GREASE (1978) – Gets better with age

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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!”

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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.

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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.

R.I.P., Joan Rivers, The Girl Most Likely to Offend

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(Let me begin by saying that this is going to be no love letter, but I will try to end it on a positive note.)

Upon hearing about the death of comedienne Joan Rivers at age 81, I feel compelled to strike a blow for the anti-fan side.

Yes, she was certainly a stand-up pioneer in the days when comedy was mostly looked upon as a man’s world. And I actually enjoyed her stand-up act very much…at least until the late 1970’s, when I was a teenager and Rivers started taking cheap shots at Karen Carpenter (who died from complications of anorexia) and Elizabeth Taylor (very much alive at the time, and sadly, a plus-sized national punchline).

Even back then, I remember wondering why Rivers thought it was necessary to single out certain celebrities for their physical traits, especially when hostile comics could have easily (and surprisingly didn’t) point out that she was no Sleeping Beauty. My opinion of Rivers’ nastiness only cemented whenever I’d watch her short-lived Fox talk show.

And unlike many of her male counterparts, Rivers was never able to translate her stand-up success into a movie career. (Notice that this week’s many laudatory obits of Rivers fail to mention her sole writing/directing movie credit, 1978’s “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.)

However, I will say that there is one item from Rivers’ career that has stuck with me throughout the decades, and in a positive way.

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Those of you who grew up in the 1970’s will surely remember ABC’s “Tuesday Movie of the Week.” It was one of ABC’s early ratings hits pre-“Happy Days,” even though the “movie” usually amounted to an elongated TV episode. (Exceptions, of course, include the tearjerker “Brian’s Song,” and the early pro-gay drama “That Certain Summer.”)

But Rivers made a memorable mark on this TV genre by writing a black comedy titled “The Girl Most Likely To…” (WARNING: Spoilers follow!)

It starred Stockard Channing (in her major TV debut) as Miriam, a homely high-school girl. After a major humiliation at school, Miriam rushes off and into a severe car crash that leaves her doctors with no choice but to do major plastic surgery on her.

The surgery transforms Miriam into a woman so striking that her former peers don’t even recognize her. Noting this fact, Miriam decides to go back to the high-school he-men who made her life torturous, and exact some very nasty revenges upon them.

TV was still new to pushing social boundaries at that time (“All in the Family” was only two years old), and anyone who tuned into “The Girl Most Likely To…” expecting a sedate TV-movie really got an eyeful that night. IMHO, this was the one time that the acid side of Rivers’ wit aimed at its target and scored. Rather than making cheap wisecracks about famous people, this movie took a subjective, fearless look at school bullying (at a time when it wasn’t even considered a topic of scorn) and, of course, sexism.

You can view the movie in its entirely on YouTube, although it is split into several separate posts. Here’s the first part:

TWILIGHT (1998) – Paul Newman, James Garner, and other veterans at their finest

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Among the many virtues of the movie thriller Twilight:

(1) A successful modern-day film noir, full of world-weary gumshoes, the privileged rich, and lots of corpses. Newman plays Harry Roth, a retired detective who works as a live-in handyman for Hollywood stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). Jack asks Harry to deliver a “package” (read: blackmail payment) for him, and once Harry gets involved, he can’t help nosing around. This sounds uninspiring at first, but it’s thought-out well enough to include labyrinthine plot twists, memorable supporting characters (James Garner is terrific as a retired-cop friend of Harry’s), and some crackling dialogue.

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(2) An intelligent, witty story, written by adults, for adults. Co-writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo, director Benton, and star Newman pulled off a similar miracle a few years before with Nobody’s Fool, and they’ve done it again. The movie’s tone is confident enough to have a funny conversation just before a shooting begins. Any movie that can mix moods that well is a winner.

(3) A movie that feels “lived in,” allowing its viewers time to soak up its atmosphere. Even though Twilight is all of 94 minutes long, its leisurely pace put off a few critics who have been trained in MTV-style viewing. When a movie’s elements work this well, you don’t have to rush them.

(4) A sterling cast. Newman, Hackman, Sarandon, Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and “Breaking Bad’s” Giancarlo Esposito are superlative. My only regret about the movie is that one of my favorite character actors, M. Emmett Walsh, makes a great entrance and then gets shot before he utters a word.

(5) Paul Newman. As in Nobody’s Fool, Newman’s face is a movie in itself. And let’s face it–any movie that undresses Susan Sarandon and still leaves you more in awe of Newman’s 73-year-old form…