Top Hat

  • Title:  Top Hat
  • Director:  Mark Sandrich
  • Date:  1935
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick
  • Words and Music:  Irving Berlin
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Oh, that call wasn’t for me, it was for you. Somebody has registered a complaint.” – Horace Hardwicke (Edward Everett Horton)
“I know! I’ve just seen the complaint and she’s lovely, she’s delightful, she’s charming, and she wants to sleep.” – Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire)

“May I rescue you?” – Jerry
“No thank you. I prefer to be in distress.” – Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers)

“You want this show to last two nights? Get me a plane, now!” – Jerry
“What kind of plane?” – Horace
“One with wings!” – Jerry

Top Hat  is a a romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, and music! Like any farce, it’s the type of plot that would be resolved in five minutes if anyone in the cast actually talked to each other for five minutes, rather than making assumptions. But that’s not really a negative – because it’s light, frothy romance with no harsh realities at all. The sets are marvelously art deco and beautiful – especially the Venice hotel with it’s waterways and boats.

The story begins in London, with Jerry Travers waiting in a very quiet English gentleman’s club for his friend Horace. The club is one where Silence Must Be Observed at all times, and everyone stares at Jerry when he drops something, or turns the page of his newspaper. Horace finds Jerry, starts to talk to him, then realizes where he is, and urges Jerry to leave so they can talk. Just as he’s leaving, Jerry does a quick tap dance on the floor simply to annoy everyone – and as a joke.

Horace takes Jerry to his hotel, Jerry – excited about seeing Horace, and their new show, begins tapping in his hotel room (“No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”) – waking up the young woman in the hotel suite below. She calls to complain to the manager. Horace takes the call, gets confused, and goes down to the hotel desk to tell the manager he doesn’t want a young woman in his hotel room because it wouldn’t be proper. Meanwhile, Dale goes to the hotel suite and complains. Dale doesn’t introduce herself – and Jerry’s so taken with her, he doesn’t introduce himself either. This proves to actually be a very important part of the plot.

The next day, Jerry goes to the hotel flower shop and orders that all the flowers be sent to Ms. Tremont’s room (by room number) – then charges the very expensive bill to Horace by his room number.

Horace, afraid that Dale might be a “designing woman” sets his valet, Bates, to following her. This is another part of the plot that’s considerably more important than it seems. Horace also warns Jerry off, telling him about a woman he met called Violet who took advantage of him.

Meanwhile, we learn Dale is a social model. A dress designer named Alberto Belleni pays her to wear his dresses, so her friends will see them, ask about them, and he will get more contracts to design dresses and sell more of his designs. But, since he’s financially supporting her – this is something not good for Horace to find out as he’d get the wrong idea. Dale is also close friends with his wife, Madge.

Jerry tries to meet Dale again, she rebuffs him – mentioning she’s going for a ride in the park. Jerry gives her a ride to her lesson in the park, and again tries to get her interested in him without luck. During her ride, Dale gets caught in the rain. She shelters in a gazebo. Jerry arrives and tries to calm her down by telling her a story about clouds. He then sings “Isn’t it a Lovely Day? (To get Caught in the Rain)” to her, and the two dance in partner tap. Ginger is wearing jodphur-pants. Fred and Ginger also mirror each other beautifully when dancing. At the end of their dance the two sit down on the edge of the raised gazebo platform – and shake hands. It’s a gesture between partners.

Later at the hotel, Ginger asks the concierge to point out Horace. The concierge points to “the man with the briefcase and cane” on the walkway. But Horace runs into Jerry and hands him his briefcase and cane – thus making Dale think he’s her friend Madge’s husband. This type of thing continuously happens – Dale keeps thinking that Jerry is Horace, and thus her friend’s husband and a terrible cad to boot.

Jerry is in the middle of his show, changing between acts, when Horace reads his wife’s telegram and finds out she and Dale are heading off to Venice. Jerry insists they hire a charter plane and go to Venice as well.

The production number, part of Jerry’s show, is “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” which has Astaire dancing with a chorus of men in formal wear. During the dance he “shoots” the men with his cane. His short tap dancing routine gets a standing ovation from the audience.

In Venice, Dale meets up with Madge, and they meet the sea plane – but Dale isn’t there when Madge says hello to Jerry – whom Madge actually wants to set-up with Jerry.  The hotel is full – so Horace and Jerry end up sharing the bridal suite, while Madge and Dale share their own suite.

Bellani, thinking that Horace has designs on Dale confronts him, but Horace has no idea what’s going on.

Dale talks to Madge about her husband’s flirting. Madge says she knows he flirts, but it doesn’t mean anything. Dale decides to “teach him a lesson” and goes to his room to throw herself at him – and again runs into Jerry. Jerry turns the tables and flirts back.

Later, at dinner, Madge, Jerry, and Dale meet – but no introductions are made, as Dale insists she knows who Jerry is (she still thinks he’s Madge’s husband Horace). Fred and Ginger dance to “Cheek to Cheek”, with Ginger in the beautiful, floaty, feather dress. It’s ballroom dance that begins with the two in the midst of a crowded dance floor, and moves to the two dancing on a patio that resembles an even bigger version of the gazebo from earlier. There is also some side by side and partner tap, with the two mirroring each other beautifully. But when Jerry proposes – Dale thinks he’s Madge’s husband, and slaps him.

