) and an armload of my favorite rock musicals.

So, for your consideration (or condemnation) I now submit my Top 10 personal favorites of the genre (actually…this one goes to eleven). As per usual, I present them in no particular ranking order (to prevent fistfights). And for those who are about to rock…I salute you.

Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, backstage squabbles, record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day.

Indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does real life indie rocker/Chapel Hill music scenester Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as the Zen-like road manager (director Schultz is one of McMillan’s former band mates). The icing on the cake is the original music, an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have the catchy signature tune, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.

The Commitments-“Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Pulling together a cast of talented yet unknown actor/musicians to “play” a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius from director Alan Parker. In some ways a thematic remake of Parker’s own 1980 musical Fame, the scene moves from New York to Dublin (be on the lookout for a quick winking reference when a band member starts singing a parody of the Fame theme).

These working class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy, however (several band members are “on the dole”). The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the amazing musical performances that really astonish, especially from the 16-year old lead singer, who has the soulful R & B pipes of someone who has been drinking a fifth and smoking 2 packs a day for 30 years. Gritty, realistic and spiced up with a goodly amount of ribald humor.

Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his success-hungry hustler/manager character with chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert.

The film includes performances by the original Shadows (Richards’ backup band), featuring guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are pretty dopey).

A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has often been copied, but never equaled. Shot in a verite style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.

Although it is in reality meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel-and therein lays its genius, because it still plays just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theater screens all those years ago. There’s much to savor in every frame; to this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “If I Fell” and of course, the fab title song.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls head over heels for an American G.I., undergoes a (less than perfect) sex change operation so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park. Now completely adrift (geographically as well as sexually) the desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out of this mess…by creating an alter-ego named Hedwig, putting a glam-rock band together, and setting out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired old tale? But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force on the part of Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this  entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).

Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions).

Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example). Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains A sort of punk version of A Star is Born, this 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) managed to build a rabidly devoted cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot scripter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule.

Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat that breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk band called The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto riot-grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way).

Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School-As far as guilty pleasures go, this goofy bit of anarchy from the stable of legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman rates pretty high (and one suspects the creators of the film were, um, “pretty high” when they dreamed it all up). Director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own cult classics under Corman’s tutelage) and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov . I’m fairly convinced the film inspired the cult 1982 TV series Square Pegs.  R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her rep on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. That said, it’s the only Armstrong film I’ve watched more than once. In fact, I’ve watched it many times.

It does feature a strong female lead character, free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy and good-natured, with lots of catchy power pop tunes (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.

Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy  Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually).  Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that comes from someone who genuinely loves  the music.

Great performances abound. Bill Nighy stands out in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes. Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the exceptional original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.

Tommy– There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell is not known for being subtle).

Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through all the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two members of the band have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear in music performance). The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ann-Margret, covered in baked beans and writhing in ecstasy! It may be raucous, garish and gross…but it’s never boring.

The twee of life: God Help the Girl ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2014)

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I love Scottish pop: God Help the Girl

As far as plot-less yet pleasingly pastoral Scottish musicals centering on mentally unstable young female protagonists yearning to become pop stars go, you could do worse than God Help the Girl.  An oddball cross between Alan Moyle’s manic-depressive 1980 music biz drama Times Square and Gillian Armstrong’s kooky, sunny-side-up 1982 new wave musical, Starstruck, the film (written, directed and scored by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch) stars Emily Browning as Eve, a clinically depressed young Glaswegian with musical inclinations…and the soul of a poet. Oh, and a cool beret.

When we first meet her, Eve is in hospital for psychiatric counseling and treatment for an eating disorder. She has a habit of sneaking out to hit the live music clubs when no one is looking. During one of these excursions, Eve Meets Cute with a bespectacled, nebbish-y singer-guitarist named James (Olly Alexander), but not before witnessing the onstage dissolution of his band (an argument over volume levels results in show-stopping fisticuffs with his drummer during their opening number). James quickly intuits that Eve has a decent voice, a unique charisma and a natural gift for songwriting. He introduces Eve to his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray), an aspiring singer. Guess what happens next…

There’s not much of a “story” to speak of, but Murdoch does sustain a certain mood throughout; an impressionistic rendering of a bittersweet, youthful summer idyll informed by Browning and Murray’s dreamy, airy, vocal performances and Murdoch’s lovely chamber pop-influenced melodies (and he’s not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve…in one of the music sequences, he has Browning hold up a 45 RPM copy of “Pretty Ballerina” by the Left Banke).

