Saturday, October 13, 2018

Animation Celebration Double Feature - The Little Mermaid and The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea

We head under the waves to take a look at one of Disney's most beloved films, the one that kicked off it's 90's Renaissance. We're also going to take a look at it's sequel, part of the infamous series of direct-to-home-media follow-ups to many of it's classic animated films that Disney churned out in from the mid-90's to the mid-2000's. How does the original film hold up "under the sea," and does its follow-up deserve the notoriety? Let's take a look and see...

The Little Mermaid
Disney, 1989
Voices of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Buddy Hackett, and Christopher Daniel Barnes
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman

The Story: Ariel (Benson) is a teenage mermaid, the daughter of the sea king Triton (Kenneth Mars). She's been forbidden to go above the surface for fear she'll be seen by humans, but she's obsessed with the world above and collects everything about it she can. One night, during a story, she rescues the handsome Prince Eric (Barnes) and falls head over fins for him. After her father discovers her treasures and destroys them, she turns to the sea witch Ursula (Carroll) to make her dreams come true. Ursula does turn her into a human, but takes her voice as payment. With the help of her father's crab composer Sebastian (Samuel Wright), the fish Flounder (Jason Marin), and the goofy seagull Scuttle (Hackett), Ariel has three days to make Eric fall in love with her in return and kiss her, or she'll end up a slave to the witch.

The Animation: The impressive animation, especially in the under the sea sequences, have always been a big part of the draw here. You really do feel like you're under the sea; everything just glows with colors so brilliant, they make the rainbow in the finale look pale. The sequences on land aren't as colorful, but are just as well-done. The details, both under and over the sea, are amazing. The musical numbers have so much going on in them, you can spend a viewing just checking out all the craziness.

The Song and Dance: While Benson's appropriately winsome as the naive title character, the real winners here are the character actors. Mars brings a great deal of authority to his role of the stubborn king who just wants to protect his daughter. Carroll is pitch-perfect as Ursula, the voluptuous, scheming octopus who is one of Disney's best villains. Wright and Hackett have a lot of fun as Ariel's two of Ariel's best friends in the sea and on land respectively.

I've always liked how the father-daughter situation is handled here. As a kid (I was 10 when this came out), I sided with Ariel. Now that I'm older, I can understand Triton's point of view. It doesn't make what he did to her collection right, but I can see why he did it. Disney doesn't often go into father-daughter relationships, making this aspect of the movie actually rather unique in animation.

Favorite Number: "Under the Sea" doesn't really have much to do with the story, but it's so infectious, and the sequence is so well-done, I can totally see why it won an Oscar. "Part of Your World," Ariel's solo as she tries to explain her feelings about the world above to Flounder, is one of the best (and most iconic) "I Want" songs in musical history.

My personal favorite has always been "Kiss the Girl." Not only is the song the best in the film, but it's performed beautifully by Wright and the chorus and has some of the film's best effects, with the bird dancing around them and the glittering water gliding under the boat.

Trivia: Like Cinderella, this was a return to form for Disney after two decades of movies that ranged from fun-but-underrated to so-so. It was such a smash, the merchandising and video releases alone supplied Disney with the money to make most of its animated films for the rest of the 90's.

"Part of Your World" was almost removed due to negative early test screenings, but the directors pushed to keep it as the movie neared completion. It worked with later audiences, and it stayed.

This was the last Disney film to be made with traditional hand-painted cells, and even this movie has some CGI effects (mostly in the climatic finale with Ursula and the ships). From The Rescuers Down Under onwards, all Disney animated movies would be colored and filmed digitally.

"Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" were both nominated for Oscars; "Under the Sea" won. The movie also won for Original Score.

What I Don't Like: While she was praised for her independence and quick mind in 1989, Ariel doesn't always come off as the brightest starfish in the sea today, especially compared to later, more mature Disney ladies like Belle and Tiana. Prince Eric also has a tad bit more character than most of the Disney leading men who came before him, but is mostly pretty bland.

Like most Disney animated fairy tale retellings, this really doesn't have that much in common with the original Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid, especially the ending. I always found the happy ending to be a bit of a cop-out. While Ursula's flat-out villainy is hilarious, I did always like that the sea witch in the original story was ambiguous. She does what's asked of her because she's asked to do it, not because of any animosity.

The Big Finale: It's not one of my all-time favorite Disney movies, but it's still beloved among many animation lovers and mermaid-crazy girls for it's lush animation, memorable characters, and classic soundtrack. Give it a shot and make it "Part of Your World," too.

Home Media: Alas, this is another Disney movie that's currently on moratorium and is expensive on DVD and Blu-Ray. Once again, your best bet would likely be to look for it used on eBay or elsewhere.

