JERSEY BOYS: Foot tapping


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IT’S NOT A particularly good script, the acting is generally plodding and the story doesn’t cohere around anything resembling a core thematic idea, BUT… it’s got the elevating, exciting, joyous music of Stephen Castelluccio, aka, Franky Valli and the Four Seasons. For that one can forgive a lot; and because of that, the many shortcomings of Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” seem largely irrelevant in this foot-tapping, smile-inducing, got-to-get the record, movie.

Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is the uber New Jersey movie, with New Joisey hoodlum types cruising around in large open air Studebakers wearing Brando-esque wife-beater shirts, smoking non-stop and drifting in and out of petty crime. Even today, Jersey still longs to be back in ’66, when they could claim Sinatra, Valli and sundry legendary Mafiosi. John Lloyd Young, clearly chosen for his pitch-perfect Valli-esque voice and close resemblance to the singer, is no great shakes as an actor. With him, the writers’ flat characterizations seem even flatter. No matter, he’s more or less convincing enough to fit in to this troupe of wannabe wise guys looking for a way out of this wrong side of Jersey’s tracks but ever loyal to underworld king-pin Gyp DeCarlo (the ever reliable Christopher Walken).

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The track that leads them out was of course “Sherry” back in 1962. After that, the great song-writing duo of Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) along with Valli’s fabulous falsetto and dynamic stage presence produced hit after hit: “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “December 1963”, “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” and “My Eyes Adored You”. Eastwood, himself no mean musician, lets the music do the talking.

As the Four Lovers morph into the Four Seasons; as group intimacy leads to vexations and splits; as Valli seeks to repay the onerous debts of his fellow band member and one time mentor, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Eastwood stresses that the one element that helps them transcend and escape the often sordid reality of their lives was the music, If there is an unifying theme, it’s the power of music to heal…to “soothe the savage beast”

Clint sticks with his tried and trusted team of craftsmen: Tom Stern as cinematographer (who also worked with him on “J.Edgar”, “Invictus”, “Gran Torino” etc), Joel Cox as editor, Pat Sullivan Jr as Art Director etc. This combination, led by Eastwood, no doubt account for that particular look and feel of all his movies: solid, studied but not fussy, uncomplicated, somehow quintessentially American.

This is no “Mystic River”, but hell, after 38 movies, who’s counting.

BELLE: Sidney Poitier, where are you now?


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BACK IN THE day, when Hollywood was still struggling to get Black faces on the silver screen, Sidney Poitier became the white-acceptable face of the idea of the good Black man. In movies such as “Lilies of the Field”, “The Guest Who Came to Dinner” “To Sir With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night”, Sidney was the uber Black. And in a series of delightful movies, Poitier became the symbol of Black equality. His characters were not simply as bright, as cultured, as good as de White folk, but actually better. He was brighter, richer, more humane, more cultured, more forgiving and unencumbered by any trace of malice or rancour. Here were movies that had been crafted for the acceptance of a White audience, and which caught the zeitgeist of the long US march away from Jim Crowe to a Black, albeit hated, man in the White House.

And now along comes “Belle”, an entertainingly engaging, well crafted, well written, weep-inducing escapist fantasy that offers us an idea of England that is leavened by a strong sense of fair-play and tolerance; where racism can be spotted a mile away by mean, anti-social, money grubbing leeches, and where power was wielded by men of conscience and good character.

Yeah, right.

“Belle” is the story of the half-cast love-child of a British navy captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who brings her to be cared for by his uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom (Tom Wilkinson). What the audience is not told is that Dido Elizabeth Belle was just one of three illegitimate children fathered by Sir John (who no doubt courted these –slave-women honorably and with proper British manners).

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised to be a genteel, aristocratic lady (In the Poitier vein, she is prettier, more intelligent, and more accomplished than her peers and, despite being snubbed by her family at public social occasions, she is philosophically indignant, but unencumbered by rancor). As the movie would have it, she’s relegated to the sidelines purely during the consumption of meals when outsiders were in the house – and this was due entirely to the stringent conventions of the day that forbade good families having to dine, not with Black folks (no convention of the time would even have considered this) but with illegitimates. Fair-play England objected to her not so much because she was Black; it was, we are lead to believe, because she was illegitimate.

The reality is that she was treated shoddily by the family – above the invisible servants, but, as the person in charge of the household’s menial tasks, below the ‘real’ family. If in the movie, she was doubly free (from slavery and, as an heiress, from the need for money), in reality she was triply outcast – from others of her race, from equality within her family and without a real place in the social pecking order of the Empire.

But, hey, she was Black. On multiple occasions Dido refers to her blackness and Director Amma Asante is keen that we feel the pain of Dido’s racial angst; feel the agony and turmoil of what it must have been like to be in this gorgeous, refined, rich, desired woman’s shoes. She is, after all, courted, not for love, but for her money (a dimension that suits the movie’s theme of the dependency of women, but not really a reflection of any historical truth).

Life’s a bitch. Thank God, Dido is an independent-minded, proto-feminist.

