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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".
Peter Pan (2003)
Along with Mary Martin's version, this is the best
After not being able to for nearly a month, I finally got a chance to see this new version of "Peter Pan" yesterday. It is nearly everything I could ever hope for, and the flaws in it are so minor that they are insignificant compared with the virtues of the production. This version of "Peter Pan" just may become the standard by which all future non-musical versions of the story will be judged--that is, if the film is given the kind of chance it should be given. It does not take a genius to see that the hype given to the latest "Lord of the Rings" installment has completely thrown the chances "Peter Pan" might have had out of kilter.
I am not trying to diminish the staggering magnitude of Peter Jackson's magnificent trilogy. But someone must fairly acknowledge the excellence of this "Peter Pan" as well. Director P.J. Hogan has been quite reasonably faithful to the beloved stage classic, even to the point of retaining quite a lot of J.M. Barrie's original 1904 dialogue. All the most famous lines are here:"Second to the right--and straight on this morning", "To die will be an awfully big adventure", "Hook or me this time", and so on. There is not a weak link in the entire cast--Jeremy Sumpter is the perfect Peter Pan, although he does tend to speak some of his lines a little too quickly, Jason Isaacs is a truly frightening and unlovable Captain Hook, as opposed to the comical villain we are used to seeing. He is almost unrecognizable as Mr. Darling, and proves his enormous versatility and chameleon-like ability in both roles. Rachel Hurd-Wood is the best Wendy I have ever seen; if things go well for her, she has an assured future as an excellent actress--and so on, and on.
The only quarrel I would have with the adaptation is that Tiger Lily's part in the story is severely reduced; it is John and Michael who are kidnapped by the pirates rather than her. But she is given a hilarious bit when the two boys are rescued, and rather than being full of innuendo, as some critics have charged, it comes off as a welcome bit of innocent humor.
Which brings me to the way some critics have treated this film--charging that it has an improper sexual undercurrent that other "Peter Pan" versions don't. I frankly think that such statements reveal much more about what critics like to read into films than the films themselves. There is absolutely NOTHING SUGGESTIVE about this film, and those who insist that there is frankly are hypersensitive to suggestions of sexual innuendo. The potential sexual humor in this film will go right over children's heads; in fact, I found the humor quite funny without being in the least salacious. Tinker Bell in this version is hilariously cynical in her jealousy of the relationship between Peter and Wendy. The drawing that Wendy innocently makes of Peter hovering over her bed is not intended to be suggestive at all-- it is her teachers who wonder about it--a clear scriptwriter's jab at people with dirty minds, and it is clear that Peter had no improper intention whatsoever.
The relationship between Peter and Wendy is more clearly poignant than in other versions. It is clear that she loves him, although more in a puppy-love way than as an adult, and it is equally clear he does not understand her feelings because he is too intent on remaining a boy. In the Mary Martin version this situation was made into a comical moment--in this one, it takes on sadness.
The production design, special effects, photography and costumes are excellent, and the full weight of Barrie's tragic overtones has been caught on screen for the very first time. There are some frightening scenes in this version, especially that crocodile, but many truly magical ones as well.
Do not wait until this "Peter Pan" shows up on DVD, VHS or cable. Rush to see it now, while you have the chance, and let's hope the Academy takes notice of it.
A one-hour commercial for M-G-M
Despite its misleading title, this is not a condensed history of M-G-M Studios. It is a one-hour promotional piece for what seems like every single one of M-G-M's then-upcoming releases for late 1950 and all of 1951, and although it's fun to watch to see the way film studios used to publicize its releases, it plays like a one-hour commercial, and can quickly get tiresome if you're not passionately interested.
At the beginning, the great actor Lionel Barrymore appears onscreen, making us hope that he will be our guide for the film; no such luck, unfortunately. Dore Schary, the then-new head of M-G-M, who ousted Louis B. Mayer from power, is our host, and he is quite bland and forgettable. We see clips (some of them quite familiar) from both Metro classics and obscure films, none lasting more than a minute or two, and one of the few interesting things about "The Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Story" is that some of these clips were shot before the films were actually finished. So, we get to see bass-baritone William Warfield shot from an entirely different camera angle, one that does not appear in the finished film, as he sings "Ol' Man River" in M-G-M's 1951 version of "Show Boat".
