Skip’s Quips: Getting in (Tommy) Tune With Gershwin’s ‘Lady, Be Good’

Blog Sketch 082813Last night, I had the opportunity to see the legendary Tommy Tune perform live at the New York City Center in a production of George Gershwin’s scintillating musical Lady, Be Good … and I have to say, it was worth squeezing in the tight seats to do so.

The shimmering Gershwin numbers, which included “Fascinating Rhythm,” were played in a sparkling manner by the small, on-stage orchestra (which nevertheless featured two pianos) and were complemented by singing and dancing from the towering Tune and a terrific, talented cast. Yes, Tune, even though he’s in his mid-70s, showed excellent range and a solid, well-maintained voice, along with lively feet that didn’t miss a beat. He’s still got it.

Strangely, Tune’s career in feature films has been sporadic, though he’s had a number of onscreen appearances, as well as quite a few turns on TV. If movie musicals were more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, I wonder if his career path would’ve been different. I’m not lamenting anything … just wondering.

Anyway, it was a treat to see him and everyone else perform the effervescent material the way it was supposed to be done. Kudos to Tune and City Center for making this wonderful evening come to fruition.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: There’s No Imitating ‘Imitation of Life’ … in Lousiness

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I’m not sure even the hallowed Cahiers du Cinéma could convince me that Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a good movie.

Maybe I’m missing something, but after about five minutes of this noisome, overdone film I’d had enough. I stopped watching, preferring to listen to the dialogue as it buffeted my ears.

Not fun.

Sirk may be highly regarded in some circles, but I just didn’t care for this weepy, obvious picture, and I suspect I’d feel the same way about many of his other flicks. Yes, I’m generalizing, but if this is the kind of thing Sirk is known for, I’m not interested. Give me Seven Samurai any day.

Oh, I realize I’ve got to supplement my intake of Kurosawa with lesser works now and then. I already do. Imitation of Life, however, is not something I want to revisit again; I’d even rather watch an old Steven Seagal hack-a-thon instead.

Though I hope I won’t have to make that choice. Anyway, on to better cinematic options.

Skip’s Quips: Help! My Ears Got Punished During ‘The Trip to Italy’

Blog Sketch 082813Who doesn’t like movies about a couple of guys taking a trip to Italy to dine at fancy restaurants while doing interminable impersonations of assorted celebrities?

I don’t. And consequently, I didn’t care for Michael Winterbottom’s disastrously unfunny The Trip to Italy at all.

I wasn’t a big fan of The Trip, the film’s picaresque predecessor, but at least the concept, which involved Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing impressions during meals at various restaurants in England, was somewhat novel at the time. Its sequel, however, is not so lucky. In fact, many of the impersonations (Michael Caine, Al Pacino) seem to be rehashed from the original film, leaving the viewer wondering if they have anything actually new up their sleeves to bring to the table.

It’s quite an awkward mix, this picture, what with the “comedy” (basically Coogan and Brydon talking over each other without offering much context) juxtaposed with shots of food and Italian landscapes … though the cuisine and scenery seem to be extraneous, playing second fiddle to the duo’s tedious, presumably improvised schtick.

I’m sorry, but I like my comedy cooked throughout, not half-baked. And The Trip to Italy is so underdone it’s raw.

One of the biggest problems with the flick is that it’s not cinematic. It’s a collection of episodes punctuated by flat humor and pseudo-philosophical asides. You’d be hard pressed to find another picture in recent years that dwells so much on quotes provided by Shelley and Byron. But you’d also be hard-pressed to find one that trivializes their work so frustratingly by making fleeting references to them and not following up with any further insight. That’s pretentious, fellow viewers, and makes for problematic movie-watching. I like my Shelley and Byron well-done, too. Not the way The Trip to Italy cooks them up.

I’m not sure what the market is for this kind of thing; it can’t be too large. It’s definitely not my kind of comedy. All I can say is I hope a third installment isn’t in the works. Making this series into a trilogy would just be too much cinematically to bear.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Assessing the Virtues of ‘Calvary’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Whenever I see a good movie, I become happy. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. My mood changes … for the better.