DVD
Blu-Ray

The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea
Disney, 2000
Voices of Jodi Benson, Tara Cherendoff (Strong), Pat Carroll, and Buddy Hackett
Directed by Jim Kammerud and Brian Smith
Music by Michael and Patty Silversher and others

The Story: Melody (Cherendoff) is Ariel and Eric's daughter. At her christening, she's given a locket by her grandfather Triton to remind her that a part of her will always belong to the sea. Unfortunately, she also becomes the target of the scheming Morgana (Carroll), who wants to avenge her sister Ursula and take over Triton's kingdom. Hoping to protect her daughter, Ariel builds a wall to cut her off from the sea. It works no better than trying to keep Ariel from the surface did. Melody frequently swims under it, befriending Sebastian (Wright) and Scuttle (Hackett). Having found the locket, Melody wants to know more about it, but Ariel is afraid to answer her questions.

After a disastrous party, Melody takes off in a boat to learn more about her heritage. Morgana's underling Undertow (Clancy Brown) brings the girl to his mistress. Morgana does make Melody's legs into a tail, but says she'll only stay that way if she steals the trident from Triton (claiming he stole it from her). As she searches for the trident, Melody befriends Tip (Max Casella) and Dash (Stephan Furst), a penguin and a walrus respectively who are looking to be more heroic in the eyes of their families.

The Animation: A disappointing comedown from the original. This was animated by the Disney Television Animation studios (like most of the other direct-to-home-media movies of this time), and it shows. The animation is colorful, but lacks the detail and fluidity of the original. The underwater effects look flat and dull, and the scenes around the ice flows pretty much look all the same.

The Song and Dance: What I like here is the relationship between daughter and mother. Ariel is the only Disney princess to date who has been shown as a mother, even in the direct-to-home-media sequels. She's not as harsh as her father was, and you can understand why she's being so protective...but smothering is still smothering. When she says in the finale that she realizes she made some bad decisions regarding raising Melody and regrets it, you really feel that hurt. Melody, for her part, isn't even a rebellious teenager. She's just a confused kid who feels like she belongs in one place but is being kept in another.

Favorite Number: None, really. Other than the opening "Down to the Sea" with the cast celebrating Ariel and Eric's arrival, none of the new songs were even remotely memorable. Tip and Dash's big number with Melody was probably supposed to be a comic ditty on the lines of "Hakuna Matata," but comes off more annoying than anything. Which brings us to...

What I Don't Like: Too bad all that mother-daughter bonding is wasted on a rehash of the first movie. Couldn't they have come up with at least a slightly more original plot and a better villain? Morgana is basically just a thinner version of Ursula who wants attention, and the whole thing with her trying to get Undertow back to his regular size (he's supposed to be a shark, but Triton shrunk him) is basically filler. Tip and Dash are annoying, obnoxious, and contribute next-to-nothing to the plot. They're probably just there to be the hip, funny side characters. A lot of the dialogue sounds a bit too hip and modern for a fairy tale (probably showing some of the influence of Shrek from earlier in 2000). Eric's even less in this than he was in the original movie.

The Big Finale: I do know some kids who grew up with this on video in the early 2000's who have a soft spot for it. For anyone else, it's completely avoidable unless you're a massive Little Mermaid fan.

Home Media: Same deal. This is also out of print; once again, you're better off checking used DVD stores and other venues. Your best bet is to look for this one as a 2-pack with the prequel Ariel's Beginning.

2-Movie Collection (with Ariel's Beginning) DVD
2-Movie Collection (with Ariel's Beginning) Blu-Ray

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Cult Flops - Xanadu

Universal, 1980
Starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, and Gene Kelly
Directed by Robert Greenwald
Music by The Electric Light Orchestra and others

Disco was the music of the late 1970's. The whole aesthetic - the glitter, the dances, the wide-lapel suits and glittering pantsuits and dresses - permeated the entire era. It was probably inevitable that movies would be written around the craze. Saturday Night Fever turned disco into a sensation, codified by Thank God It's Friday. Unfortunately, by the time Xanadu made it out of its troubled production in August 1980, there was a major backlash against disco and its excesses. Does this movie deserve it's notoriety as one of the worst musicals ever, or does the fanciful tale of a muse and the artist she inspires still manage to make "Magic?"

The Story: Sonny Malone (Beck) has just returned to his job painting life-sized covers of rock albums to display in stores after an unsuccessful stint as a freelance artist. He hates his job, but he's decided it's the only way he'll make money...until he spies a beautiful girl (Newton-John) roller-skating in the park. She kisses him and skates away. He follows her later, meeting her in front of the dilapidated Pan-Pacific Auditorium. She tells him that her name is Kira, but won't say much else. A bit later, he meets former clarinetist Danny McGuire (Kelly) on the beach. McGuire had his own nightclub during the 1940's, but he lost his muse, and he now owns a construction company. Kira encourages the two men to form a partnership and create the nightclub of their dreams. Meanwhile, she and Sonny are getting closer. Kira, however, is not what she seems...and Sonny discovers what real love is when he literally goes to heaven and back to follow her.