Unfortunately, "The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Story" does not go into detail about any of the films or how they were made, so all we basically get are tons of clips from M-G-M's 1950-51 films, and no single clip is long enough to keep us entertained (unlike, say, the "That's Entertainment!" films). "The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Story" is good for curiosity value, but it is no substitute for either a documentary about M-G-M or one of the "That's Entertainment" films.
Great Performances: Kiss Me Kate (2003)
Everything that the 1953 M-G-M film should have been
At last, somebody has had the good sense to present an excellent, uncut, uncensored "Kiss Me Kate" on television.
Those who are familiar with the classic musical only through the wildly overpraised 1953 film can now see for themselves how much better the show is in its original form. This is the London production of the recent Broadway revival, all two-and-a-half hours of it. The lyrics have been left as Cole Porter wrote them, all the songs are retained, and performed at their full-length, so that we can bask in their gentle naughtiness.
Everything about this production is as good as it could possibly be. While Brent Barrett as Fred Graham/Petruchio does not have the huge baritone voice that Howard Keel has, his voice is certainly quite excellent, and he sings his Act II reprise of "So in Love" with enormous sentiment. His Lilli Vanessi/Katherine is Rachel York, who is not only infinitely sexier than Kathryn Grayson was in 1953, but outacts and outsings Grayson all the way. (Barrett himself also gives a fine acting performance as Fred, investing the character with much more hilarious sneakiness than Keel did in the film version. Their scenes together crackle with a depth and electricity I have never seen in this musical, and their nuances of expression when they recall their happier wedded days bring a very welcome touch to the story.)
The character of nightclub singer Lois Lane--no, not the "Superman" character---has been made in this production into a real floozy, complete with an annoying speaking voice, unlike the ladylike but scatterbrained character than Ann Miller played in the film, and Nancy Anderson is excellent in the role. It makes her "Taming of the Shrew" transformation into the demure Bianca that much more incongruous. Michael Berresse as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio is miles ahead of Tommy Rall's grating, cutesy performance in the M-G-M film. He is very appealing in the role, a fine singer, and an excellent dancer.
The gangsters are every bit as funny as in any other production of this musical, and we finally get to hear the entire "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", with its lyrics getting more and more suggestive with each verse.
"From This Moment On" is sung in this version not by Bianca's suitors, but by Lilli and her new fiancée, here refashioned into a pompous General Douglas MacArthur look-alike with Presidential aspirations, rather than a Texas oil tycoon.
The choreography is brilliant, with a truly showstopping "Too Darn Hot", performed, as it should be, by the black characters in the show. The direction, by veteran Michael Blakemore, is completely assured, and if this production of "Kate" seems slow to some people, perhaps it's because they are used to the 113 minute film rather than this 150 minute staging. (More of Shakespeare's text for "The Taming of the Shrew" is featured in the stage version.)
This "Kiss Me Kate" is deserving of all the acclaim it has gotten, and is one of the finest musical productions PBS has ever broadcast.
Brush with Fate (2003)
Pathetic carbon copy of "The Red Violin"
I suffered through half this film before I switched to "Dr. Strangelove" on TCM. It is yet more proof that the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" has become hopelessly bad. Glenn Close misleadingly gets top billing, and delivers a magnificent performance, but she is in less than a third of the film. Her performance as an art enthusiast makes everyone else, including the usually reliable Ellyn Burstyn, seem even worse.
The film, following the pattern of such films as "The Red Violin", tells the stories of several owners of a beautiful lost Vermeer painting through the centuries. Perhaps the producers of this mawkish telefilm were hoping that lightning would strike twice, but if so, they forgot the need for subtle writing and direction, which are both hopelessly sentimental and hardly above the level of soap opera in this film. Ms. Close, as if sensing this, gives a performance that wipes away everyone else. In fact, the acting, with the exception of Close, is uniformly bad, as if we were watching a bad daytime drama in period costume.
The people who made this film obviously thought that by tackling an intellectual, sophisticated subject like a great Vermeer painting they could give the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" the class it once had, but they forgot to leave behind their recent tendency for corny writing and dramatics.
