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About me

I'm Jason. I'm a film, literary and pop culture enthusiast. Got a soft spot and deep love for animation, comics and nerdy things that go in tandem with them.

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RS 500: Part 5 (100 items)
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Captain America: Civil War

Posted : 1 week ago on 17 May 2016 06:52 (A review of Captain America: Civil War)

This is what the thematic material of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice looks like when it’s injected with, you know, joy, emotional coherence, and narrative thrust. Not that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without its own problems, there’s the frequent lack of prominent characters of color, female heroes leading the way, and a general sameness in structure for the films. Captain America: Civil War sets to push those boundaries and limitations, while never completely transcending the thick borders mastermind Kevin Feige has placed around the franchise, Civil War emerges as the best work from the studio, and still the most satisfying Avengers film, without actually calling itself Avengers.

 

Let’s start with the major trapping of Civil War, and all of superhero cinema really, which is its dependence on mass collateral damage. The plot machinations of Civil War depend on exploring and questioning the constant destruction of property and untold civilian causalities as a result, then breaking away from these lip-serviced thoughts to demonstrate more technical wizardry in mass destruction and rubbery bodies thrashing into each other.

 

While this persistently undermines the general dramatic tension and narrative thrust, Civil War is still continually engaging. The great thing about the Captain America films is that they simply have to preserve him from movie to movie to ensure that he’ll be around for the next Avengers film, and they’re frequently free from the painted corners of, say, Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World which shoved too much extraneous narrative threads from other sub-franchises. Civil War is a meeting of them all, with Cap leading the way, as it should be.

 

What’s shocking is how smartly and effectively this film introduces our third go around of Spider-Man, the first one to appear like a believable high schooler and successfully translate the lovable smartass from the comics to the big screen, and our introduction to Black Panther, which just had me ready and waiting for his 2018 solo film. These two slip into the established narratives with ease, providing unique voices and much-needed levity to some of the darker twists and turns.

 

I know that Joss Whedon was proclaimed the savior of superhero cinema with Avengers, but the most successful writer(s)-director(s) for the MCU has been the Russos. They find a way to marry humor, heart, thrills, spectacle, and quiet moments of character development into compelling popcorn entertainments. The Winter Soldier was one of the best comic book movies, and Civil War takes that platform and builds something bigger and better off of it.

 

The long list of names, faces, powers, and locations can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, but the Russos find a way to make decades of material into digestible chunks. They manage to make the obligatory beats into thrilling moments. Look, we all knew that another Spider-Man could be met with groans and eye-rolls, but Tom Hollander’s gee-whiz approach to the role, complete with a never-ending series of snarky comments, makes him a rooting interest.

 

Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther practically steals the movie from all of the long-running establishment, finding the grace and regality in the role. Hopefully his movie star charisma will lead to a career rivaling the likes of Denzel Washington. Thought was put into how to utilize these characters, and while some still get the short-end (Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch deserve more to do), they still manage to get brief moments to shine.

 

What smacks you in the face about Civil War is how closely it follows many of the same beats and themes of DC’s Batman vs Superman, but how it contrasts what that film did poorly. My god, imagine it, a film bringing together the titans of a comic publisher’s body of work, and finding the fun in it! Imagine that! And I didn’t even hate Batman vs Superman, so imagine how those that did must feel watching this film.

 

Marvel still has a long way to go in catching up with DC’s representation of minority characters (check the line-up of Suicide Squad, and the makeover of Aquaman) and female-led vehicles (next year will finally see Wonder Woman getting a solo film after decades of development hell), but Marvel’s ability to coherently tell a story that isn’t lackluster in live-action is unrivaled by its major competitor.

 

Now, if only Marvel could do something to make Thor’s solo films as interesting as the source material…. 



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Inside Daisy Clover

Posted : 1 week ago on 17 May 2016 04:56 (A review of Inside Daisy Clover)

What exactly is Inside Daisy Clover trying to be? Semi-pornographic name aside, at any given moment, it operates as two or three different movies each trying, and failing, to achieve maximum attention. There’s a serious drama about a ragamuffin street urchin, a biting satire about the Hollywood star machine, and a lackadaisical musical. In fits it’s interesting as a well-made movie, but it general waffles between camp entertainment and a slog to get through.

 

Once more Natalie Wood is hired to play a character far younger than her actual age, and by this point her child-like innocence and beauty had morphed into a mature, ethereal beauty. In her best performances, think of Rebel Without a Cause or Splendor in the Grass, her doe-eyed innocence masked a fractured emotional core or a flinty survivalist. Inside Daisy Clover gives her another chance to give this character a spin, but Wood is clearly a decade too old for the role, and she overplays the tomboy nature and aggression.

