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Two Films: Brits Behaving Badly and Bits from the American Songbook

The Party
Versatile British writer-director Sally Potter has made only eight feature films over 35 years; films that have received radically varied critical assessments.  Her gender-bending “Orlando” (1992) was seen as a creative breakthrough, while the period piece “The Man Who Cried” (2000) generally bombed.  Her film “Rage” (2009) was a stinker by all accounts, while “Ginger and Rosa” (2012) showed she could handle young actors.  It’s been five years since “Ginger and Rosa,” and Potter has now come up with “The Party,” a dark comedy done as a tight one-acter with a kicker ending (The film, rated “R” and running a brisk 71 minutes, is now showing at selected DC cinemas).

The set-up is simple: present day, neat London townhouse, stellar Anglo-American cast as seven friends getting together. Vibrant, politically liberal Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting a gathering in her home to celebrate her recent naming as a shadow cabinet minister, though her academic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), seems stuck to his chair, almost moribund. Janet’s best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), then arrives with her on/off German boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). A lesbian couple, American academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her (very pregnant) English partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), show up with some testy issues between them Finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), a haunted, jittery investment banker, arrives without his mysterious wife, who for some reason cannot make the soirée. Champagne is served, but a jaunty atmosphere is undercut by hidden behaviors.   

Then an out-of-the-blue announcement by the ailing Bill provokes a series of revelations and recriminations, charges and counter-charges that gradually unravel all the attendees at the party, and a night that began with sophisticated chatter gradually veers out of control.

“The Party” is a sardonic chamber piece, with echoes of both a smart Noel Coward play–with its brittle exchanges–and an ominous Harold Pinter work–but with fewer ellipses and more dialogue. You know, going in, that this party is not realistic—the patter is too calculated—and you sense that its bubbly opening portends collective disaster. Watching that slow-motion disaster unfold is precisely the point.

Scott-Thomas is initially enchanting as the perfect hostess who eventually slides into wide-eyed panic.  Spall’s arc is the opposite, from infirm lump to emotional arousal.  The Jones-Mortimer conversation is tart and touching, and Ganz is mildly amusing even if his life-coach shtick is overdrawn.  Murphy’s Tom seems too over-the-top, but he is on drugs after all, while Clarkson is the film’s skeptical center, an acerbic realist who has sworn off political commitment and who gets most of the laugh lines. 

Potter was most economical in directing “The Party:” a week’s rehearsal and two weeks shooting fulltime in the house/set.  She herself has said that the film was “conceived as a ‘bare-bones’ film turning confinement of place…into a virtue. In a black and white cinematic world without elaborate special effects or multiple changes of location, apparently simple elements have to do the work of storytelling. Everything is exposed. There is nowhere to hide when working with the primary ingredients of story, character, light and dark, voices, and music. The camera peers into the shadows and stares unflinchingly at the faces of these characters in their moment of crisis…”

All I can say is that I hope Potter and her cast had a great time on set—perhaps boosted by real champagne in their glasses.

Aloe Blacc (center) with his Band-39 performs on the National Mall in “America’s Musical Journey.” Photo: Courtesy McGillivray Freeman Films, Copyright VisitTheUSA.com.

America’s Musical Journey
“America’s Musical Journey” is the latest of the Smithsonian-sponsored family films for showing in its museums. It is an historical travelogue in 3-D of musical creativity throughout the US, led by Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc, an entertainer with Panamanian roots who was born and is still based in LA. An amiable, good-natured guide, Blacc comes across as a John Legend clone, both in his look and, at times, his smooth bluesy delivery.

The trigger for the film is Blacc’s discovering the rich legacy of American music by visiting its wellsprings. Thus, in a lively, if necessarily hurried (the film is only 40 minutes long) tour d’horizon, we see him discover early jazz in New Orleans (emphasis on Louis Armstrong), mature jazz in Chicago, country music in Nashville, Elvis in Memphis and Vegas, and la musica latina in Miami, etc.  Besides Blacc’s dialogue, overall narration is provided by that voice for the ages, Morgan Freeman.

During his stops, Blacc is accompanied by a musical comrade, like bandleader Jon Baptiste in New Orleans, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis in Chicago, the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan in Miami. As with most travelogues, the brief stops highlight a tidbit or two of each city’s lore or landscape, including side trips for local food, landmarks, or history. Given time limitations, some major musical locations—such as Detroit (“Hitsville, USA”), Seattle, and Austin are merely mentioned.

History is most emphasized in a Louis Armstrong segment, culminating in a visit by Blacc to the Armstrong House Museum in Queens where he narrates—through some effective old images in sepia—the origins of American jazz. The roots of American music are traced to black field singing and the blues, these mutating into jazz, and its spreading via the Great Migration and the growth of urban communities.

Since it is in 3-D, the narrative accentuates some dazzling visual effects, like skydiving Elvis impersonators (“The Flying Elvi”), a flash mob in Chicago’s Millennium Park, swaying conga dancers on Miami Beach. However, the movie doesn’t depend that much on 3-D; in truth, the best three dimensional effects come from overhead plane-or-drone shots taken above the various cities (not for acrophobes).

“America’s Musical Journey” is an IMAX product of the well-known McGillivray family (Greg MacGillivray is the director), who pioneered IMAX filmmaking in 1976. The film, which opened February 17th at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, had a short one-week run in the 3-D IMAX format, but it is reviewed here because it will have an extended run at the renovated Warner Brothers Theater at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum in 3-D.

This good-hearted film carries a pure “G” rating, with absolutely nothing objectionable. That, and the fact that the storyline is essentially a basic primer on popular music history make this an experience for kids and families. In fact, I would argue that the perfect audience for “America’s Musical Journey” is a grandparent and grandkids, who could have something to muse on while eating an ice cream after the show.


Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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