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Was it my imagination...
...or did this magnificent History Channel documentary about the Kennedy assassination actually unfold without showing the assassination once? I need to regroup a bit here, because I was certain that I saw this TV special a year or two ago, so much does it feel like something I've seen before. But it appears for all intents and purposes to be brand-new, told in almost real-time (no narration or God-awful reenactments which are supposed to represent the actual history that we are so often subjected to in storm chaser videos and such). But this special- especially for the first 25 minutes- is absolutely amazing: plain black boarders with a teletype clock click minute-by-minute as the events of November 22, 1963 unfold: Kennedy's breakfast speech in Fort Worth, a quick flight to Love Field in Dallas, and the start of the motorcade into Dealey Plaza. And all the images are true documents: black-and-white and color film- both newsreel and home movies- interspersed with some fantastic quality b&w videotape, a medium still relatively new in 1963.
And then, perhaps the most genius edit of all: the moment the cars turn onto that small expressway past the Texas Book Depository at the strike of 12:30 pm CST, the scene switches *not* to the famous Zapruder film that we all know, but to the start of "As The World Turns," in monochrome videotape, with the first CBS Bulletin (voiced by an off-camera Walter Cronkite) interrupting the soap opera- just as it had 46 years ago.
Not seeing the event actually made this more frightening to watch.
When the action resumes from the bulletin interruption, the cars have already begun their sprint to the hospital, but we already know it will be to no avail. A few minutes later, the docudrama gives the same treatment on the ABC network, as a ladies' fashion show (also in its original black-and-white videotape) is interrupted by ABC/WFAA's "out-of-breath" program director Jay Watson. (Watson's ABC footage, it seems, is given more air time than the CBS Cronkite footage- perhaps because Cronkite's now famous on-camera reaction had been aired many times before.) Incredibly, horribly, it's all over at the strike of 1:00 pm, just a scant 30 minutes after it began, as the death knell tolls all over the country and the world falls into sorrow. Almost without a break, we are then given a minute-by minute blow of the antics of Lee Harvey (Harold?) Oswald- arrested almost immediately and transferred to what looks like the police station's night court. But by the time we can begin to process his back story, he, too, is gunned down by Jack Ruby (nee' Rubenstein)- this even caught on both film AND videotape. The remainder of the docudrama, of course, delves into the never-ending Warren Commission analysis of what really happened to the president, and the ensuing speculation as to whether or not there was more than one assassin- a speculation that continues to this day. For 4 grueling hours we are transplanted into a block of time, the events of which seemed to have happened in a matter of minutes. And, echoing a famous newsreel from the 1960's, we are there.
MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992)
Brilliant, honest, surprisingly caustic.
I first discovered "MGM: When the Lion Roars" on PBS about 5 years ago. Even then I only saw part of the documentary- and out of order, the last section first. I didn't know how much detail of the MGM history it actually covered until I saw the complete, 3-part documentary on Turner Classic Movies 18 months ago. When I finally digested even part one, I was flabbergasted. The documentary, lovingly narrated by Patrick Stewart, starts at the beginning (to coin a phrase from one of MGM's great fantasy films). We see the formation of Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer's "Mayer," starting from 1924 and the silent film "He Who Gets Slapped." We see the union of the brilliant young Irving Thalberg and Mayer as they concoct a bona-fide production factory- replete with school, hospital, police force, fire department, and commissary. The New York stockholders (headed by Marcus Lowe, later by Nicholas Schenck) are the magnates who actually oversee MGM, as well as the theaters who distribute the films made by MGM. And part 1 introduces MGM's first stars: Garbo, Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Helen Hayes, the Barrymores, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer Thalberg, and the studio logo- the MGM lion. Remembrances by many of MGM's staff- including Samuel Marx, King Vidor, William Tuttle, and Margaret Booth- give a no-holes-barred outline of just how the studio made (and in some instances broke) their stars.
