Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Animal Crackers
Release Date: August 23, 1930
Director: Victor Heerman
Production Company:  Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This is the Marx Brothers first true classic film.  Like The Cocoanuts, it is adapted from their Broadway musical, which is reflected in the stage-like sets of the film.  But in this movie the songs reflect and commentate on the plot (thin as it is) and support the Marx Brothers antics. The setting is a party at the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) who is hosting the celebrated African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Grouch Marx). Another guest, art collector Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) will be displaying a famous work of art by a painter named Beaugard.  Not one but two parties of guests decide to steal the Beaugard and put their own work in its place leading to the thin plot for the film and the source of most of its antics.

The movie has some cringe-worthy moments considering that Grouch is playing a man who hunts big game in Africa, thus leading to many horrible stereotypes about Africans (including being carried in a sedan chair but several Black men). Another running gag has Harpo chasing a young woman who is clearly not interested in him.  But all-in-all the movie is not as cringe-inducing as you might expect from a 90-year-old comedy.  Groucho’s song “Hello, I Must Be Going” is one of my favorite bits and a song I had on my voicemail greeting when I was in college.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Cocoanuts (1929)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: The Cocoanuts
Release Date: August 3, 1929
Director: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This the Marx Brothers first talkie and second movie overall after the lost 1921 silent film Humor Risk. Excepting Harpo, I can’t imagine the Marx Brothers in a silent movie since they are so reliant on witty dialogue. The movie is adapted from a stage performance and it doesn’t appear that all too many changes were made to adapt to the new medium.  Performances of dancing girls and musical numbers are awkwardly intercut with sketch-like performances by the Marx brothers and the requisite romantic subplot, but in more of variety show pattern than something that flows from one thing to the next.

Released a few months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, The Cocoanuts is a timely parody of the Florida land boom with Groucho as the unscrupulous hotel owner Mr. Hammer, Zeppo as his lazy assistant, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of crooks and conmen. As noted above the plot is very thin and this is more of an episodic linkage of Marx Brothers zaniness with song and dance.  It’s fun to watch but the Marx Brothers will learn to take better advantage of movies as they gain more experience

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Out of Towners (1970)


Title: The Out of Towners 
Release Date: May 28, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Production Company: Jalem Productions
Summary/Review:

I don’t know where I got the idea that The Out-of-Towners was a comedy classic, but I guess I figured the combination of Jack Lemmon and Neil Simon would be good for a few laughs.  It turns out the movie offers very few laughs indeed.  Lemmon plays George Kellerman, a businessman from Ohio who travels to New York City with his much put-upon wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) in order to conduct an interview for a prestigious job. Naturally, every thing that can go wrong goes wrong including a delayed flight that is rerouted to Boston, a crowded train to New York, the inability to get a meal anywhere, losing their hotel room, being robbed, and then abducted, and even getting caught up in an anti-Cuban protest.

There are a few good moments. I particularly like when Gwen and George celebrate finding half-a-box of Cracker Jack to eat for breakfast. The topical references – sanitation and transit strikes, Cuban hijackings – make it a good time capsule for 1970. The movie was also filmed on location in a lot of places in New York and Boston, so I really enjoyed seeing what places looked like 50 years ago.

The main problem with this movie is that George and Gwen aren’t very likable.  Lemmon and Dennis are so talented that I was never totally able to hate them, but I also wasn’t really on their side.  The running gag with George creating an Arya Stark-like list of people he is going to sue is just one of the many things that are plain not funny.  My sense is the New Yorker Neil Simon created his stereotypes of what an awful pair of out-of-towners from the midwest are like without considering that the protagonists are someone you should actually want to root for.  This movie, like the latter-day comedy Quick Change, falls into the “New York is Awful” genre, but I couldn’t help thinking that at the end of the movie when George and Gwen decide to (spoiler) stay in Ohio, that it is New York City that dodged a bullet.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)


Title: The Muppets
Release Date: November 23, 2011
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

After a 12-year absence, The Muppets return to the silver screen with a nostalgia-laden story seemingly formulated to tug at the heartstrings of Gen-Xers.  Nostalgia, Inc. has ruined many a good thing this way, but fortunately The Muppets strikes the proper balance between dropping in beats for fans to recognize and telling a new and original story. Ok, so it’s not exactly original since it’s the “getting the band back together” trope, but it’s done in the uniquely Muppet style.

The story focuses on two brothers, the puppet Walter (Peter Linz) and the human Gary (Jason Segel) who grow up as big fans of The Muppet Show.  Gary takes a vacation to Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and invites Walter along so he can visit the famous Muppet Studios. During the tour of the now-decrepit studio, Walter learns that an oil baron (Chris Cooper) will be demolishing the Muppet Theatre to drill for oil and the only way to stop him is for the Muppets to raise $10 million before their original “rich and famous” contract expires. Walter finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and together they bring the Muppets back together to perform a telethon.

