Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Musicals (With a Twist)

It’s time for the fifth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!  As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Musicals (With a Twist)!

I’ve loved movie musicals since I was a little girl.  My maternal grandmother had a VHS collection of classic dramas and musicals that I pillaged on sick days and weekend visits.  More often than not I found myself returning to my regular rotation of musicals: Mary Poppins, Gigi, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Singin’ in the Rain.  (Side note: Gigi loses some of its charm once you’re old enough to really understand what Gaston is asking of naive little Gigi).  Over the years I’ve watched all kinds of musicals, from the classic, graceful productions directed by Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, etc.), to the more frenetic contemporary movie musicals by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballrom, Moulin Rouge). 

As a child I watched My Fair Lady countless times, only to realize years later that Audrey Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Hepburn’s only contribution to the soundtrack was her performance of “Just You Wait,” the most abrasive and aggressive number in the film). Indeed, Marni Nixon is the voice behind some of my favorite musical performances, including the voice of Maria in West Side Story and Anna in The King and I.  As you might suspect, this month’s Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure examines two movie musicals that feature dubbing.

Cinema Treasure: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.  Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

Long before The Artist examined the trauma of the silent-to-talkie transition, Singin’ in the Rain did–and with beautiful songs, complicated dance numbers, and a witty script.  Gene Kelly’s turn as Don Lockwood is probably his most well-known and, indeed, iconic performance.  This energetic, joyful production also features strong performances from the supporting cast, including the charming Debbie Reynolds (as Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden), and Donald O’Connor (as Don’s hysterical best friend, Cosmo Brown).  Jean Hagen is squeaky perfection as Lina Lamont, Don’s costar with a voice that won’t survive the talkie revolution. As Lamont schemes to save her career, Selden finds herself serving as a vocal stand-in for the greedy starlet.

The great irony of Singin’ in the Rain is that it actually uses dubbing quite a bit!  The plot of the film centers around Reynolds/Selden dubbing Hagen/Lamont’s speaking and singing, but in reality Hagen had a lovely speaking voice.  When it appears that Reynolds is dubbing Hagen’s speaking voice, it’s actually Hagen dubbing Reynolds dubbing Hagen!  Meanwhile Reynolds was dubbed by Betty Noyes for the song “Would You?”  Reynolds’ biography also indicates that Noyes contributed the vocals to “You Are My Lucky Star,” as well.  Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Things I love: Gene Kelly’s effortless charm in every scene; Donald O’Connor’s nonstop, full-throttle dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh”; the endlessly quotable script.

Guilty Pleasure:  Cry-Baby (1990), directed by John Waters.  Starring: Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake, Amy Locane.

Like all of John Waters’ works, Cry-Baby is a fantastically campy movie that revels in debauchery and glorifies society’s misfits.  Johnny Depp plays Cry-Baby Walker, the leader of a Greaser gang, who falls for a square named Allison (Amy Locane). Cry-Baby woos Allison with song and dance, and she must choose to either be good (a Square) or bad (a Greaser).  The film takes all the tropes of 1950s juvenile delinquent films and pushes them to their acme, filling the frame with car chases, necking teenagers, and rockabilly music.  Cry-Baby also boasts an amazing cast of real-life misfits, from rocker Iggy Pop to adult film star Traci Lords (and even an appearance by Patty Hearst).

Fans of Depp’s turn as the Demon Barber in Sweeney Todd might be surprised to learn that his vocals were dubbed for Cry-Baby.  Though John Waters thought Depp had a nice voice, he wanted consistency throughout the film (and, presumably, through the demanding number of original songs), so the vocals were dubbed by rockabilly singer James Intveld.  Amy Locane’s vocals were also dubbed, so both she and Depp received lip-synch training. Depp agreed to dance in the film, though viewers will notice that most dance sequences cut away from him or move to medium shots that focus on his upper body (this is particularly noticeable in the “Doin’ Time for Being Young” number).

