Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fox Studio Classics Presents: Orchestra Wives

By Steve Evans

"It's hep! It's hot! It's hilarious!" ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening shot
It's also the Big Band era, when the Glenn Miller Orchestra was such a phenom that 20th Century Fox developed a film project to capitalize on their popularity. Released in 1942, Orchestra Wives features the only original stereo recordings of Glenn Miller and his band. The film was Oscar nominated for Best Song, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," which became a Glenn Miller standard along with "At Last" and "Serenade in Blue"—both written specifically for this featherweight romantic comedy. So what do we get? Great music, nice image, clean sound, mediocre story – it all adds up to an average film.

A Bit of Plot…
Small-town girl Ann Rutherford (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) falls in love with a swinging trumpeter, George Montgomery (Coney Island and dozens of westerns). They meet-cute and spend a pleasant evening together, after which he proposes on the spot. They marry and she joins the band on tour. But the life of an orchestra wife is rather dull between gigs. Soon she's gossiping with the other orchestra Wives and singers in the band. Misunderstandings lead to man trouble and a river of tears, but like every romantic comedy ever made, you know this one's gonna end happily, with finger-poppin' songs and swingin' dances.

Historical Context and Significance
Orchestra Wives is what I call a champagne flick: effervescent and mildly intoxicating with a certain sparkle that can be diverting, even delightful, when the mood is right. Frothy fun served up with some terrific jazz and a little élan is not a bad thing, but I don't believe this title belongs in the otherwise spectacular Studio Classics series by Fox. Yet here it is just the same: comedy-lite, with truly spectacular music from one of the legends of the Big Band era. There's fabulous tap-dancing on display, too.

The selling point here is rare footage of Glenn Miller and his band—a tight ensemble of swingin' cats who could wail like nobody's bidness. Miller gives his trombone a workout in this picture. And in Miller's case, there's poignancy in watching a musician who loves his work. No one could have guessed the great band leader would be dead within two years of making this film. Soon after Orchestra Wives was released, Miller disbanded his orchestra and joined the U.S. Air Force. He formed another big band and their music was broadcast to Allied troops in every theatre of World War II. Miller disappeared in a 1944 flight over the English Channel en route to Paris, possibly a casualty of German anti-aircraft fire, although the mystery of his death was never solved.

As a final testament to a brilliant musical career, Orchestra Wives plays best if we just enjoy the music, disregard the story, and star gaze. Yes, that's Jackie Gleason thumping the stand-up bass. Cesar Romero (he played The Joker on the 1960s television show Batman) co-stars as a Casanova piano player with a gal waiting in every town.

Disc extras include a commentary track by Rutherford and Fayard Nicholas, along with a photo gallery and trailers for this and other Fox films.

The Contrarian View…
The miscreants at Fox misspelled the name of a musical legend on the cover of the DVD case. For the love of all that's sacred and pure, it's Glenn Miller with two “n's” for God's Sake.

Serious jazz fans and movie lovers bent on completing their Studio Classics series need this disc (Spine #35 in the Fox set). Orchestra Wives includes the only known footage of the Glenn Miller Orchestra jamming in stereo. That alone makes this film a valuable artifact of the Big Band years.

Ignore the unbelievable plot and focus on some timeless, seriously cool music.

Copyright © 2010 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hot Tickets for 2010

By Steve Evans

It’s never too early to handicap the slate of pictures coming this year to a theater near you. Here are 11 films in order of release date that either look promising or promise to lure massive crowds. The ineviotable blockbusters can be found among one or two smaller pictures that I suspect will find an audience and become sleeper hits.

Edge of Darkness (Jan. 29) Mel Gibson makes his first appearance in front of a camera since the po’lice took his mug shot after the middle-aged Lethal Weapon was popped for drunken driving and making inappropriate remarks about Jews. In his upcoming thriller, Gibson plays a homicide detective investigating the murder of his daughter. He’s also looking on the chunky side these days. Screenplay by William Monahan, who penned The Departed for Martin Scorsese.

Shutter Island (Feb. 19) may be the most anticipated movie of 2009. That’s right, Martin Scorsese's new thriller from the Dennis Lehane novel was slated for an Oct. 2 release last year in time for Oscar season, but Paramount bumped the picture back 4 ½ months claiming the studio had no money for a proper promotional campaign. Whatever. Scorsese works for the fourth straight collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, as a U.S. Marshall sent to the titular island to investigate a missing person. Shutter Island is the home of Ashcliffe, a hospital for the criminally insane where DiCaprio and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) begin to suspect sinister psychiatric practices are underway. The perfect cast includes “Sir” Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams and Max Von Sydow. Helluva trailer for this one:

A Prophet (March 5) explores prison life in France by director Jacques Audiard ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped"). Expect a Foreign Film Oscar nomination. This film is reputedly so realistic and sobering in its portrayal of the French penal system that the government has responded with legislation to reform the country’s prisons.

Chloe (March 19) Director Atom Egoyan helms this adult drama about seemingly happy-loving couple Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson. When the wife develops a jealous streak, she tests her hubby’s love by placing him on a collision course with call-girl Chloe (doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried) to see if her husband can keep his pants cinched around his waist. This may not be the best pick for a first-date flick.

