02 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 66 | April 2, 2010

“City” Flickers

Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   San Francisco (1936)
Tuesday         —   Nashville (1975)
Wednesday    —   Atlantic City (1980)
Thursday        —   Fargo (1996)

Chicago (2002)


The city
Founded:  1833
Named For:  Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa meaning “wild onion”
Nickname:  The Windy City; The Second City; City of Big Shoulders
Population:  2,853,000

chicago_mapchicago_pic
 

The movie
Release Date:  2002
Director:  Rob Marshall
Cast:  Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly
Oscar Summary:  13 nominations, 6 wins including Best Picture

chicago_movie

Has the movie gotten better over the years?  I don’t recall being especially impressed when the film was released.  I thought it was fine for what it was—an entertaining but hardly groundbreaking musical.  I was not so happy to see it take the Best Picture honor that rightfully belonged to a better film, The Pianist.  But after a recent look, I liked Chicago better than I remembered.  It’s quite well done.

Two women—one a star (Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly), one not (Renée Zellweger as Roxie Hart)—meet in jail after each is arrested for murder.  The film follows the journey of these two rivals through the corrupt criminal courts, where they gain spectacular attention in the press, and finally to their triumph in show biz.  Richard Gere does fine work as the glib defense lawyer.  Queen Latifah is the prison matron.  John C. Reilly is Roxie’s forgotten husband.  Many hands were involved in the production, from director Rob Marshall to music man Danny Elfman.  Much credit for its success belongs to the team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, whose musical opened on Broadway in 1975, and its revival in 1996.  (More than 5,500 performances later, it’s still running.)  Yet the film has the unmistakable trademark of another man, one who died fifteen years before the movie was made.  Bob Fosse shared book credit for the musical and was responsible for the choreography.  You see his influence in every number, every scene, every bite of the satire.  Fosse was due to direct the film version of Chicago before he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 60.

Despite the good performances, I still believe that Hollywood shorts itself when casting film actors for musicals.  In its heyday Hollywood had an incredible roster of singers and dancers under contract.  Now that talent works on the stage.  I would bet that talent would graciously appear in a film if only Hollywood asked.  But film people, it appears, prefer to stick with film people, so with the exception of Queen Latifah, you have lead actors in Chicago who aren’t singers and dancers doing the singing and dancing.  To their credit, they’re all competent, or better.  But what’s missing is a chance to see the unique stylings of some of the world’s great entertainers.  When the right talent meets the right material, you may see a performance for the ages.  As good as the film may be, that’s not what you get with Chicago.

That other distinction
As noted above, Chicago won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only one of this week’s films to earn that honor.   But as mentioned in the Monday Minute, it does share a distinction with those other films.  If you’re still guessing, here’s your answer:  this week’s films are the only movie titles named after U.S. cities that were nominated for Best Picture.  That qualification pared down our list of eligible titles to a convenient number:  five.  I like when that happens.  It also explains why we didn’t get to Philadelphia.  Surprised?

Extra credit:  Are any other Best Picture-nominated films also the names of U.S. cities?  At least one.  Elizabeth, New Jersey, is a fine town but it has nothing to do with Elizabeth, the 1998 movie about the Virgin Queen (and no, the city wasn’t even named for her).  It doesn’t qualify for this week’s theme.  Same goes for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Alaska.


Chicago
“All That Jazz”

 


Chicago
“Razzle Dazzle”


Chicago
“Mr. Cellophane”


Quote of Note
“It’s showtime, folks!”
—Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), All That Jazz (1979)

…58…59…60.

 

Fargo

 
 01 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 65 | April 1, 2010

“City” Flickers

Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   San Francisco (1936)
Tuesday         —   Nashville (1975)
Wednesday    —   Atlantic City (1980)

Fargo (1996)


The city
Founded:  1871
Named For:  Wells Fargo founder William Fargo
Nickname:  Gateway to the West
Population:  99,000

fargo_map2fargo_pic


The movie

Release Date:  1996
Cast:  Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell
Director, Writer:  Joel & Ethan Coen
Oscar Summary:  7 nominations, 2 wins
fargo_movie

Don’t miss the beginning of Fargo or you’ll miss Fargo.  The North Dakota city is a bit player in this black comedy from the Coen brothers.  The main action takes place across the state line, in Minnesota, partly in the Twin Cities, partly in Brainerd.  Why the title Fargo then?  Well, it is the setting for a key scene where car dealer Jerry Lundegaard arranges for the kidnapping of his wife.  From that beginning the entire story flows.  But the title does get people asking, Why Fargo?  That seems intentional.  The answer may be this simple:  because it works.

