Tag Archives: B

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

Grade: B+

Since we’re awash in Beatles nostalgia at the moment, it’s appropriate that Miramax is re-releasing the Fab Four’s first film in a restored print with a digitalized soundtrack. (It’s also a pleasant change that after so many pictures, from 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” through 1991’s “The Two of Us” and 1993’s “Backbeat,” which have played dramatically with the group’s history and legend, we’re getting to see them in unfiltered form again.) And of course there’s plenty of great music, sounding especially fine in this newly spiffed-up version.

It must be admitted, however, that “A Hard Day’s Night” hasn’t aged all that gracefully insofar as its story and cinematic technique are concerned. When it was first issued, Richard Lester’s feature debut–a jokey, free-association piece supposedly delineating a day in the life of the band–seemed innovative and a trifle subversive; its narrative non-sequiturs, absurd verbal riffs and flashy editing, drawn from the world of commercials and television, were faintly daring and fresh. Now, however, they seem rather quaint and musty. In 1964 the picture was sometimes described as anarchic, but from the perspective of thirty-six years later what’s most striking about it is the sense of naivete and innocence it conveys, even in the music, which is harmonically pretty unadventurous and lyrically obvious, though still melodically charming. (It’s hard to believe that the Beatles, in this early guise, were ever thought of as even vaguely threatening; despite their slightly long hair, they come across as the lighthearted guys next door any mother would love.) For true cinematic anarchy one still has to go much further back, to the Marx Brothers’ 1933 “Duck Soup,” for example. It may be stagey and cinematically conventional beside Lester’s flamboyant virtuosity, of course, but it possesses an undercurrent of avant-garde strangeness that all of the quick cutting and throwaway bits on display here can’t even begin to match.

If it seems a bit dated, however, “A Hard Day’s Night” still has a great many virtues besides the incomparable tunes: there are, for example, quite a few clever lines and situations provided by scripter Alun Owen, as well as the winning personalities of the stars, which come across despite their tendency to mug. And best of all there’s the turn by Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s mischievous, trouble-making grandpa. Brambell adds a touch of British music hall and sitcom magic to the mix (he was, after all, the star of “Steptoe and Son,” the TV series on which “Sanford and Son” was based). It might seem odd that his old-fashioned style works so well in tandem with the supposedly more modern mien of the Beatles, but as the guys’ last stage set in the picture shows, they actually come out of the same tradition, so the fact that they mesh with Brambell’s work is entirely understandable.

“A Hard Day’s Night” seems much less revolutionary than it once did, in terms of both content and technique. It now strikes one as very much a product of its time, but it still has many pleasures, not least the opportunity to see the Fab Four performing their early hits one more time. And the picture looks and sounds great in this transfer; fans everywhere should be most appreciative of Miramax’s efforts.

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS

Grade: B-

Universal has certainly hit the mother lode with Ron Howard’s live-action filmization of the classic Dr. Seuss holiday tale. His visually extravagant picture may lay on the whimsy and treacle too heavy-handedly (in the director’s characteristic style), and the narration by Anthony Hopkins is awfully restrained; but it boasts a central performance by Jim Carrey that’s so physically manic and verbally clever that he’s like a force of nature sweeping aside, at least temporarily, whatever reservations one might feel about the rest. In a pre-video era it would probably have been as much a perennial on the big screen as the Boris Karloff version has been on TV since it was first aired back in 1966; nowadays, it will surely enjoy enormous success this year at the boxoffice, then become a perpetually present VHS and DVD title and eventually be broadcast as often as “The Wizard of Oz” is. In truth, though, it lacks that 1939 classic’s richness and delicacy: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has a frenetic, insistent quality that in the end is rather exhausting (a result in large measure of the Carrey persona) and keeps it from fully achieving the charm and whimsy it’s obviously aiming for. But there’s so much that’s good about the picture–ironically, also the result of Carrey’s presence–that you can’t help but enjoy it, even when you’re a bit astonished at how far the star is willing to go and disappointed at how flat it seems when he’s out of sight.

