Friday, October 12, 2018

the incredible shrinking movie

"Wow!," I thought to myself after the first few minutes of the movie.

This is too good to be true.

My expectations had been high, elevated even more so by the non-stop hype that started mid-summer, but this was more than I had anticipated.

The opening scene of the movie took its time introducing one of its major characters and the situation in question. "Wow," indeed. Exposition! Actual exposition, a quality that has all but disappeared from films in this age of immediate gratification. The second scene, adding another character and then a few others, was more of the same. The people on screen actually talked, and for long stretches, revealing tiny details about themselves.

The talk was small and often awkward, real-sounding.

So far, about 15 minutes have gone by, maybe 20 - and, by current standards, "nothing happened." Just people talking and relating. I was amazed that the filmmaker got away with this. There was none of the usual bulldozing or pandering to impatient modern audiences. Good.

The third scene was longer than the two previous ones, much longer. The self-revealing talk continued. Hmmm. OK, I get the point. Let's move on. I was becoming one of those aforementioned impatient moviegoers. The scene continued. It simply would not stop. I was getting annoyed. I checked my wristwatch. We're a half hour into the movie and the two lead characters are still flirting and sizing up each other. Get a room already.

Exposition is all well and good but this is just too much. Help!

The film continued for another hour - and so did the repetition. The various settings and backdrops would change but the dialogue didn't. The same conversation was repeated over and over and over again. I came to the realization that the two characters had nothing more - or new - to say.

But they continued talking and repeating themselves nevertheless.

Ad infinitum.

By this point, it occurred to me that, while both were rather colorful characters, neither one was necessarily interesting. It's been posited that all drunks are dull and that's true here, what with the lead male character essentially playing one long drunk scene, mumbling and slurring words.

Very one-note.

The lead female character is more fully developed (but just barely) because she serves, alternately, as his protégé, victim and enabler.

I came to the rude awakening that I could care less about either of them.

So, a film that originally loomed large in my head was quickly shrinking. 

As music is crucial to the plot, there are songs interspersed throughout, regularly interrupting the navel-gazing dialogue. The performances of them are predictably loud. Why whisper a lyric when one can shout it out?

I went into "A Star Is Born" with high anticipation. After all, the reviews have been uniformly rhapsodic, except for The New Yorker's heroic Anthony Lane. Plus, there's been all this jumpy, overheated advance "Oscar buzz" which, frankly, means little to me. So why did I mention it?

Yes, I went in enthusiastically but, two-hours-and-fifteen minutes later, I had fully morphed into a miserable grump. I should have learned by now that it is unwise and unfair to go into a movie - any movie - with too-high expectations. Or just plain high expectations. And when the inevitable letdown sets in, who's exactly at fault - the movie or the moviegoer?

Note in Passing: The material for "A Star Is Born" has been the source of no fewer than five - count 'em - five films, starting with "What Price Hollywood?" in 1932. The others, all titled "A Star Is Born," were released in 1934, 1954, 1978 and 2018. (George Cukor directed both the original 1932 film and the 1954 Judy Garland remake.) Perhaps someone can explain exactly why Hollywood finds the basic plotline so irresistible.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.


~Grant Williams and his pet cat in "The Incredible Shrinking Man"
~photography: Universal-International 1957© 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

now a major broadway musical!

I suppose that one could call it a reversal of fortune. There was a time when Broadway plays and musicals were a prime source for the movie studios. Tennessee Williams! Rodgers and Hammerstein! Neil Simon!

The ads would blare, "Now a major motion picture!"

But no more. Hollywood could care less about filming "Fun Home," an innovative, deep-think musical, or even Steve Martin's "Meteor Shower." 

Instead, old movies are now the major source of Broadway musicals, even if the film has to be contorted into some weird song-and-dance hybrid. Not every Broadway musical derived from a successful film makes sense.  Not every past movie lends itself to singing and dancing the way a "Hairspray" or a "Kinky Boots" does.  Not every old film is as natural a musical as "The Producers." "The Bridges of Madison County"? Really?

"Rocky"? "Spider-Man"? The upcoming "King Kong" ? Oy. Slightly wacky.

The recent musical version of Andrew Bergman's 1992 movie, "Honeymoon in Vegas" was one of those rarities that somehow worked.  Bergman himself did the adaptation, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (who also wrote the songs for the aforementioned "Madison County"), and he came up with a delightfully wonderful show, an old-fashioned musical comedy, along the lines of "Bye Bye Birdie."  The New York Times' Ben Brantley said as much in his rave review when the show premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.

A natural musical.

Anyway, if by remote chance Scott Rudin is reading this, here are my picks for a few films that would make terrific musicals.

I think. 

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" - This 1993 masterwork, directed by Henry Selick under the eye of auteur Tim Burton, contains one of the screen's best original song scores - a symphonic blend of the elegant and the eccentric by Danny Elfman.  Disney has been so astute and so aggressive in refashioning its animations into surefire stage musicals that it's quite curious that the studio has managed to overlook this one.

"True Stories" - David Byrne made his directorial debut in 1986 with this inventive new-style musical, which he co-wrote with playwright Beth Henley and Henley's then-boyfriend, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and then he seemingly retired from moviemaking.  Too bad because he had an original vision.  This film bristles with idiosyncrasies and terrific songs, and its eclectic cast - John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, Annie McEnroe and Byrne himself - operates in an apt alternative space. I wish that Warners would improve on its slipshod current DVD of the film.

