New Year’s Eve (Also Blu-ray) (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Garry Marshall, 2011 (Warner Home Video)
New Year’s Eve may be the punishment audiences get for making director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate’s Valentine‘s Day such a big movie hit last year. That schmaltzy, heart-up-your-sleeve, all-star show strung together a lot of clichéd romantic comedy vignettes or plot lines, each with big name mini-casts, against the backdrop of Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day.
Like many critics, I watched the movie, said a few nasty things, and forgot about it. Little did I know, little did we all know, that the damned thing would gross 200 million dollars and give birth to New Year‘s Eve — the latest romcom-arama from Marshall and Fugate, in which eight big star love stories are plastered against the backdrop of New Year’s Eve in New York, New York.
So what happens on this frantic nonstop super-holiday? Oh, lots of stuff…
Hilary Swank, who’s newly in charge of the Time Square New Year’s Eve Ball drop, faces crisis after crisis as the ball get jammed during a dry run (complete with Ryan Seacrest), forcing her to try and fix things with the help of a friendly cop (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and the only technician in New York who can handle this job: Hector Elizondo, whom she once fired.
Zac Efron, a bike delivery boy with lots of chutzpah, hooks up with Michelle Pfeiffer, a mousey dreamer who just quit her corporate job as a music company president’s assistant, and she offers him prime party tickets if he’ll fulfill her top ten wish list in one day. Ut’s no slam dunk. The list includes such whoppers as a Balinese feast, but Zac accomplishes it with astounding speed — unfazed even by the logistics of putting together an on-stage Radio City Music Hall review with Michelle, in what seems like a half an hour or so.
Meanwhile, Zac’s buddy, smirking artist rebel Ashton Kutcher, gets caught in a freight elevator with Lea Michelle, a backup singer for Jon Bon Jovi, who is also present and here cast, in a slight stretch, as a legendary rock singer. (He’s hell on wheels on “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”) Jon Bon, who’s providing entertainment that night (along with Lea), spends much of the day trying to win back the heart of fetching food boss Katherine Heigl, whom he fled last New Years, when he got cold “relationship” feet.
Chic mom Sarah Jessica Parker tries to rescue daughter Abigail Breslin from any possible Sex in the City with glib teen Lothario Jake T. Austin, who smirks almost as much as Ashton Kutcher (never a good sign). And Josh Duhamel, who got encouraging signals from some unknown woman last New Years’ Eve, wrecks his car on a day when all the mechanics are on holiday, and races to the city with some loveable provincials in a van, to try to find his mysterious dreamgal again.
Exhausted, yet? Well, two couples — Jessica Biel/Seth Meyers, and Sarah Paulson/Til Schweiger, are engaged in a race to have the first baby born in the New Year, thereby winning a $25,000 contest. And on another floor of the same hospital, Robert De Niro lies dying of mortification for having agreed to appear in this movie.
No, I’m kidding. Robert De Niro plays a man dying of cancer (not mortification), tended by nurse Halle Berry, and De Niro’s last wish is to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, from the roof of that very hospital. Naturally, it’s against hospital regulations. (So why doesn’t he just call Zac Efron?)
Each of the eight stories is about as phony and schmaltzy and star-obsessed as the usual big, glossy, big-studio, big-star romantic comedy these days, except there are eight phony schmaltzy stories instead of just one. Also, the movie doesn’t look as good. But Marshall and Fugate, as in Valentine’s Day, can swing back and forth between story-lines, hence keeping boredom at bay — at least theoretically.
By the end, everything in New Year’s Eve will be resolved and tied up in ways that should satisfy anyone who loves phony, schmaltzy movie stories, and several of the tales will have infiltrated each other for some semi-surprise climaxes. You’ll never guess who Josh Duhamel‘s surprise mystery women is. (A hint: It’s not Katherine Heigl.) Or which current or former New York Mayor shows up to help drop the ball. (A hint: It’s not Ed Koch.) Or how long Ashton Kutcher can keep smirking in that elevator, before Lea Michelle breaks into “Auld Lang Syne.“
I will reveal however that Robert De Niro does get wheeled out to the roof to watch the ball drop, in a highly improbable but amply telegraphed plot twist — but I won’t tell who wheels him up there. (A hint: It’s not Al Pacino.)
