From the Archive — Five for Friday, Let’s Put on a Show! edition

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On this Saturday, I am giving myself over to the cultural sensation of our time. so I reach back to the little diversion I once cooked up (or co-opted, anyway) for a weekly bit of relief at the end of the working week. Five for Friday entailed a music list of five entries — usually songs — under a theme and an invitation to others to chime in with their own selections. As I did in the most recent instances one of these quintets was excavated from the archive, I created a YouTube playlist that includes my five selections and all of those offered up by others (often more cunning and inventive than me) in the comments. This particular exercise took place over ten years ago. Bear that in mind when listening through. If I repeated it today, I’ve no doubt my extended crew of collaborators would have stocked the list mightily with Hamilton songs. 

Five Great Songs From Musicals

1. “Roxie” from Chicago. I’ll ‘fess up right now that my exposure to musicals on the stage is limited to some college productions, so even though we’re talking about a song that’s been famously performed by Broadway babies like Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, it’s Renee Zellweger I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of this song. Despite the fact the Renee seems to engender a lot of animosity from some, I think she’s a spot-on perfect Roxie Hart and the neediness, aggression, rickety showmanship and bravado of the character all come through in her performance of this song. To me, the songs in a musical need to be sung well, but they need be acted well, too, and that’s beautifully accomplished here. And there’s no way I’m going to pass up the opportunity to quote the line I never get tired of: “And Sophie Tucker’ll shit I know/To see her named get billed below/Roxie Hart.”

2. “Wig in a Box,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I find the film thrilling for its daring and the terrifically bold performance of John Cameron Mitchell in the lead role. As much as I like all of the songs, the designated showstopper is indeed the one that wowed me the most upon initial viewing and still the one that will make me stop everything to listen to it if the CD is spinning in our household. The slight, sly vocal gymnastics Mitchell employs through this song are wonderful.

3. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from “Red, White and Blaine” in Waiting for Guffman. Just as “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” in A Mighty Wind manages to preserve the comic, mocking tone while still standing apart as a sweet little song in its own right, this simple duet between Corky (Christopher Guest) and Libby Mae (Parker Posey) always disarms me with its genuine charm. “A penny for your thoughts/A dime for your dreams/Would a bright, shiny quarter/Buy a peek at your schemes.”

4. “I’ll Never Tell” from the “Once More, with Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the middle of Buffy‘s run, it was a given that episodes that credited series creator Joss Whedon behind the keyboard and the camera were episodes that were going to be infused with a different sort of creativity, even brilliance. This is last of those episodes, wherein well-established sci-fi/comic-book geek Whedon revealed himself to be, above all else, a musicals geek. The beauty of Buffy was that anytime you wanted to try something different, you just had to have a demon show up in town with powers that suited your needs. If you wanted to have an episode with no dialogue, just bring in a demon who steal people’s voices. If you want a musical episode with your characters singing and dancing…

In particular, Whedon’s love for Sondheim’s wordy playfulness pops up in many of the songs, including this one, a duet between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield) in which the engaged couple reveal their hidden fears about their pending marriage in song. It’s also the place where Whedon lets his deconstructionist tendencies flow most freely. For example, one character interrupts the other mid lyric and is chastised with “This is my verse, hello!” And how do you not like a song that includes the line “She eats these skeezy cheese that I can’t describe.” My god, I wrote a lot on that one song. The sad thing is, I could write a lot more. I’d best keep the next one short.

5. “Singin’ in the Rain” from Singin’ in the Rain. Maybe the single greatest movie scene ever.

From the Archive — The Family Stone

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I don’t really have much preface for this week’s excavated movie review, except to note that this was written for my former online home within my first six months of jumping back into the film criticism game.

There are times during The Family Stone when you can just feel control of the film slipping away from writer-director Tom Bezucha.

The film begins with a fairly straightforward hook: a woman is accompanying her fiance home for Christmas to meet his family for the first time. This tightly wound career woman is played by Sarah Jessica Parker,making her first real stab at a post-Carrie Bradshaw film career. The man’s family is comprised of two upper class, bohemian parents and a total of five adult siblings.

That simple count is the beginning of the difficulties. Besides the fiance, played by Dermot Mulroney, there are: the agressive, abrasive sister; the deaf, gay brother; the pregnant, slightly put-upon, peacekeeping sister; and the documentary film editor with a roving eye and a touch of prodigal son aura. Bezucha expertly introduces each of these characters with some ideally constructed expository writing. Everyone is established with a line or two of dialogue that manages to feel natural while conveying key details. But as the film winds on, and Bezucha’s plot moves to the forefront (and picks up a complicating element in the form of the career woman’s fetching sister, played by Claire Danes), this array of characters has less and less to contribute. Bezucha wants to have a big bustling film, a film that shows how large families can support and strangle you, usually at the same time. But he either loses interest in that big family, or the capability to pull together the large cast of characters in a meaningful satisfying way. The most likely explanation may involve a bit of both.

