No Skies of Gray on that Great White Way

SIDENOTE: This is (hopefully) to be the first in a weekly series through July, reviewing classic films that often get brushed under the rug. Enjoy and encourage!

A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

A triumph! A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

As renowned actor Ciarán Hinds said in a January 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, movie heaven is “anything with James Stewart or Cary Grant, plus regular doses of Singin’ in the Rain.” What that wonderful man seemed to forget was most of the MGM musicals, even before Arthur Freed’s arrival at the studio, are enjoyable romps that, at the very least, come close to the glory that is Singin’. The film in question for this week’s lesson is one that, in this reviewer’s eyes, equals it — Broadway Melody of 1940. The final completed film in MGM’s Broadway Melody series, 1940 strikes a tone that seamlessly blends Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Miller and Spike Jones in a bright and joyous trip down Melody Lane.

Two down-on-their-luck dancers, Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn) and King Shaw (George Murphy, later a California Senator) are both dancing for peanuts and actively avoiding the long arm of the IRS when talent agent Bob Casey (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz) asks to meet with Brett, the better of the two dancers. However, Casey doesn’t know Brett from another, and when the latter mistakes the former for a tax collector, Brett introduces himself as King Shaw. In the days to follow, the actual Shaw accelerates to the top of the dancing world, gaining ground with Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell, TV’s The Faith of Our Children), a rising dancer whom Brett is quite sweet on, causing a rivalry that builds as many bridges as it burns.

Truly, 1940 is the first of my viewing any of the Broadway Melody series, but unlike The Big Broadcast, Paramount’s competing series of yearly musical revues, MGM’s is focused on telling a story first, whereas Paramount seemed to build up the ensemble and songs first, then tack on a story to link them all together. The difference between them is akin to Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom and Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera — one expounds, the other extends. That being said, 1940 is cute, fluffy stuff that makes one laugh and cheer at all the right moments.

Astaire is in fine form, as usual, in dancing up a storm and, on occasion, singing sweet tra-la-las between taps. He also brings a fair amount of pathos in playing Johnny Brett, clearly jealous of his partner’s rise to fame and quite angry at himself for giving Shaw’s name to Casey. Powell, purportedly one of the few dancers who could out-dance Astaire (causing him to fear her), performs on equal footing with her leading man, and they share some impressive routines together, from a tap number in a café to a luscious Harlequin masquerade waltz toward the end of the second act. As for Murphy, the only thing I had seen or heard of his work was a bitingly funny song named after him, composed and sung by Tom Lehrer, so while it feels wrong to criticize him, I will say this: he is no Astaire or Powell, but anyone who can keep up with either of them in a number is respectable in that regard. Morgan gets some of the best gags I have seen in a musical revue, usually having to do with the absurd talent he attempts to bring in for his shows, the best of which is a thoroughly mutilated take on Il Bacio akin to a performance by Spike Jones and his City Slickers — I want more.

After Broadway Melody of 1940, a planned Technicolor installment was planned for 1943 (bizarrely enough, 1940 was designed to shoot in color, but was filmed in black and white). One tap number was filmed with Powell, but the film was cancelled not long after, and the footage was reworked into another ensemble picture, Thousands Cheer. A shame it never came to fruition, and an even bigger shame that musical revues are shunned from Hollywood today, barring jukebox musicals filled exclusively with creations of the last fifty years (i.e.: Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe), because if they would only go back a few decades further, they would find a myriad of brilliant compositions in film and music that could only help the film and music industries as a whole. Why settle for “Wrecking Ball” when you could “Begin the Beguine?”

Rating: 4.5/5

Buy the DVD from Warner Archive


Second Best is Still Among the Best

Y'know, I like the English poster a whole lot more.

Y’know, I like the English poster a whole lot more… though they forgot a comma between “Frears” and “Director.”

Philomena is a beautiful film, and ranks as my personal second best film of 2013, above The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and just below Saving Mr. Banks. As before, spoilers will be detailed, so go see the film if you haven’t already (as of this writing, it’s still in my area theaters).

Are we ready? Okay, here we go. The performances by Mr. Coogan and Miss Dench are well-thought and refreshingly believable; these leads never stoop to caricature or needless emphasis on a singular facet of the very real people they play — they are human beings, and little else, which is as it should be. Coogan’s portrayal of Martin Sixsmith (the straight man, if you will) is appropriately dry and wry, but he gives him a heart, with many moments of bonding throughout and notably exemplified in the film’s climax (which I will not spoil for you all; it has to be seen and/or heard).

