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Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Okay, so I was really *really* nervous about seeing F2000. I LOVE F1940, and I was worried that they'd trounce it.
But once I saw the opening, where sheets of music and cels from the original go floating past the assembling orchestra, I knew we were in good hands. I knew the creative team would honor the memory of the original and take it to new heights.
And boy, did they ever!
The IMAX presentation was worth every effort I made (had to travel 90 miles to NYC) and every penny I paid. To sit there amid the 60-some speakers and just be awash in the music was an experience I'll remember forever.
The short of it is that the criticisms here are, in my book, unfounded. I didn't think the movie was too short. I didn't object to the musical cuts, which only purists would notice anyway. I didn't think the intersticies were bothersome at all. In fact, stick around for the closing credits and a final joke from Steve Martin.
The only thing I will agree with is that "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" looks every bit of its 60 years. Perhaps the original aspect ratio for this segment would have been advisable...
Other than that, a marvelous film. I can't wait to see it again in a non-IMAX theater. The Noah's Ark sequence, for one, had gags aplenty that I'm sure I missed the first time 'round.
Take a bow, Mickey and company. You certainly deserve one!
The Spirit Is Willing (1967)
A Comedic Tingler
I was sure I'd imagined this movie until I found it here. I remember watching it on TV as kid and loving it. I imagine it doesn't hold up much nowadays, though.
The theme song will ring around in my head every now and then; it was an infectuous tune with a tinkly harpsichord. "The spirit is willing... Her kisses are chilling... "The spirit is willing... But the body is weak..."
I'd love to see it again.
The Time of Their Lives (1946)
A Revolutionary Comedy from Bud & Lou
Their cinematic effort preceding "TTOTL" is an little unknown comedy called "Little Giant," in which Bud and Lou--showing, perhaps the strain in their personal relationship at the time--act apart as opposed to as a team. "TTOTL" continues that experiment, but produces much better results.
The tail--of a pair of Revolutionary War ghosts (Costello and the beautiful Marjorie Reynolds) trying to clear their names in 1946--has heart. Again, there's comedy here, but also pathos, something Lou Costello was brilliant at playing and for which he received precious little credit. And the *story* is engaging, not just a platform for free-form A&C routines.
The SPFX are top-notch for the day. Watch Costello and Reynolds run at each other and swap clothing. And the performances matter, too. Gail Sondergaard is very creepy during a seance sequence, and even Bud flexes his dramatic-comedic muscles as a fluttery psychologist.
Things are mucked up a bit at the end, when Bud's car goes awry with Lou at the wheel (I guess by then producers felt it couldn't be an A&C picture without at least *one* chase). But with that one transgression forgiven, "TTOTL" is a terrific film (my second-fav of Bud & Lou's, after "Who Done It?").
Who Done It? (1942)
My Favorite in the A&C Canon
By 1942, with the release of "Who Done It?" Universal Studios had learned a thing or two about Abbott and Costello: Namely, that the ridiculous boy-girl subplots and the subpar music (except from the Andrews Sisters) that padded their other features to date where wholly unnecessary. Thankfully, Bud and Lou are given full reign in "Who Done It?" without any extraneous material.
That said, it's easy to see who "Who Done It?" is my favorite of all their features. Not only are "the boys" in top form, but the supporting cast is great as well; Mary Wickes is a perfect foil for Lou (bringing to mind his earlier clowning with Joan Davis in "Hold That Ghost"), and it's a shame the two didn't work together more (even *her* talents couldn't pump any life into "Dance With Me, Henry").
Abbott and Costello comedies are often long on laughs but short on plot. Not the case with "Who Done It?" The ins and outs of a radio spy ring are well crafted, providing appropriate counterpoint to the antics of Bud and Lou.
And what antics there are! Lou is convulsively funny here, from the opening moments where he deals with an obnoxious elevator boy (and "wins" a bet concerning the production of orange juice) to the later chase on the studio rooftop (and clever use of the sign "Vote for Townsend Phelps"). Classic bits--such as the insanity of "Alexander 2222", which reaches a new and self-deprecating conclusion--are here as well.