 

Despite solid appearances in West Side Story and Gypsy, Wood was also not much of an authentic musical performer. Her actual vocals in one scene leave much to be desired, but at least her dubbed vocals here actually work with her speaking voice. Her lack of ease as a musical performer was put to effective use in Gypsy, as Gypsy Rose was supposed to be awkward and unsure as a performer until finding her footing in the final stretch as a burlesque stripper. The lone musical number that sticks in the mind for all of the right reasons is that breakdown she has while doing vocal dubbing in a recording booth. Wood’s naturally expressive eyes swirl with a flood of contradictory emotions, and she quakes with alternating vulnerability and rage.

 

While Wood seems adrift in the role, she’s surrounded by a series of supporting actors who make the most of their limited screen time. Christopher Plummer does another run through of his very oily early screen persona, practically dripping with menace and twirling an imaginary moustache while doing it. Ruth Gordon plays Wood’s mother, suffering from dementia, and praise be to Gordon for her low-key scenery chewing. Gordon was one of the cinema’s great eccentrics, look no further than her Oscar winning role in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude for more proof. Roddy McDowell doesn’t have much to do, but his presence lends a certain melancholy air to his few scenes, as they are loaded with the knowledge and baggage of his time as a child actor show pony.

 

It’s as disjointed as looking into a series of funhouse mirrors, but there’s still a few scenes, performances, and moments of dark satire to recommend a cursory viewing of Inside Daisy Clover. I can see a cult for this film’s strange mixture of camp-horror, satire, and lugubrious drama, but count me out of it. I’m a fan of Natalie Wood, but this is bottom shelf material, for sure.



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The Jungle Book

Posted : 2 weeks, 6 days ago on 4 May 2016 11:35 (A review of The Jungle Book)

For some reason, Disney does quite well in adapting Rudyard Kipling’s immortal stories of a young boy raised in the Indian jungle and his various animal friends and foes. This live-action version (for lack of a better term, as much of it is CGI) leans heavier on the Kipling source than the swinging 60s animated film, and it’s all the better for it. Many scenes are directly from the stories, bits of dialog and poetry including the jungle law and wolf pack song are faithfully transplanted, and a few characters are restored to their literary source.

 

The Jungle Book only goes weird when it diverts back to the 1967 for material, or in a few adaptation choices and instances of animation driving us straight into the Uncanny Valley, but it is an otherwise smart, solid, and wildly entertaining piece of movie-making. Praise be to some cinematic entity for this, as Disney’s penchant for live-action re-dressings of its beloved animated properties have been a decidedly mixed bag, leaning far heavier on messy misfires than success since Tim Burton’s hollow-but-entertaining re-spin of Alice in Wonderland hit a billion-plus dollars at the box office in 2010.

 

Director Jon Favreau assembled a murder’s row of movie-star vocal talent for these iconic roles. High marks go towards Lupita Nyong’o as the protective maternal wolf Raksha, Bill Murray’s laconic and insouciant Baloo, Christopher Walken giving King Louie his bizarre inflections, Ben Kingsley lending Bagheera the intelligence and gravitas he requires, and Idris Elba making Shere Khan a ferocious and deliciously menacing villain.

 

The only major vocal talent that felt at odds with the character was Scarlett Johansson’s gender-swapped Kaa, reduced once more to a villainous character and a one-scene wonder that’s more exposition dump than anything. The scene starts off well, building up a real scene of dread and impending doom, before crumbling under the weight of Kaa explaining the already obvious connection between Mowgli and Shere Khan. I wish the film-makers had restored Kaa’s rightful place in the story as one of Mowgli’s strongest, oldest allies and a major presence in rescuing him from the monkeys instead of repeating the 1967 film’s choices.

 

A similar thing happened to me with the continuation of Baloo as a lovable slacker instead of one of Mowgli’s wisest allies, and an honorary member of the wolf pack. I understand that within the Disney canon, this version of Baloo is highly iconic, but with Bagheera, Shere Khan, Akela, Raksha, and the elephants operating much as they do in the source material there’s a certain imbalance that happened for me in keeping him the same. I’m sure other audience members could easily forgive this, and it didn’t hold back my enjoyment in any meaningful way, but it’s more of a creative choice that I think could have been done differently.

 

In contrast I found keeping King Louie a non-issue, and enjoyed that they changed him from an orangutan, which is not native to India, into a gigantic prehistoric ape that was, specifically a Gigantopithecus. Walken’s off-kilter performance of “I Wan’na Be Like You” is a blast of pure oddity, and makes for a very fun and lively credits sequence when its reprised in full at the end. A scene where he chases Mowgli through a crumbling palace is the one most fraught with tension and thrills, and Louie’s animation is breath taking in these moments looking startlingly realistic.

