John Wick: extended discussion

Sometimes we have a lot to say about a movie. Maybe that’s because the movie is really good. Maybe it’s really bad. Maybe it’s a complicated mess that requires more than three minutes to do it justice.

This week we take an extended look at an action movie that had a real impact on us. It’s John Wick! Join us for an extended discussion, and if you like the long form style please let us know.

Summer Stock (1950)

Summer has always seemed like the perfect time for musicals, and this is a perfect musical for summer. It stars Gene Kelly doing his dancing best, and Judy Garland singing the heck out of her songs. It also has a stellar supporting cast, and it boasts a really fun script complete with a compelling story.

The film follows Jane Falbury, played by Judy Garland, she’s a New England farmer on the verge of bankruptcy. She goes into town and begs for a new tractor from her soon to be father in law and her nebbish weakling of a fiancé, played by Ray Collins, and Eddie Bracken respectively. When she returns home she finds her wayward actress sister has volunteered the family barn to be used by a ragtag theater troupe she’s gotten involved with. The troupe is led by the charismatic Joe Ross, played by Gene Kelly. At first reluctant, Jane sees the value in having helping hands around the farm and maybe finds that she likes the theater and the handsome man running the show.

A discussion of this film has to start with the two leads. Kelly and Garland are wonderful here. Kelly was hot off a success the year before with On the Town, and he was still a year away from his magnum opus An American in Paris. His energy and athleticism is on full display here. His dancing is impeccable and transcendent. What really caught me off guard here was his acting in the quiet moments. He has a lovely little moment with Garland where he shares his reasons for loving theater so much. It’s tender and wistful and he comes across as so authentic. I love it.

Garland opens the film with a lung blasting rendition of “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!” Her voice is strong and powerful, and her performance is so joyful it’s infectious. She conveys all the harshness of a woman in a tough situation as well as the girl slowly falling in love with a boy. She is brash and charming at the same time. When she gets her tractor and drives it back home, she belts out the bouncy “Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest.” Which just lifts the spirits and makes me feel like anything is possible in the summer time.

These two have one of my favorite dances ever in which Garland is hosting a square dance with he locals and instructs those theater people not to interfere. However, Kelly finds himself interfering. He and Garland begin an antagonistic dance that shifts into a duet of sorts. They become partners before our eyes. Animosity melts away and turns into cooperation. A really nice touch is Garland’s dress. It has a pleated skirt with red panels sewn in. When she twirls and spins the red flashes bright. Not too read too much into it, but the red rebellion inside her shows forth both visually with the dress and in her performance as she cuts loose. It’s great stuff.

The supporting cast is phenomenal. What an amazing time this was, when you could get Eddie Bracken as a hilarious weakling and Ray Collins as his blowhard father. A perfect comedy duo. On top of those two, we are also treated to a brassy Marjorie Main as Jane’s housekeeper and sassy confidant. And don’t forget the over the top comic antics of Phil Silvers who makes a meal out of every line.

What I loved most about this one though is the story. It has real stakes and real human interest. Jane is in real trouble with her farm. She needs help to get through. Joe is struggling with his show. He has bet it all on this one, and he has nothing left if it’s a flop. When an accident leads to Jane’s new tractor getting damaged we feel it so much more knowing what it means to Jane and how much more difficult life is going to be for her. We worry for Joe when the show begins to go wrong. We know how much he loves the theater and how badly things could go wrong for him. All these elements make the joyous moments that much more joyful. It strikes a good balance and culminates in a satisfying conclusion. Unlike some musicals, this one actually tells a story with stakes.

