Saturday, April 20, 2019

OVP: Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

Film: Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)
Stars: Alice Faye, John Payne, Jack Oakie, Lynn Bari, June Havoc
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Oscar History: 2 nominations/1 win (Best Cinematography-Color, Best Original Song-"You'll Never Know"*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Each month, as part of our 2019 Saturdays with the Stars series, we highlight a different actress of Hollywood's Golden Age.  This month, our focus is on Alice Faye-click here to learn more about Ms. Faye (and why I picked her), and click here for other Saturdays with the Stars articles.

By 1943, Alice Faye was a conundrum for Fox.  It was clear, even to Faye herself (she'd later say so in interviews) that Warner was less-interested in her as a headliner and were more interested in promoting Betty Grable, who had eclipsed her as a box office draw.  Fox had a number of hit musicals throughout its Golden Age tenure, something we don't always think of when compared to the Grand Tetons of musical cinema that were being produced at the nearby MGM lot, but Faye had dominated musicals at the studio during this era, never really making a flop even when she was tasked with poor films.  Grable was a massive star across seas at the time, with her iconic pin-up poster becoming the bestselling one of World War II, and despite the two of them being framed as rivals (to the point where Faye was replaced by Grable in Down Argentine Way), they were actually good friends in real life.  This is a long way of saying, that by 1943, Faye had a lot more riding on Hello, Frisco, Hello than her stellar box office track record might have indicated.  Thankfully for Faye (and throwing Fox's plans for a loop), this was a MASSIVE hit in its era, one of her biggest films at the studio, and she was still too important to the studio to toss aside just yet.  As we'll see next week, Darryl Zanuck wasn't content to keep Faye at the top even if the public wanted her to stay there, but let's first get through Round 1 of her fight with the studio chief.

(Spoilers Ahead) Hello, Frisco, Hello has about as thin of a plot as you could get with a musical without it turning into a revue.  Johnny Cornell (Payne) is a vaudeville promoter and actor who wants to prove to his friends Dan (Oakie) and Beulah (Havoc, and yes this is the June Havoc of Baby June/Gypsy fame), as well as his neglected love interest Trudy (Faye) that he has what it takes to be a big-shot after they are thrown out of a bar early in the film.  Johnny proves them right, coasting in large part off of the talents of his leading lady Trudy, but fame comes at a cost.  He soon is romancing a beautiful heiress (whose fortune is a bit slack even if her attitude is not) Bernice Croft (Bari, in one of the many, many roles in this era where Bari is playing the "gorgeous rich bitch"...though supposedly Bari was second only to Betty Grable in terms of "pin-up girl" popularity during World War II despite her being a complete unknown today).  This causes a heartbroken Trudy, still madly in love with Johnny, to try her luck at stardom in Europe.  Trudy succeeds, Johnny fails, and Bernice proves herself to be the terrible human being the audience knows her to be (while Johnny is blinded by his lust of prestige and beautiful women).  The film ends with Trudy, Dan, and Beulah tricking Johnny into taking Trudy's money and starting a new club for them to perform in, and Johnny/Trudy getting their happy ending.

Musicals, more than any other genre, can get past cliches if they're charming enough.  Unlike, say, a film noir or a period drama, where cliche is going to give into boredom, solid stars and great numbers can carry a musical pretty darn far, and Hello, Frisco, Hello is a lot of fun.  The movie is littered with an array of really great musical numbers, with Faye in peak vocal form and Oakie & Havoc lovably mincing behind her for full comic effect.  The film was nominated for two Oscars, and it deserved both citations.  The cinematography (shot in Technicolor) is sublime, and perfectly lights all of the musical numbers, as Faye in particular has never looked more radiant.  And the movie introduced to audiences the Oscar-winning "You'll Never Know," a standard that has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rosemary Clooney to Shirley Bassey, being big hits for all (due to a weird contract stipulation at the time, Faye wasn't allowed to record the song for record sales, but it became her signature tune anyway).  It's weird to think of such a popular standard being "original" at some point and not just part of the American lexicon, but you can see why during the film it's had such an enduring legacy.

And that's because of Faye.  As you may have been able to tell, I've been a bit surprised by how much I've adored the actress this month (considering so few people discuss her in film history), but this is her best role we've profiled to date, even if it's somewhat of a stock musical.  Faye is marvelous, heartbroken, finding just the right balance with her relationship with Payne to never make her feel like a doormat, but simply someone in love who also has dreams of her own (she just wants him along with for them).  It helps that, weirdly, Faye had already played this part in King of Burlesque, as Hello, Frisco, Hello was a remake of this 1936 film (which starred Faye & Oakie in the exact same roles, albeit playing differently-named characters).  The musical numbers are magic-her voice could so easily be on modern radios in a way I don't think you could even counter for stars like Sinatra today.  The way she brings a desperation to "You'll Never Know" is incredible-it says something that it feels like you're truly hearing the song for the first time even if you know it by heart.  I loved everything about her work here, and can see why this was a smash hit.  Next week we'll go into our first "straight" role for Faye (our final film in our tribute to her), and the role that caused her retirement from movies, but in the meantime, join me in the comments if you want to discuss your favorite Alice Faye musicals.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

OVP: Sound Mixing (2015)

OVP: Best Sound Mixing (2015)

The Nominees Were...


Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, & Drew Kunin, Bridge of Spies
Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, & Ben Osmo, Mad Max: Fury Road
Paul Massey, Mark Taylor, & Mac Ruth, The Martian
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Randy Thom, & Chris Duesterdiek, The Revenant
Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio, & Stuart Wilson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Thoughts: All right, we're jumping back into the 2015 OVP with a vengeance, as I've drawn this out far too long.  As I said in our last piece, I won't have a lot of these articles this month due to a prior writing obligation & an upcoming vacation, but starting in May we'll be doing two a week until 2015 is finished, and I already have 2016 on-deck.  We've made these films wait long enough, so let's get into the Sound Mixers of 2015.

I always find Sound Mixing to be the hardest subject to tackle for these write-ups, and a prime reason for that is something like Bridge of SpiesBridge of Spies has perfectly serviceable sound mixing, and some interesting sound work when it comes to both the flight of Austin Stowell's Francis Gary Powers (the best scene in the film, and particularly great because it doesn't involve Thomas Newman's score, giving us more urgency for the scene), as well as the quieter scenes with Mark Rylance prior to his betting arrested.  However, the rest of the picture is missing the care that you'd expect from a film that is lacking in effects or a musical score for Sound Mixing, and I don't entirely get why this was nominated.  The problem for me is, without either a clear catch or sound work so extraordinary (like Roma a few years later) that it's easy to recognize, I don't know if we're missing some smaller angles on Bridge of Spies' achievements.

It's considerably easier to see the worth of a film like Fury Road.  Dominated by terrific sound design, shot across deserts, this is the sort of picture where sound mixing is clearly at the forefront, rather than something you have to stretch to make important.  George Miller's film takes a great deal of risk with its sound work that pays off; in a less confident director's hands, we'd end up with something resembling a typical, large action film, but there's care here.  Look at the uniqueness of the thundering war vehicles as they trudge across the sand, or the way that certain villains like Immortan Joe seem to have their own daunting noises.  "Oh what a lovely day" indeed.

Mad Max's biggest competition for me on the Sound Mixing front is Star Wars.  Like Mad Max, the iconography here for the sound work has past precedent (both are late installments in long franchises).  However, Star Wars still finds some remarkable scene work here, blending the old-and-new of John Williams soundtrack to create a nostalgic, old-school action affair.  I loved the quieter moments, where instead of sound effects we rely on dusty conversation, like when Han Solo first emerges into the Millennium Falcon.  The great chase scenes, especially the early ones with Finn & Rey, stand out as some of the best in the series in terms of their sound design, and what could feel like a gimme nomination ends up being well-earned.

Perhaps more in the "gimme nomination" category is The Revenant.  The film does have a lot of organic sound work, which is really cool-the opening scene in particular with the constant shifting of the surroundings and the babbling, cold brook is extraordinary in all technical aspects, but after that I'm left flummoxed as to why this was included, though the appeal in general of The Revenant is lost on me (save the cinematography).  The rest of the film does have organic sound work, but it's never as thrilling and frequently feels more just like hearing Tom Hardy or Leonardo DiCaprio panting.  That might be a fantasy you have for yourself, but it's hardly Oscar-worthy.

The final nominated picture is The Martian, a movie that's perhaps the biggest test for me in the OVP in a while.  My goal is to judge all of these films in a vacuum, giving out the trophy without any concept of previous films or future nominations, but it's hard not to compare The Martian with Gravity and Interstellar, two similar space odysseys, one of which was a landmark in Sound Mixing and one a catastrophe (click the below contests to decipher which is which).  The sound work here is somewhere in the middle.  The trudge across the Martian desert (lots of desert sound work this year), is great, but the scenes on Earth aren't particularly impressive, and that opening sequence where you can't hear any of the dialogue over the cacophony of wind storms still hits a nerve (you can have easily-heard dialogue while still imparting that the characters are in danger!), so I find this nomination also veering into "gimme" territory even though it's better than The Revenant.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Cinema Audio Society splits their nominations between live-action and animated features, so with Live-Action we got almost an exact replica of the Academy Awards, with only The Martian getting skipped in favor of The Hateful Eight (The Revenant took the trophy).  For Animated, we saw Inside Out triumph over Minions, Hotel Transylvania 2, The Peanuts Movie, and The Good Dinosaur.  At the BAFTA Awards, The Revenant also took the win, this time over an exact replica of the Oscar lineup.  I actually think this nomination lineup was so well-established that a sixth place finisher was a distant sixth place finisher, but if I had to ponder one I think I'd go outside the box, not hitting The Hateful Eight or Sicario, but perhaps something like Furious 7 which had a lot of steam at the time in the wake of Paul Walker's death and a huge box office (for the film and the series).
Films I Would Have Nominated: I'd probably throw in three new names to this mix and keep Mad Max & Star Wars in the running.  Sicario deserved the Oscar nomination here for that sequence at the Mexican border alone, and I probably would throw in a movie like Carol, which doesn't stand out in a major way (though if Bridge of Spies counts...), but combines its score elegantly with the dialogue, and I think some of the hushed tones of the conversation scenes, especially in public (Rooney & Cate in the restaurants, Rooney & Jake on the street) are particularly well-done and we should occasionally recognize the subtle.  My final choice, and my favorite sound mixing of 2015, would be Son of Saul, which had those haunting, jittery tracking shots where we come in and out of conversations & discover characters almost as background noise.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar struck away from the precursor awards, giving Mad Max the trophy over well-bandied The Revenant.
My Choice: I'm going to flip my Sound Editing verdict here, giving the trophy to Mad Max over Star Wars, as it feels just a bit more unique.  In third is The Martian, followed by Revenant and Bridge of Spies.

Those are my choices-how about you?  Are you with Oscar & I that Mad Max rose above the competition, or do you stick with the precursors' selection of The Revenant?  Can anyone explain to me what made Bridge of Spies so worthy here?  And in a very established race, any ideas on who was in sixth place?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Past Best Sound Mixing Contests: 20072008200920102011201220132014

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Shazam! (2019)

Film: Shazam! (2019)
Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou
Director: David F. Sandberg
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be completely shaken in the next two weeks, and indeed, even I have gotten on the band wagon, let's not pretend that Avengers is the only comic book game in town right now, as DC has brought out yet another entry in their series.  Coming off of the success of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, DC is continuing to revamp its image in hopes of maybe someday approaching the success of Marvel (I feel like that's going to be impossible, though we're talking billions compared to tens of billions, so everyone in the C-Suite is winning on this front).  Here we see one of the stranger reboots since Ant-Man, as instead of going with the grittier, serious dramas that DC is well-known for, we get a cheeky, fun film featuring Zachary Levi of all people as a superhero.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie focuses on Billy Batson (Angel), a young man in a foster home who has been kicked out of all of his previous foster homes for petty crimes and truancy.  He is placed with a group of five other kids, each with varying degrees of personality (the clingy kid, the overachieving girl, the boy obsessed with video games, etc), but seems intent on leaving this place as well, even though he has a potential friend in Freddy (Grazer), a sarcastic, disabled boy who hides his insecurities behind his biting humor.  One day, Billy is brought to an ancient world, where a wizard (Hounsou) thinks that he might be worthy to take over as his successor and stop Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Strong), someone who was not worthy but has spent his life trying to gain access to the wizard again to steal his powers.  The wizard transfers his powers to Billy, making him turn into Shazam (Levi), a superman-like figure that still has the mentality of a young Billy.  Along with Freddy, Billy/Shazam sets out to both defeat Sivana and to learn who he is, and who he can be in a new family.

The film seems rife with cliche potential, as we've seen the superhero brought about by family tragedy so many times (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man...) that it's impossible to not fall heavily on cliche.  Shazam! admittedly does it by mixing it a touch of Big, but there's nothing in this plot that hasn't been done over-and-over, especially in the past twenty years, on the big screen.  What sets Shazam apart, though, are the little things.  For starters, its way goofier that pretty much any other superhero movie out right now, with genuinely weird, lower-budget thrills like the mocking of the wizard (Shazam is, after all, a ludicrous name for a superhero), and the occasional ribbing of the fellow DC heroes (though, Warner Brothers, if you ever want to approach MCU, you need to shell out the $500k paycheck for that Henry Cavill cameo at the end, as there's no way Marvel would have just used his chest to fill a punchline).  The entire sequence where the other five orphans transform into superheroes of their own, with actors like Adam Brody and Ross Butler giddily getting into the magic is terrific fun, and exactly the sort of way that something like Shazam! can set itself away from the pack.

Best of all is Zachary Levi in the lead.  I don't know that anyone would have guessed that Levi, of all people, would be headlining a superhero film (though of course he's had bit parts in the Thor franchise, making him I believe the only major actor other than Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to appear in both the modern DC & Disney's Marvel universes).  This isn't because he's not talented and almost comically handsome (he is both of those things), but because his brand of "awe shucks" G-rated persona feels so strange against the darkness of the DC Universe.  And yet, it totally works.  Levi hasn't been this fun in a movie since, well, ever, bringing the ease and charm of Chuck and She Loves Me to his first significant film role.  Hopefully this opens up some doors for him, because other than maybe Chris Pratt, I don't know anyone else who can bring this same level of eager-but-loveable to the film screens, and as Shazam! proves, in the right hands this can totally work.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Ranking the Marvel Movies

Next week, we will see the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's current chapter (phase-I don't know what we call this).  For roughly 11 years, we've been getting nearly nonstop movies from the studio, every few months yet another massive hit from Disney.  Individually, the series has had ups-and-downs, with no proper, truly terrible films in the bunch but, honestly, no truly unstoppable masterpieces either (I'm decidedly a Marvel fan for comics, and yes, I bought comics religiously as a child, but I still think The Dark Knight is better than any movie on this list, and I'm not even a Nolan fanboy).  I'm not sure if I'll stick around past this collective list of movies for "Phase 4" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe-I think stories have to be able to end to qualify as stories and not just rambling tales, and in a lot of ways Avengers: Endgame feels like a series finale while the next phase of the MCU (whether that be Spider-Man or Black Panther 2) is a spinoff I'm not sure I'll sign up for.  But in honor of this 22nd film and a closing of the Thanos chapter of the series (and likely the departures of actors like Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Robert Downey Jr. from these collective roles), I finally got around to seeing Thor: The Dark World (the only missing piece in this puzzle for me) and instead of writing a traditional review of the picture, I thought I'd buy into the trend over the next two weeks and give my personal rankings of the different films.


21. Iron Man 2 (2010)

By-far the weakest entry in the series, not even Downey's schtick (which even in 2010 was starting to show signs of repetitiveness) could save this boring slog of a movie.  Mickey Rourke was coming off such a high with The Wrestler, it's a pity that his comeback stalled after giving the quintessential "boring villain" performance, something that has plagued most of the series (certainly compared with DC).


20. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I mean, it feels like a cheat to even include this since the titular role was recast, and let's be real here-this is only included because it technically came after Iron Man, otherwise we'd likely leave it off of the list.  That said, Edward Norton was the least of the three Hulks (I actually didn't mind the strong artistic license Ang Lee took with the 2003 version), and Liv Tyler brings really nothing to the love interest role.



19. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I'll be honest here-while I'm genuinely a fan of both in real-life as celebrities, and actually think that Hemsworth has done the best work outside of the series, I'm decidedly in the field of Captain America within the confines of the quality of their actual stand-alone films.  This is the least of the Thor outings, with a convoluted villain plot and Natalie Portman basically phoning it in as a love interest she likely had no interest in playing (notice how she has yet to show up again in the series).



18. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 (2017)

Backlash to the first installment always felt a bit extreme to me, with people I think just forgetting that the movies can occasionally be a good time.  That being said, the second film is a bit off-base, with a lot of the same jokes from the first film being repeated, and with no one saying anything new, not even Kurt Russell as a nice-guy villain.



17. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014)

The actual Avengers movies themselves have always felt a bit of a paint-by-numbers approach.  Perhaps most shocking because of the number of stars that they fit into one film (what is the casting budget on this movie-$100 million, $150?) we also see a lot of ego on display as they attempt to shove every character into enough scenes to warrant 7 or 8-digit pay days.  Combined with James Spader as an eye-rolling villain, and you get a bloated picture.



16. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

I was so smitten with the first movie, it was always going to be a letdown when they brought back this character, as how could it possibly be as much fun?  Even by bringing Michelle Pfeiffer on board, we struggle to make this one work, with the Ghost villain story feeling totally ancillary to the plot, and perhaps they'd have been better off just letting the unknown be the villain here, rather than having a traditional comic book plotting.



15. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

This is inarguably the silliest film on this list, somehow even surpassing Guardians of the Galaxy, and is the one I wish I liked more.  The cast is superb, possibly the best of any of the films, but it's too random, sporadic, and ridiculous (the entire Jeff Goldblum subplot seemed only there to create memes).  Us finally getting a proper female villain in the series (and played by Oscar Winner Cate Blanchett, no less) is about the best I can recommend here.



14. The Avengers (2012)

We jump from Thor 3 to Avengers 1 where we now have 3-star movies (ie movies that I'd actually recommend based on the rules of this blog).  This is fun, and cool, but never as fun & cool as it should be.  Loki is a good villain, but there's not the right level of chemistry yet between the six main characters, as Hemsworth & Evans in particular are still finding their bearings as matinee idols against an established star like Downey.



13. Doctor Strange (2016)

I can't really figure out how I feel about Benedict Cumberbatch, who always feels a bit too eager in his cinematic work, and seems intent on mugging in a way that recalls a British Justin Timberlake.  That said, this is a good movie, one that just avoids the cliches of an introduction to a character enough to not feel boring.  Tilda Swinton joins the long pantheon of Oscar-winning actresses who have randomly appeared in MCU movies (Portman, Bening, Blanchett, Tomei...it's a longer list than you'd think).



12. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Much better than the sequel, Iron Man 3 actually challenges Downey a bit as an actor in a way few others in this series have done.  We see him fight a villain that feels worthy of him in a way others in the series haven't (Guy Pearce's creepy Killian), and we get arguably the best work out of Gwyneth Paltrow we've had this decade.



11. Thor (2011)

Chris Hemsworth might be my favorite discovery from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of actors who hadn't already proven to themselves at that point.  He's so debonair, funny, charming, and DAMN sexy, and all of that comes out when he basically brings Thor from the comic book pages to life here.  He's considerably better than the film, but that's true pretty much every time he's onscreen.



10. Captain Marvel (2019)

The first of the movies to be headlined by an Oscar winner, and it shows.  Larson is hamstrung by us spending most of the movie looking for clues to what will happen in Avengers: Endgame, but she actually has a fun popcorn movie here, and though he's hidden behind distracting CGI, Sam Jackson gives his best work in the series here as a young, pre-eyepatch Nick Fury.



9. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Thor is probably my favorite of the actual superheroes in the films, but Captain America is the best leg of the franchise.  Arguably the weakest of the three mostly because of the messy ending to the film, this is still fun and considerably better than the two Avengers films that preceded it (for all intents and purposes, this was the third Avengers movie-look at who it starred in that photo!).



8. Iron Man (2008)

The film that started it all, Robert Downey Jr. going from basically uninsurable to a matinee idol will eventually be one of the great Hollywood comeback stories.  He's great in this movie, a role he was born to play, and the lack of over-confidence in his work (though thankfully not in his character) is spectacular movie star fun.



7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It is literally impossible to gage this film without seeing the sequel (increasingly, it's hard to gage this entire series without seeing the rest of the series) since they are so interconnected, but most of the film gets it right.  The film is grand in scale, there are some strong performances (particularly Tom Holland), and Thanos is a well-executed villain.  It all depends on what the nexy film does, though, over whether this movie stays on its perch considering the cliffhanger.



6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This movie works really well on its own, and arguably doesn't need the rest of the series to elevate it at all.  Fun, with a great motif & scheme for the characters (I loved the pre-war scenes and the ridiculousness of Captain America's new body), Chris Evans nails this part & sets up a complicated character that in the comic books was always underwritten.



5. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I didn't want this movie, and I distinctly remember at the time of its announcement saying "I'm not going to see it" after the terrible reboot with Andrew Garfield proved to be such a disappointment.  However, Tom Holland is the best of the three live-action Peter Parkers, playing with a lack of confidence that is endearing and works so well it's impossible to deny him his place in the Top 5.



4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I don't care that you don't like it anymore, or that Chris Pratt has become problematic in the years since (I actually do care about that one, but as a classic film historian, I have dealt with problematic film stars for decades so my tolerance level is high).  This is the first of the quartet of films I gave 4-stars to, and it earns it with great humor, unlikely heroes, and a new swagger to the MCU.



3. Ant-Man (2015)

By far the most visually innovative of all of the movies, and perhaps the funniest, everything about this movie works.  Paul Rudd is great as the unlikely hero, Michael Douglas hasn't been this good in 15 years, and what could have been a joke of a movie ends up being one of the best installments in the series without ever being too silly.



2. Black Panther (2018)

Marvel goes prestige with this movie, the first superhero movie to ever compete for the Best Picture Oscar.  Armed with the series best villain (Michael B. Jordan is sexy & dangerous as Killmonger), we see an expanded universe that shows that the MCU might just be able to survive after the first class of superheroes (Evans, Downey, ScarJo) hang up their capes.



1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and next to The Dark Knight, the best comic book movie of this century, period.  Johansson was on a creative high at the time, and you can see that in her work here, and Robert Redford's warm, movie star charisma (very similar, in fact, to Chris Evans') is eerie because he's so nasty as an Edward Snowden-style figure, a villain whose point you can kind of see even if it's totally evil.  Add in Toby Jones' Arnim Zola making a freaky cameo (still my favorite scene in literally any Marvel movie), and you have arguably the best picture in the series (to date).

Saturday, April 13, 2019

OVP: Lillian Russell (1940)

Film: Lillian Russell (1940)
Stars: Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Edward Arnold, Warren William, Leo Carrillo, Helen Westley
Director: Irving Cummings
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Art Direction)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Each month, as part of our 2019 Saturdays with the Stars series, we highlight a different actress of Hollywood's Golden Age.  This month, our focus is on Alice Faye-click here to learn more about Ms. Faye (and why I picked her), and click here for other Saturdays with the Stars articles.

We continue our look at the career of Alice Faye this week with a film that's a bit of a conundrum.  Lensed in 1940, it was arguably at the height of the actress's fame and time at Fox, and was considered a favorite by the actress.  Faye, as we've profiled so far, was insanely popular during her time under Darryl Zanuck, but didn't have a lot of what we'd name-check as classics today (unlike some of her contemporaries at the time like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck), and so this makes the list in part because Faye herself loved the role so much (it's the reason we won't get to Alexander's Ragtime Band, as I was curious about Faye's assessment of her own talents).  However, it is also one of Henry Fonda's least favorite roles he ever did in his career (though in his memoirs he had nothing but nice things to say about working with Faye herself), a role he only took so that Fox would let him do The Grapes of Wrath.  So with this film (also an Oscar nominee, so OVP gets one step closer to being done), I'm curious-will I end up siding with Alice or Hank?

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Faye as Lillian Russell, the biggest stage actress in the world at the end of the 19th Century, frequently inspiring women across the country to copy her fashions and hairstyles.  Russell is legendary for her relationship with Diamond Jim Brady (played here by Arnold), as both had indulgent tastes and voracious appetites.  The movie spends some time on their relationship together, but more focuses on Russell's romances with composer Edward Solomon (Ameche, yet another film that paired the two) and Alexander Moore (Fonda), a young man smitten not with Russell the Superstar, but with Helen Leonard, the girl he met before she became the most famous woman in the country.  The movie is interspersed with different musical numbers and multiple dance halls for Faye to feature her dulcet voice across the relatively long (for a pretty slight plot, it's over 2 hours) motion picture.