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (April 23) Director Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas reunite in this sequel to the 1987 paean to greed that won Douglas the Oscar for best actor. Love him or hate him, you gotta admire Oliver Stone’s timing. Here’s hoping he scores a direct hit on all the illegitimate MBA sonsofbitches roaming Noo Yawk’s financial district after the dismal failure of his last picture, W. Douglas returns as money obsessed Gordon Gekko, fresh from a prison stretch for playing shell games with arbitrage investments. He joins a young financial hotshot (Shia LaBeouf, to broaden the demographic for this picture) and together they try to warn The Street about a looming financial crisis. The plot clots when the younger man gets hot and heavy with Gekko’s daughter (Carey Mulligan from An Education). Despite the ridiculous subtitle, Wall Street 2 has all the right socio-economic conditions working in its favor.

Iron Man 2 (May 7) Okay, so Batman is too damn brooding, Superman too square and the Hulk is just a rambunctious pain in the ass. If the question is, “do we really need another summer superhero move?” the answer has got to be, yep, if it’s Iron Man 2, the eagerly awaited sequel to the 2008 hit. Robert Downey Jr. as alcoholic playboy/billionaire Tony Stark, who sometimes toots around in a metal exoskeleton, gets off some terrific hipster dialog without once making his audience impatient. Lots of explosions in the trailer, of course, but it’s Downey’s show all the way. Watch how he addresses a U.S. senator on a congressional committee that wants Iron Man to give up his military secrets, and you’ll be standing in line for a ticket, too. Gwyneth Paltrow returns; Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell give support. Mickey Rourke looks suitably menacing as main nemesis Whiplash. Check out the trailer:

Robin Hood (May 14) Russell Crowe won an Oscar for prancing around in a toga a decade ago in Gladiator and his work since then has been a mixed bag at best. No surprise, then, that the angry Aussie would pull on a pair of green leotards and take to Sherwood Forest for this umpteenth retelling of the English legend. Of course, Ridley Scott hasn’t had a hit since he directed Gladiator, so he’s reteamed with Crowe to helm this tale of a young Robin in the service of King Richard, the Lionheart. Cate Blanchett plays love interest Lady Marion.

Sex and the City 2 (May 28) Carrie and Mr. Big got married at the end of the last installment of this would-be franchise about the joys of sex and shopping (though not necessarily in that order). Expect Carrie and Mr. Big to get into a squabble so they can get back together again, since the plot demands it. Expect Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda to gab at length about shoes and skirts while sipping tall Cosmopolitans.

Toy Story 3 (June 18) Pixar returns to the well with Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of the toy gang in a 3D computer-generated tale of loss, nostalgia and longing. Tim Allen and Tom Hanks return with principal voice-talent duties. Michael Keaton, Timothy Dalton and Joan Cusack are in there somewhere as well.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (Nov. 19) Warner Bros. plans to burn maximum mileage out of J.K Rowling’s final installment of the boy-wizard saga by splitting the film adaptation into two parts separated by a year. Harry, Hermone and Ron face ongoing peril from the Death Eaters and Ralph Fiennes without a nose shows up as malevolent Lord Voldemort, he whose name must not be spoken, but often is, anyway. This series delivers amazing special effects and endearing performances by the young actors, although the sense of wonder is waning with the increased emphasis on hormones and tiresome romantic subplots that bring the Potter pictures to a crashing halt until the magic picks up again.

The Tree of Life (No release date announced) Director Terrence (Badlands) Malick is about as prolific as the late Stanley Kubrick, but the five films he’s managed to release (in a career spanning nearly 40 years) are as analyzed, dissected and discussed as the work of the great Kubrick himself. Set in the 1950s, Tree of Life follows the split story of Midwestern family (Brad Pitt and newcomer Jessica Chastain), and some years later their adult son Sean Penn who (surprise!) is a tormented man. The film juxtaposes Penn’s childhood family life with his contemporary conundrums. Expect a stately, meditative film from the cerebral, wildly inconsistent and always-interesting Malick.

Copyright © 2010 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Best Films of 2009

By Steve Evans

A trying year for most people failed to boost box office fortunes in 2009 as the economy knocked a dent in ticket sales, a counter-intuitive phenomeonon that shows movies are not always the escapist fare their promoters would have them be.

Or it could just be that 2009 was not a banner year for American cinema.


The Soloist
Robert Downey and Jamie Foxx acted their asses off in a beautifully filmed story of mental illness that unraveled in the final reel into a preachy diatribe about the plight of the homeless.

A Serious Man
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, average a picture a year. Their latest is a quiet comedy about a nobody contemplating a substantive life while awash in mediocrity, which most people can relate to if they are honest. Is there no genre the Coens are unable to make their own?

Inglourious Basterds
Blabbermouth director Quentin Tarantino rewrites World War II so a platoon of Jewish-American special operations soldiers can whack Hitler and top Nazis brass in a Parisian arthouse cinema. Brad Pitt got top billing, but Christoph Waltz will get the Oscar for his incredible performance as a ruthless Gestapo officer fluent in four languages and as charming as a viper in top hat and tails.

Copyright © 2010 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.