Archive for the Comedy Category

The Skeleton Twins

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Skeleton Twins photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMilo and Maggie are one of those brother and sister pairs who put the fun in dysFUNctional. The Skeleton Twins are so named because of a couple of toy skeletons their father handed them on Halloween when they were kids. The thirty-somethings have been living angst-ridden lives set adrift since the death of their father many years ago. A strange twist of fate unites the two after a decade of estrangement. A despondent Maggie is contemplating a handful of pills in her hand when the phone rings. “How did you get this number? I’m on the National Do Not Call Registry!” without realizing the severity of the message. It’s the hospital. Her brother has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and he is currently under their care. The perfect timing means her own suicide will go unsuccessful as well. Look beneath that dark surface and there is an ironic glimmer of hope. There’s humor too. The Skeleton Twins is a movie that touches on pain, but it’s also about that silver lining.

Newbie director Craig Johnson co-wrote the brilliant script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan).  Their screenplay snagged the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. But their words would be nothing without the stellar talents of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They’re at the core of this trenchant drama giving a pair of extraordinary performances.  Hader and Wiig are Saturday Night Live alums who started together in the program’s 2005-06 season. They have genuine chemistry displaying a beguiling closeness in their interactions. They are every bit as believable as twin siblings. This could’ve been “The Stefon and Gilly Show” based on their popular sketch characters but they rein in their frenzied tendencies. Both actors’ portrayals are among the best of the year. Additionally it’s worth mentioning Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson who epitomize crucial supporting roles that are just as beautifully acted as they are written.

The Skeleton Twins deftly blends savage drama with honest laughs. It’s kind of an odd mix, but stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s easygoing familiarity is mixed with such sarcasm, that the irregular tonal shifts work. The highlights of the film are scenes where they just play off one another as a finely tuned comedy machine. Hader’s invitation to Wiig to lip-sync Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could’ve come across as supremely cloying. But his exaggerated theatrics and amusing gestures to the music are so dead-on that they almost parody the song.  The vignette is so infectious that you can’t help but want to join in. The tune was first featured as the theme to the 1987 hit Mannequin. I will no longer associate the upbeat anthem with that romantic comedy anymore. Wiig ultimately succumbs to his charms no matter how hard she tries to resist. We the audience likewise do the same.

09-17-14

The Trip to Italy

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 17, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Trip to Italy photo starrating-3stars.jpgLike The Trip in 2010, this follow-up was edited down from the series of the British TV sitcom with the same name. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are enlisted for another restaurant tour in the second series. The inaugural one was in England. This time it’s in Italy with stunning locales from Liguria to Capri. Their destinations follow the Grand Tour of Italy, the beaten path of 19th century Romantic poets like Byron and Keats.

Anyone who has seen the first picture knows what to expect. More fantastic meals filmed in beautiful locations, accompanied by humorous conversations. There’s no denying that the duo has some amusing observations scattered throughout. Although any screenplay that zeroes in on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill as a target of humor two decades after the fact, isn’t aiming for timeliness. There’s an air of melancholy too. Rob Brydon contemplates an affair from his apparently unhappy marriage. Coogan laments his waning sex appeal to young women. The script is witty, but it lacks confidence to add something fresh to the familiar concept. It saunters along with no direction. It’s more of a reflection than a focused film.

The Trip to Italy is more of the same. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a funny comedy team. Their dueling Michael Caines were a standout in the original. This time however the shtick comes across as a bit desperate. The movie has barely begun and they’re already going back that well again. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Steve Coogan shout at the top of his lungs. The obvious Caine quote from 1969’s The Italian Job. Then the pair discuss The Dark Knight Rises and who is less understandable – Tom Hardy as Bane or Christian Bale as Batman. Do you like the impressions? Then I have very good news for you – a whole slew of celebrities are mimicked: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Humphrey Bogart. Some are good (Woody Allen). Others are just awful (Al Pacino). Perhaps that was the point. Most of these are done by Brydon who once again plays the irritant to Coogan’s agitated fellow. So how do you say déjà vu in Italian?