 

Honestly, there’s not much to complain about with The Jungle Book aside from minor squabbles. If the worst I can say about it is that the CG-heavy scenery and animals occasionally look like expertly rendered video game cut scenes then it’s already ahead of most major blockbusters in producing effects that aren’t rubbery looking. At times the absolute refusal to look like reality but an imagined jungle of a fairy tale only enhances the mythic qualities of the story.

 

And I haven’t even begun to discuss Neel Sethi, the newcomer who headlines this movie with charm, heart, grace, and enormous pluck. Hopefully, Hollywood will find future vehicles for his demonstrable gifts and charisma. Sethi is a real find, and I hope to watch his career blossom in the ensuing years as so much of The Jungle Book succeeds or fails upon his believable interactions with creatures and environments that weren’t there during production.

 

If Disney can keep the momentum and lessons learned from this highly successful and pleasing re-do of their animated features in future releases, maybe I won’t dread watching Dumbo, Pinocchio, Cruella, Night on Bald Mountain, and whatever else they’ve got planned try to find some of the original magic of those films. The Jungle Book is a resounding success, but is it a sign of things to come or just a one-off wonder of right creative team meeting the right material? Only time will tell, and Disney has no plans of stopping the self-immolation any time soon. 



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Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted : 1 month ago on 18 April 2016 04:31 (A review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)

There’s still some hope for the future of the DC cinematic universe, but they’re going to have to start listening to the fans and maybe remove much of the power from Zack Snyder. It’s not that Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t have interesting story ideas or unique spins on the mythology, because it very much does, but it also seems enamored with a variation of these characters that is stuck in the toxic masculinity of the 1980s. It’s better than the 28% that Rotten Tomatoes’ collected reviews weighed it out with, but it’s still a resounding middling effort.

 

The thing is, Snyder is perfectly fine at bringing to life various comic book panels, and several of the scenes in Batman vs Superman are directly lifted from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but he’s not great at marrying these beautiful, highly stylized images into a coherent story. This same problem turned Man of Steel into an enjoyable but problematic and slightly hollow grind of slow-motion destruction, and this one does devolve into incoherent carnage in the final act as well.

 

Prior to that, it manages to tell a semi-coherent story that occasionally has moments of comic book brilliance and too many of stupidity. The first act’s retrofitting of Man of Steel’s mass destruction is a smart move, transforming an already veteran Batman into a darker presence, and causes a believable rift in which regular people view this super-powered demi-god with fear and skepticism. The foundation for a smarter story is there, and it does occasional lean into these beats, before doubling-down on some of the dumber choices.

 

A senator, played with dripping sarcasm by Holly Hunter, and a victim of Superman’s battle with Zod, Scoot McNairy, are nice touches, but they’re not given much screen time to really make an impact. McNairy’s character in particular is unique, as he’s slowly revealed as yet another pawn of Lex Luthor’s brilliant manipulations. While it’s nice to see a Lex Luthor on the big screen that’s written accurately as a genius businessman and regular-man who hates Superman for his god-like power, Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg-on-coke-bender performance is one of the film’s biggest blunders. Why is Luthor so hard for these films to get right? The various other franchises have had relatively little trouble transposing characters like Magneto, the Joker, Catwoman, and General Zod to charismatic, menacing life, but Luthor always goes weird.

 

Even worse is the way in which the title fight comes to a screeching halt. Lois Lane intervenes as Batman is ready to deliver the death-blow to Superman, both of them having been the manipulated pawns of Luthor’s rampant ego, when she mentions that he keeps saying “Martha” because it’s his mother’s name. That’s right, the title fight is brought to a close, and our heroes decide to team-up, because their mothers share the same first name. It’s the dumbest choice in a big blockbuster entertainment, which are typically filled with dumb story choices that we overlook because everything else is so damn entertaining.

 

Yet I didn’t hate Batman vs Superman. Not even a little bit, actually. I didn’t outright love it, but I found it entertaining enough. It does quite a few things pretty ingeniously. The cameos from various future members of the Justice League are smart choices, and props to DC for beating Marvel at having major characters of color and women already headlining their films in a few short years. This film also stuffs several prominent women in supporting roles, with Diane Lane and Amy Adams returning as Ma Kent and Lois Lane in parts that constantly propel the plot forward, Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves (a bit of a waste of a cool character, even if they did go with her gal Friday New 52 persona), the aforementioned Hunter doing a lot with relatively little, and the real highlight of the film, Gal Gadot’s extended bit as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman.

 

A bit of a long tease for next year’s solo film, Gadot makes a strong impression with her limited screen time. When she finally appears in costume in the big boss battle against Doomsday, she’s the most heroic figure in the entire film. Her lone battle scenes features use of not only her wrist bands, but her sword, shield, and her golden lasso. In-between far too much aggressive machismo, Gadot’s Amazon princess is the stand-up-and-cheer heroine of the film with an iconic entrance that makes the stupid boys around her look childish in comparison.

