Category: Musicals


LesMiserables2012-1

Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

LesMiserables2012-2

For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

LesMiserables2012-3

I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

LesMiserables2012-4

But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

LesMiserables2012-5

Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

Advertisements

BillyRose'sJumbo1

Long time readers know that I have a soft spot in my heart for musicals. I used to review Glee eery week (I’m ridiculously far behind on that show and need to catch up. Like, I’m probably around six or so episodes back if not more). Because my mother exposed me to the movie Grease at a young age (it’s honestly one of the first non-animated movies that I can remember really becoming attached to) and I just have a naturally theatrical disposition, I love musicals. I can’t help it. However, I’m also completely aware of most of the problems musicals face in terms of structure, story, character, etc., and this may seem shocking but I’m not really crazy about many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals of the 40s through 60s. Heresy, I know. By no means is 1962’s Billy Rose’s Jumbo a great movie (and honestly it barely qualifies to be a good one), but there’s just something about the spectacle of the film that I couldn’t help but find charming.

The Wonder Circus, led by Pop Wonder (Jimmy Durante) and Kitty (Teacher’s Pet‘s Doris Day), is on the verge of going under. Pop Wonder has a bit of a gambling problem, and the performers haven’t been paid in weeks and many are quitting the show. To make matters worse, the circus is hounded by a legion of creditors that Pop Wonder and Kitty have to appease just to stay afloat. And a rival circus family is after the star attraction of the Wonder Circus, the trained elephant Jumbo. Kitty’s level-head is the only thing holding the traveling company together. When the circus lays its stakes in a new town, one of their star performers quits the show and he’s replaced by the mysterious Sam Rollins (Stephen Boyd). Sam and Kitty quickly hit it off, but Sam is hiding something, and that secret might tear the Wonder Circus down with it.

BillyRose'sJumbo2

Every musical is only as good as the music in it (I think I’ve used that exact sentence in other reviews. Ruh roh rooby.), and in that regard, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was just okay. It had a handful of memorable tunes. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” springs immediately to mind as well as “This Can’t Be Love.” But most of the tunes were sort of forgettable, and one of the songs, “My Romance,” which is one of Rodgers and Harts’s most well-known tunes just seemed kind of chintzy to me. So, while the book of the film (i.e. the music & lyrics for non-theatre types in the room) wasn’t spectacular, the movie saved itself with choreography and splendor that can only be described as magical. When the film captures the childlike innocence and majesty of the circus, it is a delight, and one wishes that the music was as memorable and charming as all of the action unfolding on screen.

The performances were also the film’s strong suit. Doris Day had a surprisingly strong and impressive voice and although I don’t remember many of the songs she sang (and I watched the film earlier today), I certainly enjoyed listening to her dulcet tones and though I knew this from Teacher’s Pet, she had decent comedic timing. Although, she seemed kind of old to be playing Kitty. She was 38… so yeah. The real scene-stealers though were Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye (who played Pop Wonder’s dim-witted fortune-telling fiancee). Jimmy Durante had great comedic chops, and he became the lovable loser at the heart of the film that I cared about even though he was destroying the business he’d spent his whole life building. And Martha Raye was arguably the only character that had me laughing out loud during moments where she volunteered to be shot out of a cannon or pined for Pop Wonder’s affection.

BillyRose'sJumbo3

If you like old-style 1960s/1950s musicals like Gypsy or Babes in Arms, you’ll find something to enjoy in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. It is undeniably charming, and if you have any bit of your childhood self left in you, it’s very easy to be entranced by the circus aspects of the film. But, if you’re not a musical fan or you only watch the more mature, nuanced musicals of the last twenty years or so, you should probably avoid this film. You aren’t going to find much to attach yourself to here. But, as someone who can shed my intellectual pretenses and just get lost in good music, impressive dancing, and flashy set pieces, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was a delight no matter how much my brain tried to tell me it shouldn’t be.

