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It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. It's rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.

My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.

What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.

And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.

This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.

Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.

George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.
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And now for something completely different again.

For fun, I've put together a second Youtube playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips that have a strong musical element involved. It’s a mix of clips from movies and television shows, a couple of shorts, various obscurities, tie-ins, and one fan video. They have absolutely nothing in common except that I enjoyed them and thought they were saving the links to and worth pointing out for recommendation. Hopefully, you'll find something in the mix that you’ll enjoy too.

Flash Gordon Opening Titles - Still one of my favorite opening title sequences to any movie, that pays homage to the “Flash Gordon" comics while revving the audience up for oncoming action and fun. The theme song by Queen is, of course, immortal, and I was thrilled when it popped up in “Ted" as part of their extended “Flash Gordon" homage.

Science Fiction: A Montage - Initially I was wary of putting any fan-made videos into this list, but I couldn’t pass up James Van Fleet’s tribute to science-fiction cinema, set to the Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst’s Planets suite no less. Unlike most of these tribute videos I’ve seen, there’s lots and lots of clips from older films like “Forbidden Planet" and “Metropolis," and a real focus on the science-fiction elements instead of just action or effects shots.

The Adventures of Chip ‘n’ Dale - Back in 1959, an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney" was devoted to Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoons, which included specially animated intro segments and an incredibly catchy theme song. I’ve included the opening number here, which shows off some nifty integration of the 2D animation with a real world environment.

Signal in the Sky - Former kids of a certain age will remember the Cartoon Network “Groovies," a series of shorts in the form of music videos, each devoted to a particular cartoon on the Cartoon Network roster. The best of them, and the one that they seemed to play the most often was “Signal in the Sky," featuring The Powerpuff Girls and music by Apples in Stereo. Though the girls appear in their usual animated forms, most of the short was actually live action and puppetry, created by the Will Vinton studios.

That Steve Martin Number From “Little Shop of Horrors" - I’ve refrained from using the more famous title of the song in case you’ve never seen it before, because it would spoil the surprise. The first time I saw “Little Shop of Horrors" I had absolutely no idea what was coming, laughed so hard I missed half the jokes, and I still can’t watch this without a ridiculous smile on my face. It’s my favorite thing that Steve Martin has ever done in his entire career.

Broken Circle Breakdown - A quick teaser trailer featuring the most wrenching number from the film. The full version has been posted up in a few places, but there are some major spoilers that come with it, and I think it really needs the context of the rest of the film to get the full effect. Still, I do want to acknowledge one of the best musical moments in film that I’ve seen this year, so the teaser will have to do.

Please Mr. Kennedy - From “Inside Llewyn Davis," this is the other entry from a current film on the list, and frankly it’s a shame the song wasn’t eligible for the Oscars.

Time Warp vs. Shake Your Groove Thing - “The Drew Carey Show" remains much beloved by its fans though sadly forgotten by most TV viewers. They had a particular love for elaborate musical numbers, such as this one, where “Rocky Horror Picture Show" loving Drew and his pals have a standoff with mortal enemy Mimi Bombeck and her “Priscilla Queen of the Desert" minions. It’s a camp-off of pure delight.

Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight - It’s a shame that the opening sequence of the “Lodoss War" television series is really the best thing about it. You can really get a sense of the scope and the grandeur that they were going for, but failed to achieve. Thanks to the Yoko Kanno’s “Sea of Miracles" and some really killer high fantasy imagery, this remains one of the best bits of the whole franchise, and I’d put it up there with the best anime openings of all time.

That’s About the Size - Bud Luckey is one of the great unsung animation greats. He’s currently a character designer at PIXAR, but had a long career in commercials, and during the ‘70s created many beloved animated segments for “Sesame Street," writing, animating, composing, and providing voices and songs for “Ladybug’s Picnic," “The Alligator King," and “Penny Candy Man." His “That’s About the Size" remains one of my favorites.

Noi Siamo Zingarelle - I saw this gorgeous stop-motion short on PBS when I was a kid in the early ‘90s, when it was used as a time filler between programs, and spent years trying to track it down. Finally, after I got to college, success. It’s one of the segments of “Opéra Imaginaire" a European animation anthology, where all the shorts are set to pieces from famous operas.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Because I can’t think of a better way to end anything in all of cinema.
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Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

"Godzilla" - I can't help it. I love big destructive action movies and kaiju-big-battle movies in particular. My biggest criticism of last year's "Pacific Rim" is that there weren't enough monsters. The newest attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise in the west is being directed by Gareth Edwards of "Monsters," and if I had any worries about his relatively thin filmography, they were quashed by the excellent teaser trailer that we got last year. It doesn't hurt that Frank Darabont contributed to the screenplay, and the cast is stacked with names like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" - Let's be honest. The Marvel universe films feel like they've been on autopilot lately with three sequels in a row. Fortunately they've got more interesting titles coming up, including "Guardians," which is going to be a major departure for the franchise in terms of style and subject matter. Call this a superhero film if you must, but from where I'm sitting this is a space adventure movie, about a rag-tag team of aliens doing battle with the forces of evil. Observers have warned that the premise may be too out there for general audience to take - one of our heoes is a talking raccoon - but it looks to me like exactly the kind of creative shot of adrenaline that the Marvel films need to keep going through Phase 2 and into Phase 3.

"The Boxtrolls" - Laika's last two stop-motion animated films, "Coraline" and "Paranorman" have been excellent, so of course I'm looking forward to their next one, "Boxtrolls," about an orphan boy who has been raised by a tribe of friendly trolls who live in cardboard boxes. The villain will be an evil exterminator voiced by Ben Kingsley. Really, how can I say no to this? There have already been two delightful teasers released for the film, the most recent one focusing on the laborious process of stop-motion animation. It looks like it could be a very good year for cartoon features, with the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel, the Lego movie, and the next title on this list.

"Big Hero 6" - Disney Feature Animation has been on a roll these past few years, and it looks like they've worked out a good long-term strategy for themselves. Instead of trying to transition away from the girl-centric fairy-tale films that have been their biggest hits, toward more boy-friendly action features, which got the studio in trouble in the past, instead they're taking turns between both kinds of stories. So after the princesses of "Frozen," next holiday season we're getting a wacky superhero movie set in an anime-inspired universe full of giant robots and Japanese food puns. This will also mark PIXAR's first collaboration with Marvel, which is providing the film's source material.

"Annie" - The 1982 version of "Annie" directed by John Huston (yes, really) was one of my favorites when I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to the updated version starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the new Little Orphan Annie and Jamie Foxx as Benjamin Stacks, this version's Daddy Warbucks. Director Will Gluck hasn't handled a musical before, but I have liked some of his previous films, especially "Easy A." Jay-Z is handling the music, and after the fantastic job he did with "The Great Gatsby," I have a lot of confidence he'll be able to pull this off too. "Annie" will be Columbia's big Christmas release this year, but it's going to have to compete with a certain Disney musical that's also on its way.

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.
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I'm a long time Coen brothers fan. I've seen all their movies, even the obscure ones, even the ones they just wrote for other directors, and I hold them in very high regard. So it bothers me more than it probably should that many critics have been raving about their latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and I came out of it unmoved. Sure, I think it's a very strong film, and after sitting through most of this year's Best Picture nominees I can say with certainty that it's better than at least half of them. However, I didn't connect with it the way I've connected with so many of the Coens' other films, so I find it tough to really champion this one.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in the early 60s, struggling through a long winter in New York. He's talented, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make a living as a working musician. Perpetually broke, he stays with one friend after another, ineffectually harassing his agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) for owed payments and more gigs. We watch him bounce from one missed opportunity to the next and the calamities keep piling on. He stays with an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), accidentally lets out their cat, and ends up having to take it with him for the day. He's friends with a more successful folk duo, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean reveals she's pregnant after a one night stand with Llewyn and demands that he pay for the abortion. A trip to Chicago seeking more work means hitching a ride with hostile jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Fans of this genre of music will adore this movie. "Llewyn Davis" is a love letter to the era, recreating the New York music scene of the '60s and filled with little details and references. I didn't pick up on any of them, unfortunately, even the most obvious ones. Frankly, I respect but don't particularly enjoy folk music, so I didn't get much out of the numerous musical performances scattered throughout the film, and that may have been the fatal problem. Llewyn has a difficult personality and is not a very likeable guy, though he's very sympathetic. Oscar Isaac does a great job bringing across the personal flaws that constantly bring him trouble, which are in many ways are also what is responsible for his talent. The only time he seems truly content is when he's performing, and several of the numbers are used to convey a lot of emotional nuance. Since I wasn't really getting much out of the songs, I could only appreciate most of this on a cerebral level. Oscar Isaac does all his own singing and guitar playing, by the way.

