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The Muppets (2011)
A loving take on the Muppets
26 November 2011
There are very few of us twenty-somethings who grew up without the Muppets. Between Sesame Street, Muppet Show reruns, and videocassettes of the various Muppet movies, we saw these guys all the time. We even had one or two theatrical releases of our own during the '90s. (My personal favorite of those is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is still annual holiday viewing.) In recent years, since the very underwhelming Muppets from Space, we've seen them pop up now and again, mostly in similarly underwhelming TV projects and in short (yet hilarious!) YouTube videos. I am quite happy to say that, in this newest movie, the Muppets are back in a big way!

The movie starts by introducing us to a new Muppet, Walter, and his strangely human brother Gary. Gary has planned a trip with his girlfriend, Mary, to Los Angeles, and he is taking Walter along to visit the home of his heroes, Muppet Studios. They find the studio to be in disrepair, and hear of an evil plot to destroy it. Can the Muppets, and everything we hold dear about them, be saved? To get my one complaint out of the way, I do feel that this movie was a bit rushed in places. I wanted more time with these awesome characters, and it did feel as if they were trying to get from one place to the next a bit too quickly.

That said, I spent nearly the entire movie with a smile on my face. These are the Muppets that I grew up with, doing what they are best at doing, with that gently edgy humor at which they have always excelled. While there are some moments that are very touching, it is mostly very funny, with lots of nods to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. While new little Muppet fans should enjoy this, it will be much more meaningful to those who have a history with Kermit and Co.

Clearly made with love for Jim Henson and his creations of fur and felt, The Muppets is the most delightful movie I've seen in theaters this year.
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A good story that packs an emotional punch
24 July 2011
In the beginning, Dreamworks Animation had excellent 2-D films such as The Prince of Egypt and Road to El Dorado. I thoroughly enjoyed these films, and they were just as good as what Disney was putting out at the time. These films, while they had good comedic scenes, seemed to have a more serious overall tone to them, and they packed a good emotional punch. Then came 2001, with the release of Shrek. Everything changed for Dreamworks at this point: mostly CG animation, broader comedy, a greater focus on celebrity voices and topical humor. Shrek itself, and its first sequel, were very funny and enjoyable uses of this formula. However, Dreamworks soon pigeonholed itself into that sort of movie, becoming known as second-rate to Pixar in the process.

Then came How to Train Your Dragon. This movie is about Hiccup, the son of a Viking leader whose village slays the dragons that steal their food. Hiccup longs to be seen as a man, but he has not shown the skills or strength that a dragon-slayer normally would. One day, he does manage to catch a dragon, whom he eventually names Toothless. Toothless proceeds to change his life, and the life of Hiccup's village, in the process.

How to Train Your Dragon felt like a return to the Dreamworks movies from the '90s/early '00s. There were certainly comedic scenes, but the story was focused on the relationships between the characters in a very meaningful way. Through the course of the movie, we see how Hiccup's relationships with Toothless, with his father, and with the other youths in his village grow and develop. Seeing how these characters relate to each other gives this film a certain power that has been missing from many of the more recent Dreamworks films, and it was so much the better for that.

In addition to the story, the visuals in this film were remarkable. A good deal of attention was paid to the details in each character, especially in the different types of dragons that were created for the film. And the scenes in which the characters flew were absolutely breathtaking. It helps that I saw this film on a big screen outdoors; the visual and aural spectacle is certainly compounded in that format.

If you, too, have felt burned by Dreamworks Animation in recent years, don't hesitate to come see How to Train Your Dragon. It is absolutely a pleasant surprise.
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Ridiculous, but forgettable
30 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
An author, John James, and his two children move to rural South Carolina after his wife runs off with another man. The young son, Sam, goes along with it willingly, but Louisa, the young teen daughter, is much less eager to live out in the middle of nowhere. As the family tries to adjust to this new life, strange things begin to occur around their land. Plus, Louisa is beginning to grow more and more angry with those around her.

This movie earns a few stars for the cinematography. South Carolina looks beautiful or creepy, whichever the story calls for in a given scene. Also, the performances are very good, especially from Kevin Costner as John and Ivana Baquero as Louise. With these two actors in the leading roles, the film progressed more believably than it otherwise might have.

Mostly, though, this was a pretty ridiculous movie. I noticed this especially in how the characters were written. From the beginning of the film, Louisa was quite unlikeable; I know it's hard for teenage girls to adjust to big life changes (been there, done that), but she still came off as being kind of whiny. Because she started off as irritating and petulant, I didn't feel quite so sorry for her when she started to undergo the events of the film; I would have felt more if she'd started as a more sympathetic character. The other characters in the film felt pretty underwritten, despite good performances from the cast.

A lot of the other ridiculousness stemmed from the details that were not paid attention in putting this film together. Mostly, well, they're in rural South Carolina, but no one has a southern accent?? Really?? Well, I guess it's better not to have them at all than to have them done badly, but definitely took me out of the movie to realize that. Also, as a teacher, I'm surprised that Sam's teacher was allowed to get quite so...cozy with the parent of a current student. Especially a single father. Like the issue of the accents, it's a small detail, but it's distracting.

Overall, the film had the standard "evil ancestral burial ground" plot and a lot of weakly written characters acting against it, along with the nit-picky but distracting issues mentioned above. Some good performances and good camera work save this from the bottom of the barrel.
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Vertigo (1958)
Obsession and the unexpected
21 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a comment about another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. Tonight, I had the chance to see Vertigo for the first time. While I must admit that I didn't like it quite as much as the former film, Vertigo is still a masterfully crafted work of suspense by the man who did it best.