END OF ALERT
Garry Marshall, a king of the sitcom, godfathered TV’s “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple” and “Laverne and Shirley” (sister Penny does a cameo as herself here), before becoming a big-movie rom-com specialist with the likes of Pretty Woman and Frankie and Johnny. (My favorite Marshall movie is still his 1984 The Flamingo Kid.) There’s something likable about his movies even when they’re baloney factories like this one, and he‘s not ageist, like a lot of contemporary rom-commers. But I shudder to think what new holiday or national institution he and writer Fugate plan to waylay and ransack next. Christmas? Labor Day? Halloween? (What about an ensemble slasher movie with eight different maniacs prowling the streets of Burbank?)
The late Robert Altman used to make wonderful all-star ensemble movies like Nashville and Short Cuts and Gosford Park — movies that did exactly what New Year’s Eve and Valentine‘s Day try to but don’t. Though Altman’s pictures didn’t gross 200 million dollars, they told surprising, funny, intelligent stories with fascinating characters, and wove them together with gusto, artistry and ingenuity. These new holiday movies may be pulling in a lot of people (on DVDs as in the theatres), but they’re nothing special. They show us who they think we want to see, and tell us what they think we want to hear, in ways that we’ve seen before. If you took one of Altman’s ensemble shows, even one of the weaker ones, like Health, and ran it backwards and upside down, it might be more entertaining than this.
As it is, New Year’s Eve is another example of America’s rampaging star system obsession, or the tabloid syndrome. Ah well, let’s raise a glass and sing “Auld Lang Syne” for Bob Altman, the master of ensemble movies, the president of overlapping dialogue, the wizard of M*A*S*H, the pasha of Nashville, the Duke of Gosford Park. Here’s to you, Bob. Let me tell you: He wouldn’t have let us get stuck in an elevator with Ashton Kutcher.
JOYFUL NOISE (Also Blu-ray) (Two Stars)
U.S.: Todd Graff, 2012 (Warner Home Video)
Joyful Noise — in which squabbling small town Southern gospel divas Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton take their small town Georgia church choir to the improbable finals of the National Joyful Noise Competition in Los Angeles — is really two movies: one good, one bad.
One of the movies is a set of rousing gospel and ‘60s-‘70s rhythm and blues numbers socked across by the so-called Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir, under the feuding leadership of co-divas Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) and G. G. Sparrow (Dolly). And that musical half rocks and rolls with such show biz fervor and exaltation, such smoking songs and funky toe-tapping accompaniments, and such a boatload of talent headed by Dolly and Latifah, that the movie gets you to respond (and enjoy yourself) despite yourself.
The other half is a truly idiotic small town soap opera — or dramady or rom-comma or whatever — in which the actors pelt each other, and us, with cornpone clichés and phony show biz baloney, just as lustily and pointlessly as G. G. pelts part-time waitress Vi Rose with hot biscuits in the restaurant foodfight scene, Joyful Noise’s stupidest.
One of these movies (the musical half) is entertaining. The (the story half) other is ridiculous. One is Joyful. The other is Noise.
It was too bad you couldn’t have taken a DVD remote into the theater with you and jumped this movie past the clichés and the tommyrot — though the rest of the audience might started singing your praises. But now you can. In any case, we still never learn exactly why this integrated but combustible choir — from a church so dinky it might have trouble fielding a basketball team — got good enough to make it to Los Angeles, especially since Vi Rose and G. G. keep up a running verbal/insult/busybody battle from the moment Vi Rose gets appointed by Pacashau’s smug preacher man, Rev. Dale (Courtney B. Vance) to the choir leader post G. G. thought was hers by right, since her hubby Bernard (Kris Kristofferson) was, after all, the previous director.
In a way, Kristofferson makes the definitive comment on the movie‘s storyline (if not its music) by grabbing his side during the first song and keeling over dead outside the church. (Don’t worry. We can sense a ghostly duet with Dolly in the offing.) Soon after Bernard’s death, a hell-flock of clichés and inanity begins invading Joyful Noise like Hitchcock‘s birds attacking Bodega Bay. On and on they come, shamelessly, screechily, devilishly — including a stormy romance between two talented young Sacred Divinity songbirds, Vi Rose’s dedicated daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G. G.’s grandson, the aptly named Randy (Jeremy Jordan).
There’s an odd subplot (for a movie about a church choir) in which unromanced singer Carla (Angela Grovey) proves to be the kiss of death after a night of bliss (played for laughs) with her hapless but weak-hearted Asian choirmate Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue), who loves her not wisely but too well, and not for long. There’s the movie’s would-be juicy dialogue, including Vi Rose’s incessant jokes about G. G.’s plastic surgery and Dolly‘s Hee Haw-style crack about how trying to fool her is “like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster.”