So I was left with a perfectly good character study of a great musician who never made it, and his encounters with the usual Coen brothers parade of colorful characters. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, whose vehement attacks on Llewyn are simultaneously very funny and heartbreaking. John Goodman turns in another good appearance as the verbose Roland, and F. Murray Abraham shows up in the third act to play a legendary manager. I wish we got to spend more time with all of them. However, because I wasn't in tune with the music, which plays such a big part of "Llewyn Davis," I felt out of tune with the whole film. The story has an elliptical structure with some moody, atmospheric flourishes that cultivate an air of mystery - which the Coens have done very well before, but this time out felt a little gimmicky. I don't know why, but I found a lot of the usual bits of business harder to swallow than usual.

Technically the film is impeccable, of course. The bleak cinematography is gorgeous, and I loved seeing the collection of actors and musicians that were assembled for the film. I barely even noticed Justin Timberlake until his third or fourth scene, because everyone else in the cast was just that strong. I certainly didn't need to like the music to know the quality of it was very high in all respects. In fact, I'm surprised that even with all of the Academy's labyrinthine eligibility rules, "Inside Llewyn Davis" failed to secure any nominations in the music categories at all. I know several people who have gotten downright obsessed with the soundtrack, and I don't begrudge them one bit.

So I appreciate "Llewyn Davis." I appreciate the hell out of it. I can't think of many filmmakers aside from the Coens who could have made it. I just wish that I could have liked the movie more than I do.
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There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.
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Time for a little Halloween nostalgia, kids. "Hocus Pocus" and "Army of Darkness" are all well and good, but "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick, of course) is the kids' horror classic that really deserves some celebration for hitting the twenty year mark this season. Its rise in the pop culture pantheon is a classic underdog story, and one fueled almost entirely by its loyal fans.

In 1993, Disney was skeptical of the film. Everyone was skeptical. A stop-motion film? An animated horror musical? Where a gang of monsters kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas? I remember an LA Times article full of hand-wringing about the scary imagery and macabre themes that were sure to terrify unsuspecting children. How could Disney let Tim Burton do this? The ad campaign didn't skimp, but it couldn't seem to make up its mind - some emphasized the scares while others tried to hide them, pushing the Jack and Sally love story front and center. Afraid that there would be backlash from the angry parents of sensitive children, Disney released the film under its Touchstones Pictures banner with a PG rating and prepared for a flop. They also made the same mistake with Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" seventeen years later.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" wasn't a smash hit, but it did pretty well in theaters, impressed critics, and had enough exposure to attract a loyal base of fans. The returns were good enough for Disney to bankroll Henry Selick's next feature, "James and the Giant Peach," but they were still tentative about associating too closely with "Nightmare." For years, its media presence was scarce. Clips appeared in the intros to Disney branded programming for a while, but the film itself was rarely seen. Because of its short length and its PG rating, it didn't immediately join the regular rotation of Halloween television programming. I only saw it air on a broadcast network once, in the late 90s, during the early evening hours. Now ABC Family runs it every year around Halloween.

So what changed Disney's mind about the film? The adoring audience, primarily. Merchandise initially was scarce in the U.S. for years, though there seemed to be a ton of it available in Japan, where the film had been a much bigger hit. I remember finding fantastic Jack Skellington Christmas ornaments in an import shop, and wondering why they weren't in any of the Disney stores. Similar ones showed up there eventually, after specialty product lines proved to be very popular with the Hot Topic crowd, and by the late 90s "Nightmare Before Christmas" paraphernalia was a perennial bestseller for the company. This spawned a re-issue of the film and talk of a possible sequel in 2000, a 3D conversion in 2006, and more limited runs every subsequent year until 2009. New product lines, including video games and a tribute album followed. Soon Jack Skellington was everywhere.

But maybe the most symbolic sign of Disney's newfound acceptance of the property came in 2001, when they created the Haunted Mansion Holiday, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, to go along with the Christmas versions of It's a Small World and The Country Bear Jamboree. Japan got one too, for its Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland. Now for a few months every year, you can find Jack, Sally, Oogie Boogie, and all the rest in the Disney parks. The U.S. version of the ride has proven so popular that FastPass machines have to be activated especially for it every year. The villain-themed store in New Orleans Square became devoted entirely to "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise for a few seasons. When I saw the place last, Jack Skellington was still sharing shelf space with Jack Sparrow.

Ironically "The Nightmare Before Christmas" turned out to be a perfect fit for Disney's collection of brands. It appeals to older children and teenagers growing wary of the squeaky-clean Disney image, but it's light enough to maintain broader appeal. Despite all the subversive touches, it's still a very traditional musical film underneath, and some fans have been asking for years for a stage production (unofficial ones keep popping up like daisies). While the film is scary and unsettling in places, it turns out that it hasn't traumatized kids any more than they can handle, and has become a holiday favorite in many households.

If you wondered why Disney bankrolled Tim Burton's passion project "Frankenweenie" last year, which most considered a very niche and very strange little animated film of limited appeal, you have to remember that twenty years ago, this was the same attitude that everyone had about "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Who knows what we'll think of "Frankenweenie" twenty years from now? It wouldn't surprise me if it became a cult hit. "Nightmare," having risen to such prominence, will probably still be around then too.
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I can't believe this. I thought I was being smart waiting for the "Ender's Game" trailer to debut before I wrote up my latest trailer post. But now I'm behind again, because we've had a flood of other major trailers released since. Usually I would space these trailer posts much further apart, but screw it. I want to talk about some of these now, especially since there are a couple of awards contenders in the mix. And I'll toss in a few for the upcoming summer indie pictures I left out previously. Here we go. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

The Butler - A star-studded cast, an inspirational true story, and a director who has never dealt with this kind of obvious Oscar-bait prestige material before. Oh boy. This is either going to be a must-see event film or it's going to be a disaster. There's sure to be controversy with some of the casting choices, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. However, "The Butler" may hit that sweet spot and become a feel-good crowd-pleaser the same way that "42" did this earlier this year.

Inside Llewyn Davis - There was an earlier trailer released back in January, but this international one gives us a better look at what the Coen brothers have been up to with their latest film, about the journey of a 1960s folk singer named Llewyn Davis, played by up-and-comer Oscar Isaac. The movie is already getting some buzz for its soundtrack, which features contributions by T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Mumford & Sons, and others. It will be in competition at Cannes this month, but we won't be seeing it in theaters until late December.

Captain Phillips - Directed by Paul Greengrass of "United 93" and two of the "Bourne" films, this is one of the action films I've been looking forward to the most this year. With this kind of true-life material, using the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, plus the involvement of Academy favorite Tom Hanks, this could have become a typically schmaltzy Hollywood dramatization very easily. However, Greengrass's stark style and penchant for realism, as evidenced in this promo, should keep his take lean and mean.

Gravity - This is the by far the best trailer I've seen all year. It presents the film's premise very quickly and very well: two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fall victim to a terrible accident that turns a spacewalk into a terrifying, desperate struggle to avoid being lost to the endless void of outer space. The special effects look great, and the thrills are already palpable. The final shot is one of those great little jolts of nightmare fuel that makes me suspect this is going to be a far more visceral film than I was expecting.

The World's End - I'm not thrilled with this honestly, because the trailer seems to reveal that the apocalypse involved here is some kind of monster invasion, which makes it look a little too much like "Shaun of the Dead." Sure, seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost running around and fighting creepers again is sure to be fun, especially since they have Martin Freeman along for the ride, but I was hoping for their take on a different genre, like their buddy cop antics in "Hot Fuzz." Oh well. To early to say much more about this one yet.

August: Osage County - I've been warned that this trailer is misleading. "August: Osage County" looks like a "Steel Magnolia" style women's picture here, the better to draw in Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts fans, I'm guessing. However the story is actually very dark, based on a play by Tracy Letts, whose last script was for "Killer Joe." I wouldn't have minded so much if the trailer as an accurate reflection of the film, because the cast is so high-powered, and we really don't get enough solid character dramas like this anymore.

