31 August 2012

Cinematic Capsules: August 2012

Zoolander (2001)

Ben Stiller's fashion world farce is nothing more than a cameo-filled waste of time. Blame most of the failure on Stiller himself, who in addition to directing and starring in the picture, also co-wrote the cliché-addled screenplay. The usually-reliable Will Ferrell is only intermittently funny because he is given absolutely nothing to do. The one shining light is surprisingly Owen Wilson, who plays an up-and-coming rival of Stiller's with just the right amount of oblivious gusto. The film provides a few genuine moments of laughter but they are fleeting.

Overboard (1987)

An outlandish, crude, and surprisingly cruel picture from director Garry Marshall that is saved solely by the undeniable chemistry of stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Hawn plays a rich and spoiled shrew living on a yacht who hires handyman Russell to remodel her closet. When she is unsatisfied with the work she fires Russell without compensation. That night she falls off the yacht and is taken to a nearby hospital where it is discovered she has amnesia. Russell takes her in as revenge, leading her to believe that they are married and that she is tasked with raising a household of four unruly boys. The romantic comedy hits all of the familiar beats and the ending is telegraphed from the very first scene, but it has its odd charms to it. However, it is still hard to stomach Russell's lying despite Hawn's previous cruelty, especially after he falls for her and they consummate the relationship. It all feels a bit too close to rape for me but maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

A very good lead performance from Joan Crawford is not enough to salvage this pedestrian production of a thoroughly mediocre screenplay. Crawford plays the titular character, a grass widow who waits tables and eventually opens her own business, all to provide every possession and opportunity to her pretentious, petulant daughter. The film opens with the murder of her second husband and the events preceding the killing are then told in flashback. Michael Curtiz's direction is fairly rote throughout with a few glaring technical flaws, an out-of-focus shot here, the distracting shadow of what appears to be a boom mic there. Due in part to the structure and some very poor supporting acting, the film's climactic twist is telegraphed from the very first reel, which leaves little room for surprises or excitement. Getting back on my high horse for a moment, it is also a sad state of affairs to see the portrayal of hard-working, entrepreneurial woman in the 1940s be completely undone by blind devotion to such a one-note villain.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

The Western with the greatest title of all time justifiably warrants such a decorous demarcation. Director Nicholas Ray's deft hand guides this intense tale of jealousy and mob rule with an assuredness that blazes onscreen. A hard-bitten, hard-scrabble, hard-working woman played by none other than Joan Crawford, sets up shop on the outskirts of a close-minded community, a town filled with people that want nothing more than to run her--and any other sign of progress--out of the country. The familiar gender roles of the archetypal Hollywood Western are completely thrown out the window here as the film depicts the bitter battle of two tough women that wholly consumes the lives of a town filled with meek men. The film can also be read as an allegorical tale of the Communist witch hunts but it is never once heavy-handed, it refuses to dip into proselytizing. The screenplay by the blacklisted Ben Maddow is a treasure, rife with tense exchanges and a plethora of memorable lines. A cavalcade of familiar Western mugs (including Ward Bond and Royal Dano) dot the supporting cast, while Sterling Hayden and his sonorous voice play the titular hero. But the film belongs utterly to Crawford, who runs the show much like her character Vienna runs the saloon and the broken-hearted lives of the men who love her.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

This raw and gritty noir from director Samuel Fuller sees a two-bit grifter (Richard Widmark) embroiled in some very serious Cold War danger when he inadvertently heists some microfilm meant for the Commies. Fuller and cinematographer Joseph McDonald pull off some incredible camera work here, repeatedly swooping in to a series of subtle and dramatic close-ups from a variety of off-kilter angles. Fuller's screenplay and direction depicts the criminal underworld and their no-nonsense approach to life with a deep understanding. The only thing that doesn't quite jive is pickpocket victim and unknowing Communist carrier, Jean Peters, falling so quickly for Widmark's straight talk and sleazy moves, but that's rather small potatoes. The best actor in the whole picture is Thelma Ritter, who plays a stool pigeon with her own moral code. Ritter imbues her tired, broken down character with a gentle heart and a quiet resignation. Her final appearance late in the picture is not only the best scene in the film, but one of the greatest in cinema history. It is the quietest moment in an otherwise knockabout film, punctuated with a splendid monologue on mortality. "I have to go on making a living, so I can die." 

