The Delightful Documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway” Remembers A Forgotten Art Form

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(Focus Features)

“I don’t know whether this is real … or if this has been some wonderful dream!” That fevered confusion is sung with enthusiasm by a Wal-Mart employee in a fairly recent example of the industrial musical, the subject of a delightful documentary that I first saw during AFIDocs.  Director Dava Whisenant follows comedy writer-record collector Steve Young along for an obsession that began as a joke and became much more.

Although the term may suggest a tap-dancing number scored by Throbbing Gristle, industrial musicals are in fact a by-product of peak capitalism, big-budget song-and-dance productions commissioned by such giants of industry as Ford and General Electric, or by smaller, less glamorous outfits that manufacture, say, paper hospital supplies.

Young, a self-proclaimed “cynical comedy writer,”  first took this stuff as a joke.  How else would you respond to something like The Bathrooms are Coming!, American Standard’s musical survey of the season’s new fixtures, with lyrics celebrating a room, “That’s much more than it may seem/ Where I wash and where I cream”?

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Industrial musicals became a major part of “Dave’s Record Collection,” a recurring bit on the comedian’s late night TV show (Letterman appears here, post-retirement but pre-beard). Young became more obsessed with this corporate subgenre, its music produced for annual conferences or sales meetings and, as he explains, never meant to be heard by the ordinary consumer. As his obsession grew, he began to track down the people behind the music, becoming their champion and their friend. The movie plays like a thriller,  with quests and surprises and personal revelations meted out for full dramatic or comic effect.

Like no other movie, Bathtubs Over Broadway shows you the magic of record collecting, and the connections that the dedicated enthusiast begins to make as they dig deeper into the music’s history.

Industrial musicals starred such familiar names as Florence Henderson and Martin Short. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the men behind a Ford tractors musical, also wrote Fiddler on the Roof. Although the shows were made for a limited audience, no expense was spared; one Chevrolet musical had a $3 million budget, as compared to the mere $446 thousand that went into a contemporary staging of  My Fair Lady. 

Yet other composers, like Sid Siegel, toiled in obscurity, making a living in the scene but never breaking out of it. Young laments this injustice, admiring, “melodies so primal and durable that you wonder if with different lyrics … would everyone in America know this man and his work right now.”

As industry declined, so did industrial musicals; time moved on, the nation changed, David Letterman retired; as hilarious and dazzling as its excerpts can be, this is a finally somber movie about a changing America and the passage of time,  marking the end of an era whose like we will never see again.

Quest documentaries that put a seeker in the story can be self-serving, but Whisenant leads us on the quest with all its sense of excited discovery.  You might expect a man who was long employed by the nation’s senior wise-cracking comic to be smug about such things, but Young is humbled and awed by this material, and is determined to preserve it and share his passion with the world:  “It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, But we played a trick on history and we saved it.”

(Disclosure: Young visits the Library of Congress, where I work, as part of his quest–in fact, he walks into my old office! I was not involved with the making of this film, though I’d love to get a look at the material he dug up in the collection.)

Opens today in Washington, D.C. at Landmark West End Cinema. 

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Digging for Treasure: The Sisters Brothers and The Song of Sway Lake

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(Annapurna Pictures)

We will always look for gold in them that hills. Two new releases chronicle very different journeys to that end.

French director Jacques Audiard has a knack for the shaggy and unstable, whether it’s the Sri Lankan immigrants of Dheepan trying to navigate suburban Paris, or Marion Cotillard running afoul of the killer whales she trains in Rust and Bone. For The Sisters Brothers, his first English-language feature, he looks to an especially unkempt and volatile period: The Wild West. Typically unpredictable and uneven, it doesn’t completely take off, but Audiard finds gore and even a few grace notes in his American myth.

Basd on the book by Patrick Dewitt, the movie follows Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Riley and Joaquin Phoenix),  bounty hunters in 1850s Oregon on the hunt for Kermit (Riz Ahmed), who claims to have developed a formula that makes it easier to pan for gold. Scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down the elusive prospector first and at first plans to honor his agreement to hand him over to the brothers. But he has his own plans.