Final Score: B-

 

BabesInArms1

Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s  Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.

When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.

BabesInArms3

Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.

Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.

BabesInArms2

The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).

Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.

Final Score: B

I’ve got a page on this blog dedicated just to requests that people can make for movies/TV shows they want me to review. It doesn’t get used very often, and half of the requests have actually been made via my Facebook page instead of my actual blog. But because it happens so rarely, I do always make the effort to review the movies that have been requested (Cinema Paradiso, Moon, The Court Jester, Road to Rio, and The Place Promised In Our Early Days). For the last two months, one of the requested movies has been sitting in my living room in its Netflix envelope as I went an extended period without reviewing a single film from Netflix. Generally speaking, the quality of the films I’ve reviewed that others have told me to watch has been good (except for Road to Rio). However, the 1972 musical 1776 recounting the battle over America declaring its independence from Great Britain jumped back and forth over the line of being an unmitigated disaster or being simply unremarkable. It may have had its moments (that almost all seemed to involve Howard de Silva’s Ben Franklin), but I can’t recommend this film to even the most ardent history buffs.

In May of 1776, John Adams (William Daniels akaBoy Meets World’s Mr. Feeney aka the man whose voice will make me listen to everything he says like it’s the most important lesson in the world) is mourning the fact that no one in the Continental Congress will listen to his pleas to officially declare Independence from England. As Ben Franklin is fond of reminding him, he’s obnoxious and unliked, and generally no one gives a shit as to what he says. Honestly, any description of the plot of this film is going to devolve into me giving a history lesson that everybody else knows (f you paid any attention in school whatsoever). The entire Southern delegation is loyal to the crown because it’s more economically advantageous for them to remain friendly with England, and most of the middle states (especially Pennsylvania) don’t wish to rock the boat and commit treason (thereby opening themselves up to the very real risk of execution by the British if their revolution fails). When Franklin convinces Adams to let another delegate introduce the measure, the Continental Congress finally agrees to debate the measure and the film follows the blow-by-blow of 18th century legislative hearings with a never-ending stream of musical numbers.

Since the movie is a musical and it can’t go more than 15 minutes without a massive Stephen Sondheim-esque number (though without any of Sondheim’s inspiration), it’s only fair to judge the film heavily on the quality of its musical performances. Unfortunately, in that regard, it’s a total dud. Imagine all of the worst excess of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta without any of their wit, and you’ve got the never-ending songs from this film. I can’t remember a single melody from the songs nor the words to any song. They were all completely forgettable and outright boring. I don’t blame the performers. The movie’s cast was culled almost entirely from the original Broadway production and all of the tenors, baritones, and altos all sound great in that classical musical style, but the music and lyrics they’ve been given are terribly mediocre at best and simply terrible at worst. However, there was one moment during one of the film’s musical numbers where I began to laugh uncontrollably so there was one bright spot. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and others are singing about who should write the Declaration of Independence and at one point there’s a chorus of Ben Franklin (and two other historical figures) singing the phrase “sexual combustibility” referring to how Jefferson hadn’t been intimate with his wife in six months. That was pretty great.

Not only were the musical numbers almost all unbearable, they would kill the momentum of the historical and political drama on display. I’m a history buff, and while I’ve seen plenty of the scenes in this film played out in documentaries or in text books, there were honestly moments when I found myself engrossed in the intellectual and philosophical debates that our heroes were engaged in. The film captured just how tedious and absurd the ratification process for the Declaration was (which ultimately hurt the film’s pacing on occasion), and for people who enjoy history, those moments were intriguing. But, when people are having an honest ethical debate about whether we as a nation could afford to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to pass the Declaration of Independence only to burst out into a song, it ruins the whole moment. The film runs for nearly three hours, and there was honestly at least 45 minutes of material that could have been cut out of the film that would have resulted in it being a much more enjoyable experience. Rather it became a test of wills to see how many dull songs you could sit through and how many filler scenes of flat comedy you could endure before you got a intriguing moment about the birth of our nation.

