Hallelujah (1929)

Finally filled a gap in my film experience with a viewing of Hallelujah, directed by King Vidor in 1929. It’s another Rorschach test for viewers, who will see any number of things in this second all-black-cast film (and first all-black-cast musical).

Sound was still new, and technically, things are rough. Dialogue is difficult to hear at times, and the sound quality is uneven at best. The quick Hollywood studio style of editing hadn’t arrived, and the film is first stagey, then too slow, then too abrupt. Some of the images retain the beauty of the best of silent film compositions and photography, however, and are lovely to behold.

The experience of Hallelujah is likely to provoke several things these days. The film opens with an apology and a condemnation for the film’s evocation of blacks. For folks with little sense of history or film history, it’s probably best to have that disclaimer. But they might have also added “and Christians” to their disassociation.

Yet while the film might be found insulting to blacks, Christians and black Christians, it’s actually quite respectful once the story begins. The first few scenes are admittedly embarrassing and condescending, but once the plot takes off, genuine respect rather than ridicule is the rule. And here is where the questions get thought-provoking: Is the director making fun of the stereotypical “wide-eyed” black or is that just the last gasp of the melodramatic school of acting that hadn’t yet adjusted to the changes sound would bring to acting? How close are those church scenes to a typical black service of the time and place?

As a white modern Christian, I wouldn’t presume to know, so that means I can’t judge the presentation even while my modern perspectives make me alternatively challenged, amused, horrified, and curious (and often several of these at the same time). It’s tempting to dismiss this as a more modern-day sound version of the kind of the thinking behind Birth of a Nation, but that’s a lazy approach. The legendary Vidor (nominated for Best Director for the film) didn’t have the deep-seated racist sensibility of Griffith, and he’s trying to tell a story and create a world at the same time here. It’s much easier to dismiss this as old-fashioned, racist pap. That would be a big mistake. It’s deeper, richer, and far more complex and beautiful than that. And there are moments of genuine ache

Beyond the socio-political implications, there is a huge “what could have been” factor with this film. Daniel L. Haynes, the lead who made a few other films, has a magnificent singing voice that’s an utter joy to hear. He’s a decent actor, and completely commanded the screen. Why didn’t we see more of him? More attention has been paid to the young Nina Mae McKinney, who later became known as “The Black Garbo.” She was 16 or 17 when the film was made, which makes her romantic scenes with the 39-year-old Haynes a little unsettling in retrospect, but that’s not much different from the two leads of Singin’ in the Rain. McKinney became a popular singer and actress, and she was quite lovely. Unhappily, bad health prevented her from taking what could have been her star-making role in The Duke is Tops, which made Lena Horne a star instead. How sad that the Hollywood of the time didn’t have a place for a talent like this outside of all-black films and shorts.

One delight in the film is seeing the young and unbilled Nicholas Brothers. If you remember them only as adults, seeing them here is quite a shock. They later made some musical shorts with McKinney, and those shorts provide us with a view of their incredible and developing talents while still adolescents.

The church scenes are both wondrous and strange. The world we see sometimes seems alien and unable to be related to, while at other times we feel that we’re taking a trip back in time to an extraordinary communal spiritual experience. Sometimes faith in the film is as cultural as the chitlins that Mom keeps cooking. At other times, it’s simple, real, and profound. In either case, faith isn’t presented as it so often is today—something reserved for the simple and uneducated, or the first manifestation of a pathology.

Hallelujah is unlike any other film as the result of its being a musical with an all-black cast, made at the onset of sound film by a respectful but still white director and featuring a cast of “should have beens” instead of has-beens. It belongs in several categories at once, including its own. A group discussion after a viewing would be fascinating for its intensity and breadth of issues inspired by the film.

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Let’s Look Over the Fence: A Necessary Correction

In my old theater classes, we were taught that Oklahoma! (1943) was the first Broadway musical where the songs advanced the plot. Called the first “integrated musical,” it has grabbed its rightful spot as the first of the “modern” stage musicals while overshadowing its powerful predecessor.

