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-

(781)

Holiday in the Wild (2019, Directed by Ernie Barbarash) English 5

Starring Kristen Davis, Rob Lowe, Fezile Mpela, John Owen, Colin Moss, Haley Owen, Faniswa Yisa

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(5-Okay Film)

Lowkey. Pleasant. Mediocre.

This lowkey romantic drama stars Kristin Davis as Kate Conrad, devoted mother, and socialite wife to a successful businessman, Drew, who asks for a divorce not long after their son departs for college. Left reeling, Kate travels to Zambia where she meets the handsome Derek (Lowe), a local pilot, and the two fall for each other over the course of her extended holiday as she, a former veterinarian, connects with the wildlife, specifically an elephant she helps rescue. I would say the film is way more passionate about animals and wildlife than it is about Christmas. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply that Holiday in the Wild didn’t make much of an impression on me as a Christmas film. It’s a perfectly pleasant but unspectacular hour-an-a-half. About what you would expect. I did like how low maintenance it was, eschewing the trumped-up drama of most films of its ilk.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(778)

The Princess and the Frog (2009, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) English 8

Voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jennifer Lewis, John Goodman, Michael Leon Wooley, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Lovely. Old-fashioned. Underappreciated.

       Traditional animation is a thing of the past for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The lovely, hand-drawn, two-dimensional work that made Disney famous (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella) has given way to three-dimensional computer animation, first achieved by Pixar (Toy Story), now taken up by just about every American animation studio including Disney itself. Ten years ago, around Christmas, saw the last time Disney released a big-budget 2-D animated flick, The Princess and the Frog, with the more modest release of Winnie the Pooh following 2 years later. Neither film proved a hit financially, though both were critically acclaimed. In the meantime, the computer-animated Disney films Tangled (2010), Wreck-it-Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), etc., each made at least $450 million worldwide, with Frozen going over a billion on its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing animated film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation). Does this demonstrate that people aren’t drawn to 2-D animation anymore? Has 2-D animation become like black-and-white photography? I don’t think so, though it’s hard to prove. I know it’s different cultures and demographics, but anime is more popular than ever. Your Name made over $350 million worldwide just 3 years ago. And I’ve never heard a kid complain about the animation of Snow White or Pinocchio or The Lion King the way most kids will complain if you try to get them to watch black-and-white classics. So traditional animation doesn’t appear to be “antiquated” in the same way as black-and-white filming.  It’s difficult to put my finger on just what did hold The Princess and the Frog back from becoming the global hit most other Disney princess movies are and I suspect the easy answers aren’t any good. For one thing, traditional animation was floundering for years before The Princess and the Frog. Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range had varying levels of success but I think it’s safe to say that each of them was disappointing in some way (either commercially or critically). Maybe it’s a case of guilt by association. The Princess and the Frog looks like those movies. Tangled is a huge success. Let’s stop making movies that look like the former and emulate the latter. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that The Princess and the Frog isn’t more appreciated or even seen, because it’s quite a film. It’s not on the level of Disney’s very best but I’d place it on that very next tier which is still pretty special.

The film begins with a quick glimpse at the modest but happy childhood of heroine, Tatiana (voiced by Rose), and then we flash forward many years to see her as a hard-working adult in 1920’s New Orleans trying to save up enough money to own a restaurant. Tatiana is black, making her the first black Disney princess (the only one to date), so from the very first minute, before we know if the film is any good, we know it’s important, and we hope that it’s good and worthy. I say Tatiana is a good role model for anyone watching. She doesn’t have time for much fun, as she sings in the film’s best song “Almost There,” but she’s not a shrew either. Then there is Prince Naveen (voiced by Campos), a cad, recently cut off from his parent’s money. He arrives in New Orleans with two choices: get a job or marry someone rich. His rogue heart is set on marrying someone rich. It’s noteworthy to me, and it’s one of my few quibbles with the movie, that Naveen is ethnically ambiguous, which is fine, but I really would have preferred a black prince. There’s some good to be found in portraying love between a mixed couple, certainly, but there are so few positive depictions of black males in the media in general that I believe an opportunity was missed. Anyways, Naveen gets mixed up with a local voodoo practitioner named Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David and it’s a great voice as anyone who’s seen Gargoyles will remember) and ends up a frog. If he doesn’t kiss a princess by a specific time, he’ll remain a frog for the rest of his life. Finding Tatiana at a costume party and mistaking her for a princess thanks to her costume, he convinces her to kiss him, but she winds up a frog as well. The two travel across the bayou looking for Madame Odie (voiced by Lewis), who might be there only chance at changing back.

As the first attempt by Disney to feature black characters in the lead, The Princess and the Frog is open to intense scrutiny. Maybe it suffered a bit from that, but most of what I’ve heard in the form of criticism is nonsense. I recall Paul Mooney complaining that Tatiana spends most of the film’s runtime as a frog. I say who cares, though that’s not much of a counter-argument. Also, there were questions about the Disney princess formula running out of steam. Perhaps The Princess and the Frog is too traditional. It’s classic formula through and through: princess, prince, music, villain, colorful side characters, animals. I love the formula and don’t think the formula will ever truly die. Tangled came out a year later and resurrected it while Frozen put to rest the idea of stopping Disney princess films for good. I don’t know why but The Princess and the Frog failed to surprise people and somehow Tangled and Frozen gave the impression of something completely new, despite all following that same formula. I happen to think The Princess and the Frog is better than Frozen while Tangled is the best of the three. The Princess and the Frog is one of the most beautifully animated films Disney’s ever produced. It has a cast full of great characters including a standout villain, great music by Randy Newman, and a fun story to get you from the opening credits to happily-ever-after. I suppose it will just have to settle for being underrated.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(776)

Nine Months (1995, Directed by Chris Columbus) English 5

Starring Hugh Grant, Julianne Moore, Robin Williams, Tom Arnold, Joan Cusack, Jeff Goldblum

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(5-Okay Film)

Mediocre. Overbearing. Manic.

Surprise! Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore are going to have a baby. The problem is Grant’s not sure he wants to be a father or even a husband for that matter. Written and directed by Chris Columbus, who worked a number of times with the great John Hughes, seems to strive for the latter’s ability to take mundane, middle-class situations and mine them for comedy. The zaniness, slightly over-the-top acting, annoying side characters, and eventual sentimentality are all hallmarks of Hughes’ work, so the ideas behind this romantic comedy could have worked. They just don’t. The jokes largely fall flat. The performances are overdone even for a comedy, and the annoying side characters are just annoying. Julianne Moore does a lovely job as the stoic centerpiece, but the film loses believability with its remaining cast, as talented as the actors are, and I would have greatly appreciated more Goldblum.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(775)

Artists and Models (1955, Directed by Frank Tashlin) English 7

Starring Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg

(7-Very Good Film)

Colorful. Zany. Fun.

Colorful, manic collaboration between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, this musical comedy marks the pair’s 14th film together. Martin plays a struggling comic artist who uses the dreams of his hapless roommate for material. Madness and romance ensue. I personally preferred Martin’s smooth crooning to Lewis’ over the top wackiness but Artists and Models is consistently fun and entertaining. Lots of beautiful women including Dorothy Malone and Shirley Maclaine is a plus.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(774)

The Lost Moment (1947, Directed by Martin Gabel) English 6

Starring Robert Cummings, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Joan Lorring, John Archer, Eduardo Ciannelli

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(6-Good Film)

Intriguing. Beguiling. Tame.

Ambitious publisher and privileged young man, Lewis Venable (Cummings), sees the opportunity of a lifetime when he hears about a series of love letters written by famed 19th-century poet Jeffrey Ashton. A professional tip (actually something a little shadier) leads him to an old mansion in Venice owned by the still living Juliana Bordereau (Moorehead), now over one-hundred years-old, who was Ashton’s lover during his time and the recipient of his letters. Venable assumes a fake identity in order to swindle Bordereau out of those letters but finds the house a dark place that holds more secrets than just the letters. There’s the beautiful Tina, Bordereau’s cold but alluring niece, for instance. In the vein of many old gothic chillers, The Lost Moment boasts lovely black and white photography to go with its memorable set pieces. Susan Hayward’s Tina is a fantastic and baffling femme fatale and Agnes Moorehead under heavy makeup is convincing as the ancient hag. I was left disappointed, however, in the main character who shifts too quickly from scoundrel to hero. Rather than go for something truly original and outrageous, the film plays it safe and ends on a pleasant note.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(771)

If You Could Only Cook (1935, Directed by William A. Seiter) English 7

Starring Herbert Marshall, Jean Arthur, Leo Carrillo, Lionel Stander, Frieda Inescort, Gene Morgan

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(7-Very Good Film)

Light. Charming. Attractive.

Out of the Great Depression came some of Hollywood’s most charming movies, If You Could Only Cook being a nice example, though at around 70 minutes and with a premise familiar to anyone who’s seen a romantic comedy, this film can hardly be considered complex. Herbert Marshall plays a rich, car designer named James Buchanan. Unhappily engaged to socialite golddigger, James meets a woman, Joan Hawthorne (Arthur), in the park who’s desperate to find employment. She laments that the only job available to her, private cook, requires her to have a husband who can work as butler. James, being intrigued by the young woman, decides to help, and the two, pretending to be married, unwittingly become servants for a gangster, Mike Rossini (Carrillo). This is a really lovely movie. One in which all the characters are lovable, even the gangsters. Jean Arthur is one of my favorite movie stars and Marshall, who I am less familiar with, is fantastic here.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(761)