REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

In Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, Musical, P, Romance on July 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

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STUDIOWalt Disney Pictures

CAST – Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman

DIRECTORS – Ron Clements, John Musker

MPAA Rating: G

Back in 1937, Walt Disney did something that no other movie studio had ever done before: produce an animated motion picture. It was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it became both an instant sensation and the start of an enduring legacy. Over the next 67 years, there were over 40 traditionally-animated Disney motion pictures, ending with Home on the Range, in 2004. At the time, computer-animated motion pictures were coming to the forefront (2002’s Treasure Planet had employed CG backgrounds from start to finish), so the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of their hand-drawn animated studio. They released a few non-Pixar computer-animated movies, with mixed results. Then, in 2009, Disney marked the return of its traditional animation studio, and a return to the studio’s roots, with The Princess and the Frog.

In 1920s New Orleans, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress, working two jobs in order to save up enough money to open her own restaurant. When her best friend Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody) announces that the visiting Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) will be at her masquerade ball that evening, she pays Tiana to cater at the event. Now that she has enough money, Tiana buys an abandoned sugar mill and sets her sights on her dream.

Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) tells Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) she has to kiss him

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, encounters Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David), a local witch doctor. Dr. Facilier unleashes a plot to take over the city by transforming the prince into a frog, and his valet Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett) into the prince. The plan: Bartlett attends the ball in the prince’s place, proposes to Charlotte, and gains access to her family’s fortune. Later, at the ball, Tiana learns from the realtors she had been outbid. Heartbroken, she wishes on the Evening Star, only to find a frog sitting beside her. She mockingly asks if he wants a kiss, and when he answers, she gets the surprise of her life.

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, The Princess and the Frog takes you on a journey of discovery, temptation, greed, and love. This is the first entry of Disney’s animation studio (which now uses a clip from the classic cartoon “Steamboat Willie” as its billboard) since its announced return in 2006. Disney’s forté in animated cinema once was fairy tales, but they had lost their direction beginning in the 1990s, with some hits (The Lion King, Tarzan) and more than a few misses (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range). This movie not only marks the return of conventional animation for Disney, it brings back a tradition which has been a Disney staple for 73 years (and counting).

As for the movie itself, the characters are for the most part believable, the pacing is fairly quick, and the story doesn’t feel too contrived. Oh, there is a mild case or two of deus ex machina, but not enough to distract you from the enjoyment of the movie. And this movie is quite enjoyable. There are a few scenes involving Dr. Facilier’s voodoo magic which may be a bit intense for the younger set, but he wouldn’t be much of a villain without them. And, because Tiana is Disney’s first “princess” of African-American origin, and the setting is 1920s New Orleans, there are a couple of moments of veiled racism to provide a sense of credibility to the plot and some historical accuracy. Fans of Tennessee Williams will enjoy John Goodman’s turn as Charlotte’s father (whom she calls “Big Daddy”), and whose dog is named Stella (You can almost hear the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” references now, can you?). And Randy Newman, who had previously done musical work for Disney/Pixar projects, succeeds in his first foray into the traditional animated world.

The DVD includes the usual string of Disney promos and trailers, including a teaser trailer for the next animated movie, Tangled, based on the story of Rapunzel. There is also a set of deleted scenes, hosted by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, which are presented in sketch, storyboard, or rough animation form; these provide a rare glimpse into the creative process used in feature animation. For the kids, there is an interactive game of identifying Disney princesses; it isn’t random, but once you get through it, you are then presented with a series of thumbnail stories of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, including clips from each movie.