One of the more amazing things about the Pacashau Sacred Divinity choir though, is their repertoire, which includes Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,“ The Left Banke‘s “Walk Away Renee,” and a final killer contest medley that starts with Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take you Higher,” and climaxes with Stevie Wonder‘s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Hey, I love these songs too, but are they gospel? Maybe Stevie Wonder could make it in with a little revision — “Here I am, Lord God! Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours!”
But does writer director Todd Graff (who’s guilty of both Camp and Bandslam) know what Sly Stone was talking about, when he told us he wanted to take us higher? And what if somebody tries to sneak into the mix some James Brown (“Get Up, Like a God Machine”), Chuck Berry (“Johnny (Matty, Markie and Lukie) Be Good“) or Rolling Stones (“Let’s Spend Eternity Together”) into the mix? Hey, that might be like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster.
Pillow Talk (Blu-ray Book and DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Gordon, 1959 (Universal)
This huge, lewd, sparkly 1959 hit –the first in the Rock Hudson–Doris Day movie series — has fun with serial seduction, sex mania, telephone party lines, Manhattan careerism, intimations of gayness, bedroom and bathroom gags on split screens (watch Rock’s toe in the bathtub scene), and other American erotic/cinematic peculiarities. It’s well done — co-written by Stanley Shapiro and by Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series cohort Maurice Richlin — and well-directed by Michael Gordon, a black list victim who had guided Jose Ferrer to an Oscar in the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac.
The movie struck it rich, and Rock and Doris did make fine fizzy chemistry together. She was a swinging doll pop songstress and a blonde, bubbly mix of sexy, warm-hearted pixie and plucky career gal. He was a big, hunky guy whose homosexuality can be read under his extreme baritone charades of masculinity. She played a virgin; he played straight. (Tony Randall, the third member of the series trio, supplies a fussy, wittily neurotic counterpoint to Rock.) And 1959 Audiences went as crazy for Pillow Talk as they did for a much better movie sex farce with a much more obvious gay subtext, the great Some Like It Hot.
Pillow Talk has held up through all these years and all those revelations as a sort of classic, and the best of the Rock and Doris movies. But we can never take it straight any more — assuming we ever could. The supporting cast, a fine crew, includes salty Thelma Ritter, nervy Nick Adams, ’30s-’40s stalwarts Allen Jenkins and Lee Patrick, a bit of Frances Sternhagen, and a bit more of the great French actor Marcel Dalio (of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game). It’s still funny, maybe for different reasons. The Coen Brothers once named Pillow Talk as their favorite movie. Sure, Joel. Sure Ethan. And my favorite movie is Lover Come Back.
Speaking of favorite movies though, one of mine , genuinely, was a film I first saw in my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin: Akira Kurosawa’s great black-and-white period murder drama Rashomon. By chance, my roommate that year was a Japanese graduate student named Shuichi. Shuichi didn’t talk to me much; he thought I was too young and too messy. But I was eager to talk to him about this fantastic movie by his countryman, and indeed, he was familar with both the film and its director, to whom he referred, respectfully. as “Mr. Kurosawa.” Cautious deference though — and not the intense aesthetic excitement that Rashomon had awakened in me — is all Shuichi seemed to feel for Mr. Kurosawa and his masterpiece. A bit puzzled, I asked him which films he did like. I was even more surprised when Shuichi replied, “movies with Doris Day.”
I was truly dumfounded. Movies with stars like Doris Day (and Rock Hudson) were precisely what I thought I’d neen seeing too much in the little Wisconsin village of Williams Bay where I grew up. Although I read Dwight MacDonald in Esquire religiously, sneaking quick scans at the local drugstore magazine stand, I hadn’t been able to watch more than a handful of foreign films in the Bay area, all dubbed –which is one reason I was so thrilled by Rashomon.
My own favorites then (and now) included some pictures from that foreign language handful Id seen (Jules Dassin’s French Rififi and Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish The Magician), but mostly those more ambitious and stylish English language movies I’d seen in the nearby theaters and on TV by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and John Ford and David Lean and Billy Wilder and Carol Reed and Stanley Kubrick and Elia Kazan. I loved movies, but I already took them very seriously. My all-time favorite (then and now) was Citizen Kane.
So. “Why do you like Doris Day so much?” I asked my very serious Japanese roommate, genuinely stumped. With a big grin, Shuichi answered, “Oh, she’s so cute!”
Well, what can you say. She is cute. So was Tony Randall. As for Rock Hudson, he played straight man very well.
Extras: Commentary; featurettes; trailer.