Things I love: The sexy, ridiculous amazingness that is the “Please, Mr. Jailer” sequence; Johnny Depp’s wardrobe of white shirts and leather jackets; the mix of classic ’50s songs like “Mister Sandman” and original songs like “King Cry Baby.”

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Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Colin Firth

Happy New Year everybody!  It’s time for the fourth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure! As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Colin Firth.

At first glance Colin Firth might seem like an odd choice for the Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure series.  After all, Firth is perhaps best known for his dramatic performances in the dramas A Single Man and The King’s Speech (he received an Oscar nomination for the first and a win for the latter).  And yet Firth’s filmography is full of absolutely fantastic Guilty Pleasure fodder because he does not shy away from roles in lighter fare, including romantic comedies and movie musicals.  Firth is just as comfortable spouting the witty repartee of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) as he is hamming it up while singing ABBA on screen (Mamma Mia). For this segment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure I’ll be discussing two of my favorite Firth performances.

Cinema Treasure: “Pride and Prejudice” (1995), directed by Simon Langton. Starring: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle.

 

Full disclosure: I’m bending the rules a bit here, since Pride and Prejudice originally aired as a miniseries on the BBC.  Still, it’s probably Firth’s most well-known and beloved performance.  This is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of an Austen work to date–so faithful, in fact, that it runs a whopping 5 hours!  Adaptations of the novel are a dime a dozen, but Firth’s performance is so spot-on that I (and many of my Austenite friends) consider him the quintessential ‘Mr. Darcy.’  In fact, when Helen Fielding wrote a novelization of “Pride and Prejudice” called “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, she based her character of Mark Darcy on Firth’s performance.  In a strange twist of fate, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was later adapted to film, and Firth was cast as Mark Darcy.

Things I love: Firth’s subtle development from haughty snob to tortured lover; the overabundance of cravat’s and sideburns on attractive men; David Bamber’s fantastically greasy portrayal of Mr. Collins; the unforgettable ‘dip in the lake’ scene.

Guilty Pleasure:  What a Girl Wants (2003), directed by Dennie Gordon.  Starring: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Oliver James.

Colin Firth in an Amanda Bynes romantic comedy? Now that’s a guilty pleasure.  Amanda Bynes plays Daphne, a young American girl who travels to England in search of her father, a British politician (played by Firth) who does not know she exists.  What follows is a silly adventure replete with stuffy-British-people jokes, an evil step-sister, and the mandatory hunky musician love interest.  One of my college friend’s introduced me to this film, and it has since become my go-to movie on a rainy day.  What a Girl Wants may be chock full of cliches, but it’s a lot of fun and features a surprisingly stellar supporting cast.  The set-up allows Firth to play both the stalwart politician and the heartwarming father figure, but he’s most fun to watch when he’s cheesing it up.  The movie’s worth seeing just to watch Firth and the other Brits make fun of British life and behavior.  Side note: There are a surprising number of Austen connections in the film, as well.  Whether an intentional homage or not, Firth plays ‘Henry Dashwood’–the name of a character in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”.  Furthermore, Anna Chancellor, who plays Firth’s fiance in What a Girl Wants also featured as Miss Bingley in Firth’s Pride and Prejudice.

Things I love: The scene where Firth dances in front of a mirror wearing leather pants; Eileen Atkins’ turn as the spunky Lady Jocelyn; the role of the Hot Musician Boyfriend being filled by an actor who actually sings his own vocals (Oliver James), including a surprisingly funky cover of “Get Up Offa That Thing.”

Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Christmas Movies

Time for the third installment of my series Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!

This week’s theme: Christmas movies.

