Thursday, August 25, 2022

Mother, Jugs and Speed

Apparently, nostalgia for the 1970s has been overtaking me which accounts for my re-watching of this dark comedy which I saw when it first came out in 1976. I was in college and I remember thinking it was a bit cheesy but also kinda daring in how it mixed comedy and drama. With two of the three leading roles taken by 70s icons (Bill Cosby as Mother, Raquel Welch as, well, you know), I would have thought this might not have weathered the years too well, but it remains surprisingly watchable, though today's young people might not dig it.

The title trio works for a scrappy little ambulance service in Los Angeles. Mother is the old hand, cocky and confident as he swigs beer from the driver's seat; Jugs is the office dispatcher who is taking night classes to get certified to be a driver, though the big boss (a wonderfully slimy Allen Garfield) isn't yet ready for women in the ambulances; Speed (Harvey Keitel) is the new guy, a cop currently under investigation on corruption charges. There is some character development along the way, including Jugs and Speed becoming an item, but mostly the film jolts from one emergency call to another. Mostly they're played for darkish humor, with the funniest moment being an attempt to get a woman on a stretcher down from a second floor apartment that goes hilariously awry. Sometimes there is tragedy: there is one death in the ambulance, and one of the drivers is shot dead during an altercation with an out-of-control drug user. The three stars (and Garfield) get most of the spotlight, so it's not exactly an ensemble piece, but there are solid turns from Bruce Davison as a likeably mellow driver and Larry Hagman as a crazed horndog. Keitel, known mostly for fairly intense roles, gets to relax a bit here. It takes some time to get used to him in that mode, but he does a nice job and works up some decent chemistry with Welch. Even Cosby, current-day pariah for his record of sexual assaults, is good. The PG rating is a relic of the era—this might get an R today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

My first exposure to the indie DIY guy Jim Cummings (he writes, directs, produces and acts) was this film from 2020. In the current mode of genre-mixing, it combines horror, dark comedy, and domestic melodrama, and does a pretty fair job of it. In a small snowy town (that I assumed was in Colorado but the film was shot in Utah), Cummings is a single dad, recovering alcoholic, and police officer whose ailing father (character actor legend Robert Forster) is still the town sheriff. There appears to be a particularly savage serial killer loose and the locals eventually assume the deaths are caused by a werewolf. Cummings isn't sure, and with help (and hinderance) from his dad, a female detective (Riki Lindhome), and other cops, Cummings eventually figures things out, though not before falling off the wagon and getting close to a breakdown.

Cummings is both quite handsome and surprisingly good in what winds up being a complex role. His character is (generally) competent, intense, and sensitive, and though there are some quirky walls put up, likeable. Forster died of brain cancer not long after this movie was shot, but if he was sickly, you'd never know it from his performance, which is strong as usual. The snow, all of it real, I assume, adds so much to the atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Movin' with Nancy

On a night honoring Nancy Sinatra, TCM showed her 1967 TV special Movin' With Nancy. I have a vague memory of seeing this when it aired (I would have been 11 years old). Mostly I recall her colorful mod outfits and feeling disappointed that she didn’t sing "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" which had been a big hit the year before. When I flopped down on the couch the other evening for a re-viewing, I expected a delightful trip down psychedelic memory lane, but very quickly I found myself sitting up and taking notes on a rather strange brew.
First, it's not a traditional 60s variety show, on a stage before a live audience; it's a collection of short films that feel very much like 80s music videos. The first features Nancy driving around, singing about needing to get out of town, setting up a sort of theme for the show, tied to its title, although this conceit is jettisoned whenever it doesn't fit. In the second, she escapes into the sky in a big balloon, singing "Up, Up and Away" while a small cadre of dancers in brightly-colored clothes leap in the air. There are two duets with her producer and musical partner Lee Hazlewood: the humorous break-up song "Jackson" and the surreal "Some Velvet Morning," perhaps the strangest pop song to make the Billboard Top 40.

Sinatra's best solo bit comes with "This Town," sung as she walks around mannequins posed in an urban waterfront area. This leads into a cute bit with Dean Martin as he plays her "fairy god-uncle" who uses his cane as a wand to make an unhappy Nancy happier as they duet on "Things." Then a somewhat creepy vibe enters as Nancy sings "Wait Till You See Him" as she stares longingly at bigger-than-life photos of her famous father Frank. Following is her father singing "Younger than Springtime" at a recording session; Nancy enters, watches him finish, then stands with him in an awkward embrace as they listen to the playback. She has a nice scene posing for a fashion shoot with Sammy Davis Jr. as a rather fey photographer and she closes with "Who Will Buy?," a beautifully wistful song from the musical Oliver which turns into a frenetic dance number led by David Winters (A-Rab in West Side Story).
Random observations: First, Nancy Sinatra is not a terribly expressive singer or actor. She’s not exactly wooden, but she frequently looks distracted, or like she's thinking about being more expressive but deciding against it. Her voice is serviceable but not great; she's fine in her duets, but less impressive in her softer songs, like her song in honor of her father. She looks good in her collection of mod 60s styles and she works well with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The concept of filmed outdoor pieces really does feel like a precursor to the later music video genre, and director Jack Haley Jr. deservedly won an Emmy for the show.
Though several of the songs she performs here were radio hits, it's still disappointing that she doesn't do "Boots," especially as it seems to be teased frequently with many close-up shots of Sinatra's boots as she walks. Her duet of "Things" with Dean Martin actually hit #1 in Norway. The TCM showing included the original ads for Royal Crown Cola, being pushed as the "mad, mad cola with the mad, mad taste." Nancy sings one of the ads, as do Dino, Desi & Billy (a teen pop group featuring Dean Martin's son) and a handsome Australian singer named Robie Porter. As an example of the kind of TV special that went the way of the dinosaur, it's an interesting and occasionally enjoyable experience. But it's difficult to get past the discomfort of the daddy stuff (Frank is referred to as "Daddy" in the main credits).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Cinderella 2021

Once again, I fell prey to the lure of a well-made preview. The new musical version of Cinderella from Amazon Studios looked like it would be great fun from the two-minute trailer I saw online. Billy Porter as the fairy godmother? A village of people singing and dancing to "Rhythm Natio"”? Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver as the King and Queen? (And speaking of Queen, "Somebody to Love" is sung by the Prince and his buddies.) Yes please, I thought. But no, all hopes were dashed upon seeing the other 110 minutes of the movie. Director and writer Kay Cannon had notable ambitions in creating a female empowerment pop-musical fairy tale film, and a couple of sequences shine, but it fails to come together to make a satisfying whole.

In this iteration of the old standard tale, Cinderella (singer Camila Cabello) is an aspiring dress designer whose dreams are stymied by her wicked stepmother (Idina Menzel) who insists she stay in the basement, smeared by cinders. Meanwhile, the Prince (Nicholas Galitzine) is being pressured by his parents to pick a bride--ideally a good political choice to keep the kingdom on its feet--but he is still into partying with his bros and is in no hurry to settle down. His folks decide to host a ball, invite the whole village, and make the Prince pick a wife. A Fairy Godmother (Billy Porter, who is the best thing about the movie but who is only in it for about ten minutes) transforms Cinderella into… and so on. The biggest change in the story, and one I wholeheartedly applaud, is that Cinderella's real desire isn't for a man, but for a dress business, which could be enabled not by the Prince but by a wealthy village woman. 

The problem here isn't the basic story or dialogue, it's pretty much everything else. Mostly, the songs here are pre-existing pop songs, and while I enjoy seeing familiar music pop up in unusual settings, here the songs seem to be shoehorned in, sometimes to make up for lack of plot or character development. It's kind of thrilling to see Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation" as a village-wide dance number, but sadly, the lyrics mean absolutely nothing in context. These townsfolk are not fighting injustice or trying to improve their society, or joining together in any way. They're just doing a nicely choreographed production number--that is, by the way, poorly and unimaginatively shot, as are most of the big numbers in the movie. I could pick apart every other production number, but you get the drift. There are a couple of new songs written for the movie, but they aren't especially memorable.

As for the performances, there’s not a lot to say. Most everyone is OK and not much more. Camila Cabello is a popular singer, but her rough voice didn't fit the songs here. For me, her acting was better than her singing, but she fails to make the character much different from any other Cinderella figure of film or TV. Nicholas Galitzine is pleasant looking at the prince, but not especially hunky, despite the horde of women who sing the Salt-N-Pepa song "Whatta Man" at him. Better are the adults: Idina Menzel gets to sing "Material Girl" and makes the wicked stepmother a bit more than the usual stereotype. Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver are quite good as the King and Queen. Most of the singing sounds overly processed, but I guess that’s the trend these days. Overall, a nice idea for an update, but not one I can recommend.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

This delightful movie was a Covid orphan, eventually seeing the light of day on Hulu. Imagine a long Saturday Night Live sketch that's a cross between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Austin Powers. Two lifelong friends (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) go on a resort vacation in Florida and have wildly improbable comic adventures. A friend noted that, as in the Pee-Wee movie, Barb and Star live in the real world, but it's a world where surreal things happen and no one blinks an eye. For example, when they arrive at the resort at Vista Del Mar, the entire staff (of seemingly hundreds) drops what they're doing and welcomes them with a huge production number--think "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast. Our two average-looking 40-something women end up in a 3-way with hunky Jamie Dornan. And a mythical water goddess named Trish saves the day. The Austin Powers influence has to do with the movie's over-the-top villain, also played by Wiig in Dr. Evil mode.