The Song and Dance: This movie is one of the most bizarre musicals in existence, but it does have quite a few charms. TV Tropes accurately calls it "the nexus of 70's cheese and 80's cheese." If you want to know what the world was like as the 70's flipped to the 80's, this is a good place to start. The story is really rather sweet, and even touching, especially the side plot with McGuire. I like the nostalgia, the mixing of the 40's big-band, 70's disco, and 80's neon pop, and how each collide with and address the other. I kind of wish they could have done more with the collision of these three different eras. Kelly is wonderful as the former musician hoping to keep another artist from losing his muse and his true love. The widescreen cinematography of the real LA adds authenticity to this odd fantasy.

Favorite Number: McGuire recalls his lost muse in the lovely "Whenever You're Away From Me," a delightful and charming soft-shoe between Kelly and Newton-John that is probably the best thing in the movie. The opening number "I'm Alive," with the muses emerging from a mural, doesn't really explain much about what's going on, but looks nifty nevertheless. The best ensemble number is "Dancin'," as Danny's big-band and Sonny's 80's hard rock mix collide in their imagined club. There's some nice choreography here and some really awesome costumes.

My favorite song is Newton-John's passionate ballad "Suspended In Time," as Kira tries to explain her feelings about Sonny to her otherworldly parents. It's filmed simply, against a background of Tron-style glowing lines, and Newton-John really pours her heart into the number. This is one aspect of the movie that definitely did not deserve a Golden Raspberry. And speaking of...

Trivia: The failure of this movie and another flop disco musical released around the same time, Can't Stop the Music, inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards. They're given to the worst movie and performances of the year.

Unlike the film, the soundtrack album was one of the biggest hits of the year. Newton-John's solo "Magic" went to #1 on the US Pop chart; "Xanadu" and "Suddenly" were also major top 5 hits in the US and elsewhere.

The animated sequence "Don't Walk Away" was Don Bluth's first work on his own after he broke away from Disney.

The Pan-Pacific Auditorium had been LA's major cultural center from it's opening in 1935 until it closed in 1972. According to Wikipedia, by 1980 it was just as much of a dump as Sonny claimed. Despite efforts to remodel it and the exterior appearing in several films (including Xanadu) and music videos, it eventually burned to the ground in a fire in 1989.

A Broadway version of the show debuted in 2007. It was a surprise hit that season, playing the muse/artist plot for the campy goof it is. (It also adds several Electric Light Orchestra songs and one extra Newton-John number.)

What I Don't Like: Beck is totally out of place here. Not only is he not a singer or dancer, but his Sonny Malone is an obnoxious and egotistical jerk who thinks the world owes him something. He's so unlikable, especially in the beginning, you wonder why Kira and her sisters want to help him. He doesn't need the help; he needs a swift kick in the rear. I'd almost rather see her return to Kelly, who at least is a decent guy who treats both of his proteges well.

As charming as the campiness can be, there are times when it's all just too much. The dialogue is often stiff and sometimes just plain dumb. Some of the better songs, including "All Over the World" and the hit ballad "Suddenly," are marred by nonsensical or badly filmed numbers. While Bluth's animation for "Don't Walk Away" is nice (and foreshadows many of the effects and ideas he'd use in later films), it has nothing to do with the story and stops the movie cold. The finale, with Kira and her sisters performing at the opening of the nightclub, goes on for way, way too long.

The Big Finale: I'm going to admit it - this is an unabashed guilty pleasure of mine. I can see why it's picked up a cult following of gay men and teen girls who grew up watching it on cable. The music, style, and some good performances from Newton-John and Kelly override most of the problems with Beck, the weirder numbers, and the silly plot. If you're a fan of Newton-John or Kelly, the soundtrack, or love camp like I do, you'll want to find your muse and take a trip to Xanadu, too.

Home Media: This film's cult following has assured that it's easily available on most formats, usually for under 10 dollars.

DVD
Blu-Ray
Amazon Prime

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bing Crosby Double Feature I - Here Is My Heart and Mississippi

Bing Crosby was one of the most beloved entertainers of the 20th century. He helped popularize the term "crooning" and pre-recording on radio and television, among other things. He started out in the 30's in two-reelers, but his popularity couldn't be contained to a mere 20 minutes for long. These two short musicals are among his earliest feature vehicles. How does Bing's star charm hold up today?

