In Hollywood of the early 1930s, no one epitomized the romantic charm of France and continental sophistication of Paris better than Maurice Chevalier. The popular singer and nightclub entertainer had made his American film debut in the early sound era, where his boulevardier persona and lilting accent helped make him a major star in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty musical comedies.
But Chevalier was getting tired of playing what he called “the same old fellow,” the seductive Frenchman sweeping women off their feet and into bed with a smile and wink, and he was battling Irving Thalberg over his MGM assignments when Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered him the lead in Folies Bergre de Paris (1935), a musical comedy that moves from the Paris stage to the world of high society and high finance and back. Zanuck had negotiated the film rights for the legendary Paris show palace and developed the film (based on the play The Red Cat) for Charles Boyer. When Boyer declined, Chevalier took the part.
The film offered Chevalier the opportunity to play two different roles: Folies Bergre headliner Eugene Charlier, a singer famed for his impersonation of Parisian millionaire Baron Fernand Cassini, and the banker and notorious womanizer Cassini himself. British beauty Merle Oberon (in one of her earliest American films) co-stars as Cassini’s wife in “the perfect modern marriage” (they each go their own way) and Ann Sothern is Charlier’s pathologically jealous girlfriend. The two men flirt with one another’s partners, of course, but the play of mistaken and swapped identities gets comically complicated as identities are swapped back and forth and the women use the confusion to play their own games.
The choreography by Dave Gould is right out of the Busby Berkeley playbook, with sets that expand back from the proscenium arch of the physical stage into impossibly epic spaces, dancers that multiply into small armies, overhead cameras that look down on a chorus forming elaborate geometric patterns, and increasingly abstract and surreal sets. The opening number sends Chevalier dancing through a downpour that covers half the stage, and the film ends with the Academy Award-winning “Straw Hat” number, an elaborate set piece built around Chevalier’s trademark boater hat, which becomes the basis for crazy props and massive sets inspired by the texture of the simple straw hat.
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Plays on Thursday, March 7 on TCM
Having a Wild Weekend (Warner Archive), the Dave Clark Five’s answer to “A Hard Day’s Night,” has a title that suggests the knock-about fun and goofy banter of The Beatles on film. To some extent you’ll find that here. The five boys live in what appears to be, at various times, an old church, an abandoned farmhouse, a run-down manor, and a rummage sale in a school gymnasium (thus the trampoline in the middle of the room), but instead of playing music, they play stunt men and extras in a beef industry ad campaign branded “Meat for Go,” which are conspicuously absent of any actual meat in the ads. What the ads seem to sell is the blond charm of poster girl Dinah (Barbara Ferris) and the puckish spirit of five mod young men leaping goofily around her.
Dave Clark is the ostensible lead as Steve, one of the stunt men and the only member of quintet to get something approaching a distinctive character (the other four boys goof around the margins), and he kicks off the story by driving off the commercial in a sports car with a willing Dinah. She’s the bubbly starlet as free spirit next to Clark’s brooding would-be rebel Steve, but Clark has, shall we say, a deficit of screen presence, let alone personality or charisma. Ferris effortlessly dominates by sheer personality and energy. Maybe that’s why Dave Clark never made another film.
Or maybe it’s because “Having a Wild Weekend” is not the happy-go-lucky romp the gag-laden opening promises.
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Little Shop Of Horrors: The Director’s Cut (Warner), the first non-Muppet film directed by Frank Oz, is the big-screen adaptation of the doo-wop Broadway musical about a baritone man-eating plant spun from Roger Corman’s comic horror quickie. In other words, a glossy big budget remake of a zero-budget programmer. You’d think with such a legacy it just wouldn’t work, but the mix of bouncy music, over-saturated color, gee-whiz 1950s parodies and a gloriously phony set recalling the glory days of MGM musicals all comes together into a sly little production that hits all the right notes.
The film was released with a new, happy ending, after terrible audience response to the hilariously apocalyptic original finale that killed off the heroes and set the plants on a rampage over the Earth right out of “King Kong,” “Godzilla,” “The Day of the Triffids,” and dozens of classic invasion films and giant monster romps. This new edition presents both the theatrical version and the original director’s cut, which is wilder than you ever imagined. (That ending was briefly available in a B&W workprint version on a rare disc that was pulled from stores almost immediately; this is in full color and mastered for this release.)