I experienced that transformation last night after watching director John Michael McDonagh’s powerful, upsetting film Calvary, which concerns the self-reflection of a priest in Ireland who has been told during confession that he will be killed. There’s a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock mystery in this story, but much more Ingmar Bergman-esque philosophical rumination, and that suited me just fine. I like a picture that can think on Big Ideas without becoming pretentious. Calvary accomplished that. It pondered questions surrounding faith, good deeds and revenge. And it didn’t pull any punches. All while maintaining a good pace and strong dialogue.

Then there were the performances. Led by Brendan Gleeson as the priest, the cast was quite good, presenting a host of unpleasant characters with problems of their own. I think there were some credibility issues that were a bit difficult to believe (that Gleeson’s Father James wouldn’t immediately reveal his situation to the authorities didn’t make a lot of sense to me), but on the whole, Calvary presented an unusual situation realistically … and sympathetically. Perhaps it’s not a movie that I’d want to see again; parts were difficult to watch, and it wasn’t what I’d call cheerful. Still, it had a lot to offer, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it.

After all, it made me happy last night. And that’s not easy from a cinematic perspective.

Skip’s Quips: My Feelings About Cronenberg, Yuckiness and ‘Maps to the Stars’

Blog Sketch 082813David Cronenberg’s movies will rub you one way or another, there’s no doubt about that. I think his latest opus, Maps to the Stars, will be in that category, too.

The question is, will it be as strong as his previous efforts, from Scanners to Eastern Promises? I’m not so sure. In general, this director has been one of the strongest (and in my opinion, one of the most underrated) in the industry, with a talent for generating oodles of interesting plots amid creatively yucky violence, biological horror and strong performances. It’s hard to say whether he has been a favorite of mine, but his body of work is unique, and his talent is always apparent. Plus, he’s quite consistent, even when working with subpar material; you can generally find some kind of inspiration there, no matter what.

So why am I so skeptical about Maps to the Stars?

I guess the main reason is because it has one of my least-favorite actors in it: John Cusack. That, to me, is not a lure; I generally don’t care for Cusack’s performances and find most of the vehicles I’ve seen him in to be maudlin. Though his presence in the movie isn’t a deal-breaker, it doesn’t bode well for the picture. It’s not the type of casting that’ll make me want to see it.

Still, Cronenberg’s direction brings with it the possibility of surmounting any obstacles, and it’s possible that Maps to the Stars could offer quite a bit. If it’s anything like the filmmaker’s vintage movies, that would be a triumph.

Hopefully, that’ll be the case.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Is ‘Boyhood’ Over Yet, Papa Smurf?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613When you’re watching a movie and start thinking that a Robert Bresson film is faster than what you’re currently viewing, you know that’s not a good sign.

That’s what I thought about Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s tedious, overly praised exercise in navel-gazing that takes us through 12 years of a young man’s life. And oh, what a long, uninteresting ride it is, lasting approximately three hours … at least one of which could’ve ended up on the cutting-room floor. Plus, it has two of my least-favorite performers in it: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. All of these ingredients add up to a pretentious whole, which is reflected in the flick’s general, all-encompassing title.

There’s a difference between something that’s deliberately paced and something that’s just plain slow. Boyhood is slow, and the dialogue doesn’t drive it; instead, it cuts the flow, makes it wallow in narcissistic pseudo-introspection. The characters aren’t intriguing. The plot isn’t involving. Yes, the concept is unusual, but in practice, it doesn’t work … at least, not in this movie. And it’s not like it hasn’t been done before; Michael Apted’s Seven Up! series followed the lives of people from childhood to adulthood, and so Linklater’s conceit isn’t unique or, for that matter, so innovative.

I’ve watched longer films that felt like they took no time at all. Never one of my favorite directors, Linklater has shown with Boyhood that if a simple subject is extended over the period of a decade in movie time, it can feel like a millennium for the filmgoer. Not an exciting prospect from a cinematic perspective … and certainly one that I don’t want to repeat.

If I live that long.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The Long Cinematic Torture of ‘Inherent Vice’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I knew Inherent Vice was going to be a big, sloppy movie. I just didn’t know how much.

And I didn’t know it was going to be awful, either.

