FANTASIA 2000 (1999) – Worthy of the 1940 original

download (1)

Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, has said that the original Fantasia is “a wondrous sampler. This one’s a cherry cream, and that one’s a chocolate-covered nut.” Roy Disney was executive producer of Fantasia 2000, which is the complete dessert tray. The movie is an unabashed slice of joy that zips along at 75 minutes.

Ignore any trepidations you might have about the movie, such as “Is the sequel a rip-off of the original?” After you’ve been bathed in its imagery for about five minutes, all anxiety will cease.

I hesitate to give an in-depth description of the movie’s seven new segments, because I don’t want to turn this review into a lengthy summary, and I don’t want to give away the movie’s many surprises. Suffice to say, there’s not a loser in the bunch. The new segments include:

download* An impressionistic segment set to the opening of “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony,” which looks like a kid’s cardboard cut-outs come wildly to life.

download (1)* A surreal segment of humpback whales taking flight, to the strains of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”

download (2)* A New York interpretation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” done in the style of caricature artist Al Hirschfeld (who is credited as artistic consultant).

download* Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” set to Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto #2.”

download (1)* Saint-Saens’ finale to “Carnival of the Animals” backing a hilarious story of a flock of flamingos and a yo-yo (Don’t ask, just watch).

download (2)* My personal favorite: Donald Duck serving as assistant to Noah (of ark fame), backed by Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

download* A Bambi-like take on nature and re-birth, set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.”

Ironically, the movie’s weakest segment is the only one retained from the original Fantasia: Mickey Mouse’s take on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s still fun to watch, but compared to the state-of-the-art animation that bookends it, it looks grainy and dated. It’s a pity that the Disney tinkerers couldn’t find a way to expand or update the segment for the new movie.

In lieu of Taylor Deems’ somewhat stuffy narration in the original movie, each segment here is “hosted” by celebrities including Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn & Teller, and Angela Lansbury, all of whom are delightful.

In an age where any animation that earns a profit gets shoveled onto a movie screen, the Disney studio with Toy Story 2 and Fantasia 2000 (two sequels, yet) demonstrated in 1999 how truly great animation doesn’t need a kid in tow to make it enjoyable for any age group. Fantasia 2000 is simply a knockout.

PANIC ROOM (2002) – A thinking women’s movie

download

There’s an interesting book titled Brave Dames and Wimpettes, in which novelist Susan Isaacs posits that most modern movie heroines still use old feminine wiles instead of brainpower to get what they want. Urgently recommended viewing for Ms. Isaacs would be Panic Room, one of the best thrillers of the early 2000’s.

article-0-191EE155000005DC-344_964x615

The movie’s heroines are Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee, and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart, essaying one of her first movie roles at the tender age of 11). They’ve just moved into a three-story Manhattan home of the kind to be found more easily in movies than in Manhattan. The prime draw of this house is its “panic room.” In the event of a burglary or similar emergency, the resident locks himself inside this room and uses its separate phone line to call the police.

On their very first night in the house, Meg and Sarah find out just how good to be true this room is, when three unruly burglars break in. It happens that the house’s previous owner left a few million dollars behind in the house, and wouldn’t you know it, the money’s in the same panic room where Meg and Sarah lock themselves. Oh, and for good measure, Meg didn’t have a chance to get the separate phone line hooked up.

Yeah, I know, this whole set-up could happen only in the movies. But before the thrills are unleashed, the movie takes the time to set up the relationship between Meg and Sarah, and it’s nicely done. Because we get to know them for a while, we have a stake in their peril.

And believe me, these are not two women who sit around screaming and waiting for some moronically written boogie-men to kill them. Simply because the marvelous screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) allows these women to think, they manage to stay one step ahead of the burglars, who eventually find themselves cowering as much as those wimpettes Isaacs writes about.

Except for some overly swooping camera movement at the beginning, David Fincher’s direction is as perfectly taut as you could hope to find in a thriller.

As for the lead actresses — what a wealth! With her interplay with Foster and her remarkable subtlety, even in 2002 it looked as though Kristen Stewart would be…well, the next Jodie Foster.

And what is there to say about Foster? I find her one of the most beautiful women in movies, simply because she makes intelligence sexy.

Watching a seeming no-brainer like Panic Room is like expecting an ice-cream cone and getting a dinner at Four Seasons.

