30 June 2012

Cinematic Capsules: June 2012

I'm stealing a device used by my mortal enemy Sean over at The End of Cinema blog. Each month I will be posting a compendium of capsule reviews for the films I saw over the course of the last thirty days (Disney features and films from the current year excepted). I will then be indexing the films on decade-by-decade pages for easier navigation further on down the line. One thing I will not be doing is retroactively ranking a year's new additions because that would drive me insane. It's the lightning round kids, did you bring your golf clubs?

Castle in the Sky (1986)

The lone Miyazaki film I had not yet seen is--as the rest--a sweeping tale full of chimerical imagination and gorgeous animation. The film follows a girl who is being pursued by an army and a band of pirates because she possesses a crystal that contains an energy source humans no longer no how to harness. She falls from an airship into the arms of a sweet boy looking for adventure. The two head off in search of the castle in the sky, a sort of Atlantis in the clouds, that was once home to an ancient race but has since fallen into ruin. The film combines many elements familiar to those of Miyazaki's oeuvre, there is a fascination with flight and aerial craft (Porco Rosso), an abiding reverence for nature (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), and a young female protagonist (all of the rest). Castle in the Sky doesn't quite live up to some of the masterpieces later in his career, in part because it feels just a tad too long, but second-tier Miyazaki is still some of the greatest cinema out there.

I'm A Cyborg But That's Okay (2006)

Park Chan-wook's follow-up to his revered vengeance trilogy, is the story of a girl who is convinced she is a robot and is institutionalized when she slits her wrists and inserts active wiring into her flesh. At the sanitarium she meets a bunch of patients with their own quirky brands of psychosis, including a boy who steals peoples' traits while wearing a bunny mask. The boy falls for the girl, who he longs to care for, in turn losing some of his psychosis along the way. The film is a tad overwhelming with all of the manic characters running about, but as the film slowly teases out hints of how all of these people came to be here, the girl's story most of all, it becomes something deeper and more rewarding. The budding romance between the two main characters is disarmingly sweet. Chan-wook's eye is as strong as ever, he practically overloads the frames with vibrant color and well-conceived action.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

My first official exposure to Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and truly I only gave in for David Fincher (and that absolutely incredible teaser trailer). The brief plot outline for those living under a rock for the last couple of years, involves a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who is offered the job of ostensibly writing the memoir of an aged industrialist (Christopher Plummer), when in fact he is investigating a decades-old murder. He is helped by the titular anti-heroine, played well by Rooney Mara, a tech-savvy, drug-addled, motorcycle punk with some serious issues. Because of all of the hype and hysteria surrounding the work I was expecting something all together more gruesome than what was delivered, maybe something more akin to a certain movie by the director of the aforementioned cyborg film. Admittedly the scenes of rape and torture were plenty brutal and stomach-turning, but I expected the film to be more relentless. Instead a lot of it is taken up with Craig looking at old pictures and talking to elderly nazis, while Mara types away on her MacBook. The investigative nature of the film immediately recalls Fincher's Zodiac, a more idiosyncratic and all together better film that leaves the viewer with a lot more to chew on. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far from bad--in fact, it's good!-- but it feels less personal. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again contribute a stellar soundtrack, as they did for Fincher's The Social Network.

The Italian Job (1969)

Aptly summed up as the film where Benny Hill plays a computer wizard with an ass fetish, the original British version of The Italian Job is for the most part, a painful experience to watch. It is a woefully unfunny attempt at a comedic caper film that traffics in that special blend of tedious weirdness only Britain in the late sixties could produce. Michael Caine plays a career criminal who takes on an elaborate heist for his recently deceased friend. Noel Coward of all people plays a well-to-do, thoroughly British crime lord who oversees the plan from his regal perch in prison. The first hour is an absolute waste of time, with Caine bedding various birds while piecing together the elements for his theft of $4 million in gold being transported through Italy. The film is most remembered for its climactic car chase featuring a trio of colorful Mini Coopers, and the sequence is easily the most fun part of the picture, even though it is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. Somehow the silliness that eludes the film for its first seventy minutes works here. Unfortunately the goofy getaway is not enough to salvage an otherwise worthless movie.