Alberto Belleni flirts with Dale, and proposes to her. She accepts him but insists they must be married immediately.

Jerry, in a last ditch effort to get Dale to listen to him has Horace distract Belleni, and goes to talk to Dale. He takes her on a boat ride on the water – and finally explains who he is.

Meanwhile, Bates reports to Horace that Dale and Jerry are drifting out to sea. Horace, Madge, and Belleni go off in a boat to “rescue” Dale and Jerry.

Dale and Jerry return, happy at last, but concerned about her quick marriage and how to dissolve it. Dale rushes off. Bates tells Jerry that Madge, Horace, and Belleni went off in a boat from which he’d “removed the gasoline” while disguised as a gondolier. The local police arrest Bates for his impersonation.

There is a production number instrumental of “The Piccolino”, which starts with Bugby Berkeley-styled dancers. Then the camera changes to a much happier Dale singing “The Piccolino” to Jerry. Then the perspective switches back to the elaborate production number.

Fred and Ginger dance – tap and ballroom, mirroring each other in tap. Their dance is full frame and uncut. Ginger’s dress is sparkly with a trumpet skirt. They dance back to their table, saluting each other with champagne glasses.

Horace, Madge, and Belleni return. That Horace is Madge’s husband is confirmed, as is the blossoming romance between Dale and Jerry. Just as everyone is wondering what they will do, Bates arrives and states he had been following Dale everywhere, and he had earlier disguised himself as a clergyman by turning his collar around. Belleni states, “But you were the one who married us!” Dale responds, “Then we were never really married!” And she rushes off in Jerry’s arms!

List of Musical Numbers

  • No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)
  • Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain)?
  • Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
  • Cheek to Cheek
  • The Piccolino

Top Hat  is a simple, romantic comedy – fueled by mistaken identities, coincidences, and misunderstandings, where, of course, in the end – everything works out. But it features some of Irving Berlin’s best songs and Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s best dances. The sets, especially the boats in the waterway, are wonderful – and the Art Deco just shines. The dances are filmed full-frame and often without cuts. Certainly, there’s no cuts to faces and feet – which means one can follow the dance and focus on Fred and Ginger’s artistry. There are two ensemble production numbers – Fred’s tap dance with a male chorus, which is part of the show he’s been hired for as a professional dancer; and “The Piccolino”. “The Piccolino” is a wonderful production number – but it seems out of place in Tap Hat. It starts as a elaborate production number, switches to show Ginger singing, switches back to a production number, then switches a fourth time to Fred and Ginger dancing. The production part is full of fast cuts, and elaborate patterns, using ribbons. In short, it looks like a Bugsy Berkeley musical. But when “The Piccolino” focuses on Fred and Ginger dancing together, it becomes one of their signature-style dances – shown full frame, in a single shot without cuts, with Fred and Ginger both tap dancing (briefly) and ballroom dancing. So overall, though very elaborate, it works.  Top Hat is one of my favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, along with Swing Time and Shall We Dance. For many, it is the quintessential film for the pair.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Truman Show

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To Catch a Thief

  • Title:  To Catch a Thief
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1955
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Action, Romance, Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Brigitte Auber
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I stole once, a long time ago, I went to jail.” – John Robie (Cary Grant)
“I know. The Germans bombed the prison and you all escaped, joined the Underground, and became heroes.” – Danielle
“I joined because I wanted to make-up for some of the things I’d done. I’ve never stolen since.” – Robie

“You’re here in Europe to buy a husband, huh?” – Robie
“The man I want doesn’t have a price.” – Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly)
“Well, that eliminates me.” – Robie

“John, Why bother?” – Frances
“It’s sort of a hobby of mine, the truth.” – Robie

A series of daring jewel robberies rocks France, specifically the resort communities of the French Rivieria. The police immediately suspect John Robie, a retired jewel thief once known as The Cat. Robie decides the only way he will be able to prove his innocence is to catch the thief himself.

Robie meets HH Hughson, an insurance broker from Lloyd’s of London. His company has insured many of the stolen jewels, so he has a vested interest in finding the jewels so his company doesn’t have to pay the claims. Robie convinces him to give him a list of potential targets. Hughson is a bit dubious, but agrees.

Robie then meets up with Jessie Stevens and her daughter Frances (Francie). Mrs. Stevens is widowed and extremely rich after oil was discovered on her husband’s small Texas ranch. She’s also loud, uncultured, rude, and obnoxious. Her daughter, Frances, has benefited from her mother’s money, having attended a European “finishing school”, and traveled the world. Frances is a bit spoiled, and very bored with her life of travel and suitors after her money. Robie and Frances immediately have an attraction.

Meanwhile, Robie had first gone to the restaurant of his friends from the French Underground movement, but they are convinced he’s guilty and has gone back to his jewel-stealing ways. The only person from his previous life who thinks he’s either innocent, or it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, is Danielle – the wine steward’s daughter, who flirts shamelessly with Robie – despite being young enough to be his daughter.

