Monday, April 17, 2017

All That Jazz (1979)

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Twentieth Century Fox was enjoying a run of critical successes in the late 70s.With titles like Breaking Away, Norma Rae, An Unmarried Woman and Julia, the strobing-lights studio had recaptured some of the glory it hadn’t truly seen since the Daryl Zanuck days. And now it had decided to close out the decade with All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiography (although I’d argue that it’s far more than “semi”) about a director/choreographer at the end of his rope, and his life. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style, it exposes his womanizing, drug addiction and workaholism as a heart attack, and the angel of death, forces him to confront his final-act demons. Not exactly The Doris Day Show.

But it gleaned mostly positive reviews, and even legendary director Stanley Kubrick has been quoted as calling it the best movie he’d ever seen. And truth be told, he wasn’t too far off the mark – Jazz is actually quite close to being a masterpiece. Sure, some complained of its reminiscence of 8 ½, but that’s sort of like saying Peter Bogdonovich’s What’s Up Doc is just Bringing Up Baby, or that Fatal Attraction is just Play Misty for Me. Or that anything by DePalma is just Hitchcock – just because it’s based on a pre-existing form doesn’t mean it can’t he as good. (It might even be, gasp, better!) All that Jazz doesn’t necessary best Fellini’s masterpiece, but nor is it trying to. In many ways Jazz is darker, more disturbing and sadder, yet filled with some of the most invigorating, original musical numbers I’ve ever seen in film. I’m not surprised Kubrick liked it so much: it holds a generally negative view of human nature yet stands as a beautiful work of art in its own right.

Fosse was burning the candle at both ends in 1974, during his simultaneous editing of Lenny and staging of the Broadway musical Chicago – the harried period depicted in Jazz as Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) shuttles between the editing room and theater stage. Our opening number, “On Broadway,” sets up the auditions for the show, and sets up Gideon’s character: an accomplished choreographer who takes his work very, very seriously – almost to a fault. His love for the dance, and for the women who practice it, has cost him a marriage (to dancer Audrey Paris), and very nearly his current relationship to another dancer, Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking). The problem is, Joe knows how badly he’s managed his life, and he copes with this awareness through myriad of pharmaceuticals, and the hope that someday, perhaps, his work will be good enough. But it never seems to be “good enough.” His only happiness seems to come from his daughter, a dancer as well – and their scenes together are a solace from the turmoil of his personal and professional life.

With mounting pressure from neck-breathing investors, coupled with his not-entirely healthy lifestyle, Joe is admitted into a hospital after suffering a heart attack.
With a prescient knowledge of his impending fate he imagines a conversation with the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange), and fixates on one portion of his film – the comedian’s routine on the Five Stages of Death – as it pertains to the stages he is currently undergoing. As he goes under the knife for open heart surgery, his investors heartlessly consider their profit margins if Joe were to die and they could write the entire show off. He does, but not before he imagines a grand finale to beat the bank: the musical extravaganza “Bye, Bye Life” (variant of “Bye, Bye Love”) with all the loved ones in his life, and co-starring Ben Vereen. The final shot of Joe being zipped up in a body bag gives us the final, disturbing image, as Ethel Merman sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” revealing Joe (and Fosse’s) love/hate feelings about his profession, and about his life.

All That Jazz is such a dizzying, emotional rollercoaster ride of a movie that it’s hard to know where to start, except to say that you won’t soon forget it after seeing it. With a razor-sharp, lightening-paced script by Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthor (who died before the film’s release), it puts the viewer to work, shuttling from one musing to another as we must sort out Joe’s inner musings, which follow no particular order. The lynchpin of the whole things is how smart Joe is – so smart that he’s all too aware of how demanding and overbearing he can be. One marvelous scene involves a dance recital with ex-wife: he instructs her movements while she casually discusses his marital misdeeds, which he somewhat rationalizes but never denies. But he may very well be the hardest, and most observant, about himself – no, he harbors no pie-in-the-sky ideal that he can change, even were he to survive his heart attack. “If I don’t make it,” he says to her, “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done. And if I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m gonna do.”

And then there are the dance numbers. They’re phenomenal, particularly he opener and closer, and given added weight for their context. The dancing in Jazz is elegant yet urgent – the dancers dance because, to paraphrase George Ballanchine, they have to dance, and in Joe’s case quite literally so. Ann Reinking, as Joe’s girl, is pitch perfect in her first film role: wide-eyed, foolishly devoted yet made more mature during her experience. My favorite of her numbers – a three-girl routine (with ex-wife and daughter, all the women of his life) in which they say “goodbye,” lamenting that he’s leaving a daughter fatherless owing to his reckless, heedless lifestyle. Again, no apologies, just full transparency, Fosse style.