"Elmer Gantry" - Sinclair Lewis' novel was already the basis of a powerful and hugely entertaining movie - filmed in 1960 by Richard Brooks - as well as a stage musical.  Yes, that's right - it was staged in 1970 with the late Robert Shaw in the title role and Rita Moreno as Sister Sharon, directed by choreographer Onna White.  The rest of the creative team was lesser known  (book by Peter Bellwood; music and lyrics by Stanley Lebowsky and Fred Tobias, respectively) and the show closed after only one performance. Ouch.  But there's still potential for a great musical here, particularly if cast with someone as dynamic as Burt Lancaster, who brought a musical lilt to his showstopping performance in the film. 

"My Sister Eileen" - Richard Quine's highly regarded 1955 musical version of Ruth McKenney's perennially popular stories about life in New York/Greenwich Village of several decades ago already comes with a great script by Quine and Blake Edwards and a nimble song score by Leo Rubin and Jule Styne.  True, the material was the source of an earlier Broadway musical, 1953's "Wonderful Town" (by Bernstein and Comdon & Green), but so what. It would be ill-advised to update the material. "My Sister Eileen" is comfortably ensconced in the past and should remain a period piece. And, by all means, retain the Bob Fosse choreography.

"The Blues Brothers" - Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi collaborated with director John Landis on this aggressively new-style musical that came with as many songs as car chases/crashes. The film, a genuine musical "adventure," brims with intense creativity and satirical daring. It may also be the first jukebox musical whose menu of blues, soul, and rhythm & blues numbers gives the two stars an excuse to back up the cameo performances of James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and the standout in the cast, Aretha Franklin. The stage version could delete all the chases (naturally) and bring in young talent to impersonate/approximate Brown, Calloway, Charles Hook and Franklin - and, of course, Belushi and Aykroyd whose Blues Brothers are either petty criminals, would-be hipster-musicians or two Rabelaisian layabouts.

Take your pick. They could be all three.

"The Landlord" - Hal Ashby's 1970 seriocomedy, based on the book by Kristin Hunter, remains one of the best films about race relations, alternately comic and tragic.  It has just the right number of characters for an intimate stage musical and already comes with a selection of evocative songs that Al Kooper wrote as background for the film.  I could see Whoopi Goldberg and Vanessa Williams taking on the Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands roles, Harriet Harris doing Lee Grant's bit and Jeremy Jordan in for Beau Bridges. Bill Gunn's movie script should adapt well.

"A Face in the Crowd" - Budd Schulberg's cautionary (and prescient) fable about corrupting power, directed in 1957 by Elia Kazan, is a natural for a stage musical, given that its lead character, the hillbilly Lonesome Rhodes, ingratiates himself with the public with his twangy singing. True, Andy Griffin is indelible in the film but country superstar Blake Shelton could easily fit Griffin's boots. He could be a knockout if anyone is inspired to turn the material into a full-scale musical.

"Raise the Red Lantern"- Yimou Zhang's splashy 1991 melodrama about the pecking order and rivalries among the four wives of a wealthy lord in 1920s China is so fascinating and so accessible because one could read the material as being about office politics in the workplace. With virtually an all-female cast, this would make a great Stephen Sondheim musical and not atypical at all for the legendary composer who previously tackled similarly difficult subjects in "Pacific Overtures" and "Passion."

"One-Trick Pony" - Paul Simon's music never ages and the fabulous songs he wrote for Robert M. Young's 1980 film (for which Simon also wrote the screenplay) would sound wonderful sung live - on a New York stage.  Simon is now too old to recreate his autobiographical role on Broadway, but his story about a singer trying to navigate the details of a tour while putting out an album remains as contemporary as ever.

"Waiting for Guffman" - This one could be the next "The Producers."  Christopher Guest's 1996 tale of an awful centennial show, being staged in Blaine, Missouri, is ready-made for the Broadway stage. Under the direction of a clueless "off-off-off-off-off-Broadway" character named Corky St. Clair (played by Guest), the amateur cast includes the local dentist and a couple who works as real-estate agents. And the songs, of course, are appropriately idiotic. It remains a nagging mystery why Guest hasn't done this himself.

"Mike's Murder" - James Bridges' ill-fated and misunderestood 1984 film is about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the memory of a one-night stand after the guy is murdered.  Bridges, who also wrote the script, originally told his story backwards and used a song score by Joe Jackson in lieu of the usual instrumentals.  When the film failed in previews, it was re-edited and made chronological and the Jackson songs were scrapped for a John Barry score. During the film's delay, A&M Records released Jackson's soundtrack in 1983, a solid year before the film's release, and it became something of a sensation. And with good reason. It's terrific. The story, with Jackson's marvelous songs, would make a fine small musical.

So there you have it. My nominations. What are yours? Any Ideas?


Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~Poster art for Universal's "The Blues Brothers" (which looks a lot like the work of Saul Bass to me)

 ~Logo for the stage musical version of "Honeymoon in Vegas"

~Jack Skellington in "The Nightmare Before Christmas"
~photography: Walt Disney Company 1993© 

 ~John Goodman in "True Stories"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1986©

~Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall dance in "My Sister Eileen
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1955©

~Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi also dance in "The Blues Brothers"
~photography: Universal 1980©

~Blake Shelton

~The cast of Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman"
~photography: Warner Bros./Castle Rock 1996©

~Advertisement for the "Mike's Murder" A&M soundtrack album