Having done some research it is unbelievable this movie is any fun to watch at all. Judy Garland was just out of rehab and in the worst shape of her life up to that point. She was struggling with an addiction to the pills the studio had prescribed her since childhood to maximize her performance ability. She was weak, insecure, and erratic. The film was on the verge of not happening when Gene Kelly and director Charles Bracken stepped up and agreed to do the film for Judy. They both did everything they could to help her in the production and at times literally carry her through. Kelly always felt he owed Judy so much for her help with his career and worked hard to make sure he movie happened for her. She couldn’t keep a regular schedule, and the filming was shifted to the late afternoons to accommodate her. She was insecure about her appearance, and constantly tortured herself with the idea that she was letting Kelly and Bracken down. Knowing what a dark and desperate emotional place Garland was in makes her performance borderline miraculous. The fact that her inner turmoil, physical weakness, and emotional distress isn’t visible on her face in every shot is testament to her incredible skills as a performer.

All that said, this movie is just a fun time. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. It has a good story. It has amazing performances. It has some beautiful dances. I forgot to mention Gene Kelly’s dance with the newspaper! Another classic. The movie is full of fun and joy. Please check it out. It’s worth your time and will give you a lift this summer.

It is my cup of tea A+

An American in Paris

A sad yet stunning movie musical unlike any other. The movie has its charms and its spectacular finale, but there is a bittersweet undercurrent that runs throughout the story of lovers meeting in the city of lights.

The film was released in 1951 and follows Jerry Mulligan played by Gene Kelly. Jerry is an ex-GI who fell in love with Paris and decided to stay after the war and study painting. He is a struggling artist when he meets a wealthy woman who wants to help his career advance among other things. He meets a charming young woman and falls in love with her. All this is really just a thin framework on which Gene Kelly can hang as many delightful musical numbers as possible.

That isn’t even an exaggeration. Arthur Freed, the famous musical impresario of MGM, wanted to make a movie out of George Gershwin’s symphony “An American Paris” which was a piece he wrote inspired by his time in Paris in the 20’s. Freed needed to buy the rights to the piece from the Gershwin family, and Ira Gershwin, George’s surviving brother, insisted on the condition that Freed had to use Gershwin music exclusively in the film. Which meant that Freed literally had a dozen songs that he needed to string together with a loose framework of a story.

This explains the films biggest drawback, the story is flimsy at best. There really is no plot. It’s just a collection of scenes or vignettes. There really is no through line or thematic tie. The characters don’t really have arcs or stories of their own.

But that is okay for the most part, because the movie is all about the music. And there are so many wonderful musical moments. George Levant, a world class pianist, has a virtuosic solo piano performance in the middle of the movie. Levant and Kelly have an incredible duet on the love song Tra-la-la. Kelly and a group of French children sing a charming rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm. Really every song on the soundtrack is a winner all culminating in the twenty minute ballet set to the symphony that inspired the whole thing.

This is the centerpiece of the film a truly stunning technicolor masterpiece. Gene Kelly and a team of production designers literally spent half a million dollars to create the most colorful and vibrant ballet ever filmed. It truly is a masterpiece and worth the price of admission by itself. Gene dances his way through an impressionistic Paris setting complete with teams of dancers wrapped in primary colors. He meets and pursues a woman. They move around and with one another in a stunning display of movement that conveys so much and captures everything. But what really captured my attention was the way the central couple dance with each other and the setting and the camera. The lighting dances with them to highlight certain moments. The colored lights create an emotional subtext underneath the dance. They move with and throughout the set. The camera follows them and interjects with them. It creates a push and pull with the audience and the performers that completely wraps us up in their story.

It was a revolutionary scene in its time. This was a type of filmmaking that movies hadn’t seen at the time. It was expressionistic. It was vividly colorful. It was elegant yet accessible. Gene Kelly brings his aggressive masculine style of dance to the ballet that anchors everything. Leslie Caron does things in this sequence as well as every dance in the movie that boggle the mind and seem to bend the limits of the human body. Every element worked together to create the grandest of spectacles. It is an amazing movie moment.

Yet for all its still and revolutionary technique, this film is not as well remembered as other Hollywood musicals. In Roger Ebert’s 1992 review of the film, he is almost disdainful of the film. He disparages it compared to Singin’ in the Rain. He gives it a positive review, but he seems to hate the movie or at least resent it.