Les Misérables (1935)
The best American film version of the novel
Although you would not think so from reading some of the reviews here, the 1935 film version of "Les Miserables" is excellent and one of the best film versions of the novel, especially considering its 108 minute length. It is too much to ask a film that lasts a little less than two hours to pack in all the important incidents in a book that consists of more than 1,000 pages. No film has ever been able to do that, and three-hour American films, except for a couple of D.W. Griffith features, were virtually unheard of before 1936 (the year that "The Great Ziegfeld" was released).
Fredric March gives one of his finest performances as Jean Valjean---far better than Michael Rennie's pallid one in the 1952 remake-- and his voice reminds one not of Jimmy Stewart, but of John Barrymore, an actor to whom March was often compared to in his early days. Although he seems to be on the verge of overemoting once or twice, he can also be quite subtle and sardonic (just watch him in the scenes in which he implies that Javert has no idea of how to temper justice with mercy, or his performance in the scene in which he first meets Cosette at the inn). March, now virtually forgotten by today's younger generation, was easily one of the best actors of the twentieth century, whether on stage or screen, It is a pity that he never felt inclined to act in a Shakespeare play or film, a decision he himself came to regret.
Charles Laughton is equally as good as the vicious, single-minded, and in this version at least, neurotic Inspector Javert. Laughton's small touches, far from making his performance seem hammy, vividly illustrate the personality of a man so ashamed of his own parentage that he cannot bear to talk about it without seeming to be about to break into tears. If it had not been for his brilliant Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty", released the same year as "Les Miserables", Laughton would almost certainly have been nominated for his performance as Javert.
John Beal and Rochelle Hudson are adequate as the lovers, although Beal is hardly anyone's idea of a sexy, dashing young man. Hudson's performance is infinitely preferable to the awful one given by the beautiful Debra Paget (best remembered as Joshua's love interest in "The Ten Commandments") in the 1952 remake of "Les Miserables". Eponine in this version is not portrayed as a prostitute, probably because of the censorship restrictions of that time, and Gavroche is completely eliminated from this version. Cedric Hardwicke, in a very small role, is fine if a little too syrupy, as the bishop who aids Valjean after he is released from prison.
The legendary Gregg Toland's photography is excellent, and the scenes in which Valjean serves in the galleys are frighteningly realistic for a major Hollywood film of this era (the scene in which March is beaten and begins screaming in pain is profoundly disturbing, and it recurrs later on in a nightmare).
The 1935 "Les Miserables" easily eclipses all later versions in English, and still stands as one of the best Hollywood versions of a literary masterpiece.
The Nutcracker (1993)
As excellent and accurate a film of the Balanchine production as could be made, despite Macaulay Culkin
Those who have given this production such a low rating probably have never seen the celebrated George Balanchine production live onstage, or are letting their disdain for the star casting of Macaulay Culkin influence their judgement. The Atlanta Ballet was fortunate enough, from the 1960's to the 1980's, to be the first ballet company authorized to stage this production other than the New York City Ballet, and I have seen it live onstage several times. I can assure readers that the film is a quite accurate rendering of this production, and that the use of a child with limited dancing abilities in the title role is not a cheap stunt dreamed up to showcase Culkin; it was Balanchine's idea to use a child in this role, just as it was his idea to use a child for the role of Marie. The "heavy" dancing is left to the adults in the story.
This is deliberately a stagebound film; in a way, it resembles Laurence Olivier's "Othello". Exactly as in that film, the sets of the stage production have been enlarged to the size of a movie soundstage, but not made any less artificial, and the ballet is straightforwardly photographed with discreet closeups, and without the distracting "music video" quick cuts featured in the 1986 overrated Maurice Sendak-Carroll Ballard version. There are only two false steps in this 1993 film. One is the addition of distracting and completely unnecessary sound effects (mouse squeaks, the children whispering "Ma-gic!" to Drosselmeyer,etc.). Those sound effects are never heard in any stage production of any "Nutcracker", and they have been put in as a cheap concession simply to appease unsophisticated audiences who may not relish the idea of watching a ballet on film.
