SEXTETTE (1978) – The reputation of Mae West goes south


Forgive my sacrilege, but as much as I enjoy 1930’s movies, Mae West has never done anything for me. IMHO, she’s the Madonna of the Depression era: Her act is so much about sex that I don’t find it the least bit sexy.

However, there were obviously millions of moviegoers who did. Unfortunately, almost none of those fans followed her into the late 1970’s when, at 84 years of age and two-and-a-half years before her death, she tried to reprise all of her old shtick in a jaw-dropping movie titled Sextette.

West (who wrote a play on which the screenplay is based) plays Marlo Manners, a famous movie sex symbol who is in London to get married for the sixth time, to Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). However, we find out that Manners has also been called upon in the past to use her sex appeal undercover (ho-ho) in matters of international diplomacy, and her manager (Dom DeLuise) keeps pulling Manners away from her honeymoon so that she can again help to negotiate, er, world peace.

There is certainly some brilliant acting in this movie — and it’s all done by the thousands of extras who flood city streets and huge lobbies to convince us that they can’t wait to see Marlo in the flesh and hang on her every word. Every time West utters one of her tired double-entendres (some of which are actually reprised from her classic ’30s movies), the crowd roars as though they’ve just heard a priceless bon mot, much like similar movie extras were hired to laugh at Jerry Lewis’ tired antics in Hardly Working three years later.

The movie’s production value is almost zilch. The entire movie is brightly and flatly lit and ends up looking and playing like an extended episode of “The Love Boat.” And the movie’s half-hearted attempt to pass itself off as a musical is pitiable, from a blah performance of “Hooray for Hollywood” (performed in the lobby of a London hotel) to West and Dalton doing a what-were-they-thinking cover of The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (Throughout the song, West mutters the “Whatever” in the song’s chorus as though she’s giving us her critique of the movie.)

Based on the movie’s premise alone, there’s no way that any of the performers can come off credibly. It would be hard enough for Timothy Dalton (then a half-century-and-change younger than West) to convince us that he’s madly in love with her, but it doesn’t help that the couple never exchange a single kiss in the movie.

After that, all you can do is rate the other actors on how much they give up on the movie’s hopeless plot and just go for big yoks. Probably the worst is Tony Curtis, whose entire characterization is a fake Russian accent. As, respectively, Marlo’s costume designer and one of her ex-husbands, rockers Keith Moon and Ringo Starr garner a few good chuckles. But the movie’s saving grace is Dom DeLuise as Marlo’s alternately harried and pushy manager. DeLuise imbues the movie with so much comic energy, it makes West look even more aged and arthritic. (It must be said, though, that the movie’s absolute nadir is DeLuise tap-dancing atop a piano and singing the Beatles song “Honey Pie.”)

Based on the above debits, one can only conclude that Mae West thought she was still so charismatic that she alone could carry the movie and make the audience overlook the film’s many defaults. Obviously, no one on the set had the heart or nerve to tell her that it wasn’t 1934 anymore.



































RENT (2005) – A pleasant surprise, in spite (or because?) of its outre themes


The following is my entry in the Happy New Year Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Dec. 29-31, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to a variety of movies with a secondary or central theme of New Year’s Eve!


In his review of Rent, Roger Ebert claimed that the famed Broadway musical does not work as a movie because it needs, and is lacking, a live audience. Having come to the movie of Rent with no emotional stake (haven’t seen the B’way show, barely wanted to see the movie), I found it one of the most satisfying movies of 2005.

Yes, it is unquestionably melodramatic. I am told that Rent is the opera “La Boheme” (another cultural touchstone to which I claim ignorance) updated for the AIDS generation, and there are definite moments where the movie is doing little but pulling your strings. By the same token, one could claim that Goeth, the Nazi commandant in the fact-based Schindler’s List, is played by Ralph Fiennes as too conventionally evil. Doesn’t matter, though – his character gives you a chill. And Rent‘s characters are so heartfelt, and the movie so on-target (did Harry Potter‘s Chris Columbus really direct this?), that even the sappier moments are effective.