The Princess and the Frog is not without its flaws, but it is the beginning of a renewed tradition sure to last for years to come. It is vibrant, entertaining, and romantic, with valuable life lessons such as “It takes hard work to capture a dream” and “It’s okay to go after what you want, as long as you remember what you need”. Overall, this is a solid movie, suitable for almost any age.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

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AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)

CRAZY HEART (2009)

In C, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

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STUDIO
– Fox Searchlight

CAST – Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jack Nation

DIRECTOR – Scott Cooper

MPAA Rating: R

In the days before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was watching TV at my mother’s house, when the trailer for Crazy Heart came on. After seeing the trailer only once, I said “I have got to see this movie!” I immediately put it into my Queue, and when Jeff Bridges took home the Best Actor Award a few weeks later, I moved it up. Now that I have seen this movie, I can say it is worth the wait.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a once-famous country music star who, because of years of hard living (and hard drinking), has been relegated to playing bars and bowling alleys to make a living. Traveling by himself cross-country, just him, his guitars, and his ’78 Chevy Suburban, a day in Bad’s life constitutes wandering into town, meeting the pick-up band of the night, checking into a motel, procuring his nightly bottle of McClure’s, doing the show (with the occasional emergency trip off-stage to throw up), then finishing off the bottle, quietly leaving the groupie of the night asleep at the motel the next morning. Not exactly what you would call a glamorous life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) performs in Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter from the local newspaper (and niece of the keyboard player in the local band). At first, their relationship is professional (she’s there to interview him), but they quickly form an unlikely bond. Soon, his agent has him diverted to Phoenix, where he is slated to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s one-time protégé, who is now a major recording star in his own right. Bad resists at first, but the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people again (and getting decent pay doing it) appeals to him, so he agrees. Later, on his way home to Houston, he makes plans to stop over at Jean’s for a few days.

To venture any further into the story would mean spoilers, but I will say that Crazy Heart is a movie about living a hard life and paying dues. I think many of us can relate to that in one way or another; I can say that I’ve been paying my dues for some time. Anyway, Bad likes doing what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like where he does it (As stated earlier, his first performance in the movie is at a bowling alley), but he keeps plugging away, hoping his next gig is better than his last.

His relationship with Tommy seems to have some drama involved, but I don’t think it had to do with Tommy himself. From the looks of things, the rift between them was actually caused by the record label, but when your blood is 80-Proof, your judgment get clouded and you don’t see the outside influence; you only see what’s in front of you. In Phoenix, Bad and Tommy talk about the old times, and that night’s show went off pretty much without a hitch, so it’s obvious these two really still like each other. But Bad is set in his ways, much to the chagrin of those around him.

I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges. He has an easygoing way about him that makes him look so natural on the screen. Here, his performance is very solid, and his portrayal of Bad (who says his given name will be on his tombstone) is among the best of any movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Those of you who are familiar with country music from the 1970s will recognize the name Kris Kristosfferson, himself a one-time hard-drinking former star who later got a second chance. Bridges channels Kristofferson so well that in some of the performance scenes, he nearly looks like him. By the way, both Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell did their own singing, and from the looks of it, all the performances were recorded live on location (either that, or the sound editors were vastly underpaid for their services).

Though this may be considered a romance film, I put this in that rare field of “romance films for men”. It’s a movie told from a man’s perspective, it’s not a “five-tissue” movie (though it is still powerfully emotional), and it doesn’t have a typical romantic ending. In fact, I think the ending is about as realistic as can be, given the circumstances surrounding a key incident between Bad and Jean regarding her son, Buddy (Jack Nation). There is also an influence from the movie Tender Mercies, thanks to co-star and producer Robert Duvall (who won his Oscar in that movie). The songs are all very good, too. One of them, “The Weary Kind”, written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, resulted in this movie’s second Oscar. On a side note, it isn’t often that a character and a real person who share the same name are mentioned at the same Academy Awards ceremony (Goerge Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was also named Ryan Bingham).

Crazy Heart isn’t for everyone, but this is one of the better films of 2009 that I have seen so far. Anyone who has an appreciation for country and/or blues should see it. I may not be a country fan, but I do like the blues, and this movie is definitely about having the blues!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

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STUDIO – Columbia

CAST – Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

When you hear the name “Clark Gable”, you most likely would recall the dashing and cocky Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. The name “Frank Capra” tends to conjure memories of Jimmy Stewart, thanks to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and You Can’t Take It With You. And the mention of Claudette Colbert’s name may recall the original Imitation of Life, or perhaps Cleopatra, both from 1934. But this was the movie that made them all famous.

It Happened One Night is the story of an impetuous heiress named Ellen Andrews (Colbert) who’d eloped with a smooth operator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) opposed the marriage and Westley, so he took her to Miami to get her to clear her head. Seizing an oppourtinity, she (literally) jumps ship and takes a bus back to New York to reunite with her husband. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a hard-nosed, hard-drinking newspaper reporter who’s down on his luck. Right away, they don’t get along. At a stopover in Jacksonville, he learns who she really is and, seizing an opportunity of his own, offers to help her to New York in exchange for an exclusive story.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) employs her special hitchhiking method as Peter Warne (Clark Gable) looks on

Every romantic comedy made since 1934, from Sleepless In Seattle to The Seven-Year Itch, owes its existence to this movie. It Happened One Night may not be the first-ever romantic comedy, but it was the first to perfect the formula: Two strong-willed leads wind up in a situation where they can’t get away from each other, only to fall in love with each other in the end. It sounds simple enough, but without good chemistry between the leads or a good script, it’s just two people bickering for an hour-and-a-half. And there may be plenty of bickering here, but there are also plenty of laughs!

This movie, made on a tight budget ($350,000, or around $5.5 million in today’s money) and an even tighter schedule (multiple location shoots in four weeks), spans from Miami to New York, as Gable and Colbert’s characters try to assert their respective ways on the other. Even today, with transportation and logistics down to a science, it would still be a major accomplishment to shoot a movie like this. And when you consider that Claudette Colbert, whose salary consisted of about 15% of the movie’s total shooting budget, hated working on this movie (she even told her friends and colleagues as much when she finished), the story becomes that much more astounding. At the time, Frank Capra was a “B-movie” director and Columbia was a “B-movie” studio, so you can imagine all the fervor when It Happened One Night became the first movie to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay. Suddenly, this little movie from a little studio became a true “dark horse” at the Oscars.

But on the screen, there was magic, and plenty of it! Gable and Colbert worked off each other brilliantly. The highlight of the movie is the scene that need only be described in two words, as quoted by Mr. Gable: “Quit bawlin’!” The hitchhiking scene, which features Alan Hale, who would later be best known as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (and whose son was the Skipper on that infamously fateful “three-hour tour” known as “Gilligan’s Island”), is also fun to watch, especially when Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable the best way to stop a car is by showing off a little leg.

Upon its release, It Happened One Night became an instant sensation. Here are some cool facts about this movie. Following the movie’s initial release, T-shirt sales plummeted, thanks to Mr. Gable’s choice not to wear a T-shirt for brevity’s sake during Peter’s undressing scene. It is also widely reported that elements from this movie formed the genesis of one of the most famous cartoon characters in history, Bugs Bunny; A gentleman named Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) spoke in a nasally voice and called everyone “Doc”, Peter dropped the name “Bugs” when he confronted Shapeley, and in one scene, Peter is eating carrots.

Without a doubt, It Happened One Night is funny, romantic, and a timeless classic. Okay, maybe riding the bus isn’t as fun as it used to be, and maybe today’s motels are far less prying when it comes to the affairs of their guests. But even now, few movies in this genre have dared to come close to this. Remember those Oscar nominations? Well, in the history of the Academy, only three movies won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one for the screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were the others). Not bad for a quickly slapped-together B-movie, huh?

GRAND HOTEL (1932)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 25, 2010 at 5:08 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace, Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt

DIRECTOR — Edmund Goulding

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens…”

This now immortalized line, spoken by Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), heralds the beginning of the Best Picture of 1932, Grand Hotel, a motion picture which holds a unique record in Academy Awards history, and also has a unique history of its own. It is the only movie to win Best Picture without so much as a nomination in any other categories. It is also one of the earliest examples of what is now known as the “ensemble cast”, which included Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt (as in the Academy’s humanitarian award), and not one, but two Barrymores (Lionel and John, in their second of four films together).

Grand Hotel spans three nights at the eponymous hotel in Berlin, where the lives of prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo), Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore), stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford), businessman Preysing (Beery), terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), war veteran Dr. Otternschlag (Stone), and porter – and expectant father – Senf (Hersholt) overlap, and in some cases collide. Grusinskaya is depressed, and her performances of late have reflected her mood. She is in such a funk, that she no longer wants to perform (It should be noted that this is the movie in which Garbo speaks her most famous line, “I want to be alone”). The Baron is a smooth operator, an easygoing gentleman who also happens to be a thief with a heart of gold, as well as a chaser of anything in a skirt. Flaemmchen is a stenographer and sometimes model called to the Grand Hotel to take dictation for Preysing, a business magnate with a solid reputation. Kringelein used to work for Preysing as a bookkeeper until he fell ill, so he decided to spend his final days in the lap of luxury, regardless the cost. The good doctor is a local who frequents the hotel and observes the goings-on. Finally, poor Senf the Porter, forced to work while his wife is in (very protracted) labor, cannot break free from his duties out of fear he’ll lose his job.

Baron von Gaigern, Otto Kringelein, and Dr. Otternschlag (John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone) at the baccarat table

Now that you know how everything starts, let me just say that Grand Hotel is an absolute delight to watch. I will caution that there are parts of this movie which belie its age, but in the grand scheme of things, it still shines as one of the best motion picture of the early years of the Academy Awards. Joan Crawford had already been a veteran in motion pictures by the time of Grand Hotel, but her role as the stenographer is among the first of her many meaty roles during her acting career.

Meanwhile, there was much ballyhoo about the pairing of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, so much that the normally (and notoriously) reclusive Garbo actually allowed backstage publicity photos of her with him. This unique union of The Face and The Great Profile proves to be one of the many captivating storylines in this movie. Finally, John Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, has a memorable scene when Kringelein confronts his boss, Preysing (Beery), at the hotel’s lounge and tells him how much of a slave driver he really is.

For a place where “nothing ever happens”, a lot seems to be going on at the Grand Hotel. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, of unscrupulous businessmen, of happiness and tears, and (most important) a story that follows the Latin expression “Carpe diem” (Seize the day). It is a story of love discovered and of fortunes lost, and at the end of the movie, another busload of weary travelers step off the bus for their stay at the most famous hotel in Berlin.

The special features on the DVD include footage of the premiere of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, trailers for the movie (including a “Time is running out” trailer made for the Chinese Theatre), and a short from Warner Bros. called “Nothing Ever Happens”, a spoof of the movie. There is also a trailer for a remake released by MGM in 1945 called Week-end at the Waldorf, starring Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Ginger Rogers (As of this writing, it is not available from Netflix; I will review it if and when it is released).

If there is a drawback to Grand Hotel, it’s that the character names are among the most difficult to remember, let alone pronounce. And, as I said earlier, there are a few areas which show the film’s age, but it isn’t such a bad thing because I feel it enhances the movie’s charm. In 1932, the term “ensemble cast” was a practically unknown term, but Grand Hotel showed the world that seven of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day can indeed work together and create a masterpiece. And that masterpiece is set at the Grand Hotel, where people come, people go, and nothing ever happens…

4 (out of 5)

YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)

In Comedy, Motion Pictures, Romance, Uncategorized, Y on May 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman

DIRECTOR — Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG

Dear Friend–

So far, it has been an intriguing month of viewing and reviewing movies, including three of them with the same premise. I’m not sure how to put this, but having that sense of déjà vu while watching a movie is so unsettling, yet so entertaining at the same time. So, how should I approach this review? I’m sure I’ll figure something out…

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part review, in which I have taken a journey spanning nearly 60 years, to look at three different movies based on the same story. I began with Jimmy Stewart’s The Shop Around the Corner, followed by the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime. Now, we have reached the end of our journey, with You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, only this time they aren’t co-workers; they are business rivals.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) tells Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) what he thinks of her "inconsequential" book store

Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, heir apparent to the monolithic Fox & Sons Books store chain. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, owner/proprietor of a children’s book store called The Shop Around the Corner (a nod to the original movie). Kathleen’s book store was started up by her mother, and it was a fixture in Manhattan for 42 years. When Fox Books moves in to open a store (literally) just around the corner, she is initially confident that her little store will continue (though we can all tell she is in denial). One day, a gentleman with two small children enter her store (the kids wanted to see the Storybook Lady) and he strikes up a conversation with Kathleen, introducing himself simply as “Joe”. Later, at a party, they bump into each either again, only this time she finds out second-hand that “Joe” is really Joe Fox of Fox Books. Let the battle begin!

Now, the funny thing is that both Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly have significants other (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear, respectively) whose behaviors and habits are infuriating: Joe tells his friend Kevin (Dave Chapelle) that Patricia (Posey) “makes coffee nervous”, while Kathleen thinks Frank’s (Kinnear) fascination with typewriters borders on obsession. But, they both also have been secretly exchanging e-mails with someone they met online, and they both find themselves becoming more and more fascinated with their respective anonymous friend. But there is a catch: Joe and Kathleen’s online friends are each other.

You’ve Got Mail is the second movie starring Hanks and Ryan that was directed by Nora Ephron (and their third, overall). On the up side, Hanks and Ryan work well together. Even at the peak of their conflict, you can still see the two characters ending up together. Meanwhile, the themes of large corporations squeezing out local businesses and of meeting someone online were very real concepts in the late 1990s. I used to live in a town which had numerous busy shops downtown, selling everything from CDs and TVs, to rugs and vacuums. When a “big-box” store (I won’t say which) decided to move into a new (and much larger) location in town, many of the stores downtown (and even in the local mall) were forced to close their doors because they couldn’t compete with the low prices the “big-box” store had. Meanwhile the Internet was still somewhat a novelty during this time, and chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion forums were popping up everywhere. Suddenly, a man in Columbus, Georgia, could strike up a conversation with a woman in Hilo, Hawaii, without the expense of travel or long-distance phone calls. At the time You’ve Got Mail was released, these were contemporary concepts.

But times change. Today, with the economic slide of the past few years, small business has been making a comeback, and large companies have been pink-slipping their collective workforce. Meanwhile, the Internet has changed, too. America Online (from whom the title of this movie was inspired) is no longer an Internet service provider; it is now an Internet portal, free to everyone. And there are other avenues available today. With text messaging, instant messaging, Internet access on phones and other portable devices, and dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com, it is now unlikely you will “meet” someone online without ever knowing what they look like until you meet them face-to-face.

You’ve Got Mail feels like The Shop Around the Corner meets Sleepless in Seattle. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does share several elements with the Sleepless formula. It stars Hanks and Ryan, it’s directed (and co-written) by Ephron, and it’s about people fascinated with someone they’ve never met. And in both movies, Meg Ryan’s character has a boyfriend with whom she breaks up amicably (Here, Kinnear assumes the reins of Bill Pullman’s role from Sleepless).