11 June 2012

Disney Daze: Week 22: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a feature that in many respects serves as a book end to an era. It is the last of the fifty-two animated films to be a package picture, comprised of three featurettes, the first of which, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, saw release in 1966. 1966 was the year of Walt Disney's death and this then makes The Many Adventures truly the last picture the company's namesake worked on. He also had a hand in the early development of the second short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day which was released in 1968. Walt had always intended on turning the Pooh shorts into a feature but felt that the American public was not as familiar with the characters as people in the United Kingdom, where Pooh had originated in books by author A. A. Milne in 1926. Therefore U.S. audiences would best be served by introducing the bear and his friends in shorter subjects.

Before we proceed, let us get one thing settled straight away: the Disney conception of Winnie the Pooh is the most adorable creature ever created. The "tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff" as animated by the great Disney artisans and voiced perfectly by the stalwart Sterling Holloway, in his greatest and most iconic role, is like some sort of divine inspiration. Never has a character been so clearly and cleverly adapted into its purest essence than the dim-witted Pooh Bear. As he sits in his thoughtful spot furrowing his brow and tapping his head, concentrating hard on concentrating hard, he brings an immediate smile to one's face. When he pauses on his perambulations to listen to his growling "tumbly", we are instantly delighted. In the abstract it sounds like all too much but there is an essence to Winnie the Pooh that cuts through jaded cynicism and touches our hearts. How's that for treacle?

The film opens in a live action bedroom as we see replicas of the original stuffed animals Milne's son, Christopher Robin, owned that inspired his father's stories. In that grand Disney tradition, the camera settles on a book that magically opens and thrusts us into the story. But here we get the great conceit of using the book's physicality, its corners, edges, and type, as part of the landscape. The characters are constantly hopping from page to page or nearly falling out of the book. Several times we hear them comment on the literary universe they live in. This device helps thread the three featurettes together, treating them as chapters that are read by our narrator Sebastian Cabot. Because of these strung together short subjects, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the epitome of episodic. But unlike most films falling under that rubric, here the chapters do not feel disjointed. Interestingly, the film never feels compelled by narrative drive, it is more about living in the universe depicted onscreen. Sure, things happen but they feel more random--perhaps more organic--than a steady beat from point A to point B.

Because of this lack of traditional plotting, there is no real point in summing up the events and trajectory of the film. It is far more interesting to reflect on the characters, the setting, and the design. After a succession of films that all shared a similar animated aesthetic it is incredibly refreshing to see a unique style on display, something that at one time was not unheard of on the Disney lot. As mentioned above, the character design of Winnie the Pooh has been wholly Disney-fied, but the backgrounds retain the style of the book's original etchings. One can see the hash marks that went into shading a dark corner, and the whole look gives the film a cozier feel. The drawings possess a timeless vibrancy to them and manage to evoke a bygone era, namely childhood. This is the fantasyland of a little boy's imagination and the first comparison I think of is the endless forests that Calvin and his tiger Hobbes spend their summers in, playing games and questioning existence.

The characters inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood are a diverse menagerie, all representing one particular personality trait or quality. If Pooh is the id, controlled solely by his impulses, Piglet is the superego, all but stifled by his eager aim to please, to be altruistic. Owl is wise and therefore a bit of a bore, while Eeyore is a depressive cynic who sees no hope in even the simplest act of kindness. Rabbit is a fussing fuddy duddy, while Kanga is a sign of warm, matronly love. Her child Roo is curious, an endless fount of inquisitiveness. My favorite character, Gopher, is a beacon of industrious labor, constantly toiling away because it is the only thing that gives him purpose. And then there's Tigger, a boisterous, bouncing ball of energy, the benevolent harbinger of chaos. Tigger is anarchy.