Sadly, Universal didn't remain knowledgeable about what to do with A&C for long; soon after, the love stories and drippy songs were back. But "Who Done It?" remains as a testimony to what this incomparable comedy team could achieve on its own.
Splendor in the Grace
"Hawaii," based on about one-third of the Michener novel, is one of those big, old-fashioned epics, full of wistful vistas, compelling performances, and casts of thousands.
Julie Andrews' acting abilities shine as bright as the tropical sun in this story of a New England woman who accompanies her stodgy husband to the islands on a mission to convert the heathens. Andrews' buoyant on-screen persona is held in check here (as it is in the overly criticized "Darling Lili"), making her Jerusha a quiet heroine. Her childbirth scene is effective for the visceral reaction it creates, and she's got one whopping good speech toward the end, where she finally gives her stick-in-the-mud hubby what-for.
Von Sydow, who would work with Andrews again later in "Duet for One," is all bluster and bellowing, condemning just about everyone he comes in contact with. I find the performance rather one-note; however, the opening scenes in which Hale tries to woo the lovely Jerusha are sweetly awkward.
Richard Harris shows up as a long-lost sea captain in one of moviedom's most impossible coincidences. Harris is all fire and passion, exactly the kind of third-party that a juicy love triangle needs.
George Roy Hill's direction keeps things moving at a brisk pace, despite the lengthy running time. He had a gorgeous palette to paint with, and he takes full advantage. The sea trek--complete with storms--suffers from some very obvious blue-screening, but Hill manages to build an appropriate sense of excitement.
I'm also going to carp with costumer Dorothy Jeakins. Andrews costumes are lovely (but consider what Jeakins had to work with), but Von Sydow goes running throughout the movie with his stove-pipe hat cemented onto his head. Works okay for the New England settings, but once the cast hits the beach, he ends up looking like some kind of absurd Dr. Doolittle (Hugh Lofting's, creation, not Eddie Murphy's).
Jeakins also makes a very brief appearance (her role was trimmed mightily) as Hale's mother.
While on the subject of the supporting players, LaGarde had no acting experience whatsoever (and, hence, drove the production schedule and budget way off base), but she's utterly charming. She more than earned her Oscar nomination.
Funny to see a pre-Archie Carroll O'Connor in the New England sequences. Also watch for Heather Menzies as one of Jerusha's younger sisters. Two years earlier, she had played Louisa von Trapp to Andrews' Maria. Gene Hackman's here, too, as a put-upon doctor.
One last note: If you're going to seek out this treasure, please, please, please opt for the widescreen version. The rocking of the boat sickened many of the passengers on their way to paradise, and likewise, the pan-and-scan version will sicken viewers of this terrific epic.
George of the Jungle (1997)
Five stars for the under 12 set; three for the over
The assembly line of classic 1960s television (we're talking my CHILDHOOD, here) into 1990s movies continues with Disney's "George of the Jungle." The original Jay Ward cartoon featured terrible puns, a smarmy narrator, and the dumber-than-driftwood Tarzan-wannabe George.
The film version recreats all those elements with surprisingly good results. Fraiser as George gets away with an awful lot of mugging, but he seems so innocent and unaffected that he puts it over.
The SPFX are good in a Jumanji kind of way; movielovers with even half an eye open will be able to tell the CGI Shep from his real counterpart and the audioanimatronic Ape named Ape. But the HOW of this movie doesn't detract from the WHY... Cleese makes an effective British APE, and SHEP's scenes are downright hilarious (watch him play fetch!).
I also liked the way the movie kept the metahumor aspects of the series--here's a film that is clearly not afraid to make fun of itself. Pages of explanatory dialogue from Ursula, for instance, are dispensed with in speeded-up fashion (a la "The Gods Must Be Crazy"), complete with chipmunk voice.
