Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)


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: Labyrinth
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates, Inc.| Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Surprisingly, I’ve never watched this Jim Henson production before, despite the fact that it came out when I was 12, the ideal age to watch this movie. I remember hearing that the movie was a dud, and believed the criticism, although in later years I learned that Labyrinth became a cult classic.  There’s a lot of talent involved in this movie – Jim Henson as directory, George Lucas as producer, Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the main scriptwriter, and David Bowie lending his talents to his performance as Jareth the Goblin King and his music to the soundtrack.

One might expect something huge from this confluence of talents and be disappointed by the smaller film that ensued. If you take the film on its own though, it is a wonderfully imaginative story that draws up fantasy folklore with impressive visuals. Jennifer Connelly plays the fantasy-obsessed teenager Sarah who resents having to babysit her infant brother and asks the goblins to take him away.  When Jareth does in fact take Toby to his castle he allows Sarah 13 hours to solve a labyrinth to recover her brother. The resourceful Sarah uses her knowledge of fantasy tropes to find her way through with the help of the cowardly dwarf Hoggle (Brian Henson), the gentle giant Ludo (Ron Mueck), and the overly courageous fox Sir Didymus (performed by Dave Goelz and voiced by David Shaughnessy).

Compared with present day fantasy and adventure movies, there’s very little preamble before Sarah jumps into her adventure in the labyrinth, and a brief conclusion as well.  While more grounded in the real world than The Dark Crystal, the movie is wonderfully fantastic with impressive sets, puppetry, and animatronics. On the downside there’s some poor chroma key work in some scenes especially the one where the Fierys are dancing.  This film falls into the part of Bowie’s career when he was making over-produced, synth heavy pop, although the songs are better than his work on Tonight.

I’m so used to actors in their 20s playing teenagers that I’m impressed that Connelly was actually 16, because she seems older. She does a good job of portraying the age when one begins to put aside childish things for grownup responsibilities.  Although, as we learn, those childish things will always be there when we need them.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)


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: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Release Date: July 13, 1984
Director: Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan more than once in the movie theaters as a ten-year-old, and then numerous times on cable tv, so I’ve probably seen it more than any other Muppet movie.  But it’s still been decades since the last time I watched it so my memories of it were vague. I know from reading Jim Henson’s biography that Henson was moving on to bolder visions at the time and this movie was an opportunity for Frank Oz to gain experience directing. The movie’s style is different from its predecessors and has more of a sitcom feel to it, but nevertheless still has the Muppets’ anarchic cleverness and humor.

Because the Muppets never have the same origin story, this movie introduces the idea that the Muppets met at college and after a successful senior theater performance are encouraged to take their show to Broadway. (This movie also features a fantasy sequence where Miss Piggy imagines the Muppets as babies, thus creating a whole ‘nother origin story spun off as The Muppet Babies). Unable to find a producer, the group splits up while Kermit stays in New York carrying out various schemes to get his show funded.  There’s also a sequence where Kermit suffers amnesia that I completely forgot about (hah!). Kermit ends up working in an advertising firm with other frogs who  are clearly all the Muppet performers offering their loving impersonation of Jim Henson saying “hmmm.”

There are some great bits involving a group of rats working in a dinner where Kermit also gets a job.  There are also the requisite cameo performances.  Dabney Coleman, of course, plays a villain, while Liza Minelli and Ed Koch play themselves.  But my favorite cameo is Gregory Hines who plays a roller skater in Central Park who ends up refereeing an argument between Kermit and Miss Piggy.  This movie also famously shows Kermit and Miss Piggy’s wedding, although I remember seeing an interview with Kermit on tv where he said it was just a movie and not real life.  Miss Piggy disagreed.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Hunchback of Nortre Dame (1996)


Title: The Hunchback of Nortre Dame
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Perhaps inspired by the successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as a Broadway/West End musical, Disney adapted Hugo’s other great classic novel for this Disney Renaissance movie.  While I wouldn’t say that kids can’t watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this movie is considerably darker than any other Disney animated feature before or since.  The movie deals with infanticide, physical and emotional abuse, racial prejudice, discrimination against the disabled, Christian ideas of lust, sin, and damnation, religious hypocrisy, capital punishment, and murder.  Yes, it’s heavy. It also has three comic relief gargoyles, and as ridiculous as that sounds, they’re really needed.

Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is a young man confined to the tower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame where he works as the bell ringer.  His cruel caretaker,  Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), will not allow him to go out due to facial deformities and a hunchback that Frollo claims make him monstrous.  Encouraged by his gargoyle friends (Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes) encourage to venture out for the Festival of Fools, Quasimodo finds himself humiliated and abused by the mob until rescued by a Romani dancer, Esmerelda (who is not only voiced by Demi Moore, but is drawn to look like her).

Frollo, perhaps Disney’s cruelest and most chilling villain (and clearly a representation of modern-day religious hypocrites and bigots), declares an all-out war on Esmerelda and the “gypsies” within Paris, while simultaneously lusting for Esmerelda.  It’s up to Quasimodo to break away from his fear and self-loathing to save Esmerelda, with the help of Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), Frollo’s conscientious captain of the guard.