Fruitvale Station - A big indie contender that came out of the Sundance Film Festival this year, this is a dramatization of the final hours of Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Williams, before his shooting death by the police at the Fruitvale BART Station in 2009. The trailer plays up the final acts of violence, as expected, but it's the glimpses of Williams' and Octavia Spencer's performances that are the most intriguing. I hope this one lives up to the hype, though I can also see where it might fall short. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Before Midnight - Celine and Jesse are back again in the third chapter of the "Before" series directed by Richard Linklater. Now our fateful lovers have finally gotten together, had a couple of kids, and are approaching middle age together, but it seems that their relationship issues haven't gone away. This time the action is set on a picturesque Greek island, but it looks like it's following the same structure of the last two movies: more long conversations about life and love with two familiar characters it's very nice to see again.

Only God Forgives - This trailer debuted a while ago, but it definitely deserves a mention. It's saying one thing loud and clear: if you liked Ryan Gosling and Nicholas Winding Refn's last movie, "Drive," you're probably going to like this one too. Lots of atmosphere, lots of violence, and a welcome appearance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who we don't see enough of anymore. Apparently the plot involves the murky world of organized crime and boxing matches in Thailand, but all you really need to know is that it's a movie that is just oozing cool.
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I put off watching "Les Misérables" for as long as possible, because even though I generally like movie musicals, I've found most of the recent ones underwhelming. Filmmakers have the bad habit of choosing star power over the ability to actually sing, resulting in musically mediocre efforts like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Sweeney Todd." I'm happy to report that Tom Hooper's version of "Les Misérables" does not have this problem, featuring Hugh Jackman, Broadway veteran, in the starring role of Jean Valjean, as well as several cast members from earlier stage productions. Unfortunately Hooper's intimate approach to the sweeping, epic material does not do the new film version any favors.

On paper it makes sense. "Les Misérables" is full of plaintive solos, sung by characters in isolated, existential misery. Valjean is a convicted thief in nineteenth century France, who elects to break parole and go on the run in order to start a new life. Despite being hunted by the ruthless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean becomes a successful businessman and eventually mayor of his town. One of his factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is dismissed and left destitute when it is discovered she is hiding an illegitimate child. Believeing his failure to intercede wronged Fantine, Valjean takes responsibility for raising her daughter Cosette, (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Still on the run from Javert years later, when Cosette has grown up, the pair find themselves caught up in the events of the 1832 June rebellion. Among the student revolutionaries is young Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls hopelessly in love with Cosette, and his friend and secret admirer, Éponine (Samantha Barks). And every single one of these characters gets plenty of chances to express their angst through song.

"Les Misérables" is absolutely packed with musical numbers, deviating only slightly from the hefty stage musical written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Minor revisions keep the film under three hours in length, but this means that it's constantly jumping from one famous song to the next, with hardly any pauses to process what's going on. There's hardly any chance for any extra context or exposition outside of what's provided in the lyrics. Fortunately the art direction makes up for a lot, recreating the poverty and despair of 19th century France that Victor Hugo's novel was written to address. The 1832 sequences with hordes of beggars on the streets and the erection of the student barricade are visually spectacular. Unfortunately, these moments are rare. Hooper shoots most of his actors in tight close-ups, utilizing a lot of hand-held camera work, and is fairly stingy about scenic vistas and even crowd shots. While "Les Misérables" is known for its solos, it's also known for the rousing anthems like "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "Master of the House," which rely on the ensemble, and those numbers simply don't work as well in this style.

The focus on realism and the rejection of theatricality results in a "Les Misérables" that feels grittier and starker, but also smaller and more closed-in than it should. One thing I noticed immediately was the more muted orchestrations of many songs, which puts more emphasis on the raw performances. The stronger singers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway don't have any problems getting their emotions across, but then you have poor Russell Crowe as Javert, who completely fails to convey the intensity and obsessive nature of Inspector Javert. His big solo "Stars" is the low point of the movie. Then there's Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the comic baddies, the Thénardiers, who are never allowed to be as broad or as funny as we know that they can be, and vocally run into some trouble. This is almost certainly why Hooper chose to cast Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks over bigger names, because they deftly rise above the limitations of the stripped down, deglamorized production.

I hesitate to be too harsh with the director, because his instincts weren't bad. There is a very modern, very timely feel to this "Les Misérables," and it never feels like a stuffy costume drama or a glitzy, overproduced event film. However, the execution is so uneven, and there are so many ideas that just fall flat, I found it difficult to become immersed in the film. I liked most of the performances, especially Anne Hathaway’s broken Fantine, but I don't feel they were particularly well served. If you're a fan of the musical, as I am, I think it's worth a watch to enjoy some of these performances. However, the film does a pretty poor job of capturing what was so stirring about the stage version, and the Victor Hugo novel for that matter - the sheer immensity of its scope and the impact of its drama.
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I expect I'm not the only one hoping that the recent success of the film version of the "Les Misérables" musical will lead to more adaptations of Broadway hits. There have always been a lot of musical projects knocking about Hollywood in development hell. Gestation times are usually long, because musical films can be very expensive. It took the "Les Misérables" musical over twenty years to finally reach cinema screens. But what will be the next title to follow in its footsteps? Let's look at some potential contenders.

Miss Saigon - A film version has been buzzed about since 2008, to be produced by Paula Wagner. Lee Daniels has expressed interest in directing. The "Les Misérables" team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg were responsible for the music and lyrics, so that would be an easy marketing point. However, I don't know how appealing the film would be to mainstream audiences considering the Vietnam War subject matter, tragic heroine, and very R-rated material. Also, the majority of the characters are Vietnamese, and Hollywood still has reservations about casting Asian leads.

American Idiot - This one is coming along pretty well. Universal is in early negotiations, producers are being lined up, and Dustin Lance Black is rumored to be working on a script. Green Day isn't the band of the moment anymore, but their music is by far the most current and appealing to younger audiences compared to other recent jukebox musicals like "Rock of Ages" and "Mamma Mia!" Moreover, "American Idiot" has some real verve and depth to it, and the original concept album was one of the few pieces of pop culture from the post 9/11 era that truly captured the country's apocalyptic mood.

The Book of Mormon - The biggest Broadway hit in recent memory won a heap of Tonys and the admiration of all the critics. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a reputation for incendiary material in "South Park" and their previous features like "Team America: World Police," but those who follow the Mormon faith don't seem to have taken much offense to "The Book of Mormon." That bodes well for a film version's commercial prospects. Parker and Stone have all but confirmed that they're working on a big screen adaptation, but no timeline is currently in place, and they'll probably wait until the show's current run is over.

Wicked - Universal has been trying to push this one along since at least 2004, but it hasn't been able to get much traction. The "Wicked" musical is a subversive retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the witch's point of view, and has become a proven crowd-pleaser. One reason for all the foot-dragging may be the plethora of other Oz projects vying for attention in recent years. This includes Disney's new film about the Wonderful Wizard, "Oz The Great and Powerful." Whether a success or a failure, hopefully it won't have too much of an effect on "Wicked's" future chances to become a movie.

Annie - This is the project conceived to star Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's daughter Willow, a burgeoning wannabe pop singer. I like the idea of an African-American version of "Annie," and I think there's some real potential to shake up and invigorate an old stage perennial. But aside from the possibility of new music provided being by Jay-Z, there hasn't been much news about the project since it was announced back at the beginning of 2011. There's a real possibility that Willow will outgrow the role if they wait much longer to get the show rolling. Does anyone know if Quvenzhané Wallis can sing?

Into the Woods - Many great talents have tried to turn this Stephen Sondheim musical into a film over the years, but with the recent popularity of fairy-tale themed projects, it looks like now may finally be the right time. Walt Disney Pictures and Warner Brothers are mounting the latest attempt, with Rob Marshall directing. There was a script reading a few months ago with potential cast members, and rumors that Meryl Streep had been approached to play the Witch. Marshall's been very hit or miss lately, but he seems like a good fit for this material. Keep those fingers crossed everybody.

Sunset Boulevard - Finally, I'm going to indulge in a little wishful thinking. It would not do to have a list like this without at least one entry from Andrew Lloyd Webber. The "Sunset Boulevard" musical was plagued by a mess of lawsuits and casting drama, which makes it incredibly unlikely that a film version of the musical will ever be made. However, "Sunset Boulevard" remains one of my favorite films, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the musical version adapted it. I'd love to see Norma Desmond back on the silver screen again, paying tribute to the movies and singing her heart out.
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This isn't a proper and objective review of the recent adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax," because, frankly, it does not deserve one. I tried to give the new "Lorax" the benefit of the doubt. I really did. I'm not very attached to the original story and don't have any nostalgic feelings about the book or the cartoon version from the 70s. I was expecting to sit through an hour and a half of brightly colored Seussian nonsense and spectacle, employed in the service of retelling a very old and familiar tale. The spectacle is all I got.