By the final reel, everything degenerates into poop and pee jokes, which the prepubescent boys this movie is pitched at should find knee-slappingly hilarious.
It's tough to be too tough on "G of the J." All you need is a snippet of that infectuous theme song (Boom, boom, boom-boom ba, BOOM boom...) and you know you're in for a good time.
Sorta made me want to curl up in a big chair with my noo-noo and munch my way through a bowl of Quisp!
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Not Bad for the 8- to 10s; Scary for the under 5s
When I saw the trailers for "The Prince of Egypt," two thoughts came to mind: 1) the effects animation is brilliant but the character animation looks shoddy and 2) who the heck is this movie for? It runs above the kids but below the adults.
After seeing the movie itself, two thoughts come to mind: 1) the effects animation is brilliant but the character animation looks shoddy and 2) who the heck is this movie for? It runs above the kids but below the adults.
This cartoon "Ten Commandments" has three big scenes that are worth seeing on a big screen: The first is a dream sequence involving heiroglyphs that is a terrific study of textured animation. The second is the arrival of the angel of death during Passover night; it appears as a light that swoops over, under, and through the animated "sets" in much the same way as the spirits in the climax of "Raiders." The third, which everyone has seen in ads, is the parting of the Red Sea.
But to get to those three spectacles, the audience has to sit through a rather pedestrian telling of the Moses story. And it has to endure some truly awful songs (confession time here, folks: I actually slipped out during a musical interlude to refill my popcorn box--something I haven't done in a theater since I was 10).
And back to the character animation for a moment. The design is absolutely off-putting; every character sports a straight-edge nose that make it appear as if they have a butter knife attached to his or her face! And Mirian and Aaron (Moses' sister and brother, respectively) are dead ringers for Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jim Henson, respectively.
I also hated Pharaoh's goofy magician side-kicks, voiced by Steve Martin Short. Neither funny nor sinister and yet trying to be both, they added nothing.
I usually dislike remakes, so as a revamped version of the DeMille classic, "TPOE" ain't all bad. It just could have used some of the true-blue Disney talent--namely a good ear, for songs that further the plot rather than provide a refreshment break, and a good eye for design.
Toy Story (1995)
One of the Top Ten Movies of the 1990s
If there's any justice in this crazy world of ours, "Toy Story" will become a classic in the mode of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Snow White." I look forward to its appearing every year on television, as a much anticipated "event."
It certainly is groundbreaking, what with imagery that must've taken a computer system dwarfing the pentagon's to do.
But I love how well-thought-out this movie is. The plot works from beginning to end. The performances are terrific--Tom Hanks and Tim Allen don't just blather their lines onto the soundtrack, leaving it for the animators to do all the work. No, rather, they're really *acting* here, imbuing their characters with as much depth and breadth as if they'd been playing flesh-and-blood people.
Keep a sharp eye, movie lovers, inside gags abound: When Woody runs from an escaped globe, you'll think it looks just like the giant ball sequence from "Raiders," and you'll be right! When Buzz walks amid a sea of tiny alien squeak-toys, Richard Dreyfuss' close encounter "...of the Third Kind," of course, should echo in your mind.
The look of the movie *is* stunning--and, IMO, it "works" in every instance but one: Syd's dog. Instead of looking canine, he looks instead like a fur-covered football.
I wish Pixar had spent a few more pixels refining his "look."
But all that's quibbling. Here's a movie for every kid who whiled away an afternoon while sprawled in front of a toy box and for every adult who ever wondered what happens to those Little Tykes people once you turn off the lights and go to bed...
The End of an Era
*THUD* Like that the romance between box office and Julie Andrews was over.
There are a variety of answers. Tastes had changed. Big-budget musicals were on their way out (and continued to fall out of favor as the decade proceeded--see "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Camelot," and "Paint Your Wagon" for further evidence). And the public had mysteriously cooled on Julie Andrews as well, although the reason behind that eludes those of us who still carry the torch for her.
