Monday, August 03, 2009

Movie Monday Musicals

Ugh, our fake pre-fall has ended and summer's back with a vengeance. I would like to hereby alert the universe that I really want to go swimming this afternoon, as my shoulder is sore from bad computer posture and the death grip on the steering wheel while playing Dodge the Thunderstorm as I was driving home this weekend. Some time in the pool and hot tub should really help, and it's supposed to be warm and dry enough for that today. Why, yes, I LOVE summer and hot weather so I can do stuff like go swimming and eat ice cream. Really!

Now if you hear about a freak cold spell that no one had in the forecast, you'll know why.

I didn't do much movie watching this weekend, but I have one from earlier last week, so there's enough for a Movie Monday round-up.

Last week, I watched Bells are Ringing on TCM. It's a late 50s/very early 60s musical about an answering service operator who gets a little too involved with her clients' lives. She takes on different personas to fit each client, and if she gets a tidbit of info in a message for one client that she thinks might benefit another client, she passes it on. Along the way, she falls in love with the voice of one of her clients, a depressed playwright, and sets out to help give him a boost. Meanwhile, a misguided vice cop is convinced that the answering service is a cover for illegal activity and vows to arrest them if they dare do anything other than answer the phones and pass on messages. It was a cute enough film that was definitely a relic of its time, as cell phones, answering machines, voice mail, text messaging, etc., have pretty much put an end to the need for answering services except for people like doctors, but it wasn't all that memorable as a musical. There was one song that's become a standard and the others I can't even recall.

However, the main reason I liked watching it is that I love the alt-universe mid-century New York that appears in so many movies, like this and the Doris Day movies and even to some extent Breakfast at Tiffany's and that was spoofed so well in Down With Love. It's that sparkling place where everyone dresses to the nines for everything, with an extensive designer wardrobe. Even if you're just a secretary, you can still have a full Givenchy wardrobe. Going out to dinner involves evening wear, and the restaurants are vast and spacious, with intimate banquette seating (perfect for overhearing and misinterpreting conversations at the next table). The apartments are all palatial and full of sleek mid-century modern furniture, and they all seem to have that raised level in the back, like a stage set, along with an expansive terrace and a geographically impossible view with all the landmarks, in case we forget we're in New York. (Breakfast at Tiffany's at least had almost realistic apartments.) I think this is one reason I loved Pushing Daisies. It may not have been set in even alt-universe New York, but it had a lot of that particular technicolor world look to it. I'm fairly certain that New York wasn't really like that back then, and although I like the movies of that era, I know I wouldn't have enjoyed living in that era because of the ubiquitous cigarette smoke (gag, choke, cough, wheeze), but it makes for a fun alternate reality that's almost as magical as Narnia.

I guess I was on a musical kick because this weekend's movie was Mamma Mia. I've been an ABBA fan since I was in elementary school and thought "Dancing Queen" was the best song ever, and I've seen the stage version of the musical twice (but not because I'm an obsessive fan. I just had season tickets to a musical series, and they kept bringing that one back because it's a big money maker). But I was leery of the movie. I will say that it wasn't as bad as I feared, but I'm glad I didn't see it in the theater because I did have to use the mute button. The casting of the women was just about perfect. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski pretty much stole the movie, Amanda Seyfried has a lovely voice, and although Meryl Streep doesn't have perfect vocal technique, she really acted the songs, so they worked in context (I could enjoy her in the movie, but I'd probably cringe while listening to a soundtrack). She also seemed to be having a blast with the part, and it's fun to watch Meryl Streep be fun instead of tragic. But they must have had a different person casting the men because yikes, and they were generally actors I love. I will say that Colin Firth was wonderful when he wasn't singing and made that character a lot of fun, when that one is usually pretty forgettable in the stage show, and his voice wasn't all that bad when singing. It's just a jolt that someone who has a fairly deep and gravelly voice is such a high tenor when singing, and his range didn't really fit when he had to sing with anyone else. However, he threw himself in head-first and seemed to be having fun with it. And while I love Pierce Brosnan in just about everything, he was horribly miscast and seemed to be utterly embarrassed to be there. His singing falls into the "bless his heart" category, and what's odd is that they gave him the big songs at the climactic point of the film -- which were songs I don't recall that character singing in the show. So they cast an actor who couldn't sing and then gave him a couple of big numbers that his character wasn't even supposed to have. That was when I had to use the mute button because I just couldn't take it. The third guy was barely a blip on the radar, and yet he was the most colorful one in the stage show. Considering that almost all the ABBA songs have female lead vocals (and the show takes one of the few male lead songs and flips it around for a woman), they could have taken the approach of only having the women burst into song, since the story is a big female fantasy, sisterhood, finding yourself kind of thing, and then they could have cast anyone for the male roles. But if they're going to give the men additional songs, then there are a lot of actors who can actually sing. I think Scott Bakula would have been perfect for the role Pierce Brosnan played, and while I liked Colin Firth's acting, Anthony Head could have played the same role and actually sung.

One thing I did like in the transition to film was that they mixed up some of the musical arrangements. My main gripe with the stage show was that the songs as they fit into the show were almost indistinguishable from the original recordings, right down to the instrumentation. I liked the way the songs were woven into the story, but it would have worked better if they weren't so obviously just ABBA songs in their original form. The movie did seem to be more creative with the musical arrangements at times, so it was less like "let's stop everything and play an ABBA record!" However, when they wove the music into the background score, they made some really bad choices -- like having the bride walk down the aisle at the wedding to the tune of "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which is about a divorce. In the show, they use "I Do, I Do, I Do" for that moment, but the movie used that in a different place.

Overall, I guess I'd say it's a fun, happy, feel-good film, but if you're kind of a voice snob, make sure you've got the mute button handy. I may even watch it again while it's still available OnDemand, now that I'm not dreading it, and I can enjoy the good parts.

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