Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review: Chandni Chowk to China (2009)

Sometimes, in between all the crazy movie-viewing projects I seem to be subjecting us to these days, my husband likes to delve into the world of Bollywood. I’ve enjoyed all of the movies we’ve seen so far, although they do get a bit long at times. Still, I love the crazy plots and colorful musical numbers. In the case of Chandni Chowk to China, we throw in kung fu as well, and the end result is a zany movie that is more than the sum of its parts.

Sidhu (Akshay Kumar) is a street-food vendor always on the look-out for a get-rich-quick scheme. He’s under the loving foot of his foster father, Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) and constantly at the mercy of his “friend” Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), who’s always taking advantage of him. When a couple of Chinese peasants arrive in Delhi and approach Sidhu as the reincarnation of local hero Liu Sheuyn, Chopstick tells him that they are merely honoring him, when in fact, they want him to come and rescue their village from the oppressive and deadly rule of the evil Hojo (Chia Hui Liu). Meanwhile, the lovely Sakhi (Deepika Padukone), who just happens to be Sidhu’s dream girl, is also on her way to China to put to rest her long-lost father and twin sister. Will Sidhu find his inner hero, win the girl, and save the village? Well, it’s Bollywood, isn’t it?

So this is a Bollywood/kung fu movie mash-up, produced or distributed or however it works by Warner Brothers. This means that the production value is rather higher than many Bollywood features, but that you still get a ridiculous plot and over-the-top musical numbers, now with more added wire-fu fight scene action! The story is really rather straightforward: perennial loser finds something to fight for and becomes a hero. There’s also missing/believed dead family members reunited and some funny twin mix-up stuff happening. Overall it’s pretty hilarious. I think that in Bollywood, most films contain equal measures of comedy and drama, but I’d assume that Akshay Kumar tends to favor comedic roles. He’s very bumbling and stupid for much of the movie, and comes off like a Sasha Baron Cohen caricature (even looks like him!) Deepika Padukone is, of course, extremely lovely, and almost seemed like too good an actress for the film. As you might have guessed, she pulls double-duty here, and to me did a very credible job of portraying two different women. My favorites were Chopstick and Chiang Kohung (Roger Yuan), an old beggar man who is more than he seems. As secondary players, they could have a good time and really throw themselves into their roles, so they got to be funny (or not) without needing to sell the film; Akshay Kumar, by comparison, needed to work a lot harder to make his somewhat annoying hero someone that audiences could really root for.

In the end, though, we do root for him, after the requisite epic training montage (!!) and awesome fight scenes kick in. Again, I don’t watch a lot of kung fu movies, so I don’t know if the stuff in Chandni Chowk to China is particularly over-the-top, or if they’re all that way. I did like the ways in which otherwise serious fighting was given a comic twist (Sidhu envisions one opponent as a big potato) to keep a little bit of the comedy alive. Because here’s the interesting thing about this movie, as pointed out by my husband: about halfway through, it turns really serious. Sidhu’s been bumbling around and making a mess of things, including a fabulous sequence where he manages to dispatch a small army simply by staggering around drunk, and then suddenly, boom. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the catalyst for the change is pretty dramatic. The entire tone of the movie makes a shift, and even while there are still some funny moments, especially while Sidhu is training, the direction of things has clearly changed, and the film is simply not as light-hearted as it started out. It moves more rapidly at this point as well, toward a predictable but enjoyable conclusion.

Not being a major expert of either genre, I would venture to say that there is probably enough here to satisfy fans of both Bollywood epics and kung fu movies. This was definitely a fun departure for us, and while I’m still not totally sold on the kung fu stuff (all that flying around just seems silly to me; I’d rather watch people do actually amazing things with their bodies), I definitely want to see more Bollywood. If anyone out there knows more about these genres than I do, please make some recommendations, or let me know if I totally missed the point of Chandni Chowk to China! I’d love to gain a little more insight.

A Gene Kelly Retrospective

In the last few weeks, as the one hundredth anniversary of Gene Kelly’s birthday approached, I thought about how I wanted to commemorate. In looking at his screen credits, I realized that I had actually seen most of the “big name” movies that he is known for, and so I turned my attention to some lesser-known fare. What we discovered is that Mr. Kelly doesn’t seem to make a lot of particularly bad movies. Some are better than others, obviously, but what they all have in common is his signature brand of professionalism, humor, and charisma. I’ve assembled here a brief review of all of Kelly’s movies that I’ve seen to date. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them, and maybe find something new to watch! They’re ordered chronologically; I thought about doing a kind of a rating system, but honestly, the spread just wouldn’t be that wide. Consider everything in the three-to-five-star range, and you’ll have it just about right. Here we go…

For Me and My Gal (1942)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, George Murphy
Director: Busy Berkeley

In this, Kelly’s screen debut, he and Garland star as vaudevillian performers. Kelly’s character deliberately injures himself to avoid being drafted, but ultimately serves his country in heroic fashion AND gets the girl. While his trademark polish isn’t fully developed here, Kelly holds his own against big star Garland, and definitely proves himself as one to watch. For Me and My Gal is the first of three partnerships for Kelly and Garland, and in my opinion, it’s the best one.

Cover Girl (1944)
Co-stars: Rita Hayworth, Lee Bowman, Phil Silvers
Director: Charles Vidor

Danny McGuire (Kelly) and Rusty Parker (Hayworth) have a great partnership: he’s a dancer and club owner, she’s his star attraction. But, when she wins a contest and heads for fame and fortune, their relationship will be tested. Kelly and Hayworth are young and gorgeous, and have good chemistry together, plus there are some really fun musical numbers. Even this early in his career, Kelly had a great deal of creative control over this picture, best exemplified by the ground-breaking “Alter Ego” number in which he uses fancy camerawork to dance a duet with…himself. What could be better than two Gene Kellys dancing together??

Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson
Director: George Sidney

The first of three pictures together, Anchors Aweigh stars Kelly and Sinatra as two sailors on leave in Los Angeles. Our heroes, one worldly (Joe, played by Kelly) and one naive (Clarence, Sinatra), meet and fall in love with an aspiring singer, played by Grayson. Joe offers to set her up with an audition, a promise he isn’t actually capable of keeping. Hilarity ensues, of course. Once again, great musical numbers, including Kelly’s duet with Jerry the Mouse, another innovative piece of work. Although Anchors Aweigh was hugely successful at the time and garnered Kelly his one acting nomination from the Academy, it doesn’t hold up well when compared with the far superior On the Town, which also features Kelly and Sinatra as military men loose in a big city.

The Pirate (1948)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Walter Slezak
Director: Vincente Minelli

The Pirate is an example of what happens when you let some extremely talented people loose, and they get a little carried away. It’s the story of a young woman (Garland) obsessed with a local legend, the pirate Macoco. She’s engaged to a businessman but is looking for a little bit more excitement in life. Along comes a traveling musician (Kelly) who poses as her pirate ideal in order to win her heart. Garland has some stunning numbers, and the signature Kelly ballet sequence is incredible, but other than that, the movie’s rather ungainly and slow. Not the best example of work by Kelly, Garland, or Minelli, but worthwhile for fans of any of the three.

The Three Musketeers (1948)
Co-stars: Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price
Director: George Sidney

Kelly stars as D’Artagnan in this straightforward adaptation of Dumas’ classic novel. The cinematography is lovely and the choreography is swashbuckle-tastic. The acting runs the gamut from overly comical to downright dramatic, and Kelly’s counterparts in Musketeerdom, Van Heflin, Gig Young, and Robert Coote, acquit themselves well, as do Vincent Price and Lana Turner as villains, and June Allyson as Kelly’s love interest. The best thing about this one, though, is watching Kelly display his incredible physicality without dancing a single step.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Esther Williams
Director: Busby Berkeley

Take Me Out to the Ballgame reunites Sinatra and Kelly, this time as members of a baseball team that finds itself acquired by a woman. Their characters are somewhat similar to those in Anchors Aweigh, and the plot seems to follow similar lines as well. Take Me Out to the Ballgame has some more enjoyable musical numbers, however, most notably “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” (baseball nerds will recognize this as a reference to the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon“). The inclusion of Esther Williams, the famous “aqua musical” actress, is a little odd in a film about baseball, but Berkeley still manages to get her into a pool, so that’s an added treat, plus we get Betty Garrett hamming it up as a love interest for Sinatra.