It was actually Showboat (1927) that was the revolutionary musical, albeit a bit creaky when compared to Oklahoma! Yes, it was more a dramatic musical epic than any kind of “musical comedy,” and its themes of racism, miscegenation, abandonment, despair and alcoholism certainly set it apart—and still does—from other musical stories. But its songs and how they were used were light years ahead of those in vaudeville and other musical revues of the time. “Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”—these are all classics that carry the story forward as no other show songs had done.

The challenge with people recognizing Showboat for its place in history is that it was a standalone for too long. No one took the ball and ran with it. Rodgers and Hammerstein (the latter being the lyricist of Showboat) reinvented and reinvigorated the integrated musical with Oklahoma! and then others paid attention and copied. Showboat was the first integrated stage musical, but Oklahoma! began the trend.

But the film person in me isn’t content to let the matter lie there. Four years before Oklahoma! there was a little musical that was completely integrated. It just happened to be a film musical featuring a girl from Kansas, a little dog, a scarecrow, a tin man and a timid lion. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow;” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding-Dong!, the Witch is Dead,” “If I Only Had a Brain”—these move the story along as well as those in Oklahoma!’s score. It’s just that The Wizard of Oz (1939) was a film.

Perhaps a little more looking over the fence to related art forms would help to clarify and bolster the history of all the arts.

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Divergent

The franchise that is Divergent will most likely be remembered for giving Shailene Woodley her first lead role. Many comparisons have been made with The Hunger Games films, as both feature a strong young woman played by an upcoming actress with great talent, and deal with a (really, must I use this word again?) dystopian society that eats young people for breakfast.

The main problem I had with Divergent is that I am not a teenage girl, and this is a film squarely aimed at young females. It’s such a set of clichés that if it were not acted so well, and directed as well, it would be laughable. A young woman doesn’t quite fit into society, which puts people into categories (cliques) that are rigid and unforgiving. But our heroine doesn’t fit into a category; she’s bigger and broader and encompasses more than these narrow groups would confine her to. She’s strong AND smart AND giving, which is a threat to the social order (read: high school).

She makes her choice of which group to “belong” to, and overcomes many an obstacle to b-a-r-e-l-y make it into the higher echelons. Of course she has to connect with her inner (and outer) strength to do so, and she pushes herself to her limits. At first, the dark and hunky leader of the group seems to be antagonistic, but after a while, romance blossoms. Of course, he is the perfect high school dream—a strong and authoritative leader with a soft side who happens to be better looking than the girl (why am I thinking of Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme here?).

The film keeps its focus on the emotional moments with shots that tend to linger over significant moments, and direction that has the main characters pause just a little longer than makes any sense before 1) getting up or 2) moving into an action they’ve clearly already made up their mind about doing. (Seriously, your name just got called; you knew it was coming; just stand up already! And you knew you were going to put your old clothes into the fire–just drop them in and stop taking so long!)

The camerawork is also tighter than many a YA action film, the better to keep the focus on the faces and the various tight relationships. And then there is the music that enters with “dramatic” tones at moments that remind one of the creepy organ music that accompanies certain horror movie moments. OK, we get it. This is a big, hairy moment. But we knew that before the music told us how to feel about it.

The saving grace here, as often is in modern YA and superhero films, is the complete dedication of the actors to their roles. Woodley is probably a better fit for her role than Jennifer Lawrence is as Katniss in The Hunger Games, but both suffer from the same problem of not looking tough enough for their roles. Woodley in particular looks too weak all the way through, without the internal fire and external power her chosen group of colleagues possesses. Her action scenes are triumphs of editing rather than showing us what a fighter she has become.

But as Lawrence first gained attention in A Winter’s Bone before becoming a phenomenon in the first Hunger Games, Woodley was the best thing in The Descendants, and announced with that performance that a significant new young talent had emerged. As a “divergent,” she is supposed to carry an array of skills, talents and emotions, and Woodley delivers. She knows how to be alone in a crowd (touchingly) and can fill her eyes up, believably, at just the right time. This is a career that will be exciting to watch.

