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Babes in Arms

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 16 June 2019 05:05 (A review of Babes in Arms (1939))

1939 truly was a golden year for the studio era and for American film. Here is a bonafide classic filled with memorable musical moments, elaborate camerawork, a stunning juvenile performance from Judy Garland, and the whole thing runs so effortlessly and smoothly that it seems over just as it was starting. Not entirely surprising to discover this was MGM’s biggest money-maker of the year.


I’m sorry, did you think I was discussing The Wizard of Oz? Well, work on your surprised face because The Wizard of Oz was a notorious underperformer at the box office during its initial run, and Babes in Arms, Garland’s other great movie of 1939, is the one I’m settling in to talk about. While it doesn’t occupy the rarified space in the pop cultural landscape and collective imagination as Oz, Babes in Arms is a delightful classic in its own right.


The first of a series of Mickey and Judy’s “putting on a show” movies, and arguably one of the best simply for setting up the template and executing it so competently on the first try, Babes in Arms is a simple story told with economy. The children of retired vaudeville performers, Mickey and Judy are determined to prove that they can hold their own against their parents and maybe forsake getting sent to the state welfare home in the process. The old barn gets turned into a Broadway spectacle as two overachievers try to make their case as the brightest future stars of tomorrow.


Fact and fiction blur in that way here as Rooney was amid the Andy Hardy films and a Top Ten draw while Garland was slowly ascending from bit and supporting parts to leads and was primed for box office dominance shortly. If anyone’s plucky spirits could act as balm for the scarred national psyche, why not these two scrubbed clean nice kids?


Mickey and Judy’s fresh faces and can-do spirit are a prime symbol of American optimism as the Depression was ending. Don’t believe me? Check the final big number, “God’s Country,” where the stars softly, lovingly parody FDR and Eleanor and rattle off the virtues of Americana and the pop culture of the late 30s, including Greta Garbo and the Marx Brothers, as proof of exceptionalism. It’s far more charming and less jingoistic than that brief description would lead you to believe.  


If there’s a flaw in Babes in Arms, it’s the blackface scene. E tu Judy and Mickey? Even in the context of times, it’s hard to reconcile the burst of joyful energy and happy-go-lucky spirit that pervades with such an ugly reminder of the nation’s troubled racial history. It would be inaccurate to do something about vaudeville without the presence of minstrelsy, but I have a hard time squaring the violent history of the act with Mickey, Judy, and company performing it all with typical MGM smiles and show pony training.


It is mercifully over quickly as even God can’t seem to take it anymore and brings down a violent storm to end it all and washes the makeup from Rooney’s face. It’s a reminder of how difficult it can be to reexamine art through our modern context when it was made and digested in an era that didn’t view these images as harmful or cruel in a wider cultural sense. It doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of Babes in Arms, but it is a sequence I tend to flinch through.


Best to focus on happier, better aspects of the film instead, and there’s a lot. For instance, there’s the pleasing lead turns. Judy Garland’s already demonstrating her quaking vulnerability, natural talent for drama, astonishing and emotive singing voice, and ability to make hysteria appear as effortless and hilarious as breathing. 1939, in retrospect, was the coronation of Garland as Hollywood’s newest princess of the movies.


While Rooney got his first Oscar nomination. On the DVD’s introduction, he mentions this and asks for us to not laugh at the fact. Why would we laugh? Rooney, at his worst, could grate with a tremendous amount of energy that threatened to blow away the scenery, but he could dial down it when asked. Babes in Arms allows him to play for big, broad laughs, do some mimicry (very credible turns as Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore), sing and dance, and get some big emotional scenes where he manages to dowse his gigantic flame to a low spark. Great acting isn’t always about appearing “naturalistic” on screen but finding the truth of any character. Rooney feels truthful to his character, and the line between actor and part is wonderfully blurry.


There’s relatively little to surprise you here plot wise, but who watches a studio era musical for the plot surprises? No, you watch something like this to watch two thoroughbreds in their element. Babes in Arms is buoyant, vibrant musical that finds two dewy youths displaying their considerable talents for your entertainment. Where their real lives end and their characters begin is a smudge line, and it’s all the better for it.  

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In the Good Old Summertime

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 13 June 2019 04:57 (A review of In the Good Old Summertime (1949))

It both seems entirely odd and somehow appropriate that Ernst Lubitsch’s yuletide romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, would get the MGM musical makeover. While it is inferior to the original source material, In the Good Old Summertime is a solid, pleasing excursion through the story with Judy Garland and a few songs thrown in. Oh look, there’s an older Buster Keaton getting a chance to shine in a fun supporting part, too. With all of these ingredients, Summertime couldn’t help but be decent.