Caught in the downward spiral, unfortunately, was "STAR!" the musical that was supposed to recapture the magic of "The Sound of Music" by allowing Andrews, Wise, and Chaplin the opportunity of working again. According to critics and box-office receipts, this reunion failed miserably.
But there has been a revisionist feel to "STAR!" over the past few years, as evidenced by the VHS and laser releases, and that's a good thing. This treasure certainly didn't deserved to remain buried forever.
Andrews gives a tour de force performance, tackling a barrel full of unforgettable songs from some of the world's greatest composers/lyricists. She's also given amply opportunity to show off her acting chops, as her Gertie is alternately dazzled and dazzling, enraged, funny, drunk, enamoured, witty, urbane, base, coy, and even sad, lonely, and depressed.
Last, Julie/Gertie is dolled up in some of the most exquisite costumes to ever grace a screen--the Donald Brooks outfits and Cartier jewels will knock your eye out.
That Andrews voice... that Andrews face... that Andrews talent... that Andrews dancing... All up on the screen with nobody to appreciate it in 1968. Luckily, it's now all within grasp.
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
A Showcase for Julie
Hard for me to be objective, here, since I've been madly in love with Julie Andrews since being first exposed to her crystalline voice when I was three.
But I'll try: "Millie's" first half is, to quote the screenplay, "Delish," with Andrews vamping and camping throughout. I am unable to take my eyes off her as she clowns, flirts, cavorts, and also sings and dances (getting her hotel elevator to work results in a showstopper). The vehicle--a pastiche of 1920s conventions (including "moderns") and filmgoing techniques (including iris-outs and title cards)--is the frothy light story of a British import who comes to America and finds true love.
The second half gets bogged down in the overwrought script, with all the machinations of a white slavery plot and a pair of "inscrutible" Orientals who, in this day and age of racial sensitivity, get far worse than they deserve.
Some history: Ross Hunter, the producer, wanted to film "The Boy Friend," the Broadway musical that had introduced Andrews to the U.S. stage. When the rights were unavailable, he devised his own script, using the same setting--the 1920s. A "small" musical evolved.
Then Julie's star went through the stratosphere. And the Universal "suits," smelling another payday, insisted that the movie be a road-show presentation--with a road-show running time(and at which road-show prices could be charged). Little "Millie" had an intermission added, and her running time was increased considerably.
The movie's still a lot of fun and definitely recommendable (especially to Andrews fans), but let's just say that, at times, it more than shows its stretchmarks!
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Trot Out the Accolades--It's Unparalleled
This is my favorite movie musical with no stage forebear.
Consider what's in the mix: A cachet of songs, all tried-and-true from other movies. A cast that was at the top of its form, all the way from Kelly himself to the supporting leads played by Rita Moreno and Millard Mitchell. A script that is, at once, romantic and exciting and sharp and funny.
Stir together with a generous heaping of MGM color and a dash of a director with a stellar pedigree and the result is, well, something like "Singin' in the Rain."
There's not a misstep in the movie's entire 103-minute running time. I love the pokes at early filmmaking ("She never *did* figure out where that microphone was, boss!") and the sheer energy of the musical numbers ("Fit as a Fiddle," "Good Mornin'").
Not only that, but there's not a more romantic scene in all of filmdom that can compare with Reynolds and Kelly dancing to "You Were Meant for Me." Their side-by-side tap dancing says more about how they feel about each other than pages and pages of dialog.
If you think this movie is just the sequence of Kelly splashing like a five-year-old in a puddle, you obviously haven't seen the entire film. Do so--now! You won't regret it!
PS: In the "rent-this-too" category, if you've seen and love "Singin' in the Rain," check out "The Band Wagon." It skewers the world of theater in much the same way as this film roasts Hollywood!
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
PLEASE Rent the Original!!!
There he was, lumbering up on the screen, knuckles dragging on the ground. He opens his simian mouth, and some unintelligible grunts and belches seep out. His eyes, half closed, show that there is *some* form of intelligence behind them, but you'd never know it given the machinations of the script.