The story is told somewhat episodically, against the backdrop of seaside France. The tale alternates between the romantic encounters between John and Frances (swimming at the beach, a wild car ride ending in a romantic picnic, even the tour of a villa) and Danielle’s flirting with John, and John’s attempts to find the thief.

Robie also receives threatening notes at his hotel – which tell him to lay off his search. He misses one robbery entirely, because he is concentrating on the Stevens. He then goes to investigate a villa he’s been staking out for several nights, despite getting a second note that tells him to stay away. He finds the wine steward, dead. The police report to the newspapers, this is The Cat. But Robie goes to the police and points out the steward had a wooden leg, it would have been impossible for him to climb on rooftops. The steward is also Danielle’s father – and when he shows up at the funeral, Danielle accuses him of murder.

Robie then decides to set a trap of his own. He knows that an upcoming costume ball will be a perfect opportunity for The Cat to strike. He goes to the ball with Mrs. Stevens and Frances, and the police attend as well. He and Hughson switch places, and while Hughson dances the night away with Frances, Robie waits for The Cat. His gambit pays off and he catches the real thief – Danielle.

To Catch a Thief  is a lavish production, very colorful and big (the film as a 1:85:1 ratio, despite being shot on 35mm film). Cary Grant is in fine form, and Grace Kelly is brilliant as Frances. But the film has always felt very slow to me. Still, if you’ve never seen it – it is a must-see, a classic film of romantic suspense.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Tomorrow Never Dies

The Thomas Crown Affair

  • Title:  The Thomas Crown Affair
  • Director:  John McTiernan
  • Date:  1999
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Romance, Action
  • Cast:  Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Faye Dunaway
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Regret is usually a waste of time. As is gloating. Have you figured out what you’re gonna’ say to your board when they learn that you paid me $30 Million more than others were offering?” – Thomas Crown

“It’s obvious that you like men, but you never keep any of them around very long, either.” – Thomas Crown
“Oh, well, men make women messy.” – Catherine

“You really think there’s happy ever after for people like us?” – Catherine

The Thomas Crown Affair is a fun, romantic, romp – in both senses of the word – romance. Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) is a very successful and rich businessman who has made his multi-billion dollar fortune by acquiring other businesses, then selling them off. The realities of such a source of income aren’t explored – basically, he’s rich, successful, lonely, and bored.

Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) is a highly successful insurance investigator and bounty hunter. She makes her considerable fortune collecting a portion of the recovery fee from high stakes art theft recovery.

Michael McCann (Denis Leary) is a cop, who – we find at the end of the film – would rather work homicides, or help abused women and kids then worry about a multi-million dollar art theft.

The film opens with Crown starring at a painting of haystacks in the Impressionist wing of a large unnamed art museum in New York. He apparently does this a lot, as one of the museum guards recognizes him and the two also make small talk. Meanwhile, the loading dock workers are surprised when a large crate is delivered. They are expecting an Egyptian sarcophagus, but instead a large Greek horse sculpture was delivered instead. Soon, a group of men break out of the horse and attempt to steal paintings from the museum. They are caught, but an investigation quickly indicates that a Monet, worth $100,000 million dollars is now missing from the museum. The Monet will be the McGuffin of the film – it also brings together the main characters.

Leary’s Mike McCann, is a tough, wisecracking, swearing, New York City cop who would rather investigate a murder or do anything else other than investigate an art theft. But he’s called in, and his initial sweep of the Impressionist wing, isn’t successful – either in finding the missing Monet, nor in understanding how the crime occurred or what the thieves were trying to accomplish. But even Mike, appreciates the slightly twisted humor of the Trojan Horse being used to gain access to the museum.

During his initial investigation, Catherine arrives. Much more experienced in investigating art thefts – she corrects nearly every assumption Mike’s made. They spark some. It’s Catherine, who realizes that the showy and unsuccessful attempted theft was a distraction, so the Monet could be stolen by someone else – and she and Mike immediately suspect Crown.

The resulting cat-and-mouse game has Catherine and Mike attempting to catch Crown and get the Monet back. This is complicated by Crown’s romantic pursuit of Catherine. Mike sees Crown’s interest as a way for him to keep her off-balance so he doesn’t get caught. Mike is also jealous of Crown – not necessarily simply his money and success, but he would like to become romantically involved with Catherine himself – though he knows she wouldn’t be interested in a plain, blue-collar, cop like him, especially when she could easily have a rich, successful, businessman like Crown.

Crown romantically pursues Catherine – dancing with her in a club, taking her home for a steamy session of sex, taking her for a flying lesson in his glider, and then taking her away for a weekend to his Caribbean Island get away. Their romance is intercut with the investigation by both the police and Catherine of the art theft. On Crown’s side, his romance is intercut with sessions with his psychologist, played by Faye Dunaway. She points out his deep distrust of women.

Trust will be a re-occurring theme of the film. Can two extremely rich people really trust someone new? Especially when that person may have a reason to not be trusted? Catherine has trouble trusting Crown because not only did he probably steal the Monet – but he may be only using her affection to get away with the crime. For his part, Thomas Crown has reason to not trust Catherine – after all, she could find evidence of his illegal activities – and have him arrested.

