Chicago (2002)

 

Well, this was a fun little flick to close out the month.  I’ve been living in a cave since 2002 (and probably earlier since this was originally on Broadway), so I didn’t actually know anything about this movie except that it was a musical.  Little did I realize it fell into one of my more favored genres, the dark comedy.  As an added bonus, the film features bad girls, glorifying them in the same way we’ve been admiring the moxie of our gangsters since the jazz age.  It’s like Orange is the New Black, or at least what I imagine it would be like, not having watched it myself.  There’s singing in OITNB, right?

It’s interesting, and rather fitting, to contrast this movie with the first one I watched this month, The Broadway Melody.  Both are female-focused musicals, with a sort of meta narrative about performance.  But where the first felt more like an attempt to replicate the exact on-stage theatrical performance, Chicago plays with both the musical genre and film itself to tell a story.  I especially loved the marionette scene, where dancers are choreographed as puppets, all of them controlled by the mastermind defense lawyer played by Richard Gere.  Just layers upon layers going on there.

I’ve never seen a musical on stage, I don’t think – certainly not a real Broadway show.  I guess technically, there was that one year Shakespeare on the Common did a mashup of Shakespeare with old Rat Pack songs.  Does that count?  I don’t even know.  But my point is, I realize that there are certain customs and tropes in musicals that I simply don’t get because I’m not familiar with the genre.  While that might bother me in some other cases, here it didn’t.  It felt accessible and engaging, even though virtually every moment of the film was a song.

In this particular case, it’s a little harder to run a Bechdel Test.  Does it count as a conversation if two women happen to be singing in the same song?  If they’re discussing ways to be cleared of a crime, does it matter that it was for a man’s murder if they don’t actually mention the man in dialogue?  Regardless, it’s an academic discussion, because there are enough moments between the many women in prison, discussing their respective crimes (of which all are perfectly innocent), to pass the test.  Why aren’t there more movies like this?  I might actually watch musicals in that case.

And so ends another theme month here at the ol’ Oscar blog.  As we hit the halfway point of the year, I’m pleased to report that I’ve officially watched exactly half of the movies on the Best Picture list.  Right on target.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep this up so long.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt a bit more strain about the whole process, like I’m always on the verge of having to watch another movie, post another blog, swing by the library for another pair of requested movies.  Warmer weather also makes me less eager to spend an afternoon in front of the TV.

There’s even a librarian who’s clearly a movie buff, taking note of all the classics I pick up, once or twice a week.  I tried to explain my project once, as I’ve tried to do with other casual acquaintances, but it’s hard to say why I’m doing it.  And if I’ve managed to keep up this habit, why not other more useful ones, like exercise or flossing?  I’d like to think I’m learning something about myself in the process.  But I guess I still have six months to figure out what it is.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?

Final Verdict:  There ain’t no justice in the world

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Terms of Endearment (1983)

Oh, hey, did you know Jack Nicholson is in this movie?  No?  Well, here he is.

 

This is a film about female friendships, and Jack Nicholson.  I liked the former, but could have done with a little less of the latter.

What’s particularly strong in this movie is the way the mother-daughter relationship is portrayed, both in its bond and in the inevitable conflict between the two.  Aurora is so often critical, even casually cruel to her daughter Emma (on the eve of her wedding to a man Aurora disapproves of, Mom tells her, “You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.”).  And yet, they have an unusually fierce attachment, talking on the phone each morning, even when one or the other has company in bed.  It’s the complexity of that connection that epitomizes the family relationship – loyalty and antipathy all rolled up in one.

But Emma also maintains a lifelong friendship with Patsy, even throughout moves across the country, changes in fortune, childbirth.  As teenagers, they share dreams about their future, and there’s something so touchingly familiar in Emma’s certainty that their bond will last.  How many friends have you shared that same conversation with – and how many are still there for you?

Considering how much this film was touted as a story about women, I was a little surprised at the amount of screen time devoted to Jack Nicholson’s former-astronaut-turned-drunken-playboy.  And the inevitable, disappointing attraction that the prudish Aurora develops for him.  His storyline felt a little cliché for the sake of a movie like this, and I didn’t find whatever change of heart he may have had to be worthy of all the effort.  But then, I’m not really a Jack Nicholson fan, so maybe I’m in the minority on this one.  (In fairness, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a Jack Nicholson movie, and I feel strangely compelled to constantly write out Jack Nicholson’s full name every time I refer to him.  To Jack Nicholson, that is.)