The film’s redeeming qualities (its ability to poke fun at the fallibility of our founders even when they’re presented in a heroic light [i.e. Franklin’s womanizing], its display of the philosophical debates that framed our founding, great performances from William Daniels, Howard de Silva, and Ken Howard) could not even come close to redeeming its mountain of problems. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to do a lavish Broadway revue of the Founding (and maybe in better hands, it could have been done well), but under Peter Stone’s source material (which somehow managed to win a Pulitzer Prize as a play), 1776 can only be recommended to the most die-hard musical fans simply because of its status as a classic of the American canon. Everyone else should stick to their text books.

Final Score: C

If you haven’t checked out my reviews of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you should probably know that I’m a big fan of the hippie culture (even if Hunter S. Thompson was exploring why hippie culture essentially went out of existence) and the acid subculture that grew out of the late 1960’s. Also the fact that I’ve reviewed every single episode of Glee should be a clue that I love musicals. So, I’ve known about the existence of Hair, the classic counter-culture musical from the 1960’s celebrating the hippie lifestyle and the peace movement, pretty much my entire life. I also knew that there was a movie made in the late ’70s that was a very loose adaptation of the stage play directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus). Well, as luck would have it, the film version of Hair was the next movie in my instant queue for Netflix. While it’s far from the best musical I’ve ever watched, it still had an awesome soundtrack and was a surprisingly tragic mix of comedy and drama, and for fans of fun movie musicals, Hair might run a little long, but it’s worth your time.

 

Set at the height of the Vietnam War, Hair is about a group of hippies living in Central Park led by the charismatic Berger (Treat Williams) and their newest friend, Claude Butowski (Carnivale‘s John Savage). Claude is an innocent and naive Okie (that may or may not be from Muskogie [yuk yuk yuk]) who has come to New York for a three day stay before being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. As Claude befriends these hippies and experiments with drugs for the first time, he learns that there’s more to life than the straight and narrow conventional American life he had been living. In the park, Claude also meets Sheila (National Lampoon‘s Beverly D’Angelo), a society debutante who is also struggling with her place in society. After the fun in NY ends, Claude is still forced to ship off to Nevada for basic training. The hippies plan one final trip down to Nevada to say goodbye to their new friend, but when tragedy strikes, they have to learn that the darkness infesting our society in the 60’s can hit everyone even if you try to isolate yourself from it.

A musical is defined by its songs, and Hair has fantastic performances in Spades. “Age of Aquarius” is a classic hit (and remains my favorite section of 40 Year Old Virgin). The title track is another single that has stood the test of time, as well as “Easy to Be Hard” which I seem to remember from one of my dad’s CD’s but I can’t remember each one. I think Three Dog Night covered it, but it may have been someone else on the Once Upon a Song ballad CD he had (great compilation album btw). Not every song is a homerun, but there are so many (and they almost all fit in the rock/soul opera vein) that you don’t care when one song drags on a little too long or isn’t as instantly singable as “Age of Aquarius”. The main cast all have great voices and Treat Williams was a real find as Berger. The costume work on the film was also phenomenal as you really felt like you were looking at authentic wear from the hippie era. I want to dress like that in real life.

The movie overstays its welcome at times, and there are definitely moments when it is just a little too silly for its own good (the acid trip sequence seems like it was written by someone who had never actually done acid) but hey, it’s a movie about hippies. It’s supposed to be a little out there. Even with all of its flaws, it still manages to capture the peace and love of the era while showing the darker realities that were just waiting to explode beneath the surface. If you like hippies or musicals, Hair is a delicious trip back into a more innocent era with some messages that remain relevant in today’s day and age. While much of what the hippies believed in seems fairly silly in retrospect, their appreciation of love and the common humanity that binds us together means that there still plenty of valuable lessons we can gleam from their bohemian lifestyles.