Why things work or don’t work is always a bit of a mystery.  Fargo works, and in my opinion, works better than any other Coen brothers movie.  I’ve read various explanations about why, and it often comes down to Marge Gunderson, the pregnant and pleasant police chief of Brainerd.  She investigates a murder, solves the crime, and is the hero of the story.  She’s the most sympathetic, and among the most competent, character in this or any movie from the Coen brothers.  She’s one of their few female roles with major screen time that could be described as admirable.  The performance by Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, doesn’t miss a beat.  Her pitch perfect timing adds up to one of the great comic acting jobs of the ’90s.  Yet I think there’s more to it, and the success of the movie owes as much, if not more, to William H. Macy, as Lundegaard.  It’s hard to be so likable and so despicable at the same time.  He’s dishonest, he’s conniving, he’s cowardly, and he’s so damn chipper you want to knock that phony grin off his face.  Yet you feel for him.  Part of you wants him to succeed.  You know he deserves better than the treatment he gets from his wealthy father-in-law, owner of the dealership.  Until Marge enters the picture, Lundegaard is the only one worth rooting for.  He drives the action from the first scene to nearly the last, and it’s Macy as much as anyone that makes the film so memorable.  The rest of the cast ain’t bad either.

Joel and Ethan Coen are talented filmmakers.  They certainly know how to write and direct, and entertain.  Yet I have my gripes.  In some films they go beyond the satiric, into the misanthropic.  Still, the Coens are almost always worth watching.  (Much of my beef is really with critics, who often would rather swoon than do their jobs.)  In Fargo, the Coens seem to have struck the right balance.  The film works.  Not all their films do, which just goes to show, that’s no easy feat.


Fargo
Trailer

 


Fargo
Marge Gunderson at Work

“He was funny-looking.  More than most people, even.”


Fargo
Jerry Lundegaard at Work (and more)

Would you buy a car from this man?


Quote of Note
“Big John, do you think this boy is a hustler?”
—Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), The Hustler (1961)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 31 Mar 2010 @ 09:03 AM

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 31 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 64 | March 31, 2010

“City” Flickers

Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   San Francisco (1936)
Tuesday         —   Nashville (1975)

Atlantic City (1980)


The city
Incorporated:  1854
Claim to Fame:  Inspiration for the Monopoly board game; gambling Mecca of the East
Population:  36,000

atlantic city_mapatlantic city_pic


The movie
Release Date:  1980
Director:  Louis Malle
Cast:  Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid
Oscar Summary:  5 nominations, no wins

Atlantic City was going through a transformation around the time of this film.  A seaside resort town going back to the 19th century, it had suffered a major decline during the postwar years.  Gambling was legalized during the ’70s in an effort to attract new visitors, and many of the old buildings were being demolished as new casinos were starting up.

Sally and Lou are neighbors living in an apartment building that’s slated for the wrecking ball.  Sally’s a newcomer to town, from Canada, fleeing her drug dealer husband, with ambitions to start over.  Lou’s an old-timer, an aging numbers runner with connections to the mob from decades past, yet a very dignified man with a fondness for white suits.  The leads are Susan Sarandon (a revelation) and Burt Lancaster (one of a kind), perhaps an unlikely pair for two people so involved with each another and potentially lovers.  They may be from worlds apart but they need each other, and there’s great tenderness between them.  One memorable scene has Sally going through her nightly ritual at the kitchen sink, rubbing lemon juice over her arms, shoulders, and breasts.  She does it to remove the smell of fish from her work as a waitress, though there is another way to look at it too.  Lou is watching through the window.  Later he tells her about it.  It’s a revealing look into their characters.

Atlantic City was directed by Louis Malle, who made terrific films both in his native France (Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir les Enfants) and in America (My Dinner with Andre).  Atlantic City is a special film and ranks among his best.


Atlantic City 
Trailer


Quote of Note
“I said that I would see you because I had heard that you were a serious man, to be treated with respect.  But I must say no to you and let me give you my reasons.  It’s true I have a lot of friends in politics, but they wouldn’t be so friendly if they knew my business was drugs instead of gambling which they consider a harmless vice.  But drugs, that’s a dirty business.”
—Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), The Godfather (1972)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 31 Mar 2010 @ 10:26 AM

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 30 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 63 | March 30, 2010

“City” Flickers

Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   San Francisco (1936)

Nashville (1975)


The city
Founded:  1779
Named For:  Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash
Nickname:  Music City, U.S.A.; Athens of the South; Ca$hville
Population:  596,000

nashville_mapnashville_pic

 
The movie
Release Date:  1975
Director:  Robert Altman
Cast:  A large ensemble, including Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Keenan Wynn
Oscar Summary:  5 nominations, 1 win

nashville_movie

Since the time of the Greeks, the predominant form of storytelling has a protagonist and antagonist who steer the narrative with a supporting group of characters serving the main plot, sometimes with a subplot or two.  The longer the story, the more opportunity to flesh out secondary roles, but it’s usually still clear who the primary character is.  Recent times have seen more experimentation in narrative forms, but for many years that’s how it seems to have worked best—for storytellers and for audiences.