A lot of the veterans interviewed seem almost hypnotic in their praise of the factory and the tyrannical Mayer- which is curious because there are a few pointed recollections by actors (including double-Oscar winner Luise Rainier and swimming star Esther Williams) who did not particularly care for the bullying, manipulative showman- a man not above fainting on cue to get what he wanted, or reminding his contractors that they were his property to do with as he liked. Part 1 ends with the untimely death of 37-year-old wunderkind Thalberg, and part 2 takes the factory into the 1940's and the war years when Mayer decrees wholesome, pious, family-oriented film only. The child stars are introduced: Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, June Preisser, Freddie Bartholomew, and most of all, Judy Garland (given a particularly long testimony by Rooney, who then curiously denies that MGM was responsible- even in part- for her drug addiction). A sobering begins to creep into the dream factory as stars- particularly the females- are unceremoniously dropped (or at least not picked up) as they begin to age. The new contractors- Lamarr, Allyson, Van Johnson, Greer Garson, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy & Hepburn- are introduced. A lot of MGM's male stars enlist and go to fight in the war, which annoys Mayer (of course) to no end. Producer Dore Schary (Mayer's political and spiritual opposite) is brought into the fold as "a new Thalberg," thought to improve movie quality while paring the ascending film costs and tolerate the emergence of the new medium of television.
Finally, MGM's legendary musicals make up a significant part of Act 3. One of the most pointed revelations is the contrast in musical film styles between sophisticated Arthur Freed and schmaltzy, sentimental Joe Pasternak (and they're absolutely right). The 1950's arrive and Mayer's 20-year feud with boss Schenck reaches an unimaginable climax when an "office coup" of sorts terminates Mayer from his own studio- and replaced by Schary, who puts an end to all the sweetness and virtuosity and concentrates on gritty message dramas. Many wonderful, stupendous film clips are shown- but amazingly, none of dancer Fred Astaire in the DVD release. (Despite having made some of the greatest musical films from 1948 to 1957- it appears that his widow holds the release rights to all his images, decreeing license fees for the use of his image. Consequently she had all his footage removed from this documentary, which is unforgivable.) The studio shifts management several times in the next dozen or so years, until the factory is more or less liquidated in 1974 and turned over to the MGM Grand Hotel project of Kirk Kerkorian. A particularly sad image is seeing the MGM sign removed from the executive office building in 1986. But what a time it once was.
The Women (2008)
Guess I'll stray from the pack once again...
...and say that I LIKED THIS FILM VERY MUCH!! For God sakes, remakes are not a mystery; the attitude of the producers is usually based on the myth that a modern audience would not warm up to the original (in this case, 69-year-old film), but they'd find time for a modern update. Overly simplified, but there you are. (I don't agree with that logic, but I AM over 40.) Anywho, I learned a long time ago the best way to view a film that is a remake or an update is to judge it on its own merit and put the brakes on comparisons. Just STOP thinking about the other films. Because Meg Ryan is Meg Ryan, not Norma Shearer. Eva Mendes is not Joan Crawford, Annette Bening is not Rosalind Russell, and so on. They are their own special creations, and bring their own brand of fire to the party.
Oddly enough, it was the supporting cast that impressed me more than anything else. I liked the additions of Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett-Smith rounding out our quartet of heroines. They were the most interesting updates. In the original film, the mom with all the kids was a high society matron, but here Messing is 'Edie,' a bohemian artist with crazy hair, crazy clothes, a disheveled studio, and four girls, plus another baby on the way. But she wears the mom mantle beautifully, and is sort of the heartbeat of the film. And the writers seemed to have combined the characters of sassy actress Miriam and 'old maid' author Nancy into the new, feisty 'Alex' for Pinkett-Smith. She's a smokin' book author- and lesbian- who's not afraid to get to the point in short order. And acting legends Cloris Leachman and Candice Bergen round out the impressive cast as housekeeper and mother of the heroine very nicely. There's still the annoying daughter, the cat-fight between the dogs, and the 'jungle red' nail polish, but there's also smoother, more layered characterizations in all of the cast. Some have complained that the character of Sylvia was ruined because they made her 'nice,' but that's incredibly short-sighted. The fact that she's no longer a catty, unhappy harpy determined to make sure those around her are unhappy as well does not diminish her impact one bit. Writer-director Diane English pens a wonderful third-act conflict which focuses directly on Sylvia and her crumbling magazine empire. This way, all the women of our film's title are forced to look inside themselves for security and fulfillment. And after they find themselves, they turn to each other- much like a family. Definitely a nod to the sensibility of the 21st century.
