Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

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Hunky Dory (2011)

There’s certainly other cinematic comfort food just as laidback & eager to please as the 2011 high school drama Hunk Dory, but rarely does it look this nice. Set in 1970s Wales, the film looks like a sunlit Polaroid dipped in honey, a perfect amber hue to capture the stoney-haze nostalgia of high school summers. This is a slow-moving hang-out picture molded after the Linklater tones established in Dazed & Confused and Slacker, but one that makes little effort to match those films in narrative complexity or character development – instead choosing to find its own distinct voice in the basic pleasures of its sights & sounds. The tendency of most 1970s nostalgia dramas would be to over-indulge in playing dress-up & recreating the era’s lingo. Hunky Dory instead busies itself by capturing mood, searching for the perfect tone of sun-damaged, over-exposed photographs so that it looks like a memory. Even its soundtrack of 1970s glam & stadium rock standards are mutated to feel like nostalgic memory & mood instead of being presented as original-recording needle drops. It’s cinematic comfort food in its deliberate embrace of narrative & thematic simplicity, but also just in the way it feels like an afternoon nap in a hammock.

Minnie Driver stars as a high school drama teacher struggling to hold her teen students’ behavior together at the tail end of a troublesome semester. She encourages them to examine & process their emotions through a class project that reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jukebox musical featuring then-modern rock numbers by groups like ELO, Roxy Music, and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. There’s a twee tinge to the instrumentation behind those glam rock covers (recalling those early 2010s YouTube clips of grade school choirs taking on acts like Beach House & Tame Impala), but the musical performances are thoughtfully arranged & relevant to the themes of The Tempest in a remarkably rewarding way. Less remarkable is the hangout character drama that fills the languid spaces between performances: teenage runaway crises, minor romantic betrayals, Driver arguing for the academic value of artistic expression to her more narrow-minded colleagues, etc. Anything that’s lacking in those conflicts is easily paved over by its endearing “Let’s put on a show!” dramatic structure, so that when the film concludes with a glam rock, outdoors staging of The Tempest it’s all smiles & warmth. The only frustrating thing is that you can’t watch the stage play in full.

Hunky Dory introduces its characters as if you already know them from a pre-existing television show or stage play, spending way more time on the “Where are they now?” wrap-up in the end credits than in opening minutes’ exposition. It mostly gets away with it too, since its archetypal depictions of 1970s teen behavior feels instantly familiar despite the specificity of its Welsh setting. The frustrated violence, denim-on-denim make-outs, and low-key hedonism of high school brats verging on summer break are so familiar that sketching out individual character traits among this sprawling cast of fresh faces is almost unnecessary. The film easily gets by on capturing the mood of the time without weighing itself down in specifics. This is accomplished mostly through sights & sounds: honey-dipped digital photography & choral arrangements of nostalgia-inducing ear worms. Hunky Dory is marketed as being “from the producers of Billy Elliott,” which should give you an accurate expectation for what you’ll find in its unambitious, but perfectly endearing nostalgia-drama indulgences. Its greatest sin is that the full-length staging of its glam rock Tempest isn’t included as a DVD extra, since the song selection & arrangement of what’s included in the film is thoughtfully planned out enough to indicate that it could be done.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mammas Mia! & Burlesque (2010)