While the jury is still out on whether this is a rock ’n’ roll fable aspiring to be a musical, or a musical aspiring to be a rock ’n’ roll fable, if you accept it as a construct of endearing music videos,  linked by a loose narrative, you just might get away with calling it entertaining.

No, seriously. I really do love Scottish pop:

Blu-ray reissue: All That Jazz ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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All That Jazz- Criterion Collection Blu-ray

“It’s show time, folks!” From its exhilarating opening montage of an ego-crushing chorus line casting call, fast-cut in perfect sync to George Benson’s pulsing cover of “On Broadway”, to its jaw-dropping finale, a Busby Berkeley-on-acid song and dance number with the Angel of Death presiding, writer-director Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical tale of a fast-living, dexy-dropping, chain-smoking, hotshot choreographer (Roy Scheider) is the best (and most audacious) film ever made regarding this business we call “show”. Scheider is riveting, and Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen are in top form as well. Wholly entertaining, but not for the faint of heart (and definitely not for the whole family…this ain’t exactly Singin’ in the Rain). Criterion’s Blu-ray edition features a new 4K transfer, and extras include fascinating archival interviews with Fosse.

Quick take: Finding Fela ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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The first 15 minutes or so of director Alex Gibney’s portrait of Nigerian music legend/political icon Fela Kuti teeters on becoming a parody of All That Jazz. Choreographer Bill T. Jones struts and frets upon the stage, rehearsing his company for a Broadway production of Fela! (it premiered back in 2009). Jones wrestles with how to convey the complexities of Kuti’s artistic, political and personal personas…while still retaining the catchy tunes and the jazz hands. However, just as you’re scratching your head and wondering if the real Fela will ever show up, he does; albeit in bits and pieces. With patience, you will grok the method to Gibney’s madness; he’s taking the tact that Al Pacino used in Looking for Richard; juxtaposing the theatrical with the historical to “find” his protagonist. While jarring at first, the theatrical framing makes more sense as the film progresses, functioning as a Greek chorus to bridge the archival snippets. While fans may not discover much that hasn’t already been revealed in previous documentaries, Gibney’s approach is fresh; bolstered by outstanding editing and slick production values.

Miracle on 125th Street: Black Nativity **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2013)

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I make a concerted effort to avoid trite phrases like “warmhearted musical that the whole family can enjoy” when dashing off a film review. But when it, erm, comes to warmhearted musicals that the whole family can enjoy…you could do worse than Black Nativity, a Yule-themed musical  adapted from Langston Hughes’ eponymous early 60s Off-Broadway play by writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me).

Glossy as a Hallmark card (and just about as deep), the film nonetheless ambles along agreeably enough, thanks to a spirited cast and a blues-gospel tinged soundtrack. Jennifer Hudson plays a struggling single mom who lives in Baltimore with her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Latimore). She decides (much to Langston’s chagrin) that this Christmas would be as good a time as any for her son to get acquainted with her parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) from whom she has been estranged for a number of years.

After a long bus ride to NYC (which yields the film’s best musical number, a haunting, beautifully arranged rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”), Langston no sooner sets foot on Big Apple pavement than he’s being accused of theft and getting hauled off in handcuffs after an earnest attempt to return a wallet to a man who has absentmindedly left it on a store counter (I suspect I’m not the only audience member who flashed on the hapless newbie who gets racially profiled in the center section of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”). Luckily, his grandfather (a reverend graced with the punny name Cornell Cobb) clears up the misunderstanding and gets him out of stir. Sullen Langston and his pious (if well-meaning) grandparents are off to a shaky start for their “getting to know you” romp, which includes the rev’s annual “Black Nativity” church event, family melodrama, and (wait for it) A Christmas Miracle.

