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The Music Man (2003)
Well-meaning, but lacks spirit
Ever since I was a child, "The Music Man" has been my favorite musical. I listened to the soundtrack over and over again, and had large passages of the libretto committed to memory. So I was a bit skeptical, but mostly interested, to see what Disney would do to credit Meredith Willson's classic. Now that I've seen the results, I'm mostly left wanting to see the original film version with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones again.
What this entire production needs is a healthy shot of verve. The set and costumes are pastel-bland, the vocal arrangements are merely pleasant without crossing the line into inspired, and a number of hilarious jokes in the libretto are glossed over. It's like someone took Willson's original idea and dumped a bucket of bleach over it.
There are some good performances. Kristin Chenoweth has a fantastic singing voice and does the character of Marian Paroo some credit, although with her obvious beauty and flirtatious walk, I never could believe she was a spinsterish librarian. Cameron Monaghan and Megan Moniz as Winthrop and Amaryllis, respectively, put in better and considerably more natural performances than the child actors in the first film. Victor Garber brought some additional sternness to the role of Mayor Shinn that seemed appropriate.
Kathleen Marshall can also take pride in the work she's done here, as the choreography was also excellent throughout, although it felt a bit boxed in. Perhaps that is unavoidable and to be expected when one is filming for television.
But for every good performance, there's one that fails to impress. David Aaron Baker as former con man Marcellus Washburn is a virtual non-entity. Clyde Alves as Tommy Djilas gets by in a role that, even in the original, was one-dimensional. But the most disappointing performance is that of Matthew Broderick, ostensibly the star of the show, but here mostly going through the motions as Professor Harold Hill.
I've seen Broderick in a lot of roles, and have enjoyed nearly everything he's done, which is what made this all the more disastrous--I know he's capable of doing better, and I suspect one of the reasons why it didn't work was that he never really understood the character of Professor Hill. Robert Preston realized that Hill was an anti-hero, a charming scoundrel who will flatter your hairstyle while he's stealing your wig, and that the true magic of the show involves seeing a hardened con man transform into that which he merely pretended to be. Broderick can play a scoundrel convincingly--just watch him as Ferris Bueller--but here, in any part of the movie that doesn't involve him wooing the librarian, his eyes are flat and dead. There's no roguish sparkle, no intensity, no enjoyment of his own chicanery. And the characterization of Harold Hill is the key to carrying off the entire production--without a strong Hill, there's no show.
Better luck next time, Disney. I'm going to go watch the original again.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monstrously good fun
Disney's traditional animation studio has offered pretty slim pickings in the last few years, and there don't seem to be many bright prospects for the future, either. Thank heavens for Pixar. In this, the first Pixar Studios feature to be directed by someone other than the renowned John Lasseter, monsters are revealed to be regular guys working for a paycheck just like everyone else.
Monsters, Inc. follows the misadventures of Mike and Sulley, a dynamic duo working at the Monsteropolis power plant. In their world, the screams of small children create the power that runs the city--and nobody's better at scaring kids than Sulley. He does a dangerous job (it's widely known that children are toxic), and he does it with pride.
Of course, in every workplace there's an office backstabber, and Monsters, Inc. has its own resident workplace bully in the person (monster?) of Randall, the second-best scarer in the factory. Through Randall's machinations, a child gets loose in the monster world, with disastrous results.
The Taming of the Shrew (1976)
The definitive version of a Shakespeare classic
This ACT version of "Taming of the Shrew" is very different from most of the overproduced movies made from Shakespeare plays--in this stage production, there are no huge set pieces or elaborate props. It's reduced to actors having fun with rich, descriptive language.
The trouble with a number of movies made from Shakespeare plays--say, Kenneth Branagh's schizoid, interminable "Hamlet" or Baz Luhrman's MTV-ized version of "Romeo and Juliet"--is that, being movies, they try to make the material more visual. They show, rather than tell, what is going on. As a result, Shakespeare's powerful descriptive passages are reduced, cut, or worse, blazed through as quickly as possible and shoved aside to make room for more eye candy.
There's no such difficulty here. This "Shrew" is almost performed on a bare stage, in commedia dell'arte style, with minimal accoutrements and some sound effects for laughs. Everything depends on Shakespeare's rich, inventive language, and the production is the better for it.
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
Sweet, frothy fun
Julie Andrews is marvelous as Millie, who aspires to be thoroughly modern and marry her wealthy, handsome boss despite a mad crush on humble Jimmy the paper-clip salesman. Mary Tyler Moore's studied innocence as Miss Dorothy is not to be missed. Common silent-movie conventions are lampooned to delicious effect.
The Patriot (2000)
Superior to Braveheart
I know the strong opinion of most who've written here regarding this film, and perhaps I'm chancing my already tenuous reputation as a reviewer to say it, but all the same I'm willing to put this on the line: The Patriot is one of the better historical fiction movies of the past ten years.