I’ve never read Hugo’s novel, so I don’t know how faithful this movie is to the book, but I have to say it is a strange story for an animated film.  The animation, though, is absolutely gorgeous and brings medieval Paris to life as well as Quasimodo soaring through the spires of the cathedral (I do wonder how much of Quasimodo climbing the tower carrying Esmerelda was inspired by King Kong). The music, while not of the catchy sing-a-long variety, is good too and incorporates period religious music to good effect.

All in all, I’m not sure what to make of this movie.It has a good heart, but seems a bit uneven.  I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Oh, and did I mention that it also has a comic relief goat, too?  Because the goat is really awesome.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Oliver & Company (1988)


Title: Oliver & Company
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Director: George Scribner
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners III
Summary/Review:

On the precipice of the Disney Renaissance, Walt Disney Pictures released Oliver & Company, a movie that has many elements of the Renaissance era but doesn’t put them together quite right.  The movie features then-popular stars like Billy Joel, Cheech Marin,  Bette Midler, and Dom DeLuise, with musical artists like Huey Lewis, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Midler, and Rubén Blades singing on the cheerful soundtrack. The animation style is also a break from typical Disney style and the film is set in contemporary New York City.

The movie takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphan kitten who is taken in by a gang of street dogs including the carefree Dodger (Joel).  They steal and pickpocket to help the human Fagin (Dom Deluise), a good-hearted vagrant who needs to pay off a debt to the evil loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who looks an awful lot like Rudy Giuliani. Just as he’s settling in with the gang of dogs, Oliver meets a very wealthy, kind-hearted girl, Jenny (Natalie Gregory).  Jenny’s diva poodle Georgette (Midler) is insanely jealous of her new pet.  Comic hijinx ensue, and soon the stray dogs, Fagin, and Sykes intersect with Oliver, Jenny, and Georgette.

The movie is a bit of a mess.  Oliver is the protagonist for the early part of the film, but then it shifts to being a story about the “Company.”  The Jenny plotline is pure 80s cheeze (and mind you as an 80s kid I love that stuff, but I do warn you its schlock).  The songs are catchy, but lyrically tend to be obvious commentaries on the movie.  Dodger’s key song “Why Should I Worry?” is repetitive and the lyrics are basically nonsense.

I won’t say that Oliver & Company isn’t entertaining, but it doesn’t really go beyond the bare essentials of a competent movie for kids.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Hamilton (2020)


Title: Hamilton
Release Date: July 3, 2020
Director: Thomas Kail
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | 5000 Broadway Productions | Nevis Productions | Old 320 Sycamore Pictures | RadicalMedia
Summary/Review:

Five years after first hearing the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, I finally get to see what the performance actually looks like.  And I didn’t even have to pay $500 for a ticket!  This movie is made up of stage performances filmed over three shows in 2016 much like one of my all-time favorite Broadway-shows-become-movies, Camelot (1982). The high-quality film and steady-cam work enhances an already great stage production.

Since it seemed that most everyone I know was already watching this movie yesterday, I’m sure no one is waiting for my review.  Still, I do recommend watching it even if you’re skeptical about all the fuss. The story is somewhat loose with historical facts, but it needs to be recognized that this is a story for our times as much as it is history. The cast is predominately people of color who claim American history – all too often considered white history – as their own. Hamilton and Lafayette probably never considered themselves immigrants, for example, but in Hamilton they identify as such because the show is tying them into a longer story of the American experience.

Anyhow, there’s probably nothing more I can say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said.  I like it, I love the music, I love the deeply human performances from the cast.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Starstruck (1982)


Title: Starstruck
Release Date: 8 April 1982
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Production Company: Palm Beach Pictures | The Australian Film Commission
Summary/Review:

Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is an aspiring pop singer in Sydney, Australia where her family run an hotel bar beneath the footings of the Harbour Bridge.  Her cheeky 14-year-old cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) wants to be her agent and works to bring attention to her career. After securing a backup band at a local club talent night, Jackie and Ross set their sights on getting a spot on the tv talent show hosted by celebrity kingmaker Terry Lambert (John O’May).  Things don’t go well as the there are setbacks and betrayals, and then Jackie finds she must win a talent contest to save her family bar.

The movie is extremely corny, but in an irresistibly charming way.  Kennedy and O’Donovan are likable characters even when they’re being idiots.  And the New Wave music and fashions make this movie a terrific time capsule.  The group choreography that goes along with the musical numbers is awkward, and for some reason reminds me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it’s still enjoyable.

If you’re like me and wonder if a 1980s Australian musical had any involvement from the Finn Brothers, you would be correct.  Tim Finn in fact wrote one of the most memorable songs of the film, “Body and Soul.” (Watch the video for the great song and extremely awkward group choreography).