Despite Jack Nicholson, the film earned a decent grade on the Bechdel Test.  We even managed to check off a passing grade in the first few minutes, as child-Emma consoles her anxious mother.  Sometimes later in life, the men get in the way of a proper Bechdel-approved conversation, but that’s probably true enough of most mother-daughter conversations after a certain point.

My only complaint about this film is that it dragged quite a bit in the second half.  The surprising twist it takes isn’t really that surprising – after all, these family dramas need to get their tension from something, and it might as well be somebody’s death.  In the process, the twist somehow manages both to spring out of nowhere and to prolong things at a snail’s pace, just to make sure every single character has a chance to talk to every single other character about what’s happening.  It’s like the multiple goodbyes of the end of The Lord of the Rings, which, unfortunately, is not being paired with this film.  Just you wait.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Grown women are prepared for life’s little emergencies.

The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)

If your movie doesn’t include talking, singing, and dancing, you’ve done something wrong.

 

It’s June, which means it’s time for a new theme month.  April’s focus on war movies made for an interesting longitudinal study, so I thought it might be fun to try it again (especially since it’s likely the final month I’ll have enough films to choose from to make up a full month of related pictures).  This time, we’ll be looking at women.

I’ve selected eight movies, one from each decade (allowing for a bit of leeway on the first one), in which a woman, or women, hold a prominent role.  In some cases, the woman is named in the title, and in a couple cases, I’ve had to stretch it a little.  Just for kicks, I’ll also apply the Bechdel Test to each film – because I’m honestly curious to see how the ones I’ve picked will go.  If you’re not familiar, the rules of the Bechdel Test are, simply put:  there must be two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Broadway Melody is, surprisingly enough, about a pair of actress sisters who move to New York in order to make it big on Broadway.  The older sister’s beau, Eddie, has already moved to New York and seen success writing songs for a revue, and he’s their connection.  The only snag is that once Eddie sees the younger sister all grown up (beautiful but dumb, because a woman certainly can’t be both), he falls in love.  Awkward triangle alert!

This is a plot line that doesn’t bode well for the Test, and for the most part, Eddie (or his rival, who has perhaps the douchiest name of the era, Jock) dominates the ladies’ conversation.  However, I’m going to let it squeak by because one of the first scenes features the girls checking into a hotel room and discussing the anxieties of breaking into the New York entertainment industry.  I can’t quite remember whether one of the men who is supposed to help them comes up in conversation during that actual scene, so I’ll let it slide.  As a side note, I noticed, in the hubbub of the stage preparations, a costume designer who is clearly a stereotypical gay man – but I’m going to give the film some credit for depicting him as a fully integrated member of the stage crew.

In this early Hollywood era, there seems to be a fascination with depicting the popular entertainment of New York theater on the big screen.  Looking back, I find it strange – the thing that’s most impressive about a big musical number on stage is that it’s performed live before your eyes, with all the bombast and energy surrounding you, something that’s lost when portrayed on static film.  To be fair, watching a movie like this alone on your couch is pretty different from seeing it in a movie theater with crowds and maybe even a live orchestra.  They couldn’t really have anticipated DVDs back then.  Did they even have couches?

I guess there’s also a bit of “reality TV”-style drama here, too, because you’re not just seeing the big song-and-dance numbers, but the behind-the-scenes personal stories of the people, off-stage.  That’s a lot of hyphens.  This film reminds me a lot of another movie of the same era, The Great Ziegfeld, because of its similar structure and concern with backstage shenanigans (here, the producer is a thinly-veiled Ziegfeld).

So, with The Broadway Melody, I have now officially watched all (three) Oscar winners from the 1920s.  Historically, it’s a fascinating time of transition for film, moving from silents to talkies, in that brief window of pre-Code pictures.  Granted, three is not much of a representative sample.  When I think of old movies, I think of the censorship of later years – longing looks or chaste kisses instead of bedroom sex scenes.  Here, you can see ladies in their underwear, still rather concealed by today’s standards, but probably pretty sexy for the era.  How will this one compare to future films on the scale of lady-friendliness?  We’ll soon find out.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll give it a pass

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  It’s cream in the can.