As for Miss Dench, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so cuddly and innocent in a film before. She has acted in such a way before (i.e.: Ladies in Lavender, Tea with Mussolini), but in playing Philomena Lee, she isn’t happy-go-lucky from the get-go. In her first scenes in the film, she is a woman with a lot on her mind, her faith at a crossroad, and a heart that is empty, gradually improving as the film goes on, and in spite of the fact that she finds that her son is dead midway through the film, she then decides to learn about him from those who knew and loved him.

There’s a lot of faith to be found in Philomena, not just with Philomena’s faith that she’ll find her son, but learning to find footing in your faith — in this film’s case, Catholicism. As a Catholic myself, I am struggling to regain my faith due to a few past hardships, and while this movie doesn’t “cure” me or anyone (it doesn’t seek to, anyway, nor is it supposed to), it is somewhat inspirational, for reasons that should become evident if you have seen the film, and if you haven’t, definitely do so and as soon as you can!

Rating: 5/5

Well, it Hurth

Sums Up The Movie For Me.

Thor: The Dark World is a wet, cold mess. I have nothing good to say about it, so fasten your damn seatbelts, true believers — no good can come from bad.

Spoilers are all around this review, so if you don’t know the plot of this film yet, try Wikipedia or IMDb.

As a guy who not only adored 2011’s Thor but saw it five times in theaters and owns the Blu-ray, I got sick when I realized what I saw on a cold Thursday night in November. My biggest qualm lies in the story — it’s never focused; it twerks all over the place. The scenes on Asgard are too long and, I say with a heavy head, much too wordy. The first film got the science/magic of the story down pat because it was quick and didn’t dwell on the technical aspects, while this joint is lost in translation to Lehman’s terms.

With that in mind, the writing is apalling, which is probably the result of having six writers (five of which are credited) whose ideas do not merge, but crush each other. The scenes on Asgard and Svartalfheim move much too fast and, in some cases, seem cut abruptly short, while the scenes on Earth (why bother calling it “Midgard” in this one when you didn’t use the term in movie number one?) are reduced to Fantasia-length interstitials and try too hard at being comedic. Scale is also a problem — where the first film was massive, this is too small, or at least it feels that way, given how we are rushed through these what-should-have-been massive locales. The battle in Vanaheim, for example, is so small in size and importance that I do not feel that much is at stake.
In point of fact, I never felt like much was at stake for any of the characters, and because of that, I didn’t care much for them at all. Thor doesn’t change much while Jane never seems to be in much danger or care about the fact that she is marked for death thanks to the film’s MacGuffin, and the romance between the two of them seems stale and contrived. Meanwhile, Odin is too much of a king and not enough of a father to Thor and Loki — and why does he insist on leading Asgard to certain massacre after Frigga’s death? Not even the death of a loved one should completely impede the judgement of someone like him, especially when he is the one who banished Thor for restarting war with Jotunheim. There are too many problems abound — why should I care about Sif and the Warriors Three if they have no material? Why cast Zachary Levi as Fandral if he isn’t used much and we can barely catch a glimpse of his face? Where the hell is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the villain of the story? Was that Alice Krige as an Asgardian nurse in one scene? Why is Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) running around naked for half of his screentime (was Lars von Trier the Second Unit Director?)? Why isn’t Sif steaming with jealousy over Thor choosing Jane over her, his childhood friend? Why is Hogun, one of two culture quota fillers in the film, shoved out so abruptly? Why does this movie feel like it was shod together in one night? Also, the subplot about paths between worlds, hinted at by Loki in the first film, are almost untouched — perhaps another casualty of rewrites?

Speaking of Loki, I wonder if the creative brains behind this knew that the film is called Thor: The Dark World, not The Mischievous Misadventures of Loki, or Thor: The Dark World. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Tom Hiddleston’s acting and he has an eye for quality that I’ve not seen in any other actor… but like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, there is such a thing as too much of your favorite character, and in spite of Mr. Hiddleston’s desire to see Loki redeemed, he seems to be made up on the fly, with no defined path of character development; first he’s bad, then he’s sympathetic, then he’s bad, then he’s a hero, then he’s a dirty, lying bugger who murdered his adoptive father for a seat on the throne of Asgard. Thanos can’t come for his head fast enough.

Add to this the fact that the movie feels butchered from its intended length (what should have been a two-and-a-half hour film feels sliced-and-diced into one hour and fifty-one minutes), and what you have is, as said before, a wet cold mess.

Rating — 1/5. In truth, there are about five enjoyable lines; rent it from your local library.