But it could have been so much more. Garland’s charismatic as ever, especially during “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” where she merely sits still while plucking a harp and singing or during “I Don’t Care” where she combines physical comedy with a jubilant reading of the song. She also makes her slapstick bits work wonderfully, like a scene where her dress gets torn off by Van Johnson’s bicycle. She’s a dynamo tearing up the screen even when the material isn’t quite up to her considerable talents.


It’s in her screen partner that things get wobbly. Van Johnson was a pleasant enough leading man for, say, Esther Williams, but his limitations are evident against Garland. It’s hard to believe them as a credible romantic pairing as so much of the film is spent having them argue instead of finding common ground. His wholesome boy-next-door appeal works well against Garland, but he’s not quite the screen comic or dramatic actor she was. It leaves the film a bit lopsided at various points as Garland, Keaton, and S.Z. Sakall out pace him throughout.


It’s all very sweet and charming more than it is romantic, hilarious, or splashy as a musical. It’s Buster Keaton, originally hired as a gag writer, that makes the most of the limited screen time afforded him. He comes up with a meet cute for the central characters that goes awry, the destruction of a violin that happens so smoothly you barely register it as a choreographed gag, and nearly does a pratfall down some stairs. Summertime had ample room for more of his talents, either through setting up the gags or performing them on his own.


Hell, In the Good Old Summertime has ample room for more song and dance. There’s relatively little of that here until the final stretch involving a big party and a barbershop quartet. It’s here that Garland joins the quartet for a fun “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey” that lets her cut loose and be the vaudevillian performer she was in her bones. It’s clearly borrowing the vibe and aesthetic of Meet Me in St. Louis, and it needed some of that film’s breakout musical numbers to liven things up.


In the Good Old Summertime is notable mainly for its historical placement. This was Garland’s penultimate film for MGM, and her next, Summer Stock, would prove the starting point of the long unwinding of her career as a movie star. There’d be highs (1954’s A Star Is Born, 1963’s I Could Go on Singing), but it was mostly a slow descent into addiction, self-destructive behavior, and her premature death at age 47. It’s hard to look at how lovely and dewy she is here and think that in twenty years it would all come to a crashing halt.


In a happier note, there’s the first screen appearance of Liza Minnelli. She appears at all of three-years-old as Garland and Johnson’s daughter in the final scene. If she looks confused by it all here, that feeling wouldn’t last very long. Minnelli would rapidly go on to her own pop culture dominance and eventual EGOT (yes, I consider the honorary awards as valid).  


Still, this isn’t anywhere near the worst adaptation of this property. I’m looking at you, You’ve Got Mail. It’s safely middle-brow musical entertainment. Perfect for wasting away a lazy weekend afternoon.

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4 Minute Mile

Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 June 2019 08:29 (A review of 4 Minute Mile)

Richard Jenkins, you’re a well-liked character actor with two Oscar nominations. What are you doing in this mess? Kim Basinger, you won an Oscar. I’m pretty confident you could do better than playing “the mom” to a high schooler in a generic sport’s drama. It’s a bit hilarious to watch Kelly Blatz and Analeigh Tipton try to convincingly play high school when they’re both clearly inching towards thirty. But they’re both photogenic and attractive, and that’s really all that counts. Oh look, there’s Cam Gigandet trying to prove he’s not just a pretty face. That’s debatable still as his performance here feel artificial and lacking in depth and conviction. 4 Minute Mile throws every underdog sports movie cliché in hopes it’ll resemble both a distinct personality and a narrative. It ends up feeling like a Frankenstein monster made by the worst parts of better movies.

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The Harvey Girls

Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 June 2019 08:19 (A review of The Harvey Girls)

Ah, these cornpone musicals are delightfully hokey and corny. I mean, here’s a big musical starring Judy Garland with a tagline about “how the fairer sex conquered the Old West!” Deep or memorable art this is not, but it’s a pleasant way to spend two hours.


The Harvey Girls offers up a story about a group of girls banding together to find a better life for themselves by working as waitresses in a corporate establishment. Ye olde gentrification zips into effect as the presence of the girls symbolizes an encroaching domesticity and respectability to the rock ‘em, sock ‘em Wild West.