09-10-14

Around the World in 80 Days

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on September 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Around the World in 80 Days photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a luxurious bubble bath – a warm comforting experience. It was pleasant and enjoyable. As time wore on though that tub water deteriorated. The bubbles dissipated, the water got cold and the qualities that initially made it such a joy were no longer present. The production that apparently charmed audiences in 1956 has aged horribly. Today the Technicolor phenomenon now remains a long, bloated curiosity that stands as one of the most shocking peculiarities to have ever won Best Picture.

The feature is a distended 175 minute bore based on the 1873 Jules Verne classic and that’s not even including the 10 minute intermission. Our story begins with a long introduction by Edward R. Murrow seated behind a desk discussing the” fantastic fiction” of Jules Verne, including the novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for the 1902 Georges Méliès silent A Trip to the Moon. Murrow lectures on the advances we‘ve made in space travel since then. After that disastrous opening, the main story opens on a scene in London, England, in 1872 about Phileas Fogg, a Victorian gentleman who bets his friends at the Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £1.6 million today) . Accompanied by his newly employed valet Passepartout he visits many locations as he interacts with various people along the way.

The production was American theater producer Mike Todd’s crowning achievement.  The theatrical impresario who had produced 17 Broadway shows during his career had never produced a theatrical feature. This was his first…..and last. He would tragically die in a plane crash a couple years later on March 22, 1958. He was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. It was her only marriage that didn’t end in divorce.  The drama was filmed in a high resolution widescreen format called Todd-AO first used successfully in Fred Zimmerman’s Oklahoma! (1955). Mike Todd developed the 70mm print format with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.

If nothing else, Around the World in 80 Days is a spectacle. The period piece was shot extensively in thirteen different countries, utilizing 70,000 extras and 8,000 animals. Areas from all around the world were represented including such distant spots as Paris (France), Chinchón (Spain), Bangkok (Thailand), Calcutta (India), Hong Kong (China), Yokohama (Japan), and the USA (Colorado). These locales provided the setting for various vignettes, none of which are particularly exciting. For example the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain go on for far too long. Perhaps the promise of actual location shooting was enough to sustain a film at that time. Air travel was a luxury of the wealthy in the 1950s. Travel to far flung places wasn’t common. Regardless, these days any locale can easily be rendered via blue screen and computer, so the extravaganza doesn’t fascinate in the way it might have in 1956.

Then there’s the stunt casting. David Niven’s distinctly British (read fastidious) portrayal of Phileas Fogg is a saving grace. Ditto the appearance of Mexican movie star Cantinflas. The latter makes his American screen debut as Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout. The screen legend gets a comic bullfighting sequence created just for him, not in the text. But Shirley MacLaine, in only her 3rd screen role, is forgettable. She is perplexingly cast as a princess from India heroically rescued from being sacrificed by our heroic duo. Robert Newton is a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly thinks Fogg is a bank robber. His presence is charitably best described as an amusing annoyance. For star watchers there are nearly 50 cameos from then famous personalities, many of which are unknown today. I watch a lot of old movies and even I didn’t recognize a lot of these stars. However a few stood out including Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton and Frank Sinatra. This isn’t a quality film. It’s a sightseeing excursion with a chance to play “spot the star”. Call it an unfunny version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or a cinematic version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland.

There’s no other way to say it. Around the World in 80s Days is nothing more than a bland travelogue. What must’ve seemed like an grandiose marvel in 1956 doesn’t translate to the modern era. Our technologically advanced age makes this once epic period piece seem like an old dated relic.  It still has value. Anthropologists should study this as a faded artifact of a bygone era. How this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture must certainly be one of the great anomalies in the Academy’s illustrious history. Now reflect on the fact that it beat The King and I, The Ten Commandments and Giant and the win seems even more egregious. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It snagged 5 Academy Awards out of its 8 nominations. The mind boggles. The only one it seems remotely worthy of consideration was for Best Cinematography and I would still argue it was up against stiffer competition. David Niven and Cantinflas make an entertaining duo. I liked them and the cinematography is pleasant. Oh and then there’s that animated end credits sequence titled “Who was seen in what scene…and who did what” created by Saul Bass. The whimsical cartoon is most delightful thing in the whole production.