But to be fair, for a man of Lord Mansfield’s status to have accepted a half-cast into his home, in a world as rigid and stratified as England was in the eighteenth century must have taken huge guts. One of the story lines in the movie revolves around a court case in which Lord Mansfield was engaged. It concerned the insurance claim of a salve ship, whose owners dumped their cargo (slaves), in order (they claim) to save their seamen from dying of thirst. As the story points out, the slave trade was the bedrock of London wealth at the time; to find against the claim could potentially threaten this wealth and wreck incalculable economic harm. How would Lord Mansfield, already ‘tainted’ by his relationship with a Black woman, rule?

Mansfield’s legal deliberations revolve finally around deliberations of his conscience. He must do what is both legally and morally right, and hang the consequences.

So too must Dido, a slave to the onerous demands of her society when a woman’s freedom to marry the husband of her choice was severely constrained; when both men and women could only know a semblance of independence if there was money at hand; and when social class was the only arbiter of career and companionship.

Notwithstanding the dodgy nature of the movie’s glossy version of race relations in London (we see a few other Black faces – as maids and nannies – but actually, as a port city, there were many Blacks in the city at the time; indeed about 3% of London’s inhabitants were (mainly free) Black), relative newcomer Amma Asante offers us a very confidently directed film.

She isn’t the only newcomer: This is writer Misan Sagay’s first major movie; and though Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been in countless TV dramas, this really is her big screen breakthrough. And what a breakthrough it is: she is a luminous, commanding presence. I suspect we’ll be hearing more of all three of these ‘new’ talents soon.

They’re surrounded by many familiar, always compellingly believable, faces: Tom Wilkinson, as Lord Mansfield, mixes stern gravitas with an avuncular warmth; his wife is the quietly compelling Emily Watson; and Tom Felton, cast as the face of British racism reprises his deliciously nasty character –Draco Malfoy- from the Harry Potter films.

So, in the end, this is an often dishonest movie that still manages to be an enormously satisfying evening out. The corny love story between Dido and aspiring gentleman, John Davinier (Australian Sam Reid) owes much to Jane Austen; and cinematographer Ben Smithard (“My Week With Marilyn”) bathes all the scenes with the genteel glow of a Watteau painting.

Take a handkerchief!

 

EDGE OF TOMORROW: Cruise in control


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LET’S START WITH the enormous, often insurmountable negative in “Edge of Tomorrow”. It stars Tom, look at me acting, Cruise. That said, those scenes in which he’s required to do more than run, jump, shoot and die are an absolute delight. We’re introduced to Tom’s character Cage, an Army Major who’s really no more than a cock-sure ad guy turned PR man (he used to run his own ad agency, wouldn’t you just know!) whose never seen combat and who now finds himself Shanghai-ed into a front-line army unit.

Set sometime in the ever-dystopian future, the unit is charged with taking the battle to the Mimics, an alien race bent on world destruction. (When we join the story, the Mimics have destroyed the Eurozone and are bent on destroying the UK. They’re basically Tories.) Cage cringes, whines, complains and tries to slither out of his new role as an officer who’s actually outside the office (bludgeoned by a heavily disguised Bill Paxton as a Master Sergeant)

We’re offered in these opening scenes a desperate, cowardly Cruise, confused, fumbling with his weaponry and stumbling around in battle pretty much as most people would be. Imagine Tom Cruise as an ordinary mortal! (And you are reminded that just occasionally, Tom can still surprise us with flashes of excellence as he did in “Tropic Thunder” and “Collateral”)

And as he engages us with this all too human Cruise, bang! Shock horror, he’s killed. Over and over again. For the story centers around the uber idea of how we can learn from the past to influence the present (hey, based upon the nothing we learned from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. we know this is mere fiction). Or in sci-fi terms, how one army major, having been splattered with the blood of an Alfa alien absorbs the alien’s ability to leap across time into an infinity of new beginnings, learning as he does so, how to anticipate and evade disaster. Call it Groundhog Armageddon.

As Cage keeps being killed and reborn, each time with more knowledge and greater sills, he morphs from an incompetent real person into Tom Cruise. Saviour of the Universe.

As Alfa savior he teams up with a supremely buff and fit Rita (Emily Blunt), the poster-child of the gender-neutral army of the future (As I noted, it’s mere fiction).

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Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) does a great job with what could have been a really very repetitive story. A really very repetitive story. A really… No matter how often Cage is zapped back in time to snap awake from his last death, the story moves ever-propulsively forward, with brilliantly executed battle and action sequences.

Cruise and Blunt don’t exhibit nearly as much on-screen chemistry in the movie as they do in the endless talk shows. But no matter. We’re long gone past pretending that Tom is a romantic hero; so it’s all action all the time with but a few perfunctionary interludes to pretend that either he or we care about their past traumas.

The aliens Cruise and Blunt have to take on are nasty, slithering, metallic, squid-like monsters. The high-tech fast-moving offspring of a forced mating of Predator and Alien. Production designer Oliver Scholl, who also gave us “Independence Day” offers us a credible image of a world destroyed, and of course those slithering monsters.

“Edge of Tomorrow” pretends to be nothing other than mindless fast moving action entertainment that has enough intrigue and ingenuity to be more than a cinematic video game. But what it lacks in the angst of Peter Parker or Captain America, it makes up for in buoyant entertainment.