The setting is New York City in 1989, when America finally started to come to terms with AIDS. The characters are close-knit friends holing up in a tenement run by their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs), who now wants to kiss up to his wealthy father-in-law by evicting his former pals. They include Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring film-maker; Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician who has grown distant since becoming HIV-positive; Tom (Jesse L. Martin), who falls in love with the drag queen (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who aids him after he is mugged; and a stripper/heroin addict named Mimi (Rosario Dawson, in the first movie where the filmmakers seemed to know how to use her fiery talent).

If anything, the movie’s primary point is to show these people existing on their own terms, and the movie shows this admirably. When, in this movie, we see same-sex people sharing a kiss or a hug, it’s presented matter-of-factly; and because the characters actually have some dimension to them, it feels earned.

Chris Columbus, after laboring for many years in Home Alone-type movies, finally seems to know where to put his camera. Musicals, in particular, have trouble striking a balance between looking static and frantic; here, the camerawork really soars, moving gracefully and closing in just enough to let the actors finish the soaring. And unlike most modern-day Broadway musicals, Jonathan Larsen’s score is one that you can hum and that hums on its own, nicely elucidating its characters and doing so with genuinely catchy songs.

Besides the actors listed above, who are all splendid, there’s a fresh-faced powerhouse named Idina Menzel, who plays Maureen, a self-styled, unapologetic lesbian. When caught in a flirt by her Significant Other (Tracie Toms), who tries to chastize her, the two of them spar in a great number, “Take Me As I Am.” And a viewer just knows that, however flighty Maureen is, her lover will just have to come back to her, because she’s darned well worth it.

That’s the treasure of this movie – genuine, heartfelt characterization. Rent is, on all levels, emotionally devastating.



ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) – Julie Taymor, what have you done?


Call me overly reverent if you must. But the music of The Beatles means a great deal to several generations of listeners, and I am sad and angry to see it so thoroughly mangled in Across the Universe.

The movie’s bald literalness and its wounded-heart-on-its-sleeve demeanor are enough to make a Beatles fan retch. All of the characters are named after Beatles songs as a shorthand to bring in the music. For example, one girl is named Prudence, just so that her friends can coax her out of her room by singing, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”

The movie’s imagery makes countless allusions to Beatles films, videos, and icons (the Apple logo, John and Yoko in the buff, etc.). There’s even an eye-rolling moment where a character asks how a stranger got in the room, and the reply comes: “She came in through the bathroom window.”

I guess this is all meant to pat the loyal Beatles fan on the back for catching the references. But it only made me think of The Bee Gees’ 1978 movie massacre of the famed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. It’s a movie that director Julie Taymor would have done well to study, because Universe falls into the earlier movie’s booby-traps (and with many of the same songs, yet).

I’ve not yet mentioned the movie’s characters, who barely exist anyway. There’s Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dock worker who travels to New York and gets caught up in the ’60s revolution. The girl he falls for, though she doesn’t live in the sky with diamonds, is named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, the snotty teenager from Thirteen). There’s Lucy’s wisecracking brother Max (Joe Anderson), whose smugness drains away once he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

There are many more characters, but none of them makes any impact beyond the three minutes it takes them to sing a Beatles tune. Take Prudence as an example. We first see her as a loner cheerleader, longing for a football star from afar and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The next we see of her, she’s hitchhiking to New York. Why? Just because she couldn’t get the football player? And Prudence’s adventures in New York and beyond are just as enigmatic. Every character in the movie plays this way.

It doesn’t help that the actors warbling classic tunes could barely pass an “American Idol” audition. Only three big-name celebs appear in the movie, with varied degrees of success. Actor Eddie Izzard talk-sings “Mr. Kite” like a stoner Rex Harrison. And Bono goes way over the top as a carbon copy of famed druggie Ken Kesey. Only blues singer Joe Cocker acquits himself admirably, with a funky version of “Come Together.”