The Thomas Crown Affair  is stylish, smart, bold, romantic, and steamy. The music is wonderful, though my (very cheap) copy seems to be missing some of the music. Setting the story firmly in the art world gives it a gloss that a similar romantic film in another setting wouldn’t have. There’s some wonderful direction of the initial theft, and Crown’s crazy plan to return the Monet – let’s just say, The Purloined Letter, and leave it at that. Brosnan is sexy, and plays his smart, rags-to-riches character well. Russo is also sexy and smart.

I enjoyed seeing this film again. It’s more of a romance than a caper film – the stolen Monet really is no more than a McGuffin. Russo has excellent chemistry with both Crown and Mike. And the film has the last minute twist-that-isn’t-really-unexpected that works for this type of romantic film. Overall, it’s a great role for Brosnan, and I wish he would make more of this type of romantic film.

The Thomas Crown Affair is a remake of the film of the same name from 1968 starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. In my opinion, and I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me – the modern film is better. Personally, I really dislike Steve McQueen – he gives me the creeps, and he’s so icy and cold. McQueen’s the type of actor I constantly expect in his roles to turn out to be a serial killer or something, and I just cannot watch him. Dunaway is also a cold actress, and I just can’t see her playing a romantic role well (though in the 1960s, icy blondes were popular in romantic and suspense films.) Brosnan is much better as a romantic hero – and he gives Crown the depth of someone who is emotionally closed off, and what that costs him. Russo is the exact opposite of cold. Leary adds to the plot, giving the 1999 film a much more modern feeling.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 3 out of 5 (Slightly predictable)
Next film:  The Three Musketeers (1993)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  • Title:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Director:  Michel Gondry
  • Date:  2004
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Genre:  Romance, SF, Drama
  • Cast:  Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“My embarrassing admission is that I really like that you’re nice. Right now, I mean, I can’t tell from one moment to the next what I’m going to like, but, right now, I’m glad you are.” – Clementine

“Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage, but its, its on a par with a night of heavy drinking.” – Dr. Howard Mierzwiak 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  is not your typical romantic comedy – it isn’t even a typical film in the rarer genre of romantic tragedy. The film starts with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) waking up, heading off to work, then playing hooky and taking the train to a beachside community in the middle of Winter, to be precise, on Valentine’s Day.  He runs into a strange girl with bright blue hair, named Clementine, and the two start to hit it off. However, the film then diverges off into unusual and different territory. Joel discovers that Clementine, his girlfriend of two years, had him erased from her memory. Joel, in a pique of anger then decides to erase her from his memory.

However, the film doesn’t tell this story linearly. We see Joel going to the Lucuna Clinic to have Clementine erased. He explains why he wants to forget her. He looks at objects from their relationship (mementos, gifts, etc) and thinks about his memories of her while undergoing CAT Scans to map his memory. That night he takes a sleeping pill. Three people from the Lucuna Clinic arrive at his apartment to erase his memory – Stan, Patrick, and Mary. However, they do not act like medical professionals, but rather like irresponsible party guys (and gal). While Stan’s laptop computer performs the procedure – they drink, and do drugs. Patrick leaves pretty quickly so he can see his girlfriend – Clementine. Stan and Mary get even more drunk and stoned, and before long Mary’s dancing on Joel’s bed in her underwear.  Eventually, both Stan and Mary are dancing in their underwear.

Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, as Joel is undergoing the procedure – he remembers the times, the moments, he’s spent with Clementine. He eventually realizes just how good some of those moments were – and tries to keep them. But the procedure works too well, and the audience sees scenes disappear piece by piece, or fade out of existence, or break apart in a pixelated fashion, or turn dark as if the lights were being turned off. The unusual effects heighten the strangeness of the film, but they also visually express Joel losing his memories. As the memories disappear, and Joel gets to his good memories with Clem, he realizes he doesn’t want to forget. He and Clem try to outsmart the procedure by hiding in Joel’s childhood memories – including some of his earliest memories.

At this point, the film flashes back to Joel having the procedure done – where Stan freaks out because “he’s off the map.” Joel calls in Howard (Dr. Mierzwiak) who gets the procedure back on track. However, Mary – who’s still stoned, hits on Howard and even kisses him. Outside, Howard’s wife watches. Howard finds out about this – as Mary tries to explain it was meaningless – Howard’s wife tells her that she and Howard did have an affair, but he performed the procedure on her to make her forget.

Eventually, all of Joel’s memories of Clementine disappear – but as he gets to the memory of the first time they met, a time when Joel walked out, Clem suggests he change what happened and make a new memory. We then flash-forward to the beginning of the film and Joel’s compulsion to go to the beach in the middle of Winter, on Valentine’s Day – where he meets Clem.