Final Score: B+

One of the first things I was forced to learn as a film critic was that I had to distance the quality of any single performance in a movie from the over all quality of the film. A show-stopping Daniel Day Lewis caliber role has to be seen as only one of many parts in the total value of a picture. David Lynch’s direction in Inland Empire was inspiring and Laura Dern inhabited her character in terrifying ways, but there’s almost no denying that the script itself was fairly outrageous and practically impossible to follow (though that was also Lynch’s intention). Take away Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness and you are left with a terribly conventional Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson’s incendiary comic (and eventually for MacLaine, heart-wrenchingly dramatic) performances saved Terms of Endearment from being complete and utter melodramatic drivel. I recently finished the 1956 film, The Court Jester, and while Danny Kaye’s comedic and musical chops are unquestionable, the actual  film faltered on a basic inability to decide what kind of film it wished to be and delivered the promised laughs far too rarely.

A spoof of Errol Flynn swashbuckling hero films (most specifically Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), the movie spins the tale of a fictional king in medieval England and the band of outlaws trying to restore justice. King Roderick (Cecil Parker) usurped the throne from the true heir, an infant with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his behind. Ferried away from the castle by loyalists to the true royal family, the heir is now in the protection of an outlaw band led by the Robin Hood stand-in, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley). Employed by the outlaws as both the heir’s nanny as well as entertainment for the band, Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a bumbling carnival performer who quickly finds himself swept up in the final plot to dethrone the pretender King Roderick. Along with the help of the beautiful but deadly Maid Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s chief lieutenant, Hawkins infiltrates the castle posing as the new Court Jester, Giacomo the Incomparable, and gets caught up in assassination conspiracies, the hypnotic schemings of a witch, and more medieval action scenarios than you can shake a stick at.

Danny Kaye is possibly the very definition of comic energy. Able to quickly morph from a riveting musical number with a troupe of dwarves to Gilbert & Sullivan style tongue twisters to a variety of distinct characters all with their own unique humor and identity to a pitch perfect parody of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks heroes of old, he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a beautiful voice and a natural charisma and humor, Danny Kaye was the film’s distinct (though not necessarily sole) saving grace. Basil Rathbone was deliciously villainous as the duplicitous Sir Ravenhurst, and his fencing scenes with Danny Kaye towards the film’s climax were among the only highlights of the action oriented moments of the film. Glynis Johns (who I instantly recognized as the mother from Mary Poppins) was a surprisingly tough and action oriented heroine for a movie from the 1950’s, and it was a refreshing sight from an age where most female characters were more akin to Angela Lansbury’s (Beauty and the Beast) Princess Gwendolyn.

The film’s Achilles heel however is its basic inability to determine what tone and style it wants to project. At one moment, it’s a children’s musical with Danny Kaye periodically breaking out into song even when it isn’t necessarily appropriate to the story. The next scene it could be a nearly perfect satire of the swashbuckler subgenre. Later, it will want to be a more wordplay and rapid-fire pun style of comedy. Then to top it all off, there are moments where it just wants to be the kind of movies it’s nominally parodying without actually attempting any humor. The writing for the film wasn’t nearly sharp enough to afford them this lack of focus, and I found myself going vast periods of time without laughing at a single gag (when the film took the effort to even make any). Similarly, the ending seems to drag towards eternity, at least until its riotous final moments. While not every comedy needs to be chock full of laugh out loud moments (Sideways or The Savages show that a comedy can be extremely dramatic), when the drama is as uninteresting and stale as what’s presented in The Court Jester, the lack of laughs is potentially unforgivable.

For movie fans who yearn for a more innocent day and simpler storytelling, you may find more mileage from this cult classic than myself, but for everyone else, it may seem to quaint and antiquated to remain truly entertaining 55 years later. It certainly had its moments; the “vessel with the pestle” scene as well as the first musical number involving the dwarves were quite original and energetic, but mostly the film teased you with a potential for hysterical parody of the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear but chose intsead to simply make a less entertaining version of those very films. Danny Kaye deserves every bit of praise that has been lavished on him over the years, but even he is unable to save this film from its weakest elements.

