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Friday, April 28, 2017

What to Watch with a Bad Back

I threw my back out somehow while sleeping. So I have been alternating walking with lying on the floor watching movies on my laptop. Here’s what I watched, and what I thought.


Beware! Spoilers aplenty coming right up. This movie features the perfect cast, the perfect script, the perfect director, the perfect music. Henry Mancini music enhances it all. The many ways the song “Charade” is arranged and played are amazing. I can’t stop singing it in my head. Mancini music is the 1960s.

Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn. Need I say more?! More! Walter Matthau and his droopy-eyed, non-threatening-until-the-end villainy. James Coburn and his cowboy drawl and gun tricks and those terrifying matches! George Kennedy looking bigger than anything with a menacing hook, slamming the door to the funeral parlor on the way in and on the way out. And his straight pin! Ned Glass and his hysterical sneezing. Audrey Hepburn eating everything and smoking too many of Walter Matthau’s cigarettes. Audrey Hepburn looking impossibly chic even when running for her life. Audrey Hepburn chasing Cary Grant. Cary Grant making faces. Cary Grant showering with his suit on. Cary Grant being equally menacing and attractively heroic. That cute little boy who played Jean-Louis looking not the least threatened by people talking about killing him—adorable!

The director, Stanley Donan was known for his musicals, but his handling of this suspense yarn proved him the worthy peer of Alfred Hitchcock. He kept the cast perfectly controlled at all times (even Cary Grant’s hamming up was not overdone), perfectly balancing the comedy, the romance, and the suspense. The disparity between Grant’s and Hepburn’s ages was well handled in assigning the aggression to Hepburn and the restraint to Grant.

The script is wonderful. The suspense consists of the war story in which five agents double-cross two governments for a lot of gold, and fifteen years later one after another double-crosses the rest for the entire hidden stash. The central question is where the stash is hidden, and Audrey Hepburn’s character is the key to that question. The romance concerns the damsel-in-distress who resourcefully stays a step ahead of the bad guys and chases the guy she wants to be rescued by but who may be one of the bad guys so she stays a step ahead of him too. In changing the romantic pursuit to the woman after the man, the script made the casting work out beautifully (not to mention sentimentally). The script provides Regina with an ironic arc from one husband with four identities whom she wants to divorce for his deception—to another husband with four identities whose constant deceptions are part of what attracts her to him: she cannot resist the puzzle box that is his character. What is at the core? She’s sure it’s a treasure, and she’s right. We can’t help loving a suspenseful romantic comedy like this.

Florence Foster Jenkins

I was introduced to recordings of Madame Florence when I was in college, and I loved her quirky, off-key, horrible and awesome rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria the best. I bought a cassette tape of her songs, and years later, I found that she was available on CD, so I bought those too. The movie was a must-see for me, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the way Meryl Streep and the script writer and the director brought Madame Florence to life with a childlike yet wise approach to the business of making fun.

I loved the deeply conflicted devotion in the Hugh Grant character of St. Clair Bayfield. I loved the performance of Simon Helberg as the pianist Cosme McMoon who is drawn by the money and then by his odd affection for Madame Florence into the grand deception, even as he bemoans his loss of “reputation.” The deliciously ironic ambiguities in the story over whether she didn’t know her true lack of ability or had succeeded in convincing herself to believe an alternate reality, and over whether St. Clair does truly love her, and over whether McMoon is deluding himself about himself, allows us to follow patterns of deception and self-deception that are beautifully set off by Nina Arianda’s believable switch in Agnes Stark’s raucously mocking laughter to respectful encouragement, an homage to honesty.

Agnes Stark is the one character with whom most of the audience can readily identify, her gut reaction to first hearing Madame Florence being true to most of our own reactions. But her devastating honesty also leads her to recognize the honesty in what Madame Florence is trying to do, and she stands up to the booing crowd in Carnegie Hall and nearly single-handedly changes their perception—and ours—of how to appreciate that honest effort, flawed though it was. It is a pity the New York Post’s entertainment reporter didn’t stay to hear Agnes’s performance—he might have recognized its quality and changed his review. As it was, the movie draws an ambiguous cause-effect relationship between the review and Madame Florence’s death.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins died just a month after her Carnegie Hall performance, but it is less than clear that the concert led to her death, since she was declining anyway from the lifelong effects of syphilis. In both the movie and the reality, the concert was a bittersweet last hurrah and an acknowledgement that all the good will in the world can make a bad singer entertaining, but that is all.

La La Land

In the dreams of lovers of old movies, this movie is a fulfillment full of tributes to the classics. My favorite scene is the Casablanca moment when Mia appears in Seb’s. But then there’s the American in Paris montage, the homage to Rebel without a Cause at the planetarium, the nod to Funny Face in putting those balloons in Emma Stone’s hand, and a whole lot more, especially of Astaire-Rogers dance set ups. And if you’re a confirmed lover of nostalgic jazz to boot, this movie is all you could ask for.

The jazz music is exquisite. Ryan Gosling’s speech about the origins of jazz, how it works (“it’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s new, it’s brand new every night”), and how passionate it can be is brilliant. Songs are good, lyrics are clever, and several tunes are hummable—“City of Stars” especially as it has a couple of reprises.

At a number of potentially romantic moments, you get a foreshadowing of the bittersweet ending, of why this couple is not destined to stay together. In their song about wasting a lovely night, the lyrics include that idea, but the image of Emma Stone donning tap shoes that match those that Ryan Gosling is already wearing is a signal that we are entering the world of unreality. In the “City of Stars” song, Ryan Gosling sings of something that’s just another dream that isn’t meant to be. Emma Stone echoes the same sentiment in her audition solo, “Here’s to the fools who dream . . . here’s to the mess we make.” In the planetarium scene where they float up and dance among the stars, it’s the ultimate underscoring of the fact that this movie portrays a fantasy that is not like real life, and the scene even ends with a classic movie “iris out,” a fade-out so called from the old technique of shrinking the camera lens iris down to no light. Their kiss turns unreal in this cinematic treatment. The ending of the movie includes a dream sequence showing how things might have worked out for the couple, but the facts are changed and the choices aren’t true to their characters. The reality feels better as the fantasy ends. We leave the theater feeling good, as was the intent of all old classic Hollywood musicals.

Cue Emma Stone humming “City of Stars.”

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