But this is not the end of the story. Because as Clem heads into her apt to pick up her toothbrush so she can spend the night with Joel (whom she’s “just met”) she find a letter from Mary, with a copy of her file and a tape of her conversation with the Doctor about why she wants to forget Joel. She starts the tape playing in the cassette player of his car – and he freaks out, accusing her of messing with him. But when he gets home, he find another letter and cassette from Mary for him. He starts to listen to the tape – when Clem arrives. Clem gets so angry at the things he says, she leaves – but Joel pursues her. In the hallway, Clem says they should forget it – bringing up the reasons why their relationship won’t work again. But Joel seems to think they should try anyway.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  is a forerunner of films like Inception – especially in terms of the effects used to show Joel’s memories being destroyed. It has a very non-linear style – I’ve re-organized the story more linearly in this review, but when you are watching the film it slips easily back and forth between the “present” as Stan, Patrick, Mary, and later Howard work on Joel in his bedroom – and Joel’s scattered memories of his relationship with Clementine. The story is gradually built up in pieces until the audience understands exactly what it going on – it’s a very intelligent film. It asks intelligent questions, If you could completely forget someone – wipe them from your mind, would you? And, there are implications too – What if such a procedure was done without your permission? (The film gets into that briefly – when it’s made clear that although Howard pressured her into it – Mary did give verbal permission for the procedure.) But the film is also about the way relationships twist over time – although Joel’s early (meaning late – or most recent) memories of Clem are of fights and disagreements – his late (meaning earliest) memories are sweet and lovely – and those memories he fights to keep but fails. There are other tiny bits as well – the woman in the clinic with a dog bowl, leash, and such for example. Mary arguing with a woman on the phone that she can’t have the procedure done three times (in a short period is implied). And even the idea of destiny in a relationship.

Jim Carrey is very reserved and quiet as Joel. Even when he and Clem are fighting – he barely raises his voice. He’s very closed off as well. It’s an understated performance, the complete opposite of Carrey’s normal comedic roles – and it shows what a truly great actor he is. Kate Winslet plays Clementine as a free spirit but a bit dumb. Elijah Wood as Patrick is slimy as one of the med techs working on Joel – he admits to Stan he fell in love with Clem when she he erased her mind – and he even stole her panties. Patrick also used Joel’s journal and other mementos of his relationship with Clem (gifts, jewelry, etc) in an attempt to win her over.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  is a excellent and original film and I recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Justice League:  Throne of Atlantis

Australia

  • Title:  Australia
  • Director:  Baz Luhrmann
  • Date:  2008
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Romance, Historical, Drama
  • Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC
“That strange woman, she fire Mr. Fletcher….  He can’t hurt Momma no more. …  From that day on, we call her, ‘Mrs. Boss’.  — Nullah, narrating
 
“We can’t let them win.” — Lady Ashley
“We won’t.” — Drover
 
“Sarah, I’m as good as Black [Aboriginal Australian] to that lot up there.  Now I don’t mix with dingos or duchesses.  They keep out of my way and I keep out of theirs.  That’s the way it is.” — Drover
“Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.” — Lady Sarah Ashley
“But that’s the way it is.”  — Drover
 
