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Reviews

Annie Live!
(2021)

Overcoming Inherent Issues
This latest of the live TV productions is a remake and, as such, should be evaluated via three elements: the original work; the performance of that work; and the technical aspects of the live performance.

The original musical composition is not a favorite of mine (or many others). As Daniel Fienberg wrote for "The Hollywood Reporter", " with a couple of good performances, one can ignore that 'Annie' is crazily front-loaded and just keeps doing reprises of its three best songs to kill time in its second act."

It also has a leading role that combines earnestness with often-strident vocalization. And it also over-indulges the personal politics of its creator, lionizing FDR, but---if we are to believe the "Annie" storyline---we should really blame Annie herself for years of government overreach, centralization, and spending like there is no "Tomorrow".

Those things being said, how might we evaluate this live performance of the musical? To start with something positive, the singing was strong. The choreography and dance performances were stellar. And most of the acting was noteworthy. Taraji P. Henson played Miss Hannigan brilliantly. Celina Smith, as Annie, showed a great ability to emote. Harry Connick, Jr. Had Daddy Warbucks crooning like Old Blue Eyes---something seldom seen in the role. Really, the performances did elevate the production above its mediocre bones. I especially enjoyed the performance of the orphan Molly, played by young Felice Kakaletris, which added color to the group numbers.

As for the technical aspects of the live performance---which can be a challenge---there were too many on-camera cameras to overlook the glitches that distracted the eye. A considerable lapse in the audio marred a Harry Connick, Jr. Solo, but it was fixed before it ruined the number.

I was confused by the presence of the modern-day children at the beginning and end of the performance. What was the purpose of this anachronistic distraction? And let other producers note the annoying audiences of some live productions; the one for "Annie" seemed distractingly partisan and cheered for unspectacular things like cartwheels.

On balance, this live special overcame some of the drawbacks inherent in the musical (and a plethora of commercials), but gave back some of that ground through technical gaffes.

Holiday Inn
(1942)

Bing & Fred
Often compared to "White Christmas", this film that lacks the energy and color of WC but compensates with the dancing of Fred Astaire. The story of an inn that is only open on holidays allows a variety of songs by Irving Berlin, where WC is an iconic Christmas film.

The production numbers are strong, but the surrounding story is rather limp, having to do with changing loyalties and love interests within the show biz careers of Bing Crosby (as Jim Hardy) and Fred Astaire (as Ted Hanover).

The two female leads are noteworthy: Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale. But---comparing again---they fall short of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.

This is an enjoyable film, but it is less re-watchable than "White Christmas", which is a December must-see.

A Christmas Melody
(2015)

Full Of Holiday Charm
Mother and daughter, Kristin (Lacey Chabert) and Emily (Fina Strazza), are forced to move from LA to Ohio due to financial difficulties. It's a big move, but they connect with a couple of friends, and they reconnect with family. The school's music teacher, Danny (Brennan Elliott) helps Emily adapt to her new school and befriends Kristin.

This is a charming Hallmark holiday romance. Though Strazza steals many of her scenes, Chabert and Elliott are fun to watch as the romantic leads. Director Mariah Carey plays a role; she is the antagonistic school mother who does her best to belittle Kristin. Kevin Chamberlin deserves mention as Thomas, the school custodian who befriends Emily; they both deserve mention for their scenes that sparkle with Christmas magic. In a small role, Kathy Najimy shines as the aunt who welcomes them back to Ohio.

This is an enjoyable holiday tale that focuses on relationships.

A Heavenly Christmas
(2016)

Lacks The Spark Of Some Hallmark Films
Max (Eric McCormack) is unhappy with his life, though he is surrounded by friends and family. Eve (Kristin Davis) is content, though she has no friends and disregards her family as she focuses on moving up the corporate ladder. Circumstances thrust them together, and each reevaluates his or her life.

This Hallmark holiday film relies on the supernatural to move the story along, much like "A Christmas Carol". Shirley MacLaine plays the part of Pearl, an angel who stirs the pot with some predictable results.