But enough about Bill Paxton, what about Joe?
Add this to the list of unnecessary remakes. The 1949 original is tight, exciting, artful, and in no way in need of updating. The Ray Harryhausen effects are stunning (watch Joe's rampage in a jungle-themed nightclub, where lions are tossed to their deaths--PETA'd have a BIRD with that one today!) The 1998 repeat is dull, stupid, manipulative, loud, and even has a feel-good ending tacked on that made me want to put my fist through the screen.
I realize this movie wasn't made for me--a 36 year old male with an affinity toward classic Hollywood. It was made for the under 12 set who won't watch a black and white movie if their Playstations depended on it.
But what a pity.
If you're interested in this story, track it down in the B&W jungle of your local video store. Otherwise, stay away from this homogenized, heartless, baBOO-O-O-On of a movie!
La vita è bella (1997)
The BEST Reason to Endure Subtitles Since "Cinema Paradiso"
I'm not a big fan of foreign films. I guess it has something to do with the subtitles--do we read them or watch the action? All that eye-flipping between the words and the actors tires me after a while.
But every so often, a movie comes around that makes it all worthwhile. "Life Is Beautiful" is just such a picture.
Begnini, he of the rubber face, exaggerated gait, and fall-down demeanor, is brilliant here, wearing the three hats of writer/director/star. And his wife, as Dora, is simply gorgeous--the type of woman you would, indeed, rescue from a stuffy engagement party riding a green horse!
The subtle swap between this movie's romantic/comedic first half and its more grim second is masterful. The scenes of Guido wooing Dora are cinematic magic--watch Guido use a set of predetermined occurrences convince Dora that even the heavens believe he's right for her. Brilliant!
And the concentration camp sequences are magical as well. What parent--having those resources at hand--wouldn't go to the same lengths to protect a little one? The scene in which Giuido "translates" for a German officer, for example, works because the ruse is born of his desparation. Using the only tools at his disposal, he concocts his fanciful tale. Yes, it's hilarious, but it's heartbreaking as well.
Sure, the remainder of the movie stretches believability a bit, but considering the life-affirming purpose behind this stretch, I found it all worthwhile.
Also, reviews here (and elsewhere) have slammed this movie for being a Polyanna-ish examination of the holocaust. Not in my book. No happy ending here. Joyous, yes, but not exactly cheery!
"Life is Beautiful" marks the first time in a long time that I didn't complain over the prospect of reading subtitles. It also represents the first time in a long time I cried copiously in a movie theater.
Seek it out. Laugh. And cry. For life is, truly, beautiful!
Darling Lili (1970)
Not the Flop It Was Made Out to Be
It was 1970. Julie Andrews had hit her highs onscreen, and her star was starting to fade, at least in the public's eye. "Lili" represented another opportunity for Julie to change her image, coming right after the megamusical "STAR!" which didn't deserve the drubbing *it* received either.
Audiences didn't seem to care for this WWI musical drama. In fact, they were staying away in droves from ANY musical--drama or not.
The shame of it all is that this film, with its many classic moments, was stigmatized by the press who were gunning for Our Fair Julie and her new beau, writer/director/producer Blake Edwards.
But "Lili" really *is* worth seeking out. Julie sings beautifully, especially the haunting "Whistling Away the Dark," a lovely Henri Mancini tune that opens and closes the film. Her performance is nuanced and quite affecting--just watch her as a fat tear silently slides down her cheek after a tumultuous argument with Major Larabee.
Edwards has staged some stunning flight sequences, but the suffer somewhat, in 1990s sensibilities, from the blue-screen process shots needed to get Rock "into" midair. Edwards also can't seem to help himself from sliding into formulaic comedy bits (he apparently thinks a bumbling Frenchman with an umbrella on a roof in a rainstorm is hilarious--it shows up in film after film of his).