09-07-14

Ghostbusters

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ghostbusters photo starrating-5stars.jpgHard to believe, but 2014 is the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. 1984 was a magical summer for me. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and The Last Starfighter were all movies I saw that year. And that June 8th weekend was a historic one because it not only marked the debut of Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic, but of also another big hit. Gremlins was in fact THE major release that weekend. It was opening in many more theaters and it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg who was red hot from directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial two years prior. Even Beat Street, now a little remembered music drama about a newly emerging dance style called breakdancing, was launched in more theaters. Despite debuting on fewer screens, the picture would ultimately become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. Beverly Hills Cop, opening at the end of the year, would be #1.

It wasn’t easy to find. My local cinema that only charged $2 wasn’t showing it, but me and my buddies desperately wanted to see it.   I was too young to drive so we had to beg my friend’s mom to take us so we could make the trip out of town. $5 for a matinee which in 1984 was outrageously expensive. That would be like $12 today. Unbelievable! I can remember sitting in that darkened theater wide eyed at the special effects, laughing at the gut-busting one-liners. I was captivated by what I saw and it immediately became a treasured favorite. I still cite it any time I’m asked to list my top movies. I’ll admit my love is influenced by nostalgia, but I find it has lost none of its luster.

The plot is secondary to the fun, but I’ll recount it anyway. There’s this high rise apartment building in New York at 55 Central Park West, see. It’s being haunted by a demonic spirit named Zuul which starts terrorizing poor musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) in her kitchen. Meanwhile compatible demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster attacks nerdy accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) at a party he’s throwing for his clients. Both beings act as loyal minions preparing the way for Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction who can manifest itself in different forms. Scientists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler are doctors of parapsychology. With paranormal activity in New York on the rise, they create The Ghostbusters, an exterminating business of sorts.

Ghostbusters is quite simply one of my most beloved films of all time. The iconic production is a perfect marriage of a special effects extravaganza with spectacular performances to create one side-splitting gem. Bill Murray is the undeniable star and he’s in top form as Dr. Peter Venkman a sly, laid back scientist with deadpan delivery that seems more concerned with dating his pretty client Dana Barrett than actually getting to the bottom of her disturbances. Sigourney Weaver nicely straddles the line between exasperated annoyance and charmed love interest. Bill Murray likewise has great camaraderie with his fellow Ghostbusters Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Those two are also responsible for writing the finely tuned screenplay. It zips, it pops and it never lets up. Ernie Hudson joins them later as Winston Zeddemore. He delivers my favorite quip after the group is blown away by the lightening bolts of an evil entity from another dimension. There is a slew of funny dialogue and Rick Moranis’ nerdy portrayal of Louis Tully delivers a lot of it. He‘s hilarious. “Okay, who brought the dog?” he grins after hearing the growl from the long horned beast hiding in his closet.

The spectacular special effects support the story, but they never threaten to overshadow the actors. The technology was state of the art at the time, even earning an Academy Award nomination.  But it lost to the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Perhaps time has rendered the optics a bit quaint to a modern audience. The sight of that devil dog leaping from the closet and running around the city is the most dicey. But it’s the comedic interactions between characters that hold our focus, not the whiz bang appeal of the visual displays. Ok so there’s that “monster” near the end that dwarfs everything else. When the Destructor of their choosing threatens the city and their very existence, it’s memorable. That’s the kind of silly moment of brilliance that makes you realize you’re watching a work of creative genius. Oh yeah.  I adore this film.

09-06-14

Gigi

Posted in Comedy, Musical, Romance with tags on August 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gigi photo starrating-4stars.jpgHistorically August has never been the month for which studios save movies with boffo box office potential. Imagine my surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released on August 1st, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year so far. And it deserved to be because it’s a terrific film to boot. That accounts for the fact that the movie has largely dominated the entire month. Ok so there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too but that was awful. Seeking some counter programming was the impetus behind my decision to see a revival of Gigi at The Stanford Theatre. It was the palate cleansing sorbet in a month of mostly bitter tasting selections.