The other false step is Macaulay Culkin's nutcracker make-up, which looks absolutely ridiculous. When he is on screen as the Nutcracker, rather than wearing a huge mask (as is always done when the Balanchine production is performed onstage), Culkin is actually made up as the toy - he wears what looks like a bald cap, as well as a white wig, whiskers, and a beard. He also has his face rouged up somewhat, and the worst aspect of his make-up is that it is still recognizably his face, amateurishly transformed in a manner similar to Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr's makeups in "The Wizard of Oz" (that film's makeup results though, worked spectacularly, as this one's does not). And a comparison with Baryshnikov's nutcracker in *his* production shows how wonderfully creative Baryshnikov's nutcracker mask was - the "jaws" actually seemed to move whenever Baryshnikov tilted his head back.
The dancing itself in the Macaulay Culkin version is excellent, of course, except for Culkin himself, whose dancing, as I said, isn't meant to even be spectacular. (The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are the prominent dancing roles in Balanchine's production of "The Nutcracker".) The film's colors, though, could be a bit brighter since this IS a fantasy. The choreography is also brilliant, and the adaptation of it is so faithful as to include the sequence that features additional music from Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Sleeping Beauty" - as Marie sneaks downstairs, falls asleep on the sofa, and dreams that Drosselmeyer is "repairing" the broken Nutcracker (this sequence was, of course, never included in Tchaikovsky's original ballet---it is the only sequence in this production which features music from a work other than "The Nutcracker").
Those who have missed out on this film, or those who despise (or loathe it) should give it a chance, despite its two big drawbacks. It is far better than it seems when one first hears that Culkin is in it.
Hallmark Hall of Fame (1951)
Sad deterioration of a once-great anthology series
I have been watching this anthology series since the early 1960's. It was once one of the greatest television programs ever produced, a guarantee of quality television every single time.
The earlier version of the series, which lasted from 1951 to approximately the early 1970's, presented live, and later videotaped, productions of both high-quality recent plays as well as 90-minute versions of Shakespeare's works and other stage classics. They featured renowned stage and screen actors who, at that time, made extremely rare television appearances, so there was always a special air of excitement about the whole thing. The plays were always performed on what would now be considered "cheesy" sets--obviously studio-built, sometimes deliberately artificial, but still quite good-looking. And of course, there was the acting - every single program showcased at least one memorable performance, some so memorable that they are still talked about (Julie Harris' Queen Victoria in "Victoria Regina", for instance).
With the change in tastes and in method of presentation, and an increase in the budget, the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" began filming their programs on location, beginning in the early 1970's. Only one of their earlier presentations - the 1960 "Macbeth" - had ever been filmed on location, in Scotland, rather than presented live or on videotape in a studio.
Some of the newer episodes, such as the television remakes of "The Small Miracle" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy", and Glenn Close's Emmy-winning "Sarah, Plain and Tall", were still quite good, though not on the level of the earlier ones.
But over the last few years, this series has deteriorated into a collection of mostly totally forgettable original dramas that don't even begin to approach the level of the glory days of this show. It has become so bad that I have stopped watching it altogether, and the fact that Hallmark is willing to let this once great program go to pot is a sad commentary on commercially-minded television executives. Thank God that Hallmark has now turned its attention to the excellent series of literary classics which show up from time to time on Turner Network Television. THOSE are programs which remind us what the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" used to be.
About fifteen years ago, there was a series that aired on local late-night television with the title "George Schaefer Showcase Theatre". Imagine my shock when I discovered that this series, relegated to syndicated TV limbo, consisted of some of the greatest presentations that the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" has ever aired! That any local TV station would dump these programs in a late-night time slot and pass them off as forgotten old movies is the ultimate indignity. Someone should revive and remaster those classic episodes and show them regularly, in prime time, over and over, as a reminder of our television past. Modern day TV executives could use such a reminder.
Rather sick (and I don't mean that as a pun)
This is an extremely short film presumably dealing with a young disabled boy's efforts to communicate to his beautiful nurse that he is hopelessly infatuated with her. It could have been a poignant, touching, and realistic short subject. Instead the filmmaker seems intent on doing nothing more than exploiting the situation for shock value, like a carnival freak show.