Here Is My Heart
Paramount, 1934
Starring Bing Crosby, Kitty Carlisle, Alison Skipworth, and Roland Young
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Music by Ralph Rainger and Lewis E. Gensler; Lyrics by Leo Robin

The Story: Wealthy radio crooner J. Paul Jones (Crosby) has always dreamed of presenting two dueling pistols once held by his namesake to the United States Navy. He owns one, but the other pair is in the possession of the Princess Alexandra (Carlisle). It's a family heirloom, and she won't part with it for anything. For all her haughty grandeur, she and her family of former Russian nobles are now poor, and are living in a luxury hotel off goodwill and borrowed money. Jones poses as a waiter to get into their private suite. The truth is, Alexandra is really bored and tired of hanging around with her dull elderly relatives. She wants something different...and this waiter who seems to be interested in her is certainly that. For his part, Jones finds himself falling for her when he realizes that she has a good heart under the icy demeanor and starts to wonder if his deception is a good idea.

The Song and Dance: This low-key romantic comedy with music coasts on the considerable charm of it's two leads. As good as Crosby is as the crooner, I was most impressed with Carlisle as the royal who has a warm heart under her cold outer shell. I also liked Young as the most enterprising of the nobles and William Frawley as a reporter digging for a story. Some of Jones' commentary on the idle rich and how they live (and are condescending to those who aren't in their circles) is actually pretty interesting (and still spot-on).

Favorite Number: The lovely "June In January" was the hit, but "Love Is Just Around the Corner" wins for a very original number where Bing sings a duet with a recording of himself performing the song. I also liked his first duet of "January" on the boat in the opening with Marion Mansfield as his girlfriend Claire.

What I Don't Like: Don't come here looking for big numbers or complicated plots. Jones' playing another waiter to make Alexandra miss him is as complicated as it gets. While the three main songs are quite good, they're played constantly throughout the short running time. I kind of wish there'd been at least one other number, maybe something a tad more uptempo. Carlisle and Crosby have some nice chemistry in their dialogue scenes, but her meticulous instrument doesn't mix well with his crooning, making their duet on "With Every Breath I Take" sound a bit odd.

The Big Finale: Short and sweet, this isn't the most important musical in the world, but it's worth checking out if you're a big fan of the leads or romantic comedy.

Home Media: While it is currently available as part of Universal's made-to-order Vault series on Amazon, your best bet may be to do what I did and buy it as part of a Crosby set with five other films (including Mississippi, below).

Universal Vault DVD
The Bing Crosby Collection DVD Set

Mississippi
Paramount, 1935
Starring Bing Crosby, Joan Bennett, W.C Fields, and Queenie Smith
Directed by A. Edward Sullivan
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Lorenz Hart

The Story: Tom Grayson (Crosby) is a northerner who has just become engaged to southern belle Elvira (Gail Patrick) at her father's plantation in the pre-Civil War south. Her younger sister Lucy (Bennett) has a crush on him, but he just thinks of her as a nice kid. The wedding is called off after the pacifistic Grayson refuses to fight a duel with Major Pattison (John Miljan), who is also interested in Elvira. He eventually gets a job on a show boat owned by Commodore Jackson (Fields), who promotes him as "The Singing Killer" after a man is accidentally killed in a brawl. He returns to Elvira to find that she's married...but Lucy is all grown up and still crazy about him. She's not so crazy about that new reputation of his, though...

The Song and Dance: While the sets and costumes aren't bad and Crosby and Smith get to sing some great Rodgers and Hart numbers, it's Fields who really walks off with this one. He supposedly worked well with Crosby, especially in the sequence where he tries to teach the young singer how to be tougher. Probably the most famous sequence from this is Fields' outlandish stories during a poker game on how he survived among a bloodthirsty Native American tribe.

Favorite Number: Rodgers and Hart wrote two songs for Crosby in this film that became major hits. While "Soon" gets the big build up, the one that's more associated with him is the sweet ballad "It's Easy to Remember." Smith also gets to have fun with the other Rodgers and Hart number, "Roll Mississippi."

What I Don't Like: For all the fun Crosby has with Fields mid-way through, he's mostly awkward and out-of-place in a period film. Bennett and Patrick aren't much better. Fields feels like the only actor who actually belongs here. The plot seriously hasn't dated well. Many people would likely agree with Tom's views on honor and violence today and think that the Major is being something of a drama queen, while others would be offended by the way the black characters are treated like furniture.

The Big Finale: Worth seeing at least once for fans of Crosby and/or Fields if you can handle the dated plot.

Home Media: Same deal here. It's also part of the Universal Vault, but you're probably better off getting that set, which is cheaper and easier to find.

Universal Vault DVD

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Animation Celebration Saturday - Cats Don't Dance

Warner Bros, 1997
Voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Kathy Najimy, and Ashley Peldon
Directed by Mark Dindel
Music and lyrics by Randy Newman

There was a glut of animated musicals in the mid-late 90's that came out after the wild success of the Disney films earlier in the decade. With the exception of Anastasia, none of them were hits. Cats Don't Dance was a casualty both of that glut and of a merger between its studio Turner Feature Animation and Warners. Does this tale of a talented cat who comes to Hollywood to make good deserve stardom...and a larger audience? Let's find out...