From the very beginning when I heard that "The Lorax" was being made by Illumination Entertainment, creators of "Despicable Me" and "Horton Hears a Who," I knew that they were taking a risk. So far, their films have been fun, but totally weightless fluff. "The Lorax," on the other hand, is a story about something quite serious. It has very clear moral and social messages to impart, messages that had to be treated respectfully, or else the story would not work. To be fair, Illumination's "Lorax" does present many pro-conservation, pro-environment, anti-corporate, and anti-consumerist ideas and arguments. However, they are imparted very glibly and gently, perhaps too gently. Sure, we've all sat through awful pro-environment cartoons before, the ones that hit you over the head with the worst case scenarios that could result from pollution and deforestation, but at least they were wholeheartedly behind their messages.

"The Lorax," by contrast, comes across as much more flippant about its raison d'être. Part of this is the fault of all the story padding, which was necessary to turn a 45 page children's picture book into an 86 minute film. In the original, a nameless little boy living in a polluted wasteland visits the Once-ler, whose face we never see, to learn how his home came to such an awful state. The Once-ler tells the story of how he destroyed the once abundant surrounding forest to enrich himself, despite many warnings from a creature called The Lorax. In the movie version, the little boy is now named Ted (Zac Efron), and a huge portion of the film is taken up with his crush on a pretty girl, his life in a town where all the greenery is artificial, and the machinations of a new villain, O'Hare (Rob Riggle), an unscrupulous businessman who sells clean air.

Once we finally get to the Once-ler (Ed Helms), his story has been significantly altered and expanded too. The Once-ler is made into a sympathetic character, a young entrepreneur in the flashbacks, who at first befriends the Lorax (Danny DeVito) and all the woodland animals. It's only after a lot of invented hijinks and slapstick that the Once-ler lets his ambitions get away from him and destroys the forest. The actual destruction is drastically de-emphasized, and most of it happens over the course of a single song number. The events that took up most of the original "Lorax" add up to about five minutes of the movie. Meanwhile, we have multiple subplots, chase sequences, songs, and Betty White playing Ted's dotty old grandmother, that have been added to keep the movie light and entertaining. And all these pleasant little distractions end up completely smothering everything about "The Lorax" that made the story a classic.

The movie goes to great lengths to remove or lessen the impact of anything that could be seen as upsetting or controversial, and ends up seriously undercutting itself. The forest is destroyed, but it happens quickly, and the film barely gives us any time to feel sad about the poor animals being displaced. The Once-ler is completely neutered as a villain, and O'Hare is far more silly than threatening. The Lorax, who was originally a lone voice of reason against the nightmare forces of industrialization run amok, comes across as more of a pestering orange grump, since the fight for the forest is so brief and the Once-ler is merely misguided, man, rather than a real meanie in need of reform. And the bad consequences of deforestation? Ted's plastic hometown seems perfectly happy despite having to pay for fresh air. Heck, Ted only goes looking for the Once-ler in the first place because his girlfriend wants to see a real tree.

"The Lorax" that Dr. Seuss wrote is a morality tale, perfectly simple and straightforward and easy for children to understand. The movie is a compromised, bloated, unwieldy thing that pays lip-service to the book, but doesn't understand it. Sure, you could make a good "Lorax" movie with songs and jokes and pretty colors, but without seriously addressing the concerns that were at the heart of the story, all you have is soulless fluff. And I'm afraid that's what the movie is. It's a terrible missed opportunity for Imagination Entertainment, and a disappointing waste of great material.
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I really enjoyed the new "Muppet" movie. I laughed at the silly jokes, cheered on the return of familiar characters, and got misty eyed whenever the film took a minute to reflect on how long it had been since everyone had been together. I wonder how much of this was due to the fact that I am an old school Muppet fan, and this was an old school Muppet movie, built on a lot of nostalgia for the old Muppet shows and movies that most kids these days aren't familiar with. Can the Muppets be a success with a new generation? That seems to be the major theme of "The Muppets."

First off, we're introduced to three totally new characters, two humans and a puppet. The puppet is Walter (Peter Linz), a resident of Smalltown, USA. He's frustrated with life as a three-foot tall felt puppet, but has great moral support from his brother Gary (Jason Segel), and is a huge fan of the Muppets, who represent a world where Walter might belong. When Gary and his patient girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to take a trip out to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter is invited along so he can see the Muppet Studios. Alas, the studio is boarded up, the Muppet performers have scattered, and Walter overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plotting to take possession of the studio and tear it down so he can drill, baby, drill. So the trio decides to find Kermit, get the gang back together, and put on a big show to raise money and save the studio.

In other words, "The Muppets" is a great, big musical road movie that ends with a stage show extravaganza. And at the same time, much to the relief of everyone who still retains affection for the Muppets, writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have taken the characters back to basics. Instead of larger-than-life showbiz icons, the Muppets are just a bunch of dysfunctional friends, and several have fallen on hard times. It's genuinely touching to see them reunite and reconnect with each other again. Kermit questions early on whether it's worth it to even try and fight for the Muppet studios, and what he really means is whether it's worth it to try and reconcile with the friends that he's let drift away over the years, including Miss Piggy. I took their relationship as a running joke in the past, and this was the first time that I was genuinely touched to see Kermit and Piggy together, squabbling, nursing hurt feelings, and clearly still in love.

I had honestly forgotten how adult the Muppets could be. A lot of their humor is bad puns and bizarre anarchy, but they also know how to get in their more stinging zingers. Some were so smart and so quick, they caught me off guard. There's a lot of fourth-wall breaking, self-referential meta, and moments of pretty biting satire. For instance, once the gang is reunited, they go around pitching their telethon to various networks. An executive played by Rashida Jones shoots them down, pointing out that the entertainment world has changed, and the most popular program is a reality show called "Punch Teacher," which is exactly what it sounds like. The Muppets are out of date, in other words, and as the characters fight that notion in the movie, they're making their case to the audience too.

The new guys behind the scenes get all the important stuff right about the Muppets - the humor, the heart, and the philosophy too. Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords" has my eternal gratitude for penning the songs. Even the celebrity cameos, a fixture of all Muppet media, come off pretty well. However, it's hard to overlook how rushed the film feels at times, and that those three new characters, Walter, Gary, and Mary, get really shortchanged . I don't find anything notable about Walter, a bland little guy whose only defining trait is really his inferiority complex, and that wears out quick. The humans and their romantic subplot are okay. Just okay. I always like Amy Adams, and she's wonderful here, but I don't think Jason Segel has any business appearing in a movie where he needs to sing and dance.

But in the end, my complaints are minor, and the movie did answer one question for me: it doesn't matter if the Muppets succeed in coming out of the mothballs and winning over the mainstream again. It was good enough that they tried, and that they gave the fans who loved the Muppets one more great show.
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There's a new Muppet film on the horizon and I knew I had to write something to celebrate the return of one of the biggest media influences of my childhood, that I still hold synonymous with old-fashioned wonderment and innocence and charm. But what to write? What to say? How do I encapsulate my adoration of Jim Henson's creations in blog post form? Do I write up a list of my personal favorite Muppet moments? Favorite characters? Best songs and sketches? Or do I take a walk down memory lane, talking about personal experiences with "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" and the movies? While not the biggest Muppet fan you'll ever meet, I did manage to see the last two in theaters - "Muppet Treasure Island" and "Muppets in Space."

Well, let's start with the anxiety I felt about the new movie. It emerged a few weeks ago that Frank Oz, the original performer of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and many others, had decided not to take part in the new film. He had concerns over the script, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, known for raunchier adult fare like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Fans were pointing out instances of cheap jokes and possible toilet humor in the trailers, which the Muppets simply don't do. I can understand the worry. Hollywood's track record with rebooting nostalgic properties from the 70s and 80s has been very hit-or-miss, especially when it comes to the ones aimed at kids. I've watched old favorites like "Yogi Bear," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "The Smurfs" transmogrified into wise-cracking CGI forms, for lazy movies with lazy humor designed to pander to modern kids. The thought of this happening to the Muppets is heartbreaking. But where in the cynical modern movie landscape would there be room for an earnest puppet frog whose big dream is singing and dancing and making people happy?