Were the film not buoyed by the presence of the charismatic duo of Whitaker and Bassett, and the fact that someone is inspired to break into song every 6 or 7 minutes, the entire cast may have been in grave danger of drowning in clichés. Still, Lemmons’ film earns extra points almost by default, due to the fact that the “family holiday musical” is on the endangered species list. So if you’re into that sort of thing, hey…don’t let me be a cantankerous old Scrooge.

Singing! Dancing! Oppression! Hipsters **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)

If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible. –Wilhelm Reich

Free your mind and your ass will follow. –George Clinton

Here are two things generally not mentioned in the same breath: “Colorful musical romp” and “Khrushchev-era Soviet Union”. But I have to say it…Hipsters is a colorful musical romp set against a backdrop of the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union. Lightly allegorical and doggedly retro, Valeriy Todorovski’s film is a mashup of Absolute Beginners and Pleasantville, with echoes of West Side Story, Grease and The Wall.

It’s 1955, and life is a bit on the gray side for 20-something Muscovites, especially within the ranks of the Young Communist League, whose idea of a good time is ruining everyone else’s. This is how we meet League member/star athlete Mels (Anton Shagin) and his (sort of) girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Brik), who is the commissar of his particular auxiliary.

Lovely but priggish Katya is leading a patrol of saturnine League members, who are on the hunt for stilyagi (“hipsters”) who might be having a night out (god forbid) enjoying themselves. Their quarry will not be tough to spot; with their pompadours and peacock threads, they stand out from the drab, state-mandated conformity that surrounds them. Katya and her gang soon detect the telltale sound of forbidden American jazz, zeroing them in on their prey. Armed with scissors, they proceed to unceremoniously cut up their coiffed hair and flashy clothing.

It turns out that Mels may be conflicted; while giving chase to several hipsters, he is stopped in his tracks after he is smitten by one of them (Oksana Akinshina), a fetching blonde named Polza (you half expect Mels to break into “Maria”). Maybe this whole stilyagi scene ain’t so bad after all, he figures, and lets Polza go with a promise that he won’t narc her out. The free-spirited Polza reciprocates with an implication that if he gets hip, he might get lucky.

Well, you know how easy guys are. Cue the inevitable montage, wherein Mels enlists one of the hipster dudes to give him all the requisite grooming, fashion and dancing tips. His transformation complete, Mels sets off to win Polza’s heart. It’s a wafer-thin plot, but I can’t think of too many genre entries that allow obstacles like narrative to get in the way of the song and dance (at 125 minutes, there’s plenty of both).

If you  love the song and dance, you’re sure to get a kick out of the energetic performances, over-the-top set pieces and eye-popping costumes. I found the song lyrics to be nonsensical at times; perhaps something literally got lost in the translation. Although the overall tone is fluffy, Todorovski saves room for political commentary (lines like “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon” may elicit chuckles, but hold ominous undercurrents). I sense the film has deeper subtext in this regard (more attuned to, let’s say, Russian audiences?). Still, its prevalent theme, exalting self-expression and righteous defiance in the face of oppression whenever possible, is hard to miss. And, in light of the OWS movement (and our own ongoing culture wars) it’s a timely one as well.

Blu-ray reissue: Black Orpheus ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Black Orpheus – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Marcel Camus directed this mesmerizing 1959 film, a modern spin on a classic Greek myth, fueled by the pulsating rhythms of Rio’s Carnaval and tempered by the gentle sway of Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous samba soundtrack. Camus and Jacques Viot adapted the screenplay from the play by Vinicius de Moraes. Handsome tram operator Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to the vivacious Mira (Lourdes de Olivera) but gets hit by the thunderbolt when he meets sweetly innocent Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). As in most romantic triangles, things are bound to get ugly, especially when Mr. Death (Ademar da Silva) starts lurking about.  A unique film that fully engages the senses (not to mention the fact that Mello and Dawn have got to be the most beautiful screen couple in the history of cinema). Criterion’s Blu-ray is outstanding.

SIFF 2010: Bran Nue Dae **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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I know what you’re thinking- “Enough, already with the Aboriginal musical-comedies!” I’m being facetious, of course; to the best of my knowledge, the Spell-check-challenged Australian import Bran Nue Dae is the first (and don’t go making up titles like Jimmy B: Bring on da Chant, Bring on da Axe in the comments section to try and fool me, either). So how does it fare? Well, it has all the sizzle of a potential audience-pleaser (especially when you consider the sizable number of sunny-side-up romps that have come out of Australia over the last decade or two), but unfortunately, the steak is a bit under-cooked.

