Category Archives: Musical

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

Image result for all that jazz 1979All 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.

DVD Reissue: The Ritz ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Ritz – Warner Brothers DVD

Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! I suspect lots of folks have been waiting for this film to come out of the vaults. I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to always scream their lines?)-but I do make an exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it always puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who seeks  asylum in what he figures will be the last place on earth that the hit men would think of to search for him-a gay bath house. And yes, hilarity ensues.

The cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with an interesting speaking voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately upstaged by Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a sort of female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to be sure not to be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into her interpretation of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing matter through my nose. The DVD features an excellent transfer.

SIFF 2008: Sita Sings the Blues ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2008)

One early audience favorite at this year’s SIFF is  Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip Nina’s Adventures has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip syncing to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative about the travails of a modern NYC couple.

The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawing and rotoscoping. She also utilizes three narrators, who amusingly break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; there is a 3 hour Japanese-Indian production from 1992 called Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet poem, and that this is an 80 minute film obviously taking a Cliff’s Notes approach to its venerable source material, it may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who have no objection to an imaginative deconstruction of such a culturally archetypal tale, Sita Sings the Blues is a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat

Sayles of August: Honeydripper ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2008)

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Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side

We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside.

 -Robert Johnson, Traveling Riverside Blues

 In his latest film, director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folk tale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star.

Surrounded by cotton fields, adjacent to a small military post and connected to the rest of the world by a lone train station and a few dusty country roads, the town of Harmony is classic Mythic South, all the way. This is a place where black and white residents each literally live on their respective “side of the tracks”.

The “Honeydripper” is the name of a ramshackle music club on the edge of town (um, down by the crossroads) run by a barrel house piano player named Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover). As the film opens, Purvis and his business partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) are scrambling to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. Purvis has been losing business to a neighboring juke joint, due to his curious aversion to hiring guitar acts or acquiescing to the jukebox.

Enter a young, wispy railroad tramp named Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.) who blows into Harmony on the night train, with little more than the clothes on his back…and a guitar. The next morning, in search of a gig, he finds his way to the Honeydripper, where Purvis feeds him breakfast, then politely shows him the door, suggesting that he might have better luck finding a job at one of the local cotton plantations.

Unfortunately, Sonny is soon intercepted by a corrupt county sheriff (a hammy Stacey Keach, veritably oozing Eau de Peckerwood) who runs a hustle “arresting” drifters for vagrancy and then indenturing them to local plantation owners for a kickback.

In the meantime, the reluctant Purvis is talked into booking a New Orleans guitar legend, Guitar Sam, for a “one night only” appearance, with the hope that the draw will bring in enough money to stave off the landlord’s threat to pull the plug on his lease. However, when Guitar Sam fails to show up at the train station on the morning of the heavily promoted show, the situation starts to look pretty grim. Then, Purvis remembers the young guitarist; a light bulb appears and…well, I think you know where this is going.

Honeydripper is rife with many of Sayles’ pet themes, such as family ties, culture clash, tests of faith, class warfare and local politics. Like all good folk tales, Honeydripper has an elemental narrative structure (not to be confused with “simplistic”). When he is operating at full tilt, Sayles’ strengths as a screenwriter lie in his canny gift for perceptive, true-to-character dialog and in his ability for drawing rich characterizations.

His penchant for  leisurely  pacing occasionally backfires (Silver City and Sunshine State were uncharacteristically flat; and I literally dozed off during the interminable Men With Guns) but when he’s “on” (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Baby It’s You, Brother From Another Planet, Limbo, Lone Star) there are few of his American indie contemporaries that can touch him. You can add Honeydripper to the latter list.

Sayles captures the sultry southern atmosphere to a tee, thanks in no small part to the excellent DP work by British cinematographer Dick Pope (who has worked on most of Mike Leigh’s films). The director’s distinctive feel for regional Americana and sharp eye for period detail (evidenced previously in Matewan and Eight Men Out) is on form here as well.

Per usual, Sayles employs a sizeable cast, and every speaking part, large or small, is well written and fleshed out. Glover and Dutton are both wonderful actors, and do an excellent job; newcomer Clark makes a splash in an impressive film debut. Real life blues guitarist Keb’Mo’ does a memorable turn as a cryptic, somewhat spectral character who pulls double duty as a tangential narrator and Greek Chorus for the tale.

In another bit of inspired stunt casting, singer Mable John appears in a brief role as the Honeydripper house act (she was a backup singer for Ray Charles and is the sister of blues great Little Willie John). There’s good support as well from Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Fans of blues, gospel and roots rock ’n’ roll will dig the music performances, and Sayles aficionados will not be disappointed.

Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the younger versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver extraordinary performances. An honorable mention to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While the film is structured like an old school Hollywood love story, it still has snippets of Boyle’s visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”. The flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai  takes this modern Indian folk into Brothers Grimm land; if you have a bad gag reflex, be prepared.

In the  Bollywood tradition, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and adapted  by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, with colorful costume and set design and hyper-kinetic camera work from DP Anthony Dod Mantle, topped off by a catchy soundtrack. And if you feel like dancing in the aisles during those end credits,  knock yourself out.