At its best, the film shoots off sparks. It has a nicely barbed comic tone, sort of like a less satirical version of Ted Demme’s The Ref. Bezucha also proves highly capable at balancing his tonal shifts, moving smoothly between wisecrack roundelays and more dramatic fare. There’s a dinner table scene in which Parker finds herself in a sort of verbal quicksand after a poor choice of phrasing that nicely illustrates Bezucha’s skills in this area.

It softens up as it goes, however. By the end the film has gotten all gooey, and the underlying point seems to be that finding a sweetheart is the solution to all problems. The disappointing nature of that conclusion is compounded by the unsavory subtext of two of the female characters seemingly achieving this contentment by completely transforming their personalities.

That’s an awful lot of writing without touting the achievements of Rachel McAdams in the film. She’s extremely impressive as the character described at one point as “the mean sister.” McAdams shows the bristly nature of the character and her vulnerability without overplaying either. Diane Keaton is equally strong as the matriarch of the family, in large part because she also fearlessly lets some edges show. Together, they actually give you a sense of how the mother’s influence formed the daughter, and how the daughter continues to fuel the mother. It’s a film about connections; this one is the strongest.

From the Archive — Flashback Friday: 1978

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I think I’ve already dug through and shared all the old reviews I have that detail the usually dire outcomes with film adaptations of Stephen King’s work. In order to tie-in with this weekend’s big new movie — which reportedly falls right in line in terms of its quality — I need to look to the “Flashback Fridays” feature I had for a few weeks at my former online home. It basically gave me a chance to write about whatever I wanted, as along as it related to the year I’d reached in a chronological procession. For 1978, I wrote about the King novel that I long maintained was his very best.

1978: Stephen King’s The Stand is released

I was a sucker for Stephen King when I was younger. He was probably the first author who wrote books for adults that I followed with a collector’s intensity. It started with a copy of The Shining that sat unread on my bookshelf for a long time because I had trouble getting past the fact that the persecuted, paranormally gifted little boy at the center of the story shared my name. I eventually overcame that discouraging factor, and consumed the book as rapidly as I could. The Shining may have been my first, but The Standwas my favorite.

That was in part because of the heft of the book. I was just over 800 pages in its original version, and the little brick of a paperback somehow made it seem like it was even longer. All those pages gave it the veneer of something that was a little more important than King’s other typed-out creepshows. That combined with the novel’s story of societal breakdown and reformation in the face of a devastating illness gave it a sense of literary weightiness, at least to my still juvenile palette. Every plot intricacy, every burrowed-in character detail, every broadly drawn theme felt imperiously significant to me. It was, I was sure, King’s masterpiece, the book that proved he deserved recognition beyond his reputation as a proficient, prolific crafter of genre bestsellers.

King revisited the novel for a “Complete & Uncut Edition” in 1990 that added around another 300 pages to its length. There was also a 1994 miniseries, and, more recently, a succession of comic book miniseries adaptations that strike me as utterly pointless. The tinkering and the variants have only served to diminish the memory of the original book for me. It’s made it feel more like a product than the book that I once loved. Selfishly, I want it to be just what it was when I first read it, a comparatively lesser known work from a writer who everyone knew with a daunting length that made it the province of the true fan. I want it to be that book I raced through in my basement bedroom, conjuring up the archetypal battle of good and evil in my mind. Of course, as I type that wish out, it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I think we all want from those books that first captured us. We just want to find a way to preserve that feeling of immersion, of transformation, of ownership. I know there are the other versions out there, but for me there’s only one The Stand.

From the Archive: Midnight Run

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And so we come to the fourth and final piece I wrote for theMovies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of 90FM’s The Reel Thing, back in June 1991. At this point, I suspect Midnight Run is considered a minor classic or at least one the quintessential can’t-turn-it-off movies when encountered while scrolling through the cable programming grid. When it was released in 1988 — so just three years before I wrote the following — it was basically a box office dud, further proof that of the conventional wisdom at the time that Robert De Niro, for all his acclaim, couldn’t sell tickets. It opened in fifth place at the box office, which did make it the biggest official debut of that weekend (ahead of Big Top Pee-wee and Caddyshack II), but it was well behind the holdover hits. It had the misfortune of competing against Die Hard in its first wide weekend of wide release, following a word-of-mouth twenty-one-screen rollout one week earlier. Now it seems a little odd to presenting the argument “People should like this more!” about Midnight Run, but I swear it made sense at the time.

As a piece of writing, I will concede this is mediocre at best. I did a much better job when I wrote about Midnight Run as part of one of my exercises in counting backwards.  

My final selection is from the summer of 1988 and is most notable for the impressive performances by the two lead actors. Midnight Run stars stars Robert De Niro as a bail bondsman who has to bring an accountant, played by Charles Grodin, across the country to Los Angeles in order to face embezzlement charges. Standing in his way are mobsters, a rival bail bondsman, and the FBI. And there’s also Grodin, who will stop at no deceit or maneuver in order to free himself from De Niro. Watching these two actors create a fierce, complex, frustrated relationship with one another is a true marvel. They match one another stride for stride with solid, funny performances.

