For Your Consideration: June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood is taking audiences on another trip down desaturated-color lane this weekend, with his adaptation of the smash Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” Jukebox musicals are theoretically a sure bet – they come with a nostalgia factor that ensures the built-in fan base of whatever band or musical genre you’re appropriating will be interested. On the other hand, that same quality can be alienating: what if Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons just aren’t your cup of tea? What if you yearn for the vocal stylings and fab hairdos of a different era? Sigh no more, we’ve got you covered with three more jukebox flicks.

– Ethan

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Famously referred to in the Village Voice as the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox musicals, Richard Lester’s Beatles vehicle is rather astonishing for the way it still feels fresh even after fifty (fifty!) years of the freewheeling, irreverent music videos it inspired. The movie’s flimsy excuse for a plot – mostly composed of the four members of the band running from their hysterical fans, while Paul’s “grandfather” (Brambell) occasionally stirs up trouble – relieves the songs from any kind of narrative duty, allowing us to appreciate the unflappable energy and sincerity of Lennon and McCarthy’s early songwriting: from the jangling title track to the tender “If I Fell” and riotous curtain-closer “She Loves You.” And somehow, amid the rollicking music sequences and cracking dialogue far more witty than it has any business being (the screenplay, let’s not forget, was nominated for an Oscar), Lester has some genuine satire on his mind. The straight-faced bafflement with which the Fab Four handle the ever-growing absurdity of their own fame would make Buñuel’s bourgeoisie proud.

Criterion recently released a gorgeous new digital transfer of “A Hard Day’s Night” with special features, including invaluable interviews and commentary tracks, that are definitely worth seeking out; Janus Films will also be releasing it into select theaters in the U.S. starting July 4.

– Ethan

“Pennies From Heaven” (1981)

Cast: Steven Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Pennies From Heaven” was a box-office bomb at its debut, almost certainly because audiences expected Martin, in only his second starring film role, to follow the success of “The Jerk” (1979) with another comedic vehicle. Instead, he and director Herbert Ross gave them this supremely sad, if undeniably gorgeous, Depression musical, which repurposes pop hits of the Astaire-Rogers era to reveal the existential ache and sexual longing of a battered and disillusioned generation of Americans. The choice to go with lip-synching over original recordings rather then creating new cover versions adds an extra layer of fantasy and detachment to the tale, drawing a stark line between the harsh reality of the characters’ predicaments and their idealized, unattainable hopes for what life could be. The original BBC mini-series, starring Cheryl Campbell and the late, great Bob Hoskins, is also well worth a watch.

– Ethan

“Moulin Rouge!” (2001)

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

No, you haven’t been drinking absinthe, but Baz Luhrmann’s chaotic, erratic, synthetic pop mash-up spectacular spectacular might make you doubt your own sobriety. Drawing from random 20th-century musical sources seemingly out of a hat, the Baz fleshed out an archetypical romance with atypical style, and it remains the flawed masterpiece of the Aussie’s particular brand of emotional, sensual (who-cares-about) storytelling. The first twenty minutes or so of “Moulin Rouge!” are a whirlwind of bright lights, over-saturated color (this is really the anti-Eastwood pick) and nonsensical madness – a fabulous rush of pure cinematic adrenaline. Then Baz tries to actually tell a story. But despite the treacly and unremarkable script, glimpses of that opening sequence’s brilliance continue to flash through, in scenes like the “Roxanne” tango and Richard Roxburgh’s insane cover of “Like A Virgin,” when logic gives way to a wall of sound and sensation.

– Ethan

Review: The Railway Man

Haunted WWII vet Eric Lomax (Firth) confronts his former captor in Jonathan Teplitzky’s intriguing but ultimately flat film.

The last time I saw Jeremy Irvine, it was in Steven Spielberg’s handsomely shot but overly stately and sterile panorama of the destruction and suffering of World War I, “War Horse.” He returns to my attention in Jonathan Teplitzky’s “The Railway Man,” a handsomely shot but overly stately and sterile panorama of the destruction and suffering of World War II. The boy needs a better agent.

Irvine’s acting chops have significantly strengthened since Spielberg’s film, and “The Railway Man” gives him much more of an opportunity to flex – there are only so many ways to stare, longingly and doe-eyed, at a horse, but as many a 1990’s BBC devotee will attest it’s no small thing to convincingly imitate a young Colin Firth. As the younger version of their shared self – British Signal Corps veteran and railway enthusiast Eric Lomax – Irvine takes on Firth’s precisely clipped elocution and darting expression, traits the older actor has always used to exude warmth with a stiff upper lip. But for Irvine these mannerisms are tested under dire circumstances: beaten and tortured in a Japanese POW camp in southeast Asia, Young Eric endures while Old Eric broods.