Robert Altman is an exception.  His films ignore the standard “rules.”  His signature style is a large cast of characters engaged in multiple storylines, whose lives intersect in unexpected, often circumstantial, ways.  Altman seems less interested in plot than character, less interested in what happens than in who’s doing it and why.  It’s a delicate balance.  Lacking a single defining character, a story may come off as a muddle.  But when it’s done well, the effect can be more like real life than any plot-driven tale, and the whole can have a greater impact than the sum of its parts.

Altman employed multiple storylines in a number of films (see Short Cuts, The Player), but his greatest success may have been Nashville.  A couple of dozen characters have a role in the grand affair—people with flaws, people you can laugh at, but not without sympathy.  The setting, of course, is Nashville, the capital of country music, where they all congregate, many of them looking for a break, or looking for love, or looking to promote their political ambitions.  There’s much singing, and shenanigans, even some violence.  It’s an Altmanesque look at the heart of America, on the eve of the Bicentennial.  A song during the opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film:  “We may have had our ups and downs / Our times of trials and fears / But we must be doin’ somethin’ right / To last 200 years.” 

It’s a difficult film to define.  It’s a comedy, it’s a satire, it’s a musical.  At times it feels like a docudrama.  It’s probably easier to say it this way:  It’s Altman, at his best.


Nashville
Ronee Blakely
“Tapedeck in His Tractor”
“Dues”

 


Nashville
Henry Gibson
“200 Years”


Nashville
Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine


Quote of Note
Patsy Cline:  People are wantin’ to know who you’ve been sleepin’ with to get on the Opry so quick.
Loretta Lynn:  Well, I never—who would say such a thing?
Patsy Cline:  All those girl singers who’ve been sleepin’ with everybody and still ain’t got on the Opry.
—Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo), Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 29 Mar 2010 @ 08:18 PM

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 29 Mar 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 62 | March 29, 2010

“City” Flickers

Movies are always about people.  Sometimes they tell you who it’s about right in the title—e.g., Precious, Annie Hall, Forrest Gump.  Sometimes the title is the name of a place—Key Largo, Chinatown, Moon.  In that case, you don’t expect a travelogue but a movie about people who lived there or went there at a certain time.  Usually that’s how it works, though there are exceptions.

This week’s films are movies named for a familiar type of place, a city.  Sometimes the connection between the city and the story is historical, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes something else.  At times that connection is  clear, and at times—when we get to the Coen brothers—not.

MAD About Movies is still suffering jet lag from its recent world tour (see our visits to England and Japan), so this time let’s stick to cities on the U.S. map (sorry, Casablanca fans, some other time).  There is one other distinction that the five movies for this week share.  More about that on Friday; meanwhile you’re welcome to guess what it is.

Our theme this week
Films named for U.S. cities

San Francisco (1936)


The city
Founded:  1776
Named For:  St. Francis of Assisi
Nickname:  The City by the Bay; Baghdad by the Bay (don’t call it “Frisco”)
Population:  809,000

 
san francisco_map

The earthquake of 1906
san francisco_quake_pic

Today
san francisco_pic

 
The movie
Release Date:  1936
Director:  W.S. Van Dyke
Cast:  Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy
Oscar Summary:  6 nominations, 1 win

san francisco_movie
 

San Francisco is the earliest and probably the least known of this week’s films.  Stars Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy appeared in many other films we’re more likely to remember.  Jeanette MacDonald is better known for her films with singing partner Nelson Eddy.  (She went on to have an opera career as a soprano; he was a baritone in opera before his film work.)  But San Francisco was a big hit in its day.  It was the top-grossing movie of the year, making millions of dollars for MGM. 

San Francisco is an early disaster flick, set in 1906, that eventful year when the city was devastated by an earthquake.  As Jack London put it:  “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed.  San Francisco is gone.”  The disaster scenes are not as amped-up as in later Hollywood spectaculars, but they are very well done; there’s a reality to the collapsing buildings and frightened crowds that we typically don’t see with movies of today that rely heavily on CGI and other special effects.

Gable stars as Blackie Norton, a roguish Barbary Coast saloonkeeper, who hires, falls for, and fears losing, singer Mary Blake, played by MacDonald.  One highlight is MacDonald’s version of the title song “San Francisco,” which (among other renditions) wins top prize at the Chicken’s Ball, right before the shaking starts.  The song was a hit, popularized later by Judy Garland, and today is an anthem of sorts for San Franciscans.

San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wanderin’ one
Saying “I’ll wander no more.”

There’s more Hollywood hokum than history in the final scenes, an uplifting ending that appealed to audiences three decades after the real-life disaster.  It makes me wonder how the movies will handle the disasters of the past decade—9/11 and Katrina—after another generation goes by.  It’s hard to imagine they’ll get the same treatment.


San Francisco 
The Earthquake


San Francisco 
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

This ending, fading to a long shot of the rebuilt city, was used for the 1948 re-release.  The original 1936 ending had shots of street life and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.  MGM thought the ’30s version looked dated, so they changed it.


Quote of Note
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City.  This has been one of them.”
—Narrator (Mark Hellinger, producer), The Naked City (1948)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 02 Apr 2010 @ 07:37 AM

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