I don’t really identify with the theater life, certainly not as hardcore as is represented in this movie, but I can identify with Joe’s addictive tendencies and his professional perfectionism. Perhaps it’s this absolutism that makes him a bit rough around the edges, but he’s still a likeable protagonist, despite all his flaws. This is crucial, since we need to care – it’s what the entire movie is anchored on. He represents us, the worst of us, a side we may not wish to acknowledge but must at some point in our lives, before it’s too late. In Joe’s case, he just makes it.

And how can I leave without mentioning Scheider in the lead role as Joe – a smart actor playing a smart character. I don’t know much about Fosse but I’ve the feeling Scheider captures him – every aspect and nuance – down to a T. The way a cigarette is always dangling out of his mouth; the way he exasperatingly rolls his eyes at those editing sessions, fully expecting his film to bomb; the way he tells a chorus dancer he didn’t get the part, with equal parts compassion and tough love. It all feels perfect to me, and I’d be willing to bet that no director in American movies had a better onscreen portrayer than Fosse had with Scheider. He’s just that goddamned good.

Jazz is a musical for the ages, but it is an unsparing one. And Fosse is unsparing of himself, confessing, revealing everything as if it were his penance. He would go on to direct one more film, 1983’s Star 80 (another ill-fated subject), before succumbing, as he predicted, to a heart attack in Washington D.C. in 1987. But Jazz, for me, is his swan song – a fitting coda to a legendary, underrated career.


Rating:  ****


And P.S…. Only ONE movie left to cover 1980 – 1985. Are they kidding me???








Friday, April 7, 2017

Alien (1979)

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In the wake of Star Wars’ unprecedented and unexpected success, every studio in Hollywood suddenly saw green in outer space – and countless execs and agents tried to figure out how they could set their projects in the heavens. Most of them started coming out in 1979, two years after Wars’ release. In that year we got: Moonraker (Bond in space), The Black Hole (Disney in space), Meteor (disaster film in space) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the long awaited film adaption, finally greenlit after Wars).

And then there was Alien, originally a shelved screenplay by Michael O’Bannon until Fox showed interest after the box office return of its very own Wars. Now that sci-fi in space was cool again, why not horror in space; it could cross-pollinate both Jaws and Wars, the two biggest hits of all time? Fox’s not-too-risky gamble paid off; Alien raked in 80 million in ticket sales and garnered two Oscar nominations. To date, four sequels have been produced, with one on the way, making it Fox’s second-biggest sci-fi franchise. Not too shabby.

And me? Billed with the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and with a hard-R MPAA rating, I was positively forbidden from catching the flick in theaters. And even on home video, I never caught up with it until well after I had already seen its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, in 1986. My reaction? Meh, not particularly scary, but feeling somehow that maybe I was missing something. Then again, in the 2000’s, I screened it again (on DVD this time), with roughly the same reaction. Finally, I just now saw it again for this blog…. and, despite perhaps a bit more admiration for its ahead-of-its time art direction and science-seriousness, I didn’t change my opinion much. I just don’t get its enormous appeal.

The Nostromo, a commercial space freighter on its way home from a mining job, receives a distress signal coming from a desolate planet. The ship’s crew of seven is eager to get home, but captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) believe they should check it out. A search party discovers some weird, fossilized remains of what looks like an alien, and one member, Kane (John Hurt), gets the shock of his lifetime when a clearly alive alien jumps out and sucks itself on his face. They bring him back aboard the ship, against Ripley’s orders but permitted by increasingly untrustworthy science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and that’s when the sh**t hits the fan.

Completely unable to get the slimy sucker off Kane’s face, and hindered by the fact that its blood can burns its way through anything, including two floors of the ship, they write the man off for dead. But soon they discover he’s recovered – with his former parasite assumedly dead on the floor – all ready to chow down at breakfast with the rest of the crew. You know what happens next if you know anything about the movie: from out of Kane’s belly comes a little baby alien, the spawn of their lil’ intruder, and it slithers off into the ship, ready to grow and knock off every human on board. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is the first to go, followed by Dallas. And Ash? Turns out he’s the company’s android, under direct orders to bring the alien home, unharmed, with the crew rendered expendable. Ripley manages to smash him up real good, before realizing that the only way to defeat this bad alien mo-fo is to self-destruct the ship. Looks like she’s alone, as two others (Yaphet Koto and Veronica Cartwright) are now dogmeat, but as she ejects with a shuttle she realizes the alien is still with her; she carbon freezes the cretin and kicks it offboard to be done with it once and for all.