The MGM musical won a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1958. It held a short-lived record until Ben-Hur won 11 the very next year. In addition to Gigi, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were responsible for creating Camelot, Brigadoon and perhaps most famously, My Fair Lady. Gigi pales in comparison to that similar smash hit also thematically built around a Cinderella transformation. Gigi isn’t my favorite musical, but it’s still entertaining.

Gigi is based on the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette. Rich and attractive millionaire Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is bored with the superficial lifestyle of the upper class in Parisian society. The year is 1900 and he’d prefer to hang out with the former mistress (Hermoine Gingold) of his uncle (Maurice Chevalier). Gaston calls her Mamita. Madame Alvarez is also grandmother to the carefree Gigi, with whom he enjoys hanging out with as well. She is currently a young girl but on the verge of becoming a woman. Madame Alvarez encourages Gigi to spend time with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to educate Gigi in the ways of becoming a courtesan, that is a wealthy man’s mistress. Important skills like walking elegantly, how to choose a cigar, and pouring coffee in the proper fashion, are part of the lesson plan. How long before Gaston notices this tomboy of a girl has matured into a beautiful young woman?

Director Vincente Minnelli fills the screen with so much color and pageantry, the eyes can barely contain it all. There’s a magnificence to the presentation that seems to have spared no expense in recreating the French fashions. Cecil Beaton’s production design, costumes and scenery is the ultimate. It is sumptuous. There’s such an old fashioned grandeur that relies so heavily on sets and wardrobe that it is kind of fascinating. Even for 1958, Gigi was a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. It was the last great MGM musical of Hollywood’s golden age, although Minnelli would direct Bells are Ringing in 1960 and that’s pretty wonderful too.

The cast is captivating. My favorites are Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are an absolute delight, particularly in their witty duet, “”I Remember It Well”. Other song highlights are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “Gigi”. Leslie Caron is a spirited vision as the title character. No one conveys indignant exasperation like suave Louie Jourdan. The script is rather funny too. Isabel Jeans as the highly strung Aunt Alicia delivers some of the best lines with perfect timing and intonation during her tutelage. Classic lines abound. “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” “Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.” The social mores and customs are amusingly dated, but that’s really the point now isn’t it? Let’s just say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

08-24-14

Frank

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Frank photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgDomhnall Gleeson is Jon, a young wannabe keyboardist who manages to get recruited into an outré band called The Soronprfbs. The group is led by an enigmatic personality named Frank who wears a giant cartoon papier-mâché head that he never takes off. The gang includes Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a supremely negative individual who plays the theremin (natch), Nana their drummer (Carla Azar of experimental LA act Autolux), petulant lead guitarist Baraque (French actor François Civil) and their manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Despite having little to no talent whatsoever, Jon desperately craves mainstream success. Meanwhile the rest of the band appears to have less focused aspirations. His dream of appearing at Austin’s famed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is driven by his social media campaign via Twitter and YouTube.

The production captures the collaborative efforts of an unknown indie band with real authenticity. There’s a reason for this. The inspirations for Frank are actually more interesting than the film itself. The screenplay was written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, and was based on Ronson’s experiences playing in the new wave act Oh Blimey Big Band during the late 1980s. Their leader, Chris Sievey was an English musician and comedian. He succumbed to cancer in 2010. Sievey’s comic persona Frank Sidebottom included wearing a large spherical shaped head made of papier mâché and dressing in a retro styled suit from the 1950s. Beneath that veneer, the writers have fashioned a bizarre fictional group that also owes an obvious debt to the talents of avant-garde individuals like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Daniel Johnston.

