(On Cable TV, June 2019) Director Blake Edwards built his career with bigger-than-life comedies, so the gender-twisting outrageousness of Victor Victoria does make quite a bit of sense coming from him. See if you can keep up: In 1930s Paris, a gay man convinces a woman to impersonate a man impersonating a woman in a transvestite cabaret show. (We’re deep in Philip K. Dick’s fake-fake territory here.) Still, the film itself is a decent amount of fun. Julie Andrews stars as the woman asked to play a woman, but much of the spotlight goes to Robert Preston (and his great voice) as an aging gay man—his character is treated with some respect (within the confines of a 1982 film taking in place in 1934, that is), helping the film age more gracefully than most contemporaries. There are shades of Cabaret here (especially considering its inspiration, a 1933 German film) but don’t worry: Victor Victoria doesn’t have Nazis and ends on a far more cheerful note. It definitely comes alive during the funny cabaret sequence, especially when they result in musical numbers. The best is saved for last, with a deliberately over-the-top final sequence. While I’m not enthusiastic about Victor Victoria, it’s an easy film to watch and the cheerful atmosphere makes it all feel far more bearable than other comparable films (or musicals) of the era.
(On TV, July 2018) Box-office success is fleeting, and you just have to go back fifty years in Hollywood history to find Hawaii, then the second-biggest-grossing movie of the year and now almost entirely forgotten by history. Adapted from a single chapter in James Michener’s eponymous novel (far too long to entirely adapt to the big screen), it’s about the adventures of a missionary trying to settle in wild Hawaii with his new bride. If you’re expecting a rousing adventure story, though, temper your expectations: The film is heavy on religious fervour leading to dumb decisions leading to characters dying—to the point where the film’s religious credentials become almost suspect. The ending is particularly bittersweet. It has not aged particularly well: the movie is ponderous, moralistic, scarcely entertaining to watch and clearly belong to the Old Hollywood era that would be annihilated barely a year later. Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews star as the lead couple, but neither of them are particularly well used. It technically qualifies as an epic film by dint of taking place over decades and a staggering 186 minutes, but there isn’t much spectacle nor complex plot in the film. Frankly, it’s an ordeal to watch these days—although the treatment of the Hawaiian population and myths is slightly more respectful than you’d expect. What will reviewers think of today’s box-office hits in fifty years?
(On TV, December 2017) “There are a lot more Nazis here than I thought” applied to a surprising number of political headlines in 2017, but it’s still a valid commentary on The Sound of Music. While everyone remembers Julie Andrews skipping through the Alps, first-time viewers of the movie may be surprised at the number of Nazis in the film and how prominently they figure in the film’s third act. This being said, much of the film’s first half (and at nearly three hours, it’s a very, very long film…) is indeed about Judy Andrews and singing in the Alps. (Weeks later, I’m still unaccountably humming “Do [e], a deer, a female deer…”) I’m hit-and-miss on musicals, my biggest gripe being that the pacing on musicals grinds to a half during songs. The Sound of Music is a near-perfect example of that issue: The film moves glacially even during spoken segments, and whenever the music starts, well, you can take a break. This being said, it’s not a bad film—Andrews is quite good, and so is Christopher Plummer in the lead male role. The dramatic component becomes more urgent in the film’s Nazi-infested second half, reflecting (some of) the von Trapp family’s real-life story as they escaped Austria to sing in allied countries. It’s a generally good time, although I can best imagine repeated viewings of this film as background noise.
(On TV, May 2017) There really isn’t a whole lot to say about The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, other than it does take up the Disney Princess wish fulfillment of its target audience even beyond the high-water mark of the first film (but seriously: a lavish princess slumber party?). The plot is clearly for the kids (this is a movie in which the villain quickly announces himself sotto voice to the audience) and quickly cycles through an episodic series of misunderstandings and dirty tricks. Anne Hathaway stars, making everyone a bit nostalgic for the phase of her career when she could play the bubbly long-haired ingénue: as of 2017, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen her in anything but a series of increasingly dour roles. Also notable is Chris Pine as a love interest, young but already charismatic back then. Julie Andrews gets a few laughs, while John Rhys-Davies doesn’t get much to do but sneer as the villain. Much of the film is tough to review for a middle-aged man, as it’s clearly meant for pre-teen merriment. There’s some lip service paid to deflating the idea of an arranged royal marriage, but it’s almost immediately undercut by the romance between the lead couple. Ah well; everyone goes into this movie for proxy royal thrills rather than enlightenment about the tension between love and duty. The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is a perceptible step down from the first film, but it should still please those who liked the first film a lot.
(In French, Video on-Demand, September 2015) I had seen bits and pieces of Mary Poppins over the years, but never the entire thing from beginning to end. So it is that “I can see why this is a classic” jostles with “wow, this is a long movie” as my first conclusions. Clocking in at nearly 140 minutes, Mary Poppins unevenly goes from one set-piece to another, flirting with plotlessness before finally delivering something near the very end. It’s obviously a musical, meaning that is comes with a Bollywoodian intent to cover all emotional bases during its lengthy running time, no matter the loss in economical storytelling along the way. There’s also an argument to be made that in 1964, audiences were far more accepting of a meandering movie experience and that today’s 90-minutes feature competes with far many more entertainment options. So be it –let’s simply say that the film often drags. Still, it would be churlish to ignore the reasons why Mary Poppins remains a cultural touchstone: the charm of it all, the great performances by Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke (whose physical energy in the film remains astonishing), plentiful special effects, the catchy tunes, the family-first message, the set-pieces that do work well. (My own favourites include the partially-animated Jolly Holiday, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (of course) and the rooftop Chim-Chim-Cheree) Must of the film feels dated, but in doing so has acquired a further patina of whimsy that can’t be replicated by modern films. (Well, except for the use of suffragette activism as a motivation for a mother ignoring her kids –that’s even more annoying than it must have been at the time.) While I itch for some editing power in making this film more focused from beginning to end, the end result is still a classic for the ages. Note: The French version may be competently translated, but it’s nowhere near the catchiness of the original English soundtrack.
(On TV, sometime around June 2005) I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film in the mid-noughties, but it doesn’t come up in a search of my archives as of late 2014, so here goes nothing as a placeholder: The Princess Diaries is an amiable Pygmalion-lite comedy of manners in which a ordinary teen discovers that she is the heir of a throne of some sort. The premise isn’t nearly as important as the various gags and moments as our ordinary teenager is socialized to aristocratic standards. The most noteworthy thing about The Princess Diaries is a early star-making performance from Anne Hathaway, with an able supporting turn by Julie Andrews. Otherwise, this pretty much plays out like the Disney film it is. It’s likable without being deep or meaningful, and that’s all it truly needs to be.