There is much to respect about Alien. In many ways, it’s far less dated than its space-age counterpart, Star Wars, owing to its seriousness about sci-fi. The crew of this ship speaks with a futuristic authority; no histrionics here there’s no time. And in the world of Alien space is a matter to be treated with the utmost solemnity (although one could argue that it hardly helps them given the circumstances). Director Ridley Scott makes this verisimilitude work to his advantage; his hyperrealism and underdirection of actors (better than Lucas’) gives the horror that befalls them that much more shock. These are real astronauts, just doing job, and why couldn’t a vicious, stowaway alien also do the same to us?

Scott also does a fine job with his art direction of the ship. This is clearly a man who finds technology beautiful – he lingers lovingly on shots of computers and light, his camera crawls stealthily through the caverns of the Nostromo, taking in all the whirring and beeping and flashing. You can almost smell the equipment. And its this kind of beautification that gives the film its suspense – it’s in the absence of action that Alien is at its best. We wait and wait and wait for the worst to happen after the alien affixes himself to Kane. This is going to be bad, very bad. Hitchcock would be proud.

But yet, it’s around this time when Alien shows its cards, ad they’re not particularly good ones. Once we hit the stomach-popping scene and the critter is on the loose, the film turns, essentially, into a slasher film. One by one the humans go down, and the only real surprise is the revelation of Ash’s robotdom. And worse yet…. I never really found the alien that terrifying. Sorry. He just doesn’t scare me very much. I don’t exactly think he looks realistic – I think it has something to do with the two heads- is it an alien inside an alien? When he pops out he resembles a cheesy stick puppet, and letter he just looks like a guy in a suit. And it’s never exactly clear how he kills people; there’s a lot of quick editing and a shot of a fist plunging through flesh. Is that it? This was the same problem I had with Cameron’s sequel, and if a director as masterful as he can’t make this dude scary, it must be an error with the character itself.

And though, as I mentioned, Scott is skilled at developing character credibility, he’s not so expert at fleshing them out. I certainly could have used more backstory for at least a few of them. But Scott prefers to keep his hardware, and the alien, at center stage, and while, as I mentioned, it’s perhaps ahead of its time in this regard, it’s also a harbinger of the steelier, more soulless action-adventure flicks that clang-clanged their way into the 80s and 90s. By the time the alien starts eviscerating everyone, we’re not too jolted, certainly more inured than 1979 audiences. This stuff holds up, but only because we’re so used to its metallic imitators.

I called Alien a slasher movie, and there’s no greater evidence of that than the final double-ending in which the alien returns when thought dead. The whole sequence is nothing but a tack-on (added last-minute by Scott), and does nothing but exploit a tired gimmick. Anything else that might have worked in Aliens is undermined by that ridiculous ending, even if we do get to see Sigourney Weaver in a tank top and panties.

Bottom line: culturally significant, but never one of my personal faves. Oh, and BTW: my Fox Collection copy is mismarked – it’s Aliens, not the original. Too minor, and too late, to send back.


Rating:  ***


Monday, April 3, 2017

Norma Rae (1979)


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(Before I start, I’m just noticing that they skipped 1978, and thus one of my favorite all-time films, Fox An Unmarried Woman. But I’m also noticing that it appears to be out of print, given Amazon’s astronomically high price for a few used copies, and so I’ll cut the Fox Collection a break.)


 I first saw Norma Rae back we got our first VCR, a top-loading Syvania, back in Christmas of 1982. Back then there was only one video rental place in town (where we got the VCR), but it was all the way in Vineland – too distance-prohibitive for regular film rentals. So it was with great enthusiasm they one opened right in our own hamlet of Millville. And that’s when, starting in April, we rented movies like they were going out of style (which they would, some twenty years later).

My parents got Norma Rae to watch when our aunt and uncle came over for dinner. Perhaps a odd choice for a fun night at the movies, but you have to remember that we were early on the VCR bandwagon, so seeing any movie, uncut, whenever you wanted and with no commercials, was a hell of a novelty. It would have been a success, too, were it not for a major technical glitch. Our TV was a bit on the old side, and it didn’t completely mesh with the new VCR. So we had to constantly adjust the set’s vertical hold; in other words, every two minutes or so the picture would annoyingly flip up, like an unsprocketed film frame, requiring us to monkey around in the back to fix it.

But no matter – a film rental was still a big deal, and when I saw it alone the next day, I found it quite interesting. I had only the scarcest understanding of labor unions, but I got enough to follow the story. And eve better, it whetted my appetite for the subject. In high school I even did a paper on Samuel Gompers and the AFL/CIO, and perhaps it even sowed the seeds for my current support of fair labor representation, collective bargaining and socialism in general. And to think it all started with the Flying Nun.