But apparently Segel and his friends did it. The reviews are coming in, and they're giving me plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Now the big question is whether audiences over Thanksgiving weekend will embrace the film, or pick alternatives like "Hugo," "Happy Feet 2," or the latest Adam Sandler movie. Making a good film isn't enough - people have to go out and see it. And there's a lot riding on this movie. There have been several attempts to bring back the Muppets, including a short-lived "Muppet Show" revival called "Muppets Tonight" in the 90s, and a couple of TV movies and stage performances. Disney acquired the characters outright in 2004, and the Muppets have been integrated into their theme parks, and still pop up occasionally in music videos and online spoofs. The Muppet cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," for instance, is a thing of beauty. There haven't been any big projects for Kermit in the gang in some time, though, and "The Muppets" will be their biggest chance to prove that they're still a viable franchise, and not just nostalgic relics of the analog age.

And I want very badly for the Muppets to continue. They still embody much of the spirit and humanism of the gentler entertainment era that birthed them. They're also one of the last links to vaudeville and the age of the great song-and-dance performers. They're among the few characters who can be absurd and satirical without a hint of malice, sly and well-observed without losing any heart or smarts. They've brought out the silly side in everyone from Rudolf Nuryev to Alice Cooper. They can still land a chicken joke. And unlike Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, Kermit can go out into the real world, and interact with people in real time, just like he did in the 70s. And he's the same little green figure of hope and love and optimism that he's always been, even if it's Steve Whitmire playing the part instead of Jim Henson now.

I'm getting all mushy. I don't think there's any possible way that "The Muppets" is going to live up to the buzz I've been hearing, and I am trying to keep my own expectations within reasonable limits. But it's a losing battle because it's the Muppets. I wasn't that cognizant of the 80s while they were going on, so I've been largely immune to the recent nostalgia craze. But the Muppets are one of my touchstones, practically the only characters from my childhood that still exist in their original forms. And though it's probably too much to hope for, wouldn't it be great if a new generation could find them and share that magic too? Just learn to have fun singing and dancing and making people happy again?
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I grew up loving musicals, but "Hello, Dolly!" was one I only knew for its signature song, immortalized by Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing. It wasn't until "WALL-E" incorporated a couple of clips that I was even aware that there was a film version, starring Barbara Streisand as her follow-up to "Funny Girl." Directed by Gene Kelly, it's an old-fashioned musical in every sense, but sadly it's not a very memorable one, and I'm not surprised it has been largely forgotten over the years.

The opening number introduces Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), a New York widow who offers matchmaking and a variety of other useful services for reasonable fees. She's hired by the grumpy Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who owns a prosperous Hay and Feed store out in Yonkers, to take his niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to New York City, away from the attentions of the poor artist, Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), who has won her heart. Horace intends to travel to the city separately, to court a hatmaker named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Dolly is certain that she'd make a much better spouse for Horace, and so starts putting her own plans in motion. Luckily the two clerks at the Hay and Feed store, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin), are yearning for a little adventure, and it doesn't take much for Dolly to convince them to sneak off to New York City, to romance Irene and her assistant, Minnie Fay (E. J. Peaker).

"Hello, Dolly!" does many things right, so it's hard to have any bad feelings toward the film. Barbara Streisand as Dolly is wonderful, though you do get the sense that the part was meant for an older actress. Streisand's comic timing and acting abilities prove invaluable, especially in her solos and asides, which reveal Dolly's warmth and sentiment beneath her slick exterior. Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin are also irresistible as a pair of overgrown, amusingly innocent clerks who vow not to go back to Yonkers until they've "kissed a girl." The extravagantly staged musical numbers are a treat to watch, especially the acrobatic waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, and the falling-in-love number that sets innumerable doting couples loose on Central Park. The whole tone of the film is pleasantly nostalgic, recreating the turn-of-the-century era in soft colors and bright lights.

And maybe that's why it feels so insubstantial. Two and a half hours and a massive budget were devoted to a fairly simple romantic farce, and though "Dolly" has its charms, it simply can't support the weight of all the spectacle. Few of the songs are memorable. The central romance doesn't work. Walter Matthau is a perfect grump, but not much of a singer and has no chemistry with Barbara Streisand whatsoever. His character is played so dour, with an entire number devoted to examining how little he thinks of women, the audience can't help but wonder why Dolly should want to marry him, even for his money. Times and values have changed, and it feels wrong that a liberated lady like Dolly Levi should consider the miserable Horace Vandergelder a prize simply because he's loaded. There's not much evidence to suggest she's especially fond of the old curmudgeon otherwise.

Some of the blame for this must go to the director. Gene Kelly is great at delivering his big showstoppers, but he sacrifices too much story and character, when there's not much of either to begin with. The second act is noticeably truncated, and some of the players like Ermengarde and Ambrose are so woefully underutilized, one wonders why they appear at all. Cornelius and Barnaby are a lot of fun, but so broadly comic they often feel like sidekicks upgraded to lead roles when other stars didn't show up. Another weak spot is the humor. During the big numbers, the visual gags and physical comedy come off very well. More dialogue-based attempts levity, however, tend to fall flat, like a running joke that involves Dolly having business cards ready for every conceivable kind of service. The film is not very adept at dialing down for the smaller moments when they become necessary.

Nostalgia is always a tricky card to play, and in the end "Hello, Dolly!" can't escape being a 1960s musical in love with the earliest days of the twentieth century, that fails to say anything particularly noteworthy about the era it celebrates or provide a story universal enough to hold the attention of modern audiences. Looking back, I realize that I frequently got "Dolly" confused with "Mame" and "Gypsy," two other musicals of the same era with big leading female roles, but far more heart and substance to them. "Dolly," gets an A for effort, but the film plays better as a fond old memory of a movie musical than the genuine article.
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Since I enjoyed "Waking Sleeping Beauty," an insider's look at what was going on behind the scenes of the 90s Disney animation Renaissance, I thought I'd take in some of the other Disney-themed documentaries that have been made in recent years. I went through a trio of them over the weekend: "The PIXAR Story" from 2007, "Walt & El Grupo," from 2008, and "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story," from 2009. A couple of points need to made right off. The films were all produced with the cooperation of the Walt Disney Company, giving the filmmakers access to clips and music and other IP, so of course the documentaries are very complimentary towards the Mouse. However, they don't indulge in much corporate cheerleading for Disney, and never play like the thinly disguised commercials that some of the their older projects were - though the PIXAR doc comes close at times. Still, one should take note that all three films were all made by people with close family ties to Disney. "The Boys" coming from the sons of Robert and Richard Sherman is no surprise, but more eyebrow-raising is Leslie Iwerks, daughter of the legendary animator Ub Iwerks, directing "The PIXAR Story," and "Walt & El Grupo," being helmed by Ted Thomas, son of another beloved animator, Frank Thomas. So clearly, there's bias at work here from the outset.

But on to the films. "The PIXAR Story" gets a lot of mileage out of having most exciting narrative. The Cinderella story of PIXAR's rise is tremendously interesting stuff, and the doc is great at putting together all the little bits and pieces of early CGI animation history that I've only seen piecemeal from other sources. The archival footage is always great to see, and with the recent passing of Steve Jobs, his appearances are especially poignant. Unfortunately, that all stops after the release of "Toy Story," when an animation nut like me starts noticing that a lot important context, like PIXAR's ongoing battle with Dreamworks' animation division, is barely alluded to. I mean, come on. The biggest challenge with "A Bug's Life" wasn't the crowd scenes or the fear of a sophomore slump, but the fact that Jeffrey Katzenberg was gunning for them with "Antz," which beat "Bug's Life" to the theaters by four weeks. The more recent material is also weaker, containing a lot of aspirational talk for the future of the Disney/PIXAR partnership, which had only just been cemented when the film was finished. There's even a substantial segment devoted to talking up the return of traditional animation, a venture which hasn't turned out so well. Still, "The PIXAR Story" is a fun watch, very accessible, and has a lot of good, geeky animation history in it.

"Walt & El Grupo" will likely only be of interest to real Disney buffs, as it chronicles the 1941 goodwill tour of South America that the US State Department sent Disney and a a group of his employees on, the "El Grupo" of the title. We also get a rather one-sided look at the notorious Disney Studio strike that was going on around the same time, but this is about as in depth as I've ever seen Disney (both man and studio) ever address the subject. Most of the film is taken up with chronicling the trip through Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Since El Grupo and the people they met in South America are mostly deceased, we have to make do with the second-hand reminiscences of various relatives, giving the whole film the feel of an extended photo album review. With a very meandering, incidental narrative and too many people to follow, the whole middle section has a tendency to blur together. Also, though the trip was considered a success, the filmmakers don't do a particularly good job of convincing us that it had much impact on either Disney or relations with South America. It certainly didn't warrant an entire 107 minute documentary film. To hammer the point home, the animated feature that was produced as a result of the South America trip, "Saludos Amigos," was mostly well-received at the time of release, but it's largely forgotten today, a curiosity item like this documentary.

Finally, "The Boys" certainly features subject matter worthy of examination - the careers of the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard. The pair was responsible for many Disney earworms, from the songs in "Mary Poppins" and "The Jungle Book" to "It's a Small World." However, their non-Disney work gets a bit sidelined here, which is a shame. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" gets a few minutes, since it was one of the most popular and enduring films they worked on, but other late career highs like "The Slipper and the Rose" are glossed over quickly. What's really intriguing is the family drama that frames the whole feature. Richard and Robert Sherman never got along all that well, and were estranged for decades in later life. "The Boys" was put together by their sons in the hopes of mending some fences, but the brothers don't open up much about the fallout or the reconciliation process. Much left unsaid does show up onscreen, however, such as the uptick in recent collaborations between the pair, including work on the new stage versions of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Mary Poppins." Of the three docs, this is easily my favorite. The execution's a little bumpy, but it's so well intentioned, and so clearly a labor of love, it won me over. And frankly, I suspect I'd like any excuse to revisit the Shermans' catalog.
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You may find my taste in music (and films) on the old fashioned side, but ladies or gentlemen, whether you like it or not, I present a list of my favorite rock musical movies, in chronological order.

A Hard Day's Night (1964) - There had been rock 'n' roll musical films before, notably the Elvis pictures, but this was the first time we saw the beginnings of a very different attitude and style being associated with the genre. A cinéma vérité exercise with no real plot, "A Hard Day's Night" is a little satire, a little mockumentary, and a lot of irreverent charm and humor. The Fab Four genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, winking at the media and their fans. Sadly the later Beatles films never again had the spontaneity and carefree ease of their first feature.

Head (1968) - This is the movie often credited for destroying the Monkees. This is fitting, since "Head" essentially takes the polished, commercial image of the Monkees and deconstructs it. From a psychedelic romp through a series of artificial television landscapes, full of non sequiturs and random cameos, emerge moments of surprising wit and dark comedy. Director Bob Rafaelson and writer/producer Jack Nicholson lent the film so much counterculture verve, it proved too much for mainstream audiences to handle, leaving "Head" to become a beloved cult film.

Yellow Submarine (1968) - Almost an afterthought to the Beatles filmography, "Yellow Submarine" became an animation classic. The visuals created by Heinz Edelmann, George Dunning, and Charlie Jenkins look like nothing made before or since. Experimental techniques, psychedelic imagery, and pop art graphics help to create a bizarre onscreen universe that is a perfect complement to the Beatles' evolving music of that era. Watch the "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" segment, and you'll never hear the song without thinking of rotoscoped dancing girls again.

Tommy (1975) - The first bona fide rock opera, and a major influence on all the rock narratives that followed. Was there ever an icon of youth alienation to match Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard whose true desire was human connection? The rise and fall of a messianic figure and the quest for spiritual enlightenment come up a lot in these movies, but nobody did it better than Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. "Tommy" is one of the most genuinely moving films of its era, and has one of the best finales of any musical, rock or otherwise.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - "Rocky Horror" has been in theaters continuously since 1975, and there are no signs that it's going away any time soon. It is the ultimate midnight movie, a horror film parody populated by a cast of lovable deviants and freaks. To try and explain its cross-dressing, cannibalistic, mad doctor, alien sex fiend charms is an exercise in futility. It is simply a movie that you have to experience first hand, preferably with a costumed crowd, very late at night, that knows all the words to "Time Warp."

Hair (1979) - High energy and youthful enthusiasm carry "Hair" through its sillier moments and shore up a minimal script. Most remember the movie for its portrayal of New Ageism and hippies. I always remember it for the toothsome, naughty lyrics in songs about free love and interracial mixing. Oh, and Ren Woods' spectacular power vocals, the groovy Twyla Tharp choreography, and the best song ever about the joys of long hair. Alas, no one gets naked, like they do in the stage musical, but I'm fairly sure that everyone got high.

The Blues Brothers (1980) - I'm cheating a little, since "Blues Brothers" is far more motown, blues, and soul than rock. But how could you leave this one off a rock 'n' roll movie list? The film's comedic and action bona fides are endless, but I'll always remember it for all the great musical stars they managed to round up for performances: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway singing "Minnie the Moocher" one more time, and so many others. Heck, even my mother, the stalwart classical music champion, loves this film to bits.

The Wall (1982) - Easily the darkest entry on this list, and one I admit I like much more for the Pink Floyd soundtrack than what's happening at any point on screen. But then, there are those fascinating Gerald Scarfe animated sequences, and the sight of a giant grinder turning British school kids into processed meats. The story is often incoherent, full of obtuse symbolism and gritty visuals, but it's a riveting watch nonetheless. "The Wall" is among the angriest of the angry yong man movies, and offers up the potent dark side of the rock musical.

Velvet Goldmine (1998) - David Bowie never did get around to making a "Ziggy Stardust" movie, so director Todd Haynes more or less did it for him. A gorgeous, nostalgic paean to the age of the glam rock gods, "Velvet Goldmine" charts the rise and fall of a Bowie-like figure, wrapped in a present day crime mystery. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christian Bale put in great pre-stardom performances, but the highlight for me is Ewan MacGregor, playing a feral Lou Reed/Iggy Pop amalgam, who at one point literally sets his own stage on fire.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) - Our hero/heroine, after suffering a sex reassignment surgery gone wrong, staves off despair by adopting the persona of Hedwig, a wronged rock goddess with a lot of pain to share. "Hedwig" takes a deeply personal struggle with gender and sexuality issues, and renders it magnificent through a brilliant soundtrack and the performance of John Cameron Mitchell. It is easily the best rock musical of recent times, being one of the few that is so distinctively of our times. Alas, too few in the last decade have followed in its footsteps.

Whatever became of that "American Idiot" movie? Or the Gorillaz movie? Come on Hollywood. We wanna rock!
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Why do I do this to myself? I knew Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" was an incredibly depressing, emotionally exhausting film by reputation. I sat through "Dogville" in a state of endless discomfort, watching Nicole Kidman's heroine being subjected to countless depravities over the course of the three hour running time. I found "Antichrist" practically unwatchable, loaded with shock-cinema imagery in incredibly poor taste. Why would I watch another Von Trier film, particularly the one that is widely considered to be among his most manipulative and upsetting? Because in spite of how unbearable "Dancer in the Dark" is to endure at times, the film is fantastic.

Selma (Icelandic singer Björk) is a Czech immigrant to the United States, who lives with her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic) in a rented trailer, and works a machine press at a local factory. She has a friend in fellow worker Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who she nicknames Cvalda, and is persistently courted by Jeff (Peter Stormare), who awkwardly offers her rides home every day. Her pleasures in life are few, the main one being her participation in a local theater class, where she has secured the part of Maria in their production of "Sound of Music." However, few realize that Selma's eyesight is failing due to a hereditary condition. She hopes that she can spare Gene from the same fate by saving up enough money for an operation for him, before she becomes completely blind. She shares the secret with her landlord Bill (David Morse) after he confides in her that he has money troubles, which turns out to be a terrible mistake.

And in typical Lars von Trier fashion, the audience is then forced to watch the total disintegration of Selma's life, and it's as traumatic and heart-wrenching as you'd expect. It's also terribly contrived, based on a set of coincidences that grow more and more preposterous with every passing minute. The actions of David Morse's character are complete nonsense. Tragedies compound upon tragedies in an endless downward spiral. The only reason the film manages any believability at all is because of Björk's performance as the naive, innocent Selma. Björk is so open and so vulnerable and offers up such unfettered emotions to the screen, the viewer forgets that she's performing. This is even true in the scenes where Selma escapes from the harshness of reality through daydreams, which turn her immediate surroundings - the factory, a courtroom, a prison - into elaborately staged musical numbers.

