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Takin' Off the Ritz

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Checking out Pennies From Heaven with no idea what to expect was an interesting experience. This 1981 movie is not the minor comedy we'd vaguely anticipated, but an artsy quasi-musical whose dramatic turning point involves a tap-dance striptease by Christopher Walken.

Steve Martin stars in the movie but didn't write it; Dennis Potter did. It's a very visual musical (an American remake of a British television miniseries) that replaces the usual perky storyline with a grim tale of the Great Depression. The idea is to make a point about the sorts of woes people were trying to escape in that era by going to movie musicals. Though set in Chicago, much of the movie was filmed in downtown LA; the bridges featured in several scenes, for instance, will look very familiar to Angelenos. The DVD includes several commentaries that go on and on about how original the film is. In fact, the components are spectacularly unoriginal: the songs are lip-synched to vintage recordings, various scenes replicate the art of Edward Hopper, Dorothea Lange, and other Thirties artists, and they're held together by an Arthur Miller-esque story as well as a very stylized, conceptual tone. And a tap-dancing, strip-teasing Christopher Walken, whose scene is as menacing and as funny as you'd expect - neither total escape nor total nightmare, but a perfect blend of both.