Frank is a black comedy with a dark undercurrent. How dark? Well someone who has committed suicide by hanging himself from tree is presented as a visual joke. In another instance a man is suddenly hit by a car in a sonic surprise that virtually slaps the audience with a punctuated jolt. Frank is definitely an odd little film with a sensibility that will charm some and irk others. There are some amusing moments. Frank’s attempt at his most likable pop song is something called “Coca Cola, Lipstick, Ringo.” In the words of screenwriter Jon Ronson, it would be the result “if someone with manic depression tried to write a Katy Perry song.” The final ditty “I Love You All” is strangely affecting as well. Unfortunately those occurrences are few and far between. Most of the picture isn’t that funny or even particularly memorable. Frank isn’t a bad movie. There are some touching episodes amidst the bleak humor, but I’ll liken its appeal to food. Frank is a heaping plate of fava beans. There’s nothing wrong with fava beans. I just wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ll take a plate of broccoli instead.

08-23-14

What If

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

What If photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgCan men and women be “just friends“? That’s the age old question that What If address within its well worn story structure, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes infatuated with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party only to discover that she already has a boyfriend at the very end of their evening together. Chantry maintains she loves her current beau but would like to remain friends. Wallace agrees. Things don’t go as planned.

What If isn’t wholly generic but it isn’t particularly innovative either. Surprisingly, Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) isn’t made out to be a complete jerk. You could imagine the two of them getting married and living a happy life. Although Ben’s first interaction with Wallace is rude and it causes the audience to dislike Ben right from the start, despite his sincere devotion to Chantry. What If does indeed have moments of relaxed whimsy. Radcliffe and Kazan are charming up to a point and they generate enough chemistry to sustain interesting discussions. They share a scene in a diner and a conversation about a disgusting sandwich known as Fool’s Gold was something I had never heard before. More often than not, however, these offhand fragments feel like the carefully orchestrated fabrications of a writer. The twee stretches outweigh the periods of genuine honest emotion.

Chantry’s latent attraction becomes frustrating. In spite of her exhortations that she doesn’t want a romantic relationship, her actions speak otherwise. Upon their first meeting, Chantry flirts conspicuously with Wallace at the party. It’s shocking when she abruptly reveals she is already spoken for when he drops her off. They spent an entire evening together. She couldn’t mention this earlier? Their accidental meeting at a revival showing of The Princess Bride is another mixed signal flirtatious conversation as well. Chantry is a complex woman and she remains a compelling individual, but her behavior develops into this cat-and-mouse game where she seems to express an attraction towards Wallace, then gets indignant when he responds. Then there is her exceptionally bizarre reaction late in the narrative. Her amorous feelings prompts a grand declaration of love from him. Her subsequent response renders her character a most confounding object of befuddlement.

What If is all about when men and women enter the “friend” zone. The picture frequently recalls the far superior When Harry Met Sally both in subject matter and alliances. Wallace and Chantry embark on a platonic relationship. She opens up to her sister Dalia (Megan Park) for advice. He confides in his buddy Allan (Adam Driver). Allan also happens to be Chantry’s cousin. More quirkiness. The production was originally titled The F Word when it was released at the 2013 Toronto film festival in September. That the filmmakers ditched that significantly more zesty title for a humdrum one, actually belies the movie’s true heart. What If is pleasant enough but the slightness of the story ultimately relegates this affair to little more than passable time filler.

08-17-14

Magic in the Moonlight

Posted in Comedy, Romance on August 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Magic in the Moonlight photo starrating-2stars.jpgWoody Allen has been making films for close to 50 years, so it goes without saying that his productions run the gamut from masterpieces (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to instantly forgettable (September, Anything Else). I’m sorry to report that Magic in the Moonlight sits firmly in the latter category. Even the best of us can have an off day, but I still find it fascinating that a filmmaker can immediately follow up a work of art like Blue Jasmine with an offering that is flawed at such a rudimentary level.

As is often the case with his fumbles, Woody starts out with an interesting idea. At the behest of his fellow illusionist colleague, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited to the mansion of the Catledge family on the French Riviera to debunk an ethereal young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who claims to be a psychic. The family is apparently beguiled by this attractive twenty-something. British Stanley is a celebrated magician who performs in disguise as a Chinese conjuror named Wei Ling Soo. With the exception of the friend who invites him, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), no one at the estate is aware of Stanley’s other persona. This then will allow him to observe the clairvoyant and ostensibly expose her as a fraud.