Now, it’s time to give you a really great piece of trivia: All three of the movies in this series of reviews has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. The store owner in The Shop Around the Corner was played by Frank Morgan (The Wonderful Wizard himself), In the Good Old Summertime starred Judy Garland (duh!), and the final scene of You’ve Got Mail featured the song “Over the Rainbow”. Ah, the things you pick up while working on this ongoing project…

I saw this movie while on a date in early 1999, during its initial release. While it played a small part in what would develop into one of the better relationships I have forged in my life, I look back on it today with a fresh pair of eyes, and some of the luster seems to have worn off to me. Don’t misunderstand me. I still feel it is an entertaining movie, but just over a decade later, it already feels a bit dated. The charm of Hanks and Ryan does manage to rise above that, but I would prefer either Sleepless in Seattle or the original (The Shop Around the Corner) instead.

IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949)

In Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Musical, Romance on May 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Spring Byington, Buster Keaton, Marcia Van Dyke, Clinton Sundberg, Lillian Bronson

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: G)

When I recently opened my rented copy of The Shop Around the Corner, I popped it into my DVD player and discovered that You’ve Got Mail was the second remake of that movie. The first was redone as a musical set at turn of the 20th Century, and that it starred Judy Garland. So, I made a quick trip into my Netflix Queue and ordered In the Good Old Summertime and put it straight to the top of my list. Now, before I proceed any further, let me state that, with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz and the occasional Andy Hardy serial, I had not seen any motion pictures starring Judy Garland until this point. Nothing against her; she just isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I pressed forward, bowl of popcorn in hand, and watched…

And I dare say I enjoyed this movie. In the Good Old Summertime is the same basic premise of The Shop Around the Corner, only instead of a contemporary department store in Budapest, it’s set in a music store in Chicago. Also, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The head clerk of the store is Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), the boss is Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall), and the romantic interest/fly in the ointment is named Veronica Fisher (Garland). Replace the musical cigarette boxes with 100 table harps, throw in some slapstick, courtesy of Buster Keaton, and some old-tyme songs, and you have yet another Technicolor musical churned out by the factory known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Veronica (Judy Garland) offers to "help" Albert (Van Johnson) deomonstrate a song for a customer

The basic story is the same, in some cases nearly word-for-word, but the pacing is actually better than the original. Van Johnson tries not to impersonate Jimmy Stewart, but in some scenes it’s easy to spot that “aw-shucks” quality for which Stewart was famous. Judy Garland proves that even marriage and a child haven’t rusted her pipes. In one scene, a frustrated Veronica is asked to demonstrate a Christmas song; she does so, but only going through the motions in the process. Even in that moment, it’s hard to dismiss her vocal talent.

Speaking of talent, I made discovery with this movie: Marcia Van Dyke. She is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right, and here she shows off one of those talents. Her character, Louise Parkson, lives in the same boarding house as Andrew, and she is a violinist, a damn good one. Several scenes showcase her talent, culminating in an audition for a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany (home of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Van Dyke isn’t much of an actress, but where she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for it with a violin in her hand. And she was very easy on the eyes, too.

One of the things that I noticed in this movie is that many of the musical numbers, especially in the first half, were in 3/4 time (waltz tempo). Now, I’m a sucker for the waltz, but I think even Johann Strauss himself might have cried out “Okay! Okay! Enough with the waltzes! Let’s move on, shall we?” But overall, the music fit in well with the plot, with one minor exception. Okay, maybe not so minor. The bulk of the movie is set in the fall and winter, but MGM needed an excuse to use the song “In the Good Old Summer Time”, which was still a fairly popular tune nearly 50 years after its initial release. So, they bookended it with two brief scenes set in a park during the summer. I’m not sure how, but they managed to pull it off.  Oh, there is one more thing: At the very end of the movie, Veronica and Albert are strolling through the park with a little girl; that brief scene marks the (unofficial) motion picture debut of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli.

The DVD comes with a pair of travelogue shorts about Chicago, one for day, one for night. Both are remarkable time capsules to a time that is now all but forgotten. The daytime tour features many fixtures of the skyline, including the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and the Drake Hotel, along with a parting shot of Buckingham Fountain. The nighttime featurette highlights some of the entertainment and night life aspects of the city, including a music hall frequented by the mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, as well as a dancing horse(!).