In recent years it seems to have come under the fickle nature of many critical and commercial successes. People look back on what was popular and knock it down a peg or two for good measure. I think the film is brilliant and beautiful, but I do not think it’s as fun as most other musicals of its era.

Every element of this movie is tinged with melancholy and sadness. Not an overwhelming sadness, but an undercurrent that runs throughout the movie. Jerry’s relationship with his patron Milo, played by Nina Foch, for instance is a great example. She is infatuated with Jerry, but no matter what she does to win him over he will never love her, and the harder she tries, the more he pulls away. Lise the object of Jerry’s love, played by Leslie Caron, is engaged to an older man. He helped hide her during WWII while her parents were fighting in the resistance. That’s a tragic backstory to give that particular relationship, but it’s more sad when she begins seeing Jerry behind his back. She seems to respect and admire her fiancé, but the love isn’t there. Jerry is a failing painter who seems to be deeply cynical and angry at the world. His only joy seems to be loving Lise a woman who keeps him at a distance. When Jerry sings Love is Here to Stay to Lise on the banks of the Seine River, it’s slow and sad rather than swooning and romantic. In any other production it would be a grand moment, a sweeping declaration of love. In this film it’s a quiet and hopeless confession.

These story elements set the film apart from other musicals. It’s not a joyous wall to wall comedy like Singin’ in the Rain. Even another contemporary musical that has it’s own tinge of sadness, The Band Wagon, has a fun loving quality to it. This movie is completely unique in this way, and I kind of love it for it. This melancholy sadness reflects the time in which the film was made. It is a musical grappling with the consequences of the war and what the world looks like now. Gone are the simple mistaken identity plot lines of the best musical comedies. Here are love affairs and professional failures and existential ennui. It makes for fascinating viewing and an unforgettable film.

There’s one other element that I think a modern viewer with chafe against, and that is Jerry’s pursuit of Lise. He pursues her aggressively. She tells him no, and he continues pushing. She rejects him, and he shows up at her workplace. She blows him off and he pushes harder. Then all of a sudden she agrees to go out with him and a couple scenes later she is in love with him. In the year 2022 a man who doesn’t take no for an answer is not a romantic hero, he’s a creep. Kelly is very charming, and his aggressive pursuit of Lise shows a stark contrast with his pursuit by Milo, but it still rankles a little bit these days.

Overall, I love the movie. It made me feel complicated feelings. It left me with a sensation that has stuck to the walls of my head, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The story is not as strong as other movies. The musical numbers are incredible. The movie is a product of its time in so many ways. But I can’t help being drawn to it and thinking about putting it on again when I have a couple of hours to spend in this colorful and vibrant vision of Paris.

It is my cup of tea. A

Top Gun: Maverick

This movie blew me away. It’s one of the most riveting action movies I’ve seen in a long time. I walked out of the movie smiling and practically skipping I was so pumped up. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a while that makes me want to go back and see it again in the theater.

This movie is a sequel to the mediocre 80’s movie, but it is so vastly superior to that movie in every way that it is laughable to compare the two. The new film picks up with Tom Cruise’s Maverick almost 40 years after the original film. He’s an old fashioned man faced with a changing world. He is called back to Top Gun flight school to train a new crop of hot shots for an extremely perilous mission.

Just that outline is better than everything in the original film. This movie has clear stakes. It has a theme and a real story to tell about its main character. On top of all that the action is amazing! They shot the film inside real fighters. They have real weight and force behind them. The geography is never in question. We always know exactly where our heroes are and where they’re going and where the danger is. It’s a back to basics style of action filmmaking. Establish the stakes. Create clear geography. Throw a bunch of increasingly dangerous obstacles at our heroes. It’s absolutely riveting. This movie had me on the edge of my seat. I was absolutely enthralled by these fighter scenes.

Aside from the action the film tells a deeply compelling story. Maverick is an old man now, although you’d never know it Cruise has hardly aged a day. Yet Maverick finds himself in roughly the same place he was in the 80’s. He’s a captain who is highly decorated, but refuses to advance. He is stuck in the past. He’s haunted by the death of his friend Goose depicted in the first film. When he returns to Top Gun he is confronted by Goose’s son called Rooster, played by Miles Teller. These two have a history that pushes them both to the breaking point. They challenge each other and learn from each other through the story.