John "Scottie" Ferguson has just retired from the police force, but he has been persuaded to take on a case privately. A college friend is concerned about his wife who has been acting more and more strangely, and Scottie must follow her to discover where she goes in her frequent flights. What follows is a tale of obsession and the unexpected.

The one thing that I liked more about Rear Window than about Vertigo is that we got to know the characters better. In Vertigo, most of the characters are either undergoing insanity or pulling off a deception, meaning that we don't really have insight into who these people are. This does not detract from the intrigue or excitement, but it's just something I personally didn't like as much here.

On the upside, though, I do believe that Hitchcock created another great work of suspense here. To me, the film was most enhanced by the wonderful cinematography of Robert Burks and the as-always-expressive score of Bernard Hermann. Everything that is seen and heard in the film enhances the story Hitchcock is presenting to us, and it's really a treat for eyes and ears both.

Vertigo is a film full of suspense that will keep you guessing throughout. It provides more evidence of the genius of its director.
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Toy Story (1995)
The one that started it all
5 June 2010
Toy Story will forever be remembered as the first feature film to be fully animated by computer. Since its debut in 1995, dozens more have joined it, including a sequel (soon to be two sequels as of this writing), as well as several other excellent films from its animation company, Pixar. However, for its unique accomplishment, Toy Story stands alone. It doesn't hurt that even beyond the technical achievement, the film is charming, well-written, and touching.

The toys in question belong to Andy, who has a huge variety of them scattered around his room. The unofficial head toy is Woody, a cowboy toy who has "been Andy's favorite since kindergarten". Woody loves being the favored toy, but the order is shaken up when Andy receives a surprise present on his birthday: a Buzz Lightyear action figure, who causes Woody to become jealous when he begins to take over the #1 toy position in Andy's playtime.

There's a lot of good stuff in this film: The animation, which mostly still works 15 years later; the voice acting, which is carried out excellently; the story, which keeps viewers engaged throughout. What gets me most about Toy Story is the way that both Woody and Buzz must grow throughout the movie. Woody has to let go of his jealousy and accept that things change when someone new enters the mix. Buzz has to learn (the hard way) that he really is a toy, but that he has a very important role as such. This is better character development than we see in some "more mature" films. It was here that Pixar began a long line of memorable, excellently crafted characters.

Pixar has released ten feature films in the past fifteen years. Toy Story 3 this summer will make eleven. They've maintained a very high standard of quality during that time. It definitely helps that, with Toy Story, they were off to an excellent start.
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Rear Window (1954)
Quintessential Hitchcock
29 May 2010
Alfred Hitchcock is known as the "Master of Suspense". By now, this seems a cinematic cliché, but it is so very true. The man knew how to direct films that keep you riveted to your seat, wondering what will happen next to the characters he has presented to you. Rear Window is a prime example of this.

Rear Window is the story of L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer who broke his leg while on assignment. While confined to his apartment in a wheelchair, he has three main links to the outside world: his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter); his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly); and his large rear window, which provides him a view of many goings-on in the surrounding apartment buildings. Jefferies comes to know a lot about the daily routines of these neighbors, and he becomes suspicious when one man begins to act in ways out of the ordinary.

In this film, the suspense is layered thickly. There were parts during which I sat with my mouth agape, wondering what would happen next to the characters investigating this potential crime. However, Hitchcock makes this more than simply a suspense film. There is *a lot* of character study here; we learn volumes about both the main characters and the neighbors that they view from the window. There is speculation on the nature and ethics of voyeurism, whether Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella really should be doing what they are doing. There is also a message about what a neighbor truly is, and how that sort of relationship has grown weaker in our modern world. (How much more so now, over 55 years after this movie's release?)

Rear Window is quintessential Hitchcock. Admittedly, I have not yet seen many of his films. (Other than this, I have only seen Rebecca and Psycho.) I think it's safe to say, however, that this film provides the same combination of elements that make his other films great: gripping suspense, characters we can really get to know, and thoughtful exploration of the things we humans do.
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A beauteous film
5 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
There is a beauty that is pervasive throughout the film Lost in Translation. I see it in the gorgeous photography that shows us the city of Tokyo in all its glory. I hear it in the expressive soundtrack that enhances the emotions experienced throughout. Most of all, though, I feel it in the connection between Bob and Charlotte, two lonely Americans drifting through a brief stay in Japan's capital.

Bob is an actor doing promotional work for Santorey Whiskey. Charlotte is accompanying her photographer husband on a job that brings him across the Pacific Ocean. Both characters are married, but experiencing bumps in their marriages and doubts about their spouses. And both are feeling isolated in a city of millions. A series of chance meetings in their hotel draws them together. They are soon experiencing the city together, enjoying each other's company.

One of the concerns I had going into this movie was the potential for, for lack of a better word, "squick" between Bill Murray's and Scarlett Johanssen's characters. Murray is old enough to be Johanssen's father, and I was afraid that the movie was going to take us to very uncomfortable places with that age difference. Thankfully, no such "squick" occurred. There is certainly an intimacy between them in the way that they share their feelings and concerns, but nothing that feels inappropriate.

Overall, Lost in Translation is quite a lovely film. It may take a viewing or two to truly understand or appreciate it; it took me five years before I really got it. But once you get it, it's certainly worth the watch.
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Back on the right track?
2 January 2010
Could it be? Is Disney back to releasing...quality films?? Much like Disney's most famous previous outings, The Princess and the Frog is a fairy tale of sorts. On a visit to New Orleans, Prince Naveen is transformed into a frog by Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man, a practitioner of voodoo. Meanwhile, an ambitious young lady named Tiana works endless shifts as a waitress to fulfill the lifelong ambition shared by her and her late father: to open a glorious restaurant that will be the talk of New Orleans. These very different individuals cross paths at a pre-Mardi Gras masquerade; life will never be the same for them again.

I fully, thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Of the ones I've seen in the past decade, this is definitely the best Disney movie to come out in a long time. Of course, I was a girl who grew up on the Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, so it was refreshing to see them return to that format. In so many ways, this movie had a lot going for it.

Visually, The Princess and the Frog is very stunning. I have never been to New Orleans personally, but I can say that it looks gorgeous in this film. I also liked the use of different artistic styles throughout the film, such as the art deco of Tiana's fantasy sequence and the near-psychedelia in the Shadow Man's voodoo ceremony. Although the characters definitely had the "Disney look" about them, it was very cool to see some branching out into different directions.

The vocal cast of this movie was excellent as well. Anika Noni Rose has a powerful, emotional voice that brought life to the character of Tiana, and Bruno Campos performed the part of the prince with charm and humor, something that doesn't always seem to be apparent in Disney princes. Both of these characters seemed to be real people with foibles and flaws, and I think the voice acting went a long way toward giving them dimensionality. Keith David provided an appropriately menacing performance for Dr. Facilier. Especially, though, I appreciated the supporting cast. They added humor and support to the story without going too over-the-top or becoming annoying, a problem in many latter-day Disney films.

The music of this film was greatly appropriate, highlighting the many musical traditions of the American South, from jazz to zydeco. While I liked Randy Newman's songs and score, I don't think it was quite up to the level of many previous Disney efforts. I didn't walk out of the theater humming any of the specific songs. All the same, though, I would willingly listen to the soundtrack if I had the opportunity to do so.

With The Princess and the Frog, I believe that Disney is getting back on track. I'm hopeful that we will see great things from them again in the next few years!
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At Wit's End
28 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a great bit of fun. It was a pirate film, pretty rare at that time, and it had a bit of everything enjoyable in it: romance, humor, great characters (except, oddly enough, for the two romantic leads), and a few chills. It was a fun watch, and deservedly a huge hit.

The second film, Dead Man's Chest, was still pretty cool. The Davy Jones subplot brought a lot more story to the film, which weighed it down a bit, but overall it was still a fun watch. The humor was certainly still there, and Johnny Depp continued to shine as Jack Sparrow. Plus, there were some very memorable scenes and visuals, like the fishy crew of the Flying Dutchman.

This review, though, is about the third film, At World's End. The third film in a trilogy has the major task of bringing closure to the story lines that have been introduced throughout the series while still leaving open the possibility for another film in case the filmmakers decide to go for a quadrilogy. Sadly, it is my belief that At World's End did not do this in a satisfactory way.

It may have been due to the fact that I hadn't seen Dead Man's Chest in a couple years and kind of lost the story. It may have been because I was watching it on TV, where it was frequently interrupted by commercials and possibly edited down for time. However, to me, it seemed that At World's End was kind of a messy film. By this point, there was soooo much story that the whole endeavor seemed to have been weighed down with the effort of dealing with so many plot lines. To me, it seemed that this was a failed attempt to bring an epic scope to the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Instead of feeling grand, it just got really muddled.

This is mostly due to the many dealings with the politics of the pirate world. Trades and alliances and power struggles...this was touched on in the first film, but it never got in the way of the main story. Here, it felt like these elements of the story took up too much time, and they definitely dragged the film down.

Even with those elements aside, we still had so much to juggle: Davy Jones/the Flying Dutchman; Bootstrap Bill and Will; Elizabeth's ascension through the ranks of piracy; Calypso's release; the various anti-pirate Englishmen whose names I now fail to remember...I'm all for complex, rich films, but by the end of this one, my brain hurt pretty badly. These elements were all thrown at us hard and fast, which made the film pretty messy in the end.

On the positive side, the special effects were still wonderful. Also, there were some pretty cool fight scenes, which helped to keep the film from completely becoming bogged down in itself. By the same token, the wedding of Will and Elizabeth was pretty cool, though, according to the final scene, it appears that their married life won't quite be what they were expecting...

On the whole, though, this convoluted film was the weakest of the entire Pirates series. And, help us all, they're making a fourth one...I think I'm all pirated out now.
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Banal biopic with a couple of redeeming points
29 August 2009
The main word that comes to mind when considering this film is "dodgy". This is a low-quality film biography of one of the most iconic performers of all time. The Gloved One deserved better.

Before getting into the meat of my thoughts on this biopic, I have to say that there are two things I found effective. First was the use of actual fan footage and interviews at certain points in the film, especially in the scenes depicting the first set of child molestation allegations. I feel that this contributed a certain authenticity that was *severely* lacking throughout the rest of the film. Second was the sequence depicting the courtship of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. I will not comment on whether I believe the marriage was a sham, but by many accounts, it was a relationship where care and affection existed between the two parties involved. That really came across in this film; Flex Anderson and Krista Rae had decent enough chemistry to pull it off. These successful points are enough to keep Man in the Mirror away from 1-star status.

That said...there was very little else here that worked. Very few of the actors looked like the people they were supposed to portray, most egregiously those playing Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Jackson, and Diana Ross. Also, the absence of Jackson's music was a huge loss. How can you effectively tell a story about him without his music?? I understand that they were unable to secure the rights to it with this being a low-budget, unauthorized production; it seems, though, that if you can't have the man's music in a film about him, you might as well pack it up and go home, because you're missing out on an extremely important part of his life story.

This film's characterization of Jackson bothered me a little, too. I won't argue that he was troubled and may have been a few fries short of a value meal, but here, he was portrayed as something close to mentally disabled. I don't believe that Jackson, known to have been a shrewd businessman, would have been quite as naive about how the adult world works as he was made out to be in this film.

Finally, the way this film was written was nothing short of disgraceful. Many lines or exchanges of dialogue were either extremely corny, like Michael and Janet's "Tinkerbell" exchange, or nonsensical, like the "Blanket of love" comments made by Michael. Also, the screenwriters don't exactly have a knack for subtlety. There was a lot of telegraphing of upcoming events ("What could possibly go wrong??" sorts of lines) and extremely overt hammering of themes and motifs in the film (if I'd heard the word "believe" one more time...). This is what ultimately hobbled the film as something that could be considered awesomely bad.

Perhaps when we are a few years, or even a decade or three, removed from Jackson's death, someone will be able to bring his story to life in a more deserving film. By that time, we might have a better perspective on his life, and someone will be able to present a truly thoughtful examination of who Michael Jackson really was and what he's meant to the world of entertainment. This very dodgy biopic was not that film.
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Wow all around...
12 October 2008
A film noir involving corporate intrigue and wacky animation? Who wants to see that movie??

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the story of Eddie Valiant, a detective who was once famous for tackling 'toon cases along with Teddy, his brother and partner. However, he slips into a life of alcoholism and odd PI jobs after Teddy dies at the hands of a 'toon. But everything changes for Eddie when he is hired by R.K. Maroon, a cartoon studio executive, to investigate some funny business (no pun intended) involving 'toon star Roger Rabbit and his wife Jessica.

This film is a marvel, both artistically and technologically. Its special effects still hold up today, 20 years after the film's initial release. If this were all Who Framed Roger Rabbit had going for it, that would be pretty amazing. However, the film also has spot-on performances and a great story and script. A film with such artistic *and* technical merits is really something special.

For me, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is also amazing because of how differently I have been able to see it over the years. When my 5-year-old self first saw it on its initial home video release, I loved the colorful world of Toontown, Roger's antics, and seeing my favorite cartoon stars side-by-side in the same movie. (Donald and Daffy in the same scene? That was heaven!) I did, however, run and hide from certain scenes later in the movie that I do not want to spoil for those lucky souls who still have yet to see this. As an adult now, I still love the movie as entertainment, but I can also appreciate all the work that went into its creation. It only takes a viewing of the DVD's special features to see that making this film was a painstaking process. Not to mention, in this age of computer animation, realizing that all the animation in this film was done by hand! Wow!

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technological marvel, an artistic triumph, and an extremely entertaining film. Highly recommended, especially for animation lovers.
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Does an adaptation have to be faithful to be good?
26 May 2008
When I started to see the ads for this film, it confused and concerned me that Jadis, the White Witch, was making an appearance. I remember thinking, "Oh, my goodness, they're going to mess with the book, aren't they?" Having now seen Prince Caspian, I can say that yes, they did certainly change the book, but some of the changes really do work in this adaptation.

Prince Caspian was written as the second book in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series. (It's the third book if you're using the chronological order of the stories.) It is the story of Caspian, prince of the Telmarines, who must escape from, and later defeat, his evil uncle Miraz to gain his rightful throne over both Telmar and Narnia. He is helped by the Pevensie children, who have once again been brought from our world into the world of Narnia to help set everything right; a group of exiled Narnians whom the Telmarines have, in the past, attempted to exterminate; and Aslan, the Lion who ultimately rules the Narnian lands, though his presence is not always known.

As a film adaptation, Caspian is not nearly as faithful to the original book as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was. Several liberties are taken with the order of the story, as well as expanding the battle sequences, adding a minor romantic subplot, and the previously-mentioned appearance of Jadis. Some of these changes work better than others. I honestly wish there had not been an attempt to inject romance into this story; it is not at all in the spirit of Lewis' writings, especially in the Narnia stories, to attempt puppy love. Other changes, such as the appearance of Jadis, are much more effective and really add to the story as the film tells it. The battle scenes are truly stunning, even more so than those in the previous film.

Despite the license taken with the story, Prince Caspian is a very good film; I would almost say that it is a better film than Wardrobe. If you are a fan of the book series, as I am, it is best to think of this as a separate entity from the book; that is probably how it would be best enjoyed.
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Still holds up to this day
16 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I don't cry at movies. ET made me cry. Yes, there are parts that are incredibly cheesy. Yes, this movie did spawn Pod People and Mac and Me, two prime examples of cinematic train-wrecks. Yes, I am fully aware that Steven Spielberg is playing with my emotions.

But if anyone is going to toy with my feelings, he's probably about the best one to do it.

In so many respects, this 26-year-old film holds up incredibly well. Doubtless, if it were to be released today, the character of E.T. would have been computer animated; indeed, much of the film would have been made using that medium. I'm not sure, though, even with today's advanced technology, that any computer image would have been able to emote so convincingly as the puppet used here. The actors, the puppeteers, the director - everyone worked together to such great effect to make the audience believe in that character. And despite the obvious emotional ploys on the way to the film's conclusion (the near-death, tearful goodbyes, etc.), it just feels natural to want to see E.T. happily home with his family again.

Between Spielberg's mastery of the language of film and John Williams' rousing, yet sumptuous score (the man might be one of the greatest composers of our time!), this film is masterfully made and a wonder to watch. Although it seems a cliché by now, don't be afraid to let this film move you!
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Cute, but it's not Animaniacs!!
27 December 2006
I am a huge fan of Animaniacs. I have been hooked ever since the show was introduced to me as a child. I watched the show every day and even owned some of the videos. And yet somehow, I managed to miss Wakko's Wish until very recently. Now, having finally seen it, I must say that I was fairly disappointed that this stands as the brilliant show's swan song.

There is a famous quote that says, "And this above all, to thine own self be true." It would have been nice for the makers of Wakko's Wish to take this into consideration. Most of my problem with the movie was that it tried to make Animaniacs into something it wasn't. Most of the time, Animaniacs (at least, the segments featuring the Warners, who starred in this) was pretty off-the-wall stuff. It was generally pretty zany, and full of jokes that adults would be more likely to understand than kids. There were flashes of that in Wakko's Wish, but overall, it felt like the movie was trying harder to cater to little ones. Also, it didn't feel right that there were so many scenes with *touching moments* in them. They felt out of place for these characters, especially the Warners. And worse, it made the tone of the movie seem uneven when there were scenes that were actually Warner-like, especially the scene with the evil king. That scene *should not* feel out of place in an Animaniacs movie! It should be the norm rather than the exception. And what probably what made me saddest about this movie were the songs. I've always loved the music from Animaniacs, but this was overkill. Even worse, most of the songs weren't fun or funny, which is a crime in the world of Animaniacs. Those songs just made the whole thing come off sounding like a low-rent Disney knock-off. (It's so painful to say that about anything having to do with Animaniacs, but it's true here, sadly.)

Wakko's Wish took the Warners into uncharacteristically dramatic territory, but this was made more palatable by the wonderful vocal cast. They actually did a very good job acting through the more emotional scenes, especially the actors who play Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Dot (Tress MacNeille). They were able to make the somewhat corny material have a bit of emotional impact.

Wakko's Wish could have been much better than it was. We could have seen a lot more of the Warners that we've come to know and love, and it would have been nice if there had been fewer songs (and if those few could have been up to par with the music from the TV show!) But overall, Wakko's Wish was a nice little movie, and a nice (if not entirely fitting) farewell to the world of Animaniacs.
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The Producers (2005)
The cast shines in this musical adaptation!
3 June 2006
Let me just preface this review by saying that I love Mel Brooks, and the original 1968 movie version of The Producers is excellent. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, because it has such wonderfully ridiculous characters, and the premise is just so out-there that it's hilarious! I also love the stage version of The Producers, which I was privileged to see in NYC with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane (in previews, no less!). It is, by far, the funniest thing I've ever seen on the stage. So I had pretty high expectations for this movie. For the most part, I was not disappointed.

Let's start with the one problem I had: it started off very slowly. It seemed that they were trying too hard to make the first scene (in Bialystock's office) faithful to the original movie, which was a mistake because it invited unwelcome comparisons. (Sorry, Matthew; on screen, you're no match for Gene Wilder.)

Pretty much everything afterward is great, though. I was pleasantly surprised by Uma Thurman as Ulla, especially considering what a huge departure this is from her usual roles. The rest of the cast was hilarious, and they all worked well together to make this movie a great experience. (I know that some might be ready to stone me for saying this, but I actually think that Lane and Broderick have better chemistry as Max and Leo than Mostel and Wilder did.) The musical numbers were also very well done, and I think that they benefited from the more "stagy" direction that a lot of people (especially the critics!) seem to have a problem with. It's almost old-fashioned, which is more true to the kind of musical that The Producers is.

So, basically, despite a slow start, The Producers is one of the funniest movie musicals I've ever seen. Though not quite a masterpiece like its 1968 predecessor, it makes for a wonderfully entertaining movie experience.
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Between the Lions (1999– )
In the tradition of old-school PBS kids' shows
18 May 2006
Does anyone else remember a time when PBS children's shows were actually about, you know, education? Those halcyon pre-Barney-influence days when you knew you'd get good quality programming on PBS that the whole family could enjoy? Well, Between the Lions is definitely a return to those days. It probably feels like that because, according to what I've read, a lot of people who worked on pre-Elmo's World Sesame Street work on this show. So they know very well what a quality children's educational program should be like. I watch this show every day with my students (I'm an elementary school teacher assistant), and it definitely helps them with phonics and basic reading skills. It feels like the next step up from Sesame Street, building on the letters they learn from that program and showing how they are used in forming words. Plus, like Reading Rainbow, it introduces them to stories and books they might not be exposed to otherwise.

Yeah, some of the little sketches and running jokes with the lions are kinda silly and corny (ie: Cliff Hanger, "what took you so long?", etc.), but but those things are only a small part of the show. It's not like there's a major part of the show that's irritating. If you don't like Cliff Hanger or any other of those bits, take comfort in the fact that a) it's probably not on every episode and b) the segment will only last 2-4 minutes, if that. (And plus, the kids like Cliff Hanger. They'll say "Can't...hold...on...much...LONGER" with him when they see him.) So, to sum up, Between the Lions is a wonderful show to watch with your children to help teach them basic reading skills. There are corny bits, yes, but by and large, it is an entertaining show for all, and it serves its purpose well!
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Rock-A-Doodle (1991)
Could have been so much better!!
1 April 2006
First off, I have to say that I really like the idea of Rock-a-Doodle. The basic story of the rooster having to save his farm from eternal darkness and rain by crowing the sun up could have made for such a great movie. But I feel that, as it was, it wasn't nearly as good a movie as it could have been.

A huge part of my problem with this movie was the main character, Edmund. This kid/cat is so darn annoying. His speech impediment got very old very fast, and it just felt like he was trying way too hard to sound cute. Also, as another reviewer pointed out earlier, he belabored to death the fact that he was "too little" to do pretty much anything, which became irritating.

It was also bothersome that this movie couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a full-blown musical or not. The Chanticleer/King songs were fine, because they were part of the whole singing rooster story. But it seemed that the other random songs were pretty unnecessary. The owls' songs were bad enough, but did they really feel the need to have the bit with the bouncer toads' song?? These random musical numbers felt like they came out of some particularly bad Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. If they really wanted to make this movie a musical, they needed to have some real full-length songs instead of those short musical snippets given to the villains.

But by far, my biggest problem with this movie is that it's just not very good at storytelling. It was fine that Patou (Phil Harris in his last role!) narrated the story. However, at times, they relied too much on the narration to tell us things instead of showing us. This is especially true in the whole Goldie subplot. Patou told us that a) Goldie was a lot smarter and nicer than she seemed at first and b) that she was really falling for Chanticleer although she was only supposed to fake it. It really would have helped Goldie's character development if there had been scenes where she was gradually acting smarter and nicer. And the movie would instantly have been better, I believe, if there had been a scene showing the moment where Goldie knew that she was in love with Chanticleer for real instead of just having narration. As it was, it felt like Goldie was just tacked onto the movie so that Chanticleer could have a love interest.

There's a good movie somewhere in Rock-a-Doodle. And I won't deny that it was a special part of many people's childhoods. However, for the reasons above (as well as others I don't care to bore you with), it just didn't live up to that potential, and turned out to be just another mediocre-to-bad kids' movie.
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Pappyland (1996–1999)
So I'm the first, then...
12 March 2006
Hmmm, I knew this was an obscure show, but no one else remembers it? Really? Well, I guess it's up to me to tell you all about the horror that was Pappyland. It was basically a really bad cross between Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and The Joy of Painting. Every episode would begin with Pappy Drew-It, a grizzled yet friendly old cowboy, walking into his house and greeting us, the lucky home audience. Yay for us. Stuff that I can't really remember right now would happen in the house, then he would go into some magical, puppet-inhabited rip-off of Mr. Rogers' Land of Make Believe, where he would learn valuable morals (groan) with his woodland friends, including Turtle Lou, who probably had the worst Italian accent I've ever heard. While dealing with his friends' issues, he'd teach the audience to draw a picture that was connected in some way with the solution. After the daily moral dilemma had been wrapped up by drawing a pretty picture, Sing-Along Sam would sing a song to reiterate the lesson we all just learned. After that bit of musical bliss, Pappy would go back home, then bid us farewell.

How, you may ask, do I know so much about this show which I thoroughly dislike? Easy. It used to come on one of our local PBS stations, and I watched it every single freaking day with my brother, who loved to watch the twin tortures of Pappyland and the Shelly T. Turtle Show (which is so obscure that it's not even on IMDb!!). But I think that the fact no one has commented on this show until just now really says something about just how (un)memorable this show is.
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A letter of complaint
17 February 2006
Dear Sir,

I am writing to complain about the silliness known as Monty Python's Flying Circus which plagues my television. The "jokes" are silly and pointless, and the sketches never have proper endings. I demand that this programme be removed from telly at once and replaced with programmes that are truly representative of the glories of British humour, such as Keeping Up Appearances and the BBC World News.

Sincerely, Col. Arthur von Gambolputty-Dinsdale of Ulm (deceased)

(Warning: This letter does not reflect the true feelings of the reviewer, who is a huge fan of Python and thinks that the above-mentioned gripes are the very reason that the show is awesome. The comedy still holds up after over 35 years, though several of the costumes and haircuts do not, and the mixture of zany oddball non sequiters, intellectual references and satires, and ingenious physical comedy makes Python something very special and unique. Viva Python! And remember, !las llamas son mas grande que las ranas!)
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Why I can't stand this movie
7 January 2006
This movie was one of the glut of teen "comedies" that came out in the late '90s/early '00s, spurred on by the success of American Pie and its ilk. Generally, these movies weren't any good. It made me sad to be a high schooler during that period of time. Why couldn't I have grown up with Say Anything... ten years earlier, or Grease twenty years earlier? Not that they were great works of film-making, but at least they were enjoyable. But I digress.

Although I'm not a huge fan of the genre in general, I reserve a special disdain for She's All That for the following reasons:

1. It's a bad rip-off of the Pygmalion story. Now, while it's fine to do updates on classic literature, and indeed, the Pygmalion story would be a good one to update, it's not fine to dumb it down. This felt like the "reaching for the lowest common denominator" version of My Fair Lady, except with a much worse soundtrack. The humor level went from "C'mon Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!" to "What did he just put on that pizza??"

2. It's a celebration of conformity. It's not so much the physical makeover that gets to me (even though I talk about that a bit more below); it's the accompanying change of personality. When Laney becomes her "cooler" self (gag, gag, gag!!), she loses pretty much all of the quirky qualities of her personality that made her interesting in the beginning of the movie. She pretty much became just like everyone else, which was saddening. At least in the original Pygmalion story, Eliza became a stronger person after her transformation; Laney just becomes a gooey-eyed bimbo.

3. Speaking of eyes, this movie perpetuates a bias against people who wear glasses, saying that they're automatically nerdy and unattractive and must get contacts STAT! if they want any hope of being cool and good-looking. (Sorry, just a personal pet peeve of mine; it just gets on my nerves, especially because I know people who think this way in real life.)

4. C'mon, this transformation was too easy. As a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, Laney was already pretty. All they did was slap on some quirky clothing and glasses (see point #3), and she was automatically in need of a makeover to make her hot. Right. You know, sometimes the people that really stand out are the ones considered the most beautiful. But that seems to be lost on anyone here, who think that you have to look just like everyone else to be attractive. They could have picked a better "project" or "case" to make over.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. I'm not even going to touch on the awful acting and the fact that high school was never remotely like it was portrayed in this movie (a high school radio station??). I just have problems with this movie at the foundational level.

As a final thought, may I just submit for your consideration that the title is a phrase so dated that, a mere 7 years later, no one really uses it anymore? Clearly, there was something very short-sighted in the making of this movie.
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Misery (1990)
Don't EVER have a Number 1 fan...
7 January 2006
Horror movies generally aren't my cup of tea, but people have always talked about how great Misery is. So I decided to give it a look when it came on TV today. All I can say is that I was definitely not disappointed; this was an amazing movie.

Misery is the story of writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who is driving through a snowstorm after just having finished his newest novel. The car crashes, and it seems that Paul will die, trapped in his car in the snow in a deserted forest, when he is rescued by a mysterious stranger. She turns out to be Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who dresses his wounds and gives him a comfortable bed. In addition, it turns out that Annie is Paul's self-proclaimed Number 1 Fan. Specifically, she is obsessed with the Misery Chastain series, Paul's major claim to fame. Annie keeps Paul in an isolated room for days, then weeks, as the outside world searches for him. Eventually, when Annie objects to the content of Paul's latest manuscript, and when she has a hysterical reaction to the death of Misery in the latest novel, Paul (and the audience) come to see that there may be something wrong with Annie.

Caan and Bates were absolutely stunning in their performances. The vast majority of this movie focused on them, so it was crucial that they both be able to convey the sense that something horrific was going on. It was no surprise that Kathy Bates won the Best Actress Oscar for her role. Everything in this movie really worked to show just how trapped Paul was, and how hopeless his situation seemed. And of course, this movie left a few indelible images in the mind. (One in particular comes to mind, and I really wish that I hadn't seen that scene previously on some other TV show; that almost took away from the impact of seeing it in context.) So, if you are a fan of suspenseful fare, or you just want to see a horror movie (mostly) sans blood and guts, Misery is for you. You will never, ever want to hear anyone say that they're a fan of yours again.
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"Is this a kissing book?"
2 January 2006
(Re: the spoiler warning. I put it there just to be safe, because I do discuss one or two plot details. But if you really haven't seen this movie yet, go out and do it. Right now.)

Tonight, I had the pleasure of revisiting the movie that has been my favorite since I was a young middle schooler. Each time I watch The Princess Bride, I appreciate it more and more. When I was younger, I was always captured by the beautiful love story between Buttercup and Westley, and I thrilled at his daring escapades to fight through anything, even death (mostly death, at least), to get his true love back from the nasty Prince Humperdinck. Now, dozens of viewings and several readings of the book later, I can appreciate it for its witty asides, the way it gently pokes fun at some conventions of the fantasy genre without being mean-spirited or cynical. I marvel at what might be the best cameo role ever, the Impressive Clergyman. But most of all, I wonder how I can still be drawn into a love story that has its feet so firmly planted in the realm of fantasy; how can it become so real to me every time I watch this film? Because it is so wonderfully acted, written, and directed, and this combination of factors creates a magic that can still make an old girl like me swoon. Of course, the movie has its share of flaws (weird '80s synthesizers in the soundtrack? obvious shots of body doubles doing gymnastics in the Man-in-Black/Inigo fencing scene??), but...well, I really don't care. The good parts of the movie are enough to overcome any complaint I may have.

As a parting shot, if you love this movie, you really ought to read the book by William Goldman...erm, S. Morgenstern. It's even better!! (Yes, young Fred Savage, it is a kissing book; but most of us wouldn't have it any other way.)
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Corpse Bride (2005)
Tell me more, Tim!
1 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
First, let me get the negative portion of this review out of the way: I did feel a little let down by this movie. At a very brisk 76 minutes, it seems as if there should have been more story to tell, more details to give...and maybe one or two more Danny Elfman songs (even though he wasn't really at his best in this movie). A few more moments between Victor and Victoria would have been especially wonderful; their characters shared such a special chemistry with each other. The story was so straightforward, and it definitely could have benefited from slowing down the pace a bit more. (But then again, had the movie been any longer, the poor animators would have spent several weeks more finishing it up!!)

Otherwise, Corpse Bride was a wonderful movie. I am absolutely a sucker for the Tim Burton "look", which was here in spades. The slightly macabre, utterly haunting world of the dead, which was placed in direct contrast with the antiseptic, colorless world of Victorian England, conjured up some memories of Nightmare Before Christmas without being a complete retread. Also, the acting in this movie (both by the puppets and the voice actors) was wonderful. Although the characters were pretty much par for the course in this kind of movie, they were acted so wonderfully that we in the audience still cared for them and hoped for Victor, Victoria, and Corpse Bride to all have a happy ending, as they did. And although we knew from the first that Lord Barkin is a rotten apple, we want to know how he's going to get what's coming to him in the end.