Theo James is a good, strong balance to Woodley as her antagonist, coach, and then love interest. His is a tough role to pull of with conviction (it would be easy to overplay), but he plays rough and tough, and then tender, with equal ease. He doesn’t show Woodley’s talent, but doesn’t have to, as the film rests on her young shoulders, not his.

Like many other current action-filled films, it’s too long by 20 minutes, choosing to play things out rather fully rather than moving things along at a faster clip. It’s all of a piece with the pace of the rest of the film, though, which could easily have benefited by a greater level of energy throughout. But this is a film about the challenges of growing up female in a society that doesn’t accept or understand you, and the emphasis is on the emotional journey, which can’t be rushed.

That strong emphasis, for those wondering, is what makes it so different, and less enjoyable, than The Hunger Games films. Those films resonate with socio-political commentary in ways Divergent could but doesn’t. The Hunger Games also has outrageous colors and actions and performances that don’t belong in the one-note world of Divergent. Those are bigger films, and less focused on the emotions of its central character.

But one doesn’t have to compare it to appreciate it or not like it. It’s a well-acted coming-of-age story that would connect most strongly with the young and female. The rest of us can enjoy the action and/or the acting, and be grateful that its talented young star will no longer be a hidden treasure.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and not one that I’d acquired until this film. I have nothing against a self-conscious formalism, but Anderson’s formula seemed too studied, too precious, and occasionally twee for my taste. Every director has the right to create his or her own world; it’s just that I didn’t enjoy my trips to those worlds.

The Grand Budapest Hotel shows the director at perhaps the height of his powers, stirring up a confection that not only delights the eye and ear, but has something of substance underneath the patterns. Moonlight Kingdom was touching at times, but the characters, the casting and the performances didn’t quite mesh. They do here.

Issues of pacing and tone are a challenge for every director. Here, Anderson conquers both brilliantly with a film that clips along at a lively and lovely rhythm and keeps its tone throughout, with only a couple of egregious exceptions. Keeping the tone and moving things along without a bump is akin to the work of Erich Benn, the man who kept the last generation amazed on the Ed Sullivan show by keeping all those plates spinning on the ends of the long rods. Perhaps no other director could keep things this real and this outrageous at the same time.

The story is a memory of a memory, which provides the room for the archness we find in the entire affair. It’s set just far enough in the past, in a place that recalls the black-and-white kingdoms inhabited by Maurice Chevalier in the musicals of the early 1930s, which sets the actions at another remove from reality. This leaves Anderson free to create his own domain, which not only includes his geometric cinematic style, but a style of acting as expressionistic as the actors in Germany’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Instead of being edgy and angsty as in that film, though, the acting here is gently heightened, clipped and alternately supercilious and campily violent. It’s unreal, and wittily amusing throughout. There are occasional big laughs, many of which are quick takes or inside jokes, but mostly there are many smaller ones—a delight in this day of loud and obnoxious humor.

The casting is about as good as possible. Some roles are funny; Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel play satirized versions of their personae to great comic effect. Jeff Goldblum’s quirks are put to great use with his character. To say that relative newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero more than holds against all the other pros (F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Broday, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton and others) is to do his performance a disservice. He nails the part in a tightrope walk between the grounded and the ridiculous.

The acting star of the film, though, is the actual star of the film. The biggest part belongs to Ralph Fiennes, who creates a character for the ages in his M. Gustave. It’s an Oscar-deserving turn that I can only hope will even be nominated. His character is funny, sad, of another time and place, sexually ambiguous, and positively preposterous. Yet he is sympathetic and full of pathos at the same time. He floats above the floor, above the fray, and above any and all circumstances. There have been cinematic characters similar to M. Gustave, but none exactly like him. Fiennes’ performance alone is worth the price of admission.