Maverick has to come to terms with the passage of time, and in one incredibly poignant scene with Val Kilmer the movie rings real tears from me. It helps knowing that Val Kilmer had a two year battle with throat cancer that took his voice from him. Seeing him in this film carries a lot of emotional weight on its own, but allowing him and Cruise the time and space to act and allow the years to fill the silence between them is incredible to see. It is a powerful moment that elevates the movie and makes true the old idiom, “I laughed, I cried, I was thrilled by the movie.”

Now it’s not a perfect movie. A lot of the dialogue is clunky and cheesy, and there are a couple of story developments that left me groaning inwardly wondering how they were going to pull it off. Surprisingly they did pull it off. I was totally in on this movie. It wrapped me up and pulled me through any negatives and sent me out the door flying high and feeling excited. This was a great time at the movies.

I know Hollywood will take away the wrong lesson from this movie, and we’ll see a whole slew of sequels to 80’s movies. But what they should do is making rousing crowd pleasing movies that give us clear action, good characters, and compelling stories. It’s not Top Gun. It’s not the 80’s. It’s not nostalgia. What makes this movie work is the craft of the filmmaking, the quality of the story telling, and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew. We need more of that in todays movies.

Go check this one out. It was an awesome movie experience, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s is my cup of tea 1,000%. A

Top Gun

This 80’s action film is inexplicably considered a classic. Sadly aside from some charming performances and distinct visual style the movie has next to nothing to offer.

The movie follows a hot shot fighter pilot, Maverick played by Tom Cruise, and his best buddy, Goose played by Anthony Edwards who enter an elite pilot school called Top Gun. At the school they encounter a mildly hostile by the book pilot called Iceman, played by Val Kilmer, and an attractive love interest for Maverick played by Kelly McGillis. Maverick’s disregard for the rules earns him some stern looks from the old guard.

As I’m thinking about this movie a big problem becomes clear, there are no consequences. Maverick engages in a series of dangerous and crazy stunts in the air but he’s never really in trouble. He gets a stern talking to then he’s back in the air. Iceman doesn’t like him, but their animosity never feels more than skin deep. Goose never challenges Maverick or threatens to leave him even after Maverick puts his life in danger. The whole movie feels so inconsequential that it passes right through me without making an impact.

What works in this movie? The performances. Tom Cruise spends the entire movie with a charming smirk and a boundless enthusiasm. He is fun to watch here. Val Kilmer has this million megawatt smile that is engaging. Kelly McGillis does her best to turn a trophy for Maverick to win into a real woman. The movie works best when Cruise, McGillis, and Edwards are just hanging out singing old rock n roll hits and being their charming selves.

Whenever they enter their planes my attention drifted. I yelled at my screen several times, “what is happening?” The flying sequences are so poorly shot that I never have any clear idea what is happening or why it’s happening. I can tell something dangerous is going on because the soundtrack tells me so, but I could not tell you why they were in danger if you paid me a million dollars. The action is incomprehensible. The geography of the flights is never established, so we can’t tell where they’re going or how close they are to each other and their goals. It feels like they just took documentary footage of jets and inserted shots of Tom Cruise in between. It’s terrible.

The movie has a legendary soundtrack that is pretty cool. Everyone looks great especially in the well known beach volleyball sequence. But that’s kind of the problem. The movie stops occasionally to turn into a music video for Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away. These are sequences that contribute nothing to the story. They are just a sparkly distraction that looks good.

Maybe that’s why people liked this movie. It is fluffy and light. It is sparkly and distracting. It makes no impact on the viewer. It just looks pretty and doesn’t challenge anyone. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you can find worse distractions. Personally I found it to be a fast paced good looking nothing of a movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s undeserving of its place in pop culture history.

It’s not my cup of tea. C