If there’s anything that leaves a major distaste in your mouth, it’s the sense that The Harvey Girls views women in two forms: virgins and whores. That old complex is presented in the challenging dynamic between Garland and a brazen, tough Angela Lansbury as Em, the leader of the saloon girls. The makers want us to root for Garland, but Lansbury has so much fun with her bad girl part that we feel ourselves inadvertently rooting for her schemes and machinations. The ending is smart enough to allow for a note of complexity in Em and let her off the hook for their rivalry, even if it comes at the cost of Em leaving for parts unknown.


Even worse is the unbelievable love triangle. Lansbury and Garland sell their material well, even if Lansbury’s vocal dubbing is not convincing, but John Hodiak is dead weight. He’s more convincing as the duplicitous core to the town’s moral rot than as a romantic foil for good girl Judy. He’s tamed and made an honest man by the film’s end, but Hodiak is possibly Garland’s weakest leading man and least convincing song-and-dance man.


You’d think all of these strikes against the film would render my enjoyment of The Harvey Girls as nil, but it’s not so. The film knows it’s goofy balm for a post-war psyche and turns up the hokum to eleven. There’s the bravura technique on display during the thundering “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number that zips away from the rest of the film as a perfect piece of popcorn entertainment. Just as good is the low key “It’s a Great Big World” that finds Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O’Brien joining arms in sisterly solidarity against the knocks the wider world has given them. It’s touching and lovely for its combination of resilience and quietness.


The likes of O’Brien, Marjorie Main, and Ray Bolger add in some fun bits of color. O’Brien’s deadpan gets a humorous, cynical ditty in “The Wild, Wild West.” She promptly disappears from the film after this point due to Garland’s bad behavior and O’Brien’s growing pregnancy proving impossible to work around, but what a dry note to go out on. It’s generally sweet to see Garland and her rubber-legged scarecrow reunite on the big screen, and Bolger gets some cute bits to play in a smaller role. While Main delivers her gravely voiced, gruff mannered type, and I always welcome the sight of it.


No one will argue that is a high-water mark for anyone involved, but it’s an enjoyable B-list movie. This ersatz western town could only exist in the MGM dream factory, and even the just competent of those films offer up minor pleasures. Here’s Garland, the queen of the splashy Technicolor musical in fine form, surrounded by a pleasant enough score, reliable supporting players, and a silly script. What more do you need?   

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For Me and My Gal

Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 June 2019 04:35 (A review of For Me and My Gal (1942))

For Me and My Gal is mainly remembered for two different reasons: Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. This was Kelly’s first film role, and it makes a stellar first impression, and a transitional role for Garland. Here she was changing over from the girl-next-door parts to an ingenue and taking on more grown-up parts.


It’s a bit of a goopy wartime musical/morale booster, but a very enjoyable one. A love story between vaudeville performers looking for their big break before the outbreak of World War I, For Me and My Gal is a bit routine in parts but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s plenty of morally gray spaces that the film inhibits, mainly in Kelly’s character who rapidly loses audience sympathy before working overtime to gain it back, to keep your attention even when the generic love triangle wobbles.


For Me and My Gal smartly spends most of its time either watching Kelly and Garland do the dramatics or rip it up in musical numbers. It’s hard to believe this was Kelly’s debut as he seems so self-assured and comfortable in front of the camera. His persona would tweak and finesse over the next few films, but all of the bones of it are there. Garland was apparently his biggest champion, not only in getting him the part but in coaching him on how to act for the camera, and their chemistry together crackles.


Not only do they verbally spar beautifully, but Garland manages to hold her own against Kelly’s dynamic physical movements. Not a natural dancer, Garland still finds a way to meet him in the middle just like Kelly’s tinnier voice finds a middle ground against Garland’s belting. Not only are they dynamic together, but separately they manage to enliven even the dullest of scenes, a few of which do creep in as the running time is a bit inflated.


Kelly’s character is a bit of a heel, and much of his trajectory is about him learning to care about something outside of himself. This is a character that breaks his hand to dodge the draft in a film released just as the US was gearing up to join the effort in World War II. That Kelly managed to not only essay a character this dark but manage to switch gears towards humbling him and engendering audience sympathy, and then go on to a bright career is no small feat. This would set the template for Kelly’s greatest screen creations: the tension between his infectious cheer (handsome smile, athletic dancing) and the dark underbelly (lovelorn sailor, forgotten man aboard, etc.).


Garland meanwhile demonstrates the full range of her talents: she gets to play comedy, melodrama, sing, and dance. Watching her in top shape is to watch a thoroughbred run a race. All you can think is, “wow, she was built for this. This is her element.” Daughter Liza Minnelli has often stated that her mother was the greatest entertainer to ever live, and it’d be easy to write that off as a progeny beaming with pride at their parent, but then you watch a string of Garland’s musicals and notice that she never breaks a sweat and makes all of it – the laughs, the singing, the drama – look effortless.