Welcome to Episode #61 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-first episode, Brandon & Britnee discuss the jukebox musicals that comprise the most recent two film-acting credits from the ever-fabulous Cher: Burlesque (2010) & the Mamma Mia! franchise. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 35: Royal Wedding (1951)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Royal Wedding (1951) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially reviewed Royal Wedding, but in a 1997 “Movie Answer Man” column he did address a series of Dirt Devil television commercials that appropriated imagery from the movie to sell vacuum cleaners. He complains, “Special effects were used to remove Astaire from Royal Wedding (1951), where he danced with a coat rack, and insert him in a TV commercial, where he danced with a Broom Vac. Rights to use Astaire’s image were sold by his estate. I was reminded that when the late Ginger Rogers was honored at the Kennedy Center, Astaire’s widow refused permission to use any clips of Astaire in the tribute. What would Astaire have thought about those two decisions? A man who could dance on the ceiling would have no difficulty spinning in his grave.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the earliest memory I have of watching Fred Astaire dance onscreen was in a series of television commercials from the 1990s, where his image was posthumously altered to advertise Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. As a child, watching Old Hollywood footage of a man dancing on the ceiling was a potently memorable novelty even with the vacuum cleaner added in, but I assume that same novelty was horrifying for older folks. Evoking one of the world’s most beloved movie stars to peddle digitally-inserted, CGI vacuums was a boldly blasphemous choice from Dirt Devil’s advertising team that I’m sure earned the company at least a decade of cultural side eye. The ugly truth about this transgression, however, is that the ground they were trampling on was far from hallowed. I have since learn to respect Mr. Astaire tremendously for the “Fred & Ginger” musicals he churned out with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, but, as it turns out, the time the legend danced on the ceiling was far from his creative pinnacle. The majority of Dirt Devil’s digitally-altered Fred Astaire footage pulled from the 1951 musical comedy Royal Wedding. Featuring a . . . seasoned Astaire, the film is at best an entertaining mediocrity, not at all a sacred cow to be protected from the dirty hands of 15-second Superbowl ads.

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell star as a sibling dance team who’re invited across the pond to perform for British royalty at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip. Besides the complications of maintaining their various bachelor life romances in the pair’s travels to this historic event, Royal Wedding doesn’t have much of a plot beyond that basic premise. Loosely based on Astaire’s relationship with his real life dance partner (and real life sister) Adele Astaire, the film has a kind of rambling, anecdotal quality to it. The dramatic scenes connecting its dance numbers feel like a total waste of time outside providing Jane Powell an excuse to make 10,000 costume changes & proving to the audience that the siblings are not engaged in an incestuous romance. From scene one, it’s uncomfortable that the pair are so closely related, since their dance routines often require them to intimately woo each other with nonverbal body language. The opening dance number, for instance, features Astaire as an idle king ogling Powell as the maid, who tidies up his chamber while flirtatiously revealing her frilly underwear. They eventually dance together in a traditional romantic waltz, only for their sibling relationship to be revealed to the audience as soon as the number is through. To overcompensate for this awkward reveal, Royal Wedding immediately makes it apparent that the two dancers are fucking everyone in the world but each other and most of the movie concerns them juggling potential love interests between dance routines.

As lifeless & belabored as Royal Wedding feels as a 90min comedy, it functions fairly well as an excuse to feature Fred Astaire’s signature footwork. As sullied in the Dirt Devil ads, Astaire dances on the ceiling in one number, Jamiroquai style, as the room rotates but the camera remains fixed. In another sequence, a real life incident of a Fred & Adelle Astaire performance on a cruise ship is recreated with a tilting floor in turbulent waters– the dancers, audience, furniture, and loose objects sliding around the room during the routine as the ship tilts side to side. Astaire also proves he can entertain without those fancy movie magic shenanigans, wowing the audience by performing with a lifeless coat rack for a dance partner (later to be digitally replaced with a much more lively vacuum cleaner). My favorite routine in the film is a vaudeville throwback that “comically” features domestic abuse among impoverished scum. Titled “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?,” the song features the longest title in any MGM musical and has nothing to do with the plot, but does have a dangerous-feeling mean streak to its scrappiness that I found oddly endearing.