The brothers’ relationship is at the center of the movie; Charlie has the hot temper, while Eli, the older sibling, really just wants to go home. Despite the vicious blood shed by the brothers, Riley manages to make Eli sensitive and sympathetic; it’s kind of moving to watch him learn how to use a toothbrush and turn his self-consciousness into a measure of self-improvement, however small. In a reference to The Innocents, a spider crawls into Eli’s open mouth while he’s sleeping, corrupting the innocent and making his face swell up when he starts reacting to its bite.

But Phoenix seems to have less to do here; Audiard’s script, co-written with Thomas Bidegain, doesn’t develop the selfish brute much beyond the hard-drinking bad seed. Gyllenhaal is more effective as the curious and better-written Morris. More culturally refined, his is a more intriguing side of the Gold Rush, as the greedy sophisticate seems more conflicted than a pair of rugged mercenaries. His arc has more potential, but Riz Ahmed’s character also seems undercooked. Is he a snake-oil dealing hustler, a fish out of water, or a clever technician? There’s a more vivid character here, and if Ahmed avoids turning Kermit into caricature, he also doesn’t make him rise much above a breathing MacGuffin.

For all its violence, The Sisters Brothers is strongest in its quiet moments, when the search for gold becomes a kind of treacherous dream and the brothers reach their final destination. It has its missteps, and if you come looking for Rutger Hauer, you’ll be disappointed-; though he plays The Commodore, the boss man who dispatches the brothers on their hunt, he doesn’t have any speaking lines.

The Sisters Brothers
Written and directed by Jacques Audiard
With John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, and the body of Rutger Hauer.
Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content.
121 minutes.

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xlrsM0ko
(The Orchard)

A heist movie in which the priceless booty is a rare 78 rpm record? The Song of Sway Lake is a siren song to a fairly specific demographic. Writer-director Ari Gold spins this personal tale just well enough to steer it (a little) from its maudlin course. It gets its period music about right and paints a lovely portrait of its august matron; today’s kids, however, are less convincing.

After the death of his father, a record collector who helped develop his son’s musical tastes, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) breaks into his grandmother’s lakeside house to look for a valuable record: “The Song of Sway Lake,” popularized by a female vocal group, but, in its original version, a raw and legendary document, reportedly.

The tranquil lake was named for Ollie’s family, but developers threaten to shake up its waters with jet-skis and young ruffians. Ollie doesn’t much care about that; he and his friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan, in the role of Balki) just want to hang out and hit on the local girls, like Isadora (Isabelle McNally).

When Ollie’s grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil) shows up, she hopes to find the record too–its sale would help keep her going in the fight to save Sway Lake.

Most viewers probably won’t get a charge out of watching Ollie look through his dad’s records looking for gold and reminiscing. But that conflicted relationship with the dusty past has more going for it than some of the human interaction; What exactly does Ollie see in Isadora, after all? The matron is far more intriguing, and the movie gets weird when she realizes that her grandson’s friend with the strained Russian accent is a dead ringer for her late husband. (Gold does know how to direct a kiss, though).

The eagle-eyed may be surprised to see Jon Hassel and Fred Frith in the closing credits; the experimental  music figures perform on the score by Ethan Gold–director Ari’s brother. A strange and personal family affair with a good soundtrack, The Song of Sway Lake manages to stay afloat long enough to be mildly enchanting, but I wouldn’t blame anybody for rolling their eyes over it.

The Song of Sway Lake
Directed by Ari Gold
Written by Elizabeth Bull and Ari Gold
With Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally, and Mary Beth Peil
Rated R for language, graphic nudity and some sexual content
100 minutes.

Mandy Won’t Kiss You And Stop You From Shaking

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(RLJ Entertainment)

Another day, another Nicolas Cage revenge movie, right? But director Panos Cosmatos, with his blood red heavy metal Mandy, delivers what has long seemed impossible.

very good Nicolas Cage revenge movie.

What better way to meet Red Miller (Cage) than wielding a chainsaw. But this isn’t a weapon–yet. Red is a lumberjack who lives and works in the Shadow Mountains in Eastern California, and this is the tool of his trade. Nevertheless, if you consider what kind of movie this is, and who’s holding that tool, this is a textbook example of the dramatic device known as Chekhov’s chainsaw.

Red lives with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), enjoying a peaceful, rural life reading science fiction, listening to prog rock, and watching horror movies on tv. However, this woodland idyll is disturbed when cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a violent hippie with a Messiah complex, targets the couple and perhaps unwisely tries to plug his private press record.

Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) takes his sweet, diabolical time setting up his star’s outburst, but no director has set up their Cage rage like this before. From the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s menacing score, to cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, who frequently tints frames an infernal red, to the psychedelic  light shows that convey a really bad batch of acid, Mandy has so much texture that you want to scratch yourself.

For the most part, Cage’s co-stars are apt foils, the cult members of the Children of the New Dawn, including Richard Brake as their chemist, as hammy in their doom-saying way as Cage. And it’s a treat to see Bill Duke as the guy who has been holding onto Red’s weapons in his trailer, just in case.

Still, it’s more than an hour before Cage takes his moment and grabs it. When he finally does, it’s a magnificent sight to behold, an extended, delirious steel Cage match that gets more deliciously bloodcurdling with each evil victim.

The tax-burdened ham long ago took a career turn for the worse, taking whatever script that seemed to come his way. While Mom and Dad fared slightly better, giving Cage a chance to let loose in a sloppy satire, The Humanity Bureau didn’t even supply the kind of freak out you’ve come to expect, nay, demand from this stage in his career. All is finally forgiven with Mandy, in which the actor finally meets a director that’s as willing to go as over-the-top as he is.  The movie is available on VOD, though it’s best seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, in the Washington, D.C. area, you’ll have to venture all the way out to the Alamo Drafthouse in Ashburn, VA, or the Parkway Theater in Baltimore, to see it in a venue that befits its Grand Guignol spectacle.

Mandy
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn
With Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, and Bill Duke.
Rated R. Contains strong language, graphic violence, and full frontal nudity.
121 min.

The Nun Will Make You Pray For A Better Prequel

THE NUN
(New Line Cinema)

A priest, a nun, and a Frenchman walk into a castle. It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke; sadly, it’s the premise of the weakest entry yet in the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. With its vision of a cloistered abbey fallen under diabolical corruption, The Nun is an apt horror movie during a time of crisis in the church. Unfortunately, the producers of this usually reliable franchise have begun to lose sight of their calling.

Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate who has yet to take her vows as a nun, journey to a cloistered abbey in Romania on assignment from the Vatican. One of the resident sisters has committed the grave sin of suicide, and with the help of a farmer (Jonas Bloquet) who found the nun’s body hanging from a castle window, the worried travelers try to get to the bottom of what happened.

Romania’s Corvin Castle is the gorgeous Gothic setting for this battle between good and evil, and it’s the most convincing character in the movie. The 15th-century structure was reportedly where Vlad the Impaler was held prisoner, and such colorful history has made it a ripe location for various paranormal investigations as well as the 2007 Nicolas Cage vehicle Ghost Rider. Dressed in CGI decay, it front-loads The Nun with plenty of ominous atmosphere.

But screenwriter Gary Dauberman, who penned both Annabelle movies, doesn’t develop these characters beyond stock types. What’s worse, one of those types is mere comic relief. A show of hands: how many people think it was a good idea to add a rustic named “Frenchie” to this supernatural troupe? “I’m French-Canadian,” he clarifies at a climactic moment, and although we finally learn that this character ties in with the rest of the series, that doesn’t make him feel like any more of a real person.

Farmiga’s nun-in-waiting echoes big-sister Vera’s struggle in the other films, and her baby face suits the role of the steadfast innocent. Bichir, on the other hand, has a thick accent that’s completely incongruous with his Irish surname, which helps give The Nun the air of ‘70s Italian B-horror (while nowhere idiosyncratic enough to evoke giallo).

The two Conjuring movies spent enough time with its characters so you’d be invested in their conflict, and that tradition continued with the patient backstory of Annabelle. But under the guidance of director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), Annabelle: Creation. relied too much on jump scares.

With The Nun, director Corin Hardy manages some of the moodiness he brought to his feature debut the The Hallow, and the movie generates a moderate charge out of the abbey’s descent into evil. But this series that started so well has become less inspired. While this ship may still be set right with The Conjuring 3, another spin-off, The Crooked Man, does not seem so promising.

The expanding Conjuring Cinematic Universe began as a reliable sanctuary for anyone who wants their horror movies dashed with character development and graceful camerawork on top of unsettling fear. Yet The Nun, despite great sets and evocative visuals, threatens to make one  lose faith in the series.