The reason to watch "Lili" is for its interesting spin on the Mata Hari legend and the performance of Miss Andrews, who certainly didn't deserve the brickbats that came her way following its release.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Chomping at the Bit for the Next "Indie" Pix? This'll Tide You Over
Lucas/Spielberg/Ford say that a 4th Indiana Jones movie is on its way, before the stars (and directors) get too old to do it again.
Take your time, guys; your thunder's been stolen.
This iteration of the Zorro legend has it all--great chemistry, good acting, exciting chaces, and nail-biting swordplay. Yes, the plotting is a bit creaky and yes, the writing is shallow and yes, the resolution will surprise no-one. But I hope this launches a franchise ala the now-defunct "Batman" series or those from the chronicles of Dr. Jones and his intrepid crew.
Banderas is terrific, he of the smoldering glances, the daring actobatics, the hot temper, and the passionate romancing. His portrayal of the title character leaves its forebears (Guy Williams and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) literally and figuratively in the dust.
And Anthony Hopkins adds just enough ballast to the proceedings to make it all believable. Quiet, reserved, pony-tailed, and internalizing his grief and anger, he's the Obi Wan to Banderas' Luke.
Catharine Za-Za-Zing Zeta-Jones is glorious. This damsel is quite able to get herself out of distress, thank you, and nary a hair will be out of place when she's finished, either.
"M of Z" has made my top ten for '98. Sure, it's a little threadbare, but it's also a lot of fun.
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
A Pork in the Eye!
This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy made bucks.
This little piggy begat a sequel.
This little piggy now sucks!
I'll confess, the charm of the original "Babe" passed me by like day-old pork rinds. Yes, Miller's initial batch of barnyard bathos was technically interesting, but a threadbare script and special effects that were as plain as the snout on your face made the entire outing a B+ effort at best.
But now, in true Hollywood fashion, Babe's back and Esme's got 'em.
This foray into the city saps the movie of its main strength, the intimacy and warmth of a bucolic country setting. Also falling victim this go-round is the calming and dignified presence of Hoggett, who is dispatched quickly in the opening sequence (wonder what kind of salary Cromwell got from his three-day shoot?)
What's left, then, is Babe running amok in some sort of uber-city, the set design of which would make Batman's metropolis look like Smallville USA.
Subtlety has been replaced with slapstick, as Esme is bounced around a ballroom like some bovine bungee-jumper. Heartfeltness has been replaced with gruesomeness, as Babe and his computer-boosted co-stars escape the evil clutches of *gasp!* Animal Experimentalists. Quietness has been replaced with a biosterous booming, boinging, belching soundtrack.
All in all, a rather unnecessary sequel--like most, don't you think?
Babe's not the only thing lost in this movie. Somewhere or other, someone managed to mislay the heart of the original.
Skip--or rent if you must.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
An Unforgettable Drama
Hoo boy, am I a sucker for courtroom dramas. The wrangling of legal points and the investigation into the truth just gets my cinematic blood pumping (I s'pose it's in response to my own dashed hopes of becoming an attorney).
"To Kill a Mockingbird" rises to the top of the pile easily.
Yes, the courtroom proceedings are nail-bitingly engaging. But played out against the tapestry of bigotry and hate make the legal goings-on even more compelling.
The writing here is so beautiful, so lyric, so poetic. The Harper Lee-based screenplay captures wonderfully a time and a place that are absolutely real--where big brothers could solve the universe's problems in an instant and all the treasures of the world could be contained in a cigar box.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" also contains three of the most impressive child performances I have ever witnessed--there's not a false or affected moment in any one of them. Until seeing "Ponette," a movie I would highly recommend, the kids in "Mockingbird" received my best child performance ever awards. "Ponette" has ratcheted them down one notch, but that doesn't diminish the achievement here. The scene in which Scout dispels the mob simply by identifying its individual members is one of the most powerful moments in filmdom.
Peck more than deserved his best actor nod. His quiet dignity is a definite asset. Brock Peters, too, is terrific in what could have been a cliched role.