Mary's Incredible Dream (1976)
Surreal and daring.
I remember exactly ONE- no, make that TWO- things about this special: in one truly surreal moment, Mary is shown in a kind of sylvan setting dancing with Ben Vereen- in the same style that he used in his brief summer variety series. They're both in pastels, and the thing is a near-romantic ballet that shows them both off to good advantage. (One forgets that MTM was a truly lovely and graceful dancer before ever uttering one comic syllable.) The other thing is at the halfway mark of this hour-long special, her phone rings, waking her up in the middle of the dream (the entire special is framed as a dream), and she actually tells the person to call her back because she's "in the middle of an incredible dream right now," and goes right back to sleep and the dream resumes. I was laughing out loud at that moment, and I was only 13 at the time!!
The Judy Garland Show (1963)
As Long as We Need Her.
Judy Garland's one foray into series television was not perfect, but that was not entirely her fault. She was more anxious than anyone to make this a success, but the show's producers tweaked and ravaged the show's format so much that it ended up a flawed gem. Audiences would've been more than happy to see Ms. Garland just belt out one song after another, but early on her show was a musical variety hybrid, co-starred with 'second banana' dimwit Jerry Van Dyke, and featuring an uneven roster of guest stars, comedy sketches, and interviews over tea. Still, subsequent shows featured unforgettable appearances by Mickey Rooney, Mel Torme,' Lena Horne, Donald O'Connor, Ray Bolger, Jane Powell, George Maharis, and two honorable mentions: her own teenage daughter Liza Minnelli, and a 21-year-old Barbra Streisand who had not yet begun her own star launch with 'Funny Girl.' But then there was Judy herself- 41 years old, slimmed down to a gorgeous waif in beautiful gowns by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan doing incredible things: one-woman concerts, clown skits, comic improvisations, pantomime, and of course, the songs: 'Ol' Man River,' 'Live Your Life Today,' 'You Go To My Head,' 'Too Late Now,' 'Swanee,' a stunning up-tempo version of "Come Rain Or Come Shine,' and a positively blazing rendition of "As Long As He Needs Me-' with the voice in the unforgettable quiver and vibrato that always brought audiences to their feet, even in a darkened theater. The DVD's render a marvelous B&W picture, as these shows are digital transfers from the original, show quality, 2-inch videotapes. Kudos to Pioneer Entertainment for making this series possible.
Nobody here is telling the truth.
Good grief...the attacks, the smug, sarcastic asides, the soapboxes on how this country is outta control with political correctness- Momma Mia!! And the truth is, no one would care if this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical classic was redone for a 30th time if the cast was white. There are literally the same complaints over and over again about the audacity of a black Cinderella (or a black queen or a black fairy godmother), but swift denials of any racist feelings or speculations. Yes, this version of the R&H musical is flawed, but the flaws (for me, at least) have absolutely NOTHING to do with the casting. (In this modern day and age, if people want to vocalize racial distaste, they say things are "too PC," which is clearly shorthand for "too-many-black-folks-in-the-room." How does a fairy tale- which has a pumpkin turning into a coach and a dress vanishing at the stroke of midnight- merit a debate about realism based on the fact that some of the actors are ethnic? Who are you fooling with these comments?)