A couple of announcements:

I’ve stopped running my weekly movie column here since it got picked up by The DCLine. Get your local art-house and rep news over there! 

And just last week I became an official Tomatometer-approved critic, so I’m going to start reviewing movies here to supplement the usual outlets. You can see all my reviews, more than 500 written since 2011 (as a side-gig, I might add!) here.

 

Popcorn & Candy: Why is My Body Roughing It Edition

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(Bleecker Street)

LEAVE NO TRACE

Teenaged Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) live and thrive in the woods of the Pacific Northwest but struggle when they are forced to live in conventional society. Director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) paints a delicate picture of a father-daughter relationship in isolated, rural communities. Their life off the grid is depicted without condescension or sensationalism–a less subtle movie would have been far more heavy-handed about the father-and-daughter’s encounters with technology; what most flummoxes Will is the bureaucratic intrusiveness of an impersonal personality questionnaire. The restrained lead performances, especially from newcomer McKenzie, carry the movie’s unobtrusive, naturalistic observances.

Watch the trailer.
Opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Row, AMC Shirlington, and Angelika Mosaic.

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RYUCHI SAKAMOTO: CODA

As part of its Wednesday Signature Series program, the Avalon will be screening the new documentary of the prolific and versatile Japanese musician, whose career includes collaborations with David Bowie and Michael Jackson. Director Stephen Nomura Schible will appear for a Q&A.  The movie isn’t currently slated for a commercial run in the DC area, so this may be your only chance to see it theatrically.

Watch the trailer.
Wednesday, July 11 at 8 pm at the Avalon.

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SANSHO THE BAILIFF

You’ll have to take a long lunch to see it, but next Wednesday’s the Freer’s Japanese Classics series brings a 35mm print of  Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 classic. Based on Saikaku’s classic tale of a samurai’s daughter (Kinuyo Tanaka) who falls from grace and the upper class. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote, “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”

Wednesday, July 11 at 2 pm at the Freer. Free.

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FRENZY

The National Gallery of Art’s centennial tribute to Ingmar Bergman continues this weekend with this early screenwriting credit from 1944. It’s a coming-of-age tale as only Bergman, who was 25 at the time, could have envisioned, “charting the ill-fated romance between painfully adolescent Jan-Erik (Alf Kjellin) and older, alcoholic widow-turned-hooker Bertha (Mai Zetterling), whose lover is Jan-Erik’s sadistic Latin teacher Caligula. Also screening is Crisis, Bergman’s 1945 directorial debut, about which he wrote, “I knew nothing . . . and felt like a crazy cat in a ball of yarn.”

Frenzy screens Saturday, July 7 at 12:30 pm, followed by Crisis at 2:30 pm at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium.

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ENIGMA ROSSO

Director Alberto Negrin’s 1978 giallo, which also goes by the more lurid titles Virgin Killer and Rings of Fear, stars Fabio Testi (Go Gorilla Go) as a sleazy inspector investigating the brutal murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl.  A presentation of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society.

Watch the trailer.
Monday, July 9 at 8 pm at Smoke and Barrel.

Popcorn & Candy: Distressing Damsels Edition

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Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson (Magnolia Pictures)

DAMSEL

The Zellner brothers’ Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was one of my favorite movies of 2015, so this self-conscious, precious genre subversion is a major disappointment. Robert Pattinson stars as a goofy 19th century pioneer who travels with a neophyte preacher (David Zellner) on a quest to marry his beloved (Mia Wasikowska). The dynamic shifts, drastically, but despite gorgeous locations and a score that evokes Popul Vuh’s music for Werner Herzog, the movie is stymied time and again by knowing, unfunny dialogue. Read my Spectrum Culture review.

Watch the trailer.
Opens tomorrow at E Street Landmark Cinema.

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Andrea Riseborough (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

NANCY

Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) is a sallow, socially awkward 30-something who lives with her sick mother (Ann Dowd) and escapes from her dreary existence by creating alternate identities online. When she sees a news report about a couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) who’s daughter went missing 30 years ago, Nancy is startled that the age-progressed image of the lost child looks something like her. Writer-director Christina Choe tells a potentially intriguing tale about deception in the age of the internet–look at that still!–but the central character  is too lost for us to want to follow her.

Watch the trailer.
Opens tomorrow at E Street Landmark Cinema.

