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Madison Avenue (1961)
Cheap, dumb and stale
If not for CinemaScope and the encroaching middle age of the stars, it would be easy to believe this one had been sitting in a drawer at Fox since 1947 (and some of the rear-screen projection plates actually appear to date from the WWII era, among other evidence of a cheeseparing budget.) A series of underpopulated dialogue scenes in dingy interiors, nearly everything about MADISON AVENUE is off, including the fact that the bulk of it is set in Washington, D.C. Even the women's costumes are ugly and out-of-date; poor Jeanne Crain spends only one scene dressed as a loveseat from a Florida retirement home, but her lovely face is upstaged by a grim hairstyle pasted to her cheeks throughout, while Eleanor Parker's "glamour" get-up is the sort of thing Ann Sheridan might have worn 20 years earlier -- in a comedy, for satiric effect.
A plot this stale and simple shouldn't be this hard to follow, and pseudo-"smart" dialogue can't mask the makers' utter indifference to the workings of the advertising and public relations world, a milieu evoked with more brains and bite in THE HUCKSTERS, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and myriad other popular films from the late '40s and straight through the '50s. It's nice to see Dana Andrews apparently sober after a years-long, multi-picture binge but neither he nor his highly competent colleagues can make much sense of these opaque characters, their dubious motivations or their arbitrary reversals. Eddie Albert is particularly ill-served by a role that seems to have been written first in crayon, then with a blunt pencil stub by someone who hadn't read his earlier scenes.
20th Century Fox was in dire straits in 1962, the flops outnumbering the hits and the runaway CLEOPATRA bleeding their coffers dry. MADISON AVENUE is yet another example of the unimaginative, cash-strapped mediocrities that kept audiences home in front of their television sets while the legendary Fox backlot was sold off for commercial development. As the plot creaks its way to a hasty but lifeless conclusion, you can almost hear the wrecking ball warming up just outside the soundstage.
Rush Hour 2 (2001)
For 9-year-old boys of all ages and sexes.
Isn't any child hyperactive enough to enjoy this movie too
hyperactive to sit through this movie? Incompetent and infantile
even on its own mindless terms, it seems determined to expose
its stars' charmlessness at every turn while desensitizing its
young audience to random violence, from fists and feet to terrorist
bombs. A handful of surgically-enhanced human props are on
hand to represent the non-male of the species and there is a great
deal of sniggering about "moo shu", but no sex please -- we're
The shamelessly staged "outtakes" accompanying the final credits
include a plug for RUSH HOUR 3.
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Very sad indeed.
I never imagined the death of feminism would be celebrated so
cheerfully. And by women, yet. Renee Zellweger's warmth and
talent only compound the heartbreak. Nearly everything else about
this film, down to the sound effects, is false, degrading or irritating.
Watch this back to back with, say, SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL or
some equally smarmy 60s sex farce and ask yourself, "Is this
The Jungle Book (1967)
This time it's the sound, not the pictures
Generally acknowledged as the end of Disney's golden age (it's the last animated feature Walt supervised before he died), and the more modern, streamlined style successfully introduced in 101 DALMATIANS is starting to look bland and (gasp!) a bit cheap. Fortunately, THE JUNGLE BOOK features just about the greatest voice cast the studio ever assembled, and for once it's the human performances in the recording studio that really make the movie; perhaps only Robin Williams as the Genie in ALADDIN has created as forceful impression on the screen without ever being seen in the flesh.
The Sherman Brothers, perhaps still aflame with inspiration from MARY POPPINS, contribute their second-best song score, although the tune everyone remembers, "The Bare Necessities", was an interpolation by pop songwriter Terry Gilkyson. (And for an example of how fast and completely the Shermans cooled, see the same year's megaflop THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE. How could the same guys who wrote so cleverly for magical nannies and anthropomorphic animals turn so dim when it came to writing for actual humans?) Phil Harris, a huge radio star who didn't have the same success in films, is completely wonderful as Baloo, the sybaritic bear -- a kind of jungle Hoagy Carmichael or ursine Dean Martin, his rascally warmth transcends sentimentality. Sterling Holloway, Disney's erstwhile lovable Pooh, is equally perfect as a sibilant snake, hissing the excellent "Trust in Me". When the masterful George Sanders speaks, he supplies all the grandeur and menace the animation can't quite muster; too bad he only gets one line to sing (if you don't believe Sanders had one of the most impressive and underutilized singing voices in film history, rent CALL ME MADAM sometime.) The ultimate showstopper, of course, is lounge legend and professional wildman Louis Prima as the Orangutan king, infusing the inspired "I Wanna Be Like You" with his anarchic humor and fevered swing sensibility. By the time this becomes a scat "cutting contest" with Harris (Baloo, in the best non-Disney, Bugs Bunny tradition, has disguised himself as a female Orangutan to distract the king), the number has risen to a level of jazz-inflected ecstasy achieved by only the best movie and stage musicals.
The low point, and an unfortunate omen of what would follow up until THE LITTLE MERMAID breathed new life into the form, occurs at a critical juncture late in the action. The boy Mowgli, now wandering the jungle alone, encounters a trio of Cockney buzzards. One of them is clearly modeled after Ringo Starr, and I remember vividly thinking, watching the original theatrical release at age nine, how exciting and cool it was to see a Disney movie acknowledging my then-idols, The Beatles. But when they launch into song, it's immediately clear that Prima was as "far out" as Uncle Walt would ever get. Instead of the anticipated rock 'n' roll pastiche, the mop-topped birds sing in insipid barber-shop harmonies. Luckily, the movie winds up so quickly afterward that the harm isn't fatal. In spite of its flaws, it's hard to imagine a child, or even many adults, who won't find sufficient pleasure in THE JUNGLE BOOK.