 

Even better, for me anyway as a huge comic nerd, is the extended dream sequence which offers brief glimpses of Parademons, Darkseid, and the Flash, although his solo film and Justice League armor is less bulky. It’s pure comic book fan service, but proof enough that DC isn’t afraid of diving head first into the weirder and wilder fringes of their comic mythologies with their films. No slow rollout here like with Marvel, and this August’s Suicide Squad keeps up that appearance with the Enchantress in an obviously large role.

 

While I’ve admitted to really enjoying what Henry Cavill brings to the part of Superman, I was incredibly nervous about Ben Affleck’s hit-and-miss quality for Batman. Turns out, I didn’t need to worry as much as I did, he’s actually incredibly solid in the role. Christian Bale and Michael Keaton are still my favorite live action incarnations, but Affleck holds his own, and has me excited for what he’ll do with a solo Batman film. Just please, offer up something more than more grim-and-gritty-and- dark to the palette. I’m not ready to totally write off the DC cinematic universe just yet, but there’s some serious problems with the franchise that need to be address and re-calibrated. 



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Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 17 April 2016 08:38 (A review of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison)

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison plays like a lukewarm reheating of The African Queen, with most of the energy and wit comes through the performances of Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, and not John Huston’s weirdly sleepy direction. Normally a dark wit with a peppy sense of pacing and tone, Huston seems entrapped by the earnestness of this piece, and it’s straight up hokum that needed a slightly trashier take to give it some oomph.

 

But by this point Huston was an old pro, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison stills works relatively well. It’s a handsomely made production, it’s just clearly a second or third-tier entry in his work. Much like the superior The African Queen, this film is primarily a two-hander of mismatched would-be lovers; this time around, a soldier and nun trapped on an island in the South Pacific during WWII as Japanese troops slowly encroach upon them.

 

Where the treatment of this story gets frustrating is in the ways the military and church as institutions requiring complete surrender to their ideologies get only surface-level exploration. The feverish erotic yearnings between the two of them are demurred, and I wonder what a possessed, traumatized catholic could have spun from this material. Huston was too much a rascal to dig deep into this fertile ground, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison eventually settles into movie star watching.

 

This still leaves Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison with enough charms to recommend a viewing as Kerr and Mitchum deliver very fine work here. Kerr was a stronger all-around actor than Mitchum, and she fares better here with the thin material. She seemed to excel in roles that demanded her to repress her sexuality, although nothing comes close to ripe hysteria of The Innocents or the slow burn of Black Narcissus. Kerr and Mitchum develop a believable chemistry, and her lady-like charms mesh well with his alpha-male brusqueness.

 

It’s enjoyable, but lazily rendered with nothing approaching the specificity of the desert in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the jungles in The African Queen. There are a few great scenes, some enthralling movie star charisma, but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is more dutiful than anything else. It’s lightweight, it’s fun, but it doesn’t rival any of the canonized masterpieces in Mitchum, Kerr, or Huston’s various bodies of work.



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Cheaper by the Dozen

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 17 April 2016 04:18 (A review of Cheaper by the Dozen)

I cannot muster up much in the way of poisoned-pen enthusiasm for this one, in fact, I cannot muster up much of anything for it. Cheaper by the Dozen sticks its three major stars in thankless roles, has them acting out less than amusing vignettes, and feels much longer than its meager 85 minutes.

 

This was once considered a crown jewel of family entertainment, and I suppose changing tastes have rendered it a dated, faded relic of a by-gone era. Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy are parents to a never-ending brood of overly precocious brats, with Jeanne Crain stuck in the blandest role of her career as the narrator and eldest daughter. The only time Crain gets to emote is when she understandably goes into lusty contortions over the dreamy Craig Hill throughout the film.

 

Other than that, there’s no true through line or plot to this, just a series of sitcom-level gags and stories strung together. A particularly unfunny one involves Mildred Natwick as a planned parenthood advocate becoming the joke of this ever-breeding family unit. Director Walter Lang is impersonal with his craft here, as if he knew he had a dead weight and tried his best to just power through. Webb and Loy, ever the consummate professionals, give their all, but we’ve seen Loy deliver perfect housewives in better films, and Webb’s monomaniacal behavior was put to better ends in Laura. Cheaper by the Dozen really lives up to its title, as there’s about a dozen short stories strung together to make this.



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Chicago

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 30 March 2016 09:24 (A review of Chicago)

24-karat cynicism at its most entertaining. Chicago is a solid racehorse of a movie musical, and it feels more classic in its presentation than many of its contemporaries. It loads the cast up with movie stars (a mixed bag, but mostly successful), glittery costumes, and grandiose production numbers. It might skirt some of the deeper thematic material at play, but it gives us, as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn sings, the old razzle dazzle and has us begging for more.