Any of Royal Wedding’s individual dance numbers could be worth seeking out in isolation, especially the ones that have Astaire perform metaphysical, gravity-defying wonders. However, their cumulative effect is only moderately pleasant. I’m not saying it’s right for giant companies to retroactively employ dead movie stars to shill for their products as if we were living in some real world bastardization of The Congress (spoiler: we are). I’m just glad that if Dirt Devil was going to tarnish the memory of a classic MGM musical, at least they picked one that’s so mediocre as an overall product. For every few seconds of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, there’s endless minutes of his character rhythmically rubbing bodies with his sister & wasting time between gigs. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Royal Wedding‘s good name is more tarnished by its incestuous body language and total narrative lack of creative energy than it is by digitally-inserted vacuum cleaners. The only reason the movie is at all entertaining is because Astaire really is that great of a dancer.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: True Grit (1969)

-Brandon Ledet

The Wiz (1978)

While still feeling the high of seeing The Wizard of Oz projected on the big screen earlier that morning, I took the opportunity to catch up with one of its stranger cultural echoes. Return to Oz inspired many childhood nightmares and Wicked sparked plenty a backseat singalong, but the legacy of The Wiz is much more difficult to pinpoint. The most expensive movie musical ever made (at the time of its release), The Wiz was a massive critical & commercial flop. Star power as potent as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor all working in their 1970s prime did little to save it from pans & lackluster receipts in ’78, but did afford the film a cultural longevity. A Wizard of Oz-based musical with an all-black cast is a fascinating concept with instant cultural appeal, a memory many children of the ’70s remember fondly even if its reputation at the time was dogshit. Many cite The Wiz‘s financial failure as leading directly to white movie producers killing the era’s blacksploitation boom, believing black-led media to no longer be profitable. After all, if a musical spectacle starring former members of The Supremes & The Jackson 5 directed by one of the most well-respected filmmakers of his time can’t make money at the box office, what black-marketed film could? The problem, of course, was not a lack of interest in the market, but a legitimate deficiency in the product being sold. To put it lightly, The Wiz is a total fucking mess.

Besides the typical energy & passion deficiencies that haunt all cynical cashgrabs with ludicrously bloated budgets, the main problem The Wiz struggles with is authenticity. The film’s superstar cast and association with Motown Records (including a Quincy Jones soundtrack), suggest a black culture authenticity at first glance, but its white producers & filmmaking team undercut that perspective significantly. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and written by Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin, Flatliners, The Number 23), The Wiz often feels like an embarrassing, borderline offensive approximation of black culture. Sequences involving sweatshop workers & humanoid crows in particular feel dangerously close to a minstrel act (with the crows being no less embarrassing than the ones depicted in Disney’s Dumbo four decades earlier, sadly). Even the film’s Motown-flavored soundtrack feels watered down & whitewashed for a wider (read: whiter) audience. The Wiz also can’t help but feel like an oddly cheap knockoff of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, because of its rights issues. Based off a musical stage play that shares the same source material with the Technicolor classic, The Wiz was legally allowed to reference the L. Frank Baum books, but not elements of the original film. Dorothy can click her slippers, but they have to be silver, not ruby red. She can journey across the yellow brick road, but she has to “easy on down,” not “follow” it. Everything about The Wiz just feels slightly off in that way. Its basic hook is fertile ground for an amazing Wizard of Oz adaptation (and a lot of people very much enjoyed the recent NBC broadcast staging of the same play), but every odd step in its production amounted to a massive miscalculation. The fact that it could be great with a different creative team and less of a Studio Notes ethos makes the experience of watching it all the more frustrating too. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Diana Ross stars as Dorothy Gale (duh), a twenty-something school teacher who spends nearly her entire life couped up inside her family’s Harlem apartment. Ross plays Dorothy as scared & fragile, with none of Judy Garland’s awe-filled excitability. Her stress dream about traveling to Oz is triggered more by her fear of leaving the safety of her home than anxiety over her dog & the weather, although Toto does venture outside just in time for the two to be swept up in a tornado (snownado? snowclone?) in the Harlem snow. Unlike in the 1939 picture, Oz is an enclosed environment. Dorothy smashes through the ceiling and lands in a giant bowl of grits (*eyeroll*). The story doesn’t deviate much from the source material from there, except in its production design & characterization details. Characters have a tendency to speak exclusively in slang (or Joel Schumacher’s estimation of slang) and the world they populate had a grey, concrete “urban” look instead of the 1939 film’s vibrant Technicolor atmosphere. Michael Jackson plays the scarecrow, protecting a sunflower patch outside NYC housing projects. Comedian Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man as a theme park automaton attached to a Coney Island rollercoaster. The lion starts as a concrete statue; the Munchkins are animated graffiti; the poppy fields are a corner of street hookers, etc. etc. etc. Only Lena Horne’s presence as an astral version of The Good Witch & Richard Pryor’s befuddled version of The Wizard aren’t marinated in Urban Flavor to “modernize” the material, but the relative blandness and the movie’s interminable 130min runtime raise questions audiences should probably never had to ask, like “Will this ever end?” or “Is Richard Pryor funny?” Anyway, Dorothy & her pals ease on the road, get an eyeful in Emerald City, defeat an evil witch, and then magically will themselves back to Harlem after learning about the wisdom, compassion, and courage they had in themselves all along or whatever.

