State Fair (1945, Directed by Walter Lang) English 5

Starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, Vivian Blaine, Fay Bainter, Charles Winninger

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(5-Okay Film)

Idyllic. Sweet. Slight.

A small piece of Americana set to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein obviously has its appeal. State Fair follows the kindly Frake family as they prepare for the annual Iowa State Fair. The patriarch, Abel (Winninger), makes a wager with a neighbor that his prize pig will take top prize. His wife, “Ma” (Bainter), competes in the pickle and mincemeat competition. Their son, Wayne (Haymes), falls in love with a singer that seems to be giving him the runaround, and their daughter, Margy (Crain), has love problems of her own with a slick reporter named Pat (Andrews). It’s slice-of-life meets Hollywood fairy tale and as such, it’s suitably corny. That doesn’t bother me so much. I did feel, however, that State Fair is sweet but unspectacular.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Summer Stock (1950, Directed by Charles Walters) English 7

Starring Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven, Marjorie Main, Phil Silvers, Ray Collins

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(7-Very Good Film)

Familiar. Cozy. Joyful.

Judy Garland is a hardworking farm girl named Jane Falbury. One day, her vain, inconsiderate sister shows up with an acting troupe, unannounced, to rehearse and Jane reluctantly agrees to let them stay if they carry their weight on the farm. Jane meets Joe Ross (Kelly), her sister’s fiancée and the troupe’s director, and over the next several days, inconvenient as it is, the two fall in love. As with all classic MGM musicals, it’s not about being surprising as much as it is being spectacular. Summer Stock showcases two ultra-talented stars in Kelly and Garland with a handful of good numbers and a picturesque setting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Call Me Madam (1953, Directed by Walter Lang) English 6

Starring Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor, George Sanders, Vera-Ellen, Billy De Wolfe, Walter Slezak, Steven Geray

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(6-Good Film)

Enjoyable. Witty. Stagey.

Brash, wealthy socialite, Sally Adams (Merman), is appointed America’s ambassador to the tiny, fictional country of Lichtenburg. She takes with her an amiable, recently fired journalist, Kenneth Gibson (O’Connor), as her press attaché, and the two, while managing the political responsibilities of her job, both fall in love during their time in Lichtenburg-Sally with the country’s general, Cosmo (Sanders), and Kenneth with the Princess, Maria (Vera-Ellen). Based on a stage musical, the transfer to film still feels stagey much of the time, but the small cast of characters are strong and the dialogue is excellent. The main attraction, though, is O’Connor’s inspired dance numbers, particularly his drunken, balloon-popping number.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Little Drummer Boy (1968, Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass) English 7

Voices of José Ferrer, Greer Garson, June Foray, Teddy Eccles, Paul Frees

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(7-Very Good Film)

Nostalgic. Striking. Memorable.

One of Rankin and Bass’ Christmas classics told in their indelible stop-motion style, The Little Drummer Boy adapts the popular Christmas song of the same name and provides a little background. A young Jewish boy named Aaron lives only to play his drum. Swindled into joining a talentless traveling troupe leads Aaron ultimately to Bethlehem where he humbly plays his drum for the newborn baby Jesus. Like all of their specials, Rankin and Bass’ The Little Drummer Boy is one part creepy and two parts sweet, nostalgic, memorable, and a testament to their creativity. One of their best.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Donkey Skin (1970, Directed by Jacques Demy) French 7

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Delphine Seyrig, Jacques Perrin, Micheline Presle

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(7-Very Good Film)

Campy. Imaginative. Distinct.

Donkey Skin, as adapted by Jacques Demy, is a genuinely bizarre fairy tale. Based on a story by Charles Perrault (who also wrote Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty), I was unfamiliar with this one. A king (Marais) loses his wife (Deneuve) but promises just before her death to only remarry if the girl is more beautiful than her. Finding no one that qualifies for so long, the king eventually notices his daughter, the Princess (also Deneuve), has blossomed into the most beautiful girl in all the kingdom. Determined to produce a male heir, he demands his daughter’s hand in marriage. She responds by consulting a kind but mischievous witch, The Lilac Fairy (Seyrig), who has her wear the carcass of a magical donkey in order to escape a life as her father’s bride. Yes, it’s a strange tale told with relish. It’s a beautiful film to look at with Deneuve at its center in the most spectacular dresses, and like Demy’s other musicals, the soundtrack is lovely. There’s horror, beauty, humor, romance, fantastic creatures, lessons to be learned, songs to be sung. All expressed with Jacques Demy’s abundant imagination and a profusion of style, though, unlike some of Perrault’s other stories, Donkey Skin seems to lack any true depth.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Peter Pan (1953, Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske) English 6

Voices of Bobby Driscoll, Hans Conreid, Kathryn Beaumont, Bill Thompson, Heather Angel

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(6-Good Film)

Inventive. Spirited. Winsome.

A flying boy, with the help of his loyal friend and fairy, Tinker Bell, takes a trio of couped-up children to the magical, adventure-filled world of Neverland, where nobody ages. Peter Pan is an extraordinary story (by J.M Barrie) that has never translated into an extraordinary film. As nostalgic as Spielberg’s Hook is or as wonderfully animated as this, Disney’s 1953 version is, they lack the depth and the magic of Barrie’s original. Disney instead goes for pure adventure and succeeds on its terms. The animation is impressive, exciting, what-have-you. The designs of each character, especially Pan and Tinker Bell, are iconic. The story, however, loses something with very little time given to character development. It’s more about personalities than characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Holiday Inn (1942, Directed by Mark Sandrich) English 8

Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, Marjorie Reynolds, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers, Irving Bacon

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Endearing. Sparkling. Consummate.

Glossing over a couple of benign, but still problematic scenes involving blackface, Holiday Inn is a fantastic musical.  You can’t do better than Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Irving Berlin together. Crosby plays Jim Hardy, a showbiz veteran who’d like a simpler life for himself and his wife-to-be, Lila, living on a farm in quiet Connecticut. Then, Lila runs off with his dance partner, Ted Hanover (Astaire), and his farm turns out to be a lot of work. Time passes and Jim gets a new idea. A themed-based hotel only open on holidays complete with complimentary music shows. Working to put it together, he gets the lovely, talented Linda Mason (Reynolds) to work for him, but Ted, already kicked to the curb by Lila, has plans to lure Linda away. Great music, dancing (Astaire’s drunk number is incredible), shimmering black-and-white photography, and impressive sets. Holiday Inn puts on an outstanding show.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Frozen 2 (2019, Directed by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck) English 5

Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jeremy Sisto, Ciarán Hinds, Alan Tudyk

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(5-Okay Film)

Dim. Joyless. Meandering.

When it comes to film, it’s not that I necessarily enjoy going against the grain of popular opinion. I just don’t mind it. I’m confident, assured, not that my opinion is right, but that my opinion is honest and fair.  Untainted by malice or lurking variables. I go into every theater wanting to like what I’m watching. I don’t prepare my headlines beforehand (unlike many professional critics for Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto). I don’t formulate my bottom-line until after the credits roll, usually a day or two after. At the same time, my feelings about a film ten minutes into watching it are typically pretty close to my feelings after its finish. Ten minutes into watching Frozen 2, I was bored and waiting for Disney’s latest to kick it into high gear. For me, it never did. Some may appreciate the darker-toned adventure tale. I think Frozen 2 feels more like a spinoff than a sequel. Better yet, a series of deleted scenes from the first that are inessential but intriguing if you’re a massive fan of Anna and Elsa. I am not. I liked Frozen. I liked Frozen 2 less.

It starts off with Anna and Elsa as children, told their family’s history by their father and mother. Through the latter pair’s epic story, we learn of King Runeard, Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, of a distant land known as Northuldra, of a foreign people who befriended the knights of Arendelle and who wield the magic power to control the elements (water, air, fire, earth). At this point, I wistfully thought of Avatar: The Last Airbender and much of the intrigue Frozen 2 attempted to create blew past me. Fast forward to after the events of the first Frozen and Christoff contemplates how he’s going to propose to Anna. Olaf and Sven have become like members of the royal family. All is good in Arendelle and yet when Elsa continues to hear voices, she sets off on a journey to “discover the truth about the kingdom’s past.” I find this to be a pretty abstract goal for characters to pursue in an adventure film (rainbows need gold at the end, not secrets), let alone a family movie. If you are going to shape an epic quest about discovering a secret, it better be mind-blowing. Frozen 2’s secret would be elementary for Dr. Watson. There are only 2 options. Someone started the feud between Arendelle and Northuldra. Forget spoilers, it’s either someone from Arendelle or Northuldra. Frozen 2 hides its simple mystery in convoluted plot construction. At no point was I 100% sure what the characters were striving for or where they were going. I hoped that the movie would get more entertaining once they got there.

Elsa really becomes the focal point this time around and, out of fairness, let me disqualify myself a bit here. She’s incredibly popular, but I’m uninterested in Elsa unless she’s singing me a song. I was uninterested in her angst and now that that is gone, she is even less interesting. How would you describe her character? It was okay when she was a supporting character to point to “Let It Go” as character development, but now that we’ve come to the sequel and she’s the star, I need more. They give less. She’s a moth chasing a flame the entire story. All of the interesting stuff online written about Elsa lives in the world of fan-fiction. She’s a queer icon, for example. You could say that Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmations or Merida from Brave are lesbians if you wanted to, but even if you don’t, they have other characteristics. Elsa’s nothing if she’s not a queer icon. They might as well have made it explicit (the implication, not the content obviously). Or would that be implicit? Whatever the case, she doesn’t do anything in this movie to deserve that admiration from part of the gay community.

The other characters are much stronger. Anna is an incredibly likable heroine, though she spends most of the film trying to follow Elsa and they’re both just plot devices in this sequel. Christoff, Sven, and Olaf provide the movie its only sense of fun, humor, and character motivation.

The animation is naturally first-rate. Disney is a first-rate animation studio. They have an insane amount of money and resources to work with and they didn’t skimp on Frozen 2. I wouldn’t suggest either that the filmmakers or actors mailed it in. Frozen 2 takes chances in abandoning any past template used for a Disney Princess picture (although maybe it’s a little similar to Moana). It seems more inspired by superhero origins stories than past Disney movies, but I’ll say the same thing I said about Moana and Brave. If there’s no romance and no villain then I’m probably bored. I honestly spent the first half of its running time thinking that the main plot hadn’t started yet. And I don’t have much to say about the soundtrack except that I won’t be buying it.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Bye Bye Birdie (1963, Directed by George Sidney) English 7

Starring Ann-Margret, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Janet Leigh, Ed Sullivan, Jesse Pearson, Maureen Stapleton

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(7-Very Good Film)

Fun. Satirical. Memorable.

Inspired by the national obsession with Elvis at the time, Bye Bye Birdie goes from stage to film, adapting its story about a teen idol named Conrad Birdie (Pearson) who gets drafted into the military. His almost psychotic fan base made up of young women is devastated but so is Albert Peterson (Van Dyke), a struggling songwriter whose breakthrough in selling a song is undone by the news. Albert’s loyal girlfriend, Rosie (Leigh), concocts a scheme that might turn things around for him though. Birdie will perform a final time on The Ed Sullivan Show, before kissing one lucky fan, Kim (Margret). Maybe Conrad will sing Albert’s song after all. I didn’t fully understand how Rosie’s scheme came together. She seemed to have better connections than makes sense. I also felt the director or the producers maybe had a massive crush on Ann-Margret. It’s understandable but hurt the overall film to a degree. She’s excellent in her role and a star but so are Van Dyke and Janet Leigh who get short-changed. Besides, by focusing so much on her, the story which should really be an ensemble show becomes too episodic. That doesn’t stop it from being entertaining. There are a number of great scenes and musical numbers in Bye Bye Birdie. Conrad Birdie’s “Honestly Sincere” is my favorite. All in all, it’s a top-notch show.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Cover Girl (1944, Directed by Charles Vidor) English 6

Starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Otto Kruger, Eve Arden, Lee Bowman, Jess Barker

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(6-Good Film)

Grand. Skilled. Lacking.

Chorus girl, Rusty Parker (Hayworth), has a decent job and a boyfriend, Danny McGuire (Kelly), she loves dearly but can’t help but aspire for more. An opportunity to pose for Vanity magazine comes her way and she makes the most of it, but her newfound success puts a strain on her relationship with Danny. Like most if not all of the old, classic Hollywood musicals, this is a well-crafted, staged, and performed picture. The technicolor cinematography is bright and appealing and there are a number of inspired musical numbers. The story, on the other hand, is less inspired. Most romantic musicals are hackneyed to some degree but there’s not enough happening in Cover Girl that’s compelling. Danny and Rusty already love each other at the start of the film so they’re kind of boring as the story moves on.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-