If you are a moviegoer who has a bias against black and white movies and who has therefore never seen "Mockingbird," I pity you. You've passed on one of Hollywood's most unforgettable experiences.
North by Northwest (1959)
My Favorite Hitch
"North by Northwest" is my favorite of all Hitchcock films (a close shave with "Rear Window"), and it permanently occupies a slot in my Personal Top Ten Films of All Time.
Grant is terrific--funny, sexy, angry, confused, exhausted, redeemed. It is a full-bodied performance. And speaking of bodies--Eva Marie Saint is *definitely* an asset here, not just for her looks (there's that cool, blond Hitch femme fatale again) but for showing off her acting chops as well.
James Mason is a consumate actor, and Hitch gives him a vehicle to enter one of his finest performances. Martin Landau, too, is appropriately chilling.
Favorite scenes? The crop-dusting sequence is certainly a classic. But I love the scenes with Roger and his mother, dickering over his "drunkenness." And the auction is Hitch in his element: the scene plays tense and terse but also funny.
I can quibble with this film: The blue-screening looks a bit cheesy nowadays. And the movie opens with a huge plot hole (when the page is searching for George Kaplan and Thornhill grabs his ear for a quick question, Mason et.al. believe Thornhill to be their man, setting off the entire plot. However, shouldn't the page have continued searching the room, calling for Mr. Kaplan? And shouldn't the villains have heard him continue to page, knowing that Thornhill wasn't who they assumed he was? Ahh, but that would blow the whole movie!).
This film also contains the best "naughty joke" Hitchcock ever devised. The final sequence is Eva Marie Saint and Grant pulling each other into bed. The jump cut is to a train entering a tunnel. You figure it out.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Atop my Top Ten
I am a film lover from 'way back, having even served a stint as a newspaper movie critic. Entries in my personal list of Greatest Films of All Time include "Fantasia," "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Casablanca," "Singin' in the Rain," "North by Northwest," and "The Sound of Music. But sitting atop all of them, as undisputed champ, is "It's a Wonderful Life."
I have seen it hundreds of times (dating back to, oh, when I was a teenager I suppose, and our local PBS station ran it as part of a pledge drive). I drive my wife and family to distraction when we watch it together because I quote all the dialogue along with the actors.
I cry every time--and this is after viewing upon viewing--when Harry Bailey toasts his big brother George as "...the richest man in town." The emotions in that scene are so true and pure that I can't help but be affected by them.
The performances are unparalleled. Stewart is brilliant as a small-town dreamer who loses and finds his way. His superlative acting abilities cause us to identify strongly with him (how many of us have lamented--even to ourselves--that no one seems to notice the sacrifices we've made?), which is, I think, why the movie bears up under so many repeat viewings. Reed is just lovely here, the epitome of sunny girlfriend, caring lover, devoted wife, dedicated mother.
Capra's talent as a screenwriter are all over this script. He knows just how hard to tug the heartstrings without becoming overblown or phony. And his technical wizardry is evident too. I've never seen--before or since--more natural-looking onscreen snow.
Watching IAWL has become a tonic, a pick-me-up when I really need one--whether it's the Christmas season or not. Its message--that each one of us is important and has *something* to contribute to the greater good--is one about which the world could use some reminding from time to time.
The Work of True Visionaries
"'Fantasia" will Amaze 'ya," said the marketing push behind Disney's 1940 grand experiment.
I'd say "amaze" is an under-estimation. How about stun? Enthrall? Thrill? Amuse? Terrify? How about all these things in the same movie???
"Fantasia" is one prime example of a movie that benefits from repetition. Its charms, its imaginative brilliance, its gentle humor, its artistic genius are drawn out the more it is viewed.
The "Toccata and Fugue" is an abstract dream. I love the way it subtly moves from visual literalness (colored strings and horns) to inventive fantasy.
The "Nutcracker" is both beautiful and whimsical. I can't hear the Chinese Dance without seeing that cocksure mushroom trying desperately to catch up on the dance steps of his brethren.