Is it fastidiously historically accurate? No. Characters use standard American English accents, and some modern colloquialisms are present. Slavery, which was a fact of life in the colonies, is much played down--perhaps in our politically correct times, this is inevitable. But the makers of The Patriot are not striving to create a period piece in which every bit of historical minutiae is perfect--rather, they seek to create a certain mood about a period of our history.
Mel Gibson gives one of the better performances of his career, as a widower and father whose former bloody past haunts him. All he hopes is to see himself and his family spared from war--alas, the war comes literally to his doorstep. To his credit as an actor, Gibson is perfectly credible in a role that requires him to go from a gentle family man willing to nurse Redcoats back to health, to a gore-drenched Colonial nemesis repeatedly hacking into a British soldier's body with a tomahawk--all within the space of about twenty minutes.
This film is superior to Braveheart largely because, as an action-oriented film, there is less posturing and more action. Simple men are not usually in the habit of giving rousing speeches; Gibson's character does not. His men stick to him and trust him not for his fine words before a battle, but for his consistent actions during one.
There is definitely some character typecasting: Our Hero, the Love Interest, the Noble Villain, the Ruthless Villain, the Doomed Young Lovers, etc., and the movie has taken some knocking in the press because of it. However, I challenge these detractors to name a single classic work which does not employ such stock characters. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Italian commedia dell'arte style are immediate examples. No, Shakespeare this ain't. That doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile movie.
If you want to revel in the thoughts of the idealists who forged the Revolution, rent 1776. If you're curious about what it must have been like for the common men, the workers and traders and farmers of the Colonies and their families, to become involved in a war that was not of their choosing, you should see The Patriot.
God's Army (2000)
Well worth seeing, detractions made here to the contrary.
I've just come back from seeing "God's Army" and I have to say I'm impressed. Yes, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so my perspective is far from unbiased. However, I've spent many years being annoyed by bland and colorless depictions of a faith I can barely recognize as my own, or irritated by videos and songs that seem designed to manufacture an emotional response rather than simply allowing the Spirit to touch those who are open.
It is so refreshing to see a filmmaker trying to depict life as a Mormon missionary without sugar-coating the experience in a soft-focus haze, or attempting to slam a religion he doesn't understand (i.e. "Orgazmo"). The elders in this film act like the teenagers they are--they're practical jokers, take pictures of each other on the john, they goof off, lose their tempers and occasionally fight. Most people they meet don't want to listen to them. Not all of them have strong testimonies, and at least one loses his faith. These things feel true-to-life because they're experiences we've shared or heard many times, both within and without the Church. They are universal, and therefore fascinating.
Is "God's Army" perfect? No--it makes some missteps and has some awkward places, particularly near the end of the film. But it's unrealistic to expect perfection from a first try. Director Dutcher is attempting to create an entirely new genre--Mormon cinema, made by and about Mormons and directed primarily toward Mormon audiences, not made with an intent to convert, but to tell worthwhile stories of what it is to be LDS.
(Related note: It's interesting to read the "reviews" posted here by some who are using the soapbox to decry a religion rather than discuss a movie. Believe what you like, but try to stay on task. Most worthwhile reviews of "The Sound of Music" or "Fiddler on the Roof" don't focus on the relative merits of Catholicism or Judaism, respectively; they focus on the film.)
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Watching this version of Hamlet was physically wearing--and not because it is four hours long. Throughout the movie, there's clear indication that the director has no understanding of Shakespeare in general, of this play in particular, or even of his target audience. The cinematography gyrates wildly in every direction--with bad steadicam and quick cuts more reminiscent of a music video, interspersed with long, ponderous, heavily formal scenes that do nothing to move the story. It's too formal for teens and twentysomethings, but too capricious and modernized for Shakespeare enthusiasts. The 19th-century interpretation could have been brilliant, but falls flat instead. Rarely is Shakespeare's own lyrical language allowed center stage--despite the Elizabethan tendency toward TELLING, the director seems determined to SHOW his audience, and show in a heavy-handed way, whenever possible. Example: Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia is all but spelled out, and in a way wildly inconsistent with the play's text.
And who on earth got the idea to cast Jack Lemmon? Watching him in a bit role here is just embarrassing... he's been good in so many other things, but he simply doesn't work here.
Close to perfection
As this film is more of a historical fantasy than a biopic, it's perhaps too much to ask for accuracy in all the events portrayed. However, it is a fantastic film for summoning up the rococo decadence of the 18th-century European court. The writing is clear and believable, and the author--speaking through the character of Salieri--shows a lyrical appreciation for Mozart's musical genius. The cinematography is fantastic, and this film contains one of the most effective visual segues I've ever seen--the visual of Mozart's scolding harridan of a mother-in-law matched with the high-pitched notes of the Queen of the Night. With one notable exception, the actors are well-suited to their roles and play them to perfection.