Australia is a grand sweeping epic.  It has elements of an American Western, strangely enough (the first act involves a cattle drive) but the second act is where the film really shines.  Australia is beautifully filmed and the land itself is often the star of the picture.  The cast look fantastic too, especially Hugh Jackman (at his sexy best as the rough Outback drover, Drover) and Nicole Kidman (who looks incredible, whether she’s wearing traditional English clothes, or something more suited to Australia’s climate).  David Wenham, as Mr. Fletcher, is playing a real s.o.b. — and relishing it.  And newcomer, Brandon Walters, is incredible as Nullah – the half Aboriginal / half white child, who narrates much of the story.
Australia begins with a brief introduction narrated by Nullah, who’s spear fishing with his Grandfather, “King George”, the magician.  A man (who we’ll later discover is Maitland Ashley) is killed.  Then the film transitions to England, and Lady Ashley.  A pampered young aristocrat (played by Kidman), she’s annoyed her husband has yet to sell ‘that ranch in Australia’.  Convinced her husband is fooling around in more ways than one, she boards a plane and heads for Australia.  Just prior to landing, she receives a telegram that she’s to meet Drover (Hugh Jackman) who will take her to Faraway Downs, their ranch.
But all is not well in Darwin when she arrives.  It’s a rough town, war is on the horizon, and a cattle baron named King Carney has bought up all the land in Northern Australia, except the Ashleys’ Faraway Downs. Yet the price he offers her is far below what it’s worth.  Lady Ashley meets with Drover, who takes her to the ranch.  When they finally arrive, she finds her husband’s been murdered.  She also discovers her husband’s most trusted cattle-hand, Fletcher, has been beating the native women and children who live on the ranch, stealing cows and driving them across the river to Carney’s land, and that he’s also responsible for her husband’s death; most of which she can’t prove to the law.  To her credit, Lady Ashley fires Fletcher.  She then gets Drover to agree to drive 1500 head of cattle to Darwin to sell to the Army. Needing at least seven people for the cattle drive, they assemble a motley crew and head off.
The drive is an adventure, and Australia itself shines in untamed glory. Fletcher uses under-hand tactics against the drive, such as spooking the cattle with fire towards a cliff.  But despite the challenges, Drover and Sarah make it to Darwin.  There, Carney has just gotten the Army representative to sign a contract, as Sarah and Drover arrive with the cattle.  However, the contract isn’t valid until the cows are loaded onto a ship, and Sarah and Drover manage to get their cattle on the ship first.  Sarah wins her contract.
Sarah invites Drover to the ball to celebrate, but he refuses, stating he isn’t one of  the upper crust of  people.  Sarah nearly sells Faraway Downs, but Drover arrives at the ball, cleaned up and in a suit.  The two dance together and decide to make a go of it, taking the half-Arboriginal/half-white child, Nullah, into their unofficial  custody.
Nullah narrates much of the story, and Sarah comes to love the child, especially as she can’t have children of her own.  Drover also loves the child, as his first wife was Black (or Arboriginal) but she died of untreated TB.  Drover, Nullah, and Sarah are happy for a time, enjoying the “wet” season, and Sarah even understands that Drover will be off droving during “the dry” season.  Soon however, the trio’s happiness is shattered.
Fletcher kills King Carney, making it look like an accident.  Nullah wishes to go walkabout with his grandfather.  Drover, understanding the custom, wants him to go, but Sarah disagrees, thinking the child’s too young.  When Nullah disappears, Drover thinks he’s gone with his grandfather anyway, but Sarah thinks something is wrong.  Nullah and his grandfather are arrested by the local police at Fletcher’s insistance — Nullah to be sent to the Mission School for assimilation, and King George to be tried for the deaths of Maitland and King Carney.
Sarah goes off to Darwin to try to get Nullah back.  Drover is off working in the Outback and has no idea what’s going on.  The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, then Darwin, hitting the mission island first, then the small army town itself.  Sarah’s right in the middle of things.  Drover arrives too, but he’s too late.  He’s told Sarah died in the communications tent.  Drover is completely bereft.  However, a young priest finds him and asks for help getting to the mission island to recover any children they can.  Drover, not knowing that Nullah was sent to the island, and having nothing to lose, agrees to help the priest, as does Drover’s close friend and brother-in-law Muggery.
They get to the island and rescue Nullah and some of the other children.  Muggery is killed by Japanese soldier as they make their escape in a boat.  Meanwhile, Sarah is helping with the evacuation of Darwin, unaware that she’s been reported dead or even that Drover is in town.
Drover’s ship sails through the fog and smoke back to Darwin.  The children land.  Sarah hears the children’s singing, refuses to get on the convoy truck and runs to find the ship pulling in.  She’s reunited with Nullah and Drover.
As a last act of mischief  Fletcher fires a rifle at Nullah.  He hits the child, but Nullah’s grandfather kills him with a thrown spear.  Nullah recovers and he, Sarah, and Drover return to Faraway Downs.  Later, Sarah allows him to go walkabout with his grandfather.
This is an excellent movie.  It’s beautifully filmed, both the wild scenery and the people.  The story is a bit typical romantic plot, but the child Nullah, lifts the story out of  romantic drama cliche’.  The cast is excellent. I highly recommend seeing it!
Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Avengers

Swing Time

  • Title:  Swing Time
  • Director:  George Stevens
  • Date:  1936
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“My talent  is gambling, Pop, hoofing is all right, but there’s no future in it.  I want to spread out.”– John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire)

“Listen, no one could teach you to dance in a million years!  Take my advice, and save your money.”– Penny (Ginger Rogers) to Lucky

“It’s funny how we met… and all that’s happened to us since.”– Penny
“The way we’ve been sorta’… thrown together and everything.”– Lucky
“As if  it were all meant to happen.”– Penny
“It’s quite an experience.”– Lucky
“No, it’s more than an experience.  It’s sorta like… a romance.”– Penny

Swing Time is one of my three favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals (the other two being Shall We Dance and Top Hat).  This time, Fred plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a professional dancer who’s about to marry his high school sweetheart.  The guys in his touring dance troop know they will be out of a job if Garnett leaves the stage for marriage and a serious job, so they arrange for him to be hours late for his own wedding.  When he misses the wedding the girl’s father actually makes a deal with Garnett… if he can make $25,000 then he will let him marry his daughter.  Lucky takes the challenge and goes off to the city to make his fortune.

In a large city, presumably New York, he runs into a girl, Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers).  He follows her and finds out she’s an “instructress” at a dance studio.  Deciding to have a little fun, he dances badly, causing several prat falls with Penny… who gets so frustrated she tells him no one will ever be able to teach him to dance, he should save his money.  Unfortunately, her boss over-hears this and fires her and her maiden aunt (Helen Broderick).  Lucky feels bad and decides to show Penny’s boss that she has taught him a thing or two and the two dance together.  Penny’s boss is so impressed he gets them an audition at the Silver Sandles club.

Unfortunately, unbeknownest to Penny, Lucky is flat broke, he only has the wedding clothes he’s wearing to his name.  He sends his friend Pops to get some money, but Pops isn’t as good a gambler as Lucky.  He brings a drunken gambler to Lucky’s for a game of “strip pichet” (no idea… a card game that looked like some version of gin).  Lucky’s never played the game before and loses.

Penny gets mad at Lucky for blowing their audition.  But he gets them a second tryout.  She relents after he sings to her while her hair is covered in shampoo.  At the club, they dance together on the crowded dance floor, but before they can perform their number… the orchestra leader cancels and leaves.  He’s had a crush on Penny for awhile, and refuses to play to see her dance for another man.

Lucky gambles again for the orchestra… and wins it.  He and Penny get their audition.  Penny and Lucky, with the orchestra become a star attraction, and the owner of the Silver Sandals offers Lucky 50 percent of the take.  Mindful of his deal with his ex-fiancee’s father, he argues it down to 25 percent.  He’d earlier quit his bets at the roulette wheel because he was afraid of winning too much.

Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Mabel (Penny’s maiden aunt) head out to the country to relax, even though it’s the dead of winter and it’s snowing.

They return to the city and the Silver Sandals is re-opening after it’s make-over.  Ricardo, the band leader, tries to give Penny jewelry and she refuses it.  Mabel challenges Penny to kiss Lucky.  She’s determined to, loses her nerve, and then they do… off screen, hidden by a open door.

Lucky, with his dancers and chorus girls, dances to “Bojangles of  Harlem” as the new opening number of the club.

Margaret, Lucky’s ex-fiancee arrives at the club.  Pops plays card tricks with some wise guys in the audience of the club.  Unfortunately, they are the ones Lucky won the orchestra from.  Even worse… they now know Pops palmed the Ace for Lucky… something even Lucky hadn’t realized.  Confronted with the evidence that he cheated, Lucky decides to re-draw cards, and loses.

Penny finds out about Lucky gambling… and losing… and gets really upset, and even more upset when she finds out about Lucky’s ex-fiancee.

Ricardo (the orchestra leader) proposes to Penny, and in a fit of pique she accepts him.

Fred sings “Never Gonna Dance” to her and they dance together, but it is a dance of  love and loss, and at the top of  the Silver Sandals set, the two part company.

But Margaret is there to give John a “Dear John” letter… she’s fallen in love with someone else. Meanwhile Lucky is completely in love with Penny. In the end, Pops and Lucky pull the same gag with cuffed trousers on Ricardo as his band had pulled on Lucky in the prologue, giving Lucky enough time to talk to Penny and stop the wedding.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • Pick Yourself  Up – Fred and Ginger vocals, and dance – Ballroom & Partner Tap
  • The Way You Look Tonight – Fred, vocals
  • Waltz in Swing Time – Fred and Ginger, dance – Ballroom & Partner Tap
  • A Fine Romance – Ginger and Fred vocals
  • Bojangles of Harlem – Fred & Chorus – dance
  • Never Gonna Dance – Fred, vocals – Fred and Ginger – Ballroom Dance
Swing Time is just pure fun.  Fred and Ginger are in fine form, and the picture mixes romance with comedy and irony.  For example, Fred sings the lovely ballad, “The Way You Look Tonight” to Ginger — while her hair is covered in shampoo and she’s annoyed with him, rather than in a traditional romantic setting.  “A Fine Romance” is a sarcastic song with both Fred and Ginger spitting lyrics like – “A Fine Romance… with no kisses”.  The film also uses the RKO Players like Eric Blore and Helen Broderick to fill in the comedy moments of  the plot.  The only real out of place number is “Bojangles of Harlem” which is, unfortunately, done with Astaire in blackface.  Otherwise, it’s a fine number (which includes Astaire dancing with three shadows… that suddenly start to not follow him).  But yeah, dated, is the kindest word for it.  The Silver Sandals set is a lovely two-level art deco set with a black and white dance floor below, and a shining black dance floor above.  The two floors are connected by two staircases, one on each side of the main dance area. The picture in the banner of this review is of Fred and Ginger dancing “Never Gonna Dance” on the beautiful Art Deco Silver Sandals set. The set is used particularly well when Fred and Ginger dance to “Never Gonna Dance” — a song of love and loss, that ends with them parting, which at that point in the plot they do.  It’s lovely.
Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Thin Man

Stardust

  • Title:  Stardust
  • Director:  Matthew Vaughn
  • Date:  2007
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Genre:  Fantasy, Romance, Comedy
  • Cast:  Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Mark Strong, Peter O’Toole, Ricky Gervais, Henry Cavill
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Nothing says romance like the gift of a kidnapped, injured woman!” — Yvaine

“I admire you dreaming.  Shop boy like me, I could never have imagined an adventure this big in order to have wished for it.”  — Tristan

“You know when I said I knew little about love?  Well, that wasn’t true.  I know a lot about love, I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen centuries and centuries of  it. And it was the only thing that made watching your world bearable.  All those wars.  Pain and lies.  Hate. Made me want to turn away and never look down again.  But to see the way that mankind loves…  I mean, you could search the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful.”  — Yvaine

Stardust reminds me of The Princess Bride, at times.  It is a very funny, enjoyable fantasy film, filled with romance in both senses of the word.  The film begins in the Victorian village of Wall, so named because of the brick wall separating the town from the nearby forest.  Part of  the wall has a hole in it, it’s fallen down, and this place is guarded day and night – no one crosses the wall.

One day a young man, out for adventure, crosses the wall.  There he meets a young woman, slave to a female merchant.  The young woman tells him she is a princess, tricked to be slave to a witch.  He cuts the silver cord binding her to the merchant’s wagon, but the cord grows back and re-seals itself.  The young man and the woman spend the night together, and the young man returns to Wall.