The Desolation of Thelma Ritter

27 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

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

A renaissance cannot exist with just one work of art. For all of its success--critically, commercially, artistically--The Little Mermaid could not have single-handedly turned the tides at the Disney studios. Had the company followed the acclaimed picture with a succession of sequels like The Rescuers Down Under or left the animation department with the budget cuts and downsized staff of the seventies and eighties, the legacy of the studio would be very different today. But the regime of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg doubled down on The Little Mermaid's success, throwing money and talent at the animation department in hopes of regaining some of the prestige once synonymous with a Walt Disney production. 1991's Beauty and the Beast was the second product of these monumental labors. 

Once again Disney returned to the well of fairy tales which had provided the studio with the inspiration for some of its most vaunted pictures. The tale of a selfish prince cursed with the visage of a hideous creature until he learns to love was ripe for the Disney treatment. The film, like its origins, are set in 18th century France. The filmmakers would use elements from the original story by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, as well as bits from the great 1946 cinematic version directed by Jean Cocteau.

The animation in Beauty and the Beast is uniformly sumptuous. From the opening return of the multi-plane camera to the exquisitely rendered three-dimensional ballroom scene, each frame is imbued with artistry and skill. The film opens with a wonderful prologue showing the birth of Beast's curse through fantastically drawn panes of stained glass. There are exquisite uses of CGI throughout the feature that bring depth and provide subtle and sublime camera movement. The action animation too is stellar, being more than sufficiently harrowing in both a vicious wolf attack and the climactic castle battle between Beast and the vain Gaston.

The character designs run the gamut from the bland and derivative (most of the provincial humans) to charming and inspired (the enchanted housewares of Beast's castle). Belle herself falls a little far into the generic Disney princess trap and her eyeballs are excessively large. Meanwhile this viewer wishes the design of Beast was perhaps a bit more repulsive. Besides moments where his temper flares, he always looks too plush and cuddly. The animators do a wonderful job of transposing certain elements of his beastly attributes to his regenerated human self at the film's end, retaining his haunted blue eyes and giving him a flowing mane of blond hair. The most curious design is that of Belle's father Maurice who looks like the spitting image of David Crosby. 

Beauty and the Beast was the second Disney collaboration between lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. The songs here are more overtly theatrical than their previous work in The Little Mermaid. It's no wonder that the film became the inspiration for Disney's first live Broadway production. As such, the early expository tunes such as "Belle" and "Gaston" are a bit too robust and bombastic for the screen. Every line is belted to the rafters and each song features a huge, rowdy chorus. One expects the characters to pause a beat at tune's end for rapturous applause. Songs appearing later in the picture, including the Simpsons' parodied "Be Our Guest" and the wonderful Angela Lansbury-sung title ballad, fare far better. During the film's production Howard Ashman died at the age of forty due to complications with AIDS. While the last pieces credited to the songwriting pair would appear in the following year's Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast would be their last complete work together. Menken would continue to write melodies for many Disney features but he never again worked with such a spirited and witty writer.

The film is reminiscent at times of two earlier Disney pictures. The opening musical introduction to Belle and the small village is practically a remake of Ichabod Crane's bookish perambulations through Sleepy Hollow in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. ToadBy the way, wouldn't it be great to see a beautiful, well-read gal like Belle settle down with a gangly, geeky school teacher just once? A nerd can dream. Meanwhile the entitled Gaston is most definitely a direct descendent of Ichabod's nemesis Brom Bones. Elsewhere, the anthropomorphized cookery, clocks and candles of Beast's house staff can't help but recall the inhabitants of a certain Wonderland. The keyhole that convinces Alice to shrink herself most certainly would have fit in just fine in the west wing of Beast's castle. Likewise, Gaston's diminutive sidekick Lefou looks like a distant cousin of Tweedles Dee and Dum. 