The movie has some things going for it even though I'm not a big fan of it as a whole.  Faye is, once again, sublime-I'm in love with her so far this month, and really hoping one of the final two movies of the month manage to equal the talent we're seeing onscreen.  She knows how to play lovestruck well, and has a plum chemistry with Arnold, better than with any of her intended love interests in the picture.  The movie helped Arnold, who had recently been labeled "Box Office Poison" by an exhibitor publication (this was a hit, proving that article wrong), and was trying to transfer into character parts that weren't reliant upon him losing weight like his brief time as a leading man.  Weirdly, Arnold had played Diamond Jim five years earlier in a film for Universal, though in that film he was top-billed and Binnie Barnes a supporting part as Lillian Russell.

Other than Faye & Arnold, though, it's hard to call this a particularly strong picture.  Fonda was right to dislike the film-it's rare that I've seen Henry Fonda given so little to do in a movie, particularly one with his name above the title.  He plays Alexander as a lost puppy, someone who both wants to put Lillian Russell in her place and put Helen Leonard on a pedestal.  This could be an interesting conundrum (the world is trying to do the exact opposite), but the screenwriters don't give us enough to make this interesting, and Fonda seems to be phoning in this performance.  Don Ameche's work is better, though his character is a mess-he's somehow both an absolute cad and someone that Russell mourns horribly, perhaps because the studio didn't want Alice Faye to be anything other than a saint.  Both men are so critical to the plot that you kind of roll your eyes when Lillian Russell ends up with Fonda's Alexander, rather than Diamond Jim, or perhaps more believably, her adoring fans.  You may object, but considering this was VERY loosely based on Russell's life (almost everything is a fabrication), they might as well have given the audiences a sensical ending.

The movie was nominated for a sole Oscar, for Art Direction, and here it's a winner.  The movie has some really fun designs when it comes to the dance halls that Russell adorns, and the houses are ornate & fascinating.  I loved the increasing gaudiness of Lillian's dressing rooms as she becomes more famous and more used to Diamond Jim's extravagances.  These are nice touches, but really it's just a big, giant production that somehow fits the script of a big, lavish, bloated musical.  And while that's an insult to the film, I kind of think it works with this nomination.

Friday, April 12, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

Film: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)
Stars: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington
Director: Dean DeBlois
Oscar History: Looking at the competition this year, it feels likely that the film could pick up a third nomination for Animated Feature, and I wouldn't be stunned if there was a movement to finally give it a trophy.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

We complete (for the love of god, end stories animated studios!) the How to Train trilogy this year with a lot of mixed expectations on my part.  I loved the first one, thought it was spellbinding entertainment, while the second film I actively disliked, thinking the plot was manipulative & sacrificed a lot of cool story potential.  I make it a point of not seeing the sequels to movies I didn't like, but made an exception here as I had heard from my parents that this was really good, and pretty much everyone who disliked the second film agreed that this was a return-to-form.  Plus, considering the state of this year's sequel-plagued Animated Feature race, this felt like preemptively getting a movie off of the OVP.  So (hungry for a movie after a week or two away), I snuck to the cinema to judge-would this film be similar to the first film, a surprise delight, or would it fall into the critically-acclaimed (except by me) camp of the sequel?

(Spoilers Ahead) We pickup a year after the previous film's events, where Hiccup (Baruchel) has become the chief and Toothless, his sidekick dragon, is now the "alpha" basically controlling all of the other dragons with his mind.  As you might have remembered (if you clicked the above links), I hated this plot line, and was glad to see it largely back-seated in the movie, with Toothless's pursuits focusing more on gaining a romantic partner, when a beautiful "Light Fury" comes across his path.  However, romance is interrupted when a famed dragon-slayer Grimmel (Abraham) tries to kill and capture all of the dragons, including wanting to hunt the night furies to extinction.  We watch as Hiccup tries to bring his clan to the "Hidden World" a place run by dragons where they can live in peace.  As the film unfolds, we learn that while the vikings cannot live there, the dragons soon must as they will all surely die because Grimmel will inevitably be replaced with another violent man soon after his defeat, and the world isn't ready for the splendor of the dragons.

The movie is considerably grander-in-scale than its previous films, and honestly, is probably the best in the series (I haven't seen the first one in a while, but I don't remember it hitting these kinds of heights).  The animation is prettier than any mainstream studio has come up with this decade other than Coco, with majestic rides through the night sky and a symphony of dragons in the Hidden World.  I made a comment that the last film would have been better as a silent movie, and I remembered thinking that this one would totally work as a silent movie as well.  If the film ends up being a capper at the Oscars, getting a trophy as a nod to all that it's accomplished as a series over the past decade, we can at least rest assured that it will be winning while also being a splendid picture.