The Story: Danny (Bakula) comes to Hollywood in 1939 with a dream of becoming the next great musical star. There's one small problem. He's a cat...and Tinsel Town in the late 30's doesn't allow animals to do anything besides, well, act like animals. He does manage to get a tiny part in a sugary movie alongside cutesy child star Darla Dimple (Peldon), but when he tries to upstage her, she calls in her massive butler (Dindel) to force him to behave.

The other animals in Hollywood, who are more accustomed to being in the humans' shadow, don't understand why Danny pursues his dream so relentlessly. Sawyer (Guy), currently a secretary for talent agent Farley Wink (Frank Welker), is especially frustrated. Danny encourages the animals, including Sawyer and elephant musician Woolie Mammoth (John Rhyes-Davies), to put on an impromptu dance number in front of the studio. He's hoping that he can get studio head LB Mammoth (George Kennedy) to notice them, but spoiled Darla has no intention of sharing the screen with anyone. After an accident leaves them all banned, Danny's ready to give up, until he remembers why he came to Hollywood in the first place.

The Song and Dance: Most people associate Bakula with Quantam Leap and his other TV work, but he's actually done stage musicals. He's perfect as upbeat, hopeful Danny. The rest of the cast is also a lot of fun. This was the final film role of long-time voice actress Betty Lou Gerson (best known as the voice of Cruella Di Vil from the original animated 101 Dalmations) as Frances the fish; I also like Hal Halbrook as cranky and sarcastic Cranston the goat and Rene Auberjonois as the director harried director.

Darla Dimple is one of the most over-the-top villains in animation history. Peldon brings just the right note of super-sweet menace to this psychotic brat, who will do literally anything to make sure she retains the spotlight. Just check out her running around with insane glee during the "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" number.

The Animation: This was Turner Feature Animation's first (and as it turned out, only) full-length film, and they put out all the stops. Hollywood of 1939 is recreated in all it's Art Deco glory. A montage of Hollywood and Los Angeles landmarks of the time in the rain, set to Sawyer's big ballad "Tell Me Lies," is especially nice. Some of the dance sequences are really nicely done, including "I've Got Rhythm" with the animals going to town in front of the studio - Sawyer and Danny look as good as any live-action dance team from the era.

Favorite Number: "Big and Loud," Darla's advice to Danny on how to attract the studios' attention, is...well, it's just that. It's bright, it's wild, it has some amazing animation, and it really must be seen to be believed. Darla also (inadvertently) contributes to another crazy and colorful number, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." The song's lyrics become literal truth when every switch and lever Darla yanks at to end the animals' dance routine just ends up further enhancing their performance. "I've Got Rhythm," the big dance number with the animals and Danny and Sawyer challenging each other, is also a lot of fun.

Trivia: Along with being Gerson's last movie, this was also the last film for Gene Kelly, who was a consultant and choreographer before he passed away in 1996. The movie is dedicated to him (and there's a Singin' In the Rain mention in the movie poster spoof montage in the finale).

What I Don't Like: Despite it's late 30's setting and the inclusion of several caricatures of celebrities of the era like Clark Gable, it doesn't really feel that historical. The movie probably could have been set any time up to the early 60's in Hollywood and worked just as well. Other than cheerful Tilly, Rhys-Davies as Woolie, and cute Pudge the Penguin, most of the other animals don't really have much to do. Don Knotts is wasted as TJ, the neurotic turtle who is obsessed with reading morose predictions from fortune cookies.

The Big Finale: This one seems to have picked up a cult following recently of animation enthusiasts, musical lovers, and furry fans who saw it on video in the early 2000's. If you were a fan of Zootopia and other all-animal stories or are into the musicals of the 1930's or the animated musicals of the late 90's, you'll want to give Danny and his friends a second chance at stardom, too.

Home Media: The one you want to look out for is the Warner Archives DVD, which is this movie's first release in it's original widescreen format.

DVD

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cult Flops - Nine

Sony/The Weinstein Company, 2009
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotilliard, and Nicole Kidman
Directed by Ken Marshall
Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston

The film adaptation of the 1982 Broadway show was a bomb when it debuted. Critics pounded on it, especially those who saw the original production. Does it deserve the scorn, or should this tale of an Italian man and the women who inspire him be given a second act? Let's find out...

The Story: Guido Contini (Day-Lewis), an Italian director, is in the midst of a serious mid-life crisis. He has no idea what his next movie will be and puts off answering questions when asked about it. In the hope of rediscovering his muse, he looks back on the women in his life. His favorite costume designer Lili (Judi Dench) tells him about how she learned her art from her time at the Folies Bergeres. He remembers his first sexual awakening, when a prostitute (Fergie) danced for him and his friends on the beach before his ashamed mother (Sophia Loren) punished him. His wife Luisa (Cotilliard), once an actress herself, wants to leave him after she catches him with his mistress Carla (Cruz). He has a chat with an editor for Vogue (Kate Hudson) who reminds him why he loves movies. His leading lady Claudia (Nicole Kidman) points out that he's got no script, no movie, and just seems to be lost.