I thought Brandy was lovely- especially in the spotlight solo "In My Own Little Corner." And I loved "Ten Minutes Ago-" the elaborate waltz which pairs Brandy and Paolo Montalban (an Asian prince?! Eeek!!) in a rather extravagant duet which gains in scope with a spinning 360 degree camera and lots and lots of dancers. What didn't I like about it? That the medium was completely changed from a TV play to a CGI-heavy movie. The first two productions had exclusively been done for television, in a television medium. The original live 1957 broadcast could not be taped (tape wasn't thoroughly invented yet), but thank goodness the 1964 broadcast was (some of that live feel is retained in this middle version). I would've loved for the 1997 production to be videotaped, where it would've felt a touch more intimate and warm. But it ventures out-and-over the top too often, such as in the elephantine "The Prince is Giving a Ball" and "Impossible," which seems to be all about the crazy light effects surrounding the floating carriage. I think the latest version needed more intimacy. For instance, one of the best scenes in the entire production features a minuscule epilogue not in either of the previous versions. Following the ball (and "A Lovely Night"), Cinderella's fairy godmother emerges one more time to persuade her charge to find her prince and tell him the truth, underscoring that she believe in herself and trust the prince to love her for exactly the way she is. A lovely, powerful moment which relies on nothing but simple, honest sentiment.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
"What we've missed, Lucia...."
The true beauty of "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" is that the romance which ultimately springs forth from its two stars is fully realized, fleshed out, and consummated without them ever having physical contact. I won't spoil anything by going over too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that what begins as a verbal battle between the sexes never disappoints as it gradually turns into the most thoughtful and sensitive banter betwixt a man and woman. And even though there are no kisses or exchanges of "I love you's," the friendship, longing, and love which passes between Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is smoldering, even bewitching. (Consider, in particular, the exchanges of dialog between Lucy and the Captain: he accurately sums up her practical, but somewhat loveless union with her late husband; she asks about his life as a sailor and what made him go to sea in the first place, and so on.) Every exchange they have is like two concert instruments playing in perfect harmony. And yet there is an unspoken yearn for them to take their friendship to the next level. Add to this a positively stunning music score by Bernard Herrmann, whose orchestral crescendos begin weaving a spell as soon as the Fox logo appears on screen. There are later, equally glorious, scenes- like Lucy and the Captain, at the end of their pen collaboration, gently revealing their affection for each other for the first time ("what's to become of us?"); Harrison's late-night departure from a sleeping Tierney which will make your heart race and simultaneously bring tears to your eyes; and a particularly moving epilogue (which I think often goes unappreciated) of a middle-aged Mrs. Muir with her beautiful college-age daughter, who has her own revelations about the salty sea captain. At once lovely and bittersweet it is. And that *still* isn't the climax of the film!!
This Time for Keeps (1947)
A major and minor vehicle at the same time.
This film is an enigma because, while it is a properly light-hearted musical (but weren't they all), it also boasts a great many oddities- starting with the strange title (exactly what in the film is "for keeps?"). Esther Williams plays a properly likable, properly beautiful, water ballerina whose relationship with Jimmy Durante (a legend whom I've always enjoyed) should have been that of a father and daughter, but instead is something a tad stranger. Thankfully, this isn't ignored in the film, as her actual love interest (Johnnie Johnston), whom Durante relentlessly 'protects' from Williams, challenges his interference in the film's 11th hour. (While Durante seems to have a bothered conscience about this, it is never confirmed or denied.) Co-starring with Williams and Durante is the very genteel and old-school tenor Lauritz Melchior as Johnston's meddlesome (and somewhat annoying) father. The musical numbers are delightful, if a tad uneven in quality. I wasn't particularly fond of Durante's "Lost Chord" routine, but it appears to be legendary with most listeners. I prefer Johnston's "Easy To Love," the various Xavier Cugat pieces, and most of all, the provocative striptease and swim of "Ten Percent Off."
If it had been an American film, people would hate it.