As The Wiz is an eternal limbo of white men misinterpreting black culture into an overproduced, bafflingly boring mess of a late 70s musical, the best modern audiences can hope to mine from it is novelty as a cultural relic. The music is just as soulless & forgettable as Diana Ross & Richard Pryor’s asleep-at-the-wheel performances; Nipsey Russell’s robotic one-liners about STDs & his ex-wife get lamer by the minute. That essentially just leaves Michael Jackson’s scarecrow to carry the weight of making this exhausting display of oddball decisions feel at all worthwhile. He does okay. The costume designers rob him of his youthful beauty by drowning him fleshy neck & chin prosthetics, but he’s still a consistently magnetic presence with a golden voice. My favorite image in the entire film is a subway-set scene where two sentient trash cans attempt to eat Michael Jackson alive. That pretty much sums up the entire enterprise. I was frequently impressed with the massive scale of The Wiz‘s production design; the disco number set at The Emerald City was especially gorgeous in that respect (before it had time to outlast your patience). Its look is much more drab than the Technicolor dreamscape of its 1939 predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dour look of the film echoes its more decidedly tragic tone, at least in the way Ms. Ross chose to play it. The problem is that the story its visual achievements serve is both punishingly boring & embarrassingly miscalculated. I’d love to see what a modern black filmmaker could do with this same material (and it sounds like I should at least catch up with its recent The Wiz Live! revival), but Lumet’s film ultimately amounts to a fascinating misfire at best. As is, it likely shouldn’t even exist.

-Brandon Ledet

The Pirate (1948)

Being introduced to Gene Kelly’s artistry through late-career titles like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort, I had come to associate him with nostalgic meta commentary on Hollywood past, assuming that he had become an artifact of the era only in the years after his prime. I’ve since learned a couple things about Gene Kelly’s career by returning to the older titles that made him a star. The hit musical Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, taught me that nostalgia for Hollywood’s past had always been an essential aspect of the actor/dancer’s career. As his strengths as a performer have a kind of vaudevillian undercurrent to them, he tends to play performers in his movie roles, giving both an excuse for him to sing & dance directly to the audience and for meta commentary about Hollywood’s past. I feel like I learned an even more important lesson from 1948’s The Pirate, however: not all Gene Kelly movies are good. The Pirate once again features Kelly playing an actor, allowing him to perform directly to the camera and Put On A Show. It even has an open air of nostalgia for the swashbuckling past of stars like Errol Flynn, positioning the film as yet another Gene Kelly Old Hollywood Throwback. What I discovered is that those virtues are not nearly enough on their own to save a sinking ship. The Pirate is garbage so wet & so rotten that not even Gene Kelly’s singing, dancing nostalgia schtick could save it.

