Midnight in Paris (2011)

Film #19: Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in Paris is, impressively enough, Woody Allen’s 41st film. A three-and-a-half minute opening montage of Paris leads the viewer to believe that this will be a heartfelt dedication to the City of Love, similar to how Allen’s 1979 classic Manhatten was a love letter to New York. Although the film does make a point that Paris is a magical place, and protagonist Gil (played by Owen Wilson as Woody Allen’s proxy) is, indeed, infatuated with the city, Midnight‘s sentimental story has more commentary about nostalgia than anything else, along with Allen’s ever-present self-awareness of art and the artist.


When in Rome (2010)

After seeing Legion the previous week , I was thankful that, statistically, it was unlikely that I’d have to endure anything completely awful so very soon afterward. Unfortunately for me, I hit the horrible movie jackpot, and for the second week in a row I saw a movie that wasn’t worth the celluloid it was printed on.

When in Rome is a romantic comedy starring Kristen Bell as an overworked woman who winds up in Rome for her sister’s wedding. While there, she takes some coins from the fountain of love, thus making the original owners of the coins fall in love with her. Meanwhile, she struggles with her feelings for a charming guy she met at the wedding played by Josh Duhamel.


Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Everyone Says I Love You is Woody Allen’s entry to the musical genre. It knows it is; the narration recognizes it early on. That’s just one part of this movie’s reflexivity on the musicals genre, and as a film that’s part homage and part satire, it works exceedingly well.


(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Last week I watched (500) Days of Summer. I’ve heard a lot about this, and everyone around me seemed to adore the movie. I remember wanting to see it when it came out, but I never got around to it. Now I finally did. And I was a bit underwhelmed.

Maybe it’s because I had seen almost all of the first third of the movie in previews and review shows. Maybe it’s because although I think Zooey Deschanel is cute, I don’t think she’s the most attractive and endearing girl in the universe like some people do. I don’t know.

I enjoyed some of the aspects of the movie. The framing device is of course very cool and interesting. I love when movies aren’t chronological, and this is no exception. It provides a perfect means of comparing different points in a relationship. Other specific points that I heartily enjoyed were the music and dance sequence in the park, and the expectations vs. reality side-by-side part. These were all really interesting and captivated me for their entire duration.

But somewhere near the beginning of this movie, I was removed from a loving standpoint. This is an “Indie” style movie, not only in means of its production but also its genre. It’s true that “Indie” has taken a certain connotation now that stands separate from the related grouping of “independent” movies. They’re movies like Juno, where there’s indie music heavily featured, quirky characters who speak quirkily, and lots of drawn title cards and frames.

I’m not a fan of typical indie dialogue. It’s almost like it’s trying too hard to be unique and witty, and I feel like it ends up being very unnatural. That’s one of the major turn-off points of this movie for me. Even though my current relationship had some very strong parallels to the beginning of the filmic one, I just couldn’t believe that people behaved and talked this way. Maybe I don’t have cool, indie enough friends. Truth is, maybe I don’t want to.

I also wasn’t a fan of Deschanel’s Summer character. She just seemed cold and aloof, and I couldn’t see why Joseph Gordon-Levitt was so infatuated with her. Gordon-Levitt, by the way, does do a great job. He’s a strong leading actor that shows he can carry a movie, and he brings a nice breath of fresh air to a romantic comedy with an emotional yet grounded and reliable character.

In the end, I probably would have enjoyed this movie a lot more had I not seen so much of it before actually seeing the movie. Because of my pre-exposure to it, I ended up feeling like the dialogue was weak, and characters like Summer and the younger sister were just annoying. It still has a good story, a strong framing device, and enough cinematic tricks to keep you interested the entire duration, however. I just wish I could have loved it as much as everyone else did.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse

West Side Story (1961)

Last week I watched West Side Story for my class on musicals here at U of M. I still have the mixed meter rhythm of America stuck in my head.

So I’ve never seen this movie, but of course I knew a lot about it. Somehow, I knew that it had won 10 Academy Awards, more than any other musical, yet I missed the fact that it was a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. Oh well, I found it out soon enough, and away with this two and a half hour movie I went.

I’ll say right upfront that the length was a slight problem for me. It’s not that I don’t like long movies – some of the longer movies I’ve seen have also been some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. But the problem with West Side Story is that its length feels enhanced by the inclusion of a few slow and honestly boring songs that just sap the pace for me. Maybe it’s a personal distaste for slow songs, but I could have done without the three or four Tony/Maria songs (except for Tonight).

Besides that, there’s not too many bad things to say about the movie. Granted, the movie depicts gangs who do group plies while they patrol their street, but you just have to get over the fact that these are not your average Greasers. It’s like Danny Zuko and the T-Birds met up with the seven brothers with seven brides, and they all gave and took a little. No, I wouldn’t be afraid of Riff or Baby John either, but it’s a musical adapted from Broadway, so you just have to deal with it.

And once you do you can enjoy the hell out of yourself. You’ll definitely recognize at least three songs from the movie that you’d heard before but didn’t know their origins. The music in this film, done by Leonard Bernstein, is fantastic and catchy. Even the music that is just background or scored, without words, is some great jazzy riffs that really carry the film.

The story, adapted from one of the greatest storytellers of all time, is of course solid. The plethora of characters each carve out their own niche and make themselves memorable in their own way. Despite being made in the less-than-progressive year of 1961, I feel as though the film at least tries to offer a balanced view of the racial tension that makes its plot.

The direction and cinematography is what really did it for me, though. I don’t know who did more work, Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but the end result is a beautiful collection of shots that combine stasis and playful angles. It made the movie at least three times more enjoyable than a dull, standard shot/reverse shot fare would have provided.

I really enjoyed this movie, though it might not be for people who have a hard time watching old hokey movies or for people who don’t enjoy musicals. The length could also serve as a problem, but since the entirety of the movie is filled with fantastic music and great performances, it feels justified when you finish the film. West Side Story deserves its status as one of the greatest musicals of all time, and I feel enriched for having finally seen it.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate is a musical made the same year as Easter Parade and featuring Judy Garland as well. The male star of The Pirate is Gene Kelly instead of Easter Parade’s Fred Astaire. These are two different musicals legends who had different ideas on how a musical should be. A comparison of the two looking at only 1948 would probably see Astaire as the victor, because The Pirate is a bad movie.

The film opens with Garland reading from a picture book about Mack the Black, a pirate who raids villages and steals women. Of course, the strong female character that she is, Garland wishes for a time when she, too, could be kidnapped and taken away by a man who would undoubtedly beat her while killing people and stealing things. Instead, Garland is set to be wed to a porcine mayor who is ready to settle down and not travel. Luckily for her, Gene Kelly is a traveling actor who may lack enough sense to get involved.

Kelly always plays individuals who are super-masculine and quite brash, but The Pirate takes it to a whole new level. Kelly claims that there are too many beautiful women with too many names, so he calls them all Niña – resulting in one of the most uninventive and obnoxious songs I’ve heard in a musical, whose only saving grace is its wordless dancing near the end. Kelly’s character lies and deceits to get close to Garland, and when she finds out she hurls objects at his head repeatedly. Yet, a moment later, she is at his side, singing “You Can Do No Wrong” to him. This flip-flop that comes out of nowhere is only one of the eyeroll-inducing moments of this movie that prevent you from writing off its stupidity as being a product of the times.

The two aforementioned songs are quite unenjoyable. Another, “Be a Clown”, is all right and actually features a great dance from Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers, two black dancers whose scenes were cut when the film aired in some Southern states. But “Be a Clown” will already be familiar to those who have seen “Singin’ in the Rain” – although it’s true that “Singin'” came later and practically stole The Pirate’s song, its familiarity still brings it down a notch. The only song left that I enjoyed is “Mack the Black”; it’s a pretty catchy tune, and features Garland at the most sensuous I’ve ever seen her.

I’d like to take this opportunity to confess that I think Judy Garland is a bad actress. Which is not to say I don’t like her – I think she’s cute and endearing. I still would never trust her with any dramatic material, and I don’t think she has a good range of emotions to display.

The film has long takes of well-choreographed dancing, and that’s about the only thing I can truly compliment. The dances aren’t the most exciting or original, but they are high-energy.

The rest of the film is cheap and thoughtless. You can see the strings behind the production at least twice, once when Garland’s hat is “blown” off, and again when Kelly walks a “tightrope” to her window. There’s also a very strange sequence in which Garland imagines herself as a donkey that Kelly is dancing around… I can’t even being to analyze that, and it just served to further irritate me.

I can’t recommend this movie to anyone except the most die-hard fans of musicals, Gene Kelly, or Judy Garland. It might have been an entertaining flick back in the days, but its triteness and overt sexism doesn’t stand up today.

Final Rating: 3/10

–James A. Janisse

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat is one of the most famous musicals of all time, and possibly the most acclaimed of the ten movies that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. I personally first learned of the film through its inclusion in The Green Mile, which I had seen when I was much younger. I had always been interested in the film that spawned the “Cheek to Cheek” number, and since then I’ve seen Top Hat a few times.

As film critic Alonso Duralde once told me, watching an Astaire and Rogers movie for plot will only result in heartache. I’d be willing to say that that goes for most movies made during this time, when studios had solidified their movie-churning process and nothing was allowed to be too original. Therefore, I feel like it’s best to look at the movie for what it’s really showcasing – the musical abilities of its two leads, the unmatchable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In that regard, Top Hat is excellent. The musical numbers just seem to get better and better. No Strings (I’m Fancy Free) is usual Astaire goodness, where he makes sure to utilize the furniture around him as part of his dance. His sand tap dancing to put Rogers asleep is also a nice touch, both interesting and somewhat romantic. Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain) is enjoyable because Rogers gets to match Astaire in his dance steps under a gazebo.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails is a fantastic number. Although it uses more than one shot, which went against Astaire’s philosophy on dance sequences, it includes him using his cane as a prop to a marvelous degree. It becomes a rifle that he tap-shoots his backup dancers with, and the whole thing is both humorous and impressive. Cheek to Cheek is of course possibly the best known song that Astaire and Rogers ever performed together, and it’s not hard to see why. The lyrics are as sweet as anything you could imagine, and their dancing together is exemplary of top-notch class. This is also the instance of Rogers’ feather dress which would gain her the nickname “Feathers” to Astaire for the rest of their career, and which would be referenced in Astaire’s Easter Parade.

The Piccolino is admittedly a nonsense song with subpar lyrics, but the big dance number makes up for it, and to be fair, it was really just an exercise at rhyming an unusual word. With that in mind, it’s not so horrible a tune, and serves as an adequate finale to the film.

Unfortunately, I am unable to praise this film as flawless and perfect. It would be dishonest of me to not admit that the plot had me irritated. I understand that the comical mishap of ascribing a wrong identity to someone may not have been overdone when this movie came out, but nowadays such a thing is more than trite, and the entirety of the plot relies on it. It’s very contrived, and you realize that the entire ordeal would be solved if the characters were just able to better communicate. I couldn’t stand that Rogers mistook Astaire to be her friend’s husband for almost the entire picture. It was such a weak foundation to a silly storyline.

I also wasn’t a fan of the butler character Bates, who was inconsistent and unnecessarily flamboyant. Alberto Beddini was played by Eric Rhodes, who very obviously wasn’t Italian, and the result is one of the worst accents I’ve ever heard in filmic history. These weak and sometimes annoying characters, combined with the questionable plot, are weakpoints to a film that has otherwise survived its 75 year age to remain relevant.

If you can bring yourself to ignore such inconvenient deficiencies, the musical numbers will not disappoint. Astaire and Rogers are possibly at their finest here, showcasing their dancing and musical skills and proving why, 70 years later, we all still know and love their names, and why 70 years from now they’ll remain just as relevant.

Final rating: 7.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade is the only film with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, and it’s your standard musical fare, lively and saccharine with little character development but interesting dance numbers.