Also includes the new featurette “Frank Oz and Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut,” featuring interviews with Oz and special effects supervisor Richard Conway, and new commentary by Frank Oz on the 20-minute alternate ending, in addition to the supplements carried over from the earlier DVD release: commentary by Frank Oz on the theatrical cut, a light making-of featurette, and outtakes and deleted scenes with optional commentary. Blu-ray and DVD, with a 36-page booklet packaging for the Blu-ray edition.
Rock of Ages (Warner) is both the apogee and the nadir of jukebox rock musicals, a collection of show business clichés wrapped in iconic heavy metal /eighties power pop anthems and delivered via movie star karaoke. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are the ostensible leads here, the gorgeous young hopefuls who work on the Sunset Strip in hopes of breaking into the music business, and they play their roles with earnest intent and dull inevitability. The veteran cast understands the material better, playing it both for oversized melodrama and knowing parody, with Tom Cruise pretty much keeping it aloft with his drugged up, oversexed, washed up arena rocker strutting through the ruins of the hair band culture.
It’s as thin a book as a jukebox musical ever had and pumping it up with stars only shows how little substance they have to work with and how poorly the songs work as reflections of the story. And as executed by director Adam Shankman, this paean to the energy of rock and sex against the forces of repression of the moral police (as represented by Catherine Zeta-Jones) makes for a rather restrained R-rated movie trying to appeal to the post-”Glee” musical fan. It’s so timid that it can’t even commit to a gay love story without resorting to a broad lampoon of romantic clichés, meanwhile playing it straight while trying to convince us that the savior of rock and roll is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Paul Giamatti co-star.
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(Criterion), the 1979 film of Pete Townsend’s landmark rock opera (originally performed by The Who) about teen rebellion and alienation in 1965 London hit the screen under the direction of Franc Roddam with Phil Daniels as the restless, Vespa-riding Jimmy, a Mod in the rock and roll culture wars. The portrait of early sixties Britain, of young adults looking to carve out their own identity distinct from the glum middle class dullness of their parents, and of a music explosion that becomes part of their lives, is astounding, and the desperation of Jimmy’s dive into this vivid but undefined culture reverberates to this day. “I don’t wanna be like everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see?” Sting is memorable as the charismatic Mod leader with a working class secret, future Brit star Ray Winstone is a former mate turned rival rocker, and Timothy Spall has a small role as a fellow working stiff.
It’s not really a musical as much as a rough and ready drama inspired by the story suggested in the rock opera (though the Who’s music underscores the film quite nicely), and it has aged very well over the years. This entire last act is set to the final side of the Who’s album, a brilliant work of rock scoring that suggests the restless, frustrated impulses of confused youth, shouted out in Roger Daltry’s singing and pounded into urgency by Keith Moon’s drumming, as Townsend’s music and lyrics merge into a transcendent convergence of themes and strangled cries of identity. Roddam finds an evocative dramatic translation of the suggestions in Townsend’s lyrics and sends the film off with images as resonant as the music. Can you see the real me? Well, can you?
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Singin’ in the Rain: Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner) is arguably the greatest American musical ever made. It’s certainly one of the most fun, a knockabout look of the transition from silent to sound movies: lousy history but a blast of singing, dancing, romancing energy and color.
Gene Kelly is the vaudeville schlub turned movie stuntman and finally matinee idol who falls in love with girl-next-door extra Debbie Reynolds, much to the slow-burn anger of leading lady Jean Hagen (in a catty performance with a nasal Brooklyn screech). His introduction is brilliant and the film goofs on his rise to stardom twice, first in a glib radio address with flashback gag punchlines, then again in a glorious set piece that reworks the story as a dance/ballet. Donald O’Conner literally climbs the walls in the show-stopping acrobatic dance number “Make ’Em Laugh” and Kelly stomps, slides, and taps through the rain-slicked studio streets in the title number. Why? Because he’s gotta dance!