I can at least admit that The Pirate‘s failure is anyone but Gene Kelly’s fault. The entire production seemed doomed from the start, going through ten separate creative team re-writes in its journey from romance adventure to movie musical. Kelly himself was freshly returned from the horrors of serving in World War II, but wasn’t even close to the most disruptive or dysfunctional personality on set. Director Vincent Minelli (Liza’s father, naturally) feuded loudly on set with his then-wife Judy Garland, whose erratic total-meltdown behavior extended the shoot from weeks to months in an ever-ballooning expense. The Pirate‘s financial failure has often been blamed on the public not being ready to see Garland transition from her girlish Wizard of Oz roles to the more adult material she’s asked to command here. What’s a lot more likely is that her on-stage nervous breakdown (which eventually led to a suicide attempt & sanitarium hospice) made the film difficult for audiences to stomach as an expression of joy. Garland’s presence in The Pirate mostly amounts to a frantic, pilled-out mess, a tragic culmination of years of personal & professional abuse. Her onscreen rapport with Kelly is more violent yelling than it is passionate yearning and the end result is physically upsetting to behold. That’s not even to mention the casual, pervasive sexism & racism that corrupt the film’s casting & narrative, two scourges that have only made an already unlovable film less appealing over time.

Judy Garland stars as Manuela Alve, a wealthy young Carribbean woman, which had to be one of Hollywood’s all-time worst miscastings. Ignoring the (times-indicative) racism of that whitewashing, Manuela isn’t an inherently awful character. Raised inland on her Carribbean island home, she’s never seen open water & fantasizes about the adventure offered by tales of pirates, which is a tale common to other notable pirate properties like Peter PanCurse of the Black Pearl. In particular, she lusts after the infamous pirate Mac the Black DeMarco. This is a source of great frustration to both of her would-be beaus: a smooth-talking actor played by Gene Kelly and a monstrous plantation owner who disgusts her despite, unbeknownst to everyone, actually being Mac the Black in disguise. The discomfort in this scenario is in watching Kelly’s thespian woo Garland’s confused damsel heart away from her pirate-in-disguise betrothed. He hypnotizes her in a pivotal scene, gathering information to sway her heart & eventually convincing her that he himself is Mac the Black. He also pesters her endlessly, infantilizing her with chiding like, “Stepping into the sight of other men is too much of a provocation,” sealing the predatory rapist vibes of his character. To Manuela’s credit, she’s allowed to buck against the actor’s early infantilization, snapping back, “Don’t call me ‘pure soul.’ It irritates me,” asserting that there are “depths of emotion” to “romantic longings” under her “prim exterior.” She is eventually wooed into a relationship built on a lie, however, which works out fine for Gene Kelly’s actor/predator . . . until he has to prove to the authorities that he is, in fact, a singing, dancing, vaudevillian clown and not a cutthroat thief.

There is exactly one scene worth watching in The Pirate. When Manuela first imagines her thespian beau to be a famous pirate, the movie dives into her BDSM fantasy where he wields a giant sword & sings to a big band production while she’s a helpless bunny who has to watch from the sidelines. The song in this scene is not better than any other tune Cole Porter churned out on autopilot for the production, but it’s still worth watching for Manuela’s intensely sexualized vision of a pirate: Gene Kelly in short-shorts. Watching the typically sanitized token of nostalgia show off his muscular gams in a horned up pirate number is a three minute pleasure almost blissful enough to make the wet pile of garbage festering around it worthwhile. Almost. Gene Kelly’s charisma & sexy man-legs are powerful opiates, but not powerful enough to ease the discomfort of The Pirate‘s many apparent flaws: racist casting, sexist dialogue, a near-death Judy Garland, and a god awful set of Cole Porter songs with inanely repetitious lyrics like “Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown” & “Niña, niña, niña” (which he dared rhyme with “schizophreeñia”). Even as a staunch defender of the little-loved Xanadu & a spineless sucker for Technicolor, I couldn’t allow Gene Kelly’s charms overpower The Pirate‘s cultural toxicity & the genuine harm it did to one of his visibly shaken costars. Like many pirate ships in an age old storybooks, this one’s irrevocably cursed.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet