The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Have you ever stumbled across a movie in a style or genre in which you would normally have no interest whatsoever, but for some reason you start watching and you are sucked in?

That was me the first time I ran across “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). I’ve wanted to see it again ever since, and it will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight, as part of Catherine Deneuve day in “Summer Under The Stars.”

When I start describing this movie to you, your first impulse will be to ignore it completely. Please don’t — it may be that, like me, you’ll be drawn in. If nothing else, it’s a unique cinematic experience

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is not a traditional movie musical — it is, for all intents and purposes, an opera, or at least an operetta. All of the dialogue is sung — in French, with English subtitles. (No! Come back here!) The plot is right out of a soap opera. A young woman, who works in her mother’s umbrella shop in Cherbourg, France, falls in love with a young man. The young man is drafted, goes off to war and is incommunicado, and the woman then discovers that she’s pregnant. Her mother urges her into the arms of a successful, middle-aged man — much older than the girl, but he adores her, regardless of her condition. Will she marry the older man? Will the young man return?

The movie’s theme song, a melody which is returned to again and again, was given English lyrics and became a standard, “I Will Wait For You,” sung by Tony Bennett, among others. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you’ll recognize the tune when you hear it in the movie.

This is, in some ways, the least likely movie for me to ever be interested in, but somehow I got sucked into it.

Pirate Radio

I’m watching a retrospective of the 1960s music TV series “Hullabaloo” and the Kinks were performing “All Day & All Of The Night,” which immediately made me think of “Pirate Radio.”

I’m sure I must have blogged about this movie back when I first saw it, but this blog is nothing if not repetitious.

I’m sure I must have blogged about this movie back when I first saw it, but this blog is nothing if not repetitious.

The Kinks song opens the movie, providing the backdrop for some on-screen graphics explaining the movie’s premise. I suspect these onscreen graphics were added for the benefit of the American audience. The original British version of the movie had a different title, “The Boat That Rocked,” and was edited differently. I actually have a copy of the British version, given to me by a friend, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it. I’ll have to dig it out some time and check it out.

The movie is a fictional story inspired by a true-life situation. In the mid-1960s, when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who were in their prime, the BBC aired less than an hour a day of rock music on the radio in the UK. So entrepreneurs started unlicensed American-style rock radio stations, broadcasting from ships anchored in international waters. In real life there were several such stations, highly competitive with each other, but the movie (while at one point mentioning other stations) is plotted as if there’s only one, which it calls Radio Rock.

Our viewpoint character is Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s been expelled from school and whose mother (Emma Thompson!) has managed to find for him a job working for Radio Rock. Bill Nighy plays the station manager, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is absolutely wonderful, plays the station’s most popular DJ, The Count. Nick Frost is another of the DJs, as is Rhys Darby, who played the manager on “Flight of the Concords.” All of them live and work together on the ship – imagine “WKRP” if everyone spent 24 hours a day together at the radio station.

At one point, the station brings back one of its quite popular former DJs, Gavin, played by Rhys Ifans, setting up a rivalry between Gavin and The Count.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh, wearing a moustache that makes him look like Mr. Drysdale on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” plays a blue-nosed  government official who is obsessed with shutting down unlicensed offshore radio.

Having worked in radio during my high school years and for a year after college, I’m a sucker for stories about the golden age of radio, before automation, nationwide chains and programming consultants took all the fun out of it. “Pirate Radio” is more fun than plot, but that’s OK. It’s partly a coming-of-age story for Carl, who begins to suspect that his mother may have had a hidden agenda in sending him to the ship. There’s profanity (including a guilty-pleasure scene where Hoffman’s character baits Nighy’s character by testing the limits of what he can get away with saying on the air) and some sex (once a month, the ship’s all-male-and-one-lesbian crew gets to bring guests on board). So it’s not a movie to watch when the kids are around. But I could not resist the energy and good spirits of the proceedings, and the ensemble cast is extremely funny, with Nighy, Hoffman and Ifans all just perfect in their roles. Branagh isn’t given much to do; his character is a one-note villain. (No, Branagh and Thompson don’t share any scenes, which would have been kind of awkward.)

The movie’s ending is a wee bit too literal, but I forgave it instantly.

I happened to watch this movie on an airplane, on the way to Africa for one of my mission trips. I still have never figured out why it wasn’t more popular; I thought it was really enjoyable.

Jazz doesn’t resolve

There are some books I read, and get very excited about, but they don’t necessarily stick with me.

“Blue Like Jazz” has stuck with me. After reading it, I suggested it as curriculum for the Sunday School class I was attending at the time. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to it – it’s quite frank, and even includes a little bit of profanity – but I think it was well-received, despite my lack of abilities as a teacher.

The book, published with the subtitle “Nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” is a memoir – not a linear sort of memoir, but something more poetic – by Donald Miller, focused on his experiences at Reed College in Oregon. Reed is one of the most intellectual universities in the nation, and also one of the most hostile towards religion. Miller went into that environment as a Christian, but also as someone troubled by the fundamentalist version of Christianity in which he was raised. He ends up finding a circle of friends, who are at various stages in their approach to Christianity. They end up recognizing their own failures and shortcomings, and the ways in which they hinder dicsussion about faith with the already-hostile student body at Reed.

The first thing I read from the book was an excerpt published in “Christianity Today” in which Don and his friends participate in the school’s over-the-top festival of debauchery, Ren Fayre by building a confession booth – and doing something quite different with it than anyone would have expected.

It’s a beautifully-written book, and one that stays with you for some time.

I was a little skeptical – and in some ways, I still am – when I heard it was going to be turned into a movie. The movie is being directed by Steve Taylor, who in an earlier life (when I was at college) was one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He later went on to found the crossover band Chagall Guevara before becoming a record company executive, responsible for making Sixpence None The Richer a success.

Along the way, he directed music videos, both his own and for Sixpence. And eventually, he wanted to try his hand at a feature film.

I still have never seen Steve’s first movie, “The Second Chance,” even though I was present for the filming of one scene. I gather, from some things I’ve heard, that it was a little more mundane than I would have expected from Taylor, who delighted in the sharp and satirical as a recording artist.

But when I heard Steve was trying to film “Blue Like Jazz,” I was intrigued. The film was about to go into production when it suffered budget troubles, and a widely-publicized Kickstarter campaign raised more than enough to finish it, and demonstrated just how much the book had meant to so many. I should have given something myself, but money was tight at the time and I really didn’t have it to spare. Actually, that last sentence sounds a lot like an argument Donald has with his pastor in a chapter late in the book.

Well, the money was raised, the movie was completed, and there’s now a teaser trailer:

I think it looks promising, although there are a couple of line readings in the trailer that are a little clunky. I really, really don’t want this to be a typical “Christian movie.” I really, really want this to convey the complexity and nuance that make the book so wonderful.

Noises Off

The last time my out-of-state brother and sister-in-law came in for a visit, Mike loaned me their DVD of “Noises Off.” I’ve never seen either the play or the movie; I’ve had several community theater castmates talk about a production they did a few years back in Tullahoma.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten around to watching the DVD until tonight. It’s wonderful. The 1992 movie got some poor reviews – Siskel and Ebert both gave it thumbs down – but I found it hilarious. And what a cast! Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker, Julie Hagerty, Nicolette Sheridan and Denholm Elliott (Indy’s boss Marcus from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”).

The movie, like the play, is the behind-the-scenes tale of the first American stage production of a teasingly-bawdy British farce. (Sheridan spends much of the play-within-a-play, and thus much of the movie, in her underwear.) We see how the various jealousies, conflicts and alliances among the cast members wreak havoc on the production – and since the play-within-a-play/movie is a farce, dependent on exact timing and the placement of various props, havoc is easily wreaked.

For the first third of the movie, we see the action on-stage, at a disastrous dress rehearsal which is interrupted periodically by the exasperated and increasingly-sarcastic director (Caine).  We’re introduced to the play-within-a-play and understand some of the transitions that have to be made and how things would fall apart if they didn’t happen smoothly.

The middle third of the movie takes place during a production on the road in Miami, and in this case we see all the action from backstage – as various jealousies and misunderstandings have the cast feuding. Since talking isn’t allowed backstage, much of this is mimed, as we hear the muffled onstage dialogue in the distance. This middle third is brilliantly staged and blocked physical comedy, with cast members weaving and bobbing around. There’s some wonderful business with a liquor bottle which the cast is trying to keep away from Elliott’s character, a British actor past his prime and with a weakness for alcohol.

Then, the last third of the movie takes place during a later production, in Cleveland. We move back in front of the stage. Cast relationships have gone even further downhill, with hilariously-catastrophic results onstage.

Of course, one of the reasons that my brother likes the play, and that he knew I would like it, is that we’ve both done community theater. Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as funny if you don’t have that background. But give it a chance anyway.

It’s sad to watch the movie now and think that neither Reeve nor Ritter is with us. Also, it was Elliott’s last film; he died in 1992, the year it was released, which is why he wasn’t in the last Indiana Jones film.

‘Wings of Eagles’ redux

I thought about just putting up a Facebook link to one of my earlier blog posts about “The Wings of Eagles,” and then noting in the comment that the movie will air tonight on TCM. But after looking at the old posts, I decided I wanted to start fresh.

“The Wings of Eagles” is a must-see for fans of legendary director John Ford and/or John Wayne. It’s not without its flaws, and while I’m fully aware of those flaws I’m somehow fascinated by the movie despite them.

The movie is John Ford’s lovingly-crafted tribute to one of his good friends, Naval aviator turned screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead, played by John Wayne. The movie begins with an account of Wead’s adventures in the Navy. Then, at the height of his success, he is felled by a physical tragedy, with a prognosis that he will never use his legs again. Over impossible odds, he partially overcomes this tragedy and learns to walk on crutches. But now he is a man without a mission. He becomes a writer, using his experience to tell realistic stories about military aviators.

When World War II breaks out, he battles the odds again, finding a way to help the war effort in spite of his disability.

The movie also tells the story of Wead’s equally roller-coaster relationship with his wife and daughters. His wife Min is played by Maureen O’Hara, who is always welcome playing against Wayne. She’s especially good here. During Production Code Hollywood, female characters were often painted in broad strokes, either as long-suffering saints or evil temptresses. Min is neither. She’s a real, vivid character, good at heart and strong, but with some character flaws. Her relationship with Wead (who had flaws of his own) is not sugarcoated, and it does not end the way one expects a classic-movie romance to end.

The complaint against the movie, and it’s a legitimate one, is that it veers wildly back and forth between hijinks and pathos. In the early part of the movie, the hijinks include Wayne landing a plane in the middle of an admiral’s garden party. During the second half of the movie, scenes of Wayne struggling to regain the use of his legs are interspersed with laughs about various well-wishers trying to sneak him alcohol through his friend and amateur therapist “Jughead” Carson (a scenery-chewing but not unwelcome Dan Dailey). The rollercoaster tone doesn’t always work, although Ford was deliberate in using it, saying the silly stories were just as true and typical of Wead as the tragic underlying narrative.

But the real reason for any John Ford fan to see the movie is Ward Bond, a member of Ford’s standard stock company, playing movie director “John Dodge,” as he is known in the movie. (Ford … Dodge … get it?) You can see how much fun Bond is having playing a broad caricature of his long-time boss. “Dodge” befriends Wead and hires him to write screenplays.

The movie airs at 9 p.m. Central on TCM. If you haven’t seen it, you ought to. It’s being preceded, right now, by one of Ford’s all-time classics, “Stagecoach.”

Where is ‘The Boys’?

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I watched last night’s “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” on the DVR. I got right up to the point where Craig introduced his first guest, Dick Van Dyke; I’ll have to watch the interview itself this evening.
Anyway, Craig’s introduction mentioned that “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray. That made me think about the fact that I still haven’t had a chance to see “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story,” about which I’ve blogged here several times before.
If you missed those earlier posts, Richard and Robert Sherman were staff songwriters for Disney during the era of “Mary Poppins,” “Jungle Book,” and so on. They wrote dozens of songs that you know by heart, including “It’s A Small World After All,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim-Chim Cheree,” “Winnie The Pooh,” “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers,” and on and on and on. After leaving Disney, they wrote songs for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and “Charlotte’s Web” and “Snoopy Come Home,” among many others. At some point, they wrote the pop song “You’re Sixteen” (You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine).
Very early in their songwriting careers, the brothers had a falling-out, and they’ve worked for decades as professional collaborators — and nothing else, having no other contact and raising their families separate from each other. A few years ago, at the premiere of a stage version of “Mary Poppins,” one of Richard’s adult sons and one of Robert’s adult sons, first cousins who at the time were virtual strangers, began to talk about doing a documentary to explore their fathers’ unique achievements and their somewhat-mysterious feud. They got Ben Stiller to sign on as executive producer.
The documentary came out in very limited release last year, but I’m waiting for it to show up on TV, or somewhere where I can see it. I checked Amazon just now and discovered that the movie is, at long last, going to be released on DVD later this month; that’s something.