Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Daddy Long Legs' Is Excellent, Despite Being A Departure for Astaire

It's no secret that I'm a fan of a good musical. For the most part, they were backed by a good story and decent acting. But, especially in the Astaire/Rodgers era, they could become monotonous and formulaic. It's hard to take the song and dance out of a song and dance man like Astaire. He was often cast in a facet of show business, persuing somebody else in show business, or somebody aspiring to be in show business. This film, however, is not such a story. It was a departure for Astaire, but, of the post Astaire/Rodger's films, this was one of the best.

Astaire plays Jervis Pendleton III. Now here's where the film becomes an original Astaire film. Pendelton is not in show business. He is, in fact, a very wealthy and shrewd New York businessman. While traveling in France with his entourage, their car breaks down, and Jervis takes it upon himself to go for help, and get away from his headache that is everybody who has become dependant on him. He arrives at a large country home, looking for assistance. What he finds is an enchanting eighteen year old orphan, Julie (Leslie Caron), acting as school teacher for the other orphans. He soon finds out that she longs to attend college in America, but does not have the means to do so. Enchanted, but very aware of their age difference, he becomes her benefactor and anonymously sends her to a prestigious college in New England. She takes it upon herself to write her benefactor and thank him for his generosity, and keep him updated on her progress. For three years, she doesn't receive the response that she so richly desires. Then, fate injects. Pendleton arrives from New York to chaperone a dance at the behest of his sister and long lost (to him) niece. Julie just happens to be his niece's roommate. Unaware that Jervis is the "John Smith" to which she's been writing , Julie falls for this "Daddy Long Legs" as she describes him (from the shadow he cast on the wall at the orphanage where she first meets him), and he, in turn falls for her. It's not until the finale of the film that Julie's mysterious "John Smith" is revealed.

There's not an Astaire film that I've met that I haven't liked. I undoubtedly have my favorites, but the ones that I've seen have been excellent. It's true that, at times, the story lines to these films were recycled, with only the details and names changed. But each of these films have become classic examples of story telling. Modern day stars of the "Great White Way" have no doubt studied Astaire and his choreography and nuance. He was notorious for being a perfectionist when staging a dance, often pushing the other actors to the point of exhaustion. There are several complex dances in this film, most of which were choreographed by Astaire himself. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that his films have gone down in cinematic history as some of the best. He was an early version of Christopher Walken. In that, I mean that his acting didn't really change from one film to the next, except in rare instances within the context of the film. He didn't have to adapt to a film. The film and it's actors would adapt to him. While Astaire can be credited for this, the same can be said for the other actors in his films. They also have to adapt to his style of acting, his drive to make everything perfect, and his particular style of choreography. Leslie Caron was famously discovered by Gene Kelly when he was casting for "An American in Paris". Kelly and Astaire are excellent dancers in their own rights, but Caron is equally, if not more amazing, because she danced with both men, and she had to adapt her style to match her respective partner. Certainly, no easy task, but she was able to do it as well as anybody else.

Having seen several Astaire musicals, I would say that I enjoyed this one very much. It has a different feel than his films he made with Ginger Rodgers did ten to twenty years before, but this was nonetheless an excellent film that has endured in the last fifty-plus years since it's debut. Great story and acting make this film a must see for the fan of the nearly bygone musical film.

83rd Academy Awards Were Mostly a Bomb

As a film critic, of sorts, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about this year's Academy Awards. Every year, the who's who of Hollywood and abroad come together to honor each other's accomplishments in film in the past year. Film veterans and newcomers alike sit together as if they have always known one another. Each year, the rest of us sit at home, possibly having watched the honored films. We are entertained, amused, and, at times, moved to tears. But rarely are we inclined to praise such achievements as a digital video recorder (DVR). Sure, it moves through pesky commercials with ease, but using it to fast forward through long rambling speeches of the honorees, not to mention the seemingly lackluster chemistry of the hosts. This year, while parts of the broadcast were entertaining and moving, I couldn't understand what the show's producers were thinking this year.

In past years, such entertainers such as Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg, just to name a few, have adorned the stage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Apparently everybody else was busy this year. I found that Anne Hathaway (who is usually likeable) and Academy Award nominee James Franco (for his performance in "127 Hours") didn't rise to the occasion. It felt like watching an elementary school version of a Shakespeare play. Sure, there were some laughs. Most of them came with James Franco trying not to appear inebriated on stage. At one point, Anne Hathaway broke into song, preluding it with the fact that her performance was supposed to be a duo with Aussie actor Hugh Jackman, who backed out at the last minute. Whether or not this is true is beside the point. Going back to the elementary school analogy, it was like watching your child break character in the middle of the play and say, "Hi mommy...hi daddy...". It's kind of cute, yes, but at a certain point, you can't help but being a little embarrassed, for them, and for yourself.

Shall we talk about the acceptance speeches and statuette presentations? While the broadcast has become famous over the years for long acceptance speeches, the award-winning actor or actress being gradually interrupted by a swelling orchestra, informing them that they've over stayed their welcome, the award presenters, who are often past award winners, were somewhat flat this year. I do enjoy when a host or presenter interjects their own personal stories of an actor or nominee. This was present this year, but as the saying goes, "too little, too late." The barbs came late in the broadcast, as the "Best Actor/Actress" awards were being given out. Nonagenerian Kirk Douglas presented the award for "Best Supporting Actress" (Melissa Leo for "The Fighter". It was well deserved). As enduring as it is to see somebody come back from a debilatating stroke, it was painful to see Douglas struggle through his speech. He was un-intelligible at times, often slurring his words. He appeared to be man of a hundred and twenty, rather than one of his nearly ninety five years. I will concede that he was an excellent actor in his day, just as his son is now. He received a well deserved standing ovation upon his entrance. Many of the long rambling acceptance speeches often come from the winners of the "Foreign Film" category, evidenced by Roberto Benigni's win in 1998 for "Life is Beautiful". I must have blocked this part out from this year's show, but suffice it to say, there were plenty of orchestral interruptions this year, which made me love my DVR even more.

Things weren't certainly all thorns this year. There were a few roses. The "In Memoriam" segment in which the Academy honors those actors who have passed away in the last year is always touching. Colin Firth and Natalie Portman both deservedly won in their respective categories, he for "The King's Speech", she for "Black Swan". "Inception", which I thought was one the best films of years past, won for visual effects and cinematography, certainly both well deserved. Randy Newman won for best song. When he stepped on stage to give his acceptance speech, he facetiously acknowledged his poor track record, this being only his second win in a staggering twenty nominations. These were a few gems in a broadcast which was otherwise plagued with oscar winners overstaying their welcome, and seemingly uncomfortable first time hosts.

This is probably the only awards show I look forward to. Being such a large fan of cinema, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the glitz that is Hollywood's biggest night. But number eighty three fell short in many ways. I, along with nearly a third of the entire world's population will be back next year. Hopefully, they will have ironed out the kinks from this year.