The movie has the requisite corny gags and lots of recreations of famous Muppets moments in the telethon.  But it also has a certain gravitas of old friends putting aside some bad history to come back together again.  Segel and Adams are fine in their roles as the human characters, but they do seem extraneous.  The one big exception is the musical number “Man or Muppet” performed as a duet between Segal’s Gary and Walter which is a hilarious performance. I hadn’t watched The Muppets before, and I was skeptical that it would be good, but I’m glad I finally caught up.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Finding Dory (2016)


Title: Finding Dory
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I know I watched Finding Dory, but for some reason I didn’t review it on this blog.  Watching it again there were big parts of the movie I didn’t remember at all (I know, ironic, considering Dory’s condition) especially the conclusion when Hank the Septopus (Ed O’Neill) is driving a truck and crashes while a Louis Armstrong tune.  Did I not review this movie because I didn’t finish watching this movie? Did I fall asleep?  I hope not.

Anyhow, I’m glad I got to rewatch this sweet gem.  Dory (Ellen Degeneres) works through her short-term memory loss by trying to find her parents. The search leads her the fictional Marine Life Institute on the coast of California. There she meets and is helped by cranky Hank, Destiny the Whale Shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the Beluga Whale (Ty Burrell).  Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) follow along and try to catch up to their friend Dory, learning to be more like Dory in the process. And we meet Dory’s parents, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

This movie is more of spinoff than a sequel to Finding Nemo, and it makes good use of the undersea universe to tell a fresh, funny, and heartwarming story.  I especially like that Dory and most of the animals at the Marine Life Institute have a disability and the movie serves as a metaphor of how people live good lives with disabilities without being heavy-handed about it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppets from Space
Release Date: July 14, 1999
Director: Tim Hill
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Jim Henson Pictures
Summary/Review:

If a pastiche of The X-Files, with a soundtrack full of 70s funk classics, that also acts as an unnecessary origin story for Gonzo the Great appeals to you, this movie will be your jam. For the first time since The Muppets Take Manhattan, this is an original story rather than a Muppet retelling of a classic story.  This is also the only Muppet movie ever, out of the 11 made thus far, that is not a musical, excepting some Muppetized covers of the aforementioned funk songs.

Like the other 90s Muppets movies, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve  Whitmire) take the lead roles.  Kermit (Whitmire) is still the leader of the Muppet family who all share a large house in this movie. Characters introduced in the short-lived 1990s tv series Muppets Tonight, Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) and Clifford (Kevin Clash) make their movie debuts. The basic plot involves Gonzo receiving messages from his alien family while a government agent, Ed Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), tries to capture Gonzo.

I noted in my review of The Muppet Movie, that The Muppets pioneered a style of self-referential, ironic humor that became widespread in the 1990s, and by the late 90s/early 2000s had really played itself out (see The Emperor’s New Groove for a notorious example). Unfortunately, the Muppets have fallen victim to the worst of 90s comical excess in this movie with cringe-worthy moments of Hulk Hogan making a threat to his wrestling foes and Katie Holmes appearing as her character from Dawson’s Creek. Rob Schneider and Andie McDowell have bigger parts in the movie which shows they were really scrapping the bottom of the barrel for human cast members.

Nevertheless, there are moments of great hilarity in this movie, and when avoiding pop culture references, Muppets from Space can be great, anarchic fun.  It is clearly the weakest of all Muppet movies, but don’t let that stop you from watching it at least once.  After it’s still the Muppets, and the Muppets on their worst day are still pretty great.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Trouble With Harry (1955)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Trouble With Harry
Release Date: September 30, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched The Trouble with Harry several times in my teen years and found it uproariously hilarious with gorgeous scenery of autumnal Vermont.  I’d went so far as listing it as one of my favorite movies of all time. Granted, my recall isn’t perfect as I also remember a scene set at a barn dance that I must have conflated with some other movie.  Viewing the movie again after several decades, I found it not as laugh out loud funny as I remembered but, nevertheless, an entertaining, well-acted, and clever bit of movie-making.

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead.  With his body found laying supine in a hillside meadow, several people in the nearby town have reason to believe that they are responsible for his death.  Capt. Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) fears he may have shot Harry while hunting, while Miss Ivy Gravely  (Mildred Natwick) thinks it the result of her hitting him on the head with her boot in self-defense after Harry stumbled upon her on a trail.  Bohemian artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) takes a whimsical interest in the whole proceedings, while Harry’s estranged wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) feels no regret at becoming a widow.  A very young of Jerry Mathers of Leave it to Beaver fame also appears as Jennifer’s curious son Arnie.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppet Treasure Island
Release Date: February 16, 1996
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions
Summary/Review:

Muppet Treasure Island follows the same formula as The Muppet Christmas Carol: Adapt a 19th-century British literary work, cast a veteran English actor in the starring role, have Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) as the audience identification Muppets, and have the rest of the Muppets portray supporting characters and the chorus. I remember seeing this movie in the theater and was a bit underwhelmed, but on rewatch Muppet Treasure Island proves to be the rare movie that ends up being better than I remembered.

Much more so than the often somber A Christmas Carol, a pirate story plays to the Muppets’ anarchic strengths.  Tim Curry brings roguish charm to Long John Silver, and Kevin Bishop is a a good-natured Jim Hawkins with a nice singing voice.  Kermit (Whitmire) is perfect in the role of Captain Smollet. The music numbers are enjoyable, especially the bonkers setpiece “Cabin Fever”. I also love the running gag of rats going on a cruise.

Rating: ***1/2