 

Chicago tells the story of a dreamer with questionable talent but titanic ambition, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), who is arrested for the murder of her lying lover and goes on to some amorphous level of fame thanks to playing the media. Pushing the limits of the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” the merry murderess brushes up against the fallen vaudeville starlet Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the prison matron Mama (Queen Latifah), and her lawyer (Richard Gere) on her way towards the Jazz Age’s equivalent of reality star fame.

 

The relationship between Roxie, Velma, and Billy is the diseased heart of the piece, and if some of the acid from the Broadway show has been demurred, then it smartly tries to copy pieces of Bob Fosse’s style in translating it from stage to screen. Director Rob Marshall is no Fosse though, and a few of his editing choices are just frenzied and strange, lacking the organized chaos of Cabaret and All That Jazz. Still, Marshall borrows a few of the smarter ideas that Fosse created with Chicago, like the surgical removal of a bulk of the musical numbers from the narrative proper, and plucks them down into Roxie’s imagination.

 

The musical numbers work less as narrative propulsion then they do as running color commentary on the various characters and plot developments. A few of them are quite clever, like the brief moment in “All That Jazz” when Roxie mentally replaces Velma on stage, or when Billy turn the press and Roxie into puppets during the press conference setting of “We Both Reached for the Gun.” “We Both Reached for the Gun” is the wittiest part of the movie, in a movie filled with biting wit, as it lays bare the culpability of the press in turning murderers into folk heroes and transforming journalism into pulp fiction.

 

Those pulpy headlines are a battleground between Roxie and Velma, as they try to achieve fame, or infamy depending on how you look at it, through the press, and their ability to manipulate it into spinning highly melodramatic, largely fictional variations of their stories. Velma becomes something a pitiable figure, as she starts off as the big girl on the cell block before having to make fake-nice with her rival. This culminates in “I Can’t Do It Alone,” Velma’s solo ode to the joys of working in a duo, and Zeta-Jones’ dancing is an athletic wonder.

 

In fact, throughout Chicago Zeta-Jones steals the damn show with her long legs a few seconds away from a high-kick, her face framed in a flattering bob, and filling every frame with a dominating, lusty sexuality. She earned her Oscar by then end of “All That Jazz,” which is the opening number, and only solidifies her win by playing moments up for camp, high-concentrated bitchery, or a shocking tenderness in quiet moments. She’s the clear highlight of the piece, but she’s not alone in giving a great performance.

 

John C. Reilly as Roxie’s dim bulb husband Amos, a soul too pure for the world of this musical, makes for a perfect sad sack. His “Mr. Cellophane” is a moment of quiet emotional truth in a story obsessed with artifice and what we would call “branding” nowadays. Then there’s Renée Zellweger as Roxie, who is clearly not a dancer, but is surprisingly warm as a singer, and comes across as more vulnerable and hungry than I remembered previously. She sells the hell out of “Roxie” and “Funny Honey,” but her technical limitations are evidenced in “Hot Honey Rag,” as she’s editing to the point of being anarchic while trying to dance next to Zeta-Jones. Still, her rough edges work well with the character, who is more dreamer than talent.

 

Even better is Queen Latifah’s Mama, as she belts out a fun, double entendre filled number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” and she leans in to the queer aspects of the character. So does Christine Baranski as reporter Mary Sunshine, going full drag queen in her minimal screen time. Richard Gere is the lone star that left me a little cold. He’s fine in the dramatics, but his vocals are occasionally reedy, and his big dance number is all 101 steps and difficult, so he never gets his big, glory moment in a musical that gives them to everyone else. He does fine supporting work, but he seems a little out-of-element in his musical numbers at times.

 

At a little under two hours with fifteen musical numbers, Chicago is a conventionally filmed musical that works like gangbusters. No fancy trickery is needed for this story, but the discordant editing hurts at times more than it energizes. It’s still one of the best recent movie musicals, and one hell of an entertaining ride with a perfect sense of pacing, as it just keeps going at a pleasing rhythm. It captures the vibe of sex and moral sordidness that marked the Jazz Age, and that audaciousness makes Chicago great.



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All That Jazz

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 March 2016 04:23 (A review of All That Jazz)

Heavily indebted to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ in its combination of reality and fantasy in exploring the artistic mind and temperament, All That Jazz is a reflective, energetic movie about a genius director/choreographer grappling with impending death. For such weighty material, All That Jazz feels incredibly alive, joyous even in its combination of self-examination and mordant humor.

 

Bob Fosse was one of the greats. Whether talking about choreography or directing, Fosse must be mentioned in the pantheon of world-class level masters of the craft. His film career got to a bumpy start with Sweet Charity, but his next feature, Cabaret, was a work of absolute greatness. He changed the musical not only on stage with works like Chicago and Pippin, but in the movies, with the game-changing editing tricks of All That Jazz and Cabaret.