The acid test for musicals is: If you took away the music, would you still care about the characters? If you took the music out of Across the Universe, the characters would evaporate.

The Spice Girls in SPICE WORLD (1997) – Not what you really want


Spice World marked the film debut of a heavily hyped singing group called The Spice Girls, but it was obviously intended to evoke a more legendary British rock band. The movie’s ad is plastered over with the British flag and the tag line “You say you want a revolution?” And like another first film, Spice World is a semi-documentary about the trials and tribulations leading up to a rock group’s concert.

Ripping off old Beatles concepts is about as radical as this movie gets. But the only way in which Spice World resembles that other, far superior rock film is that watching this movie does indeed make for a hard day’s night.

The film plays as though it’s written by someone who never understood Monty Python sketches and then tried to write one. And it’s no help that the five Spice Girls can hardly manage a personality among them. To lend credibility to the movie, there are cameos by Elton John, Meat Loaf, and Elvis Costello. Ironically, these genuine rockers display more movie charm in a few seconds of screen time than the Spices do in 100 minutes.

The movie centers on the efforts of the group’s manager (Richard E. Grant, who was in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story in better days) to keep the girls together for their big concert. But whereas the Beatles film credibly depicted a rock group’s fishbowl existence, The Spice Girls’ most pressing problem is which boots to wear on a social outing. Since even The Spices’ own movie can’t muster up any interest in their well-being, the running time is padded with fantasy sequences that wouldn’t pass muster on an old “Monkees” episode, and some embarrassing subplots involving Roger Moore and “Cheers'” George Wendt.

I’m no music critic, but I have to ask: Why do the female rockers most intent on displaying their feminist credentials always present themselves as sex objects? Yes, women can be powerful and sexy at the same time, but usually not by pandering to the lowest-common-denominator males. There is an interesting movie to be made about singers with names like Baby Spice who wear weirdly suggestive clothing and hairstyles. However, that movie would be at the other end of the spectrum from Spice World.

The funniest moment of this indifferent movie is the credit which informs us that the movie’s story is “based on an idea by The Spice Girls.” The movie handily proves that these women never had an original idea in their lives.


THE GANG’S ALL HERE (1943) – Yes, we have some bananas


The following is my entry in this blog’s 3rd Annual SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, being hosted here from June 16-18, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on movies that subtly suggest sex rather than blatantly depict it!


I’ll get to the plot of The Gang’s All Here in a minute, because the plot isn’t the most memorable part of this movie. The most memorable part is the bananas.

Is that a banana dance line, or are you just happy to see me?

Is that a banana dance line, or are you just happy to see me?

About 20 minutes into the movie, a towering hat of Technicolor fruit appears on the screen, followed by its owner — ’40s “Brazilian bombshell” Carmen Miranda. She proceeds to do a number called “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” accompanied by chorus girls who bear bananas. Six-foot-tall bananas that continuously droop and sprout until number’s end, when the chorus girls, worn out by the burden of this mutated fruit, lay down for a long siesta on a stage dressed up like an island.


There’s a reason this number occurs so early on: It takes you the rest of the movie to convince yourself you actually saw this in a 1943 movie.

But then, this is from Busby Berkeley, a director who staged his musical numbers as though he was declaring war. And next to kitsch, war is pretty much the motivator here.

The wafer-thin story involves Andy (James Ellison), a soldier who woos and wins Edie (Alice Faye), a canteen dancer, the night before Andy goes off to World War Two. In what seems an instant, Andy gets decorated and returned home to a victory party thrown by the family of Andy’s childhood sweetheart and fiancee — who, unfortunately for Edie, is not Edie.

Will the heartbreak be resolved? Do you really care? The plot is mostly an excuse for some snappy repartee between major ’40s stars (in particular, Eugene Pallette and Edward Everett Horton are hilarious), and the kind of musical numbers that seem to drop out of thin air. (In a couple of scenes, Benny Goodman and his orchestra stroll by and do some songs just for the heck of it.)