While the last act’s patriotism and aggressive flag waving can be a bit much, For Me and My Gal ultimately soars when merely viewing its leads bringing up the best in each other. Her vulnerability makes him softer, and his toughness makes her steelier, for instance. They’re clearly having a ball performing opposite each other, and it’s hard to not feel that charm and glee radiate off the screen and into your heart. While it may not be one of their golden classics, it is a resounding success at what it set out to do: let Garland grow up and give Kelly a chance with some tears, laughs, and songs along the way.

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The Best of Blondie

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 May 2019 09:07 (A review of The Best of Blondie)

While other compilations have eclipsed this one, The Best of Blondie remains one hell of an album. The de facto and defining summary of the band’s power pop and disco-punk for years, The Best of Blondie is winnowed down to the absolute essentials. No wrong note and nary an ounce of fat to be found here. Instead, there’s just one great song after another that combined smart song craft with arty, underground roots to produce some of the shiniest, sleekest, sexiest New Wave around. The random sequencing of songs gives the impression that experimenting with disco caused sexpot/singer Debbie Harry and her mop-topped bandmates no bigger sweat than reggae, hip-hop, girl group pop, and punk. It’s a dizzying rush of urbane, sophisticated pop artistes ironically sending up the rock and roll radio of their youths and winding up joining the pantheon almost in spite of themselves. Essential listening.


DOWNLOAD: “Sunday Girl (Special Mix)”

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Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 May 2019 08:47 (A review of Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision)

Just in time for Blondie’s 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came this combo release: one disc of greatest hits, one disc of music videos. Yet there’s a pervading sense of wheel spinning here. Other compilation albums have managed the neat trick of feeling complete, but this one suffers from glaring omissions and unnecessary changes.


The 2002 Greatest Hits collection remains the single best one-disc collection of Blondie’s crown jewels, even if the random order of the songs proves mildly vexing. At nineteen songs there’s nary a missing major single, fan favorite, and it came wrapped up in remastered sound and official approval from the band. This version’s physical disc drops both “X Offender” and “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear,” and later digital versions drop “Maria” and “Rapture Riders.” That last omission isn’t so bad, to be fair, but it’s an interesting sonic curio.


Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision becomes a curious little thing. Splitting the difference between random order and chronological, the track listing drops the biggest hits (“Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “Rapture”) at the front before switching to chronological order near the midpoint, a remix of “In the Flesh.” I’m not sure why “In the Flesh” was remixed by Super Buddha, a producing team that Debbie Harry was quite fond of at the time as they were also behind her album Necessary Evil.


There’s also the very real danger of Parallel Lines imploding as nearly every song from that essential album is reflected here. While this is supposed to reflect the best of Blondie, leaning so heavily on one album, even if it is their best one, doesn’t leave enough room for the other albums to shine. I’d trade a few of those album-only songs for the likes of “Detroit 442” and “The Hardest Part,” lesser-known singles that deserve prominence when collecting a comprehensive career overview.


No new material was recorded for this, but newer songs like “Good Boys” and “End to End” get written into Blondie’s history in a more prevalent way than The Curse of Blondie afforded. The “Good Boys” remix diminishes that song’s original burbling disco-rock rhythms for something stranger, but still keeps the personality of it intact. While “End to End,” much like the here then gone “Maria,” sounds like a modern-day Blondie song should: Harry’s rock goddess persona riding over crunchy guitars and layers of keyboards.


And Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision nearly manages the hat trick of being a comprehensive overview of the band’s career to this point. If you’re looking for a single-disc collection of Blondie’s pop smarts and chilly New Wave glamour, you could do worse. There’s no shortage of Blondie compilations on the market, but that also means there’s better, bigger ones out there just primed for discovery.


At least there’s the Vision half of the title to valiantly try and tip the scales. Seventeen primitive music videos that find Harry looking too bored to live and generating an impressive erotic charge. Their power pop was mighty, and they had some absurd and brilliant visuals to go right along with it, like the trash bag chic of “Atomic” and sci-fi dopiness of “The Tide is High.”