The exception, of course, is Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart's wife, "Stanzie." Clearly out of her depth in this role, she seems vastly more suited to play a Valley girl than an Austrian hausfrau; in many scenes she literally seems unable to grasp the meaning of her own lines. Perhaps her substandard performance might not have been so obvious in a lesser production, but in this film she sticks out like a sore thumb.
Not half bad for an English dub
For years I've been something of a snob when it came to English dub jobs of Japanese animation--but I've felt justified, since most dubs were a freak show of third-rate translations mangled by fourth-rate actors. This was not the case with the Miramax release of Princess Mononoke. Although I'm not entirely comfortable with the performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Claire Danes, the translation was relatively smooth and believable thanks to Neil Gaiman, and the animation was--as is ever the case with a Miyazaki film--fantastic. Though it doesn't capture the title of my favorite anime, Princess Mononoke is definitely in the Top Ten.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The final refuge of the American musical
I finally got in to see Prince of Egypt this weekend, not expecting much based on some of the negative comments here. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did I find the animation several notches above par and all the big "production numbers" (parting of the Red Sea, plagues, etc.) as good as I'd heard, but I was also extremely impressed with Moses' hieroglyphic-inspired dream sequence.
Several people have mentioned that the animated film is the last refuge of the American movie musical, and this movie shows why, on the whole, it will continue to be a safe refuge. The music was inspired and often touching, and the person who decided to cast Ofra Haza as Yocheved (Moses' mother) gets a gold star from me.
Perhaps best of all is one of the most positive portrayals of God I've seen come out of Hollywood in the last 50 years, neither overdone nor effete. Although some license was taken with the Biblical story, it was on the whole accurate to the spirit of Exodus and would be an excellent way of injecting life into older children's understanding of the scriptures. I'm so pleased an American company has finally begun to understand that animation isn't just a tool for pumping out poor-quality kiddie movies.
Only You (1994)
The Importance of Being Damon?
This is a charming little "date film," not deep or meaningful, but surprisingly engaging. Marisa Tomei is winning and occasionally light-headed as Faith Corvatch, a woman intent on finding her soulmate, "Damon Bradley." Robert Downey Jr., not my favorite human being, nevertheless does well in the role of Peter Wright. Often overlooked is the performance of Bonnie Hunt as Faith's sister-in-law, who at first runs away from, but finally overcomes, a crisis in her marriage. Even when shown in such a fluffy film, it's nice to see Hollywood portray a dissatisfied wife who, when presented with the real chance to have an affair, still manages to remain true to her husband.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
Marvelous even for non-Francophiles
Very rarely, you come across a foreign-language film that is so masterfully directed, acted and translated that by the end, you forget you're reading the subtitles. This is such a movie. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac--soldier, scholar, nonconformist and poet, with a beautiful soul and freakish face--is one that should resonate with anyone who has ever yearned for love, but feared rejection too much to take the risk. It's a movie that should be seen by every awkward teenager, every hopeless romantic, and every stubborn soul that refuses to conform.
Majo no takkyûbin (1989)
See the Disney version, then find the original
I've been a fan of the original "Majo no takkyubin" for a long time, and I've been extremely pessimistic about American dubs of Japanese animation, which have ranged from barely tolerable to scrape-it-off-your-shoe terrible. When I heard Disney had bought distribution rights, I wondered whether a big-name animation studio would do right by this film.
Well, I've now seen the Disney version and I'm a little disappointed. Like most other American studios, Disney assumes that anything animated must be aimed solely at children under five. Much of the charm and subtlety of the original film is lost in this dubbed version, and in a few places the translation just plain doesn't make sense. Phil Hartman is funny as the smart-alecky Jiji, and despite his frequent ad-libs, the part comes off reasonably well. But if you've seen and liked the Disney version of this film, do yourself a favor and dig up the original Japanese (subtitled) version. You'll see what Hayao Miyazaki really wanted you to see.
The Barbarians (1987)
Bad. Just bad.
This movie really deserves the MST3K treatment. A pseudo-ancient fantasy hack-n-slash tale featuring twin barbarian brothers with a collective IQ of hot water, character names that seem to have been derived from a Mad Libs book, and such classic lines as "Hold her still and uncover her belly!", The Barbarians crosses over into the "so bad, it's good" territory.
The Incredible Melting Man (1977)
It's the Incredibly Cheesy Movie!
Pure cheese. Then again, "cheesy" may be the wrong adjective to describe a movie in which the title character slowly devolves from a more or less man-shaped biped into a nice ripe blob of Kaukauna Port Wine Spread, all the while devouring the flesh of those unfortunate enough to cross his path. This movie can't decide whether it wants to be corny or disgusting; it's one of a few movies even MST3K couldn't save.
The Night Train to Kathmandu (1988)
Little-known but worth seeing
When I first saw "The 5th Element," I kept thinking, "Where have I seen her before? Those eyes..." Then I remembered. There was a little movie, romantic, suspenseful, beautiful, very mystical, that I'd seen nearly a decade before called "Night Train to Kathmandu," starring a very young Milla Jovovich. This is a truly remarkable movie.