Beauty and the Beast was rapturously received by critics and the public. It became the third highest grossing film of 1991 (The Rescuers Down Under was number 42 the previous year) and went on to receive an unprecedented six Academy Award nominations, including the first Best Picture nomination for an animated feature. While the film is not quite the cinematic achievement of its predecessor The Little Mermaid or its creative forefathers that blazed a bold and innovative trail some half century before, it is an indelible entertainment that is surprisingly moving at moments. As the Beast finally becomes man and fireworks rain down from his castle, another transformation was now complete. Disney was once again the standard bearer for high-quality animation, indelible songs, and surefire storytelling.

23 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 29: The Rescuers Down Under

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 mere existence of The Rescuers Down Under is extremely curious. Why, out of all of the Disney studio's animated features, was the bland and rather unloved The Rescuers the first film the company deigned worthy of a sequel? Was there a groundswell of support for the re-teaming of the timeless cinematic power couple Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor? Did the first film leave tantalizing plot threads open for further development? Did the studio think that it could improve upon the original? Perhaps the filmmakers too felt the malaise engendered by the 1977 film and sought to rectify the perception of the film and its characters. 

Like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (as well as his Spider-Man 2 for that matter), The Rescuers Down Under is more of a remake of the first film than anything else. The basic plot is almost identical to The Rescuers. A child is kidnapped by an evildoer who needs the kid to obtain a rare and expensive commodity. News of the kidnapping reaches the Rescue Aid Society and a mismatched pair of mice, the exotic Bianca and timid Bernard, are enlisted to save the child. They travel from New York via albatross to a wild landscape where a chase ensues and altruism eventually triumphs over greed. There are three insignificant differences in this plot synopsis to distinguish the two films. In the sequel the child is a boy, the MacGuffin is an endangered eagle, and the setting is the Australian Outback. 

There are a couple of additions and one major subtraction included in the sequel, which when taken together make The Rescuers Down Under a superior film. This time around the narrative uses Bernard's inherent meekness as a plot point by introducing a wild and adventurous kangaroo mouse named Jake, who acts as the rescuers' guide, as well as a rugged and dashing counterpoint, whose attentions to Bianca make a smitten Bernard jealous. It would have in fact been nicer to see more development of this potential love triangle, as well as a further fleshing out of Jake's character. There are intriguing moments sprinkled throughout the film indicating that most of his derring-do and hubris are inadvertent byproducts of simple dumb luck. Being exposed as a fraud would have been quite interesting. Instead he just watches as Bernard saves the day, then gives him and Bianca his blessing after Bernard's marriage proposal.

The film also includes a heavy dose of computer generated imagery (in the studio's first collaboration with a small technology company called Pixar). There are several instances of CGI in the picture, most of them beautifully rendered. The opening title sequence which rushes through a field of flowers is gorgeous, as are later shots flying through canyons. The best visual in the entire film shows the news of the kidnapping being transmitted across a tactile, three-dimensional globe. Meanwhile a shot of the Sydney Opera House falls flat, as it looks like it was two or three passes away from being fully rendered, and cityscapes like that of Manhattan look a little too sleek and boxy, but on the whole the imagery is fantastic. The majority of the film is hand-drawn and every frame looks like a marked improvement over the ugly cinema scape realized in its predecessor. Here we get beautiful pink sunrises and lush greens. The studio must have exhausted their brown paint reserves on the first film. The one truly flawed design is that of the kidnapped child Cody who is overly soft with great, big saucerful eyes. The kid has no spunk or personality. It looks like he was created cute by committee.

The one production component The Rescuers Down Under excises from the template of the previous film is songs. It is only the second film in the studio's canon to be song-free after The Black Cauldron. The instrumental score here by Bruce Broughton is boring enough as it is. Throwing songs in the mix would only cause further trouble. The single shining musical moment in the feature is a tantalizing bit of surf guitar music heard during Wilbur the albatross's take-offs. The infectious reverb jangle and pounding floor toms are heard for a brief second before the generic swelling strings swoop back in. 

A less obvious similarity between the two films is that they both generate a large number of logistical questions in this viewer. For example, how come the majestic eagle and the villainous goanna are the only creatures in the film without the ability to speak English? We get koalas chatting with kangaroos, an imprisoned lizard wailing about his fate, and literally a United Nations full of mice pontificating, and yet these two individuals are denied the gift of speech? How come an avian like Wilbur the albatross can speak while the grand eagle cannot? Also, how come only one major character in the film has an Australian accent? By the sounds of it Jake the mouse is the only Aussie in the bunch. The child Cody, whom one assumes was born and bred in the Outback, speaks like Generic American Child #24X6, while the evil poacher McLeach possesses the voice of George C. Scott, which is all well and badass, but hardly Australian. Did the studio think that the same movie-going audience that embraced the fine works of Paul Hogan and Yahoo Serious would find the Australian accent impenetrable? Preposterous!

The Rescuers Down Under is far from a great film. The main narrative is a carbon copy of the original, which itself was incredibly generic. The dramatic potential available between the three rescuers is left frustratingly undeveloped. There is a C-plot following the antics and exploits of John Candy's Wilbur that generates little laughter and exhausts one's patience. Besides the often top notch animation there is very little here to get excited about. However, as a second try on a failed feature it is a distinct improvement. But ultimately the realization that The Rescuers Down Under was released in between two critical and commercial milestones makes its personal strides evermore insignificant.

09 August 2012

On The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Last night I got an opportunity to see Powell and Pressburger's classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen in a gloriously vivid new print. If you ever get the opportunity in this lifetime, please take it.

What a magnificent entertainment The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is. The Archers' tale of an out-of-touch general looking back on his life, loves and losses, is a supreme achievement made at the height of World War II that would have been completely suppressed if Winston Churchill had his way. Luckily, the Bulldog had more pressing matters to attend to than measly old cinematic censorship. The finished film ably documents the progression of a man who was once the pinnacle of soldiering, the pride of his profession, who failed to adapt to the times. The unwritten rules established so long ago were now broken and the soldier failed to notice. What is the purpose of a life in a world that has no more use for it?

The filmmaking on display in Blimp is masterful without ever once feeling showy. The editing is phenomenal, in particular during the two very different unfoldings of the same scene, shown as bookends to the film. The opening version gives us just enough information to latch onto while keeping other items, like the face of a certain "Mata Hari", a secret. In between the film contains a beautiful moonlit, snow-filled crane shot, a handful of ingenious montages marking the passage of time, some superior blocking of characters in the striking Technicolor frame, and other exemplars of consummate craftsmanship, but it never once distracts from the supreme focus of the picture, that being the relationships of the characters.

There is a stunning scene in the no-longer-the-Greatest-Movie-of-All-Time, Citizen Kane, where Everett Sloane's Mr. Bernstein recalls seeing the merest glimpse of a pretty girl several decades ago and how not a day goes by without him thinking of her. Colonel Blimp contains an extension of that obsession with the idealized woman Edith Hunter permeating the lives of both Roger Livesey's Clive Candy and Anton Wolbrook's Theo. Edith is played by the wonderful Deborah Kerr, who appears twice more in the picture as women who tantalize Candy with their resemblance to the one that got away. He ends up marrying one, Barbara, a woman he met in a convent on the night of the armistice, and employing the other, Johnny, as his driver. The triple crown of acting is justly awarded to Livesey, Wolbrook, and Kerr with this film. They are all fantastic. The story calls for something entirely different from each of them and they all deliver with complete aplomb.