SPOILERS FOLLOW--so if you don't wish to know what little plot there is, don't read on. However, you may be so repulsed by the "plot summary" that these spoilers may actually save you the trouble of seeing the film:
As the film opens, a nurse comes to visit the disabled boy, and he very explicitly takes her hand and pleads, "Touch me". She knows exactly what he means, does not respond, and quietly goes downstairs. As she works at a desk, the boy, who normally uses a wheelchair, crawls out of bed, drags himself to the stairs, and slowly, painfully tries to crawl down the stairs, all the while moaning, "Touch me", in an ever increasingly desperate tone. Finally he collapses at the bottom, whereupon the horrified nurse runs to him, cradles his head in her arms, and takes his hand gently as he gasps one last "Touch me", and goes limp. Whether he dies or not is left up to the imagination. Fade out. End of film.
I found this treatment of the plight of the disabled to be repulsive, offensive and disgusting. Yes, it is horrifying to see the boy twist his way downstairs, but is this intended to make a point, or is it just for shock value? The film gives the impression that nobody was really interested in telling any kind of story, just to dwell on the pathetic sight of this boy dragging his body down a long flight of stairs and possibly killing himself in an attempt to declare his love. There is no understanding, no empathy, and not even an indication that the director is interested in anything resembling characterization, plot development, or any of the basics of film narrative. There is just the feeling that he was leeringly, voyeuristically, interested in the boy's situation, not trying to identify with it.
The Paradine Case (1947)
So what if there's no action?
"The Paradine Case" has gotten an undeserved bad reputation as one of Alfred Hitchcock's least interesting films simply because it does not use any of the gimmicks and brilliant visual touches Hitchcock is famous for: a man being chased by a crop duster, inventively shot murder scenes in locations such as the ones in "Psycho", people dangling from Mt. Rushmore, unusual settings such as a cramped lifeboat. As if these touches were all that made Hitchcock great! If these touches are all we watch Hitchcock for, it's as shallow a reason for watching films as going to see summer movies merely to see special effects. A great director like Hitchcock deserves more credit than that.
"The Paradine Case" is, on the contrary, one of Hitchcock's most entertaining films, if you are willing to concentrate on dialogue and characterization rather than flashy visuals. Gregory Peck is the barrister assigned to defend Mrs. Paradine, a woman on trial for the cold-blooded murder of her blind husband, and it is immediately obvious that Peck is so besotted by this beautiful, mysterious woman that he is in no position to be objective about his client. Peck does quite a good job, but one can only wonder how Laurence Olivier, who was busy filming "Hamlet" at the time, and who was Hitchcock's first choice for the role, might have played it. Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo for the role of Mrs. Paradine, but was unable to get her, and settled for Alida Valli, who is excellent, if not as beautiful and mysterious as Garbo. Louis Jourdan plays a suspicious-looking witness in the case, but Hitchcock wanted Robert Newton (famous for playing Long John Silver and other disreputable characters) for the role, and Newton would have provided a far more different and repulsive characterization (apparently Hitchcock's intention).
Charles Laughton unforgettably plays the judge at the trial as a sadist and a supremely dirty old man, who hates Peck because Ann Todd (as Peck's wife) refused his advances once, and Ethel Barrymore, brilliant in her limited screen time, is Laughton's intimidated and submissive wife.
The majority of the film does take place in the courtroom, but so does "Witness for the Prosecution", and no one has a bad word to say about that film. (Would they have done so if Hitchcock had made that one? The Agatha Christie thriller doesn't contain any flashy visual touches either.)
Those who love Hitchcock for only his "trademarks" perhaps need to look a little harder and think a little deeper, and then they will appreciate this excellent film.
Marcelino pan y vino (1955)
A reply to the previous comment--
I feel almost provoked to comment on this film here, and I say this not as an especially religious person (which I am not), but as someone who feels that a film should not be unfairly criticized because of someone's faulty--or would it be more accurate to say willfully (?) -- distorted summary of the plot.
To begin with, Marcelino is bitten by the scorpion while he is playing outside the monastery, but at no point in the film does he ask to see the crucifix for any reason. He has been frightened by tales of a "bogeyman" in the attic by the monks, who wish him to stay away from it. OUT OF CURIOSITY, and for no other reason, he ventures in, sees the Christ figure, thinks it is the feared bogeyman, and tears back down the stairs. (The figure, incidentally, is a beautiful wooden carving, not gory in the least.)