THE TERMINAL (2004) – One of Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ finest hours

$(KGrHqR,!lgFH6MzV54mBS!,KF06VQ--_32-200x200-0-0

If Charlie Chaplin was still alive and creating, it’s easy to imagine him making a light comedy as richly satisfying as The Terminal. Just as Chaplin used to take a prop and wring every possible gag out of it, Steven Spielberg’s prop is a New York airport terminal from which he extracts every story possibility. And Spielberg’s Chaplin is Tom Hanks, who takes a potentially show-offy, Meryl Streep-type role and turns it into a movie character for the ages.

Hanks’ role is Viktor Navorski, a European immigrant who becomes a modern-day “man without a country” when his native land gets embroiled in a revolution. Viktor can’t return home because his country is under siege, and he can’t legally enter New York until his country’s new leadership is recognized by the U.S. So Viktor has no choice but to live in the terminal — much to the consternation of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), whose chances of becoming the terminal’s top dog are jeopardized by Viktor’s constantly being under foot.

The movie’s premise is laid out pretty flatly in the first ten minutes, which begins to sink one’s hopes. But it’s as though Spielberg wants to get the mandatory stuff out of the way quickly so he can explore all of the possibilities in his huge playtoy. And he spins Viktor through every facet of the terminal like a colorful top, involving the terminal’s quirky workers in his meager existence.

In that sense, The Terminal is a lot like Being There (1979), where Peter Sellers played an illiterate simpleton on whom politicians projected their needs and desires. But Hanks is far from a blank slate. His body language, physical comedy, and deceptively simple dialogue speak volumes. Chaplin regretted having to give up silent movies because he felt that his “Little Tramp” could not express himself uniquely with sound. I think something like The Terminal would have been an effective solution.

That’s not to belittle Hanks’ winning co-stars, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones as Viktor’s potential love interest and Chi McBride as one of Viktor’s many supporters. They all give Spielberg’s work the sheen of a big, beautiful dream.

Lucille Ball in MAME (1974) – A TV legend cut down to size

Mame

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The famous line from Mame goes, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.” Yep, and if they indulge in the excess of this movie, they’ll probably go on a diet.

Mame is one of those ultra-strange musicals like Gypsy. It does everything it can to present its supposed heroine as a passive-aggressive mental case and then tries to tell us how endearing she is. One wonders what drove poor Lucille Ball, who by then had over two decades as a sitcom legend behind her, to indulge in a previously undisclosed desire to become a drag queen.

images (3)To quote an eye-popping plot summary of the movie at The Internet Movie Database, “The musical revolves around the antics of Mame Dennis (Lucille Ball), a fun-loving, wealthy eccentric with a flare for life and a razor-sharp wit.” Actually, at least as presented here, Mame is one of those heavy drinkers who thinks she gets funnier as she gets drunker. It doesn’t help that Ball was continually shot in ultra-soft focus to hide all of her 62 years.

images (4)The big kicker in the story is that Mame inherits her late brother’s only child Patrick. The real-life Patrick wrote the book about his lively aunt that was turned into a Broadway show and non-musical movie (starring Rosalind Russell, and nearly as endless as this mess). But you’d never guess that Patrick was ever a real person based on the performance of his younger years by Kirby Furlong. Pauline Kael wrote an especially (and deservedly) vitriolic slam on Furlong’s acting, stating that he came across as so non-human that it wouldn’t be against the law to destroy him. A more generous viewpoint is that the script never shows Patrick in plausible terms. Far from suggesting a real boy who might be in shock or grief from losing his parents, here Patrick seems like a kid ready to party.

images (5)Another major debit in the story is the character of Mame’s assistant Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell, who played the role on stage as well). Ball made much of the fact that Madeline Kahn was to have played Gooch in the movie but weaseled her way out of it so that she could perform her Oscar-nominated role in Blazing Saddles. More likely, Kahn saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail before this movie killed her career.

In any case, the character of Gooch is painful to endure. She starts out as a mousy woman who is supposedly loosened up under Mame’s wing. Trouble is, she loosens up so much that she ends up becoming an unwed mother (not a role indulged well by American society in the 1920’s and ’30s, where the first part of the story is set). It’s supposed to be an absolute hoot when drippy Gooch returns to Mame and does a musical number that basically says, “It was your lifestyle that got me into this mess, now what do I do?” Yet even the musical’s writers knew they opened up a moral quagmire they didn’t know how to deal with; hence, we never see Gooch again after that number.

images (6)There are almost as many jaw-dropping moments in this movie as there are songs. There’s the supposed banter between Mame and her “good friend” Vera Charles (Bea Arthur), coming off more like two women vying for drag-queen history. Then poor Robert Preston gets dragged in as a Southern beau who gets knocked off his feet by Mame’s zest for life. Knocked off his feet, eh? Cowed is more like it.

It’s really head-shaking to think that Lucille Ball got her start performing as an ingenue in movie musicals, only to torpedo her movie career with one. Mame isn’t even enough of a hoot to be so-bad-it’s-good — it’s more to be pitied than sneered at. You’d be better off enjoying a DVD of a season of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucille Ball’s talents are vividly on display.

Albert Brooks’ THE MUSE (1999) – Comedy inspired by the gods

download (1)

I will admit my bias right up front: If I had to make a list of reasons I’m glad I’m alive, comedian-writer-director Albert Brooks would surely be in my top ten.

Sadly, after a long career of brilliant stand-up comedy and somewhat hit-and-miss (but mostly hit) movie comedies, Brooks is still considered a cult comedian whose humor often seems a little too inside. But if you’re burned out by in-your-face comedies, I strongly encourage you to see Brooks’ The Muse. It’s gratifyingly intelligent and superbly hilarious to boot.

Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who, as the movie opens, is being presented with a humanitarian award. (When one of his daughters asks what a humanitarian is, he replies, “It’s a man who never won an Oscar.”) The award is the last good thing to happen to Steven for a while.

Trying to peddle his latest script, he is told by many disparate parties that he has “lost his edge.” The movie’s first half-hour milks huge laughs from Steven’s desperate attempts at script-hustling, as he moves further and further down the Hollywood food chain.

Then Steven happens upon Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), an old Hollywood friend whose career is on a dramatic upswing. Jack reluctantly shares his secret with Steven. He has a muse — not an imagined source of inspiration, but a real live goddess who gives him the help he needs. Jack arranges a meeting between Sarah the muse (played to the hilt by Sharon Stone) and Steven.

The Muse, like the best modern-day comedies, is almost anti-high concept. Trying to explain its appeal usually bungles it for anyone who isn’t in on the laugh. Brooks is simply one of the great comedians–for my money, right up there with Chaplin and all the other comedy icons you just have to trust will give you a good time. He’s also a subtle, underrated director who gets huge laughs from the simplest camera set-ups. (Witness Steven’s trek through a movie lot as he attempts to meet Steven Spielberg.)

Brooks must have had his own muse to get such an inspired performance from Sharon Stone, whose appeal has been lost on me until now. She usually comes off as self-obsessed. But here, that can only be an advantage. Stone’s best moments are Sarah’s slack-jawed reactions to Steven’s cost-cutting attempts to get her services for less. What’s money to a muse like her, anyway?

Even the ending, which is usually the weakest part of Brooks’s movies, manages to wrap things up beautifully here. It’s tempting to think that Brooks had a muse of his own working with him on this one. (Maybe it was his long-time writing partner, the late Monica Johnson.) Whatever inspired Albert Brooks in this instance, The Muse will make you feel like you’re in the middle of a very inside but very funny Hollywood joke.

SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000) – One-half of a great Woody Allen comedy

download

Small Time Crooks begins hilariously and then spends its last half making us feel guilty for the laughs we had in the first half. Perhaps it had been so long since Allen had done an all-out comedy that he wasn’t able to keep up the momentum to the movie’s end.
imagesAllen plays Ray, one of the titular characters, as a variation on his schleppy booking agent in Broadway Danny Rose. His clothing is only slightly louder than his complaining, and he gesticulates wildly, as though his hands have minds of their own. And Tracey Ullman, as Ray’s social-climbing wife Frenchy, certainly seems a perfect match for him. (Allen doesn’t have much originality in creating tacky characters — when in doubt, he throws on the plaids and has everyone screech their lines.)

Ray, a reformed criminal, plots a scheme to return to his life of crime. There’s a vacant building a couple of doors down from a bank, and he figures he can use the building as a front so he can tunnel to the bank and grab the bank’s loot. The front will be a shop for Frenchy’s homemade cookies, while Ray and his henchmen drill underneath the shop.

images (1)Comparisons to Allen’s first feature, Take the Money and Run, are inevitable and (for the first part of the movie, at least) worthy. Ray’s blunders with his no-brain partners (Michael Rapaport and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Jon Lovitz) are a slapstick delight. And when their (mis)fortunes take an unexpected turn for the richer, the movie seems meant to live up to its early promise.

But then, after a half-hour of making fun of these lowlifes, the movie asks us to take their plight seriously — if you can call getting unexpectedly rich a plight. Frenchy hires a stuffy art curator (Hugh Grant) in hopes of furthering her education (shades of Annie Hall). Ray, feeling Frenchy drifting away from him, starts to fall for her dimwitted cousin (Elaine May). And the movie audience suddenly feels the movie’s sense of fun drifting away.

images (2)Why the movie suddenly dismisses the bungling bankrobber trio is a mystery, but dismiss them it does, as though they were a plot device which Allen quickly tired of. The cookie-shop front might have been funnier if Frenchy’s creativity with cookies benefited everybody except for Ray. (A similar premise propelled Albert Brooks’ The Muse [released a year before this movie], and Crooks even borrows Muse‘s plot device of the wife finding unexpected success with making cookies.)

Instead, the movie replaces its prime source of laughs with schlocky pathos. The camera closes in on Frenchy’s face when she realizes her rich friends have been making fun of her, and suddenly the plot goes from the highs of The Muse to the lows of “The Flintstones.”

The cast wavers all over the place. Allen is in his slapstick element, doing physical schtick he hasn’t attempted in ages and pulling it off. And Lovitz and Rapaport are delightfully dumb. On the other hand, Hugh Grant’s role is underwritten, and Elaine May’s is just plain not written. Allen seems to have a thing for dumb brunettes, and May adds nothing to the role except catatonia.

By this time in his career, Allen seemed so fearful of being reminded of his “earlier, funnier movies” that each time he tried for purely funny, he seemed a little more removed from the source. Crooks has its fair share of laughs (though more at the start than at the end), but finding comedy in silly characters and then asking us to feel unearned sympathy for them plays less like early Allen and more like latter-day Jerry Lewis.

THE BIG COMBO (1955) – Mr. Brown comes to town

download

About the only thing wrong with the sizzling film-noir The Big Combo is its title. The cast is uniformly excellent, but it doesn’t make you think of a combo, because there’s plainly one standout: Richard Conte as a showy gangster known to one and all only as Mr. Brown.

images

Conte plays this guy smooth as silk. You keep waiting for somebody to find Mr. Brown’s Achilles’ heel, and occasionally it happens. But even when it does, Mr. Brown never loses his cool; he just jumps back for a split-second, as though a spider had fallen off the ceiling onto his sharply creased jacket, and then he goes right back into his gangster patter. This is another of those old movies that’s meant to teach you that crime doesn’t pay, yet you end up rooting for the bad guy.

It’s not for lack of trying on the good guy’s part, though. Cornel Wilde plays Leonard Diamond, a police lieutenant determined to blow most of the city’s budget in trying to bring down Mr. Brown. Every element of the story seems ripe for parody, but the entire cast underplays so perfectly that you end up taking the movie at face value and loving it. Jean Wallace and Helen Walker as Brown’s lovers present and past, Brian Donlevy as Brown’s put-upon stooge — they all put the movie’s point across without forcing things.

The icing on the cake is David Raksin’s jazzy score (What a turnabout from Laura!) and John Alton’s ultra-stylish photography (SPOILER ALERT: Does the movie’s final shot remind anyone else of Casablanca?). The Big Combo is indeed quite the film-noir platter.

The Day The Clown Shut Up

the-day-the-clown-cried_477493_29670

It was announced last week that Jerry Lewis turned over his notoriously uncompleted 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried, to the Library of Congress, with the proviso that it not been screened or shown to anyone for another 10 years.

For those who have lived under the proverbial rock for the past couple of generations, Lewis intended The Day the Clown Cried to be his cinematic masterpiece. It’s the story of a bitter, unfunny German circus clown who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. I’ll let Wikipedia’s synopsis of the movie take it from here (SPOILER ALERT, if you’re really that involved):

“By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.

Knowing the fear the children will feel, he begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the ‘showers,’ he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, but there is none. He is so filled with remorse that he remains with them. As the children laugh at his antics, the movie ends.”

Through a series of cumbersome legal circumstances, the film never got finished or released. Lewis has since vacillated about the movie, stating alternately that he thought it was great and that he failed to achieve what he wanted with it.

In the movie’s wake, many people have speculated upon it — most notably comedian Harry Shearer, one of the few people to have actually seen the entire movie as such. (Click here for Shearer’s take on the movie, as well as a detailed history of its making and its non-release.)

Now that there’s a chance that people might actually see The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis fanatics and foes alike are salivating at the prospect. Will it be the masterpiece that Lewis once claimed? Will it be Lewis’ most excessive wallowing in bathos? Are you dying to see it?

Me, not so much. Even with all of its legal entanglements, I tend to think that if it had indeed been Lewis’ crowning artistic achievement, surely someone — maybe Lewis himself? — would have gone through hell and high water to get it released. Plus, I have to think that Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), with its similar theme of deluding a happy child while in a concentration camp, certainly stole much of what was left of the Lewis movie’s thunder. At the moment, The Day the Clown Cried looks to me to be one of those Great Lost Films that will remain great only as long as it stays lost.

On the other hand…If I had the Jerry Lewis Genie in front of me, and he gave me two choices — “You can either have The Day the Clown Cried released in all of its glory for everyone, including you, to see…or you can shelve the movie for good, and instead interview Mr. Lewis on the topic of your choice” — I’d go for the interview. Why? Because…

Telethon

After 45 years of hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annually televised Labor Day telethon, Lewis was unceremoniously dumped by MDA in 2010. Even more surprisingly, Lewis has remained tight-lipped about the entire matter ever since his firing. This used to be the guy you couldn’t get to shut up about anything.

I’d love to have a no-holds-barred interview with Jerry Lewis about his ejection from the MDA. “Jerry, do you have any idea why they fired you? Were you given any advance notice? And [wait for it, folks]…how did you feel about the firing, and how do you feel about it now?”

I have the feeling that Jerry’s answers would comfortably run the length of a feature film…and that film would be far more entertaining and insightful than The Day the Clown Cried.

6a00d8341c7abb53ef01156f39b42a970b-800wi

LAURA (1944) – Shades of a woman

download (1)

In a sense, Laura is a film-noir about movies.

Think about it. Laura begins her characterization in the movie as a portrait on the wall of her apartment. Into her milieu comes detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who is investigating Laura’s murder that occurred in that apartment.

Dana_Andrews_in_Laura_trailer

Via McPherson’s investigation (and some convenient flashbacks), we meet the two primary males who inhabited Laura’s life. The first is Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s milquetoast fiancee. It seems strange that the two are engaged, since Shelby gets along far more famously with Laura’s acerbic aunt Ann (Judith Anderson). Shelby seems to want Laura more for her social standing than for any romantic interest.

download (2)

Shelby has a way with a quip but not with a job, until Laura hires Shelby to work at her advertising agency. And how did Laura come to work at an ad agency? Through the machinations of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, who performs grand theft larceny on the movie), a nationally known columnist with whom she had crossed paths.

Clifton Webb Laura

Waldo carries on and on about his love for Laura, but his affection for her is as false as Shelby’s. Waldo’s way of showing his affection for Laura is to sic a private detective on any man besides Waldo who tries to start something up with Laura, Shelby included.

During Waldo’s endless narration of the story, he casually lets it drop that Laura was 22 years old at the time of her murder. And Waldo makes it clear that he and Laura have known each other for five years. It’s also made clear that Waldo (and definitely Clifton Webb) is no spring chicken. So, besides the movie getting one past the censors, it’s quite obvious that beautiful, spritely Laura is little more than a trophy girlfriend for aging Waldo.

Finally, there’s MacPherson. He puts together all of the information he’s gotten about Laura, looks at the only pictorial evidence he has of her — that painting (Didn’t these suitors ever take a photograph of her?) — and mounds it all together to form his vision/version of a woman, as a sculptor would mold some clay.

035-painting-in-films-theredlist

Isn’t this the same thing we all do at the movies? We project our thoughts and ideas into or onto those characters on the screen. That’s why you don’t see a particular movie character in the same way that your friend or your spouse does — and why three different men have completely different visions of Laura, none of which hold up under the harsh light of reality.

But as Waldo Lydecker would say, this psychological analysis is for another place. Suffice to say, this movie is still riveting, with sparkling photography, dialogue, direction (Otto Preminger’s directorial debut), and performances. So project all you like onto Laura — like the characters in the movie’s second half, you’ll still get a lot of surprises.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Swee’pea in BABY WANTS A BOTTLESHIP (1942) – Farewell, Fleischers

download

Swee’pea is by far my least favorite Popeye character; even more so than Olive when she’s in Bluto’s clutches, Swee’pea exists for the sole purpose of being rescued (and annoyingly oblivious to the trouble he’s caused). So I’m doubly sorry that the Fleischers’ final Popeye cartoon is another routine Swee’pea entry. One has to believe that the Fleischers were indeed yanked off the Popeye series with no forewarning and that if they’d had a chance, their finale would have been far more ambitious.

Olive drops off Swee’pea so that Popeye can spend the day babysitting him aboard ship (because we all know that Marines had nothing better to do in 1942). Swee’pea, to no great surprise, gets loose aboard the ship and nearly causes more havoc than the Japanese could have done on their own. This cartoon brings you right to the brink of wishing that Swee’pea could have gotten what he deserved — maybe a Wile E. Coyote-like ride on one of the rockets he set off, or getting scooped up by Child Services once and for all.

Well, Messrs. Fleischer, it was nice while it lasted.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanHalf