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Musical Chairs (2011)
Be wary of many of the IMDb votes-
As of now, the rating for this film stands at a mere 2.2, which is quite low, and there is one aspect that makes the low score highly suspicious. There has been some known controversy about the film. Some in the disability community were quite upset that more disabled actors were not used in the film, and may have tried to influence the voting. They perhaps were unaware, or perhaps deliberately ignored, the fact that the leading female character begins as an able-bodied dance teacher. The idea that actress Leah Pipes is unqualified to act the role simply because she does not really use a wheelchair is truly ludicrous. (I am disabled myself, so I understand where the objections are coming from, but I disagree strongly with them.)
It is time this film received more exposure and that critical comment on it honestly reflected how well it is made, rather than reflecting biased attitudes. Films like this one, which has as its background the world of wheelchair ballroom dancing, are too important to let petty resentments get in the way of their appreciation.
This is, without a doubt, one of the worst short films ever made with a Christmas theme. The story revolves around a beautiful Fairy Snow Queen who brings some of Santa's toys to life as a practical joke because -- wait for it! --Santa fell asleep and didn't give her the sugar cookie he promised. (No, I am not kidding.) The acting is so awful it has to be seen to be believed, and according to IMDb, the actor who plays Santa Claus incredibly went on to better things, unless he is being confused with another actor with the same name. The film looks as if it were made in somebody's basement, although it was shot in color. Come to think of it, it probably *was* made in somebody's basement.
The film's only saving grace is that it includes music from Tchaikovsky's ballets "The Nutcracker" and "The Sleeping Beauty", but two of the pieces are so badly danced that poor Tchaikovsky and his choreographers are probably rolling over in their graves.
If you are a connoisseur of bad films, you will probably love this. It makes "Plan 9 from Outer Space" look like "Hamlet".
Vile, cruel exploitative show
I tuned into this show last night thinking it would be one of those "so bad it's good" guilty pleasures we all love to watch. It is nothing of the kind. This may be the cruelest television series I have ever come across. The producers think nothing of taking a likable young woman, confronting her with evidence that her boyfriend / hubby has been cheating on her with another woman, and then showing that poor girlfriend / wife reduced to a helpless, sobbing mass of humiliated grief as she discovers what her significant other has really been up to. (There are no re-enactments here; we get to see the real thing.)
"Cheaters" isn't even one of those reality shows in which you feel a sense of satisfaction at seeing the cheater get it stuck to them in the end. It is just pure exploitation, without a shred of compassion for the people who have just had their personal lives shattered by what they discovered. There is no buildup of suspense as one would find in a filming of a "sting" operation, just pure, unadulterated, "peephole"-style viewing of other people's anguish.
Hart to Hart: Harts on Their Toes (1982)
This is the first and only complete episode of "Hart to Hart" that I have ever seen (I managed to see it online). If it is any indication of what the series was regularly like, I certainly didn't miss much.
The plot revolves around Yuri Rostoff, a Russian ballet dancer who wants to defect, but is then accused of murder. Rostoff is played by American Ballet Theatre dancer Victor Barbee in one of his few dramatic acting roles, complete with an outrageously phony-sounding Russian accent. Let's be kind and just say that he is a much better dancer than actor. Another ABT member, the late Alexander Minz (viewers might remember him as Drosselmeyer in Mikhail Baryshnikov's famous production of "The Nutcracker") gives a much better, but still hammy, performance as ballet company director Boris Lermontov (yes, "Red Shoes" fans, that is the character's name). Minz, who was born in Russia, does have a real Russian accent.
The acting and writing are nothing to write home about in this episode. The identity of the real murderer is, unfortunately, not a surprise at all, and there is not a single plot twist that the viewer will not see coming far ahead of time. The final confrontation has no suspense at all, given the fact that the identity of the murderer is so easy to guess.
Even worse, this episode takes little advantage of the fact that a ballet company is featured. Very little dancing is shown, perhaps a total of five minutes, and the rest of the time is spent on the plot.
Skip this unless you are dying to know what "Drosselmeyer" sounded like when he spoke (he appears in the very first scene), or unless you are a rabid fan of "Hart to Hart".
Discovering Hamlet (1990)
Fascinating comparisons between this and Branagh's 1996 film
This 1990 documentary documents Kenneth Branagh's first try at playing Hamlet. It took place onstage in the late 1980's, with members of the Reaissance Theatre Company in support, all under the direction of actor Derek Jacobi. Jacobi had played Hamlet himself on television in 1980, and would play Hamlet's murderous uncle Claudius in Branagh's own brilliant 1996 film version of the complete play.
There are fascinating similarities and differences between this documentary (recorded on videotape) and the later film. We can see how Branagh himself (looking amazingly young and rather "green" here) develops his performance. At some points he seems considerably less unsure of himself than he does in his own film version of the play, other times his portrayal is just as confident and mature as it would be in 1996. The actors (except for Branagh) tend to speak the verse in a more "formal" way (i.e., as in Olivier's filmed Shakespeare) than they do in the 1996 "Hamlet", but at the same time, not one of them is stiff in his/her delivery. There are two moments -Hamlet's sarcastic treatment of Claudius after the murder of Polonius, and the "recorders" scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - which Branagh acts in a considerably quieter, less "over-the top" manner here than in his own film of "Hamlet", and one could argue that his sarcasm here is much more withering.
The other actors offer revealing insights into their own characters, and Jacobi, as a director, explains his rationale behind the staging of some of the scenes.
However, I must beg to differ with the previous reviewer who states that he saw this production in person and that the soliloquy "To be or not to be, that is the question...etc." had been omitted. I'm not sure if he is confused or not, but this video conclusively shows not only that the famous soliloquy not only was included, but that Derek Jacobi daringly broke with tradition by having Hamlet speak the lines not to himself, as he does traditionally, but to Ophelia, thus planting the idea of suicide in her mind long before she goes insane. (This is one idea that Branagh did not carry over into his own film version; in the movie, Hamlet speaks the lines looking into a two-way mirror.) While Peter O'Toole, who was ostensibly sitting in the audience, may have disapproved of some of the ideas used for the staging of this production, it is difficult to believe that one of them was the omission of "To be or not to be".
PBS issued this video originally, and it is an admirable supplement to Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film of "Hamlet".
Victory at Sea (1954)
Film version of famous TV documentary series
The feature film version of "Victory at Sea" was made for movie theatres, not television, much as Walt Disney made a feature-length film out of the three "Davy Crockett" episodes that aired on his program. And it is Alexander Scourby who is credited as being the narrator of the feature-length film.
However, it is very hard to tell the difference in the voices of Leonard Graves, narrator of the TV series, and Scourby. In other films, however, and in the many documentaries that he narrated in the '60's and '70's, Scourby's voice sounds distinctly different from the voice heard in the motion picture version of "Victory at Sea". Here it sounds suspiciously like Graves's voice.
Could it be that it was actually the same narrator for both the TV series "Victory at Sea" and the movie version, and that for some reason, two different actors were credited?
One of the most ill-informed and snide Christmas specials I've ever seen
As a general summary of Christmas specials over the years, this program is useful. However, it is only as one begins to look more closely at it that one begins to see how sloppily the research for it has been done, and what contempt those who made it have for the so-called "highbrow" Christmas specials.
Everything is fine as long as comedy and variety specials of the seasons are covered, but as soon as the program begins to delve into specialized areas, it gets into trouble. As an example, one section covers the "English Christmas" as transplanted to America, citing the classic 1951 film "Scrooge" (starring Alastair Sim) as the prototype for all the other Scrooge-influenced specials that followed. Evidently, the makers of this special were totally unaware that Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (on which the film "Scrooge" is based) has been a television staple since as far back as 1947, four years before the Alastair Sim film was made, and that during the 1960's, the most frequently seen version of the story was the 1938 M-G-M film version. The 1951 production, now considered the finest film treatment of the story ever made, did not begin to appear regularly on TV until 1970, by which time such famous Scrooge-influenced specials as "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" had already become established television classics. It boggles the mind that this easily verifiable information was not checked out by the makers of this so-called documentary.
Even more offensive is their dismissive attitude of another Christmas program that was once a television staple, Gian-Carlo Menotti's one-hour opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors". We hear the commentator smugly call it "the first - and very likely the last - opera written for television" (which, incidentally, it is not). There follows a smug commentary from one of the many "talking heads" interviewed: "Three little words describing why this never became a Christmas classic: it's - an - opera!" Obviously this gentleman has not done his research, or he would have known that "Amahl" was a Christmas television fixture for more than fourteen years, shown annually between 1951 and 1965, revived briefly in 1978, and produced for television again as recently as 2002 (the 2002 version was televised in England, but not, as yet, in the U.S.). It is the changing and increasingly lowbrow tastes of the public, as well as the poor condition of the 1978 film version of "Amahl", that have prevented its showing in recent years.
And as for the many telecasts of "The Nutcracker" that have sprung up since about 1965, this program completely ignores them, and blatantly offers the observation that "cultural" programs on TV have far less of a chance to become Christmas classics than such items as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", "Frosty the Snowman", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "A Charlie Brown Christmas".
While that last observation may be true, it is not the truth of it that offends, but the way the makers of "A Christmas Special Christmas Special" seem to endorse it. They seem to be saying, "Highbrow stuff is for the birds", and that is what is so obnoxious about this show. There is certainly a place for the animated specials, and lest anybody think I don't like them, I enjoy "The Grinch", "Charlie Brown", and "Rudolph" as much as anybody; in fact, I think "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is the greatest animated Christmas special ever made, and I never miss it when it is shown. But there is also plenty of room for the so-called "highbrow" specials.
Show Boat (1929)
Nothing special, though not as painful as I had anticipated-
I had long heard about this film version of "Show Boat", and "Show Boat" being my favorite Broadway musical, I had anticipated this part-talkie as something truly dreadful to sit through. It was televised the other day, and I finally got my chance to see it.
The film is not a catastrophe by any means, but it certainly isn't good, either. It is mostly silent, and much of the dialogue and singing that was originally part of the film has either been lost forever or simply not found yet. Some of the film's two-reel prologue has turned up (both sound and picture) in A&E's biography of Florenz Ziegfeld, so somebody should obtain those excerpts and include them as part of this showing. It is inexcusable for Turner not to have done so. At present, none of the prologue in the TCM print is shown visually; it's all audio, with an "OVERTURE" card on the screen as the songs are sung. And as of now, only two of the five songs originally filmed for the prologue are heard. The prologue now ends with Otis Harlan heard enthusiastically saying, "And now, Jules Bledsoe will sing 'Ol' Man River'!" - however, we never get to see or hear this portion!
The singing by choral groups supposedly heard on the soundtrack isn't in this print of the 1929 film either; all we get during the action is orchestral accompaniment and a few sound effects. Jules Bledsoe's voice can be heard on the soundtrack at the end, singing "The Lonesome Road", a fairly good number also in the style of a work song, but no match for the great "Ol' Man River".
As for the acting, it never becomes the kind of silent film or early talkie acting that strikes people as unintentionally funny. Laura la Plante and Joseph Schildkraut are actually quite good in their dialogue scene on the stage of the show boat (here, as in the 1936 film version, renamed the Cotton Palace). Schildkraut, especially, is good, his Viennese accent hardly getting in the way. He shows a surprising and welcome ability to act "intimately" as opposed to the hammy overacting featured in most early talkies, except in the scene where he gets drunk. Gaylord Ravenal is presented as being much more of a jerk in this version than in the Kern-Hammerstein musical adaptation; he is shown being especially nasty (verbally) to Magnolia when his gambling luck runs out.
The film is directed in a very flat style; nothing in it seems especially interesting and one never becomes involved in the story; in fact, the musical version presents the story more dramatically. The racial angle in the original Ferber novel and in the musical is completely eliminated in this 1929 version, however, draining the film of much of its potential dramatic power and leaving it little more than a romantic soap opera. And without the beautiful Kern-Hammerstein score to hear, except for those two songs in the prologue and an orchestral rendition of "Ol' Man River" played as background music during the boat's arrival, one is tempted to ask, "Why bother with this version when you can have the classic 1936 film, or even the 1951 remake?"