After an unfortunate incident, in which he is taken to a festival and unwittingly causes a commotion by accidentally letting some animals run wild, the new mayor, an enemy of the monks who have raised Marcelino, swears to shut down the monastery. Marcelino is given the silent treatment by the monks, and it is then that he goes again to the attic, realizes the "bogeyman" is only a statue of Christ, remarks that it looks hungry, steals some bread, and offers it to the statue. It is then that a miracle occurs---the statue comes to life, eats the bread, and eventually, because of Marcelino's repeated visits, becomes Marcelino's teacher and confidant (Marcelino realizes who he is). And the vision is *not* a hallucination. The statue's final act in the film is intended only as a reward for Marcelino's kind actions, and it is done at Marcelino's innocent, but completely self-aware, request.
This is by no means a vicious, sadistic film; it is a beautiful, gentle one. It is a pity that there are those who would distort its meaning.
Der Nußknacker (1964)
A short-lived annual tradition
This 1965 German-American co-production, first telecast on prime time by CBS-TV just a few days before Christmas, was the first "Nutcracker" I ever saw. An exceptional achievement in its time, it has been dwarfed by all of the later full-length telecasts of the ballet. It was first broadcast at just about the same time that the full-length "Nutcracker" began being performed all across the United States, but after being shown a mere four times (between 1965 and 1968), this version was permanently retired (at least from American television).
It lasts a little less than an hour, and is, of course, drastically shortened from the complete 90-minute ballet. I have not seen it in more than thirty years, when CBS discarded it, instead of turning it into an annual tradition as they did "The Wizard of Oz". What stood out for me about the 1965 "Nutcracker" and makes it such a vivid memory (other than the fact that the music is beautiful and the dancing is brilliant), is that it alters the story line of the ballet and has virtually no special effects, a strange alteration in a work partly written to show off those effects.
The telecast follows the pattern once set by "The Wizard of Oz". Eddie Albert appears on video tape as host of the program, which then leads to a filmed presentation of the ballet---the difference being that you can hear Albert's narration throughout; he does not entirely disappear once the main attraction begins. Because it is on film, the dancers - members of the New York City Ballet as well as several other companies, have far more room to move in.
Those looking for a Christmas tree which grows, and magical toys, will be disappointed here, because, other than the fact that there is a dancing Nutcracker, there just aren't any magical toys. As always, Drosselmeyer gives Clara the Nutcracker as a present, but he does not bring any life-sized dolls who dance. Then, as soon as Clara begins dreaming, the story changes so that now there is no battle with the mice, the Mouse King never appears, and the dolls and toy soldiers never come to life! Instead, Clara and the Nutcracker must travel to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy so that she can change him back into a Prince (echoing Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City), and along the way they encounter the Russian dancers, Mother Ginger and her clowns, the flowers, etc. Edward Villella dances beautifully as the Nutcracker, but he never appears wearing a Nutcracker mask or makeup; we just have to accept the fact that he is the Nutcracker because Eddie Albert's narration tells us so. (The narration is far more prominent in this version than in the later ones, and will probably annoy some viewers.)
If this version of "The Nutcracker" is ever brought back from TV oblivion, it is worth a look. It made quite an impression on me when I saw it, though later viewings of the full-length ballet eventually made this one harder to accept as "the" television version. Just take it with a grain of salt as an artifact of its time, an unnecessarily watered down, but well danced presentation of Tchaikovsky's great ballet.
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
An overrated play becomes an overrated film-
I consider myself a discriminating viewer, and I enjoy historical epics as much as anyone-- "Laurence of Arabia", "Becket", "Anne of the Thousand Days" and other period films are among my favorites. But I have never understood the wild acclaim given to "A Man For All Seasons", a perfectly enjoyable film that makes an audience think, but is so subdued that it never moves one emotionally. To me, it has always been a scandal, and a sure sign of the Motion Picture Academy's conservatism, that this film won a Best Picture Oscar over the much better "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", and that Paul Scofield, as great as he is in this film, beat out Richard Burton in what is surely Burton's most brilliant performance onscreen.
