Setter’s ‘Spectives: Revisiting ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Is Still a Pleasure

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Some things stay fresh centuries after they’ve been created. I have a feeling Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night will be one of them.

I caught it on TCM yesterday, and it was as good as it ever was – and possibly better. I marveled at the quick editing and snappy cinematography. I chuckled at the charming script and deadpan performances. And I tapped my feet to the sounds of The Beatles’ John, Paul, George and Ringo.

This never gets old, in my opinion. It’s a seminal rock film constructed like a music video with virtually no plot and one-liners zinging around. Everything has a “you are there” feel, which adds to the intimacy of the picture. And it retains an off-the-cuff feel, though it was scripted (well) by Alun Owen.

This is really the benchmark for all such rock ‘n’ roll pictures. In its genre, it bests Elvis and everything that came after it. It’s so good that it transcends its category, becoming a comedy to be placed with the likes of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and other comedy teams.

It’s true: Some things always stay fresh. Fifty years after it debuted, A Hard Day’s Night still rings true.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: How Did I Avoid ‘The Fortune Cookie’ All These Years?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I must be remiss. Very remiss.

I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie until a few days ago. Bad, bad me.

It was terrific. Not the greatest comedy ever made, but this witty farce, concerning an injured cameraman and his lawyer brother-in-law’s scheme to collect a fraudulent insurance windfall, was as smooth and quick on its feet as Walter Matthau’s sleazy attorney. I think I put off viewing it for so long because it was about insurance. Amazing how so dry a subject can make such froth.

I confess there are still a lot of fine films I haven’t seen. But I can now check this Cookie off my list. Thank goodness.

A Skip and Setter Q&A: The Ancient Art of Swearing

Skip and Setter QandA Sketch 092213At a recent imaginary panel that didn’t happen at any industry conference we know of, Skip and Setter locked horns on the topic of profanity and why it’s so prevalent in movies today. The following is an excerpt from their overlong, admittedly tiresome debate.

Skip: You’ve said in the past that you like seeing profanity in movies because it calls attention to the need to upgrade the English language. Are you deliberately ignoring the fact that many venerated writers–from Ben Jonson to e.e. cummings–have used vulgarity in their works? English doesn’t need upgrading!

Setter: You’re so misinformed. I’m talking about profanity when it’s used to replace inspired dialogue. As in every flick these days that tries to emulate Pulp Fiction. I’m not talking about profanity with a purpose.

Skip: Well, don’t you think all profanity has a purpose–as long as it’s in character?

Setter: No. Read my latest book.

Skip: I’m not reading your book, dude. I hate your writing.

Setter: Well, I outline my “Theory of Profanity” there. It basically states that it’s cooler to say a swear word in a movie than to get a “G” rating.

Skip: So you’re against overusing profanity.

Setter: Sure. Unless it concerns your reviews.

Skip: I love you, too. Now, why don’t you think the vulgarity-filled sports film has survived? Slap Shot, Major League? Seems like more folks want to do a film about profane, hipper-than-thou mobsters than they do locker-room sagas.

Setter: They’ll be back. I think people are afraid of seeing depictions of the way hallowed sports figures really talk. But they’re generally more credible than watching the story of a hired assassin who likes Schubert.

Skip: Sounds like a double standard. As long as it’s not believable, it’s OK to use profanity.

Setter: Maybe. Read my latest book.

Skip: No thanks. Anyway, profanity’s part of our lexicon. It’s been around for centuries.

Setter: Doesn’t mean we should use it. Look at the Hays Code era. Lots of great movies were made without profanity.

Skip: And lots of junk came out, too. Ever see Turnabout? Blecch.

Setter: For every one of those, there’s a Casablanca. See my point? You don’t need a swear word to make a good movie.

Skip: It might sell more tickets.

Setter: It might. Read my latest book.

Skip: To channel e.e. cummings: “I will not read your CENSORED book.”

Setter: Pompous CENSORED.

Skip’s Quips: Slamming the State of Serious ’70s Sci-Fi

Blog Sketch 082813Gosh, Rollerball is a mediocre movie.

I came to this realization after giving the Norman Jewison-helmed sci-fi flick yet another chance on Turner Classic Movies last night. It confirmed all my previous assessments: that it’s pretentious, tiresome and not as introspective as it thinks it is. The blame can partly fall on the script–which documents a future society in which corporations rule the world and sanction the violent, eponymous arena game–but it also features a lethargic performance by the usually reliable James Caan, slow-paced direction by Jewison (no, shots of people turning their heads to stare at the protagonist menacingly are not a substitute for character development) and dubious social commentary … most lamentably evidenced by a scene in which a posse of doltish partygoers representing, I assume, our worst inner voices, commit arboricide with the help of a rather powerful gun.

OK, I get it. Humans are bad. We like wars and killing trees. Fine.

We also like quality filmmaking–and Rollerball doesn’t cut it. The main problem, however, is that it could’ve been so much better, like so many other serious 1970s sci-fi flicks. Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green … science fiction really had a lot to say in that era, but a scarce few films then aced the sniff test. I wish the folks behind them had taken the time to streamline the scripts, make the messaging less heavy-handed, kept the preaching to a minimum. Forbidden Planet‘s a benchmark. So is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Spare, concise screenplays, quick-flowing dialogue, tense direction. That’s all you want in a good sci-fi movie, and you don’t find that a lot in the “golden” age of the 1970s. Ideas are almost commonplace. Execution isn’t.

So why is that? I know that period heralded an age of cinematic risks, and many of the non-sci-fi films then exemplified that. Yet with the exception of pictures such as Fantastic Planet and A Clockwork Orange, many of these flicks don’t live up to their expectations. Yes, I know the 1970s also saw the debuts of Alien and Star Wars, but those are less like “message” movies than old-fashioned, leave-your-thinking-at-the-door entertainment.

Rollerball, at its core, is a message movie. And it doesn’t work. Does that mean sci-fi should be devoid of messages altogether–that it should stick to what it does best? (Read: lasers.)

I don’t think so. But it’s something I’ll ponder next time I watch one of these futuristic “man-must” movies. Man must do this, man must do that.

Man must make better science fiction films, methinks.

Skip’s Quips: Get Into the Groove, for You’ve Got to … Oh, Forget It

Blog Sketch 082813I’m so happy the musical has evolved into the 3D song-and-dance epic.

I mean, we were really slumming with films like Top Hat and My Fair Lady, right? You don’t want to have a plot and witty dialogue messing up all those steps.

Or, for that matter, anything interfering with a story of competition so fierce that the toughs in West Side Story will want to jump ship into Mary Poppins.

Yes, I’m curmudgeonly. Sure, I’m old-fashioned. And I still grouse over the genre’s move into rock ‘n’ roll.

But I do think we’ve dropped some of the excitement that went into the great musicals of the past–excitement that can’t be replaced with legs flying out three-dimensionally from the screen.

Just look at what has come out recently. Some of these formulaic motion-filled pictures hearken back to the timelessly terrible let’s-save-the-theater yarns of yore. Aren’t there enough screenwriters out there to infuse a lackluster script with some originality?

At this rate, I’ll take even a sequel to Madonna’s best foray into cinema.

The fact is, a musical isn’t complete without something other than feet supporting it. Good writing. A smart storyline. And, of course, terrific music.

Tales of a flash mob just ain’t gonna cut it.

So for those who believe you just gotta have a gimmick, I put it to you that entertainment’s more important. It’s not just about jumping over cars and hoofing in public. Give me a screenplay with clever dialogue, and I’ll watch. Only then will I want to face the music and dance.