And while Firth-faced Old Eric may be, he can not liven up Australian Teplitzky’s clinically composed depiction of war trauma. More convincing depictions of PTSD have explored the notion of the past bleeding into the present – “Jacob’s Ladder,” perhaps most memorably, put Tim Robbins’ flashbacks in the realm of life-threatening horror. But beyond a few awkward and highly telegraphed hallucinations, Teplitzky puts too great a delineation between what is happening and what has happened: Lomax the Elder’s struggle for peace and mental quiet lacks the immediacy and urgency of the wartime flashbacks. Outside of Irvine’s sterling mimicry, the POW camp scenes seem to regard a completely different set of characters than the fumbling, repressed adults of “The Railway Man’s” ‘contemporary’ setting.

The story, nominally inspired by true events, is alternately plodding and disquieting. Years after the war has ended, Lomax remains haunted by the horrors he witnessed and the pain he suffered, sabotaging his attempts to move on and build a new life with the blankly pretty British waif Patti (Nicole Kidman) he happens to meet cute. When he is informed by a curiously omniscient friend and fellow vet Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) that one of his Japanese captors and primary antagonist is still alive and profiting off the war by providing guided tours of former prison camps in Thailand, Lomax is faced with what should be a gut-wrenching conundrum between revenge and forgiveness.

Instead, what we are given is the barest bones of a domestic drama occasionally padded out and enlivened by the flashbacks to Lomax the Younger. For three-quarters of the film, Patti repetitively demands – first to her husband, then to Finlay, then back to her husband again – that Eric open up to her about his wartime experiences. Considering we learn nothing about Patti herself beyond her fuzzy assertions that she used to be a nurse (whether with Briony at St. Bartholomew’s or Lady Edith at Downton Abbey, who can say), the Firth/Kidman scenes become a frustrating exercise in stultified non-communication. By exclusively revealing Lomax’s war experience through the Irvine scenes, “The Railway Man” robs the contemporary scenes of most of their resolution – we never see what must be a cathartic moment when Lomax finally opens up to his wife, nor much of any debate regarding his decision to hunt down Takeshi Nagase.

Even this climactic confrontation, which is so inherently fraught it briefly threatens to redeem the entire film, plays out so broadly it becomes hard to believe these two men have actually met before. Desperate to have Lomax and Nagase stand in for the larger suffering of warring nations, Teplitzky and his screenwriters lose the opportunity for a truly piercing, nail-biting character piece. This should be an actor’s paradise – Firth, sleepwalking through the majority of the film, temporarily flickers to life here – and you can see how, reinvented entirely as a bottled, two-man one-act, “The Railway Man” would spark. Tired platitudes and yet more flashbacks simply bog it down.

Still, given the weight of his subject and his undeniably impeccable craft, Teplitzky stumbles into moments of great power. The most striking, to me, takes place in an early scene, wherein some Thai villagers attempt to relieve the plight of the British POWs, trapped inside railway cars on their way to their labor camp. These nameless Samaritans offer water to the Brits’ cupped hands until the Japanese officers take notice and beat the villagers back – at which point Teplitzky lingers on a shot of the prisoners’ outstretched arms slowly, dejectedly slithering back into their cage. It’s an unexpected, uneasy image, part “Shoah” and part Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Another, very brief scene, in which Lomax stalks Nagase through a Buddhist temple, is likewise all the more subtle in its wordlessness.

Too often, however, Teplitzky’s influences are more transparent: “Apocalypse Now” and, of course, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” get their obvious visual nods. You might think, considering how close this film’s narrative hews to the latter, that the writers would steadfastly avoid using the “m”-word, but no such luck.

For the most part, in other words, “The Railway Man” opts for the easy choices. It knows it can score emotional points both with sudden brutality and the promise of redemption, and it sticks to that script. This is a story that raises many of the dark complexities of war, addressed in classic, immaculately framed style. The risk of such tasteful filmmaking is that it can turn out so awfully bland.

It was playing for a weekend in the tiny theater in Bucksport, Maine. That’s basically going to be the story of this summer for me, guys.

Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars