Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Human Comedy (dir by Clarence Brown)


The-human-comedy-1943Thanks to TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I now have several movies on my DVR that I need to watch over the upcoming month.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining.  I’m always happy to have any reason to discover (or perhaps even rediscover) a movie.  And, being an Oscar junkie, I especially enjoy the opportunity to watch the movies that were nominated in the past and compare them to the movies that have been nominated more recently.

For instance, tonight, I watched The Human Comedy, a film from 1943.  Along with being a considerable box office success, The Human Comedy won on Oscar (for Best Story) and was nominated for four others: picture, director (Clarence Brown), actor (Mickey Rooney), and black-and-white cinematography.  The Human Comedy was quite a success in 1943 but I imagine that, if it were released today, it would probably be dismissed as being too sentimental.  Watching The Human Comedy today is something of a strange experience because it is a film without a hint of cynicism.  It deals with serious issues but it does so in such a positive and optimistic manner that, for those of us who are used to films like The Big Short and Spotlight, a bit of an attitude adjustment is necessary before watching.

And yet that doesn’t mean that The Human Comedy is a bad film.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.  The Human Comedy is a time capsule, a chance to look into the past.  It also features a great central performance, one that was quite rightfully nominated for an Oscar.  As I watched Mickey Rooney in this film, I started to feel guilty for some of the comments I made when I reviewed Mickey in The Manipulator last October.

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The Human Comedy opens with an overhead shot of the small town of Ithaca, California.  The face of Mr. McCauley (Ray Collins, who you’ll recognize immediately as Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) suddenly appears in the clouds.  Mr. McCauley explains that he’s dead and he’s been dead for quite some time.  But he loves Ithaca so much that his spirit still hangs around the town and keeps an eye on his family.  Somehow, the use of dead Mr. McCauley as the film’s narrator comes across as being both creepy and silly.

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But no sooner has Mr. McCauley stopped extolling the virtues of small town life than we see his youngest song, 7 year-old Ulysseus (Jack Jenkins), standing beside a railroad track and watching a train as it rumbles by.  Sitting on the cars are a combination of soldiers and hobos.  Ulysseus waves at some of the soldiers but none of them wave back.  Finally, one man waves back at Ulysseus and calls out, “Going home, I’m going home!”  It’s a beautifully shot scene, one that verges on the surreal.

That opening pretty much epitomizes the experience of watching The Human Comedy.  For every overly sentimental moment, there will be an effective one that will take you by surprise.  The end result may be uneven but it’s still undeniably effective.

The majority of the film deals with Homer McCauley (Mickey Rooney).  Homer may still be in high school but, with his older brother, Marcus (Van Johnson), serving overseas and his father dead, Homer is also the man of the house.  Homer not only serves as a role model for Ulysseus but he’s also protector for his sister, Bess (Donna Reed).   (At one point in the film, she gets hit on by three soldiers on leave.  One of them is played by none other than Robert Mitchum.)  In order to bring in extra money for the household, Homer gets a job delivering telegrams.

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In between scenes of Homer in Ithaca, we get oddly dream-like scenes of Marcus and his army buddies hanging out.  Marcus spends all of his time talking about how much he loves Ithaca and how he can’t wait for the war to be over so he can return home.  One of his fellow soldiers says, “I almost feel like Ithaca is my hometown, too.”  Marcus promises him that they’ll all visit Ithaca.  As soon as the war is over…

With World War II raging, Homer’s job largely consists of delivering death notices (and the occasional singing telegram, as well).  Telegraph operator Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan) deals with the burden of having to transcribe bad news by drinking.  Homer, meanwhile, tries to do his job with compassion and dignity but one day, he has to deliver a telegram to his own house…

The Human Comedy is an episodic film, full of vignettes of life in Ithaca and Homer growing up.  There’s quite a few subplots (along with a lot of speeches about how America is the best country in the world) but, for the most part, the film works best when it concentrates on Homer and Mickey Rooney’s surprisingly subdued lead performance.  By today’s standards, it may seem a bit predictable and overly sentimental but it’s also so achingly sincere that you can’t help but appreciate it.

The Human Comedy was nominated for best picture but it lost to a somewhat more cynical film about life during World War II, Casablanca.

I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (Warner Brothers 1964)


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Don Knotts’ popularity as Deputy Barney Fife on TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW led to his first starring feature role in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Knotts plays milquetoast Henry Limpet, a hen-pecked hubby and military 4-F who longs to be a fish and magically gets his wish. This Disneyesque fantasy-comedy benefits greatly from Knotts’ vocal talents and the animation of “Looney Tunes” vet Robert McKimson. In fact, the whole film would’ve been better off as a complete cartoon, because the live-action segments directed by Arthur Lubin distract from the aquatic antics of Limpet as an animated fish.

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Lubin was a former Universal contract director noted for five Abbott & Costello films (including their first, BUCK PRIVATES), the Francis the Talking Mule series, and TV’s MR. ED. You’d expect lots of slapstick with a resume like that, but no such luck. Instead, Knotts is put through some domestic paces with shrewish wife Carole Cook…

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Here’s the Latest Trailer For Demolition!


Much like Miles Ahead, Demolition is another film that was briefly pegged as a certain 2015 Oscar nominee until its release date was moved back to 2016.  Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to the wonderful Wild, Demolition features Jake Gyllenhaal as a recent widower who struggles to deal with his grief.

I have to admit that I’ve seen the first trailer for Demolition about a hundred times now (it plays before every film at the Alamo Drafthouse) and I’m kind of sick of listening to Gyllenhaal talk about that damn vending machine.  That said, I’ll watch Jake Gyllenhaal in just about anything.  If I could force myself to sit through Southpaw, I’m sure I’ll be able to handle Demolition when it opens in April.

Here’s the latest trailer for Demolition!  Unfortunately, it opens with that same endless vending machine monologue but it does go on to reveal that one of my favorite actresses, Naomi Watts, is in the film as well.  So, that’s a good thing.

Hallmark Review: All Things Valentine (2016, dir. Gary Harvey)


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Sorry I’ve been gone for a few days, but it’s been pretty horrible here. No worries though because I come bearing All Things Valentine. All Things Valentine is a film that on the surface appears to be just a reworked version of Love On The Air, but is actually pretty messed up. For those of you who don’t recall, Love On The Air was the movie where two idiots on the radio fall in love with each other over #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen statements they make on the radio. Not my favorite, but at least it didn’t do what this film does.

The film opens up with that super generic title card that at least looks better than the ones for Unleashing Mr. Darcy and Dater’s Handbook. Then we are introduced to Avery Parker played by Sarah Rafferty. I guess that makes two Hallmark movies where the actresses are from the USA show Suits since Dater’s Handbook had Meghan Markle in it.

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Poor Avery was really happy as she was walking around in red, carrying a gift, and balloons, but then saw her boyfriend kissing another girl. Instead of confronting him or anything, she just goes home to pout. Then we get a shot of a dog she owns. Can’t say I’ve seen a dog with a nose like that.

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And yes Hallmark, I am excited about your upcoming cannibal Valentine’s Day movie. If somebody doesn’t get eaten then I am going to be very disappointed by your deceptive title. Now we find out that Avery works for The Portland Banner as a Dear Abby type called “The Coach”. Her column is called “Consult The Coach”. Here’s the letter that just came in:

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Now we meet the person who wrote the letter named McKenna played by Kimberly Sustad. Sadly, Superman from The Nine Lives Of Christmas isn’t here to save her.

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Here’s the response she receives from The Coach:

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So her letter said that she kept bringing up Valentine’s Day, but that it didn’t seem important to him. The Coach’s advice is that “his insensitivity suggests the kind of man he is. Not someone you should trust with your heart.” Based on the letters I don’t think there is trust in this relationship at all. Wouldn’t the right advice be to stop being cryptic and actually just tell him? Being cryptic then being sad because the other person didn’t figure it out is your problem, not there’s. She actually will do this later and the film will rub it in her face.

Now Avery goes to work and her boss suddenly springs on her this idea for a series of Valentine’s Day related columns. Avery tells her how she isn’t the right person for this, that she doesn’t like Valentine’s Day, etc. Didn’t think of this just a little while ago when she dispensed advice about Valentine’s Day to McKenna, but now this comes out. I know she couched it with “I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day”, but come on! How many of us have read Internet comments that started with I’m not racist or homophobic, but then launch into something blatantly racist or homophobic? Her boss tells her not to worry because it wouldn’t really be you writing the columns, but you’d be pretending to be someone who likes this holiday. Oh, that’s nice! Her boss is telling her to be a liar. Let’s go to dinner now!

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That’s right! McKenna is going to dump her boyfriend Brendan Bates played by Sam Page. I love this conversation because McKenna ceases to think for herself and basically quotes verbatim the turd The Coach sent her calling it advice. He reminds her that the very reason they are out at dinner right now is because he knows he won’t be able to be there on Valentine’s Day, but she doesn’t listen. He is just kicked to the curb.

So let’s see what we have so far. We have a woman who has the maturity of a 12 year-old. A boss who tells her to lie to people in an advice column. We have a woman who probably would think poison would be in her Valentine’s Day candies if an anonymous person online told her that. Wait, sorry, that was Ann Landers and Dear Abby that did that convincing people poison and razor blades might be in their child’s candy. The Coach would never give bad advice even though the scene that follows her giving said advice has her saying she shouldn’t write that stuff because she is biased. Then we have a guy who knew that he would have to work on Valentine’s Day so he made sure to take her out when he could. Fine, but watch what the movie does to this person whose relationship was ruined and what they do to the person who ruined it. That’s why this film is messed up.

Next we meet Brendan’s best friend and McKenna’s best friend who she works with at a bakery. They exist in this story to be a charming subplot on the surface, but really are there to just rub it into McKenna’s face even more. Yes, she will have a conversation with her blonde friend here to try and set us up for the ending. Still not going to work for Hallmark though. If this movie could have ended with none of the main characters together, then it could have worked, but it’s Hallmark so that can’t happen. Yeah, I think you can see what’s coming, can’t you?

Now we find out that Brendan is a vet. And wouldn’t you know it? Avery comes in with her dog that is now sick. Oh, but just before, Brendan fires off an angry letter to The Coach as Bench The Coach. Then the lovers meet, and they start dating.

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I’ve teased it enough. This movie is going to reward this woman for destroying this other’s woman’s life by giving her this guy and delivering an even better guy to her blonde friend leaving McKenna twisting in the wind. No joke. Oh, the writer J.B. White tries to put in a scene here and there so we are properly couched for this ending, but nope. This would be like if Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979) stuck with it’s original ending and rewarded John Heard for all his stalking by having him end up with the girl. That’s what happens here.

I probably should stop now, but can you believe this situation is made even worse. Yeah, McKenna actually has a conversation with Brendan where she says that the Bench The Coach letters to The Coach have caused her to reconsider what she did. He not only brushes her off, but apparently has a date with The Coach on Valentine’s Day. The very day he said earlier he couldn’t do anything on.

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So in case we thought this might actually be a decent guy and were rooting for him, the movie gives us a reason to hate him. Yep!

The rest of the story plays out with Brendan and Avery getting closer and closer together while Brendan’s friend builds and builds up his courage to finally tell the blonde he is head over heels in love with her.

Near the end of the movie McKenna and Avery actually do have a conversation with each other about the whole situation. McKenna told Avery that Brendan was the guy who was sending her Coach persona those letters as Bench The Coach. They have a conversation that really tries to justify the ending by having McKenna reach out in a heart to heart with Avery.

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The movie so wants this to work, but it doesn’t. J.B. White has written some of the better Hallmark movies I’ve seen such as Lead With Your Heart. He obviously wanted to avoid the childish and contrived plots that usually riddle these Hallmark films and shoot for the stars with this one. The movie ends with blonde and Brendan’s friend getting together right in front of McKenna, Brendan and Avery getting together, and this being the last shot of McKenna that we get.

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Looks happy, doesn’t she? This simply wasn’t a plot that the Hallmark template could handle. The movie needed to end with only the blonde and Brendan’s friend getting together. The two worst people in the story end up happy together and the person who was lied to by both of those people is left alone with no one. Neither Avery nor Brendan learn lessons about hiding behind anonymity because doing so gets them together and heals Avery’s wounds associated with Valentine’s Day. This just wasn’t the right script for Hallmark. I actually kind of encourage you to watch it because White was certainly trying here for something adult and mature, but you’ll find that it doesn’t quite work because of the Hallmark romance movie framework that he just couldn’t break so strongly.