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

The Absent-Minded Academy Remembers About Honorary Oscars

Since the Honorary Oscars got shuffled off to their own ceremony at the Governors Awards, the lifetime achievement section of the Oscar telecast has been rather perfunctory, and the selections generally less scrutinized. The Oscars may be a big self-congratulatory party for the industry, but at least they invite the viewing public along – it’s hard to get excited about the Governors Award selections when we won’t be able to get past the doorman anyway.

Today new AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs praised the relatively new format for the Honorary Oscars, saying the relaxed setting of the Governors Awards allows for proper tribute to be paid to each honoree’s careers, outside the time constraints of broadcast TV. I still think it’s a shame to lose that kind of meaningful recognition of cinema history in the Oscar ceremony itself, but I suppose she’s right. Especially when you’ve got three great, more-than-qualified candidates to discuss like the lineup announced today: this year’s Honorary Oscars will go to actress Angela Lansbury, comedian/actor Steve Martin, and costume designer Piero Tosi.

Lansbury has been a perennial candidate for this honor, and her name came up a lot last year in particular, when the Academy’s decision to honor four white men (and no women) received a fair amount of criticism. Though she was probably always more prominent on stage than on screen, she left a lasting impression through iconic roles such as her villainous turn in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She was also nominated for supporting turns in “Gaslight” (1944), her screen debut, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945).

Martin is a slightly outside-the-box choice that actually makes perfect sense, considering his history with the Academy. While he’s never been nominated as an actor, Martin has of course hosted the Oscars on numerous occasions, and has been one of the few to acquit himself with both critics and audiences on that front; he was also nominated for his 1977 short film, “The Absent-Minded Waiter.” But really this feels like a long overdue recognition by the Academy of the existence of comedy. Straight-up humor rarely flies with the Academy – sure, we get a Robert Downey, Jr. here, a Melissa McCarthy there – but at this point there’s no denying Martin as one of the most influential comedians of the last century. It’s nice to see AMPAS see that there was value in Martin’s ability to bring so much laughter to the screen over the years.

Tosi, meanwhile, has designed many a ravishing wardrobe over the years, particularly back in the 1970s when he worked with director Luchino Visconti on lavish pieces like “The Leopard” and “Death in Venice.” Since the costume designers have always been relatively open to foreign fare, he won Oscar nominations for both those films, as well as “Ludwig” (1972), “La Cage aux Folles” (1978) and “La traviata” (1982).

The Academy also announced that the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award will go to Angelina Jolie. Though her political activism and humanitarian work has become something of a late-night joke, there’s no denying the hard work and time Jolie has dedicated to social justice and advocacy groups like the Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Deserving recipients all around, so congrats to them. Is there anyone you think the Academy continues to ignore, though?