Oh yes. Did I mention that "Dancer is the Dark" is a musical? Roughly half a dozen songs were composed for the film by Björk, who also performs them as Selma. If you've never heard Björk before, her music is madly, wonderfully strange, full of whispers and wails and nearly unintelligible lyrics that nonetheless strike deep. Von Trier chose to shoot "Dancer in the Dark" with digital cameras and few production niceties, so the film has a harsh visual realism that's almost Dogme 95 at times, but not quite. He doesn't change the style for the musical numbers, aside from utilizing some more extreme shots and turning up the color saturation a notch, so between Von Trier and Björk these musical interludes are entirely unique. The only thing that's remotely conventional about them is the choreography, patterned after the grand old musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age that Selma adores.

"In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens," Selma says at one point, which one suspects gets to the heart of what Lars von Trier was trying to do with "Dancer in the Dark." He criticizes the musical form, but also uses it to wonderful effect. Sometimes the numbers seem a little shoehorned in, like the one at the factory, but otherwise they are used as they were meant to be, as storytelling devices. The standout is "I've Seen it All," where Selma tries to convince Jeff and herself that she doesn't mind losing her eyesight, and involves an impeccable dance sequence aboard a moving train. There are also several nods to musical film tradition, including the presence of Catherine Deneuve and a short, memorable appearance by Joel Grey. I suspect the director may enjoy musicals as much as his heroine does.

In the end, though, he is still Lars von Trier, and must devastate his audience with all the dark powers of filmmaking at his disposal. The ending of "Dancer in the Dark" is one of the most wrenching, intense, and cathartic that I've seen. Perhaps he is needlessly cruel, but at the same time he's so good at it, I can't bring myself to complain. I've never seen a screen musical with this much raw power and impact, and Von Trier is the one to thank for it. Or blame for it. Your choice.
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Imagine a movie landscape where the bad guy was never allowed to get away with it, where all crimes had to be punished and all moral lapses had to be corrected by the time the credits rolled. Thanks to the Hays Code, from 1934 until the mid 50s, that was the rule in the American film industry. On top of that the studios often worried about sad or pessimistic films scaring away theater patrons, and sometimes went so far as to demand that darker endings be rewritten as happy ones. To this day, nervous executives can do a lot of damage to a good ending, now using poor test audience reactions as the common excuse to make cuts and edits. In short, not all happy endings are necessarily the best ones, and I've singled out some of the most egregious substitutions below, excluding those that the directors themselves were directly responsible for ("AI", "Source Code," etc). Spoilers, spoilers everywhere, so be careful.

"The Bad Seed" - When you think of evil children in cinema, Damien of "The Omen" gets a lot of press, but my money was always on sweet little Rhoda from "The Bad Seed." The novel and play the film was based on both ended with the murderous little girl killing her mother and getting away with it. However, under the Hays Code, crime was never allowed to pay, so Rhoda was struck by lightning in the final reel, and her mother miraculously revived. I can't be too unhappy with this one, because even though it would have been far more sinister fun to have the original ending for the film, some part of me cheers every time that pigtailed little monster gets it.

"And Then There Were None" - Agatha Christie's mystery novel, also known as "Ten Little Indians," or by its less savory original title that I'm not going to print here, killed off ten characters on a remote island one at a time, leaving a perfect closed-room mystery for those who would later find them: which one killed the others and why? The film's lighter ending leaves two survivors and the the murderer's plans to commit a perfect crime are foiled. It's not a bad ending, but it's not nearly as psychologically interesting as the original. Nearly all later adaptations followed the film's example, and even Agatha Christie herself wrote a stage adaptation where the leads survive.

"Infernal Affairs" - The Hong Kong thriller that "The Departed" was based on ends with the gangsters' mole, played by Andy Lau, getting away with his policeman cover intact and resolving to use his position to become a real good guy. For mainland China, whose censors still seem to be stuck in the 50s, an alternate ending was created where Lau's character confesses his crimes and gives himself up to the police. In light of that, I wonder how they explained the sequel which features Lau still undercover as a cop - though that one does feature a final fate for the character that the censors would certainly approve of.

"Brazil" - One of the most famous battles ever waged between a filmmaker and a studio executive occurred in 1985, when Terry Gilliam went to war with Universal's Sid Sheinberg over getting "Brazil" released with its gut-puncher "1984" inspired ending intact. Sheinberg insisted on the creation of an alternate version referred to as the "Love Conquers All" cut, which pretty well sums up the problem right there. Gilliam had to make edits, but his version was the one that made it to theaters. Sheinberg's was aired on television a few times, but today mostly exists as a curiosity item on collectors' discs. Thank goodness.

"First Blood" - The movie originally ended with John Rambo committing suicide, just as he did in the David Morrell novel. It was depressing, sure, but it was perfectly appropriate for the story of a Vietnam veteran who was driven to wage a guerrilla war against some small-town cops as a result of his battle traumas. Similar films like "Falling Down" made it work cinematically, so I don't see why "Rambo" couldn't have. And frankly, the character going out by his own hand would have been a far more dignified end than getting transmogrified into the ridiculous supersoldier action-hero that Rambo became in the sequels.

"Little Shop of Horrors" - Possibly the most notorious scrapped ending of all time belongs to "Little Shop," which would have seen the sentient alien plant Audrey II swallow the main characters whole and then go off to conquer the planet. Over twenty minutes of film, whole song numbers, and a massive special effects sequence were cut, all to change the comedically dark and apocalyptic finale into a typical happy ending. Part of what makes this ending so famous is how inaccessible it has been to curious fans. In 1998, Warner brothers actually recalled DVDs of the film that included the ending as a special feature, because of squabbles over the rights to the deleted material.

"I Am Legend" - This one isn't the substitution of a happy ending per se, but it's certainly a more Hollywood one. Will Smith's character is supposed to have the epiphany that his experiments on the infected humans has made him into a monster figure to them, thus explaining the title "I Am Legend." It turns out the mindless creatures he's been fighting with for the whole film aren't so mindless after all. He subsequently abandons his work and leaves Manhattan. In the theatrical version, no enlightenment is to be had. Smith blows himself and his lab up with a grenade to ensure the escape of some other survivors, ending the film with a bang and some generic platitudes.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - This should have been one of the most deliciously pulpy, campy horror movie endings of all time. The hero, having witnessed the invading pod people conquer his town, runs out into the local highway, screaming warnings to passing cars, "Can't you see?! They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They're here already! You're next!" And then he looks straight into the camera, wild-eyed. "You're next!" The studio took one look and made the filmmakers go back and shoot wraparound scenes so the whole film is told in flashback, and the movie ends with the authorities being alerted to go save the day. What utter spoilsports.
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Every once in a while in the conversations among film nerds, the question comes up: what important, influential, well regarded, or much beloved films have you neglected to see, and why? Since we're in the middle of August and the summer movie season is winding down, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the titles that have been sitting on my "To Watch" list for too long and maybe figure out why they're still there, while I've made time for so much dreck lately. Below are eleven films I really should have seen by now, not counting titles that simply keep slipping my mind like "Bottle Rocket," "The 25th Hour," "Three Kings," "Papillon," and "Fletch." Let's see if I can break down a few more of those irrational movie-watching prejudices still lurking in my head, shall we?

"In America" – Directed by Jim Sheridan, "In America" follows the struggles of an Irish immigrant family in new York. I know it must be much better than the twee premise suggests, but I'm wary of a film that pings so strongly as a feel-good tearjerker. I don't mind tearjerkers, but I respond very badly to the manipulative ones, and I'm not convinced this isn't one, even though it's won over lots of fans.

"Dancer in the Dark" and "Breaking the Waves" – A pair of Lars von Trier's most well-regarded films, both about women down on their luck, dealing with hardship and despair. I've seen Von Trier's other work, enough to know that he's capable not just of breaking my heart, but stomping on it repeatedly, and leaving a bloody mess. I prefer to tread carefully with this man.

"Almost Famous" – A young writer goes on tour with a 70s rock band that is on the verge of hitting it big, and becomes embroiled in their behind-the-scenes troubles. Rock 'n' roll and groupies may be a popular fantasy for some, but I never understood all the fuss. And writer/director Cameron Crowe? Well, he's capable of very good things and very, very bad things. Which is this?

"Pink Flamingos" – There's every reason for me not to want to watch "Pink Flamingos." It was deliberately made to be an exercise in bad taste, a low-budget, gross-out, shock-fest foisted on the world by the cheerfully amoral John Waters. But if I got through "Salo," surely this couldn't be nearly as awful, right? I mean, how shocking could something made in 1972 for $10K be?