On the Town (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

On the Town is not only the superior Kelly/Sinatra collaboration, it’s also one of the finest musicals Kelly ever made. Three sailors are on leave in New York. Their agenda is simple: to have a great time, and pick up some ladies. Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen, and the fabulous Ann Miller fit the bill nicely, and so our heroes have themselves a fine adventure in the Big Apple. All of the musical numbers here are fabulous, and the only weak point would be Kelly’s usual third-act ballet, which in this instance has to replace four of the film’s leads (everyone except Kelly and Vera-Ellen), who had no ballet training. Famously filmed on location, On the Town marks the first product of Donen and Kelly’s collaboration, and is an absolute must-see if you’re a fan of anyone involved, or just of musicals in general.

Summer Stock (1950)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Eddie Bracken
Director: Charles Walters

By the time Summer Stock was made, Kelly’s star was on the rise, and Garland’s was waning due to her myriad problems. This would be her last MGM musical. As a result, this enjoyable film is a little uneven, but it includes some absolute show-stoppers. Garland’s Jane is a no-nonsense girl who finds her family farm overrun by a troupe of theatricals when her flighty sister offers them the spot for their summer home. It’s up to the leader of the group, Joe (Kelly) to convince Jane to let them put on a show in her barn. Naturally, sparks fly, and eventually Jane gets into the act herself. Garland’s electrifying “Get Happy” number is here, as is Kelly’s mesmerizing “Newspaper Dance,” one of his more inventive creations. Less ambitious than The Pirate, this final pairing succeeds in its simplicity, and in the incredible talents of its two leads.

An American in Paris (1951)
Co-stars: Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Director: Vincente Minelli

I’m not entirely sure what to tell you about An American in Paris. It’s simply an incredible achievement. It’s beautiful, the numbers are all flawless, the songs are Gershwin, it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron falling in love and dancing all over Paris, for pete’s sake. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1952, beating out heavy hitters like A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The final act is a 17 minute ballet, which may put some people off (it did me, at first), but I think it’s the finest example of Kelly’s balletic aspirations. It’s simply one of the best musicals you will ever see, and you absolutely should see it.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Co-stars: Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Though less successful than An American in Paris (at least on paper), Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be the best movie musical ever made, not to mention one of the greatest movies of all time. It tells the story of a movie star (Kelly) who must make the difficult transition from silent film to “talkies,” which he navigates by virtue of just happening to be quite the good singer and dancer. The titular number is an iconic scene in a film full of iconic scenes, and Kelly, in addition to co-stars O’Connor and Reynolds, appears to be at the top of his game. If you see one musical in your lifetime, please make it this one.

Brigadoon (1954)
Co-stars: Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson
Director: Vincente Minelli

I really love Brigadoon, but I can never quite shake the feeling that it ought to have been better. Tommy Albright (Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Johnson) are hunting on the moors of Scotland when they stumble upon Brigadoon, a magical village that only appears to the outside world once every 100 years. Tommy is immediately smitten with one of the resident lassies, Fiona Campbell (Charisse), despite being engaged to a New York socialite back home. Tragedy strikes, the explorers go home, and Tommy mourns his lost love. If he returns to the site, will true love overcome the spell that keeps Brigadoon hidden? Obviously, the performers here are top-notch. Kelly and Charisse are an excellent pairing, and I adore Van Johnson’s curmudgeonly Jeff. I think the big problem is that Brigadoon encountered some big budget cuts during production, and so it was filmed on a sound stage instead of on location. Minelli can do great things with color and cinematography, but here, his attempts at a dreamy, pastel palate just give the whole movie an amateurish feel. It’s not bad; not even close, but it’s not truly great, either, in my opinion. Still, a really good Gene Kelly movie would be a masterpiece for anyone else, so it’s always totally worthwhile.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Co-stars: Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Cyd Charisse
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather looks at what happens when three men brought together by their experiences in the Army reunite 10 years later. Ted (Kelly), Doug (Dailey), and Angie (Kidd) have gone their separate ways, and when they meet again, they find little left in common. Between a plot hatched by the CEO of Doug’s company and Ted’s trouble with some crooked fight organizers, not to mention the influence of a gorgeous businesswoman (Charisse), the boys eventually come to find out that they are more (and less) like their old selves than they realized. This is an uneven picture, notable only for a few fabulous dance scenes (the “trash can lid” scene and Kelly on roller skates). One can’t help but wish that Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra had been available to reprise their earlier roles, although Dailey and Kidd both do a fine job. Charisse is almost criminally under-used, here, although she does get a chance to flash those fabulous gams. It’s still a fun picture, but it doesn’t measure up to earlier Kelly/Donen efforts.

Les Girls (1957)
Co-stars: Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg
Director: George Cukor

Lady Sybil Wren (Kendall) is being sued for libel. Her former co-star, Angele (Elg), disputes Sybil’s tell-all account of their experiences as part of the dance troupe Les Girls. Most of the trouble seems to center around head man Barry Nichols (Kelly) and his relationship with his trio of dancing beauties, which also includes Joy Henderson (Gaynor). The story is told in flashback sequences from three separate points of view, and it’s great fun. Kelly is charming as ever, and his three leading ladies all put in excellent performances as well. Les Girls combines the fun and shine of Kelly with the quick-paced humor of Cukor (with lyrics by Cole Porter!) to great effect. It’s a little short on big production numbers, but the “Why Am I So Gone” number is worth the price of admission for fans. Watching it, I realized something I’d never bothered to actually articulate about Kelly and his style of dancing: it’s SEXY. If you’ve watched all the usual suspects and are looking to branch out a little more, I’d highly recommend this one.

Inherit the Wind (1960)
Co-stars: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March
Director: Stanley Kramer

Inherit the Wind is based on the Scopes trial of the 1920s, in which a high school science teacher is brought to trial for teaching the theories of Darwin in the classroom. Spencer Tracy and Frederic March play opposing lawyers who are arguing for science (Tracy) and religion (March). Gene Kelly plays E.K. Hornbeck, a sharp-tongued and cynical reporter. This was my first non-musical look at Mr. Kelly, and I have to admit that I was worried about whether or not he would hold up well without any fancy footwork. I shouldn’t have. He’s enjoyably sly here, providing a humorous running dialogue amidst all of Tracy and March’s blustering earnestness. They are both on fire, by the way, and turn in magnificent performances. This is a really great dramatic piece that we found surprisingly resonant and relevant given today’s political climate.

What a Way to Go! (1964)
Co-stars: Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin
Director: J. Lee Thompson

Let’s be honest: you want to see this movie for the cast. MacLaine stars as Louisa, who finds herself a widow four times over. She has a thing for underachievers, but apparently motivates them to work themselves literally to death. Consequently, she’s filthy rich, but is really only interested in getting rid of her wealth. Who does she marry? Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly. For a start. This is a totally zany and fun little movie. As she recounts each relationship, Louisa envisions them as a certain type of movie, which we see in dream sequences. Obviously, the relationship with Kelly is a musical number. He starts out as sad-sack entertainer, but under Louisa’s influence, reaches greater heights. Watching Gene Kelly be a “bad” singer/dancer/performer is a singular experience. The cliche about how one needs to be really good to be convincingly bad holds true here. What a Way to Go! is a lot of fun, mainly due to MacLaine’s brand of wide-eyed charm, and her impressive list of leading men.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Co-stars: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac
Director: Jacques Demy

This is a weird little musical. We spent a lot of time trying to decide if it was weird because it was a “French musical,” or if it was just strange. I’m not really sure if there is a specific sub-genre that is “French musicals,” so it remains a mystery. Anyway. Twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Dorleac) are looking to break out of Rochefort and head to Paris to pursue their dreams. Delphine wants to be a dancer, and Solange wants to be a composer. Both of them are looking for their romantic ideals as well. On their last weekend at home, the arrival of a carnival which brings a couple of traveling salesman types (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) as well as some other new faces, provides a tangle of romantic knots involving not only the sisters, but their mother as well. It’s one of those movies where the right people keep missing one another by a matter of seconds and key information keeps getting left out of conversations, driving the audience crazy. There are some great musical numbers, all very sixties-ish, along with bright colors and costumes. I think that explains the “weirdness” of it: it’s trying to hearken back to the great musicals of the 40s and 50s, but it does so through a very 60s sort of lens. Plus, it’s all very stereotypically French: ennui and cigarettes, romantic ideals and the acceptance of fate. It’s in French with subtitles, which are quite often hilarious. It’s hard to say if this movie is really for everyone or not; I think it’s interesting for Kelly fans to see him opposite a new generation, as it were.

So there you have it. A veritable smorgasbord of Gene Kelly movies in case you’re looking for something to watch this weekend in celebration of his birthday. Or just because you want to watch a good movie, even. Anything strike your fancy? Anything I’m missing out on? Let me know!

Favorite Gene Kelly routines

Tired of hearing about Gene Kelly yet? Too bad. I never really get tired of talking about him, and I definitely don’t get tired of watching him dance. You probably haven’t seen it, but he’s featured in a new car commercial, along with Donald O’Conner. My brother and I (also a big fan) are excited about the commercial, just because any time somebody wants to remind the world of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner is just fine with us. However, Linda Holmes over at NPR’s Monkey See blog has a reasonable argument for disliking the ad. I do see the point, as I also think that the commercial is pretty tacky-looking.

In reading that blog post, in which she highlights various routines of Mr. Kelly’s, I got to thinking about my favorite numbers. And then I thought, “Hey! That’d be a great post.” And so here we are. In chronological order, the very best (according to me) Gene Kelly dancin’ (and singin’) moments. I’m sure I’ll hear some argument, since I prefer these to some of the more well-known appearances, but if you don’t like my picks, well, go get your own blog!

“For Me and My Gal” (For Me and My Gal, 1942)
This is Gene Kelly’s first movie. He was already well-established in New York, and like many performers, made his way West to break into movies. Unlike some others, though, he had a reasonably powerful ally in the person of Judy Garland. She helped him learn his way around the movie-making biz, and they would ultimately do three pictures together. In this number, Kelly already shows himself to be a star, easily sharing the screen with the famous Garland, and performing a really charming routine. Plus, how handsome is he here??

“On the Town” (On the Town, 1949)
What I like about this number is that it shows us that Kelly could be a team player. He was a notorious perfectionist, and he was supposedly very picky about his co-stars’ dancing abilities, but here, in a movie he co-directed, he doesn’t put himself forward in this ensemble piece. He shares equal time with co-stars Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller (Love her!!), Vera-Ellen, and Betty Garrett, and I think the result is perfect. Those harmonies! Sadly, the routine by itself is no longer available on Youtube. You’ll just have to enjoy the trailer instead.

Scene from Summer Stock, 1950
Summer Stock is the third and final collaboration between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. This scene, in which Kelly incorporates a squeaky board and a newspaper into his dance, shows off Kelly’s innovative and inventive ideas, not to mention his talent. It’s a really nice little routine, subdued in comparison to the big show-stoppers, but no less impressive.

“I Got Rhythm” (An American in Paris, 1951)
I was already a pretty big fan of Kelly by the time I saw An American in Paris, but I was still blown away by the dancing in this routine. It’s pretty impressive, but what really makes this scene is Kelly’s interaction with the kids, and his ability to use big moves in close spaces. “Demain, le bubblegum pour tout!”

Embedding has been disabled, but you can check out the number HERE.

“Good Mornin'” (Singin’ in the Rain, 1952)
Yep. You didn’t think I’d leave it out, did you? The best movie musical (and the best movie, IMO) EVER. I know everyone loves the title number, but I seriously waffled between “Moses Supposes,” which you can see on the Monkey See post and “Good Mornin'”. I chose this one because of the fantastic way in which the three dancers (Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds) maintain the personalities and relationships between their characters throughout, and because I love watching Reynolds hold her own against two of the greats. And again, Kelly’s inventive choreography, utilizing his space and surroundings to the utmost degree. Have you seen this movie yet? Are you tired of me asking? Get on it!!

Geez, I love musicals. And Gene Kelly. How about you? Do you have a favorite scene that I didn’t include?

Gene Kelly Trivia

So, how much do you think you know about Gene Kelly? I’ve created a round of trivia for you; hopefully it’s not too difficult. Obviously, the answers are right there, so this is just for fun. I tried to find some clever way of doing a spoiler tag to hide the answers, but apparently WordPress is not on the ball with that particular feature. At any rate, I hope that you find these questions entertaining and edifying! Enjoy!

1. Kelly held a degree from the University of Pittsburgh in:
A. Choreography
B. American History
C. Economics
D. Trick question; he never went to college

Answer:  C. Kelly graduated in 1933 with a BA in Economics.

2. Kelly starred with Judy Garland in three films. In which of these movies did Kelly and Garland NOT star?
A. Easter Parade
B. For Me and My Gal
C. The Pirate
D. Summer Stock

Answer: A. Kelly was originally set to star in Easter Parade alongside Garland, but he broke his leg before filming began. Fred Astaire came out of retirement to replace him.

3. Gene Kelly got his trademark scar when a dancing partner accidentally kicked him in the face. True or False?

Answer: False. I have actually (I think?) read two different explanations for his scar. One is that he had a bicycle accident as a child, and the other, I believe, involved a fall from a fence he was climbing, also as a child. Either way, no kicks to the face.

4. With which leading lady did Kelly star most often?
A. Cyd Charisse
B. Judy Garland
C. Debbie Reynolds
D. Leslie Caron

Answer: B. Kelly and Garland starred in three movies together. Three seems to be the magic number for Kelly and any number of co-stars, including Frank Sinatra and Cyd Charisse, who appeared briefly in Singin’ in the Rain. Technically, that ties her with Garland, but for our purposes, we’re not counting it because she was not his “leading lady.”

5. What movie was originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town?
A. Anchors Aweigh
B. Take Me Out to the Ballgame
C. It’s Always Fair Weather
D. Les Girls

Answer: C. On the Town is about three sailors on shore leave in NYC. It starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin. It’s Always Fair Weather would catch up with the three men after 10 years of civilian life. Sinatra was unavailable, and so two different actors were cast opposite Kelly, but you can easily see how Sinatra and Munshin would have fit into the roles (and maybe have been better in them).

6. In how many films did Kelly portray a service member?
A. 3
B. 5
C. 7
D. 11

Answer: D. Kelly himself enlisted in the US Navy in 1944, and appeared in many movies as either active military or ex-military; most notably, perhaps, in On the Town.

7. Kelly won an Oscar for Best Director for An American in Paris. True or False?

Answer: False. Vincente Minelli directed An American in Paris, for which he was nominated for Best Director. Kelly did direct many of his own films and others, but was never nominated for an Oscar as a director.

8. Kelly was famous for his inventive and innovative dance sequences. Which of these did he not experiment with?
A. Breakdancing
B. Dancing with a cartoon character
C. Dancing on roller skates
D. Dancing with himself

Answer: A. To the best of my knowledge, Kelly never attempted breakdancing. He did, however, dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, with himself in Cover Girl, and on roller skates in both It’s Always Fair Weather and Xanadu.

9. Kelly and long-time collaborator Stanley Donen were both married to actress and dancer Jeanne Coyne. True or false?

Answer: True. Coyne was briefly married to Donen from 1948 to 1951, when they divorced. She married Kelly, with whom she had two children, in 1960. They were together until her death in 1973. Incidentally, you can check out Coyne’s own footwork in Kiss Me, Kate. She’s dancing with Bobby Van in the “From this moment on” number.

10. Kelly’s first starring role on Broadway was in this musical; for a variety of reasons, however, he was never to star in a big-screen adaptation.
A. Guys and Dolls
B. Chicago
C. Pal Joey
D. Kiss Me, Kate

Answer: C. With the exception of Kiss Me, Kate, Gene Kelly was at least briefly considered for roles in Guys and Dolls and a film version of Chicago, but Pal Joey is what brought him to Hollywood in the first place. Sadly, by the time the film was set to be made by Columbia Pictures, Kelly was under contract with MGM and therefore unavailable. Instead, Frank Sinatra starred in the 1957 film version.

Did you learn anything? Check back tomorrow, when we’ll take a look at some of Kelly’s best routines!

Gene Kelly Week!

Loyal readers will know that I am a huge Gene Kelly fan, but what many of you may not know is that this Thursday, August 23, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eugene Curran Kelly. And so, Banana Oil Movies is going to celebrate! Each day there will be a featured post; some will be old, some will be new. Today, for your viewing pleasure, an oldie but goodie: my Favorite Film Pirates. The list wouldn’t be complete without Kelly’s dashing Serafin. Check back in tomorrow for some Gene Kelly trivia!

Review: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Beautiful stars? Check. Beautiful scenery? Check. Cultural backdrop full of potential for high drama? Check. Yes, Doctor Zhivago qualifies on all counts as a “sweeping epic,” full of beauty and suffering. Based upon the novel by Boris Pasternak and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the film was a big hit at the time and has remained popular ever since; it checks in at number 39 on the 1998 AFI list. It follows the life of Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor and poet, who deals with personal and political struggles during one of the more tumultuous periods in Russia’s history.

Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) was orphaned as a boy and taken in by friends of his mother’s. He grows up to be a doctor and a published poet, and marries Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his benefactors. Lara Antipova (Julie Christie) is a beautiful young woman who is seduced by a friend of her mother’s, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), but escapes him in order to marry a young revolutionary named Pavel (Tom Courtenay). The paths of Zhivago and Lara cross early on, but it is later, when everyone’s fortunes have changed due to World War I and revolution in Russia, that they come to be working together in a field hospital. Lara believes her husband to be dead, and she and Zhivago develop feelings for one another, although they do not act on those feelings. Years later, they are to meet again, having both moved away from Moscow after the rise of Communism, and at this time they enter into an affair. Zhivago is abducted and conscripted into service by Communist partisans. When he is finally able to return home, he finds his wife, father-in-law, and children have emigrated to Paris, and so he stays with Lara. They are happy for a time until Komarovsky seeks them out to let them know that they are both in political jeopardy. He convinces Zhivago to let him take Lara out of the country for her own safety, and so the lovers are again parted. More time passes, and Zhivago sees Lara back in Moscow, but before he can catch up to her, he suffers a heart attack and dies.

Yeah. That’s kind of a lot of story, isn’t it? The whole thing is book-ended with narrative by Zhivago’s half-brother, Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who is searching for the lost daughter of Zhivago and Lara. Whether or not this added bit of plot was really necessary I’m not sure, but then, the film as a whole doesn’t seem terribly concerned with such a silly thing as brevity. This is a whale of a movie, and all of its good points don’t account for its length in the final tally, I’m afraid. It’s very beautifully filmed, and the actors are all good, but, well, it’s just so long. And kind of slow. I think from an historical perspective it’s fairly interesting, if a bit confusing, but it’s hard not to wish that they’d spent more time on the love story between Lara and Zhivago instead.

Let’s talk about the acting. The first thing that really must be said is that Julie Christie, in this movie, is possibly one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She also does a great job with a character who is surprisingly understated, considering all the fuss she causes. I actually like that about her, particularly when these days, the romantic heroines of movies have to be overly charming or quirky or whatever. Lara is a smart woman who does the best she can with what she’s got, and adapts to the situations around her. It doesn’t sound like high praise, but I appreciated her character a great deal, perhaps even more so because of her looks. It would have made it easier just to make her pretty, but it is her character that Zhivago loves. He, too, is interesting in quiet ways. He’s an intensely passionate person who truly lives in the moment, even while he is surrounded by the chaos of war and revolution. He seems to care very little about the consequences of his actions, but this is somehow endearing rather than merely narcissistic. He simply seems to believe that he must follow where his heart leads, and deal with whatever comes about as a result. Sharif does a great job of portraying this passion, and Zhivago’s bewilderment that everyone else doesn’t see the world the same way.

Even as enjoyable as the two lovers are, in their quiet way, Rod Steiger steals the show. Komarovsky is not a nice man. He seduces Lara when she is still a schoolgirl, torments her throughout their relationship, and rapes her after she tells him of her intent to marry Pavel. Much later, when he shows up to offer his assistance to Lara and Zhivago, he is drunken and odious. And yet, he’s easily the most interesting character in the whole film. He’s a businessman-turned-diplomat (I think?) and as such, he’s mainly a survivalist. He’s brutally honest and seems to have no real loyalties, but I think Steiger manages to give him a soul. He’s just one of those charismatic characters that swallows up every scene he’s in. It’s not really possible to like him, but he demands respect nonetheless.

If you’re into scenery and wide, panoramic cinematography, this is a movie for you. Director David Lean wanted to make sure that the changes of the seasons were documented, and so we see Russia, both city and countryside, in snow and sunshine. It really is beautiful. It won Oscars for cinematography, costume design, and score; in the first two cases, I think deservedly. In the case of the latter, I don’t remember much about the score beyond the famous “Lara’s Theme,” which is played far too many times, and which, in my opinion, sounds less romantic and more like the kind of canned music you might hear in an Italian restaurant. I think that a good score adds to and deepens a film rather than distracts from it, and here, sometimes, it was difficult to focus on anything besides them playing that theme for the millionth time. My apologies if you had it played at your wedding or something; I guess plinky balalaika just isn’t for me.

All in all, we weren’t that impressed with Doctor Zhivago. In scope I felt it was similar to 1956’s Giant, which stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, and follows a Texas rancher and his family through a couple of decades. Giant was ranked 82nd on the AFI list, but in my opinion, the two films ought to be reversed. Pieces that span extreme amounts of time need more dynamic characters and story lines to keep the interest up, and in the case of Doctor Zhivago, everything is just a little too subtle and complex. It has a lot going for it, and I hope I haven’t completely put anyone off on seeing it, but the fact remains: it’s a long haul. Maybe it was designed that way to add to the experience and depiction of revolutionary Russia? Let’s go with that.

Capsule reviews: documentary edition

Hobbies are strange things, aren’t they? I mean, there’s a broad range of possible involvement in some hobbies. You could just enjoy watching a movie every now and then, or you could decide to write a blog about them. There’s running for fun and exercise, and then there’s signing up for a half-marathon. We recently watched two documentaries that were very similar, in that they both focus on activities that are typically hobbies, but that can also become professions or (in some cases) all-consuming obsessions.

Wordplay (2006)

I am a pretty religious New York Times crossword solver, but I have nothing on these people. Wordplay talks about the NYT crossword puzzle, its fans (Jon Stewart! Bill Clinton!) and current editor Will Shortz, but mainly follows various contestants of the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Yep, every year, a bunch of (admittedly pretty geeky) people all get together at a big hotel and spend the weekend solving puzzles. From the official website: “Solvers tackle eight original crosswords created and edited specially for this event. Scoring is based on accuracy and speed.” The dramatic final rounds sees the top three finishers on a stage, each wearing noise-canceling headphones and solving the puzzle on a big whiteboard in front of them. Each of the contestants tells us a little about their history with the tournament, their strategies for solving, and what they do when they’re not solving crosswords. A lot of the footage takes place at the tournament itself, which is obviously a beloved tradition for these puzzle solvers. On Saturday night there’s a talent show. It’s a chance for a bunch of random folks to get together and have fun, and over the years friendships have developed and evolved. I think the filmmakers got into the spirit of things; they really present the whole experience as something fun and meaningful, without it getting too serious or …weird, I guess. A couple of the people featured were a little bit on the odd side, but for the most part, these are just smarter-than-average folks with day jobs and other passions. As with anything that involves personal experience and competition, you definitely end up rooting for favorites, and the final showdown doesn’t disappoint at all. This is a fun and enjoyable documentary, particularly if you’re a fan of crosswords, but even if you don’t get what all the fuss is about. I’d definitely recommend it, if only for the chance to watch Jon Stewart talk some trash and do his puzzle in Sharpie.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Unlike Wordplay, The King of Kong presents its subjects in a slightly less-flattering light. The film focuses on the strange world of arcade video game enthusiasts, and specifically on the subject of the World Record Score for the game of Donkey Kong. Previous to the events of the movie, the record was a score of 957,300, achieved in 2004 by Billy Mitchell. Naturally, a challenger (named Steve Weibe) emerges to attempt a higher score. Having videotaped himself playing Kong in his garage and outscoring Mitchell, Weibe sends the videotape to Twin Galaxies, an organization that judges, verifies, and maintains record video game scores. What follows is a ridiculous back-and-forth in which Weibe consistently appears to outscore Mitchell, only to be denied the title of champion for one reason or another. Meanwhile, Mitchell, who is himself an “official” with Twin Galaxies (which hardly seems appropriate) refuses to face off against Weibe, even as he touts the importance of achieving record scores in person. The final showdown-that-isn’t happens in Hollywood, Florida (practically in Mitchell’s backyard), where scores are being gathered for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. Once again, Mitchell refuses to engage, going so far as to show up to the event and never touch a game. This is a truly bizarre movie, documenting a truly bizarre world. The people showcased here (aside from Weibe, who seems like a pretty nice guy) are every inch what you might expect them to be: a little bit divorced from reality. Billy Mitchell is the most impressive villain masquerading as a normal person I have ever seen. He even has minions! Juxtaposed with Wordplay, The King of Kong seems much more designed to bring to light an arcane world with a questionable governing body than to showcase a community and an event that people might not know much about. Instead of offering up a choice of characters to root for, we are given a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, but at the end of it all, the audience mostly ends up questioning whether or not these people ought to let go of the joystick and go outside and toss a frisbee around instead. It’s still entertaining and worth a watch, but also kind of mind-boggling. I think I preferred Wordplay, although The King of Kong is somewhat more dramatic in nature.

So, if you’re looking for a documentary to watch, but like your subject matter a little on the light side, you should definitely check out one of these. You know, in your spare time.