Beethoven's "Pastorale" has many highlights, including the Pegasus who learns to fly. I wish, wish, wish, though, that Disney's PC patrol hadn't clipped any of the centaurs (I'm against racial bias, but c'mon--how innocent can you get?).
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a terrific centerpiece. I love watching Mickey wet his finger--in the middle of a maelstrom--to try to turn the page. The way the artists play with light and color make this segment truly nightmarish.
"The Rite of Spring" is amazing, especially when you consider that the artists of 1940 had to use their imagination regarding *exactly* what dinosaurs looked like (paleontology at the time being what it was).
"Dance of the Hours" is a wonderful parody of ballet that brims with laugh-out-loud moments: Ben Ali Gator riding the hippo like a merry-go-round and, later, being flattened by her tonnage.
"Night on Bald Mountain" is terrifyingly weird. The dancing harpies and ghouls are truly disturbing, and the sight of Chernobog at his most wrathful is enough to make anyone squish down in his or her theater seat just a little.
"Ave Maria" is simply gorgeous, a fitting end.
I can't help but be amazed at this film upon every viewing. It was years ahead of its time (a testament to the geniuses behind it), which explains the paltry box-office receipts. The MTV moguls should, on bended knee, thank Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski nightly. Without their genius at marrying visuals to music, the era of vee-jays may never have come at all.
The Sound of Music (1965)
In My Personal Top-Ten of All Time
Has Julie Andrews ever appeared on film more beautifully than in this film? Has she ever sung with such richness and gusto as is captured here? As a big fan of hers, I can watch this musical over and over and just sigh.
Wise and his cinematographer have photographed Andrews in a manner that no other director has--even her husband. Watch the scene where Maria watches the Captain sing Edelweiss with the kids. Wise turns her into a gauzy angel. It is a fantastic moment among hundreds that this movie contains.
I am firmly in a camp that says Julie Andrews was completely, utterly, and regrettably robbed when the 1965 Oscars were handed out. She embodied Maria Von Trapp, wholly and with every fiber of her being (just watch the scene in which she races the boys in a segment of "Do-Re-Mi"; she runs at the camera with utter abandon here, no holding back. Or consider the shot at the end of this song, where she places her hand atop her head--it's as if even SHE can't believe she's hitting that note).
The Julie Christie performance that beat Andrews is now all but forgotton. "The Sound of Music," however, lives on and on.
"The Sound of Music" is a bit bittersweet for me, given that audiences tastes would soon turn away from big-budget musicals in general and Julie Andrews specifically. But what a legacy it (and she) have left!
Mary Poppins (1964)
An auspicious film debut for Julie Andrews
Julie's film debut began the world's love affair with her--and what a marvelous vehicle for doing so. Julie appears here in fine voice and is radiantly beautiful.
The performance is more than deserving of the Oscar, especially considering that she had to act to blue screens and objects/characters from within her imagination. No easy task, certainly.
I also love the way Julie, as Mary, refuses to acknowledge the free-for-all that is going on around her. She simply pushes her hair primly back in place and presses on, despite the dancing chimney sweeps and giggling uncles that surround her. "I never explain anything," she blithely comments.
The score is one of my favorites in all the Disney canon. The Sherman brothers outdid themselves with "Stay Awake," one of the most under-appreciated lullabys ever written, and the hauntingly winsome "Feed the Birds."
The Disney animators have created a visual feast as bottomless and surprising as Mary Poppins' carpetbag. The Peter Ellenshaw matte shots are breathtaking. My favorite visual moments? Bert and Mary's live-action reflections in a pond are eddied by a family of cartoon geese. I also love when Bert, Mary, and the children ascend a staircase constructed only of chimney smoke. Brilliant!
There are a few drawbacks: The film's a little over-long, especially in the final third where Mary's but an afterthought in all the plot resolution. In addition, Van Dyke was an excellent choice for his singing and dancing (and popularity), but his cockney accent does grate after a while.
But all in all, this is a tour de force for all involved!