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

May 22, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XII

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Films of the Decade, already?!

I was horrified when Paul Fennessy sent me a Films of the Decade list that had appeared on the World of Reel website on the 30th of April. April?! Can we not start obsessing over this until 1st of December?! I am dreading the end of the year and all these fevered lists and attendant arguments enough as it is without having them blunder into my consciousness in early summer. As I’ve said before on this topic, way back in October 2009, lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. I found it far easier in 1998 to make a list of the single film that defined each decade from the 1930s to the 1990s than I did in 2009 to make a Top 10 Films of the 2000s list. The agonising questions from October 2009 are equally valid now I feel: Should you simply pick the films you liked best? Or should it be films that in some (in)tangible way summed up the decade? If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over later, better films that needed the precursor’s breakthrough? (Do you pick films you didn’t like/really see because they’re ‘important’?) Do you load the list with films that only 100 people in the country ever saw? Is it permissible to introduce quotas for foreign films to get round the popular imagination being defined by America? Do you even need to get round that? Does a film need to be set in its own decade or can it define it by allegory? Do you try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible? If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting? I ended up thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserves place most. I then offered a Top 20 Films of the 2000s. I’m not going to do that now because this is May. I don’t think much of World of Reel’s list, not least because it includes an entire season of a TV show as a film of the decade. I’d like to revise my 2000s list please to include season 2 of The West Wing on that idiotic basis.

 

Oscar bait is temporary, Benny Goodman is forever

I was ecstatic watching this advertisement with my Dad in February to note that Benny Goodman’s rendition of ‘Sing Sing Sing’ has now lost all association with dire 2011 movie The Artist to which it was forcibly yoked during its prolonged Oscar-campaign. Benny’s swing has ascended once again to the realm of glorious music, and The Artist has been mercifully forgotten as the inept worthless gimmick it was. Seriously, when was the last time you heard anyone rave about that movie? Stitching together elements of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain while using Vertigo’s music to generate emotion a film about a four year sulk could not manage on its own is not to be applauded. Mugging in the way silent movie actors had to because of the lack of sound is not to be applauded anymore than someone forgetting how to paint with perspective. ‘Ah, they don’t make ’em like they used to.’ What?! This film was far too popular with critics because it massaged a peculiar obscurantist spot, that one which is akin to someone saying theatre was never as good after they took the masks off. This film was always a spurious silent movie, and nobody cares to remember they were made to root for this film as a feel good throwback by the fallacious aggressive marketing of one H. Weinstein.

August 24, 2018

Somewhere Else

Gorgeous Theatre returns to the intimate space of Players Theatre with a 21st century spin on some mid-20th century influences.

Gene (Noel Cahill) is on a journey, destination unknown. As he says, “I must leave this place. Find another. A different place altogether”. His quest to get somewhere else sees him travel to the archetypal big city; with the help and hindrance of Tonya Swayne’s assorted characters; repeatedly meet and attempt to impress a mysterious woman (Saoirse Sine), and be perpetually annoyed by two manically energetic characters (Emma Brennan, Tanja Abazi) who dog his steps with requests for him to join their fun and just for once stay where they are. (And also annoy him with a door he does not want to see.) It takes a while, and much physical mayhem, before the pieces fall into place, and the guiding maxim might well be Kierkegaard’s aphorism that life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Ciaran Treanor’s script and direction doffs its hat at times to Chaplin; Cahill executes delirious pratfalls and turns a mechanical sequence of dishwashing into slapstick chaos. At other times, with the wonderful cardboard props of misbehaving taxis, buses, aeroplanes, and even a raft, we seem to be firmly in Thurber territory; Gene a Walter Mitty with extravagant daydreams to escape a humdrum reality. But that the urban reality conjured by Erin Barclay and Louise Dunne’s inventive set design comprises some 70 boxes that part to reveal the nightlights of a CITY skyscraper, which, when Cahill and Sine dance in front of it recalls the ‘Gotta Dance’ fantasy sequence in Singin’ in the Rain. Not that all these familiar notes get in the way of Treanor’s originality anymore than La La Land’s borrowings prevented it from doing something new and unexpected.

3.5/5

November 24, 2010

Less than Glee-ful

I’ve finally been provoked into attacking Glee by its Gwyneth Paltrow episode, which showcased many of the reasons I dislike the show.

The endless hype is unbearable. Constant gossipy leaks about what songs will be used in forthcoming episodes and who’s going to appear in what role as a guest star. If a show advertises weekly who’s guest-starring and what they’re doing you would think it’s in trouble ratings-wise. Glee though seems to have made this its paradigm. But it is pathetic. If a show is good I will watch it, week after week. I wouldn’t tune into The Event randomly because they advertised that Bruce Campbell would be guest-starring. You know why? The Event is awful. Glee also cleaves to the approach of the film Chicago in apologising for being a musical. “Oh, it’s okay; they’re only singing because they’re in a choir or because it’s a fantasy sequence,” it seems to say. Well it’s not okay. I like musicals! I want characters to sing because they’re in a musical!! It is as if a gangster film had characters shrug apologetically at the camera every time someone ordered a hit or bribed a cop.

Glee is painfully formulaic. How many episodes wrap up with someone predictably learning a life-lesson through dialogue that you could guess almost from the cold open? Sure there are wincingly off-colour jokes along the way but on the macro level everything is staidly predictable. It’s like putting three drops of vinegar in an old wine bottle. Perhaps you need a different type of container… Even Talking Movies favourite Joss Whedon failed to puncture this bubble of self-satisfied obviousness in the episode he directed. When Matthew Morrison delivered a fatuous line about how much Glee meant to them at school and still meant now, and Neil Patrick Harris groaned and knocked his head against the bar, I waited for a wincing put-down of such sentimental shtick. Instead the god-like NPH merely moaned about missing Glee… Little wonder then that the season 1 finale scaled new peaks of cliché in juxtaposing Quinn’s labour with the rival club’s performance of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, before introducing an ocean of character inconsistency to allow Sue Sylvester ensure a second season before remembering who she was and confirming that she would remain their in-house villain.

Finally the show is an enormous live-action fax machine. Why re-stage David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ shot for shot? Where precisely is the artistic achievement in replicating the ‘Timewarp’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the closing number from Chicago, or the astounding ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ routine from Singin’ in the Rain? I’ve seen a theatrical Rocky Horror Show that gleefully diverged from the film’s over-familiar staging more than Glee ever dreamt of doing. A mere facsimile of an original adds nothing. The Bangles’ ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ pales next to Heathers’ ‘Float On’, which completely re-works that Modest Mouse original. Glee by contrast offers as a ‘re-working’ a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’/‘Umbrella’ mash-up, which ruined both songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was misfiring, but its sometimes inspired staging and re-working of incredibly familiar Beatles songs expose Glee’s lack of ambition. It begs the question is Glee a mere spark-notes, a substitute for people too lazy to watch the original musicals?

It’s like watching a teenager type out ‘The Dead’ on their laptop. Perfectly re-enacting something that didn’t need re-enacting because it was perfect the first time round will get you no respect. It shouldn’t. It deserves none. Just ask Gus Van Sant…

I can’t wait for people to get tired of this show.

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