What isn’t worth the price of admission are Anderson’s moments of excess in the areas of—how cliché—sex and violence. After creating a heightened world with thinner air and loftier sentiments than our own, Anderson introduces an act of violence that is jarring and crude. It doesn’t stretch the film; it momentarily breaks it.

After a couple of quick takes earlier in the film that were unnecessarily sexual but happily brief, Anderson introduces a pornographic painting (drawing?) that the camera lingers on far more than is necessary or comfortable. It’s distracting in the worst way, and nearly shatters the house-of-cards construction that he’s so painstakingly created up to that point. The latter puts the film out of the viewing of all children and many adults I know. Anderson has used Gustave’s character and occasional crude-but-funny expressions to let us know that there is an adult sensitivity at work here, and they worked to add depth and humor to this rarified world. The crudeness he introduces does him and the film a disservice.

Those jarring moments aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably Anderson’s most mature work. You care about the characters at the same time and to the same degree that you admire the cinematic architecture. The look, the performances, the casting, the pace, the tone—they all work together in a filmic soufflé that never falls. I may become a fan after all.

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Frozen

Better Late Than Never…

Frozen

Finally saw Frozen—apparently after every child in America and half the adults. Not much needs to be added to the adulation. Songs are great if not a little bubble gum at moments. It’s consistently funny (while not every comic moment hits squarely), and paced nearly perfectly. It’s a treat for the eyes and is probably among the most beautifully rendered of Disney creations.

The voicing of characters is excellent across the board. Kristin Bell and Adele Dazeem, I mean Idina Menzel, are solid. Bell is crystal clear vocally, and as expressive as they come. Menzel has a raised fist in her voice as well as a teardrop, and is ideal for this combination of acting and song. Her voice tends to be breathy and full of vibrato at the ends of her lines, almost as if she is biting them off at the ends. But that is her style, and it works for this character.

The best character is Olaf the snowman, voiced by Josh Gad, who (deservedly) won the Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production. It’s a supporting character, but one that adds depth, humor and color to the film. His number “In Summer,” while not the one that little girls are singing all over America, is possibly the highlight of the film.

Just two comments to make that haven’t already been written about in the waves of deserved praise for the film. One is a defect. When Elsa (Menzel) sings “Let it Go” and releases her concerns about how guarded she had to be in the past and how she doesn’t need to, this young woman who has never had any relationship with a young man suddenly loosens her hair (no problem) and starts do a slinky Marilyn Monroe walk, getting quite sexy and wiggling her hips, as if she were momentarily following Miley Cyrus’s example of growing-up-equals-displaying-sexuality. It seemed out of place and was a poor example of what letting go should really mean.

This misstep was more than balanced, however, by the best theme in the film, and that is the foolishness of finding true love on the day you meet someone. When Anna (Bell) spends one day with Hans (Santino Fontana)—in the hothouse environment of a party, no less—they sing a classic Disney duet and decide they are perfect for one another and should get married. Happily for common sense and the film, Elsa—albeit in a bad mood—forbids it. When Anna goes off to find Elsa later, the film does a blessed about-face. Kristof (Jonathan Groff) keeps questioning her decision to marry a guy she just met—in a conversation that he keeps steering back to her crazy decision. It’s funny and a great breath of fresh air. The rest of the film undoes the fantasy of the duet, and shows the silliness of thinking that true love can be discovered in a one-day experience, no matter how perfect for one another they first appeared. Far more than the joy in Frozen, and one that will be balancing the romantic folly of earlier Disney films for years to come.

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Four Quick Takes–The Lego Movie, Her, 20 Feet from Stardom, Enough Said

Four Quick Takes

I recently saw four films, all which I can recommend, though with a reservation here and there. Two won Oscars; one might.

The Lego Movie

Exhausting and non-stop. But clever and full of adult humor as well. The first 10 minutes or so contain some of the most amusing and biting social commentary seen in a mainline film. Wish it had continued in that vein.

Great for kids, and worth it for adults who don’t mind the overstimulation. This one is popular for a reason.