The Gang’s All Here is really a 1943 time capsule, but an eye-popping rouser of one. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. They didn’t make ’em much like this back then, either.



ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) – Singin’ in the pain

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The following is my entry in The Criterion Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 16-21, 2015 by the blogs Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and partake of nearly 200 bloggers’ reviews of movies from The Criterion Collection!


It’s rare that a man gets to write his own obituary. It’s even rarer when he turns it into a movie musical. But stage-and-screen choreographer-director Bob Fosse did just that in All That Jazz, definitely not your grandfather’s musical.

Film buffs will argue that this is merely Fosse’s musical version of Federico Fellini’s famously autobiographical 8-1/2. Grousers will complain that it’s Fosse’s self-serving take on a very self-indulgent life. For me, at least, it’s never less than fascinating. It might not be a musical where you come out humming the tunes, but it has imagination oozing from every frame.


Jaws’ Roy Scheider plays Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon, a goateed satyr who tries to keep too many plates in the air at once, artistically and in his personal life. The story shows Gideon trying to nurse along a potentially disastrous Broadway musical, finish the final cut on a bio-flick that looks suspiciously like Lenny (Fosse’s story of Lenny Bruce), and juggle several relationships with women of his past and present.

Fosse definitely stacked the deck by casting many of his former lady-loves, including Ann Reinking as Gideon’s current lover, and Jessica Lange as his blunt-talking Angel of Death. Nevertheless, Fosse is hardly easy on himself. Gideon is a boozer, pill popper, and genial ignorer of any advice that might help him lead a longer and happier life.


This soon culminates in a hospital hallucination that is a supreme tour de force, not to mention the first musical to ever include a scene of open-heart surgery. (It’s graphic, but in context, it’s all too appropriate.)

In one of the weirder career highs of movies, this has to be Scheider’s peak. Gideon is all too self-destructive, but Scheider shows us the charisma that has everyone in Gideon’s life going along for the ride. The rest of the cast is great as well (including Wallace Shawn and John Lithgow in early roles).

Most musicals are all-out to please a huge audience. One gets the feeling that with All That Jazz, Fosse was the audience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t savor his high as well.

GREASE (1978) – Gets better with age


Time has been kind to Grease. The darned thing about made me sick in 1978. Every time I turned on the radio, I heard Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta warbling some song from the monster-hit soundtrack. And when I finally saw the movie, I was suitably unimpressed.

A generation later, my then-7-year-old daughter fell for the 20th-anniversary edition, so I’ve had ample opportunity to take another look at it. And as musicals go, it’s not bad. Granted, I’m not always crazy about my young girl falling for a movie where a worldly girl complains about “missing her period,” but it reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus explains how he handles the novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Whenever I come to a part I don’t understand, I just ‘bleep’ right over it!”


The musical is a campy take on 1950’s high-school life. No school cliche is left unturned: the dumb, muscular jocks with greasy hair and cigarette boxes rolled up in their sleeves (particularly Danny, as played by Travolta); the clean-cut girls who go for them (Newton-John as Sandy, the foreign-exchange student); the football coach with his “Win one for the Gipper”-type speeches (Sid Caesar, rather wasted in many senses of the word); the uptight principal (Eve Arden); and the “American Bandstand”-like TV dance show, complete with nostalgia group Sha Na Na doing a big number.

Even on its own simplistic terms, the movie is a lot to swallow. For one thing, this is the oldest-looking bunch of high-school-age kids seen on film since The Bowery Boys. Secondly, what is it with Stockard Channing’s character Rizzo? Even when she thinks she’s pregnant and her boyfriend (Jeff Conaway) wants to do right by her, she blows him off with a first-class insult. We’re meant to see that Rizzo hurts people to keep from getting hurt herself, but after too many scenes of this sob-sister routine, you start thinking that she gets what she deserves.

images (1)

But still, there’s much to enjoy. The TV show is only an excuse for an extended dance scene that’s quite lively and, in the wake of “musicals” that followed this one (Flashdance, Footloose), it’s a treat to see dancers actually dancing to express some joy, rather than waiting for the movie’s editor to hop up their routines. Travolta’s “Sandy” number, performed in front of a drive-in movie screen, has enough panache to elicit the pathos it obviously strives for. And Newton-John, whose part was obviously rewritten to accommodate her (then-) star status, does well enough with the songs that she’s actually passable. (Her nadir wouldn’t come until the disastrous musical Xanadu [1980], which was enough to retire Gene Kelly from movies for good.)

