Sunday, April 19, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress(1995)
Directed by
Carl Franklin
Written by Carl Franklin from a novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle
IMDB Entry

Film noir was a genre of the 40s and 50s:  black and white films, very often set in southern California, with private detectives travel through a corrupt world and are set up by treacherous dames.  The genre died out with color, as though it couldn’t stand the brightness, but every once in awhile someone tries to made a more modern version.  Devil in a Blue Dress was one of those attempts, which adds a racial element to the mix.

Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is an unemployed factory worker who is given money by a stranger named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman.  Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is missing, as a white woman who liked to visit black jazz clubs, Rawlins is hired to search for her without being conspicuous.  As Rawlins gets drawn into a web of intrigue, bodies start to show up  and he enlists the help of his friend, the psychopathic Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) in order to get to the bottom of everything.

The movie is based on the mysteries of Walter Mosley, who wrote in a world where racial issues informed the world, an extra layer to the standard Noir.

Cheadle and WashingtonDenzel Washington has already established himself as a major acting talent, but the person who steals the show is Don Cheadle.  I had known him in the delightful Picket Fences.  His Mouse is one of the most memorable characters in film – charming, dangerous, funny, and capable of anything (“If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”).

The movie pretty much broke even.  Director Don Franklin was a TV actor who moved to the directors chair and seems to have made a success of it.  It’s a different look at the type of noir that, though usually black and white, is very rarely black.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (Ad)

In memory of Stan Freberg.

Stan Freberg was a comic genius.  He got his very first job on his first day in LA, as voice actor for Warner Brothers in 1944* and went on to radio and TV success.  In the 50s, he wrote and performed in a series of classic comedy albums.  His work in those areas are justly celebrated.

But his greatest influence was in the area of advertising.  He started making ads in the early 1960s, with his ad agency Thyme Incorporated.**  And Freberg did something that had never been done for advertising:  he made his ads laugh out loud funny. 

There were many ads, including Sunsweet Pitted Prunes (“Today the Pits, tomorrow the Wrinkles!  Sunsweet Marches On.”), including one starring Ray Bradbury (“I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories.”)

But the best of them was his ad for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls.

First, a little background.  At the time of the ad, Lark Cigarettes*** was running a campaign, where they’d drive through the streets with a sign reading “Show Us Your Lark Pack!”  People would hold up their cigarette packs.  Here’s an example:

And this is what Freberg did (the first person who interrupts the announcer looks much like the Lark Cigarette’s spokesman; the second – well, you should know who they are):

Johnny Carson has said that when the commercial was shown on The Tonight Show, the audience broke into applause, the only time he’d heard that about a commercial.

Freberg kept making the world laugh until his death a few days ago. And his work will still live on.

*In Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears.

**Time, Incorporated were good sports about it, referring the matter to their lawyers Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary.

***Yes, cigarettes were still advertised on TV at the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvey(1999)
Written and Directed by
Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall
IMDB Entry

Mike Leigh is an extremely well regarded British film director, known for serious dramatic films where his actors collaborate by improvising their lines in rehearsals until things click.  However, sometimes he lets things go and have fun, and the result was Topsy Turvey.

The story is simple.  After their play Princess Ida is a flop, composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and playwright W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) try to create a new operetta.  But there are issues.  Gilbert wants to use a magic potion as a plot point, but Sullivan, exasperated, points out he has used various magic plot points before and refuses to write music unless the story avoided pure fantasy.  While deadlocked, Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese arts and buys a katana.  When the sword falls off the wall of his study, Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado.*

The rest of the movie shows their work on putting together the play.  It follows rehearsals, backstage maneuvering, and adding and cutting songs. One scene has the group protest the cut of a song that Gilbert didn’t think was worth keeping.  It was “A more humane Mikado” (“My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time/To let the punishment fit the crime/The punishment fit the crime”), one of the highlights of the show even today.**

This may be the best representation of how a play is created, and it’s full of memorable characters, including the always good Broadbent and many others.  It’s a sumptuous looking film, with great scenes of Victorian dress and design, and is also filled with vignettes of life at the time.

The film is a delight from start to finish, not the least because it becomes a “Greatest Hits” version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s score, a perfect place to get a feel for their genius.

*This story was told by Gilbert himself as the source of inspiration, though he did write about fiction (and magic potions), so the facts should be taken with a grain of salt.

**I saw Itzhak Perlman perform it once at his summer camp; it was delightful.