The box set features both the newly remastered Blu-ray from a 4k scan of the Technicolor 3-strip negatives (which veteran film archivist and restoration engineer Robert Harris praises to the skies at Home Theater Forum) and two DVDs, plus a few gift-type goodies.
The Blu-ray features the new feature-length documentary “Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation” plus the commentary track from the previous DVD special edition featuring director Stanley Donen, actors Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Kathleen Freeman, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Baz Luhrmann (the director of “Moulin Rouge”), and film historian Rudy Behlmer, edited together as a kind of audio documentary in its own right running along with the film.
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Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is a 1962 British music performance film originally titled “It’s a Trad, Dad” (you can see why they retitled for the U.S.). The first feature by American-born but British-based Richard Lester (who went on to redefine the rock movie with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”) is basically a succession of performances connected by the thinnest of plots: a couple of teenagers defy a ban on jazz by recruiting bands for a big concert. And by jazz, I mean the traditional Dixieland style that had a big youth following in Britain in the early sixties: modern sixties youth listening to music that was new during prohibition. Can you believe those starchy adults and parents are still horrified? Dropped in with the dozens of trad jazz acts (including Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and the funky Temperance Seven) are a handful of pop and rock performances by the likes of Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, and Britain’s Helen Shapiro, who also plays one of the leads.
This is a prime example of a director making something out of nothing. Handed a script that does little more than stitch together a succession of musical performances, Lester doodles in the margins, dropping oddball, surreal gags between the numbers and sometimes during the performances. The script is credited to producer Milton Subotsky but the cheeky asides and slapstick flourishes are clearly from the mind of Lester, who came to the film from a series of collaborations with Peter Sellers. It’s not that Lester makes anything particularly memorable from it all, but that his light touch and whimsical attitude keeps it buoyant and bouncy and far more engaging than you have any right to expect.
Also from Britain is Just For Fun (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), another Subotsky production with a nominal plot stitching together performances by a more familiar line-up of pop performers, including Bobby Vee (singing “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”), The Crickets, Freddy Cannon, The Tremeloes, The Tornados, and a batch of other British acts. Both of these, by the way, are the Amicus, before the company redefined itself as Britain’s trashier, second-tier house of horror.
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X: The Unheard Music (MVD) is one of the great rock docs of all time. Shot over a period of five years or so by W.T. Morgan, it is a lively, playfully-directed portrait of the defining L.A. punk band of the eighties, filled with interviews, stirred through with tongue-in-cheek archival clips and highlighted by a wealth of live performance footage shot specifically for the film, including footage of the band in the studio recording “White Girl” for their second album, “Wild Gift.” In the era of early MTV, they were the real deal, and even the proto-videos created by Morgan for the film have a down-and-dirty authenticity and a sense of humor that honors the band’s aesthetic. John Doe and Exene Cervenka articulate themselves well, Billy Zoom is a smiling charmer and D.J. Bonebrake’s time signature demonstration is a wonder. But it’s not simply a band bio, it’s a survey of the music industry of the day and the struggle for independent music in the corporate mindset, which Morgan puts on display next to their story.
Debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray for the film’s 25th Anniversary, with new interviews with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, a bonus outtake from a live performance and a behind-the-scenes featurette shot in 1983 among with supplements. And remember, this is a film best enjoyed by following the directions given in the opening credits: “Play this movie loud.”
For more releases, see Videodrone’s Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs and Blu-rays for January 3
Meet Me in St. Louis (Warner), Vincent Minelli’s first Technicolor film, is the ultimate in Hollywood Americana and a masterful musical that turned Judy Garland into a true leading lady.
A celebration of old fashioned values in song, dance, and family melodrama in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, the glowingly nostalgic tale follows a year in the life of a family as they reluctantly prepare to move to New York for Father’s (Leon Ames) new job, just as the excitement for the coming St. Louis World’s Fair sets the entire family to singing the title song. It’s a film for all seasons and holidays, including one of the most bittersweet Christmas scenes of all time: little Margaret O’Brien commits symbolic parricide on an innocent snowman family after Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (see clip below, after the jump)
O’Brien brings a feisty spunk to the family as the youngest sister and Lucille Bremer provides the maturity as the oldest, but the film belongs to Garland as the teenage daughter on the verge of womanhood, chastely romanced by the boy next door (Tom Drake). The scene where they extinguish the home’s gas lamps together and the hush of shadow covers them is one of the most beautiful and tender moments of understated intimacy in film history. Other song highlights include “The Boy Next Door,” “You and I,” and “The Trolley Song.” Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, and June Lockhart co-star.