And now, having seen it some 35 years later, I can see it through more mature eyes, and my review is pretty simple: it’s a wonderful film. I know, it’s probably in bad form for a critic to use such simple superlatives, but it’s the most apt word I know for a movie that it’s all the notes just right. It’s got a top-notch screenplay, literate and complex without compromising its rural-American authenticity. It’s keeps up just the right tone – melancholy and stark without being cheerless. And it features characters that you not only like very much but also want to succeed at any cost. Norma’s protagonists are sharp and smart without being cynical – a far cry from any hipper-than-thou progressives you’d find in today’s movies. These folk are real, as really as the backroads where they live and the mills where they work.

But Norma Rae is really two films. The first is the labor union story – about how a representative comes down to an unnamed Southern town, and tries to convince the workers at a textile mill that they are getting the royal screw from their employers and need representation pronto. That’s the part I got when I was twelve, but the other part – the love story – I completely missed. No, it’s not the love story between Norma and her husband, Sonny, but rather the unrequited love story between her and the Jewish union rep from New York, Reuben. Both sides work perfectly in concert to deliver a potent polemic without neglecting the human element, for it’s people who drive causes in the first place.

Norma is, after all, a single Southern woman, with kids from two different dads, one deceased. But she’s unapologetic with her romances, including one, ill-fated, with a married man (she does call it off), until she meets Sonny (Beau Bridges) and marries him, more out of convenience, as he is also a single parent. But it’s her work that causes her the greatest duress these days – the local textile mill, where she toils with the weaving machines, and where both her parents are worked down to the bone. She pays little mind to a NY union rep, Reuben, who attempts to unionize the shop.

That all changes when she gradually gets enough of the harrowing working conditions, long hours and little pay. After her mother develops hearing problems, and her father ails from a heart condition (he ultimately dies after his foreman ignores his heart attack), she joins the cause. Soon Norma and Reuben, although from different worlds, devlop a close friendship, but it takes a toil on her own friendships with the others, not to mention her marriage to Sonny, who doesn’t truly understand what she’s fighting for. Things come to a head when Norma is harassed by the bosses, and then stands atop a table, holding high a cardboard sign with “Union” written in big letters. One by one each machine goes silent – indicative that enough people support her to vote in favor of unionization. Norma makes peace with her children – admitting to them her checkered past before her detractors do – and says goodbye to Reuben with a handshake, even though he will be “in her head” for a long time.

As I mentioned earlier, it really is this relationship that drives the movie. It’s a classic city mouse/country mouse formula, but what aches so much about their unrequited love is that, under other circumstances, they’d be a perfect fit – she’s just as intellectually curious as he is. But they’re separated not just by geography but by class. Their final handshake has all the pathos of The Way We Were’s finale: if things had just gone differently, if only, if only…. A film now would ratchet up that sexual tension so it hammers us, but Norma keeps it effectually subtle, and in the process makes it even more sexual.

And this all really brings us back to Sally Field’s Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance in the title role. It’s more than just a heroic female role – she rides a very tricky balance here between being a political mouthpiece, delivering speechworthy sentiment and delightfully handcrafted dialogue, and putting forth a realistic portrait of an actual rural woman. This is something so difficult that very few actresses pull it off  (look at Julia Robert’s overpraised performance in Erin Brocovich, performing every scene like she were gaming for a Oscar, which she actually received).

And if Fields character is a feminist, then she’s an authentic, risky, feminist, or at least risky for its time. I’m referring specifically to her promiscuity, a doubled-standarded aspect of feminism still controversial to this day. But for her it’s just a matter of course, almost as if the rest of urban America hasn’t caught up with her proto-liberation. Sure, women are subservient, in the Bible-belt culture of patriarchism, but (wink-wink) we know how it really goes.

“It Goes Like It Goes” (how’s that for a segue?) is the perfect theme song for Norma – it encapsulates the sadness, the pathos – the struggle of decades of generations in a labor-oppressed backland with its mournful orchestration. But the song’s main lyric, “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better, and maybe what’s bad gets gone,” belies that, nd signals a hope for the future – a future embodied by Norma, who sacrificed her life, her marriage, her love – for that future. That’s why her conversation with her kids at the end is just as significant a coda as that vote.

Bits and pieces: I love the way that the film shows machines in operation – it’s not just window dressing for the polemic. And though most of the heavies are one-note, I still believe them, stiff collars and wide ties and all. And this is a film that really shows us the climate – It’s summer, goddamned it, and everyone has underarm sweat stains (including Norma) and soaked shirts.

In short, I love this film. And it’s a true affection, too, not just respect. Funny, I think if there were no technical glitches, my aunt and uncle would’ve enjoyed this film, like I do now. Like Roger Ebert said, any good movie should be enjoyable because you’re watching quality cinema. Rog… I agree.

And BTW, this comes at the peak of 1978-82, my favorite era in American cinema. I wish I could go back.
Oh, and I forgot…. Ron Luebman was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Rueben. He is magnificent – just as good as Field.

See it, see it, see it!

Rating:  ****





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