It’s funny that what looked campy in 1978 makes one nostalgic for the movie musical only 20 years later. The warbling non-singers in, say, Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You make the Grease cast look like Astaire and Rogers by comparison.

Lucille Ball in MAME (1974) – A TV legend cut down to size


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The famous line from Mame goes, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.” Yep, and if they indulge in the excess of this movie, they’ll probably go on a diet.

Mame is one of those ultra-strange musicals like Gypsy. It does everything it can to present its supposed heroine as a passive-aggressive mental case and then tries to tell us how endearing she is. One wonders what drove poor Lucille Ball, who by then had over two decades as a sitcom legend behind her, to indulge in a previously undisclosed desire to become a drag queen.

images (3)To quote an eye-popping plot summary of the movie at The Internet Movie Database, “The musical revolves around the antics of Mame Dennis (Lucille Ball), a fun-loving, wealthy eccentric with a flare for life and a razor-sharp wit.” Actually, at least as presented here, Mame is one of those heavy drinkers who thinks she gets funnier as she gets drunker. It doesn’t help that Ball was continually shot in ultra-soft focus to hide all of her 62 years.

images (4)The big kicker in the story is that Mame inherits her late brother’s only child Patrick. The real-life Patrick wrote the book about his lively aunt that was turned into a Broadway show and non-musical movie (starring Rosalind Russell, and nearly as endless as this mess). But you’d never guess that Patrick was ever a real person based on the performance of his younger years by Kirby Furlong. Pauline Kael wrote an especially (and deservedly) vitriolic slam on Furlong’s acting, stating that he came across as so non-human that it wouldn’t be against the law to destroy him. A more generous viewpoint is that the script never shows Patrick in plausible terms. Far from suggesting a real boy who might be in shock or grief from losing his parents, here Patrick seems like a kid ready to party.

images (5)Another major debit in the story is the character of Mame’s assistant Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell, who played the role on stage as well). Ball made much of the fact that Madeline Kahn was to have played Gooch in the movie but weaseled her way out of it so that she could perform her Oscar-nominated role in Blazing Saddles. More likely, Kahn saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail before this movie killed her career.

In any case, the character of Gooch is painful to endure. She starts out as a mousy woman who is supposedly loosened up under Mame’s wing. Trouble is, she loosens up so much that she ends up becoming an unwed mother (not a role indulged well by American society in the 1920’s and ’30s, where the first part of the story is set). It’s supposed to be an absolute hoot when drippy Gooch returns to Mame and does a musical number that basically says, “It was your lifestyle that got me into this mess, now what do I do?” Yet even the musical’s writers knew they opened up a moral quagmire they didn’t know how to deal with; hence, we never see Gooch again after that number.

images (6)There are almost as many jaw-dropping moments in this movie as there are songs. There’s the supposed banter between Mame and her “good friend” Vera Charles (Bea Arthur), coming off more like two women vying for drag-queen history. Then poor Robert Preston gets dragged in as a Southern beau who gets knocked off his feet by Mame’s zest for life. Knocked off his feet, eh? Cowed is more like it.

It’s really head-shaking to think that Lucille Ball got her start performing as an ingenue in movie musicals, only to torpedo her movie career with one. Mame isn’t even enough of a hoot to be so-bad-it’s-good — it’s more to be pitied than sneered at. You’d be better off enjoying a DVD of a season of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucille Ball’s talents are vividly on display.