Christmas movies come in a lot of varieties, though I’d argue that there are three major archetypes.  You’ve got your heartwarming kid-believes-in-magic narratives (Miracle on 34th Street), your family-reunites-for-the-holiday dramas (The Family Stone), and your Christmas-is-full-of-hijinks movies (Home Alone).  There are some really fantastic movies out there, and naturally there are some really bad (mostly made-for-TV) Christmas movies.  (Has anybody else seen the movie Snowglobe?  It was made for ABC Family, and it starred Christina Milian.  The plot? A young woman discovers a Christmas-themed dreamworld inside a magical snowglobe.  A snowglobe, people.)

Christmas movies provide the perfect fodder for this series, since there are obvious film classics that air every year, as well as a dearth of horrible-but-so-gooey-sweet Christmas movies that we secretly love.  I think most of us can agree that Meet Me in St. Louis has one of the most iconic Christmas scenes (and songs) in cinema history.  Side note: the original lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” included the line “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.”  Can you imagine singing that to little Margaret O’ Brien?  No? Neither could Judy Garland, and the lyric changed to the more cheery “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

For my film choices this month I’ve decided to eschew the obvious cinema classics that everybody discusses at this time of year (A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and so on) to discuss two more recent Christmas films that are dear to my heart.

Cinema Treasure: Love Actually (2003), directed by Richard Curtis.
Starring: Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and a thousand other awesome actors.

Okay, so maybe it’s a little sappy, but that’s not a bad thing in a Christmas movie.  Love Actually tells the story of 8 couples whose narratives are loosely interrelated.  What I really love about this film is the variety of loving relationships it examines.  Traditional romantic love is highlighted, but so is familial love and friendship.  The stories are incredibly varied in tonality, but the narrative structure allows the film to navigate from the sad (Liam Neeson as a widower and overwhelmed step-father) to the sexy and funny (Kris Marshall as Colin, a Brit moving to America in order to become a sex god).  Add in a surprisingly intense and powerful voice-over epilogue, and you’ve got a warm and complicated Christmas film that I watch every Christmas season.

Things I love: That insanely precocious little kid who says “Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love”; Colin Firth being generally adorable and trying to speak Portuguese; the killer soundtrack; the film’s honest portrayal of imperfect, complicated people and relationships.

Guilty Pleasure: The Holiday (2006), directed by Nancy Meyers.
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, and Jack Black.

The Holiday will surprise you with its warmth, good humor, and meta references to classical Hollywood film structures (yes, really!).  The film tells the story of two women who trade houses for the Christmas holiday, seeking respite from their toxic and failed relationships.  Kate Winslet is Iris, a woman suffering from a bad case of unrequited love, while Cameron Diaz plays Amanda, an emotionally stifled woman who kicks out her cheating boyfriend at the beginning of the film.  Jack Black is the biggest surprise of the film, as his usual over-the-top expressions are replaced with a subtle and winning charm.  The film qualifies as a guilty pleasure for one really big reason: Cameron Diaz.  She really chews the scenery, and her solo scenes in the film are excruciating, though she fairs better in her sequences with Jude Law.  Still, the film makes up for her poor acting by including some nice references to classic films (two of the characters work in the industry, and there’s a fantastic and bittersweet storyline featuring none other than Eli Wallach as Winslet’s neighbor and a former screenwriter).

Things I love: the video store scene where Jack Black mimics famous movie soundtracks; the sweet scenes between Kate Winslet and Eli Wallach; the film’s cheeky embrace of the theatrical trailer as a narrative device.

Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Gina Gershon

Time for the second installment of my series Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!  As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: The films of Gina Gershon.

Gina Gershon has been acting for a few decades now, and though she doesn’t often feature in a television show or film, she’s had quite a bit of success as a character actor.  In fact, she’s had small roles in a variety of well-known films, among them Pretty in Pink, Cocktail, and The Player.

Cinema Treasure: Bound (1996), directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Starring: Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Pantoliano, and Christopher Meloni.

Gershon plays Corky, an ex-con who enters into a dangerous affair with her neighbor, Violet (Jennifer Tilly), whose boyfriend works for the mob.  Corky and Violet concoct a scheme to steal money from Violet’s boyfriend and runaway together.  Naturally, nothing goes according to plan and the violence begins. 