McCormack is strong in his role. He is uncle and custodian to Lauren (Jaeda Lily Miller), who lost her parents in an accident. Davis is pleasant, but never very convincing as one side of the burgeoning romance that is central to the final chapter. Unlike some other Hallmark shows, Christmas is not an important part of the story; the action could have occurred at any time of the year.

White Christmas
(1954)

A Brumal Classic
Shot in VistaVision and Technicolor, this film is a visual treat. Add the vocal stylings of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, the comedic talent of Danny Kaye, and the grace of Vera-Ellen---and you have a very entertaining spectacle.

The story revolves around two growing romances. Betty and Judy Haynes are booked at a small inn in Vermont. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis tag along, only to discover that the gig has been cancelled due to a lack of seasonal snow. It's all hands on deck as the boys are determined to bring in a crowd, help the girls, and financially save the owner of the inn, who they know from a previous life.

Some wonderful songs by Irving Berlin tie the show together and illustrate the diversity of the composer.

When this many great talents converge, there is potential for excellence and this film capitalizes on its abundance of riches. As a seasonal offering, it is worthy of watching year after year.

Tommy Boy
(1995)

An Uneven Comedy With Weak Writing
This film is classic Chris Farley and David Spade. Farley plays a moron and capitalizes on his bulk. Spade is acerbic and meets Farley's exaggerated style with understatement.

Much of the humor is juvenile, which is not to criticize it, just to classify it. The jokes are intermittent, leaving the character portrayals to carry much of the load, which is a mistake because the characters are not that interesting. Farley is better in short spurts, as on SNL. The TV show "Just Shoot Me" was a better format for Spade.

There is some good music in this film, but the production as a whole is rather weak, primarily due to the humor, which is thin.

You, Me & The Christmas Trees
(2021)

Needed More Chemistry, Less Science
Olivia Arden (Danica McKellar) is a specialist in the science of evergreens. When she gets a call from the owner of a Christmas tree business, Jack Connor (Benjamin Ayres), she is willing to drop everything and go help him solve the mystery of his dying trees. It gives her a good excuse to avoid her parents' Christmas festivities.

The two leads in this Hallmark holiday romance have average chemistry. Their growing relationship is believable, even if it's not passionate. The central story-about the science of evergreens---occupies too much of the story, subordinating the more relevant plot of Olivia's transformation into someone who appreciates the holiday traditions.

Devotion
(1946)

History Yields To Romance
This tale of the three Bronte sisters feels like it has little historical authenticity, but if you can view it as a fictional tale, it has some appeal. Critic Bosley Crowther called it "an insult to plain intelligence", but the performances of Ida Lupino as Emily Bronte and Olivia de Havilland as sister Charlotte offer some rewards.

The gist of the story, besides the sisters' dedication to writing, is a love triangle between Emily, Charlotte, and their father's curate, Arthur Nicholls (Paul Henreid), whose personal inclinations are subordinated to a courtly love that rivals anything in Camelot.

Scenes where Charlotte travels to London and rubs elbows with Thackerey suggest how great this film might have been if it had eschewed the romantic angst and focused on the sisters' writing and their careers. Instead it might have been subtitled "Love Among the Moors".

Skidoo
(1968)

A Trippy Misstep
The cast of this film has an abundance of talent. That cannot be denied. But Otto Preminger has directed a story that underwhelms, leaving the viewer to wonder about what might have been.

Consider the comedic and dramatic chops of Jackie Gleason, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, and others. The way they are inserted into a story about hippies and consciousness-altering drugs creates a tone that is reminiscent of a "Batman" series episode or one of the many beach blanket films where you might find Buster Keaton, Vincent Price or Peter Lorre.

As an oddity, "Skidoo" offers some rewards to the film buff. But it deserves little consideration as a quality film.

Sunday in New York
(1963)

A Love Letter
Years before Jane Fonda played the young bride in Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park", soon after Rod Taylor appeared in Hitchcock's "The Birds", and the same year Cliff Robertson portrayed JFK in "PT 109" along with Robert Culp, they all appeared in this film set in New York City. It was when the battle of the sexes was still fairly congenial, and near the end of the sway of Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies.