Final Score: B-

I have not made it much of a secret on this blog or in my personal life generally that I am not a man of faith. I would consider myself to be a “teapot agnostic”, so named for a thought experiment conducted by Bertrand Russell as  counter-argument to the “You can’t disprove God” rationalization for religious faith. Russell’s teapot refers to a hypothetical teapot that may or may not be in orbit around the earth. I can’t disprove that the teapot is there, but that doesn’t make it any more likely that it does exist. That being said, I have a moderate amount of respect for the power to commit good that religion can inspire. However, I also have an extreme cynicism towards organized faith brought on by all of the violence and tragedy that has been committed in its name over man kind’s history. Centered heavily in the sort of religious faith and love that can do good in our communities, 1944’s Going My Way, winner of many Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, takes a positive look at Christian love than even a jaded cynic like myself can respect, but that doesn’t save the movie from being an incredibly boring and slow two-hour slog through the worst aspects of older cinema.

A comedy/musical/drama hybrid, Going My Way stars Bing Crosby (Best Actor, 1944) as Father Charles O’Malley, a Catholic priest sent to a financially strapped parish on the verge of being repossessed by the bank. His predecessor, Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fittzgerald, Best Supporting Actor 1944) is a cantankerous old traditional priest who is blind to the needs and realities of his failing church. Father O’Malley is from a more progressive and liberal theological school, and it’s up to him to get the community interested in the church again and to help raise the money that will keep it from being shut down. Father O’Malley’s special gift is his angelic voice and song-writing skills, and before Father Fitzgibbons even knows it, Father O’Malley has formed a choir of the local boys who were nothing but hoodlums before he arrived, and it isn’t long before he’s attracting the attention of a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera.

Say what you will about his alleged past of severe child abuse (which is indescribably tragic), Bing Crosby is a heck of a performer. All of the music of the film occurs diegetically, i.e. within the context of the scenes, and hearing Bing Crosby croon out old standards (including an original song for the film which won an Oscar) is a delight. He also has a fairly dry sense of humor. He isn’t a spectacular dramatic actor but he doesn’t disappoint in this role. Barry Fitzgerald was the real scene-stealer as the curmudgeonly older priest. I honestly believed that he spent half of the movie not knowing where he was in some addled senility. Fitzgerald easily nailed the self-righteous and stuck-in-his ways aspects of any older clergyman, but he also showed a sensitive and kind side that explained much of his oblivious naivete. I wish I could say anything positive about the large host of child actor’s but I really, really can’t. The red-headed kid that was the head of the choir gives the boy from Shane a run for his money in the bad child-acting department.

As much as I enjoyed the performances, the story itself wasn’t enough to keep me engaged with the film. Running at a lengthy 2 hours and 10 minutes, there wasn’t enough substantive plotting to keep me engaged or some other stylistic or character heavy aspect to make up for deficient storytelling. As much as I liked Father O’Malley, I knew very little about him or why he was so progressive compared to his peers. Father Fitzgibbons felt fare more fleshed out, but he too seemed disappointingly ill-defined. Also, the story itself just never amounts to much more than some slight conflicts at first between Fitzgibbons and O’Malley and then O’Malley’s plot to raise money for the church. None of that was particularly insightful or exciting. Films can get away with being boring if they’re smart or intimately detailed or have something important to say. Going My Way is none of those things, except perhaps panderingly heart-warming (though I admit I did shed a tear the film’s end).

