Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Bye, Bye Birdie" is an Exceptional Musical Adaptation

There have been many successful Broadway-to-film transitions made in the last six decades; Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music, to name a few. As you, the reader, may know by now, I am a fan of a musical. But it has to have a good story behind it. While this story isn't exactly original (it was based on Elvis Presley's drafting into the army), the music is toe-tapping and the cast, for the most part, is excellent.

Dick Van Dyke reprises his stage role as Albert Peterson, a chemist turned song writer at the behest of his over-bearing mother, Mae (played by Maureen Stapleton). The work has dried up, and his secretary Rosie (played by Janet Leigh), is hoping for a marriage proposal. But Albert is reluctant. He wants his work to pick up, and he wants the approval of his dear mother. Enter Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-esque rock-star who has been drafted. Upon hearing the news, Rosie develops a plan to help Albert revive his career. He is to write a song for Conrad, called "One Last Kiss", at the end of which, Conrad is to kiss a lucky young fan. Enter the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio and the McAfee family. Young Kim McAfee (played by Ann-Margret, who would later star with the real Elvis Presley) is Conrad Birdie's number one fan. This film launched Ann's career, and, for a time, type-cast her into the certain type of sweet and sultry roles. Kim's father, played by Paul Lynde (who also reprises his original Broadway role) is understandably reluctant. That is until he finds out that the big event is to take place on the "Ed Sullivan Show", one that he greatly adores. Sullivan makes a cameo as himself. Sweet Apple is turned on it's ear, as news of Conrad Birdie's "One Last Kiss" spreads like wild fire.

For me, when I watch a musical, I don't watch it as such. I watch it as I would any other film. To me, the music and the score is secondary. The story, the acting, chemistry between the actors, and how well an actor can perform in a musical without coming across to the viewer as being uncomfortable doing so is paramount. Dick Van Dyke is a natural in a musical setting. This was one of his first films. After winning the Tony Award for his performance in the stage production, he was undoubtedly a natural choice to reprise the role in the film. Ann Margret, with this also being one of her first films, is also very natural. The fact that she's absolutely stunning and easy to look at certainly helps as well. With the exception of Paul Lynde, the rest of the cast seems like they don't really know what to do in a musical setting, and they seem a little uneasy. I would admittedly be a little intimidated by the prospect of being in a musical. But I would approach it as I do when I watch them. I would approach doing a musical as I would any other film. The most important thing for an actor to do, in any role, in any genre, is to understand that particular character, and once they do that, they come off believable, and more importantly, likable to the rest of us, the viewers.

One thing a film cannot do, and especially a musical film, is to pair an entire cast of actors which their audience wouldn't want to see in such a setting with a hard to follow story-line. "Moulin Rouge" to me is one of the worst offenders. I can't say I really care that Nicole Kidman's character is sick, or that Ewan MacGregor's character is in love with her character. Both Kidman and MacGregor are excellent actors in their own rights, but under different circumstances. Their respective agents obviously had no idea what it was they were getting their clients into. The story is so convoluted, it's frustrating. But, I digress. "Bye Bye Birdie" is not such a musical. It's well done and entertaining.

Despite the casting hiccups in this film, it's very enjoyable, and one that I recommend.

"Sin City" is a Brilliant, Visually Stunning albeit Bloody Film

While his face may not be well known, his name is synonymous with dark and gritty graphic novels. Frank Miller has been around for nearly fourty years as an comic book writer and illustrator. He was also responsible for penning the screenplays for two of the "Robocop" films, and spent years working for DC Comics, the company responsible for the "Batman" and "Robocop" comic series. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are both innovative and creative filmmakers with their own recognizable visual styles of film-making. This film does not belong to just one of these men. It's a seamless collaboration of the three. It's a dark, violent, star-studded and noir-style film, based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by Miller.

"Sin City" is a story about a run down, fictional locale, Basin City. There are several story lines at work in the film, but each story line is from a central character, who is, in some way, caught up in Basin City's corruption. The three principle characters represent three story lines.

John Hartigan, played by Bruce Willis, is a soon to be retired police officer who is called back into duty on his last night on the force. He takes it upon himself to rescue a young girl from the wrath of a spoiled young man, and the son of the corrupt Senator Roarke, who also happens to be a masochist and a rapist. After rescuing the young girl, Nancy, he cripples Roarke Jr. in such a way that would make any man bawl like a baby. After the rescue, he's shot and left for dead by his partner, Bob (played by Tarantino regular Michael Madsen) and falsely accused of raping young Nancy Callahan. After spending time in the hospital, he goes away to prison for eight years, letters written by Nancy under an alias being the only thing keeping him from committing suicide. He's then paroled, and sensing that Nancy is in trouble, finds her. Unbeknown-st to them, the young Roarke Jr. has also found Nancy. He's now a more masochistic, jaundiced version of his former self.

The next story involves a man with two strikes against him named Marv, played by Mickey Rourke. Marv is framed for the murder of a prostitute named Goldie, a leader of the "Old Town" district of Basin City, a "red-light" district of sorts that has long been self governed by the prostitutes who work the streets there. Marv's violent investigation leads him to an old farm on the edge of town. Come to find out that the farm belongs to the powerful Roarke family. He finds that this is a place of gruesome murder and mutilation.

The final story is one that doesn't have the parallels of the first two, but still tells of the corruption and seemingly lawless Basin City. Dwight (played by Clive Owen) is what you may call a freedom fighter, a protector of the ladies in Old Town. As it's explained in the film, a truce of sorts had been reached long ago between the police, politicians and working girls of old town. The ladies are allowed to govern and police themselves with no interference from the police.

At times, the three story lines briefly intersect, with the secondary characters interacting with the primary ones. For example, when Hartigan is paroled and finds out where Nancy works, he asks a waitress holding a tray of drinks where he might find Nancy. The waitress, Shellie (the late Brittany Murphy) directs Hartigan in Nancy's direction, to the stage on which Nancy performs for the pleasure of a crowded bar. Shellie is Dwight's lover. But the primary characters from each story line, at least in the film, never have a scene together.

While I've seen this film many times, and continue to watch in awe, I can't help but cringe at some of the dialogue. There are a few scenes in the film in which an actor, who may or may not be an intrinsic part of the scene, looks on while another actor is performing a particularly gruesome act, and simply says "Eeeeesh", as in, "I can't believe this is the only line they gave me to say in this scene." While this gives the film a certain "pulp" comic appeal, it can be tedious at times. It's a film with very dark and dramatic subject matter, but that doesn't mean that the actors have to amp up their acting to such a degree that it becomes campy. There's a lot to be said for subtlety. This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves of any actor, male or female. While some actors can "over-act" and in the next scene, even it out with a subtle action or line or combination of both, others aren't skilled enough to do this, and just end up being just outrageous and over the top. This may be seen in the form of an exaggerated facial expression, or an inflection put into a line when one isn't warranted. Some films may call for outrageous and over the top, and if it's appropriate, I love it. But if it's uncalled for, then it ruins a film for me. At times, this film is guilty of that, but it's not enough to turn me away.

This IS NOT a family friendly film. It will give young children and squeamish adults alike nightmares. But if you're looking for something uniquely beautiful, in all of it's gory and pulpy splendor, then this film is one for you.