Archive for the 'Feature' Category


100 Movie Musicals #23: A Star Is Born (1954)

A bravura dramatic and musical performance from Judy Garland and some striking visual compositions, but ultimately dragged down by a soggy, melodramatic plot that runs a solid hour longer than necessary. Watch the first hour and bail.

a solid decade or more ahead of its time

It’s an interesting movie because it doesn’t quite work, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are fascinating. Garland’s delivering a great performance here, but she’s also miscast as the showbiz grinder turned rising Hollywood star married to a charismatic former star skidding down a long alcoholic decline — her own very public battles with addiction and weight loss and the way the studios eventually cast her aside as too difficult to work with when there wasn’t anything more to get out of her is so much closer to Norman Maine’s story than it is to Esther Blodgett’s. That would have been perhaps a little too grim, but as it is you’ve got a clearly struggling Garland delivering a passionate speech about the inscrutability of what drives someone you love to drink and it’s not not about her own issues.

Visually the movie is pulling some tricks that you wouldn’t see more of until the downbeat musicals of the 70s, with a muted, gritty aesthetic that isn’t quite real but evokes a noirish squalor more than anything around it; the shift from the backstage Hollywood cotton candy of Singin’ in the Rain is thunderous. The sound design, too, particularly in the first hour, is similarly muted, with a lot of the same kind of overlapping dialogue and background chatter than Robert Altman used frequently.

a gorgeous use of natural lighting to convey a mood as esther stops to throw up in a construction site

This is yet another backstage musical, where all the songs are happening diagetically, with professional singers and dancers performing for an in-universe audience. There’s definitely some selection bias to this list, but it is wild that we are in the heart of golden age of Hollywood musicals and there’s so little here that follows modern musical conventions or metanarratives. The best song in the musical, the closest thing A Star Is Born has to an I Want song, is Esther rehearsing “The Man That Got Away” with her band in a bar after hours while Norman looks on.

god, can she sing

I’ll admit that my interest in the movie wanes after the first hour, when all that downbeat visual flair mostly drops away. The second act has some bravura moments, including an extended, baffling centerpiece number that’s meant to represent Esther’s breakthrough role, and which sprawls from a non-blackface minstrel number through a stylish fashion fever dream, a non-dancer’s dream ballet sequence. It’s gorgeous, and screenshots incredibly well, but it’s narratively inert and drags on for ages and ages.

striking visual compositions, tho

Though the plot itself is no great shakes, either, an utter slog of a story where you’re just watching Norman grind through a plot that announces itself coming a million miles away. There are no surprises there, despite all the technical craft and innovation the movie is bringing to bear, and not a ton of chemistry between Garland and James Mason; the studio originally wanted to cast Cary Grant as Norman Maine, and he might at least have injected some life into the character, some charm to offset the acres of red flags that Maine waves constantly. As it is, Mason feels like a poor man’s Michael Yorke, but without the vulnerable melancholy that lies behind Yorke’s best performances. The movie also never shows us Maine’s alcoholism affecting his life — we’re told he’s missing work, or that he’s unreliable, physically miserable, dangerous to himself and others, but we never actually see it. It’s a lot of time to spend with the man and know so little directly about the defining characteristic of his life.

maine, after a three day bender, faces a judge in a still immaculate suit; It’s a Wonderful Life got grimier than this!

He eventually walks off into the sea to free Esther from him, in another gorgeous shot, but the movie is so unwilling to show us anything too grim that it all comes across with a pinch-faced primness that’s hard to take seriously. Alcoholism’s a real rough road, but what we’re shown makes all the concern feel like an HOA head angrily trying to shoo a barbecue into the backyard because people can see your husband drinking a beer, Agnes and it robs the drama of any pathos. The last third is such an incredible slog it robs the movie of any joy or interest it had; we were so relieved when Maine died because it meant we could stop watching, and that’s probably not the mood they were going for, no.

it’s a shitty thing to do to your wife, dude

100 Movie Musicals

An All Singing, All Dancing Technicolor Extravaganza

We’re going to start the #100MovieMusicals list tonight, maybe, and I’m both excited and filled with dread.

These are going to be a lot more offensive than the horror movies, I think; specifically because they’re not trying to transgress norms in the same way. Intentional transgression helps futureproof things, in some ways. Musicals are a lot of things and have a lot of modes in a way that horror doesn’t, but many of them — particularly the classics — are aiming to be BIG and CROWD-PLEASING in a way that horror doesn’t have to be.

As a case in point, the first movie on our horror list was The Phantom Carriage, which had its problems but was startling modern in a lot of ways, both technically and socially. The first movie on our musical list is The Jazz Singer, which is an entire movie about doing blackface.

We went back and forth on that a lot and I’m still not sure that we made the right choice to include it. Ultimately we did decide to include it, because it’s hard to overstate its influence. It’s *the* ur-musical in a lot of ways, with narrative beats that continue to crop up in musicals a century later. The rationale — or at least my rationale, I can’t speak for Vicky — is that it’s a movie *about* doing blackface, not one that just includes blackface. You’re not supposed to think Al Jolson is black at any point. Is that enough distance? Man, I don’t know. I absolutely wouldn’t argue with someone who thinks The Jazz Singer should be buried and forgotten.

Anyway. Full list after the jump. I’ll link in our reviews as we get them added to the blog.

Continue reading ‘100 Movie Musicals’

At the Movies

Siskel and Ebert

Since I was a very, very young kid, every single weekend my family and I would go to at least one movie, if not three or four after a marathon Saturday. My parents always went to those movies that got three or more stars in the local paper and occasionally a two star one that was getting some buzz or tickled my mom or dad’s particular interest.

We didn’t always watch “At the Movies,” because it was on at weird times during the weekend, but anytime we did happen to catch it I remember really loving it. I also remember how, whether we watched a particular episode or not, there was always such a huge mystique about Siskel & Ebert and their all-knowing thumbs. There was a time when any movie that managed to get the elusive “Two Thumbs Up” undoubtedly wrote that in huge letters on the box when it was released to video. It’s very weird to me to think of a younger generation growing up now who has no idea who Siskel was and no memory of their show in its glory days, since together they were the most prominent movie critics in America.

Anyway, I happened to Google Ebert recently because I randomly remembered him being very ill with cancer a few months ago and wondered how he was doing. I was pleased to learn not only is he recovering, he has a ridiculously active and extensive blog which not only includes reviews of all the latest movies that have come out, but a lot of feature articles about great movies of the past and a write-in movie trivia column that fans send in questions to. Even better, I learned that all of the old tapes of Siskel & Ebert have now been archived at:

Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually watch the full episodes. Instead, the reviews are listed by film titles and you can also browse through by year. I have been really enjoying going back and watching some of their old reviews lately, especially considering that when I first watched them I was 14 years old or younger and I have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of their opinions these days.

I love all things nerdy and there’s nothing that scratches that itch in a more intense way than to watch two ridiculously nerdy guys like Siskel and Ebert, who are both ultra opinionated and obsessively into film, spar like maniacs about whether a movie was a total train wreck or just barely worth watching. It’s nice to know that even though Siskel is no longer with us and Ebert has stopped doing the show, you can still go back and see what they thought of a ton of the older movies and enjoy their total vigor for hating it, loving it, even just vehemently meh-ing it.

I was also very touched to find out just how passionately they both went about their job as film critics. Siskel actually did a few shows via telephone while he was hospitalized and apparently, after being put out of commission for a while due to health problems a few years ago, Ebert is now actually going back and reviewing every movie that he missed. For all their often inflammatory debates, both reviewers shared a real zealotry about the art of having a strong opinion about a movie that I still find intensely great.