The film was previously available on a DVD two-disc special edition and the Blu-ray only carries most of the supplements. There’s commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke with Margaret O’Brien, screenwriter Irving Brecher, songwriter Hugh Martin and daughter of producer Arthur Freed, Barbara Freed-Saltzman and an introduction by Liza Minnelli (daughter of director Vincent Minnelli and star Judy Garland), plus a music-only audio track (without vocals).
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Okay boots, starts walking
When Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s deadpan farceur of minimalist slapstick, absurdist comedy and bruised romanticism, teamed up with the aggressively eccentric rock and roll cover band Leningrad Cowboys, a mix of bar band performance, punk attitude and polka flourishes, to make the surreal rock and roll road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America, who knew it would be the beginning of a surreal collaborative friendship?
Actually it wasn’t the beginning — he had already directed a couple of music videos for the band — and Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys: Eclipse Series 29 (Criterion) includes all five of their music video collaborations along with their three feature films. In Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) they push their own image as a bizarre bar band from the wilds of Northern Europe to extremes tht have to be seen to be believed. Clad in matching black boots and gravity-defying hairdos that both jut out into a spindly point, they navigate the backroads of America one bar at a time, recognizing long-lost relations through the DNA of their fashion statements and love of blues-based American rock songs. Who else but Jim Jarmusch would make a cameo: the blond reverse image of these mock-Soviet rock soldiers?
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Minnelli and Astaire
Yolanda and the Thief (Warner Archive)
Every Hollywood studio made musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, but MGM made musicals big and glorious and, more often than not, classy. Vincente Minnelli was MGM’s resident master of grace under rhythm, a stylist of the highest order who used dance and song to define character while creating some of the greatest set pieces in musical history. Yolanda and the Thief (1945), a whimsical fantasy set in a fictional Latin American kingdom with Fred Astaire as a cynical con man working on a naïve young princess (Lucille Bremer), is built on one of the weakest scripts and lackluster scores of Minnelli’s career, but it’s not without its pleasures, notably a pair of extended musical sequences that take over the film. Astaire’s guilt-driven nightmare is a modern ballet in a twisted dreamscape of anxieties, while a bright carnival celebration segues into the film’s most joyous number, “Coffee Time,” where Minnelli’s color design adds dynamic splashes to the choreography and elegant camerawork.
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Bob Dylan turns 70 in May and the home video industry is ready to celebrate with releases that recall his legacy, including the Blu-ray debut of two Dylan essentials.
“The Other Side Of The Mirror – Bob Dylan Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965” (Columbia/Legacy), originally made for the BBC by producer/director Murray Lerner (who was there as a young filmmaker shooting the original performances with his own camera crew), arrived on DVD in 2007. It debuts on Blu-ray this week.
This is neither documentary nor concert film proper. Think of it as a video album of live tracks of essential Dylan performances. After a prologue performance of “All I Really Want to Do” from 1965 the production goes year by year, though not necessarily in strict chronological performance order.
Dylan is in political protest folk singer mode in his first festival appearance in 1963, performing “North County Blues,” “Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” dueting with Joan Baez on “With God on Our Side” and joining Baez, The Freedom Singers and Peter, Paul and Mary to close out the show with the sixties folk anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The four songs from 1964—”Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and two duets with Baez, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “With God on Our Side”—are filled out with a chorus of Johnny Cash singing “Don’t Think Twice” and Baez goofing a verse of “Mary Hamilton” in a parody of Dylan. The landmark 1965 appearance opens with two acoustic numbers at his July 24 afternoon workshop before it jumps to the evening set of his electric debut. The boos do indeed follow “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” yet Dylan is coaxed back for an acoustic encore and the cheers suggest all is forgiven.
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