Livesey has the arduous task of carrying the picture. Since it is Candy's life story he is in nearly every single scene. He must convincingly show us the progression of the soldier, from that of the orders-defying, duel-taking upstart to the blustery, cantankerous blowhard several decades (and wars) later. Livesey makes it all seem so easy. His natural grip on the character is so great that as the picture progresses one can't really get a bead on how old the actor underneath the ample make-up is. He embodies the frustration and loneliness of the senior Candy with an understanding that seems impossible for his years. (He was a mere 36 years old at the time of shooting.)

Meanwhile Deborah Kerr must successfully inhabit the lives of three different women from three different time periods whose only real connection is their physical resemblance. One could show a brief clip from anywhere in the picture and know exactly which of the three women Kerr is portraying at that moment. Her Edith is headstrong, a woman who wanted to make a name for herself and so moved out of the comfort of England to Germany to teach. Her first doppelgänger Barbara is loyal and supportive but less adventurous, a more dependent creature. One can see that the desire she stirs within Candy is dimmed in comparison to the crystalized memory of Edith. Johnny is a louder, more free-spirited sort who is deeply devoted to Clive but in an entirely platonic way. All three possess echoes of each other while remaining steadfastly their own persons.

But the beating heart of the picture is Anton Wolbrook as Clive's dear friend, the German soldier Theo. The two meet mere moments before they are scheduled to duel one another over a diplomatic slight affected by Candy. They end up next door to each other at a convalescent home where they lick their wounds, play cards, and bond. Wolbrook has significantly less screen time than either Livesey or Kerr but his presence is felt throughout the picture, running along strong like an undercurrent. He is Candy's conscience and confidante. He is also flawed man, possessed with the same pride that affects Clive, but he is honest and loyal to a fault, charming and heartbreakingly beautiful. To see Wolbrook play Theo so buoyantly in the early scenes, his English non-existent but his wonder and goodwill overflowing, and then decades later as a broken and defeated man, escaping Germany after losing his wife to death and children to the Nazi party, is nothing short of captivating.

Calling The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a mature work makes it sound stodgy and boring, which it never is. The film is in fact quite funny and dizzyingly entertaining. While watching the film one is happy to just be in the company of these people, witnessing friendships unfold and loves blossom. However, despite the laughs and camaraderie, the longer one spends away from the theatre, the poetic poignancy of it all settles in. This is that blasted maturity at work. The older one gets the closer the film's losses hit home. As Candy stands at the ruins of his house, looking down at the water with his best friend and the ghost of his wife, we all inhabit the past, burrowing back into the recesses to see all the ones--the friends, family and lovers--that got away.

07 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 28: The Little Mermaid

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

Call it what you will: energy, inspiration, magic, but The Little Mermaid truly is the first film in decades that possesses the intangible power of Disney's greatest works. While it would be unfair to dismiss the previous half dozen films for not trying hard enough--that would be cruel to the legion of animators, writers, and actors that worked on these pictures--The Little Mermaid feels richer in every conceivable way. Every detail in the film, no matter how great or small, shows the direct effects of conscious and thoughtful effort. The one clear, decisive element that separates The Little Mermaid from its immediate predecessors is money. The studio threw the ample dividends of their coffers into the film and it shows. 

This might be a bit of a projection but one can feel the shift in quality from the film's very first frame. The story opens on the cloudy skies above the sea as three gulls burst into view. The confluence of elements in the shot, showing the layered textures of the sky and a perceptible depth of field as the birds break through the clouds, is reminiscent of the dense forests depicted in Bambi and a startling contrast to the flat cityscape of Oliver and Company. Soon the screen fills with a hulking ship crashing through the waves, its weight evident and believable. There is a care in the craft here, a refined construction in the animation that makes the world that much more tactile. This effort continues throughout the feature and is apparent in such subtle effects as the air bubbles that drift along with the movement of each and every sea creature. 