Though slightly disappointing in the story department, Corpse Bride is still a wonderful film that will tickle your quirky-bone as only Tim Burton can. I definitely recommend this film.
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Surprise, surprise
18 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
To preface this review, I haven't seen this in about two years, so I might not be remembering all of it correctly. However, I do remember that I watched this as part of a "bad Disney sequels" double feature along with Hunchback of Notre Dame II. (Yes, I admit; I'm a bad movie masochist!) Surprisingly enough, though I can't say I would watch Cinderella II again of my own free will anytime soon, I can say that it somehow isn't as bad as I was expecting. Of all the Disney sequels I've seen (and yes, I have seen quite a few of them), this is one of the least lousy. The three-story format seems to work a lot better with the television-quality, way-too-bright-and-none-too-subtle art and animation; it was nice to see that they were trying to evoke episodes of a television show rather than labor under the pretense of it being an actual movie. In light of this, it might make sense to break this review down into three sections, one for each story. (Possible spoilers ahead.)

Cindy Plans a Party: Yawn. This is, by far, the worst of the segments. Cinderella, now in charge of the Ministry of Parties or some such bogus organization, has to convince the higher-ups that yes, peasants should be allowed to participate in the next royal shindig. That's about it. Very dull; no compelling reason to really watch it because nothing actually happens. Moving on...

Are You a Man or a Mouse? - Make Up Your Mind Already!: Jaq, one of Cindy's mouse friends and one of the overall highlights of the entire endeavor, decides that, as a mouse, he's too small to really be of any help to her around the palace. So, thanks to a spell from the Fairy Godmother, he becomes a man, who also, inevitably, gets in the way and isn't much use to anyone. This one would be fairly silly as well, except that Jaq is a pretty endearing little guy. It also doesn't hurt that one of my favorite voice actors (Rob Paulsen of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain fame) does his voice, and because Jaq becomes human, the voice hasn't been sped up beyond recognition.

The, Um...Evil(?) Stepsister: So, we barely get to see Cinderella in this one, but considering that she's not the most exciting character, it's nice for the spotlight to shift for a moment. Instead, this features as our protagonist none other than...Anastasia, one of Cindy's evil stepsisters. Huh? Well, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that she had a change of heart after Cinderella got hitched to her Prince (who sounds eerily like Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid; is there some funny business going on in Disney fairy-tale land?) It wouldn't seem that Anastasia, being somewhat ugly as well as formerly evil, would have too many prospects in the area of love, but her mother still wants to see her marry rich, which is why she is shocked and appalled when Anastasia falls in love with...a common baker! (Cue Hitchcock-esque horror music.) But with Cindy's help, all works out, and she gets her baker. Awww.

Overall, Cinderella II is pretty bland and not very interesting, but it's definitely an improvement over other Disney sequels, because it's much less painful to have three small segments of sub-par animation and storytelling rather than one big dose. There are actually enjoyable parts, even in the thrown-together interstitials between the stories featuring the Fairy Godmother and the mice. All in all, it's a nice little diversion to rent for an evening if you're bored and don't have anything else to do.
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The Music Man (2003 TV Movie)
How not to cast...(possible spoilers)
30 October 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Meridith Willson's "The Music Man" has a cheesy story. But, when the right ensemble performs it, "Music Man" is a positively charming, warm, funny ensemble show. Disney's previous track record with Broadway musical adaptations ("Annie", "Cinderella" to a smaller extent) showed that they were capable of doing this. However, through bad casting choices, this "Music Man" proved to be a huge FLOP!!

To bore you with plot details (possible spoilers here for the uninitiated), "Music Man" is a story about Harold Hill, a con man who poses as a traveling salesman/band director who sells musical instruments and lessons to gullible small-town folk. Charlie Cowell, a dedicated anvil salesman, wants to stop Harold, because "he don't know one note from another," and his con is giving salesmen everywhere a bad name. Also standing in Harold's way is Marian Paroo, the librarian of the small town of River City, Iowa, who promises to help the town's blustery Mayor Shinn bring down the con artist. However, in the process, she falls in love with Harold, whose promise of a River City boys' band brings a new sense of hope and unity to the "Iowa stubborn" town.

Let's start with Mr. Hill himself, the most crucial element of "Music Man." Matthew Broderick can be wonderful in musicals. (Seeing him live in "The Producers" was a rare treat!!!) However, he seems simply incapable of providing the boisterous, showy charm needed to be a convincing Harold Hill. Harold is described as a "spellbinder", meaning that he absolutely needs to engage the town, and the audience, and completely sell his product by overwhelming them. Broderick's Harold seemed to be using mousey Leo Bloom-like, wide eyed innocence to sell the band, which made his performance of "Sadder but Wiser Girl" extremely unconvincing.

Other than Mr. Broderick, the cast seemed to range from "eh" to "ew". Kristen Chenowith's Marian was not bad, although not too terribly impressive, and the rest of the Paroo family was charming, so I was not disappointed to see their slightly extended role in this movie. Victor Garber and Molly Shannon as Mayor and Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn could have been much funnier. Those characters are supposed to be the comic highlights of the whole story because of their pretentious, self-important attitudes. Unfortunately, Garber tried to play it fairly straight, and Shannon's comic timing was not her best. Most of the rest of the cast did not particularly stand out, so the many colorful characters of River City (Barbershop Quartet, Del Sartre ladies) began to blend into the background.

Paired with the somewhat slow pacing of the movie overall (too many commercial breaks in the TV broadcast!), poor casting choices were the downfall of Disney's interpretation of "The Music Man." It is truly sad that such an energetic, charming musical was turned into something truly mediocre and lacklaster.
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