Set in the late 1960s, the wafer-thin narrative offers up a sort of Aboriginal variation on Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. In the sleepy little port town of Broome, a young Aboriginal named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is conflicted between pleasing his religiously zealous mother (Ningali Lawford), who is pushing him toward the priesthood, and his raging teenage hormones, who are urging him that he needs to start investigating if his longtime friendship with the lovely Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) comes with a benefit package. Just when things start to get interesting between them, mom packs Willie off for another year at his Catholic school in distant Perth.

It’s not long, however, before Willie’s yearnings for Rosie, combined with the tyrannical rule of mean old Father Benedictus (an ultra-hammy Geoffrey Rush) overwhelm him, and he runs away. As Willie makes his way back to Broome, he has encounters with the requisite Whitman’s Road Movie Assortment of colorful goofballs, eventually hooking up with a young hippie couple (driving a VW bus, of course) and a hobo with a heart of gold (Ernie Dingo, stealing all of his scenes). Hilarity (and exuberant singing and dancing) ensues.

I really wanted to like this film (especially since I’ve always had a soft spot for stories centered on Aboriginal culture) but I’m not sure I can give it a hearty endorsement. There was a lot to like about it; particularly the easygoing charm of the young leads and Dingo’s engaging performance. I think the filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place…but…I was distracted by the sloppy editing (which tends to work against the choreography) and almost unforgivably bad lip-syncing for some of the numbers. While some of the songs were catchy, others were cringe-worthy. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of musicals; if you are a diehard, you might be more forgiving.

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 best picture winners…evah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2010)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday (can’t avoid the hype). As an alleged “movie critic”, I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen 5 out of the 10 nominees for 2009’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been a number of years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my sense of film aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards over the years. And I don’t think my personal sense of film aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance as to why you may notice that no “Best Picture” winners from the last two decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 81 Academy Awards. Perhaps it is just my long-winded way of saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you kids stay off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) Capitalism: a love story. 72 years on, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play resonates anew in the light of our current woes. A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity  abounds, fueled by the contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non conformist. There’s lots of great slapstick bits, and like every screwball comedy worth its salt, there’s a scene where the entire cast ends up in a holding cell and has to explain themselves before a hapless judge.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still works in social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for some of the pervading themes in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also received the Best Director Oscar.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953)-Even though James Jones’ coarse and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor, fucking and fighting with wild abandon in the days leading up to the surprise attack was heavily sanitized for the screen adaptation, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still pretty risqué and heady adult fare for its time. Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons). And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (in his legendary “comeback” role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed (who quite literally put her wholesome image to bed by playing a prostitute). A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962)-Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. Or how commanding 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role. O’Toole gives an appropriately larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a charismatic guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their intelligent screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a surprising sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars). Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without giving praise to Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967)-“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic social commentary, Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his role; you feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn (I would imagine President Obama knows that feeling as of late).

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who picked up “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality, Poitier was the star (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a quintessential “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the appropriately bluesy soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the theme song.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969)-One of the very few times the Academy has given a nod to the dark side (add Hamlet, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, and No Country for Old Men to that list, and you can literally count it on one hand). John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. There is a memorable party scene featuring cameos from a number of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” alumnus. The location filming serves as an historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square. Schlesinger picked up a statuette for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. And, taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977)-As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he “found his voice” as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the cinematic romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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Gandhi (Best Picture of 1982)-I can still remember the first time I saw this film. It was at the single-screen Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, which at the time was the only venue in the city equipped to showcase 70mm prints in their full glory. In its original theatrical presentation, the film had an intermission, which occurred following the scene that reenacts the unthinkably horrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the lights came up in the packed house, you could hear a pin drop-but for the sound of a woman quietly sobbing in the seat right in back of me. That’s all it took for me-I began to lose it, and it quickly spread around the auditorium. I had never before (or since) experienced anything like that at a screening. And therein, dear reader lays the power of truly great film making.