CBS News Sunday Morning (1979)
Still one of the best shows on television
If you remember to set your VCR, or if you get up at a little before 9 AM on Sunday mornings, you can tune in to what has now become one of the last commercial network television shows in which you can still see at least one feature story about the arts per week. In fact, no other commercial television program I know of covers the arts AND politics as well as this one does, not even "60 Minutes".
"CBS Sunday Morning" is one of the very few shows on the air that devotes equal time to news, politics, historical events of past years, famous people from all walks of life, show business, and the arts, and it does so in a highly entertaining manner. Despite recent efforts to gimmick it up with high-tech graphics in what has come to be known as the MTV style, plus an unfortunate new tendency to include commentary about rock musicians and rock music releases at the expense of stories about classical musicians (in a misguided effort to pander to the under-30 crowd) the show remains one of the best on television. It is most likely the only commercial network program that would have had the guts to broadcast the "Horowitz in Moscow" concert live.
The producers of this show should take pride in what they have accomplished over the last twenty-five years, instead of trying to be trendy and buying into targeting their audience. "Sunday Morning" does not need to apologize for appealing to a more intelligent segment of the television public, nor does it need dumbing down. Flautist Eugenia Zuckerman, who usually covers the program's classical stories, may be unable to still do this, but surely CBS could bring some other classical luminary as a regular correspondent and put more emphasis on classical music than they recently have.
Still, that is no reason to write this program off as unwatchable. On the contrary, it is highly watchable, and it is the ONLY commercial television program, aside from, perhaps, "60 Minutes", on which one can see and hear the work of some of the world's greatest artists. No one should miss it, even if they have to set their VCR's to catch it.
Gideon's Trumpet (1980)
The very best of the post-1970's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" productions
In another review, I stated that the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series was never as good during the last twenty years or so as it had been during its glorious days in the 1950's and '60's. There was one brilliant exception, however, and this is it. "Gideon's Trumpet" can stand up proudly alongside all the other "Hall of Fame" episodes of the past as one of the finest made-for TV films ever made.
It tells the true story of Clarence Earl Gideon, an ex-convict who, in the early 1960's, was accused of breaking into and robbing a convenience store in Florida. Claiming innocence, he was forced to serve as his own lawyer because states' laws at that time did not require an accused person to be automatically given a lawyer. Failing miserably at his own defense, he was sent to prison, where, as a model prisoner, he studied up on law and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to be granted a lawyer.
This phrase has already become a cliché from overuse, but Henry Fonda, in one of his last performances, does not play Clarence Gideon--he IS Clarence Gideon. He inhabits the role so completely that we never believe we are watching Henry Fonda; we believe we are seeing a poor, inarticulate, awkward, somewhat cranky, but basically kind man named Clarence Gideon. Fonda utterly lives the role in a way that he seldom does in his other films (although he was an excellent actor).
The other actor who gives a memorable performance is José Ferrer, as Abe Fortas, who pleads Fonda's petition before the Supreme Court. As Fortas, Ferrer gets to do one of the things he does best, and which he had not done to my knowledge since playing "Cyrano de Bergerac"--deliver a long, impressive speech. I don't know how much of the speech was actually taken from the Court hearing and how much was written by the excellent screenwriters, but there are few things as satisfying as an actor who not only gives a great performance, but also delivers a long speech beautifully. The thrill of hearing Ferrer's rich, beautiful voice argue a case before the Supreme Court is enough reason for me to tune in to this film every time it is shown on TV.
There is also a cameo from Fay Wray, as Fonda's longtime landlady, and the other Justices of the Court, all of whom are also excellent, consist of such familiar faces as John Houseman, Sam Jaffe, Dean Jagger, and other familiar character actors from television.
This great production might strike some viewers brought up only on action films as boring--there is no action at all in it; it's like watching a filmed play--but, believe me, there is not a single boring moment in it, if you appreciate well-written characters and dialogue. And this film avoids all of the drippy sentiment that has plagued "Hallmark Hall of Fame" over the last six years or so. If only this anthology series had stayed on the level of "Gideon's Trumpet".