Seeing him use a scene from their private life in his movie is the last straw for Luisa. After she walks out, he destroys the set and drops the film. Two years later, he's given up...but a chat with Lili and seeing an advertisement for a play with Luisa makes him realize what truly inspires him and what he really wants to make movies about.

The Song and Dance: I had no idea Daniel Day-Lewis could sing so well. He's especially good on "Guido's Song," where the director explains his problem and why he can't focus on his work. I also liked Dench as sarcastic Lili and Cotilliard as unhappy Luisa. Cruz was Oscar-nominated as Guido's fiery mistress Carla, as were the dazzling costumes and sets. The cinematography gives us breathtaking views of Italy and the (real-life) Cinecitta film studios.

Favorite Number: "Cinema Italiano," the fashion designer Stephanie's description of movies and why we love them, was written for the film and is a lot of fun, as is Dench's "Bergeres" number. Fergie's "Be Italian" is appropriately earthy and sensual, while Cotillard does an even sexier striptease to another new song (and Oscar nominee), "Take It All."

What I Don't Like: I kind of feel like director Ken Marshall was trying the same thing he did in Chicago - musical numbers in characters heads while they dance over elaborate sets in skimpy costumes. A lot of the songs are chorus numbers, even when the character should probably be in a solo, and they all start to feel the same after a while. The dark lighting on many of the numbers contributes even further to the feeling of deja-vu. It might be sexier if you could see what most of the dancers are doing.

My biggest complaint here is...who really cares what this guy thinks or wants? I found the entire soap opera with Guido and his women to be monumentally boring. We fly from encounter to encounter with little rhyme or reason. Gudio comes off as such a jerk at times, you can understand why all his muses abandon him. Even Day-Lewis can only do so much with the character.

(And while I haven't heard the cast album for the original show, the movie apparently cut a lot of songs, including the title number and a second song for the prostitute.)

The Big Finale: I didn't think it was quite as bad as critics claimed in 2009...but I can also understand why many people had problems with it. It's worth a look once if you're a fan of Marshall or the cast and are willing to overlook the changes from the original show (or haven't heard it, like me).

Home Media: Not available for streaming on Amazon at press time, but the DVD and the Blu-Ray can be found for fairly cheap.

DVD
Blu-Ray

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

My Fair Lady

Warner Bros/CBS, 1964
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, and Wilfred Hyde-White
Directed by George Cukor
Music by Fredrick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan Lerner

We kick off October with another Cinderella story, one of the most famous in musical theater. My Fair Lady was the major stage blockbuster of the 1950's, the equivalent of Hamilton and Wicked now, and the movie was an even bigger hit. Does this epic tale of a bachelor professor and the flower seller he tutors in language still resonate? Let's find out...

The Story: Confirmed bachelor Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering (Hyde-White) that he can't tutor Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) in linguistics. He wants to make her sound so much like a lady, he'll be able to pass her off as one at an Embassy Ball. Eliza turns him down at first, but she's ultimately intrigued and finally agrees to the experiment. Henry puts her through her paces, basically bullying her into learning. She doesn't do well, until one late night where he gives her a little bit of encouragement. They take her to the Ascot races to practice. She makes a social faux pas, but she also makes an impression on handsome young Freddy (Jeremy Brett), who keeps following her. Even after she's a sensation at the ball, Higgins continues to treat Eliza like dirt. She finally walks out, trying to figure out what to do with herself and wondering what world she really belongs in. Henry, for his part, thinks he can live without her, but learns just how accustomed to his face he is when she turns up at his mother's (Gladys Cooper) house and says she wants to strike out on her own.

The Song and Dance: Harrison, Holloway, and Hyde-White all reprise their roles from Broadway. This is pretty much Harrison's signature role, and he tears into it, especially during his talk-singing numbers about how little respect he has for the opposite sex. Cooper is equally wonderful as his strong-willed mother. Holloway has fun as Eliza's dustman father Alfie, who goes to Higgins to try to bribe him and ends up inheriting money from an American speaker. Hepburn is simply luminous as the transformed Eliza in the second half of the film. She really does look like the duchess Higgins is trying to pass her off as. The stately art direction and period-accurate costumes won Oscars; the film itself won Best Picture, and Harrison won Best Actor.

Some people have problems with the ending, but it's actually one of my favorite things about the musical. I like that it's ambiguous. Most people would have more decisively thrown Henry and Eliza together, but this allows the viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Favorite Number: My favorite song from My Fair Lady has always been "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," as Eliza describes the simple life she imagines to her street buddies. Holloway has two of the best songs in the show, the music hall-style ditties "Wit' a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church On Time" (the latter the show's solo large-scale dance number). Harrison's best number is the finale. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" shows just how much this bachelor has softened to his charge. He, Hyde-White, and Hepburn are a delight in the impromptu dance routine for "The Rain In Spain." Like Hepburn, Brett was dubbed, but he still looks pretty good singing this show's biggest standard, "On the Street Where You Live."