It's kind of a musical; in addition to the Disney-like welcome song, and a lounge pianist singing "I Love Boobies," Jamie Dornan (pictured above) has a great beachside number. It's colorful, sexy, surreal, and makes very litle sense, so it's quite likable if you're in the mood for total silliness. The one flaw is that the movie's high point of delirious silliness comes right off the bat, with a 12-year-old paperboy riding a bike and singing along with Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb. Nothing else in the movie made me laugh quite as hard as this. Still, highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Surreal history

The cinema of Canadian director Guy Maddin is practically a genre unto itself. He uses silent film techniques (including making the image look scratched and splicy like an old movie) in the service of telling offbeat surreal stories of misfits. I appreciate his style more than I actually like it. This movie, The Twentieth Century (2019) is the best movie that Maddin didn't make. It's written and directed by Matthew Rankin, a Canadian acolyte of Maddin's, and though it remains, generally, in the avant-garde realm, it's also quite enjoyable, with a straight-forward narrative, a polished (though still surreal) visual style, and characters who act in relatively rational ways (unlike in most of Maddin's movies).
In theory, this is a film about the early life of 1920's Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, but really it uses his personage as a taking-off point into flights of fancy about unrequited love, ambition, and the Canadian national identity. The plot, though easy to follow, is not one that lends itself to summary. Suffice to say that it's concerned with King's early years as he get involved in politics, suffers through a long unrequited love interest, and deals with his bizarre, bedridden mother. Rankin says in the audio commentary that he consulted the diaries of Rankin to write the movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if that comment is mostly a prank as there is virtually no biographical detail here that I find believable--maybe his shoe fetish and his love/hate relationship with a political rival. 
Visually, however, almost every shot is a joy to behold. Shot in limited space, the sets, with some help from old-fashioned visual effects, manage to feel a bit claustrophobic and still fully formed. The fact that the actors all seem to know what they're doing and what's expected of them helps get us past even the strangest details: a giant puppet bird, a seal-clubbing contest to determine fitness for public office, an anti-masturbation machine. Dan Beirne (as King, pictured sniffing a shoe) remains deadpan and sympathetic through every oddity that Rankin puts him through; Brent Skagford's character (King's rival who occasionally seems attracted to King) is not fleshed out but Skagford (pictured with his tongue out, mocking and flirting with King at the same time) makes him fun to be around. Sarianne Cormier (as a nurse with a crush on King), Catherine St-Laurent (as the woman King desires) and Louis Negin (as the monstrous mother) are also quite good. If you're looking for something different, this is it.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Whatever happened to Encyclopedia Brown?

The Kid Detective (2020): I think Evan Morgan, the director and screenwriter here, had a nice idea--what happens to Encyclopedia Brown when he grows up?--but it seems he wasn't sure how to approach the material. What probably should have been mostly comic (or maybe even incorporated some fantasy elements) becomes a mostly serious mystery, but writing-wise, Morgan doesn't have good mystery chops, so it's mostly the story of the main character (well played by Adam Brody, pictured below), kid genius detective turned adult loser, but sadly we don't get to delve too deeply into his psychological depths (or even shallows).

The films opens in the past with a young girl accepting a ride from someone that it seems she knows, then vanishing. The kid detective (well played in his youth by Jesse Noah Gruman), who had dazzled his small town with his sleuthing abilities, fails to find her. Though he keeps his occupation over the next twenty years or so, his reputation is tarnished--though I love the detail that an ice cream shop owner keeps, somewhat reluctanly, giving him free ice cream even though he is now 32. Things change when a high school student (Sophie Nelisse) stops by to ask him to solve the brutal murder of her boyfriend. As any thoughtful viewer will figure out early on, this case will eventually cross paths with the missing girl case of the past. The details of the mystery story are a bit sloppy and not terribly involving, so the pleasures here are mostly in the acting. Brody is very good, being both sympathetic and being someone you'd like to give a swift kick to. Nelisse is charming, Wendy Crewson as Brody's mom is fine, and the lesser-known Canadian actors fill out their roles well. It does have a satisfying ending, even if some of the details along the way remain murky.