For half the movie, the director has our attention. Colin Firth is enjoyable as this cranky cynic looking to demystify an inscrutable but charming visionary. They banter back and forth. The mood is light, the scenery is pretty and the 1920s milieu is enchanting. As they spend time together, Sophie is able to discern personal details about Stanley’s life and even those of his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Incidentally her minor role was my favorite part. At this juncture, Stanley begins to seriously question his deep-rooted rationalism. Then he decides he has feelings for this girl. Sorry. Nope. Not buying it.

These realizations are a complete betrayal of Colin Firth’s character. That this lifelong curmudgeon would all of sudden, fall head over heals in love with a woman he had regarded as a charlatan is a bunch of hooey. Add to this the unsavory fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather and it adds another layer of ick. Who’s Helena Bonham Carter’s love interest going to be in her next film….Justin Bieber? Because their age difference is exactly the same. Everything up until this point is decent.  However the story falls apart from there. Then a plot twist is added and the reveal is like deflating a hot air balloon as it rapidly descends back to earth. From then on there is absolutely nowhere for the narrative to go. His comment on faith is by now a Woody Allen cliché. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the worst Woody Allen film, but it’s 238,855 miles away from being the best.

08-06-14

A Hard Day’s Night

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on July 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Hard Day's Night photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was fifty years ago today…well August 11, 1964 to be exact….that the picture A Hard Day’s Night was unleashed onto the American public. The soundtrack was The Beatles’ third studio album. Beatlemania was already in full swing and the teen public’s hunger for anything having to do with the British phenomenon was insatiable.

After signing them to a 3 picture deal, United Artists could have put anything out with John, Paul, George and Ringo in it and it would’ve been a success.  The surprise was that A Hard Day’s Night was actually quite good on its own merits. The production was helmed by an American movie director based in Britain named Richard Lester. He had created a short called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film starting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The Beatles loved it and selected him from handful of choices to direct their first feature.

The plot for this mock-documentary is simple. It’s a day in the life. The Beatles, playing themselves, are on their way to perform on a London TV show. The ongoing constant is that the Fab Four are eternally having to duck hordes of screaming fans at every stop. They board a train, get settled at their hotel, rehearse at the studio. Then Ringo gets separated from the group. Along the way on their various lightweight adventures, the Beatles display a charisma that is irresistible. The script is filled with little exchanges like the following.

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I’m a mocker.

A Hard Day’s Night is not particularly deep but it is fun – displaying an irreverent charm that is joyous. The Beatles come across as likable and witty. It simplifies their personalities and then amplifies them in short easy to digest sound bites. Yes, they are caricatures of their personas but these are appealing distortions of themselves. The production is highlighted by a manic energy. There are a lot of funny bits contained within. My favorite: Ringo puts his coat down for a girl so that she can walk across a muddy puddle several times before she ultimately falls down a deep hole. Oh and let’s not forget the music! As far as this Beatles fan is concerned, every song is gold, but highlights include: “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “She Loves You” and the title hit of course. Incidentally “I’ll Cry Instead” was excised from the sketch where the Beatles flee their hotel room via the fire escape. It can still be found on the soundtrack. However the more upbeat “Can’t Buy Me Love” was used in its place because Richard Lester felt the tune suited the scene better.

The cultural impact of the film cannot be underestimated. Its importance was immediately understood even garnering two Academy Award nominations at the time (Best Original Screenplay and Best Score). Although uncomplicated and seemingly insignificant, the narrative had an impact on spy thrillers like Dr. No, inspired 60s TV sitcom The Monkees and influenced later day pop music videos. It additionally makes a strong case as to why the Beatles became a worldwide sensation.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, a spectacular new restoration was released to theaters on July 4th by Janus Films. If you can’t make it to the cinema, Criterion Collection has assembled a special new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll marvel at the stunning black-and-white cinematography. Please re-discover this classic.

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

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