 

Fosse turns his camera into a scan of his own brain, body, and soul. All That Jazz is littered with self-reflective choices, from storytelling beats, character relationships and interactions, to casting choices. Based on the time in Fosse’s life when he was editing Lenny and prepping Pippin for its Broadway debut, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), as he juggles his directing duties with his relationships with his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend (Ann Reinking), his daughter (Erzsebet Foldi), and the angel of death, Angelique (Jessica Lange).

 

Love and death are eternally twisting and contorting around each other, and Gideon/Fosse are constantly reflecting, or deflecting, their own mortality and moral culpability. Palmer’s Gwen Verdon stand-in has an equally complex relationship with the fictional Fosse, as she is starring in his new stage show as a mea culpa from him for his years of philandering. While Reinking is doing a spin on her actual life at the time, and her presence is no less complicated as she is one of the three muses who chastise and celebrate him during his hospital hallucinations.

 

The most obvious example of this moral and mortality, love and death geometry are the frequent cutaways to a hallucinatory mind palace where Gideon flirts, argues, and makes a case for his life with Angelique. Lange’s natural coolness is used to tremendous effect here as she mostly sits impassively and calls him out on his bullshit, appearing almost charmed and entertained by his continual copping out.

 

All That Jazz never asks for us to like Gideon, only to try and understand him even as he exhibits self-destructive and questionable behavior. He’s a fascinating, complex character, brought to fully lived-in life by Roy Scheider, in a performance that should have gotten him an Oscar but he was up against Dustin Hoffman’s more likable protagonist in Kramer vs Kramer. Scheider’s cracked handsome face can project a tremendous amount of emotional range and complexity with relatively little movement. He does a tour de force of minimalistic acting in “Bye Bye Life,” an extended death rattle in Gideon’s imaginary life.

 

For all of Gideon’s obsession with his mortality, given a not-so-subtle hint in his morning ritual of eye drops, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, ever-present cigarette and daily dose of sex, turns his imaginary life into an Ingmar Bergman-like confessional. We trace his history, his penchant for mordant humor, and cathartic peace making with the important individuals in his life. For all the obsessive flirtations and ruminations on mortality, All That Jazz is the liveliest tango with death you’ll ever watch.

 

The sweaty bodies in geometric patterns and angular movements of Fosse’s choreography are all there, and his dancer orgy is one of the great extended dance sequences in cinema. Yet what really lingers in Fosse’s dark humor, or the way he undercuts his brilliant choreography with a punchline. After the erotic dance is completed, his backers are in a frenzy of complaints about its vulgarity. Or how he cross-cuts between his beautiful imagination, and his open-heart surgery. Or how he drops in a meeting with his backers learning that if he dies, and they let the show die, they’ll walk away with a fortune, in effect allowing Angelique to get a two-for-one special. But no joke is quite as dark as the final image, with Gideon’s body getting wrapped up in a bag as Ethel Merman belts out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” over the soundtrack. It’s a sick joke, but it’s also a brilliant bit of editing.

 

Viciously honest, All That Jazz is a masterpiece of the artist at work, at the end of his life, and a dazzling piece of eye candy. But there’s more to it than its sweaty, grimy, beautiful, and haunted surface textures, as the narrative is a bounty of rich, dense dramatic material. Fosse only made five films, two of which are pinnacles of the movie musical that completely changed how we viewed their editing and emotional tactile senses. This is the movie that Nine tried to be.



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Grease

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 28 March 2016 03:42 (A review of Grease)

Inexplicably the highest grossing movie musical ever, Grease is a soulless, synthetic experience. There's no real personality here to speak of, just an indifference to style and substance. This is normally not a huge problem with musicals, as they make up for a lack of heavy substance with an abundance of style. Grease offers none of that.

 

I know I’m in the minority here, as Grease is insanely popular, a cult film that just won’t have the good taste to not infect itself upon our pop culture consciousness every chance it gets. There’s something understandable about its omnipresence though, as it’s entirely appeal is that of pure nostalgia. A scrubbed clean version of nostalgia in which the social, economic, and political realities is nowhere to be found, and only the outward lies of the images and memories of the era are presented.

 

But that still doesn’t entirely explain away its continued popularity. It is empty calories, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as plenty of beloved films are pure artifice and joyous, but Grease can’t even bother to populate its musical with actors who can sing, singers who can act, or numerous players who can dance. Many movie musicals are shining, happy artificial escapist entertainments, and they’re memorable for moments like flirtatious tap dance between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly’s impressionistic ballets in his 50s output.