Trivia: Julie Andrews won much applause playing Eliza on Broadway. Jack L. Warner, who was producing the movie, didn't think she was a big enough star for the film. She ended up in Mary Poppins instead...and took home the Best Actress Oscar over Hepburn.

Folks who grew up in the 80's like me may have fond memories of an older Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the 1984 British TV series.

What I Don't Like: A lot of this story hasn't dated well. Henry comes off less like a jerk with a heart of gold today, and more like...well, a jerk. His bullying Eliza and treating her like the dirt under his fingernails can be grating, even if Eliza does give him some comeuppance later by running off. Many audiences are more likely to sympathize with Eliza when she's upset after the Embassy Ball than with Henry's egotism and inability to acknowledge her part in the project. Not to mention, Freddy's constantly following her around can look like stalking. Hepburn herself does better as the transformed Eliza in the second half; no amount of dirt, rags, and colorful hats can make this goddess into a guttersnipe.

The movie looks beautiful, but it runs for much too long (almost three hours), and it moves like a block of lead. Other than "The Rain In Spain" and Holloway's two music hall routines, there's very little dancing. Not surprisingly in a movie about the importance of speech and how one speaks, the emphasis is on the dialogue and vocal songs. It's also a bit on the stagy side. They recreated the Broadway show a little too well. Despite it winning for Cinematography, it feels more like a filmed play than an actual movie. There's also the whole deal with Hepburn and Brett being dubbed; it sounds fine, but many people wish they'd gone more natural (or found performers who could sing).

The Big Finale: Tough call on this one. The problematic plot is offset by splendid performances (especially from Harrison, Hepburn, and Holloway), stunning costumes and sets, and some of  Lerner and Loewe's best songs. If you can deal with Higgins and Cukor's stagy direction, I'd say this is worth a look.

Home Media: If there's one thing I love about discs and streaming, it's that they allow for the viewing of an extra-long movie like this with no interruption (or need to change tapes, as would have happened in the days of VHS). The movie's popularity makes it easy to find on most formats, often for under 10 dollars.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Cinderella Stories Double Feature - Cinderella and Sally

We venture into the world of fairy tale tonight for this entry. The tale of the scullery maid who makes good can be found as far back as ancient times; variations abound in nearly every country in the world, from China to Canada. Disney's animated retelling from 1951 is as straightforward a Cinderella as you can get, and is likely the first movie many think of when this story comes to mind. Sally is the tale of a very modern New York cinder girl from 1929. Whether in animation or early Technicolor, does the old story still hold up after all these years? Let's find out...

Cinderella
Disney, 1950
Voices of Ilene Woods, Jimmy MacDonald, Eleanor Audley, and Verna Felton
Directed by Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson, and Clyde Geronimi
Music and Lyrics by Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston

The Story: Cinderella (Woods) is the abused and put-upon servant in the house of her intimidating stepmother Lady Tremaine (Audley) and her spoiled and shrill daughters Anastasia (Lucile Bliss) and Drizella (Rhoda Williams). She's happiest when she's befriending the mice and other animals in the household, including plump Gus (MacDonald) and slender and clever Jaq (also MacDonald). Meanwhile, the King (Luis Van Rooten) holds a ball so his son the Prince (William Phipps) can find a bride. The mice try to help Cinderella get to the ball by fixing up an old dress for her, but the angry and jealous stepsisters destroy their work. Cindy thinks it's all over...until a kindly old woman who calls herself her fairy godmother (Fenton) uses magic to fix her outfit, create a coach, and make her wildest dreams come true. 

She makes it to the ball and enchants the prince, but loses one of her glass slippers when she leaves. The cunning Lady Tremaine will do everything in her power to make sure that Cinderella can't get to try on that slipper...but her animal friends haven't forgotten her.

The Animation: Disney was under severe financial strain in the late 40's after a series of flops. They threw everything they had at the time into this one, and it shows. While not as ambitious as some of its movies of the 30's and early 40's, this is still some nice work, with soft pastel colors illuminating its romantic story. I love the characters' expressions, especially on Cinderella, Lady Tremaine, and Lucifer the cat. 

The Song and Dance: Cinderella is one of my favorite Disney princesses. Though many wouldn't consider her to be as take-charge as later animated ladies like Belle and Tiana, she's not as accepting of her obnoxious family as either the narration or the story would have it. She can be quite sarcastic behind her stepfamily's back and with the mice. Lady Tremaine is one of Disney's best villains, cunning, domineering, and cold as ice. The King and the Grand Duke have a few amusing moments, especially when the Duke has to explain to the King that the girl at the ball ran off. The mice also have their moments, mainly in the first half of the film, where much of the emphasis is on them and their antics with Lucifer.