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Victor Sjöström and Ingrid Thulin (The Criterion Collection)

WILD STRAWBERRIES

To celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s centennial year, the National Gallery of Art and the AFI Silver are combining forces to present a thorough survey of the Swedish master’s films –and yes, that includes The Touch with Elliot Gould (August 15 at the Silver). The National Gallery launches the series this weekend with a 35mm of Bergman’s 1957 classic about an august professor (Victor Sjöström) who looks back on his long life.

Watch the trailer.
Sunday, July 1 at 4 pm at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium. Free.

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Sorry, honey, I’ve never rampled.

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

My Critic’s Pick in this week’s Washington City Paper, where I wrote, “’Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old,’ says Philip Marlowe in the opening lines of Farewell, My Lovely. The AFI Silver’s tribute to Robert Mitchum wraps up with this 1975 adaptation of the novel by Raymond Chandler. Hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe is a perfect character for the aging, jaded actor. Set in 1941 Los Angeles, the movie is drenched in a neon art deco that was once the standard for film noir but now has all but disappeared from the big screen, much like icons such as Mitchum. Co-starring Charlotte Rampling as a rich judge’s young wife and Sylvester Stallone as a small-time thug, the movie seems to be passing the silver screen baton to the next generation. Despite a subplot involving a rare jade, Farewell, My Lovely is no Chinatown, but they still don’t make them like this anymore.”  Look for a cameo from hard-boiled crime writer Jim Thompson as Rampling’s cuckolded husband.

Watch the trailer.
Monday, July 2-Thursday, July 5 at the AFI Silver.

Also opening this week, the barely recognizable NBA all-stars of Uncle Drew. Stay tuned for my Washington Post review.

See Fashion & Finns at the Movies This Weekend

British designer Vivienne Westwood ackno
Westwood closing her show at 2007 Paris Fashion Week (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

WESTWOOD

Iconoclasts like fashion designed Vivienne Westwood deserve more interesting documentaries than this. In my Spectrum Culture review, I wrote, “What happens when a rebel is embraced by the establishment? Irreverent fashion designer Vivienne Westwood emerged from the shock tactics of ‘70s punk but by 1992 was awarded an OBE from the very queen at whom British youth sneered. Director Lorna Tucker’s profile of the designer is intermittently inspired by its subject’s world-weary attitude, but, hewing close to a familiar fashion doc template, it often makes Westwood’s life and work seem more ordinary than edgy.”

Watch the trailer.
Opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.

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(Janus Fims)

LE HAVRE

The National Gallery of Art’s From Vault to Screen series presents new restorations and infrequently-revived titles. This year’s focus is on Finland, which means rare silents such as Anna-Liisa (screening with live accompaniment by Andrew Simpson on Saturday, June 23 at 4 pm) and a 35mm print of this 2011 immigration drama from director Aki Kaurismäki. In a four-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that, “There is nothing cynical or cheap about it, it tells a good story with clear eyes and a level gaze, and it just plain makes you feel good.”  Shown with Shadows in Paradise, a 1986 title that is the first in the director’s worker’s trilogy.

Watch the trailer.
Sunday, June 24 at 4pm at the National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium. Free.

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(The Criterion Collection)

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE

The AFI’s Robert Mitchum series enters its final week with his finest late-career performance (if you want to see the lengths to which he’d go for a paycheck, read my Spectrum Culture piece on his 1990 sitcom pilot A Family for Joe). Mitchum stars as an aging Boston gunrunner caught between the bank robbers he’s supplying and an ATF agent who claims he can make him a deal if he’ll just snitch. Directed by Peter Yates (Breaking Away), this bleak, grimy, gloomy masterpiece is one of the great crime dramas of the ’70s.

Watch the trailer.
Friday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23-Wednesday, June 27 at the AFI Silver.

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THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY

(Listed this for the wrong date a few weeks ago.) Next week the Washington Psychotronic Film Society screens this 1988 drama from New Zealand director Vincent Ward, who in the ’90s specialized in an ambitious sort-of-magical realism with such films as Map of the Human Heart (which I loved at the time  but kind of cringe to think of now). Set in 14th century England, the movie follows a visionary young boy who instructs villagers to dig a tunnel to escape the Black Plague–leading his people into the future.

Watch the trailer.
Monday, June 25 at 8 pm at Smoke and Barrel.