The film mixes high excitement action scenes with quieter moments that are equally effective. Simple conversations between the two actors or De Niro’s few moments with a daughter he hasn’t seen in years are just as good as the high-speed chases and helicopter explosions. That’s not something one can usually say about a film that falls into the buddy-action genre.

From the Archive: Real Genius

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Here is another of the short reviews I wrote for the “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of The Reel Thing, aired during the sweltering season of 1991. Looking at this review now, I’m struck by how little I actually wrote about a movie that was a heavy repeat-viewing favorite among my friend group. I feel like I owe director Martha Coolidge and her uncommonly smart comedy another pass.

When Real Genius came out in the summer of 1985, it was amidst a glut of comedies with a scientific twist. Weird Science, My Science Project, and Creator all saw release at around the same time. But Real Genius was the only one that really deserved to enjoy some summertime success.

The film stars Val Kilmer as an offbeat, slightly frazzled but ultimately brilliant college student who joins his colleagues in developing an ultra-powerful laser. They’re elated by their discovery until they find out that their invention is going to be used to create weaponry for the U.S. government. The film presents a fascinating group of students who interact on the college campus and really has fun with the students’ abilities to use their scientific knowledge to create excellent parties; turning dorm hallways into toboggan chutes may be the most notable trick.

Val Kilmer delivers his most likable performance in the lead role, capturing every bit of his character’s goofy charm. Even when the film isn’t wildly funny or particularly challenging, it’s still filled with enough good spirits to make for a highly enjoyable venture.

From the Archive — The Man with Two Brains

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Continuing with mini-series launched last week that excavates the reviews from the bygone “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” special episode of 90FM’s The Reel Thing, this is what I wrote about the comedy The Man with Two Brains, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin. I see Google designates this film as “Romance/Horror.” That’s, um, not quite right, gang. Once again, the text here is transcribed exactly from the original radio script. 

Next on my list is the 1983 Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains. Steve Martin plays a doctor who has one brain inside his noggin and a second one inside a jar. The glass-enclosed brain is all that’s left of a sweet woman whose voice is provided by Sissy Spacek. Martin falls in love with this caring, delicate person and goes on a quest to find her a body to be in so he can spend the rest of his life with her rather than his mean-spirited wife, played with sexy relish by Kathleen Turner.

The humor in this summer comedy runs along the lines of the craziness of the Naked Gun movies. Characters yell off-screen to tell some unseen force that it’s OK to stop using subtitles, and what appears to be a simple hotel room from the outside opens up to be an incredibly large castle laboratory. It’s amazing what you can do with a few throw pillows.

Steve Martin’s comedy hasn’t been this wild on screen since. It’s amazing amount of fun watching this masterful comedic actor dig into a script with as many laughs as The Man with Two Brains.

From the Archive — Gremlins 2: The New Batch

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Launching a two-man movie review program in 1990 meant our weekly effort followed the template set by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. There was no question about it. That included the occasional creation of themed shows. In the case of the esteemed Chicago film critics, I think those were mostly used to put an evergreen half-hour in the can to buy them the occasional vacation week. In our little outpost of cinema — in a town with nine whole screens — we were more likely required to pull that particular rip cord when not enough new titles came to town to fill out a full episode. That’s precisely what happened the last weekend of June in 1991, when it appears The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear was the only film that opened. So we decided to create a special episode: Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters.

We picked out summer movies that we loved that had settled for minor hit status at best. For the next few weeks, I’ll use this space to share the quickie reviews I wrote for my selections. (For what it’s worth, my distinguished colleague of the program was far more daring and creative in his personal picks. For instance, he opted to lead off his tally of summer films that deserved better than they got with Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.) Sometimes I rewrite these old reviews just to clean up minor messes or rejigger the syntax to make them better suited for online reading. With these reviews, though, I’m going to stick with the radio script, hence the additional prefacing at the top.

My first selection for a summer movie that deserves to be a blockbuster comes from just last summer — Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The first Gremlins film became a hit back in 1984 by mixing black comedy with effective horror. For the sequel, though, it seems as if director Joe Dante came to a decision that that the top priority was to have fun. Therefore, Gremlins 2 becomes a wild, off-the-wall comedy as hundreds — maybe thousands — of the evil gremlins take over a New York City skyscraper that has everything from a food court to a cable television network to a genetics laboratory. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, the two principals from the 1984 release, are back to reprise their roles, but the film belongs to the antics of the gremlins,  Although, John Glover is often able to steal away scenes with his performance as Daniel Clamp, the ultra-smooth tycoon who is watching his building be overrun. Whether the gremlins are running amok on a microwave cooking show, staging a production number, or demonstrating an unusual prowess for hand shadows, Gremlins 2 is always frantic, delightful fun.