Adapted from a play, its roots sometimes show. After a meet cute and some classic romcom developments, it morphs into a farcical delight, with EIleen (the main character, played by Fonda) stumbling through unforeseen complications of her newly-declared liberation from restrictive mores.

It's light-hearted fun. And all of the actors are a joy to watch. Accompanying the action are the sophisticated musical stylings of Peter Nero as performer and composer. It's a nostalgic snapshot of romance in the final days of Kennedy's Camelot, before the angst of "The Graduate" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And it's a love letter to New York City.

One False Move
(1992)

Well-Crafted Crime Drama
After a gory, grisly start, this film turns into a riveting film about a desperate trio traversing the South to reach a small town called Star City. It should be mentioned that the early scenes are not gratuitous---they set a tone of gravity that pervades the film. And they define the characters in an unforgiving way, letting the viewer know exactly what they are capable of.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ray Malcolm, the man giving the orders as the desperados drive on. Bill Paxton is Dale Dixon, the sheriff of a dusty Arkansas bus stop who secretly wishes for crimes of more import to shake up his predictable life. As the three criminals head his way, Dixon is chaperoning Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeely (Earl Billings), two L. A. cops who have come to Star City to set up a welcome for Ray Malcolm and friends.

The plot is simple, really. But the film has the gritty feeling of authenticity and plenty of acting that is perfectly understated. As improbable as it sounds, the depiction of Star City and its environs is so captivating in its credibility that one almost wants to suspend the action, to better know the people who live in its diners and drugstores and backyards.

The final scene could have had a more impactful ending, but that is one minor criticism.

La Brea
(2021)

Ineffectual Effects
As everyone knows, the series opens with the appearance of a gaping sinkhole. I was impressed with the special effects used to create that terrifying image.

Basically, the series is about exploration and survival. A stranded group must cope with their surroundings and learn to adapt. In the course of their daily lives, they encounter various animals. Unfortunately, the downfall of the show is the less than cutting-edge depiction of those animals, which can take the viewer out of the story because of the distraction.

Gold Diggers of 1935
(1935)

Time Capsule and Treasure Trove
Director Busby Berkeley was truly an auteur, and nothing illustrates that better than "Gold Diggers of 1935". The big production number of the film demonstrates he was a director of big ideas, who was able to indulge his creative impulses. Sometimes he would over-indulge and focus on the scale of his creations, creating scenes where the film principals were small specs in a panorama of sets or extras. And he would include some scenes that were not compelling just to illustrate his ability to create those scenes.

But this film is not all production numbers. The story which encompasses the song and dance extravaganzas is about a hotel and the guests who stay there. It is rather like "Grand Hotel" but peppered with comedy gags and populated with eccentric characters.

One such character is T. Mosley Thorpe, played by Hugh Herbert---a rich man who is working on a comprehensive compendium of decorative snuff boxes. Because of his money, he is the target of unscrupulous women with designs on his fortune, with or without his romantic intentions.

The film is also a romance, primarily about Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) and Ann Prentiss (Gloria Stuart). Powell and Stuart display their vocal talents, especially when singing the catchy "I'm Goin' Shoppin' with You." The orchestrations are a highlight; they sound inspired by Gershwin's "Rhapsody".

Berkeley might have overreached with this film, but his lack of editing just gives us an even broader collection of memories from the "bawdy' thirties. This film almost defines the state of the art with regard to song, dance, and special effects.

Frozen in Love
(2018)

Ordinary Romance
No surprise, this Hallmark romance features a couple that seems incompatible at the beginning, but morphs into true love. Unfortunately, there is little chemistry throughout the film, so when they get together in the end, it feels somewhat false.

Rachael Leigh Cook plays Mary Campbell, a bookstore owner. Niall Matter plays Adam Clayborn, a professional hockey player. Their fortunes are joined when a PR firm tries to rehab both of their images concurrently. In the course of the campaign, each learns more about what they want from life.

The dialogue is not sparkling. The energy is not high. So, this romance deserves a lower score than the best of them.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
(1939)

Nancy Drew To The Rescue
Bonita Granville takes on the role of girl detective Nancy Drew one last time in this light-hearted mystery. According their father's will, two elder sisters must remain in the family house for twenty years to earn its title. But they get cold feet when their chauffeur turns up dead. This sounds like a case for the distaff detective and her reluctant sidekick, Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas).