Boy, was this a plodding film. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed (and -written, based in the novel by Thomas Pynchon) story of a dope-addled P.I. out to uncover various uninteresting mysteries in 1970 California, Inherent Vice isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. And it’s more pretentious, to boot. Plus, there’s the addition of some bland narration, which suggests that the film doesn’t trust its audience to make its own judgments.

That’s a problem. Good movies have faith in their viewers. They coax people along, encourage them. Bad movies hold their audiences at bay, alienate them. And that’s exactly how I felt while watching Inherent Vice.

Much of this movie should’ve ended up on the cutting-room floor; there are all kinds of little idiosyncratic bits that purportedly suggest character development but ultimately fail in providing solid context. What results is a tedious mess. Too bad, because it could’ve been so much better.

I like Pynchon, but I think Inherent Vice, as a movie, doesn’t succeed. There’s originality here, but it’s not enough to carry it. For such a tiresome picture, it feels strangely rushed. That’s just another reason not to like it. Oh, well.

Skip’s Quips: Criticizing Crummy Movies Is Fun!

Blog Sketch 082813Is it so wrong that I sometimes like lampooning films more than watching them?

I tell ya: There are thousands of bad movies out there that just beg to be criticized. And I’ve only broached the tip of the iceberg.

Yes, I do enjoy viewing great (or even good-enough) cinema. I love to talk about these pictures, too. But there’s nothing like making fun of a terrible piece of celluloid. It provides a satisfaction that can’t be beat.

Granted, I’m not really a fan of sitting through bad films … I prefer to critique them. So getting there is the hard part. Watching such junk can be grueling.

The rewards, however, are the gifts that keep on giving. Awful motion pictures last as long as quality ones. They’re just as resilient. So they’re just as worthy to discuss.

Thankfully, I don’t feel guilty about doing just that. And I don’t think anyone else should, either. As long as we have crummy cinema in this world, we should have people to make fun of it. It’s part of our critical fabric. It’s innate.

Let’s not let it go to waste.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Do I Dare Continue to Dislike Dubbed Movies?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Years of watching subtitled foreign films have made me less inclined to enjoy dubbed movies, as I’ve always felt that you lose something in translation when you add voices in different languages to the developments onscreen.

Now, however, I’m not so sure I feel the same way. It’s hard to find certain films with subtitles rather than dubbing, and if the latter is the only alternative to not watching a quality picture, I’d rather view the dubbed flick.

Generally, I don’t find it difficult to follow subtitles, provided they appear clearly and not as white blurs on a white background. Yellow text is always welcome, but that’s not always available. Sometimes I have to take what I can get.

Which is why I’ve started to be more lenient in my tastes when it comes to dubbing movies. You can’t always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones song goes, and often the choices are limited when it comes to available versions of good foreign films. I feel like I’m not as particular as I used to be. Perhaps it’s a result of my old age.

It all comes down to how great the picture is, anyway. The way it appears to me shouldn’t matter. It’s what it is that counts.

Skip’s Quips: Why the Heck Isn’t ‘Stolen Kisses’ Better Known?

Blog Sketch 082813There are famous movies, and then there are infamous movies.

There are also movies by famous directors that kind of slip under the radar, like François Truffaut’s terrific 1968 film Stolen Kisses. I’m not sure why this great picture, one of the most romantic I’ve seen, isn’t up there with The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim in the count of the director’s masterpieces. Once upon a time, it got criticized for not being political enough in an era when riots and protests were filling the streets, but I think with Stolen Kisses, that’s beside the point. It’s only political in its accurate, carefree depiction of relationships, which is, in my humble opinion, revolutionary. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

Everything in this glittering piece of celluloid is superb: the cinematography, the editing (catch the quick, multiple cuts in the scene where Antoine Doinel enters someone’s hotel room and discovers adultery in action), the performances, the script. This is a movie where the filmmaker is in complete control. Nothing is wasted.

I wish I could say that for the host of lackluster movies that appeared in 2014.

But I don’t think we’re going to get a flick like Stolen Kisses again. Perhaps that’s for the better; you can’t repeat such unique magnificence. I would, however, like this film to be upon critics’ lips more often. It sure deserves to be, and I’ll continue to talk about it in the hopes that my wish for it will come true. Certainly, it’s an under-seen movie. Ideally, that’ll change.