I should clarify that I actually love "Cinderella" stories. I think what I really love is the challenge of how each subsequent version is going to differ from (or somehow outshine) the last one. Each Cinderella story is infused with new things, old things, and just plain bizarre things. In this telling, there is much more emphasis on the prince- after all, Richard Chamberlain is top billed. Unfortunately, the characterization of his prince Edward is no different from any other fictional depiction of royalty: born of privilege, but hating it and wanting to live like 'regular people.' (If these were actual royal figures, such a wish would never commence.) The story also expands roughly a half hour beyond the glass slipper finding its rightful owner, and for me this dragged the film out considerably. Nevertheless, it's still the quintessential fairy story.
Yet I am amazed that so many posters hail it as some sort of Kirousawa-like masterpiece. Is this because it's a British film? We always seem to rate European films just a little higher than American ones, calling them high art and so forth. And as critical as so many are especially about musical films recently- RENT, CHICAGO, THE PRODUCERS, and perhaps most acerbically and nastily, DREAMGIRLS- they all seem to turn a deaf ear on this one. I did like the costumes and set pieces, but was not thrilled with most of the Sherman Brothers' score- save two rather exquisite songs. It paces a bit sluggishly and, at 143 minutes, is about 43 minutes too long.
There are two saving graces: One is in the name of Annette Crosbie. Her fairy godmother is a dream and a scream at the same time. Possessing incredibly dry wit and very sly on the subject of magic, it appears that she works with other famous fairy tale heroines (some of whom are referenced throughout the film). Her introduction to Cinderella as a simple, practical woman who shuns the "sparkle and glitter," and seems to want to unionize fairies worldwide, is hilarious. And the rags-to-riches sequence built around the song "Suddenly It Happens" is magical indeed. (How could it not be, with mice that turn into ballet dancers even before they turn into horses?) The other saving grace is the ball: easily some of the most exquisite costumes ever assembled for a period film, all in an amazing rainbow of sherbet-like pastels. The ball sequence is climaxed by a glorious grand waltz, which begins with two dancers on an empty floor, then adds other couples- two and four at a time- joining into the swirling and spinning choreography, until all are waltzing in the same direction and having a marvelous time. A truly breathtaking sequence. I almost wished the film had ended right there.
Stepping Out (1991)
Obviously, I saw a different movie.
I loved "Stepping Out." If you chose not to, you're more than entitled (as people who hate so much around these websites are wont to say), but for God's sakes, get the facts right. The company of dancers in question does not "put on a show" in this movie. That's something that star Liza Minnelli's mother did in films over sixty-seven years ago. (Gosh, people's obvious prejudices against musical films is so sadly obvious here.) The company of working class, small community tappers PARTICIPATE in a benefit show already established by a haughty committee muckety-muck who makes her bias against Mavis Turner's awkward, beginning dance class painfully apparent. And there's your heartbeat of this very small, unassuming film. Shot on Canadian locations disguised to simulate upstate New York, STO is actually more in tune with the plot of A CHORUS LINE than any Mickey-Judy film. The obvious difference is that the dancers are not professional. They tap in a church hall after hours, after their regular jobs and family matters. It's their single emotional release, and the thing that makes them feel like kings. And while the film does not literally delve into the life of each dancer individually, it paints enough of an ensemble portrait to make you realize that these folks support each other, lean on each other, and love one another unconditionally, almost like a second family. I suppose the sentimental nature of that premise is too much for a lot of modern cynics to take, but there it is. Minnelli's plucky Mavis is the only real professional amongst them; she almost became a star, but didn't quite make it. Minnelli, in fact, has one lovely, CHORUS LINE-like moment in the film where she dances a solo to the title number (spotlight, mirrors, and all), then has to explain to a single eavesdropper how she briefly touched dance stardom before quietly, somewhat brokenly, retiring to Buffalo. But she truly believes in her dancers and is the perfect cheerleader and counselor to them in the end. And there is a fine, somewhat surprising epilogue which formally shows off the dance family- wonderfully represented by Ellen Greene, Andrea Martin, Bill Irwin, Julie Walters, Carol Woods, Jane Krakowski, Sheila McCarthy, and Robyn Stevan. It truly is a feel-good movie. In fact, it's a feel terrific movie.