Maybe I’m too cold-hearted and cynical to enjoy this supposedly inspiring film, but my problems with it are more associated with simply how boring and stale the story of the film is. For fans of classic movies, this film has garnered quite a reputation for itself, so you need to watch it, if only for Crosby and Fitzgerald’s performances. I’ve made this observation on this blog before, but it bears repeating. I am simply incapable of enjoying dramatic films before the 1950’s. While Netflix categorized this as a comedy, it definitely had dramatic elements and they were far too moralistic and idealistic for me. If you’re of a religious orientation, you’ll most likely adore the over-all message of true Christian love and tolerance that this film displays, and that (along with the performances) is virtually all this film had going for me. It officially gets the worst score I’ve given a film that won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Final Score: C+

 A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to New York City with our dorm as part of a trip. Like me, she’s a big theater buff, and so she, along with out Resident Faculty Leaders (we were both RA’s), went to go see the Broadway production of Gypsy. The way she talked about, it seemed like she really enjoyed it. When I saw that the 1962 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood, Rosalind Russell, and Karl Malden was coming up next on my Netflix queue, I got sort of excited. Well, my excitement was for naught. While parts of the film were good, particularly Rosalind Russell as the stage mother, the film turned out to be an over-long melodramatic affair with musical numbers that mostly left me wanting.

Gypsy is the autobiographical and musical tale of Louise (Natalie Wood), her sister June, and their stage mother Rose (Rosalind Russell). Louise grows up to be the most famous burlesque act of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee, but when she’s younger, she lives in the shadow of her sister June who her mother ships all across the country performing in various vaudeville shows. Rose is the archetypal stage mother that pushes career and stardom ahead of her daughter’s happiness. Karl Malden is also in the cast as Herbie, a traveling salesman/booking agent that enter’s Rose’s life and tries to help the girls find venues in which to perform.

Rosalind Russell is just spectacular in this movie. Every second she was on screen, the film was actually great. She played her with so much campiness and ham that it should have been ridiculously over the top but she made it work. She may be one of the worst mothers of all time, but I still kind of felt terrible for her at times. Karl Malden is one of cinema’s great character actors and he nails his role as well, but that’s what I expect from him. The only other Natalie Wood movies I’ve seen besides this are The Searchers and Rebel Without a Cause, and I thought she did a better job in both of those films. She’s not a great singer, and it really comes through in her performance.

This was a Stephen Sondheim musical, and the music was just of an infinitely inferior quality than the other Sondheim that I’ve seen, Sweeney Todd. There was only one really memorable number in the whole film, “Rose’s Turn”, and Chris Colfer did a better job with it on Glee than the movie did. He actually sang another song from the film and did a better job than Gypsy did with it as well. The only good thing I can say about the film’s arrangements was that it got post-modern at times by having so much of the film take place on a theatre stage since it was an adaptation of a stage musical and therefore it recaptured that aspect of the true experience of Gypsy.

I can recommend this to hardcore musical enthusiasts but that’s about it. At two and half hours long, it’s just far too much for anyone else to bear since the pacing is terribly slow. Honestly, the film has ruined any desire I have to see the stage version, although I should know that film adaptations often fail to capture the spirit and fun of musicals. The terrible Phantom of the Opera film by Joel Schumacher taught me that. I saw that live and it’s one of my all time favorite stage shows. Hopefully, my next film is more entertaining than this one.

 Final Score: B-

Why, God, why? My very first Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie, 1936’s Swing Time, was turning out to be not just a good but a great classic movie musical/comedy. But then, a cultural byproduct of our nation’s racist past reared its ugly head and nearly ruined the entire picture for me. The sight of Fred Astaire dancing around the stage in blackface like he’s Al Jolson was so offensive and it made me so uncomfortable that I almost turned the film off. Thankfully, it was an incredibly small portion of an otherwise fantastic film, but it was an unfortunate reminder of a part of our past that we have fortunately moved on from.

