Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Our Holiday Favorites: The Man Who Came to Dinner


Bette Davis and Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner

Bette Davis in a breezy, holiday comedy -- why, yes! In The Man Who Came to Dinner, she plays secretary Maggie Cutler to Monty Woolley's acerbic blowhard Sheridan Whiteside. The film is based on the 1938 play by Kaufman and Hart, and is so full of then-contemporary pop culture references, it's almost like I Love the '30s (and Early '40s). Jimmy Durante plays a character based on Harpo Marx, fictional Beverly Carlton (played by Reginald Gardiner) is shaped on Noel Coward, and Ann Sheridan's Lorraine Sheldon is formed on legendary actress Gertrude Lawrence.

The 1942 movie runs like a play at times; most of the action is based at the home of the wealthy Stanley clan, which you almost pity and dislike at the same time. Whiteside is the "Man" of the title, a radio host and public speaker unafraid to speak his mind to anyone that will listen. On a winter train stop tour, he slips on the Stanleys' front steps, and promptly takes over their house for the next few weeks.

I don't know of another film with quite such a combination of comedy (of the dry, biting kind), romance, pop culture references and Jimmy Durante singing ridiculous songs. To think The Man Who Came to Dinner was almost made without Monty Woolley, who originated the role on stage! It's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, despite how much Bette Davis wanted John Barrymore instead.

Our Holiday Favorites: Fitzwilly


Barbara Feldon and Dick van Dyke in Fitzwilly

Fitzwilly is an underrated, oft-ignored Delbert Mann film from 1967. It might be a cult classic if slightly more people knew about it! I first heard about the comedy through a family friend eight or nine years ago, and I loved it at first viewing. The movie can be watched year-round, but I prefer to wait until December.

Dick Van Dyke plays butler Fitzwilly to Miss Vicki (Edith Evans), a generous benefactress who has no idea of her true financial standing (she's almost broke). He leads her doting staff, compiled of fantastic character actors (John McGiver as Albert is a particular favorite of mine) and soon-to-be-big-names (Sam Waterston plays the chauffeur in one of his first film roles). To keep Miss Vicki in the style to which she is accustomed, Fitzwilly is running several con games. One thing may throw a wrench in his plans -- Miss Vicki decides to write a dictionary for people who can't spell and hires a secretary from Columbia, Juliet (Barbara Feldon, aka 99 from Get Smart).

Our Holiday Favorites: The Muppet Christmas Carol


Michael Caine and the Muppets in The Muppet Christmas Carol

The first Muppet film to be made after the death of Jim Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol came out in 1992. My parents took my sister and me to see this in a theater, and we've watched it every Christmas since. Up until a few years ago, we were still bringing out the VHS copy. 

In this take on Dickens' story, Michael Caine gamely stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, a cantankerous grump overseeing an office staffed by Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog) and many rats. Gonzo narrates the film as Charles Dickens, and Rizzo the Rat appears as... Rizzo the Rat. Human cameos in the movie are light. While there are dozens, nay, hundreds of Muppets in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Caine's performance is what makes this movie such a classic. His is the best Scrooge I've seen onscreen.  

Of course there are songs, but this is the last Muppet movie for which Paul Williams wrote original tunes (as of this writing). Memorable songs such as "Scrooge" and "Marley and Marley" are catchy, yet forboding. The only complaint I have with The Muppet Christmas Carol is the overtly saccharine scene when Belle sings farewell ("When Love Is Gone") to a young Scrooge. I always fast forward through it.  

Our Holiday Favorites: Elf


Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in Elf

For some of us, the moment we saw Elf in the theatre it became an instant classic. My sister and I adore this movie. Quotes from the 2003 film have become part of our lexicon, as we refer to things as "ginormous" and call each other to randomly announce, "Good news! I saw a dog today."

Directed by Jon Favreau post-Swingers, pre-Iron Man, the film focuses on Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), told by his papa elf (Bob Newhart) that he is really a human (gasp!) and that his biological father (James Caan) is on the naughty list (double gasp!).  Buddy makes his way to New York City where he gets to know his father's family and falls for a sarcastic Gimbels worker named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

I know people who refuse to see this movie because they don’t like Will Ferrell, but they are missing out. His childlike glee in this movie is infectious, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling the character off. With its excellent cast and the deft screenplay by David Berenbaum, Elf is a perfect combination of the silly and the sweet. I've seen it multiple times and each time I can't help getting a little teary-eyed as the crowd sings "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" toward the end. 

Review: The Descendants


George Clooney in The Descendants

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) has turned to Hawaii for his new movie, The Descendants. Based on the 2007 debut novel by Kaui Hart Hennings, the film is narrated by lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), who feels pulled by the past and the present at the same time.

For the present, his wife Elizabeth (a silent Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a powerboating accident. Now Matt, who has remained fairly oblivious to his family, has to care for 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and pull 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) out of boarding school on the mainland. Alex admits to her father that the reason she had a falling out with Elizabeth is because she knew her mom was having an affair. King decides to find his wife's lover and tell him about her condition.

It's That Time of Year (Almost): Holiday Films at the Paramount


Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye & Vera Ellen in White Christmas

If you, like me, wait until Thanksgiving to start watching holiday movies, it's almost time to bring them out. This year (as in years past) the Paramount is showing classic White Christmas, as well as a couple more modern Christmas "classics."

White Christmas will be shown on the night of Monday, Nov. 28th at 7 pm and 9:30. A showcase for music by Irving Berlin, the 1954 film stars crooner Bing Crosby, goofball Danny Kaye, songstress Rosemary Clooney and dancer Vera Ellen. A couple of song and dance men meet up with singing sisters and decide to take their show to Vermont. Post-World War II-era jingoism, romantic miscommunication, a song called "Choreography," child ballerinas and choirboys -- this movie's got it all.

In December, the landmark theatre will pair 1988's Scrooged with 2003's Love Actually. Jesse Trussell, the Paramount's film programmer, comments, "That double bill are two more recent selections than we've typically played in the past, but one of the things I like to focus on here at the theater is to find a good mix between the perennial classics we all love and titles that haven't played on our screen. With the three films picked this year I think we cover a wide spectrum of holiday film tastes."

If you like your schmaltz laid on thick and movies where multiple couples fall in love, then you can't go wrong with the ensemble romantic-comedy Love Actually. Richard Curtis' movie has some high points -- mainly the quality cast involved.  I know many people who love this movie, but I'm not one of them.  The less than subtle attempts at emotional manipulation are a bit much for me.  Still, Bill Nighy singing "Christmas Is All Around Me" almost makes up for the rest of the film.  Almost.  Love Actually shows at 4 pm on Sunday, December 18 and 2 pm and 6:35 pm on Monday, December 19.

One of the greatest (and least reverent) cinematic takes on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooged features Bill Murray as an affluent network television executive led by a trio of spirits to face the selfish man he has come to be. Alfre Woodard plays his Cratchit-like assistant, Karen Allen his lost love, Carol Kane the Ghost of Christmas Present ... this cast is packed with talent (and the cameos!). Here's hoping that the audience at the Paramount screenings will stick around to sing along with "Put A Little Love in Your Heart." I'm getting verklempt just thinking about it. Scrooged screens at 2 pm and 6:55 pm on Sunday, December 18 and 4:35 pm on Monday, December 19.

Review: Like Crazy


Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in Like Crazy

It's fall of 2006 -- or perhaps it's spring of 2007, dates are unclear -- and British exchange student Anna (Felicity Jones, Brideshead Revisited) leaves a note on a windshield for her crush Jacob (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek). Thus, the romance that forms the basis for Like Crazy is initiated.

Jacob is an aspiring furniture designer, Anna wants to be a journalist, and they both love Paul Simon's Graceland. The sparks between these two are, umm, crazy as we see their relationship bloom. Suddenly it's the end of the school year and Anna's visa is up, and the decision she makes at this point leads to the immigration debacle that keeps the lovers apart for months at a time.

Years pass, I think (like I said, dates are unclear in this movie) and Anna and Jacob break up and get back together because long distance relationships are hard, y'all. Especially when communication is so difficult -- well, at least between these two twentysomethings, it is. Yelchin and Jones are destined for great things, and this film serves as an excellent showcase for their talent. While their characters make stupid mistakes (as we humans are wont to do), Anna and Jacob remain likeable and relatable.

Shorts Wanted for Faces of Austin 2012


Faces of Austin

The City of Austin is asking for short film submissions for 2012 Faces of Austin. Faces of Austin is a program of the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. This is the fifth year of the city's program; entries that are chosen show at City Hall, online, on Channel 6, and at other screenings throughout the year. This year's shorts will also be featured as part of a Community Screening during SXSW in March 2012.

Local filmmakers of all ages and experience-levels are encouraged to submit their original entries on DVD by January 16, 2012 to the City of Austin along with the completed application form (.pdf). The films -- no longer than 10 minutes -- should incorporate local flavor by depicting Austin characters, voices, stories, organizations, landscapes, music, events, landmarks, etc. Documentary, student film, music video, narrative film based in town -- anything along these lines is welcome. The call for entries (.pdf) has more information.

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene


Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Before the Martha Marcy May Marlene press screening started, my friend and I joked about the name of the film and how difficult it was to recall all the "M" names in it. After seeing the movie, however, it's quite doubtful the viewer will forget the film's title. Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Olsen -- sibling of those Olsens, who really looks like a younger Maggie Gyllenhaal -- stars as Martha/Marcy May.

Olsen's Martha is confused and currently dependent on her older sister Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) generosity, such as it is. She refuses to confide in Lucy about what she's been up to the past two years.

Before deciding to reach out to her much older sister, Martha lived a couple years at a farm in upstate New York headed by a David Koresh-like figure named Patrick (former Austinite John Hawkes). The farmworkers/cultmembers are all twentysomething lanky, attractive folk who share a wardrobe. Patrick renames our protagonist Marcy May and initiates her into the group by raping her after she's been drugged. Another woman in the group assures her after the awful event that this was a "truly good" thing.

AFF Review: Thank You for Judging


Thank You for Judging poster

If you enjoy watching the National Geography Bee and love the 2002 film Spellbound, but wonder, "Where is the love for kids who do speech and debate?" you will likely enjoy Thank You for Judging. Texan actor Michael Urie (best known for his work on Ugly Betty), one of four credited directors on this movie, took a camera crew to spend a weekend at the Texas Forensic Association's state competition in 2008, resulting in this documentary.

Thank You for Judging follows teens from Plano Senior High School (Urie's alma mater) as well as students from Creekview High in Carrollton as they go through the stages of the tournament in Coppell, Texas. Neither ice nor sleet nor snow will keep these determined teens from competing, althoughwintry weather almost delays the competition. To give the viewer an idea of what they're in for, Plano coach Karen Wilbanks states, "All art is competitive."

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