Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Adaptations and Lamentations

The Blues Brothers: written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis; directed by John Landis; starring John Belushi (Jake Blues), Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues), and a cast of thousands including Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Carrie Fisher, Twiggy, Steven Spielberg, Frank Oz, Joe Walsh, Mr. T. and Paul Ruebens (1980): It's hard to imagine a vanity project this counter-intuitive being made today. The Blues Brothers is a musical in which the titular heroes (first performed by Aykroyd and Belushi on Saturday Night Live)  stand to the side and bounce around every ten minutes while a legend of rhythm and blues performs. And Cab Calloway. Even in 1980, Cab Calloway must have seemed like a reach.

But it all works surprisingly well, maybe better now that we've endured 34 years of much less agile-afoot action-comedies, none of which feature Aretha Franklin singing in a diner or a performance of the theme from Rawhide at a Country-and-Western bucket of blood. John Landis wasn't a stylistically sophisticated director -- the action scenes are funny or not depending on how much crap he throws into the frame. And boy, does he throw a lot of expensive crap into the frame.

The widespread destruction of property (and especially police cars) becomes funnier as we go along and the level of destruction increases. Belushi and Aykroyd hold it all together with performances as twin, deadpan Bugs Bunny types, nigh-indestructible and apparently completely unaware of that indestructibility. They're loveable because they don't try to be loveable. And they know when to get off stage. Highly recommended.
 

22 Jump Street: based on the TV series 21 Jump Street created by Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh; written by Michael Bacall, Jonah Hill, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman; directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; starring Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Peter Stormare (The Ghost), Wyatt Russell (Zook), Amber Stevens (Maya), Jillian Bell (Mercedes), and Ice Cube (Captain Dickson) (2014): So metafictional, self-mocking, and self-referential that it feels like the longest SNL skit ever. 22 Jump Street is a hoot, though a little of the meta goes a long way.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum charm again as off-beat cops Schmidt and Jenko. Peter Stormare doesn't have a lot to do as the main villain, but Jillian Bell steals pretty much every scene she's in as a snarky college room-mate who keeps commenting on Schmidt's incongruous age whenever she sees him. A little draggy in the middle; a lot hilarious during the sequel-happy end credits. Recommended.



Winchester '73: written by Robert L. Richards, Borden Chase, and Stuart N. Lake; directed by Anthony Mann; starring James Stewart (Lin), Shelley Winters (Lola), Dan Duryea (Waco Johnny Dean), Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown) and Millard Mitchell (High Spade) (1950): Hugely successful at the box office, Winchester '73 revitalized the movie Western for several more years, and Jimmy Stewart's Western career with it. To call the movie episodic is to state the obvious -- it almost plays like six short episodes of a TV series strung together. And it really feels like the sole sponsor of that TV series was the Winchester rifle company.

Solid location work and direction adds to the charms of Stewart, the young and pretty Shelley Winters, and a Who's Who of solid character actors. Oh, and Tony Curtis plays a Cavalry officer with about two lines. More weirdly, a young Rock Hudson plays a Native American. Recommended.


Murder, My Sweet: adapted by John Paxton from the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler; directed by Edward Dmytryk; starring Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor) and Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy) (1944): Poor casting hamstrings a mediocre adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely from the get-go. The title was changed from Farewell, My Lovely after release because audiences stayed away in droves, believing it was another musical starring Powell rather than his first dramatic leading role. The movie might not have been great with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but it would have been better.

As is, Dick Powell is bland and serviceable as P.I. Philip Marlowe (whom Bogie would play two years later in The Big Sleep to universal and enduring acclaim). Claire Trevor, so good as the prostitute with a heart of gold in 1939's Stagecoach, is completely baffled by her role. A somewhat surreal dream sequence seems to nod knowingly at Hitchcock's forays into similar sequences. An adequate time-waster, but nothing more. Lightly recommended.


Ender's Game: based on the novel by Orson Scott Card, written and directed by Gavin Hood; starring Asa Butterfield (Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin), Harrison Ford (Colonel Graff), Hailee Steinfeld (Petra Arkanian), Abagail Breslin (Valentine Wiggin), Ben Kingsley (Mazer Rackham) and Viola Davis (Major Anderson) (2013): Not so much a bad movie as a peculiarly undercooked one, with a need for more character development before the apocalyptic climax. Asa Butterfield is fine as tween-aged Messiah Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin, whose strategic skills may be the only hope humanity has against an alien race known as the Formics. Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley glower and growl quite effectively as the military geniuses who see in Ender humanity's last hope, and the rest of the cast is mostly fine.

That child-messiah thing that permeates science fiction and fantasy at least comes with some reservations on the part of Ender in this version of Orson Scott Card's popular novel. And the battle sequences are fine, though we're never given the equivalent of an establishing shot for the Earth fleet (or, for that matter, much idea of the scale of the ships), two mistakes that cut against any feeling of the epic. Lightly recommended.

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