While it bears the familiar trappings of the studio's vaunted princess stories, The Little Mermaid is special in many ways. For one, it is the first animated film in the studio's history to truly be a Musical with a capital M. Certainly many of the hallmarked classics contain timeless songs and even the first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, contains several songs sung by the protagonists, but The Little Mermaid puts the musical numbers front and center in the picture. Nary five minutes will separate a rousing song-and-dance routine from its successor. And what a wonderful score the animators and actors had to work with. The songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken deliver a series of indelible, witty tunes that burrow into one's skull and remain for a lifetime. While the repeated theme "Part of Your World" strays a bit too much into over-the-top Broadway territory for this viewer, there are numerous numbers that weave an indelible and undeniable magical musical spell. The two best songs are sung by the Jamaican crustacean Sebastian. The iconic "Under the Sea" is a joyous, shoe-tapping extravaganza with choice lines like "when the sardine begin the beguine", while the slow jam "Kiss the Girl" is paired with absolutely exquisite animation to create one of the most romantic scenes in the studio's history.

The central romance between the titular mermaid Ariel and Prince Eric is the most problematic part of the film. Detractors will note that our very headstrong, adventurous and curious female protagonist is willing to give up her voice forever just to settle down with a handsome but rather bland man. It is a bit unsettling seeing a mute Ariel trying desperately to secure a kiss to snare her man, apparently her only goal in life. The fact that she would be so willing to leave not only her ocean home but her very species behind to be with some dude she saw playing a flute for two minutes is rather insulting. Thorny feminist criticisms aside, the actual depiction of this blossoming romance is handled exquisitely by the filmmakers. Long before the aforementioned "Kiss the Girl" scene, we get the magnificent moment of Eric's first glimpse of Ariel after she rescues him from the hurricane-roiled sea. The shot is from Eric's point of view as he opens his eyes to see a gorgeous woman backlit by the glow of dawn, singing to him. The shot is beautifully composed and is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's glorious Grace Kelly awakening in Rear Window.

While Ariel is frustrating for her plucky promise and subsequent failure to retain it, and Eric, with nary a personality trait to distinguish him, is a direct descendant of the faceless vanilla lineage that is the Disney prince, the secondary characters are all splendid. The aforementioned Sebastian is a small crab with an outsized ego who thinks everything can be achieved with a song, while Ariel's fish friend Flounder is a meek but loyal companion. Buddy Hackett provides the voice for the misguided gull Scuttle who entrances Ariel with his incorrect descriptions and depictions of the human world. But the best character in the film is, as is often the case, the villain. The vampy sea witch Ursula commands the picture with a sinister cynicism and bombastic energy. Her musical showcase "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is a phenomenal set piece that sees her conniving and concocting, ultimately extracting Ariel's voice and weaving the mermaid into a cosmic golden bubble. Ursula is so overwhelming that by the climax she literally grows into a gigantic sea monster dwarfing Eric's ship that will ultimately impale her. She is a worthy successor to Maleficent in the line of Disney villains.

The Little Mermaid renewed Disney's contract with the public, showing them that the sixty-year-old studio was still capable of creating fantastic entertainments that blended the best animation with crackerjack storytelling, lovable characters, and beautiful songs. The public responded in kind, accepting the film with rabid fervor and open arms. The Little Mermaid is now regarded as a turning point, where the studio could finally step out of the hesitant uncertainty that plagued their productions in the two decades following Walt's death. Ironically, in doing so they finally got back some of that potent Disney magic. What makes The Little Mermaid such a success is that one can feel the expectations of the past coursing around inside it, along with the toil, the will, and the methodical care that went into creating the picture; and yet the film flows with a grace that makes these concerns feel like nothing more than waves lapping lazily along a beach.