 Swing Time is about a gambler named Lucky Garner (Fred Astaire) who is tricked by members of the dancing troupe he travels with into missing his wedding. He makes a deal with the girl’s father to raise $25,000 in New York City in exchange for giving Lucky one more chance to marry his daughter. Lucky sets out to New York City with his dim-witted father (Victor Moore) to make his fortune. However, his plans are side-tracked when he bumps into Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dancing instructor that quickly steals his heart. Now, Lucky has to find a way to never make his $25,000 so that he can stay with Carol and quickly become one of the biggest dance numbers in New York City.

 The film is a musical, but the songs in it weren’t actually all that memorable. It won an Oscar for Best Song, but I honestly could have cared less about most of the music in the film. However, the dancing was just phenomenal. When Ginger and Fred step on to the dance floor, it’s just a sight to behold. Their ability to dance and entertain is without peers. I can’t remember the last time I saw a couple dancing that made we want to leave my house immediately and sign up for dance lessons this much since the last Cirque Du Soleil show that I saw.

 Besides from their dancing, Ginger and Fred also made a fantastic comedic pair. Ginger Rogers was great as a feisty, strong female lead, and Fred Astaire was incredibly charming. I definitely know why their one of movie history’s most beloved and enduring pairs. They had a natural romantic chemistry on screen that I’ve only ever seen between Bogie and Bacall as well as Woody Allan and Diane Keaton. I was genuinely invested in their romance on screen. The movie also had me laughing out loud at several moments. Victor Moore was just hilarious as Lucky’s idiotic father . Dramas this old may hold very little favor for me, but most of the classic comedies I’ve reviewed for this blog have aged fairly well, and this movie is no exception.

If you like old musicals and old comedies, I can recommend this without hesitation. I really wish the scene with Fred Astaire in blackface did not exist, but I have to remember that this film is very much a product of the era that it was made, and although I find the scene incredibly offensive now, it probably wasn’t that offensive back then. I’m glad this was the first Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie that I’ve seen though because now I want to see even more of their films. Their dancing is electric and their chemistry is superb. I can’t wait to see more.

 Final Score: B+

 As far back as I can remember, musicals have played a pretty special place in my heart. There’s something about the theatricality and glamour of musicals like Grease, My Fair Lady, and Chicago that just holds me absolutely enthralled. I don’t love all musicals. There are some I just can’t suspend my disbelief for, like West Side Story (shocking, I know) and some just aren’t very good to begin with, 2009’s Nine. Well, I just watched a musical that, before this blog, I had never heard of called The Girl Can’t Help It, starring the voluptuous Jayne Mansfield, and while it was far from great or one of the best musicals that I’ve ever seen, it was still really quite good, and to all fans of 1950’s rock and roll and classic movie musicals, it comes highly recommended.

The Girl Can’t Help It is the story of a washed-up, alcoholic talent agent named Tom Miller (Tom Ewell). Tom is hired by a gangster to turn his beautiful, but talentless girlfriend Jerri (Jayne Mansfield) into a star. Romance brews between Tom and Jerri, and Tom must find a way to make her a big hit despite the fact that she’s literally tone deaf. Mixed between the plot of the film are musical numbers performed by some of the biggest names in 1950’s rock and roll like Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, and the Platters. Actually, if this film hadn’t came out in the 1950’s, I would have said its approach to being a musical was incredibly post-modern since no one ever randomly breaks out into song. All of the musical performances are actually occurring naturally within the scene, usually as someone performing at a night club or bar. There’s one fantasy musical number but it is explicitly stated as being so.

I’ll keep this review short since lately all of my TV reviews have dragged on and on. I loved the sound track for this movie. It is a really good mix of white rock and roll artists with black R & B artists and some black rock artists like Little Richard. It was a legitimately funny movie and if you enjoy the more innocent times of older films, this one is probably right up your alley. Jayne Mansfield couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag, but I’ll be damned if she isn’t one of the most gorgeous women that I’ve ever seen. She’s a knock out. The movie wasn’t great, but it was still really good, and I can see myself watching it again at some point the future. I’m definitely trying to find its soundtrack.

Final Score: B