A note on the stereo sound mix on the laserdisc (and, I assume, the DVD): it's grand. As in so many technical departments, the Disney sound engineers staked out the cutting edge of movie technology, and the happy result is a 1967 release that sounds as fresh and vibrant as if it were recorded last week.
Watch PINOCCHIO again, or Disney's ANNIE remake
The Disney folks must be applauded for reviving the live-action movie musical (albeit on television); it wasn't hard to improve on John Huston's gruesome film of ANNIE, but the Disney version actually seemed an improvement on the overrated Broadway show. And it's always fun to see stars not primarily known their for singing and dancing kick up their heels (if you haven't seen Kathy Bates' spectacular turn in ANNIE, rent it now.) So it's disheartening to report that GEPPETTO isn't even in the ballpark. Ostensibly a retelling of the Pinocchio story from his father's point of view, it will probably bore kids and puzzle most adults.
Admirably, Drew Carey as Geppetto displays none of his sitcom or stand-up personae, but hasn't found any persuasive replacement. It doesn't help that the character as written is pretty much a simpering wimp or that his wig appears to be the one originally worn by Patty Duke as the American twin on her old TV series; Carey could be auditioning for a biopic about The Turtles. In fact, the whole production has the look and sound of the kind of expensively cheesy sixties musicals that helped bury the genre: technically slick and impressive without being attractive or appealing. The tone, however, is pure nineties: guilty parents can only find happiness by learning to obey their children.
Hearing just a few bars each of "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "I've Got No Strings" here is enough to illustrate how uninspired Stephen Schwartz's score is. Schwartz seems at fault too for pushing Carey, who has a more than adequate singing voice, beyond his range; he could and should have sounded a lot more comfortable. As a hazily-conceived Blue Fairy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus attempts an unsuccessful homage to Billie Burke in THE WIZARD OF OZ, but also reveals a very pretty soprano behind the affected diction. Poor Usher Raymond gets stuck with the worst song, and though he looks like he could dance up a storm he's barely given the chance. Brent Spiner, with vocal chops to spare, comes off best, but then again he is playing the villain (and gets the best hair, too.)
It would be churlish to complain about Seth Adkins' whiny performance as Pinocchio; nearly all of the child actors have been directed to whine and sulk brattily, the better to manipulate their supplicatory parents. But the sheer awfulness of his costume and makeup is indicative of the production's creative clumsiness. With a grotesquely streaked face and awkward, artificial "puppet" joints, Pinocchio looks less like a little wooden boy than the unfortunate victim of some horrible real-life disease.
Le salaire de la peur (1953)
A workout for the nerves.
Don't be put off by the long, leisurely first act. Once the trucks roll out your heart will be in your mouth, and even the most jaded action-adventure fanatic is likely to go rigid with anxiety and stay that way right through the horrifying coda. Among the uniformly excellent principals, Vanel is superb and Montand sublime -- a fully human action hero who, without bulging biceps or snide catchphrases, could eat Schwarzenegger's lunch and make him say "thank you" for the pleasure. Clouzot's other great thriller, LES DIABOLIQUES, is an MGM musical compared to this. Not to be viewed by anyone about to take a driver's test or renting a U-Haul for the first time.
Une femme est une femme (1961)
Une bore est une bore
Not a musical, not a comedy, hardly a tribute to Hollywood movies -- not much of anything, really. I've seen Brigitte Bardot sex farces of the same period that remain fresher, edgier, even more cinematically inventive than this. Aside from "Breathless", isn't it time to admit Godard is among the world's most overrated auteurs? That more than Eric Rohmer or Joseph L Mankiewicz his films are mainly people talking, and the talk is none too scintillating? Wasn't his acclaim more a product of political fashion than artistic achievement? Is formal experimentation such a great virtue when it seems intended less to illuminate than to confound and alienate? Could the sentimental "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" actually be a far more more daring and radical (not to mention entertaining) formal experiment? The shabby-looking Fox Lorber DVD (with pale optically-printed subtitles) doesn't help matters at all.
Voulez-vous danser avec moi? (1959)
There are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes
The murder mystery plot is pretty limp, but Bardot is at her ripest and performs a joyous mambo. The gay subplot would have been unthinkable in a Hollywood film of the time; here the treatment is relatively casual and benign. The title song is a finger-snapping delight; how could it have escaped Bobby Darin's attention?
Cette sacrée gamine (1956)
Not naughty enough
Bardot is gorgeous and so is the production, which aspires to a near-Hollywood gloss, but this is mainly tired, formula comedy smelling faintly of imitation Damon Runyon. Bretonniere is no Yves Montand, and BB's big dance number is a failed imitation of Leslie Caron's introduction in "An American in Paris". Fans of "Time Code" (or perhaps "Tucker") may enjoy some clever split-screen effects that appear to have been achieved with trick sets instead of multiple exposures. A potential guilty pleasure for those who crave 50s CinemaScope eye candy.
Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965)
Lurid, sleazy, irresistible.
Filmed entirely in real New York locations (much of it on the fly, by the look of it) and dripping with sordid Times Square atmosphere, this is a cheap, sensationalistic, slightly arty psycho-sex-thriller with a startling cast drawn from Broadway, Hollywood, and the Borscht Belt. Elaine Stritch is unforgettable as a lesbian in furs, and the camera drools over Mineo and Prowse in various degrees of undress amidst acres of risibly salacious dialogue. If all this weren't tempting enough, three original songs by Al Kasha and Bob Gaudio grace the very 60's soundtrack (and is that an unbilled Joanie Sommers singing the haunting title theme?) Director Cates is Phoebe's dad, and had done much classier stuff on TV before it fled west.