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Funny Face (1957)


Title: Funny Face
Release Date: February 13, 1957
Director: Stanley Donen
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The challenge for me with musicals is setting aside my logical brain and just enjoying the song and dance. Funny Face, for example, asks me to believe that Audrey Hepburn has a funny face when she is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful people of all time.  The movie is an odd one, with some startlingly feminist tones for 1957, although these are often undercut. Similarly it recognizes an emerging counterculture but mostly to make it a butt of jokes.

Funny Face can’t be faulted for its great sense of style. The movie uses bold colors and dramatic film techniques to great effect, and incorporates mid-century design into the background of its New York scenes versus the old world charms of its Paris settings. The music is entertaining, largely George and Ira Gershwin tunes composed for a 1927 Broadway musical called Funny Face that had an entirely different plot. Hepburn draws on her dance training performing several numbers, including a Bohemian dance in a Paris cafe, and we even get to hear her sing (unlike My Fair Lady, which was unfair to Hepburn’s lovely voice).

Kay Thompson, the author of the Eloise books, steals the show as the bombastic fashion magazine publisher Maggie Prescott. The trope of the domineering fashion magazine publisher followed by a gaggle of women editors is very familiar, did it start with this movie? On a photoshoot to a Greenwich Village philosophy book shop, Maggie and her crew harass the book seller Jo Stockton (Hepburn) and trash the store. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) takes a liking to Jo and stays to help her clean up. (He also kisses her without consent because apparently Fred Astaire always has to be creepy).

Avery convinces Maggie that Jo would be the perfect fresh face for their magazine’s new campaign,  since she has “character, spirit, and “intelligence.”  He convinces Jo to take the job since it would give her the opportunity to go to Paris and hear the lectures of the philosopher Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).  And so they go to Paris where there is singing, dancing, high fashion, and comic hi-jinks abound.  And, of course, romance flourishes because Hepburn must always be paired with men 30 years her senior for some reason.

Again, the logical brain must be disconnected, but once that’s done, there’s a lot to enjoy in this cheerful fluff of a film.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)


Title: Singin’ in the Rain
Release Date: April 11, 1952
Director: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Following-up on Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain continues the early-50s trend of Hollywood grappling with its own history.  Set in the late 1920s, the movie is a comedy musical based on the problems faced by the transition from silent movies to talkies.  Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, an experienced vaudeville performer who becomes one of the top leading men of 1920s silents, paired with the vapid Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).  The Hollywood publicity machine has convinced most people, including Lina, that their romance extends into real life as well.

On the night of a movie premier, Don escapes Lina and fawning fans and meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who expresses her disfavor for movies compared with theatre. Although it’s soon revealed that Kathy’s theatrical experience is as a chorus girl and that she is fan of Don’s movies, Don is attracted to Kathy’s independent mind (it doesn’t hurt that Debbie Reynolds is cute as a button too).

Don and Lina are set to make their first talkie, but their silent movie formula of success doesn’t translate to talkies, especially because Lina’s New York accent is inappropriate to historical romances.  To avoid becoming a laughingstock, Don works on a plan to make the movie into a musical with Kathy and his long-time friend and partner, Cosmo (Donald O’Connor).  Kathy will secretly overdub Lina’s voice.

The musical contains several notable song and dance numbers including Kelly’s famed performance of the title song, O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and the trio’s “Good Morning.”  The biggest number of all is “Broadway Melody” which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie nor does it make much sense in the movie they’re filming, but it is quite the spectacle, so who cares. If I have one criticism of this movie is that the jokes at the expense of Lina are too many and too harsh.  But, Jean Hagen was (deservedly) nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress while none of the other cast received nominations, so I guess she got the last laugh.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)


Title: Meet Me in St. Louis
Release Date: November 22, 1944
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A romantic comedy musical in vivid Technicolor, Meet Me in St. Louis is set in 1903-1904.  The movie is a series of vignettes for each season leading up Louisiana Purchase Exposition focused on the Smith family of St. Louis.  The oldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) is concerned about getting a marriage proposal from her beau, while Esther (Judy Garland with an unfortunate hairstyle) has a crush on the boy next door, John (Tom Drake).  The younger girls Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are more interested in mischief.  The focus on sisters hosting parties, attending dances, and concerned about marital prospects is reminiscent of the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice, but these sisters have a brother, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels Jr).  The family is rounded out with their mother Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor), Grandpa (Harry Davenport), and the maid Katie (Marjorie Main).  Their workaholic father, Mr. Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), presents the major plot twist to the story when he informs the family they will be moving to New York.

The movie is full of song and dance from the period, including several renditions of the title song.  It also introduces several new songs that would become standards: “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Garland is clearly the star, but O’Brien steals every scene she is in.  In fact, the Halloween segment where Agnes and Tootie go out to participate in basically widespread vandalism and violence may be one of the best things ever put on film.

The film is light and fluffy but its fun and the songs are joyous.  Watch it with your favorite misanthrope and see what happens.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)


Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****