When I first saw this film, I could not understand the acclaim for Scofield's performance. It seemed so ordinary---no fireworks to it at all. Then, years later, I saw a college production of the play, and the actor who played Thomas More in that production missed all the tiny nuances that Scofield brought to his portrayal. It was then that I understood how carefully Scofield had created his performance.
Unfortunately, his performance does not keep the film from being just a reasonably good historical drama.
The dialogue in "A Man For All Seasons" tries hard to be "interesting", pseudopoetic, and provocative, but just falls flat. (Robert Bolt often is rather disappointing for a screenwriter and playwright who is so highly esteemed. Think of Bolt's screenplay for "Lawrence of Arabia", for instance. Is the screenplay for that unforgettable film REALLY it's most memorable quality?) Just compare his dialogue with Edward Albee's savagely hilarious, barbed one-liners in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", and you will notice the difference instantly. Nearly all of the dialogue in that film is endlessly quotable.
The other actors in "A Man For All Seasons" have been just as good in any number of films. The standouts are Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey. Each is onscreen for only about fifteen minutes; yet they come close to stealing the film from Scofield.
This film is most certainly not the greatest film ever made, as some here claim---just compare it with the great films of Olivier, Burton, and Peter O' Toole. It is well acted, it is beautifully crafted visually, but it just does not have the impact of other great epics. And I am not saying that because there are no action scenes or explosions every five minutes. An epic can be thoughtful and quiet. But this film is very one-note, unlike other great plays brought to film, and most of the blame must be laid at the feet of Robert Bolt. "A Man For All Seasons" works too hard at being subtle without being very interesting.
One of the most fascinating and entertaining of this series
From 1958 until 1972, four times a year, CBS broadcast a series of concerts that created television history- the New York Phiharmonic "Young People's Concerts", narrated and conducted by Leonard Bernstein, twenty-eight of which are currently being broadcast twice a week on the cable channel Trio for the first time since their original airings. These programs introduced millions of young people (like myself) to some of the world's greatest musical masterpieces for the first time.
But if they had been merely concerts, they would not have been nearly as well remembered. What made them so magnificent was that Bernstein explained the music to the audience, and no one has ever been able to explain classical music like Bernstein. Not only did he have a brilliant, conversational way of speaking, he was eloquent and poetic and his explanations were never dry and dull, nor were they condescending. He also wrote every one of his scripts himself.
This is one of his most informative, entertaining and even humorous programs, and one which surely must have made conductors like Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy squirm. In it, he shows us how NOT to play a classical piece - by conducting the New York Philharmonic in a deliberately ultra-romantic, schmaltzy, wildly exaggerated performance of part of the slow movement of Haydn's "Symphony no. 88", and then, with tongue-in-cheek, pointing out, one by one, all the wrong things that the orchestra did. (It is Bernstein's position that an orchestra should not have its own "sound"; that its sound must vary with each composer, and although Bernstein is tactful enough not to mention any orchestras by name, one does instantly think of the Philadelphia Orchestra during the Stokowski and Ormandy eras when he speaks about orchestras having "their own sound".)
He also demonstrates the differences in orchestral sounds in German and French music, showing us how a given instrument must change its tone quality depending on the composer, and by doing this, he gives the viewer a crash course in the different qualities of orchestral sound, and skillfully deflects any criticism of his own interpretations (Bernstein in those days was often severely taken to his task by so-called "music critics", especially for his interpretations of eighteenth-century works, and he himself did record drastically altered editions of some of Vivaldi's works, as well as a highly dramatic Bach "St. Matthew Passion", one of his most successful, if musically inauthentic, recordings.).
This is one of the greatest music appreciation programs ever made, and part of a series which should never be forgotten--one which deserves to be run and rerun over and over on television.
State Fair (1945)
Can't even begin to compare with R & H's great stage classics
To begin with, "State Fair" was not adapted from a stage musical; it was adapted from a non-musical 1933 film, which was in turn adapted from a novel by Phil Stong. Years later, "State Fair" WAS re-adapted into a Broadway musical, and promptly flopped.