Nancy runs rings around police chief Tweedy, uncovering clues and working her own line of speculation. The plot is feasible and the acting is up to the standards of this fare, but there is little feeling of peril, mainly because there is no persistently evil villain.

"Hidden Staircase" is an enjoyable lark and Bonita is perfect for such a story.

That Touch of Mink
(1962)

Love In The Early Sixties
Typical of the battle-of-the-sexes style of romantic comedies of its day, "That Touch of Mink" flirts with the mores and gender roles of the early sixties and, in the end, raises a white flag.

This one features Doris Day as Cathy Timberlake, an unemployed single woman who has the misfortune of being splashed by a passing car. In the car is Philip Shayne (Cary Grant), a charming tycoon who is immediately attracted to her. For her part, she falls for Philip like a ton of bricks, to the point of compromising her values...almost.

A tug-of-war of the heart ensues. Gig Young plays Philip's assistant who resents how well his employer treats him. That doesn't make much sense, but much of the plot borders on silliness.

We might wonder how the film would have fared with Doris' usual comedy mates---Rock Hudson as the love interest and Tony Randall as the meddling assistant---but it's the script that limits the success of the film. It short circuits the best efforts of the actors.

Watch for the brief appearance of three Yankee greats at the height of their careers.

A Mrs. Miracle Christmas
(2021)

Finding Holiday Happiness
Caroline Rhea plays Gloria Merkle aka Mrs. Miracle, who drops into the lives of a family grieving over two losses. It's the holiday season, but no one is feeling festive, but Mrs. Miracle may have the remedy for their malaise.

The cast does a nice job of portraying a family transitioning through turbulent emotions. Caroline Rhea likewise portrays a benevolent transformational force, holding the story together and keeping things light. The plot is somewhat predictable, but that's fine. This is a Hallmark dramedy with a story arc that satisfies. The film addresses the heartbreak of loss, and has some words of wisdom for anyone looking for relief.

Next Stop, Christmas
(2021)

An Enchanting Romance
Though there might be some minor plot holes in this time-bending Hallmark holiday romance, they are not enough to derail this imaginative reimagining of the "Groundhog Day" conceit, which begins with a train ride to yesteryear.

Lyndsy Fonseca stars as Angie, a neurosurgeon who finds the Christmas season less than enchanting. Christopher Lloyd plays a mysterious ticket agent who engineers a sidetrack off the path of Angie's life. She gains the opportunity to rework her life, learning lessons about love and family along the way.

The camera loves Lyndsy Fonseca and she projects an energetic authenticity that is winning. In fact, all the cast is enjoyable to watch. And they are given dialogue that feels real, not like some romances where every line feels canned.

This enchanting tale is worthy of watching and appreciating again and again.

Romance at Reindeer Lodge
(2017)

Enjoyable and Moving
This is one of the more enjoyable Hallmark holiday romances.

Molly (Nicky Whelan) is a workaholic who grudgingly has to take time off between Christmas and New Years. A mistake puts her on a flight to Vermont. When she meets Jared (Josh Kelly) along the way, they start out on the wrong foot. You can see where this is going, but the dialogue is good and the chemistry is strong.

The story is about finding real value in unexpected circumstances. And it leads to some tear-jerking scenes that celebrate belonging, romance, and enjoying life.

A strong supporting cast and beautiful scenery round out this production. I would enjoy a sequel.

The Misfits
(2021)

Sterile Badanage
An annoying voiceover is the worst feature of this film about an assemblage of criminals who see themselves as Robin Hood-esque characters. Each of them has a specific talent, but they lack a master criminal to act as the glue to their motley crew.

They try to recruit Richard Pace (Pierce Brosnan), who is a global thief with panache, but he prefers to remain a lone wolf.

Eventually, the story is about a heist. As heists go, this one feels loosely constructed. But it takes the story to Abu Dhabi, which is the best thing about the film. Striking scenery and sets provide a stunning backdrop, suitable for a Bond film.