Favorite Number: "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo," the fairy godmother's song, was Oscar-nominated, and is one of my favorite comic Disney numbers. The effects animation as she transforms Cinderella, her animal friends, and the pumpkin for the ball is still fairly well-done. Probably the most famous number is Cindy's opening song, her wistful "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" with the animals, which gives us a perfect glimpse of her optimistic character. I also like Cinderella and the Prince's duet at the ball, "So This Is Love," and "Sing Sweet Nightingale," which Cindy performs while doing her chores as nicely animated bubbles cascade around her.

Trivia: Turns out Disney was right to throw their hopes into this movie. Cinderella was a massive hit at the box office, one of the blockbusters of 1950, and continues to be one of their most popular animated films to this day. It was also one of their biggest hits on VHS; the original home video release in 1988 would be the best-selling video of all time until ET: The Extra Terrestrial came out a year later. 

It was such a huge hit that the money from the movie (including record and merchandising sales) would later go on to help fund not only their other animated and live-action films, but the creation of Disneyland and Walt Disney World as well. 

What I Don't Like: Although cat-and-mouse chases in the beginning can be funny, they also go on for too long and really don't have much to do with the story. The Prince was to have had a larger role, but it was cut down over the years this was in production until he barely appears and has no personality whatsoever. And though Cindy is an improvement on the princesses who bookend her (Snow White and Aurora), she's still a bit on the passive side for many audiences today.

The Big Finale: Although the non-musical 2015 remake is good, this is the one you'll want to look for. It's one of my favorite Disney movies, featuring one of their most iconic princesses. If you have princess-lovers, Disney fans, or fairy tale nuts in your family, this is an absolute must-see.

Home Media: The DVD and Blu-Ray are out-of-print and expensive in the US at press time. Your best bet may be to check eBay or other used venues. 


Sally
Warner Bros, 1929
Starring Marilyn Miller, Alexander Gray, Joe E. Brown, and T. Roy Barnes
Directed by John Francis Dillon
Music by Jerome Kern and others

The Story: Sally Green (Miller) has a few big dreams of her own. She may be a waitress at a Manhattan diner, but what she really wants to do is dance. She spends her time working on her routines and flirting with handsome and wealthy Blair Farrell (Gray) through windows when she should be paying attention to her job. After she accidentally drops food on theatrical agent Otis Hooper (Barnes), she's fired and gets another job at a nightclub as a bus girl. There, she reconnects with Blair and befriends Connie (Brown), a former duke who had to flee his country and is now a waiter. 

Blair convinces the owner Pops (Ford Sterling) to let Sally dance. Otis and his girlfriend Rosie (Pert Kelton) catch her act and convince her to pass herself off as a famous Russian dancer at the party for Connie's society friend Mrs. Tenbrock. All goes well at the party...until Pops rushes in and reveals the deception, and Sally learns that Blair is already engaged to a debutante (Nora Lane). Sally's heartbroken, even after Otis gets her a star spot in the Ziegfeld Follies. It doesn't take a fairy godmother to make Sally's biggest wish come true, just the intervention of a few of her friends...

The Song and Dance: Miller was one of the biggest stars on Broadway in the 1920's, and here we see why. She's not really an actress and is only a so-so singer, but something special happens when she dances. While she's not technically perfect, she obviously loves what she's doing and is magnetic while doing it. You can understand why Warners apparently paid her at least $100,000 to star in this and another girl-makes-good tale from the stage, Sunny. Other stand-outs include deadpan Kelton and Gray as warm and likable Blair.

Favorite Number: Two dance routines seen here are the grandparents of many a number in subsequent films. Miller and Brown's comic duet to "Look for the Silver Lining" is energetic and hilarious, with the two of them jumping around and goofing off and obviously having a whale of a time. 

Sally was originally filmed entirely in color. The color footage has since been lost...except for most the "Wild Rose" chorus song with Miller swirling around men in tuxedos. The number is already a delight, but the delicate peaches and soft greens add a note of almost Wizard-of-Oz-like fantasy to the sequence. (And for some reason, the sound improves during the color scenes, too.)

What I Don't Like: This is still very much an early talkie production. Most of the other songs besides a huge ballet in the finale are performed flat, and the color makeup seen in black and white makes everyone look like odd China dolls. The story is even more cliche than in the Disney Cinderella, and Miller is less fun and more stiff when she's not dancing. Brown keeps up with her well enough in "Look For the Silver Lining," but he's definitely out of place as a duke who has been run out of his country. 

The Big Finale: I've fallen in love with this since I first saw it on TCM in the early 2000's, but it's not for everyone. If you can handle the archaic comedy and early-talkie stiffness, you may want to look for the silver lining with Sally, too. 

Home Media: One of the earliest Warner Archives releases, easily found at Amazon.com, Warners' web site, and elsewhere.