Theodore Geisel’s little book had enough plot for a half-hour television cartoon, but of course its narrative line was too thin for a feature film, and so it’s been substantially expanded by scripters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. Their first contribution is to provide a “back story” explaining the Grinch’s comic nastiness and detestation of both the holiday and the Whos celebrating it; unfortunately, the explanation (which seems based on the story of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”) is merely to posit that the titular fellow was taunted as a child in the village, in the process losing the young girl he was infatuated with–an experience that sent him off to his hideaway on Mt. Crumpit and his life of lip-smacking villainy. (His hatred for Whoville is exacerbated by the fact that his chief tormentor is now its officious mayor, who also happens to be wooing the Grinch’s onetime beloved, Martha May Whovier.) We learn all this through the investigations of petite Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), a much-expanded, and considerably older, version of the tiny two-year old who comes upon the Grinch stealing her family’s tree in Geisel’s tale. Here Cindy Lou, disturbed that the Whoville residents have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, engineers the return of the Grinch to the town’s yuletide celebration–an occurrence which turns out badly and leads to the creature’s decision to steal the holiday spirit. The conclusion follows the ending of the original fairly closely, though, in typical modern fashion, it adds a lot of daredevil action and slapstick to the mix.

Howard’s film is thus reasonably true to the outline of the classic story, but the additions also make it very different, not always in a positive way. We see a lot more of Whoville and its denizens than in the book and Karloff cartoon, and while that gives the designers room for lots of clever sets and costumes (with a subdued color hue that’s suggestive of the illustrations in the book), it also forces us to spend too much time with a bunch of comic characters who just aren’t terribly amusing. Little Cindy Lou’s family–Dad Lou Lou (Bill Irwin), Mom Betty Lou (Molly Shannon) and older brothers Drew Lou (Jeremy Howard) and Stu Lou (T.J. Thyne)–are pallidly nice and goofy, and Jeffrey Tambor’s Mayor May Who is a standard-issue smarmy politician. The only local who makes much of an impression, in fact, is Martha May (Christine Baranski), whose combination of sultriness and style sets her apart. (The makeup for the Whoville citizens is also curiously unappealing: they’re given snouts to render them slightly piglike, and in the case of little Cindy, though her nose is normal she’s forced to wear a complicated hairdo which wouldn’t have been out of place atop Queen Amidala in “The Phantom Menace.”) But the real problem with the Whoville sequences is simply that they’re just generically jolly, rather like what might have occurred had Victor Fleming decided to spend a half-hour or so among the Munchkins back in 1939; such characters are fun in small doses or lurking in the background, but when they take the spotlight the result usually proves surprisingly dull.

Then there’s cute little Cindy Lou herself. Taylor Momsen, who plays her, is a pleasant if hardly charismatic kid, but most of the material connected with her reeks of sentimentality, and in the two instances when she’s compelled to warble sticky-sweet new tunes by James Horner, the result’s pretty stomach-churning.

And yet as compensation there’s always Carrey, encased in a Grinch outfit that’s remarkably supple and expressive, contorting his body into almost unbelievable poses and spitting out laugh lines that sound as though they might have come from a stand-up routine. (One can only speculate on how much the final script reflects his improvisational skill.) Carrey glowers and grimaces, leers magnificently, delivers an endless series of “who”-based puns, and engages in countless asides that sound like the riffs he delivers at awards shows and in interviews; and while some of his shtick threatens to turn into a kind of extra-character cadenza, he never simply abandons the plot in favor of a joke, remaining a deliciously nasty fellow (albiet a decidedly contemporary one) until his conversion at the end. (It’s great, too, that he’s been allowed to retain the song “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the Karloff version; it certainly puts Horner’s efforts in the shade.) Carrey also enjoys a great partner in his dog Max, played by a wonderfully expressive mutt named Kelley. Reaction shots of pooches are usually deadeningly overdone, but in this case the scripters have concocted some really good bits of business for the canine, and he pulls them off splendidly–needing the obvious assistance of animators only once in a while.

This new “Grinch” may, therefore, be somewhat deficient in charm (especially in the Whoville segments), and especially toward the close it overindulges Howard’s penchant for gross sentimentality. (With Clint, Rance and Bryce Howard among the supporting players, it also plays the nepotism card pretty hard.) But if you’re not allergic to Carrey’s machine-gun verbal delivery and slapsticky abandon (just think of “The Mask” and his Riddler in “Batman Forever”), you should find that his energy and desire to please more than compensate for the weak spots. And in any event you’re going to find the picture very hard to avoid–it’s bound to be on numerous screens of your local multiplex, packing them in, for months, and then filling the airwaves and video shelves for untold years to come. It may be a curious commentary on our culture that a movie whose main message is a criticism of holiday commercialism will probably be remembered more for its commercial impact than its cinematic success (just think of the dolls, playsets and burger-franchise tie-ins that must be imminent), but that’s just the way it is. And no Dr. Seuss or Little Cindy Lou Who is likely to change it.