Because all the characters are aloof and terminally cool, the cast is not asked to emote much.

Mame
(1974)

Lackluster Lucy Maims "Mame"
This much-maligned musical deserves all the rancor it receives, I am sorry to say. Maybe if they had dubbed the singing voice of Lucille Ball, it might have helped. Maybe.

I never really cared for the story of "Mame" or "Auntie Mame" or its source book, but when Rosalind Russell played the titular role, there was at least an integrity to the film just because of her commitment, embodying the extravagant role. Lucy walks stiffly through the part, where Rosalind floats through it, owning her surroundings.

The film's production values are top notch. Surprisingly, this only serves to magnify the misplacement of Ms. Ball. Where the fashions and the sets are luxurious, she, in contrast, feels owned by them, not the owner.

Composer Jerry Herman took some hits for this production, just as he did for "Hello Dolly!", about which Vincent Canby wrote, "The Jerry Herman score is generally so routine that it's difficult to distinguish between it and the (one) he wrote later for "Mame" . I disagree. His work for "Hello Dolly!" is head and shoulders above the score for "Mame".

But it all comes back to Ms. Ball, whose interpretation of the lyrics, if we can call it that, rivals few community theater performances.

Clash of the Cover Bands
(2021)

Fun To Watch
Tribute bands and musical impersonators compete in this show produced by Jimmy Fallon. Stephen Boss aka tWitch hosts this battle of groups and individuals who try to mimic the sounds and styles of their favorite artists.

Each episode features two acts who perform a song for the judges: Adam Lambert, Ester Dean, and Meghan Trainor. Afterwards, the judges offer their praise and criticism, suggesting training that might help each performer improve. After professional coaches work with the contestants, they return to the stage.

For their final performances, they alternate performing portions of songs by their artists. This allows the judges to compare them more easily, and it demonstrates mastery of multiple songs.

The quality of the show depends on the quality of the contestants. In the first two episodes, the performers are excellent. And the coaching does, in fact, improve the final performances.

That's Right - You're Wrong
(1939)

Charming Comedy
Bandleader Kay Kyser is an unlikely film star, but here they manage to tailor the script perfectly to his personality and talents. Which is ironic, since the plot is about movie producers having difficulty finding a story that fits his persona.

Kyser is energetic, enthusiastic and full of Middle American corn. He dances around a bandstand and handles punch lines like a pro. As testament to his talent, consider the section late in the film when they stage an entire radio quiz show and it is one of the best parts of the film.

The band and its singers provide a soundtrack that is very enjoyable. If you like big band music, like me you'll find yourself daydreaming about how much fun it would have been to attend one of their shows, either in an audience or on tour.

Ginny Simms deserves special mention for her mellifluous voice.

Look Who's Laughing
(1941)

Semi-Successful Comedy
This film pairs Fibber McGee and Molly with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Bergen holds up as fun entertainment, using Charlie as a separate entity who has his own contrary personality. Fibber and Molly, unfortunately, do not translate well from radio. No doubt radio "watchers" used to scream with anticipation whenever Fibber even thought about opening that closet, but on film it is as dull as a doorknob.

It's fun to see Lucille Ball, though she doesn't get to spread her comedy wings much in this role.

Too Hot to Handle
(1938)

Not One Of Their Best
It's a joy to watch Myrna Loy and Clark Gable play opposite each other, but this story about an aviatrix (Loy) and a newsreel photographer (Gable) leaves much to be desired, primarily due to its convoluted story.

Gable plays Chris Hunter, the globetrotting photog who competes against Bill Dennis (Walter Pidgeon) for the most sensational film clips. Dennis hires pilot Alma Harding (Loy) to fly a bogus mission of mercy so he can film it. From this point on, it's a free for all in love and business, especially since the characters seldom hold to the truth.

Halfway through, the film changes from a wisecracking romance to an adventure, as the two newshounds travel to the Amazon to rescue Alma's brother, who was presumably captured by cannibals. Don't look too closely or the gaping seams in this story will spoil the onscreen antics.

After this, Gable will star in "Gone with the Wind" and Loy will star in "Another Thin Man". And another. So better projects will soon follow.

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