Her

One of the best films of the year, I caught this right before Oscar night, thanks to the indulgence of best friend Clint Morgan. Wrongly called quirky, it is original in the best sense. This is the one that takes place in the near future, and has our hero falling in love with his Operating System. The script is pointed, witty and touching.

Replacing the female voice already recorded by Samantha Morton with Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work was a stroke of genius. Perhaps it’s because she has such a husky and expressive voice; perhaps it’s because it’s easy to visualize the famous beauty; perhaps both.

Joaquin Phoenix is still an underrated actor, and gives a performance of depth and subtlety. In any other year, he would have been nominated for Best Actor. He displays a sweetness and vulnerability that hasn’t been on display for a long time. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

The look of the film, clearly on a budget, looks great and is worthy of study. The set design and cinematography work in harmony to give the film its unique look and feel. Well worth the time for those who can go with its central concept.

Warning to some: there are phone sex scenes.

20 Feet from Stardom

This recent Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature was probably not the best of the nominations, but it was the feel-good film of the bunch. Its topic is terrific—those underrated and overlooked back-up singers who did more famous recording than you ever knew. Many surprises throughout (those folks sang that song, or that harmony?) and a great filmic attempt to get some history straight. Plus it’s a treasure trove of great music and wonderful performers.

Enough Said

Finally got to see the film that saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus make her move to feature films, and the next-to-last film of legendary TV actor James Gandolfini. It’s the rare intelligent romantic comedy with dark overtones. The hook is that Julia’s character begins a friendship with a new female acquaintance while at the same time starting to date a man she met at a party. Turns out the new beau is the new friend’s ex.

The new friend, played by fine actor Catherine Keener, is really more of a construct than a fleshed-out person. Keener tries her best, but really, her character is more of a physical embodiment of the doubts that Julia’s character has as she begins a new and tentative relationship with a very different kind of man than she thought she might connect with. Keener’s character is more of an ideal, and a rather precious, ethereal one at that. It doesn’t hurt the film that much, but opportunities are missed.

The film hangs on what is happily the most developed aspect of it—the new romantic relationship budding between the two leads. Louis-Dreyfus handles her comic moments with more subtlety than we might expect from someone who has cut her teeth on television, and she is able to hold conflicting emotions in suspension on her face and behind her eyes with great skill. Gandolfini’s success in creating a real, gentle, sweet person reminds us of his talents and of our loss.

There are a couple of bumps along the way. Aside from Keener’s character, there is a subplot regarding a friend of Louis-Dreyfus’ character’s daughter that doesn’t quite work. It could have, but some very bad advice to the girl and the lack of any real resolution with her character are weaknesses. There also seems a certain striving to include just enough edginess sexually to ensure a PG-13 rating. Sometimes that works well with the film’s other goals; sometimes not so much.

But watching the two leads makes the film worth watching. As I wrote about the great loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman (http://film-prof.com/2014/02/05/second-thoughts-and-two-laments-philip-seymour-hoffman-and-alone-yet-not-alone/), there is a sadness in seeing Gandolfini, especially as he was just beginning a new phase of his film career. But we have the joys of his performances up to this point, and we have years of anticipation of what we can expect from Louis-Dreyfus, one of the best female comic actors around.

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Oscar Report–First Thoughts

The good news is that most of my personal choices won. The bad news is that while best friend Clint and I did great on our Oscar pool, another guy did better. Oh, well.

The show, as always, was too long. Part of the problem was Ellen DeGeneres. I thought she seemed a good choice as host, as last year’s host was terrible. Ellen is funny and generally not unkind, and she can think on her feet. Other than a rather cruel jab at Liza Minnelli, Ellen opened with funny and only slightly cutting remarks—a good start. Then the patter with the stars, the walking around, the pizza thing—all bad ideas. It dragged things out and wasn’t funny. Strange. My guess is she won’t be hosting next year.