 

Grease doesn’t have any of that, as the editing cuts away to hide the fact that many of them can’t dance, but there’s no disguising the fact that they can’t sing. John Travolta is an obvious offender for this, as his entire vocal performance is a poor Elvis Presley impression, and those high notes in “Summer Nights” are painful. Olivia Newton-John sings marvelously, as well she should since that was her main profession, but she’s not an actress. Many of her scenes feature a blank-eyed stare, or a general sense that she’s looking just slightly off camera at someone giving her a thumbs up/down in response to her emoting.

 

Even worse is that Grease is supposed to be a teenager rock and roll movie, and all of the cast members are clearly ten to fifteen years older than their respective characters. Most of them are indifferent to performing, and it becomes distracting to watch someone pushing thirty playing a wide-eyed, horny eighteen-year-old. The only performance of any worth is Stockard Channing’s Rizzo, the most dynamic character in the entire piece. This is highly ironic as Channing is the oldest of the cast members, but she’s the only one who can breathe life into her role.

 

For a rock and roll pastiche, many of the new songs sound more like seventies soft rock than the appropriate era. The clearest example being “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” a guilty pleasure to be sure, but it wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Debbie Boone album. Even worse is how lackluster so many of the musical numbers are. “Hopelessly” is supposed to be a swoony romance, and the staging isn’t terrible, but the direction is lacking in energy, wit, or any emotion. It torpedoes this number, but it’s not the only one.

 

Director Randal Kleiser turns a randy teenage musical into an antiseptic experience. Many of the hornier jokes are presented flatly, with no irony or camp or joy. You’re seriously going to just present a hotdog jumping into a bun during Danny’s lovesick number without a punchline? Or the “Hand Jive” that obviously looks like a pantomimed hand job, but it filmed as straight-faced as possible. There’s no personality to Grease, and when you strip away much of the bawdy humor you strip away something central to the piece. In spite of this limp, smile-plastered tone, only the veteran players (Joan Blondell, Sid Caesar, Frankie Avalon, and Eve Arden among them) leave a positive lasting impression. It doesn’t matter how much I rail against this dumb, lumbering thing, as its promise of eternal summer optimism will continually be eaten up. If Rydell High is where you want to hang out for two hours, I won’t stop you. But you can find me at the Kit Kat Club.



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Cabaret

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 28 March 2016 02:51 (A review of Cabaret)

I came across Cabaret the first time at a highly formative time in my life. I was around 11 or 12, and I found it on cable. Clearly, I didn’t understand every single nuance, yet the content spoke to me on a very deep level. As time has gone on, Cabaret has only solidified in my mind as the obvious choice for greatest movie musical ever made.

 

This isn’t your typical musical, as it takes place in a very recognizable real world, with all of the musical numbers mostly kept to the Kit Kat Club, and the various musical numbers providing diegesis commentary. Then there is the ambiguity of the ending, which could almost be read as defiant and hopeful if it weren’t for the pan across the crowd in the finale revealing an audience comprised of Nazi youth.

 

Taking place at the exact time when the Weimar Republic was ending and the Nazis were gaining more power and traction in German society, Cabaret lives up to Sally Bowles’ “divine decadence” philosophy of life. Presenting a society of corrosion and perverted sexuality, with Bob Fosse keeping a cool distance from the proceedings. Other musicals are easier to swallow because they’re warm and inviting, they’re wholesome and filled with emotional uplift, but Cabaret stands in opposition to them.

 

Much like Christopher Isherwood’s impassive, documentary-style writing in The Berlin Stories, Cabaret is made up of acutely realized details and character developments. Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories are filled with memorable characters, and many of them are translated from page-to-screen with great success, but none quite as brilliantly as Sally Bowles.

 

In the novel (and stage show), Sally Bowles is an obviously untalented drug addict, and she’s not quite that here. Part of the change in character comes from Liza Minnelli, a thoroughbred performer with a raft-shaking voice and phenomenal dance talent. This version of Sally is all artifice, a commitment to exuberance, life’s many thrills, and an addiction to nihilistic pleasures of living solely in the moment. She makes “Cabaret” into both a declaration of self, and a defiant anthem of desperation. This Sally is no less self-destructive, but if she could get her act together she could become the top-billed shining star she dreams of. That’s never going to happen, and when the smiling mask cracks, Minnelli reveals the swirling, tortured, ugly emotions forcing Sally into chasing joy at all costs. Hers is one of the best Oscar wins, ever.

 

Sally’s psychic torment in pursuit of merriment is a microcosm of much of the film, with the Kit Kat Club being the diseased soul reflecting back what she’s showing us. Led by Joel Grey’s grinning imp of an emcee. He leads us through not only the cabaret, but through the story, as the film constantly cuts back to the Kit Kat Club and the emcee either performing or introducing a performance, and he becomes something of a twisted narrator and guide. He’s also the first major character we meet in the opening number, “Willkommen.”

 

That opening number reflects back on the cosmopolitan nature in its death throes of the era. These numbers don’t necessarily propel the story forward, so much as they act as running commentary stripped from the storytelling. “Mein Herr” is Sally’s first number, and not only does it introduced important aspects of her character, but it hints at the demise of her relationship with Brian (Michael York) one scene after they’ve been introduced to each other. “Two Ladies” makes explicit the ménage a trois between Sally, Brian, and Max (Helmut Griem), and it’s also an absolute laugh riot of lascivious and bawdy humor. And “If You Could See Her” ends with a punchline about a person being Jewish right when the Nazis are appearing more and more often after only having been on the periphery for some much of the film. It also makes the film audience a duplicitous member of the laughing cabaret audience.

 

The one musical number to not take place in the Kit Kat Club, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” is a haunting, waking nightmare. As a blond Nazi youth begins singing, the crowd in the beer garden is met with a tense, unease at first, before the crowd gives in and starts singing along. The sequence ends with Brian and Max driving away while the entire beer garden stands in solidarity with the Nazi youth, and it is terrifying. It’s also a perfect symbolic gesture for the rising antisemitism of the era.

 

All of this is so memorable because of Bob Fosse’s expert direction, which is electric in energy and unique editing choices. Most musicals edit on the beats of the score, or to capture the energy of the dancers. Fosse and David Bretherton’s editing is dynamic and rhythmic, but also completely original. Chicago is obviously indebted to Cabaret’s cross-cutting techniques and surgical removal of the musical numbers, but it can’t compete with the greatness on display here.

 

Cabaret ends just as Nazism is taking its stranglehold on the country, and these sexually amorphous, gender-bending, and deviant characters will either be flushes out of the society or escape of their own volition. Glamorously broken, this is a film that presents a subterranean group in its final cries of despair, masked as they are by subversion of emotional and political truths. It’s at times hard to explain the sheer depth of feeling and artistry so evident when you watch Cabaret, but it’s one of the greatest films we’ve ever produced.



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Grease

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Cabaret

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Comments

Posted: 3 weeks, 4 days ago at Apr 29 15:46
At last! I'm finally done with this list...
Thanks again for your help.

If you are interested, you can check the end-result :
Listal's 100 Films To See Before You Die (2016)
Posted: 1 month, 3 weeks ago at Mar 30 15:29
Thanks for your help! The list has been updated :
http://www.listal.com/list/listals-100-films-see-before-4551
Posted: 3 months, 1 week ago at Feb 11 16:24
Yes, it is once again time for our yearly tradition. What is the best movie, according to you, Listal member? What are you waiting for?!? VOTE!!!!

http://www.listal.com/list/listals-100-films-see-before-4551
Posted: 2 years, 7 months ago at Oct 26 17:23
Posted: 3 years, 1 month ago at Apr 8 14:36
hi friend check out my new list .
hope you like it and thanks for your
time
http://www.listal.com/list/love-these-posters
Posted: 3 years, 1 month ago at Mar 30 14:02
This might just sound schize, but thanks for re-writing my "Pocahontas" review-- saves me the trouble of figuring it all out *again* myself, a-hahahaha....
Posted: 3 years, 2 months ago at Mar 18 22:57
Thanks for participating in my lists.
Sorry, but you can't do another top, really sorry.
But thanks.
Posted: 3 years, 2 months ago at Mar 10 18:22
Thanks for taking part in my musicals list!

I also know how you feel, I found it hard to limit my choices down to 10.
Posted: 3 years, 4 months ago at Jan 19 23:47
hey friend check out my new list. hope you like it
http://www.listal.com/list/reflecting-beuty
Posted: 3 years, 5 months ago at Dec 21 16:14
Hello there! I enjoyed your review of Dracula and took myself the freedom to link it to my Universal Horror Films - Best to Worst list. Hope you're fine with that!
Posted: 3 years, 10 months ago at Jul 21 2:52
Thank u 4 your comment on the muses list. Suggestion added.
Posted: 4 years, 3 months ago at Jan 27 21:05
I'm working on a new project. Maybe you can check it out and help me. From which State are you from? and in which State are you living right now?

http://www.listal.com/list/around-usa-listals-members

(I may have asked you this already earlier, in this case, apology for the inconvenience!)
Posted: 4 years, 10 months ago at Jul 16 13:06
I'm working on a new project. Maybe you can check it out and help me. From which State are you from? and in which State are you living right now?

http://www.listal.com/list/around-usa-listals-members
Posted: 5 years, 6 months ago at Nov 18 1:19
O.O Thanks!!
Posted: 7 years, 4 months ago at Jan 12 20:17
cool reviews =]
Posted: 7 years, 6 months ago at Nov 15 17:51
Posted: 7 years, 9 months ago at Aug 12 18:48
Hey man, I see you're pretty new, I'm loving the reviews though! Great job.

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