The Beatles in MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) – Kind of a bad trip


Supposedly, a major source of inspiration for Magical Mystery Tour was some home movies that Paul McCartney had been making at the time — and a home movie is certainly what the film resembles.

Had this movie been secreted away in a box for decades and found only yesterday, it would probably have been regarded as an unsung (ahem) Beatles gem. Unfortunately, it aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967 and had been touted as a major event, which it definitely was not.

Paul's original

Paul’s original “storyboard” for the movie.

The movie follows a British tour bus whose stops are filled with supposedly zany events dictated by five skybound magicians (the Beatles and their roadie Mal Evans). But none of it amounts to very much. Actions that could have been cute if they’d been only throwaway gags or short skits are stretched far beyond their worth. In one scene written by John, he plays a restaurant waiter who plies Ringo’s plus-sized and voraciously hungry aunt with, literally, shovelfuls of spaghetti. It gets pretty gross to watch.

On the plus side, there are mildly funny appearances by Beatles film veteran Victor Spinetti, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (including Neil Innes, later to make his mark with Monty Python and the Beatles parody The Rutles). And the Beatles’ songs, of course, are wonderful. Probably the movie’s best song visualization is its appropriately wacko take on John’s surreal “I Am the Walrus.”

In the end, it’s a spotty effort best noted for its wasted potential. As with Charlie Chaplin’s last couple of feature films, Beatles completists will want to see Magical Mystery Tour just to say that they’ve seen it — but it’s not likely to be held dear in their hearts.

The Beatles in HELP! (1965) – No HARD DAY’S NIGHT, but a nice ticket to ride


The following is my second of two entries in The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read some great critiques of a wide range of British and Britain-related movies!


The Beatles’ Help! has just as wispy a plot as its predecessor, A Hard Day’s Night, and probably much less reason for its existence. But if you’re willing to give yourself over to it, it’s very good-natured and funny.

Perhaps it helps to see it a half-century after its creation. The spirit of Monty Python and other British comedy has become so firmly embedded in our subconscious that Help!’s endless string of non-sequitor gags somehow comes together and makes sense. When the movie was first released, it was probably enough for most people simply to see The Beatles clowning and singing on-screen in full color.

The movie’s shaggy-dog plot is that Ringo finds himself wearing a ring that makes him the target of a religious sacrifice for an Eastern cult. Through even more plot machinations, the ring becomes a morbid point of fascination for a mad scientist (Victor Spinetti, the neurotic TV director from A Hard Day’s Night). Thus, the movie pretty much turns into one long chase, halted every so often so that The Beatles can sing one of their beloved hit songs.

Critics and moviegoers who have sought a coherent plot and characters to root for have long come away shaking their heads at this movie. But in these days of raunchy, flatulent film comedy, a quaint, eager-to-please number such as Help! looks better all the time.

Besides The Beatles and the rest of the cast being quite game for the movie’s silliness, you have to love the blackout-sketch-type jokes, as when the initial sacrificial virgin returns home to get a bath from her mother, who chides her daughter for coming home with grimy sacrificial paint all over herself.

Screenwriter Marc Behm — and, certainly, director/silent-comedy enthusiast Richard Lester — manage to pull off a cheerily farcical tone throughout, even as Ringo is continually under threat (often from his own bandmates) of getting a finger lopped off. (The film’s sense of humor extends to Ken Thorne’s orchestral soundtrack, which slyly riffs on a number of previous Beatles tunes.)

Hey, gang! Let's go out in the middle of a field and put on a show!

Hey, gang! Let’s go out in the middle of a field and put on a show!

Beatles lore tells us that this movie was filmed near the end of the Fabs’ “escapist” period, shortly before they ditched their moon/spoon-type lyrics and started reaching for something deeper in pop artistry. As such, Help! is a nostalgic, often hilarious valedictory to The Beatles’ “growing up” years.

(If you enjoyed this blog, please click here to read my first British Invaders Blogathon entry about The Beatles’ movie debut, A Hard Day’s Night.)