The musical numbers, usually a bit of a drag, were fairly well done. They were blessedly shortened, and they didn’t turn everything into a big production number. Great choice there. Of course John Travolta’s complete bolloxing of Idina Menzel’s name in his introduction of the “Let It Go” singer will be one for the ages, a gaffe he’ll never be able to completely put behind him, and one that seemed to rock the already nervous Tony winner before she started singing.

There was supposed to be a strong theme of the Hero throughout, but instead there were some interruptive clips of movie heroes that didn’t make much sense, had less continuity, and seemed a waste of thought and effort. And the homage to The Wizard of Oz was bizarre. 1939 is generally considered the greatest movie year in history, but honoring that year would have meant honoring THE film of that year, Gone with the Wind. That’s politically incorrect right now, especially in the year of 12 Years a Slave. So let’s ignore that magnificent year and focus on just one of the films of that year. And while we’re at it, let’s get a singer with a decent voice and have her do a distracting desecration of the film’s great song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Pink has a fine voice, but after a slightly bumpy opening of the first part of the song—rarely sung but always eagerly heard—she ruined the classic from the first line of the song proper: “Some…(breath)…where….over the rainbow.” Seriously, a breath after the first half of the first word? Then she kept up that approach throughout, taking breaths everything and crushing any meaning or lyricism out of the song. Of course, in a particularly self-congratulatory response on that most self-congratulatory night, some folks stood up. Please, Hollywood, at least you should have been counted on to resist the all-but-ubiquitous trend to provide standing O’s for everything award and every effort. Please reserve them for the rare cases of the truly deserving.

And speaking of music, having Bette Midler sing after the In Memoriam section (where the recently departed are remembered) seemed superfluous, and extended things unnecessarily. She either had a cold or is simply losing some of her voice, as she pulled out nearly every singer’s trick to keep “The Wind Beneath My Wings” going. As a performer, she was successful. As a singer, she may well be losing what was always a fascinating vocal instrument that often seemed on the verge of collapse, especially in her slower numbers. She’s clearly peaked, and only time will tell what she has left. She was as stunned as I that people gave her another standing O. (I began to think I was at the State of the Union address after a while.) But the In Memoriam sequence itself was one of the best I’ve seen.

Most everyone looked fine, and clothing was fashionable, complimentary and stayed in place. I think it was a mistake to have Kim Novak present, especially after her telling TCM interview with Robert Osborne. She’s clearly struggling, and the platform of the Oscars was an awkward mix, and unfair to her. But in general, the presentations seemed tighter and less bone-headed in their patter. I’m guessing there were better writers.

You could choke on the political correctness of the whole evening. An entire master’s thesis could be created out of the elements that made PC so pervasive that nothing actually stood out (nothing was needed to rock the boat—there’s a whole new boat now). But the most humorous was the group of six chosen as student filmmakers, whose work was rewarded out of hundreds of entries. When you saw the group up on stage, the optics of the diversity of the group made one wonder if their work was actually seen, or were the young filmmakers just screened according to what would look best on the Oscar stage? Unhappily, the great work of the artists who won, and the best pic of the year—12 Years a Slave—could regrettably be seen as part of the PC tapestry instead of the wonderful performances and great film they all genuinely were. When Ellen joked in the beginning about 12 Years possibly winning Best Picture, with the opposing idea of everyone being racist, it was funny and at the same time far too revelatory of the zeitgeist of the evening and the attendees.

Aside from the physical therapy obviously needed for the damage done from everyone patting themselves so hard and often on their backs, the Oscars do mean something, especially when they actually get the awards “right,” as they did this year. People need to see the new Best Picture, and maybe the awards, particularly for the top prize, might encourage more to see it. Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine is a work of art and a master class in acting. Winning Best Actress might call more attention to it—well deserved. Same with Matthew McConaughey’s work. We can only hope that he’ll continue to do more serious work.

Winning this award means that more attention will be paid to the work—not just in the near future, but in the distant future as well. When the choices are this sound, that’s a great thing.

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