DOWNLOAD: “Good Boys (Blow-Up Remix),” “In the Flesh (Remix),” “Rapture Riders”

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The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 May 2019 05:47 (A review of The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (1998))

Even by the already slim standards of direct-to-video and/or made-for-TV Disney movies, The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story is particularly grim. It occupies a no man’s land between the animated film and the original text by dropping many of the inventions of the studio, no King Louie or “Bare Necessities,” and restoring some of the characters and darkness, including Tabaqui and a bloodthirsty Shere Khan. Except, none of it is done well or even with much care or thought. The whole thing looks like it was filmed on maybe two sets, the voice cast is wasted (including Clancy Brown, Eartha Kitt, Sherman Howard, and Brian Doyle-Murray), Brandon Baker is awkward in the lead, and the humor is beyond condescending. Kids are smarter than this version of The Jungle Book thinks they are, and I have a hard time thinking they’d much entertaining or diverting about this version. After all, this is an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved text where Fred Savage narrates as an adult Mowgli. It is an interminable hour and sixteen minutes.

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Extraordinary Tales

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 May 2019 05:47 (A review of Extraordinary Tales)

This feels like a coherent animated horror anthology than a collage of Raúl García’s various influences and cinematic obsessions writ large. The inherent “cool factor” involved in watching short films of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous stories narrated by the likes of Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi goes a long way towards justifying the very existence of Extraordinary Tales, but I just wish there was more there.


Parts of García’s various short films are spectacular, beautiful, and baroque works of animation. The film is never less than visually pleasing even if the narrative stumbles or the presentation needed more finessing. The biggest ding against the film is a wraparound segment involving Poe reincarnated as a raven (oy) having a discussion with the specter of death, ingeniously voiced by author Cornelia Funke. These segments merely exist to allow the audience to breathe in-between gothic set pieces acting out the likes of The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Pit and the Pendulum, yet they fail to establish the next segment in any meaningful way. These sequences left me perplexed and they felt too on the nose throughout.


Extraordinary Tales is much better when acting out its various shorts, each animated in a unique and individual manner. The Fall of the House of Usher’s characters resemble marionettes and the whole thing is wrapped up in angular designs and moody shadows. The Tell-Tale Heart is all negative space as blindingly bright whites and contrasted by inky blacks swallowing up the frame and forming shapes along the way. The Masque of Red Death is all watercolors and exaggerated designs where everyone looks roughly nine feet tall, all long limbs, disproportionate bodies, and jagged edges.  


Everything looks gorgeous, especially a The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar that functions like a motion comic for the EC Comics days with a Vincent Price proxy in the lead, but the truncated versions of these stories grow increasingly frustrating. You just start to get into the groove of the films and they’re wrapping up and spitting us back to the raven and death engaging in word play and seduction. It doesn’t help that some of the narration sounds buried under the mix and is hard to hear, Lugosi’s vintage text is pummeled with artifacts that make some of his overacting nearly incomprehensible.


But if Extraordinary Tales manages to make someone pickup the works of Poe, the Hammer Horror films of Lee, the Universal Monsters days of Lugosi, or the nasal purring theatrics of Price, then it all evens up to a net positive. As it stands, Extraordinary Tales feels like a film tailor made for future use in high school English class as a supplementary material for lessons on gothic literature. To quote Brian Tallerico: “It just never quite rises above that faint praise.”

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The Fox and the Hound 2

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 May 2019 06:10 (A review of The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006))

The straight-to-video sequel franchise, a cannibalistic enterprise that the Disney studio has mercifully reframed from, is often a glimpse into piggybacking off borrowed shine. These films aren’t good or strong enough to stand on their own, so they shove already known entities into strange shapes to use brand name recognition to spruce up sales. If The Fox and the Hound 2 isn’t the worst offender, then it must be somewhere near the top of that list. Or is it the bottom? It’s hard to tell.


The Fox and the Hound is a minimalist morality play of outside prejudices and influences destroying the purity of a childhood friendship. It’s a heartfelt film that lingers in the emotional memory for the authenticity of its relationships and the powerful feelings it conjures up. The Fox and the Hound 2 is ersatz art in comparison to the film it is borrowing shine and prestige from, and on its own limited merits.


This midquel (is that even a word?) doesn’t entirely mesh with either the timeline or tone of the original. It ultimately feels like something that was conceived as a separate idea then jammed together with preexisting characters to ensure profitability. It’s no great secret that I enjoy Disney, but I’m not blind to the problems of the studio and their gross penchant for eating itself in order to generate more product. Sometimes, I wish the studio would know when to leave well enough alone. Their gault of live action remakes points toward a redirection of their worst impulses. Oh well, at least we aren’t getting more thing like The Fox and the Hound 2 to make us question our admiration for the original films in the process.   

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