Bound is at its heart a stylized neo-noir, but as Roger Ebert noted, it is also “a caper movie, a gangster movie, a sex movie and a slapstick comedy” all rolled into one.  The film is a hell of a lot of fun to watch because its neo-noir cinematography is infused with an impressive blend of humor, thrills, and sex.  Bound is considered one of the first American mainstream films to portray a gay relationship on screen without the characters’ homosexuality being central to the plot.  It was praised by many for its realistic and steamy portrayal of gay sex. Noted feminist scholar and sex educator Susie Bright served as a sex consultant on the film and choreographed the love scenes (she also has a cameo).

Things I love: The sizzling chemistry between Gershon and Tilly; the complex and entertaining plot; the blend of humor and thrills.

Guilty Pleasure: Showgirls (1995); directed by Paul Verhoeven.                                      Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon.

Showgirls is probably one of the most maligned films of all time (with Gigli close behind, of course).  The *cough* plot follows a young drifter named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) as she becomes a Las Vegas showgirl and faces off against Cristal Connors (Gershon), the star of the dance show “Goddess.”

Showgirls is the definition of a guilty pleasure–it is so incredibly horrible that it’s fun to watch.  The script is embarrassing and laughable, and so is most of the acting.  Berkley over-emotes and chews every line, while Kyle MacLachlan looks confused by his Flock of Seagulls haircut.  Gershon is pretty much the saving grace, as she takes her role into full-on campy territory, while everyone else around her seems to be taking themselves way too seriously.  Gershon’s knowing smirk and campy demeanor make her a lot of fun to watch. Between the insane script, the plethora of g-string clad ladies, and the unexpected number of times Elizabeth Berkley’s character throws herself against a car, Showgirls is the perfect movie for a Bad Movie Night with your friends.

Things I love: The number of times Berkley says “It doesn’t suck”; the surprisingly fun to watch dance sequences; the endlessly quotable insanity of the script.

Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Aliens

Welcome to the first installment of a new monthly series I’m calling Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure.  At the end of each month I’ll be posting a brief look at two films that share some commonality, whether it be a theme, trope, director, star, et cetera.  The first film I’ll discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I’ll discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This weeks’ theme: Films Featuring Aliens

Cinema Treasure:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel.  Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones.

Kevin McCarthy stars as Miles Bennell, a small town doctor, whose patients begin reporting that loved ones have suddenly become cold, distant, and unfamiliar.  As he begins investigating these reports, Dr. Bennell discovers that the townsfolk are being replaced with emotionless alien copies.  What follows is a solid, highly suspenseful science fiction adventure.  Many contemporary film scholars consider the film an allegory for paranoia and the Communist threat in the era of McCarthyism, though director Don Siegel reportedly argued that pod people were everywhere: “I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow.”

Viewers should note that the studio forced Siegel to alter the original cut of the film, which featured moments of humor and a bleaker ending–I recommend viewing both cuts, though I find the ending of the “Siegel version” much more satisfying.

Things I love:  Kevin McCarthy’s voice and charisma, Carmen Dragon’s musical score, the noir-influenced cinematography.

Guilty Pleasure: *batteries not included (1987), directed by Matthew Robbins. Starring: Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Frank McRae.

This sweet picture, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, focuses on a group of tenants who face eviction from their derelict apartment building.  When they refuse to leave their apartments, however, a local gang is hired to scare them out.  Enter “The Fix-its,” robot-like alien creatures who befriend the hopeless tenants and save the day.  If the plot sounds sappy, that’s because it is–but sappy doesn’t necessarily mean bad.  *batteries not included features lovely performances from real-life couple Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, while The Fix-its have a Wall-E-esque sweetness and expressivity. It’s a heartwarming tale that I loved as a child.

Things I Love: adorable baby Fix-its, Jessica Tandy, the scene where The Fix-Its help make hamburgers.