The film gives adequate, if not equal, measure to these characters, never allowing one animal to overstay their welcome. This parceling out of personalities is a very wise move on the filmmakers' part. Tigger, who could most quickly become a nuisance, is delayed an introduction until quite late in the picture, in the second section during the blustery day. Some characters get short shrift, for example Kanga is left to fret over her baby and that's about it. However as characters come and go, not appearing in whole sections of the picture, only to crop up later on, it gives the universe a sense of habitation, wherein we subconsciously acknowledge the existence of life outside the frame, beyond the story at hand. 

One of the great successes of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the stellar soundtrack composed entirely by the Sherman Brothers. Outside of possibly Mary Poppins, the songs contained within are the greatest collection of the brothers' career. The music is inextricably linked with the film and one walks away from a viewing with not one, but several iconic melodies bouncing around in their brain. The songs complement the environment and characters on a level of deep understanding. Above all they respect the material. This might be a bit sacrilegious but the Sherman Brothers' work on Winnie the Pooh is possibly the greatest Disney soundtrack since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While I prefer "Pink Elephants on Parade" to "Heffalumps and Woozles", or Frank Churchill's "Little April Showers" to "The Rain, Rain, Rain, Came Down, Down, Down", the sum of Pooh is an achievement of staggering proportions. It is a both a glorious send off for the brothers, who would not work for the studio for decades after Pooh's release, and a deep shame for the very same reason.

The film ends with a section, that like the wraparound chapter heading segments, was not part of the original featurettes. It is a quiet meditative scene following Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh as they make their way across logs and over rivers through the forest. Christopher tells Pooh that he will not be returning to the Hundred Acre Wood for quite some time because he is being sent off to school. The boy bemoans his encroaching adulthood, declaring that his favorite thing to do is nothing. Adults are always doing something, whereas he and Pooh can just walk about and be. Pooh asks why Christopher must go even though he doesn't want to. It is a scene of incredible poignancy. It works so well because it never once telegraphs its emotions with tears, or swelling music, or pained declarations. There is a resigned air to it all that works all the better for its remarkable restraint. It is in fact one of the most successful endings to a Disney picture. It possesses a maturity that it openly regrets but cannot deny.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh doesn't actually contain much adventure. Basically a bear lusts for honey and will stop at nothing to acquire it. This leads to many amusing moments with a delightful bunch of characters, but little in terms of action and excitement. However, the decisions made on behalf of the animators, writers, and actors, to keep it simple and find a relaxed pace, a lazy rhythm, is a choice that leads to immense satisfaction. As films (especially those aimed at children) perpetually push from one spectacle to another for fear of losing their audience's ever-decreasing attention span, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh casually invites you in for some lunch. Help yourself. That is the most adventurous thing of all. 

08 June 2012

Disney Daze: Week 21: Robin Hood

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It sounds like the makings of another Disney classic. Let's take a folk tale that has captured the imagination of generations, turn the characters into anthropomorphized animals, include some catchy musical numbers, and cue the magic. Lamentably this patented mix of Disney's film formula would be in part Robin Hood's downfall. The film recalls several previous features in many ways, almost all of them detrimental. However this often pale imitation of features past provides glimmers of hope and harbors the occasional opportunity to shine. 

The songs are one of the highlights of the film. To be more specific, the songs written and sung by Roger Miller as the minstrel rooster Allan-a-Dale are great, the others--including an insipid ballad called unimaginatively "Love"--not so much. Miller opens the film singing the infectiously goofy "Whistle-Stop", which unfortunately plays out over one of the worst credit sequences in Disney history. Over a sparse, blank background showing clips of character animation that will be revisited later in the film, the credits showcase individual performers, superimposing the voice actors' names over the animation in hideous yellow font. It looks cheap and more to the point, ugly. The credits are immediately followed by Miller's opening narration in the guise of another great tune, "Oo-de-lally". He contributes one more track late in the film, the dour and heartfelt, "Not in Nottingham". All in all, Miller contributes a great triple-shot of folky numbers that are evocative and effective.

The biggest musical sequence however is set to the song "The Phony King of England" written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Phil Harris. The scene is the most controversial in the film because it flagrantly recycles several bits of animation from previous Disney features, particularly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Aristocats, and The Jungle Book. Having watched all of these films in the last six months makes the rip-offs even more pronounced. Admittedly some of the stolen elements work for the scene and the setting, but some feel completely out of place. There is a shot of Little John bobbing his head back and forth, as he, I mean, Baloo does during "I Wan'na Be Like You" in The Jungle Book. In the earlier film, the movement feels fluid and flows well with the jazzy score. Here it looks awkward and slightly out of rhythm. There is also a percussionist in the forest band that is a carbon copy in mannerisms, including the smiling and squinting, of the racist feline drummer in The Aristocats (here he is a rabbit). The question is why? It's obvious that the repeated animation was a labor-saving device but why keep in the racist characteristics when laying the redesign over the previous animation?

Of course, the "Phony King of England" sequence is not the only time Robin Hood performs thievery on the Disney back catalog (hey maybe it was all commentary on the film's plot!). The film borrows heavily from several films, above all the aforementioned Jungle Book. Yes, Little John is a carbon copy of Baloo, even down to the Phil Harris vocalization, but secondary characters as well find their origin in the earlier film. For example, Prince John's toady of an assistant, the snake Hiss, a reptile with a penchant for hypnosis, is a less effective but all-together similar creation to the insidious Kaa. At least these two have different actors behind them. Sterling Holloway's voice was a great choice for the seductively sinister Kaa. Terry Thomas's Hiss is adequate enough although it comprises mostly a series of slippery "esses". The other vocal stylings on display are for the most part rather well cast. Peter Ustinov's take on the petulant Prince John is a little too over-the-top at times, but his phrasings on John's alliterative accusations are great (calling Friar Tuck a "corpulent cleric" is one of my favorites). Speaking of the Friar, Andy Devine's turn as Tuck carries a lifetime of defeated regret in every sigh. Meanwhile Pat Buttram's creaky voicing of the Sheriff of Nottingham works well for a character who uses folksy patter while grafting every last cent from the poor. The two voice actors who fall short unfortunately are the romantic leads, Brian Bedford's Robin Hood and Monica Evans' Maid Marian are forgettably bland and uninspiring. 

The film spends most of its time on two big set pieces. The first is an archery tournament devised by Prince John as a means of trapping Robin Hood. Robin enters the competition disguised as a bird and defeats the cheating Sheriff of Nottingham before being exposed by the Prince. A chaotic chase ensues that runs far too long but has a couple of choice visuals to show for it. The best shot is of Marian's confidant, the stocky Lady Kluck, running headlong into a phalanx of royal guards. The shot is from Kluck's behind as guards come rushing straight at the camera only to be pushed aside by the fleeing chicken. The second set piece involves another trap set by John for Robin Hood's capture. John announces that he will execute the imprisoned Friar Tuck at dawn, in hopes of Robin coming to the rescue. Of course, Robin and Little John plan a prison break with just a little robbery on the side for good measure. This climactic action sequence is the best section of the picture, with inventive escapes and high stakes. It ends with a trapped Robin leaping from a burning castle tower into the surrounding moat. The animation and use of color here is superbly done.  

I had previously written about Robin Hood some three years ago for the old Metro Classics blog, not too long after I started on this road of Disney obsession. Of the film, I said that it lacked heart and after revisiting it I completely stand by that assessment. However, another trait that Robin Hood doesn't possess is a personality of its own, which is somewhat understandable from such a Frankenstein patchwork of previous pictures. Which is ultimately a shame since the film has a potential that peeks out occasionally from the edges. Chalk it up to a missed opportunity from a company attempting to simultaneously rehash the glory days while charting a course for tomorrow.