Maybe it was the way it was adapted, but the 1945 film is still a great disappointment, especially in comparison to Rodgers and Hammerstein's great classics. There is a good reason for this. The composer-authors of a musical generally have less creative control over a film musical than over a stage one, a notable exception being "Gigi", over which Lerner and Loewe had almost total control. Film musicals of the 1940's were generally treated like assembly-line products, and the composer and lyricist/librettist merely like expendable hired hands who could easily be replaced. It was the studio which often suggested the subject matter of a musical, and studios nearly always played it safe.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had total creative control over their shows on Broadway, and the same applies to the film versions of their shows, but they did not have total control over this film. That is why "State Fair" feels more like a typical sappy musical of the 1940's than a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and why it does not use all of the stage techniques they were so famous for, although Hammerstein did write the screenplay. The storyline is blah, the characters are sickeningly wholesome stereotypes, not all the songs are integrated into the story, and instead of there being eighteen or nineteen songs, there are only six, because the film runs only slightly more than ninety minutes. (The cast, with the hilarious exception of Donald Meek as a pie-tasting judge, is just as bland as everything else; several of them have been much better in other films.) The songs are nice, but that is all they are, just nice, not beautiful.
This production does not live up to its reputation or to the 1993 Trevor Nunn production
This production of Gershwin's immortal classic, "Porgy and Bess", is a live staging based on the landmark 1976 Houston Opera production, the most complete version of the opera performed onstage up to that time. In this revival, however, it is the New York City Opera which performs the work. While it is certainly enjoyable on its own, those who have seen the brilliant 1993 Glyndebourne television version directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company head Trevor Nunn, not to be confused with Nunn's disastrous second production of the work, will feel a distinct sense of disappointment.
Perhaps it is the fact that it is Tazewell Thompson who directs this new 2002 staging, and not Jack O'Brien, director of the 1976 Houston Opera production, that keeps this latest revival from being what I hoped it would be. (I never saw that 1976 production, but I can assure you from listening to the Houston Opera CD recording of "Porgy and Bess" that, judging from the recording, it must have been quite something.)
But even if the Houston Opera had not staged the work, the first Trevor Nunn production, presented on stage in 1989 and videotaped in a television studio in 1993, is no less than brilliant, even with that near-catastrophic symbolic touch at the end. Not only did Nunn coax vivid acting performances from his cast of magnificent singers, he also added many tiny details to the work which enhanced it, in addition to very evocative uses of lighting. And that production, having been recorded in a television studio, had full-size sets, giving the cast far more space to move around in--very nearly like a movie sound stage.
In this current 2002 production, although there is some use of different camera angles, and more than a few closeups of the singers, we never forget that we are looking at an auditorium stage. But that would not be such a drawback if the director had shown more imagination. The direction is strictly conventional, as if Thompson had merely been dutifully following the stage directions in the libretto most of the time. The cast, on the whole, does not measure up to the one in the 1993 television production, with the fabulous exception of Marquita Lister in the role of Bess. Her Bess is not only well sung, it is richly and vividly drawn and practically jumps out of the TV screen at the audience. Her disdain of Crown's drinking is more sharply drawn here than in the 1993 version, in which Cynthia Haymon's Bess seemed more susceptible to Crown's influence, but that may have been a decision of the director and not the soprano. The obvious love and concern for Porgy which Ms. Lister's Bess displays here is extremely touching, despite what happens at the end (no spoilers here for those who don't know the work).
Alvy Powell's Porgy comes across as an agreeable personality, but he simply does not measure up in either voice or acting ability, and neither do any of the other singers. While they are reasonably good singers, they are merely competent dramatically, no better or worse than any other good singers who tackle the roles. They are not vivid characterizations, as in the 1993 production.
Conductor John DeMain, who also led the 1976 Houston Opera production both onstage and on CD, does a fine job, but there are far more cuts in this production of "Porgy" than in the Trevor Nunn production--this, to bring the production in at three hours counting the twenty minute intermission. For me this was the final blow, especially as, during the intermission, the director went on and on about what a glorious thing it was that "Porgy" had been staged complete in opera houses! Why go on about this, and then make yourself a sitting duck by cutting the opera by nearly twenty minutes?