"Pretty in Pink" - Well, I don't much care for "Sixteen Candles," and everything I've heard about Molly Ringwald's other big John Hughes movie suggests I'd like it even less. Ths story revolves around a working-class girl vacilating between two beaus while trying to hide the fact that she's poor. And it doesn't help that so many viewers seem to believe that she picks the wrong guy in the end.

"Anchorman" – I'm at the point where I'll recognize that someone is making an "Anchorman" joke, but I still don’t get the references. What's keeping me away from this comedy is remembering clips of Will Ferrell in the ads in full SNL buffoon mode, but not striking me as particularly funny. But apparently the move is well loved by many, so why should I let a bad marketing campaign get in my way?

Everything by Satyajit Ray – I confess "Pather Panchali" is the only Indian film I've ever seen. So still on my list are the other two films that make up Ray's "Apu Trilogy" and all of Ray's other films. My lack of familiarity with the Indian culture is the main culprit here, and the knowledge that watching these films is probably going to take more effort than watching everything else on this list combined (with one exception).

"South Pacific" - I grew up on musicals, including the ones by Rodgers and Hammerstein. "South Pacific" is one of their most famous and well remembered, but I've been avoiding it like the plague for years. Every time these two try to be serious and socially progressive, to me they come off as dismissive, insensitive, and boring – see "Carousel" and "Flower Drum Song" for starters.

Everything by Todd Solondz – I admit this guy intimidates me. The way people talk about him and his work always makes me think I'm not quite ready for what he has to show me, which is probably ridiculous. Then again, I know that his films deal with heavy themes and are full of explicit sexual content and other risky material. All the signals I'm getting say to approach with caution.

"Sátántangó" – Because though Belá Tarr is great, this movie is still seven hours long.
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French director René Clair is best known for a trio of musicals he made in the early 1930s, at the beginning of the era of sound. As with too many directors, I didn't know what to expect when I resolved to watch them, only knowing that there had been some controversy over Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" reputedly having borrowed too heavily from a sequence in Clair's "À Nous la Liberté" ("Liberty for Us"). I don't have the greatest appreciation of the Hollywood musicals of the same era, like the "The Gold Diggers" and "42nd Street," which I always found too stagey for my taste. And the added language barrier made me even more apprehensive. What does a 1930s French musical even look like?

Well, I'm glad to report that the ones directed by René Clair are a delight. I started with "À Nous la Liberté," which follows the misadventures of two escaped prisoners, then moved on to "The Million," about a missing lottery ticket, and finished up with "Under the Roofs of Paris," a more winsome romance. I liked each one a little less as I went, but then I was working backwards in time, from Clair's most ambitious, stylized film to the simplest, most realistic one. All three films were made in the span of a little over two years, but it's amazing to see the technical and artistic strides the director made from one to the next. "Under the Roofs of Paris" was Clair's first sound film, and one of the first French sound films to gain international recognition. You can tell that the technology was rudimentary and the director, who was famous for harboring deep reservations about the use of sound, was still in the early stages of experimenting with music and aural effects.

"Under the Roofs" was pleasant, and featured some impressive feats like the opening and closing crane shots. But the other two films are on another level entirely. "À Nous la Liberté" and "The Million" are silent comedies at heart, full of great slapstick gags, visual humor, and outsized emotions that I rarely saw in Busby Berkeley musicals. I don't know that Clair rivals Chaplin or Keaton's best, but he's certainly an artist cut from the same cloth. There's plenty of music and singing in these films, but rarely are the songs staged as musical numbers. Rather, they're either incorporated into the action or used like occasional narration, making them less obtrusive. Clair also plays with the marriage of sound and image, irreverently juxtaposing mismatched elements to make it seem like a flower is warbling a tune to the main character, or the heroine's shoe is ringing like an alarm clock. Among the filmmakers of the time, I don't know that there was anyone else using sound in such interesting, playful ways in mainstream films.

There's also quite a bit of social commentary in Clair's work, giving his plots a little more heft and substance than the norm. "The Million" looks at the effect of money on a young man's reputation and regard in his community, poking fun at social conventions in between the chase sequences and comic misunderstandings. "À Nous la Liberté" is more pointed satire, with a wonderful Kafkaesque production design that equates the dreary drudgery of modern life with endless production lines and conveyor belts. The two screwball heroes don't have to just escape their prison workhouse, but a larger society that functions in much the same way. So they proceed to rebel against order with chaos, and against stuffy propriety with silliness and humor. And they sing a jaunty little tune as they go that is ridiculously catchy, and I can't help humming it to myself days later, even though I can't decipher any of the lyrics.

And I guess that's what it all comes down to. There's a universality about Clair's films, from the themes to the character archetypes to the humor and humanism. "The Million" and "À Nous la Liberté" still work on almost every single level, eighty years later. And Clair managed to do what Chaplin and Keaton never managed, which was to make that monumental transition to the talkies despite all his misgivings, and employ sound just as well as he employed visuals. Now I'm curious to see what his silent films were like, and what happened to his style later, when he decamped from France to Hollywood for a decade.

One of these days I really have have to get rid of all these idiot preconceptions about films I've never seen. But then again, I have so much fun being wrong.
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I mentioned last month that there are several upcoming films that I am anticipating. The thing is, most of these are a long ways from their release dates, aren't being followed breathlessly by the general media, and frankly there's not much information available about them right now. Some of these films don't even have titles yet. This is because my excitement is really all about the directors, and most of the time I just want to know what they're going to do next. So let's see what some of my favorites have been up to:

Woody Allen - Continuing his European tour, he's off to Italy next for "Bop Decameron," and bringing along Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, Ellen Page, and many more. He's planning to act again in this one, which may not be a good sign, but it's Woody Allen, and he's always had his ups and downs. But boy do the ups make up for the downs. I really have to go track down a theater showing "Midnight in Paris."

Paul Thomas Anderson - Anderson is currently filming "The Master" with Philip Seymour Hoffman, known in some circles as the Scientology movie. Not every story about a man creating his own religion is intended to be about Scientology. But hey, that's probably the angle the press is going to run with when the movie comes out next year, so who am I argue? After "The Master," will be an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice," for those of you who need more counter-culture detective stories in your life.

Wes Anderson - Recently spotted in Rhode Island filming "Moon Rise Kingdom," about a collection of various townsfolk in 60s New England, searching for a pair of runaway lovers. Good cast here, including Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton. I expect to see a lot of slow motion, wide angle shots, long tracking shots, OCD set design, and Bill Murray. You know, if Columbia really wants to get "Ghostbusters 3" made with Murray, maybe they ought to consider giving Anderson a a shot at directing it.

Danny Boyle - Zombie fans rejoice. Boyle wants to make another installment of the "28 Days Later" franchise next, presumably "28 Months Later." No clue when he's going to get around to it, but my hope is that he'll bring A.R. Rahman along to do the score.

David Cronenberg - "A Dangerous Method," is described as a historical drama about the contentious relationships that develop among psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). Obsession and madness are sure to follow, because it's Cronenberg. The film is set to premiere at this year's Venice Film Festival in September, but a trailer just popped up here. Cronenberg is currently in production on "Cosmopolis" with Robert Pattinson, due out sometime next year.

Joel and Ethan Coen - This astoundingly prolific duo wrote the script for the remake of "Gambit" currently filming with Colin Firth in London, wrote another for a film George Clooney is directing, and have announced they will adapt Michael Chabon's alternate-history science-fiction novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." But first, it looks like we'll be getting the "Untitled Coen Brothers Music Project." I have no idea, but I'm still pretty excited anyway.

Alfonso Cuarón - Very high on the list of upcoming film projects I'm dying to see is "Gravity," which you might remember was the film at the center of a casting kerfuffle last year. Nearly every high profile actress in town was rumored to be up for the lead after Angelina Jolie turned it down, and in the end the part went to Sandra Bullock. It started filming last month and we should see it sometime next year, I hope. This will be Cuarón's follow-up to "Children of Men," a film that does not get nearly enough love or attention.

Guillermo Del Toro - Uh... let's come back to him later.

Clint Eastwood - After his J. Edgar Hoover biopic with Leonardo DiCaprio, due out in December, Eastwood has announced he'll be helming a remake of "A Star is Born" starring Beyonce. Like "An Affair to Remember," this is one of those stories that tends to come back every generation, and there are already three versions of "A Star is Born," the earliest from 1937. For those who may be worried about Eastwood directing a romance, I will remind you that this was the man both behind and in front of the camera for "The Bridges of Madison County."

This is getting awfully long. I'll have to break it up into segments. Part II tomorrow!
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