Talking Movies

July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Hairspray

The first deep dive into the last remaining cache of pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up one of James Marsden’s two quite mad 2007 feel-good musicals.

Baltimore, 1962: a young girl dreams of being picked as a dancer on a local TV show. She may be overweight but she can dance and her friendship with a black dancer may just be the beginning of the end for the racist policies of the network…

If you’ve watched Ugly Betty you’ll remember the joyous scene where Betty’s nephew Justin, stranded on the Subway while trying to get to Broadway, entertains the other passengers with a spirited rendition of Hairspray’s opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’. As show-openers go it’s quite a tune and it sets the tone for the rest of this film, joyously upbeat with a healthy serving of camp outrageousness, as can be seen in John Waters’ cameo during the song, which is far too good a comic moment to ruin here. Like Ugly Betty, Hairspray’s campness gives it a licence to make all manner of outrageous gags. Consider Corny Collins’ (James Marsden) lyrics introducing his show: “Where nice white kids lead the way/And once a month we have Negro day”. The music is at all times bouncy, apart from one suitably sombre ballad sung by Queen Latifah during a civil rights march, but it’s the lyrics that take your breath away over and over again with their barbed wit.

Tracy Turnblad is handpicked for the Corny Collins’ show after he sees her new moves, learnt from a black dancer (Elijah Kelley) in detention (in a typical gag only black kids and fat white kids seem to get detention in this school). Amber, the lead dancer, is fiercely resentful of this and her mother, the network director, goes all out to get Tracy off the show and get rid of her corrupting influence; she thinks TV should “push kids in the white direction”. Michelle Pfeiffer’s first song, done in the style of Marlene Dietrich, is a delicious introduction to her Aryan villain Velma Von Tussell. The large ensemble does justice to this camp material with a serious subtext. Zac Efron channels his inner James Dean as moody hunk Link (with whom Tracy falls head over heels in love) while Amanda Bynes is a revelation as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gone are the irritating tics displayed in She’s the Man and in their place genuine comic timing. John Travolta is hilarious in drag as Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t left her house since 1951 because of anxiety over her weight. His song and dance duet with Christopher Walken is a highlight.

The film does sag a bit towards the end and you fear it’s running out of steam as the savage reality of racism deflates the camp exuberance but then the mad logic of musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain) comes into operation and the finale comes up trumps. It’s always sunny in Baltimore.

4/5

April 25, 2019

Prince: 10 Songs

1999

Purple Rain

When Doves Cry

Raspberry Beret

Sign ‘O’ The Times

U Got the Look

I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man

Kiss

Cinnamon Girl

Baltimore

October 6, 2017

The Mountain Between Us

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded in the Rockies in a two-hander that feels like it was scripted by Bear Grylls and Nicholas Sparks.

Ben (Idris Elba) is stuck at an airport due to bad weather. He needs to get back to Baltimore to perform life-saving brain surgery on a young patient. Alex (Kate Winslet) is stuck at the same airport. She needs to get back to NYC to get married. She comes up with some ingenious lateral thinking. They should charter a small propellor plane to do the short hop to Colorado where they can make connecting flights. Walter (Beau Bridges) flew missions into Vietnam with people shooting at him, what’s the worst thing that could happen in a bit of bad weather? I mean apart from Walter having a stroke at the controls? And even if you do crash, what’s the worst that could happen? Get seriously menaced by a cougar? I mean Kim Bauer got through that. Yeah, book that plane guys!

There is some fantastically captured scenery in The Mountain Between Us, and some very nice shots by cinematographer Mandy Walker locating the actors in the middle of a vast snowy wilderness. But that’s about as far as you can go with anything approaching unqualified praise. I was genuinely astonished during the credits to find the score had been written by Ramin Djawadi as it had made no impression whatsoever. Indeed the abiding impression was that this film was long, in particular its final 20 minutes make this 104 minute movie feel about 134 minutes, as the inevitable point is hummed and hawed at before being reached. And the point should equally inevitably make Speed fans think of a certain repeated line of dialogue.

Too often this feels like a bad Bones episode, except for tiresome faith v science arguments you get Ben needing to stop trying to control everything and just take risks like the free-spirited photographer who got him into this mess in the first place. And there are painful screenwriting 101 conceits piled up higher than some of the snowdrifts they encounter – of course you wouldn’t tell anybody where you were going and what you were doing before you got stranded, of course you wouldn’t assume you can get cell reception atop the Rockies, of course you wouldn’t eat Walter’s dog for food, of course you wouldn’t let Alex’s injured leg imperil chances of survival, of course Ben wouldn’t be so colossally stupid and unaware as to not wear his gloves and endanger his fingers by frostbite leading to losing his ability to perform brain surgery and so have to relinquish control over his life to fit the neat thematic statement the movie is apparently attempting to make.

The moment you might remember most from this underwhelming romance/adventure is when Idris Elba announces that he’s from Britain but now lives in Baltimore.

2.5/5

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

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Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

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