In the Good Old Summertime is a surprisingly fun movie to watch. MGM can be considered one of the few manufacturing corporations whose work was considered art, and this musical fits nicely into that fold. Remarkably, I found it at least as charming as The Shop Around the Corner. Up next, the conclusion of my three-part review. Stay tuned…

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on May 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO — MGM 

CAST — Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Morgan, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart 

DIRECTOR — Ernst Lubitsch 

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG) 

When I first set up this little blog of mine, I did back-to-back reviews of the two movies called The Italian Job. In it, I said that I would be doing this from time to time. On that note, a question: What do James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Tom Hanks all have in common? Well, they all starred in movies with the same premise. First up is 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Mr Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who can’t stand each other, but don’t realize they’ve been developing a budding romance through the mail. 

Based on the play “Parfumerie”, by Miklós László, The Shop Around the Corner is set at a small department store in Budapest, Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) has been working there for nine years, under his boss (and store’s namesake) Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Other members of the staff include the cowardly and family-concsious Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the smug and oily Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), two long-time female clerks named Flora and Ilona (Sara Haden, Inez Courtney), and an energetic errand boy named Pepi Katona (William Tracy). One morning, an out-of-work store clerk named Klara Novak (Sullavan) approaches Aflred for a job. He says that Mr. Matuschek is not hiring at present. She then asks Mr. Matuschek, who confirms Mr. Kralik’s answer, so she improvises. A customer spots her holding a cigarette box, so Klara takes the initiative. She approaches the lady, who asks if it’s a candy box (Klara says it is), and opens it. It starts playing “Ochi Tchornya“, and the lady balks, saying how silly it would be to reach for a candy and to hear that song every time it opens. Klara says that the box will make ladies who tend to indulge themselves to be “candy conscious”, and she makes the sale — at a higher price! She gets hired. 

Klara and Alfred (Maragret Sullavan, James Stewart) bicker about each other's wardrobe before work

Practically from that moment on, Klara and Alfred seem to have nothing better to do than argue with each other at work. But they do have something in common: They each have a secret romantic pen pal. Meanwhile, the usually charming Mr. Matuschek becomes more and more distant toward Alfred, and Mr. Vadas has suddenly made a splash about town, wearing expensive suits, fur coats, and even a pinky ring (Not bad for a store clerk’s wages, eh?). Anyway, I won’t give the whole story away, except for one thing: Klara and Alfred can’t stand each other face-to-face, but they are really each other’s romantic pen pals! 

This is a charming little movie, which still holds much of its luster. Jimmy Stewart was such an underrated talent, his “aw-shucks” style of delivery makes him both a leading man and an everyman. Margaret Sullavan seems a little too forward for my taste, but softens up nicely whenever she smiled. The supporting cast was fairly good, with one exception. Pepi intervenes on a very dramatic moment in the movie. Afterward, he drops many not-so-subtle hints about what happened (though the affected party wanted discretion) and takes advantage of his position. The way William Tracy played it, I kept thinking “This guy is a real jerk!” If that was the intention, then he did well, but I didn’t like him for doing this. 

There are some nice gags in this movie, too. Remember those musical cigarette boxes? In one scene, when a character is unceremoniously sacked, he is pushed into a display of those boxes. They all fall to the floor open, and everyone swoops in, not to pick up the now ex-employee, but to close the boxes up again! 

It is worthy to note that The Shop Around the Corner was such a success at MGM, that it spawned a musical remake nine years later. This is a good movie to pop into the DVD player if you’re a guy who’s invited your new girlfriend to your place. If you really want to impress her, tell her you were looking at a copy of You’ve Got Mail and learned this was the source material of that movie, so you decided to get it instead. Trust me on this one, guys. Part Two is next… 

3-1/2 (out of 5)