Recent Movie Marathon: Encanto (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Encanto
Release Date: November 24, 2021
Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

In Disney’s latest animated musical, we meet the Madrigal family of Columbia who have magical abilities and live in an enchanted house (“Casita”).   The main character is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a 15-year-old who is the only member of the family who did not receive a magical gift.  The premise is simple, Mirabel must use her natural gifts of empathy and resourcefulness to hold the family together during a crisis.

This is one of those movies where a summary would not do the film justice.  This is partly because much of the “magic” of this film is the bright colors and beautiful visuals.  It’s also blessed with catch tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who seems to be everywhere these days).  Finally the interrelation of the large, extended family each with individual talents and personality quirks just won’t translate to a list.

I enjoyed Encanto and it’s a worthy addition to the growing library of Disney animated features.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: tick, tick… BOOM!
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment | 5000 Broadway Productions
Summary/Review:

tick, tick… BOOM! is a biopic about Jonathan Larson done in the style of a Jonathan Larson musical, and based on Larson’s own “rock monologue” produced on-stage in 1992.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead role, cleverly renamed as “Jon,” as an ambitious playwright/composer  trying to get his sci-fi musical Superbia produced in 1990, but running into brick walls.  The title tick, tick…BOOM! refers to Jon’s upcoming 30th birthday and his feeling that he’s running out time to make it big in musical theater.  We in the audience know that the real Larson was running out of time as he would tragically die at the age of 35 just before his hit musical Rent made its Off-Broadway debut.

Garfield’s performance is full of charisma and anxiety, and he does not shy away from portraying how Jon’s monomaniacal focus can make him be quite a douche to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). But he never becomes unsympathetic.  In addition to a strong cast, there are a number of cameos by Broadway luminaries, including the original cast of Rent. The music is strong overall, similar in style to the music of Rent, so if you like one you’ll like the other.  The song “Why,” where Jon reflects on his childhood memories with Michael while playing piano in an empty Delacorte Theatre slayed me.

I saw a Rent ages and ages ago and really liked it at the time.  I knew a bit about Larson, but this movie – even if its partially fictionalized – gives me a better appreciation for him as a person and his work.  The director of this movie is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m beginning to realize owes a lot to Larson.  It’s all the more sad that Larson never got to enjoy the same kind of success and admiration that Miranda is experiencing now.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1954)


Title: A Star Is Born
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Transcona Enterprises
Summary/Review:

The second of four Hollywood movies entitled A Star is Born, stars Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, a vocalist in a traveling big band.  Her performance entrances fading movie star and alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason) and he seeks her out to offer her a chance at a Hollywood career.  The svengali nature of his pursuit is very uncomfortable to watch and it’s enhanced by Mason being one of Classic Hollywood’s creepiest actors.  By the intermission, Esther is a star (given the stage name Vicki Lester). The second half of the movie deals with Norman’s deterioration as his career fades while Esther’s rises.  It’s a very honest depiction of alcoholism and depression, for the 50s.

The movie contains several song and dance set pieces that really allow Garland to shine.  But they don’t feel as if they support the movie’s plot so much as offer a distraction from it.  The one exception is when Esther recreates a big production number from her current film for Norman in their living room.  It’s really the only moment we get to see them having a sweet moment.  Otherwise A Star is Born is overlong, melodramatic, and a bit boring.

It’s a bit eerie how much the movie parallels Garland’s own troubled career.  Norman’s character is criticized for delaying production on his films but in real life Garland was delaying production of A Star is Born with her absences.  At the time this movie was made, Garland had been in show business for around 20 years and A Star is Born was supposed to be her big comeback.  She was only 32 years old.  That’s so messed up.

 

Rating:

Movie Review: Hello, Dolly! (1969)


Title: Hello, Dolly!
Release Date: December 16, 1969
Director: Gene Kelly
Production Company: Chenault Productions
Summary/Review:

Hello, Dolly! is the type of exorbitant, technicolor song & dance musical that I think was already old fashioned at the time of its release in 1969.  It may be the last musical of the classic style because in the 1970s, adaptations of Broadway musicals like Cabaret and Grease had a very different feel to them.  Hello, Dolly! has a long pedigree, going back to 1938 when Thornton Wilder wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, itself based on a century-old story.  Wilder rewrote the play as The Matchmaker in 1955, and in 1963 it was adapted once again as a Broadway musical starring Carol Channing.

In the film, Barbra Streisand stars as Dolly Levi, a widow who works as a matchmaker in New York City and is, as the kids these days say, so very extra!  Dolly sets forth with an elaborate plan to convince the prosperous but cranky Yonkers’ merchant Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) to marry her. She also convinces Horace’s hardworking store clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) to enjoy a day in New York with the milliners Irene (Marianne McAndrew) and Minnie (E. J. Peaker). Chaos ensues.  The movie also features a cameo by Louis Armstrong in his last movie role before his death. He sings the title song with Streisand, a song that he got to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, knocking The Beatles out of the top slot, because pop charts are weird and wonderful that way.

Hello, Dolly! is rather corny, and often very horny, and a lot of it doesn’t really make much sense. (What does Dolly see in Horace, anyway?)  But on pure spectacle, it’s a lot of fun with some great song and dance, so it’s worth a watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021)


TitleMuppets Haunted Mansion
Release Date:  October 8, 2021
Director: Kirk Thatcher
Production Company: Soapbox Films | The Muppets Studio
Summary/Review: Kicking off this Halloween watch-a-thon with a brand new special on Disney+.

The Muppets and Disney’s Haunted Mansion are two of my favorite things, so bringing them together is right in my wheelhouse. The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) skip the Muppets’ Halloween party to take the challenge of staying in a haunted mansion overnight.  Will Arnett plays the ghost house and numerous other celebrities (many of whom I don’t recognize) make cameos.  Probably the best cameo for Haunted Mansion  fans is Kim Irvine, an imagineer whose mother Leota Toombs appears in the original attraction. There are a few jump scares, including one with John Stamos of all people, but for the most part the show is corny dad jokes and clever songs.  It starts off slow but it gets a lot better as it goes along.  Definitely worth adding to the annual Halloween viewing rotation.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)


Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Summary/Review:

Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg.  But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers.  Then there is the soundtrack!  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie.  It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.

George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar.  The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.

The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either.  Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical.  The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)


Title: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a movie star of song & dance films who was big “about 12-15 years ago” but whose career is fading.  In other words, pretty much Fred Astaire at the time this movie was made.  He returns to New York where his friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) have written a Broadway musical they want Tony to star in. They’ve enlisted a very serious producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the musical despite Tony’s misgivings.  Cordova re-envisions the musical as a modern-day retelling of the story of Faust and the devil. He also recruits ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star in the show with Tony.

The main tension of the film is the big differences and age of Tony and Gabrielle that need to be resolved if they are going to be able to work together.  Cordova also keeps changing the show to be more over-the-top with elaborate sets and effects and making the show more of a serious metaphorical drama than the light comedy envisioned by Lily and Lester.  Chaos ensues.

Once all the conflicts are resolved the film finishes up with several numbers for the actual show.  I guess this was supposed to a victory lap for the performers but the movie fizzles out for me a this point, especially since none of these numbers would makes sense in a show together.  “Triplets” is nightmare fodder and the big set piece, “Girls Hunt Ballet,” is weird but entertaining. It actually reminds a lot of  “Broadway Melody” from MGM’s big musical of the previous year Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, the two movies have a lot in common, which makes The Band Wagon feel a little formulaic, but if you like one you’ll like the other.

It’s a good formula though, and I really like the part of the movie where they do song and dance about making a show better than the song and dance from the show.  Standout numbers include “Shine Your Shoes,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  If you like movie musicals you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Nashville (1975)


Title: Nashville
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville.  Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before.  The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days.  The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.

Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture.  I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York.  As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places.  Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.

The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings.  I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out.  The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate,  Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).

Among the cast, the standout performances include:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign.  Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
  • Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
  • Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
  • Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo.  He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
  • Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
  • The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.

Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief.  Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing.  This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.

Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much.  Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film.  I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****