Thankfully it isn't silent, though, as we get some of the most meaningful plots of the series.  The environmentalism answer is clearly there, with dragons being an easy substitute for the rainforest or tigers or pandas or name your favorite climate change cause here, but it also shows the stakes in a major way.  Yes, Hiccup gets to see Toothless again over the ending (I could have done without the literal realization of the reunion, rather than just assuming it as a promise), but the dragons leave this world forever, and the world is hollow because of the greed of people like Grimmel.  That's a sort of "you can have your cake, but you can't eat it" sort of mentality that has largely been absent from modern animation, hearkening back to the era of Pinocchio or Bambi in a way.  I loved it, and think Disney should be watching its back because they haven't made a sequel this inventive in a decade despite sequels being pretty much all they're capable of making.  I'm going with 4 stars here, as the side character jokes still don't work for me and I feel everyone other than Hiccup and the plot itself are underwritten, but know that the franchise is totally redeemed in my eyes, and well done to Dreamworks for making something so special and (hopefully) ending it with such care.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Film: I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Stars: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Director: Ken Loach
Oscar History: No nominations, but it did pick up the Palme d'Or
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I will admit right now that Ken Loach is one of those "prestige" directors whom I don't really get.  I have seen a few of his films, but never been taken with him in the way that you would expect from a cinephile, and it's occasionally hard to wrap my heard around him being one of only eight directors who have won the Palme twice.  Let's just say he hardly joins his fellow title holders Michael Heneke or Francis Ford Coppola in my personal favorite filmmaker's list.  But as I am putting a close on 2016 on this blog, and will be in June starting to tackle the year for the OVP, I wanted to also see the film that won the other major cinematic honor that year, and so I went venturing back into the world of Ken Loach.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie starts with Daniel (Johns), a man nearing sixty who has recently suffered a heart attack.  As a result, his doctor says that he is not fit to work, but an assessment to gain access to welfare (I'm American, and this is very much a film focused on UK social issues despite the US clearly having similar issues, so if I accidentally Americanize some of these terms I apologize) is denied saying that he is "fit to work," and so Daniel is stuck trying to pursue work but knowing he can't get work because it is deleterious to his health.  He meets a young woman named Katie (Squires) who is struggling as well, having just moved out of a homeless shelter and is living in Newcastle because it's too expensive to live in London.  The film follows the two as their situation worsens, with Daniel continually humiliated by a lack of understanding of technology & having to apply for jobs he knows he can't accept, while Katie eventually starts shoplifting and becomes a prostitute to be able to keep her home for her two children.

The movie's powerful and raw, and I get why this is a picture that was celebrated at Cannes.  Considering the personal politics of some of that year's jury (Donald Sutherland, George Miller, Kirsten Dunst), it's hard not to see them recommending the film as much for its social issues message as they did for its content.  The film is a telling indictment of the UK welfare system, blaming a lost generation of working poor on government bureaucracy and out-of-touch politicians.  It's hard to look at Daniel's struggles and not want to do something about it, and this is not exclusively a British problem-it's also an issue that the United States struggles from, where we make it nearly impossible for the benefits we provide for people that are struggling to actually get to those people, therefore saying we're helping when practically-speaking we aren't.  It's a worthy goal, and on that lens I'm glad I, Daniel Blake received such attention (it was even called out on the floor of Parliament by Jeremy Corbyn against the Conservative government).

But the actual film itself isn't particularly good.  The acting is fine, but the problem with social issue pictures is that they are so heavily reliant on expository dialogue and underlining the political points that the film is attempting to make that it usually feels more like a lecture than a natural film.  The movie so heavily wants to chronicle the journeys of people like Katie and Daniel that it's hard not to wish that they'd just done that, making a documentary about real-life individuals rather than sticking to a relatively flimsy, predictable narrative.  The movie itself screams important, but it's never particularly compelling or good and is so matter-of-fact that it's hard to mourn with the people on the screen; if anything, you're mourning because these people are placeholders for all-too-real individuals who suffer the problems of Daniel and Katie everyday.