Nine months later, a baby appears on the now older man’s doorstep.  The story skips ahead again, and the baby is now a young man, Tristan.  Tristan is not a very successful young man in the traditional sense, but he works in a local shop and has fallen for Victoria.  His rival for Victoria’s hand is Humphrey, an upper-class fop, but nevertheless someone Victoria sees as a better catch.  Tristan convinces Victoria to go with him on a picnic.  He treats her to champagne (a new experience for Victoria) and rich foods.  Tristan tries to convince Victoria to accept his hand in marriage.  Learning that Humphrey is going “all the way to Ipswich” to buy Victoria a ring, Tristan vows to go to London to make his fortune. Then a star falls.  Tristan tells Victoria he will bring her the star, to win her hand.

Later, Tristan talks to his father, who tells him of his true origins, gives him a letter from his mother, which is wrapped in a candle.  The letter says the “fastest way to travel is by candlelight”.  Father and son light the candle and Tristan disappears.

Tristan lands in a crater.  At the center of  the crater is a beautiful blond woman, Yvaine, the star.  Tristan ties her to him with the piece of magical cord that was also in the baby basket, and intends to bring her back to Wall.  They begin a series of  adventures.

Meanwhile, the King of Stormhold (the magical kingdom beyond Wall) is dying.  He has seven sons, but three are already dead.  A fourth is killed, as the King deactivates his royal ruby necklace and throws it out the palace window.  It was this necklace that knocked Yvaine out of  the sky, and which she found and placed around her neck.  The ghosts of the dead princes, form a “peanut gallery” making comment and even fun of the actions of the living remaining princes.  The princes are also all named by their number: Primus, Secundus, Tertius, et cetera all the way to Septimus.  Septimus (Mark Strong) quickly dispatches one brother, and then Secundus is killed by a wicked witch.  So it’s Septimus who becomes the main villian, pursuing Tristan and Yvaine.

The other villains are three witches, who want to capture Yvaine and cut out her heart – for eating the heart of a star conveys eternal youth and life (though using magic uses up this “star power”).  Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the witch who eats the last of their previous star’s heart, becoming youthful, and goes in search of Yvaine.  Each time she uses her magic, she loses some of her youth and beauty… becoming old and wretched by the conclusion of the film.

Thus Tristan and Yvaine are pursued by two groups:  Septimus because he wants his father’s ruby necklace so he can become king, and Lamia because she wants Yvaine herself to kill her for her heart. Tristan thinks that he wants to bring Yvaine to Victoria, and thus win her heart with his gift.

The film thus follows the path of each of these three small groups.  And it is beautifully shot, in gorgeous countryside, with great costumes and sets, competent effects, and good storytelling.

After meeting a group of pirates, lead by Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) and their flying galleon, which captures lightening to sell, Tristan and Yvaine fall in love.  They leave the ship, have more adventures, and finally reach an Inn near Wall.  They spend the night together at the Inn.  Tristan wakes early, the next day, cuts off a piece of Yvaine’s hair and goes to see Victoria in Wall.  He speaks with Victoria, gives her his gift, but she rejects it as “worthless”.  Humphrey arrives, but Tristan scares him off with the swordplay he learned from Capt. Shakespeare.  Victoria they opens her gift, but is dismayed that it’s “mere stardust”.  Tristan, who’s already rejected Victoria because he loves Yvaine (he’d only gone there to lord it over her how successful he now was) realises that if Yvaine follows him across the wall, she’ll die.  He races back to stop her.  But everyone else is proceeding to the Wall too.  Septimus is there to take the ruby necklace from Yvaine.  Ditchwater Sal is there with her servant girl (who is really Tristan’s mother and Septimus’s sister), and Lamia is there as well.  Lamia attacks and kills Ditchwater Sal, freeing Tristan’s mother, but she captures Yvaine (thus accidentally saving her life, because she does prevent her from crossing the wall).  Tristan arrives after the battle of the two witches, as does Septimus, and they both head for the witches’ palace.

There, in a fantastic battle, Septimus is killed by Lamia; but Lamia’s two sisters are killed by Tristan. Lamia uses Septimus’s body as a sort of golem to fight Tristan.  Tristan finally manages to defeat him, frees Yvaine, and is nearly tricked and killed by Lamia.  However, his mother steps in, fills in Yvaine and Tristan as to who he is, and in the end, Lamia is defeated.  Tristan becomes the new king of Stronghold, with Yvaine ruling by his side.

Stardust is a wonderful film — fun, imaginative (as one would expect since it’s based on a Neil Gaiman novel), full of humor, magic, close calls, escapes, etc.  The peanut gallery of the ghosts of dead princes add a twisted, dark humor to the piece.  Again, the film is based on a novel by Neal Gaiman, so one would expect that.  All the actors are fantastic!  Robert De Niro plays decidedly against type, as a tough pirate captain, who is much happier helping Tristan and Yvaine to dress appropriately and teaching them both how to dance, and in Tristan’s case how to sword fight.  He’s very funny, yet sympathetic.  I highly recommend this film and I also think it’s very appropriate for children (aged, oh, about 10 or 12 and up), yet enjoyable for adults.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  Five out of  Five Stars
Next Film:  Star Trek (2009)