31 October 2012

Cinematic Capsules: October 2012

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

There is something about Powell and Pressburger productions that make them more complete, more fully realized, than any other motion picture. Every aspect of the duo's films; the dialogue, acting, cinematography, visual effects, sound design, et al. are of the highest caliber. There is not a weak link in the bunch. And I Know Where I'm Going! is no exception. Ostensibly the story of mismatched lovers falling for one another while stranded on the Scottish seaside, the film manages to incorporate effortless humor and harrowing action amongst the conflicted romance. It also finds time to make all-together pleasant diversions to flesh out charming secondary characters and give us a thoroughly detailed depiction of Scottish customs and traditions. The film deals with curses, prayers, and superstitions, weaving the legends of generations past with fairy tales and fantasy. The film's only flaw is that the romance central to the story is easily the weakest part of the plot. We're never given much reason to believe that Roger Livesey's dashing naval captain would fall for Wendy Hiller's spoiled socialite. This alone keeps the film from reaching the vaunted heights of other Archer productions, such as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Unfortunately, it is a rather important component of an otherwise fantastic feature.

Breathless (1960)

How many directors appeared on the cinematic scene so fully realized? Jean-Luc Godard's stunningly confident debut sees all of the director's revolutionary filmmaking techniques already on display. The exhilarating jagged cuts, the heretical lack of continuity, they're all front and center in Breathless. The most invigorating camerawork comes from a series of elliptical tracking shots following our leads through cavernous hallways. The plot is simple, malleable, elegant. Jean-Paul Belmondo's self described "asshole", a car-thieving cop-killer just wants to have sex with Jean Seberg's American expatriate, an aspiring writer. The film is cool, funny, and by the end, surprisingly poignant. Like Quentin Tarantino after him, Godard litters Breathless with the debris of cinema's past. Movie posters scream philosophy and girls in the street approach strangers, accosting them with film criticism. Belmondo absentmindedly rubs his lips just like his hero Humphrey Bogart tugged his ear. Godard went on to make an overflowing ashtray of masterpieces in the ensuing years, including Band of Outsiders, Contempt, and Pierrot le Fou, but his debut wholeheartedly belongs in the same breath as these fantastic features.     

27 October 2012

Disney Daze: Week 38: Fantasia 2000

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

Walt Disney always intended for his concert feature, ultimately entitled Fantasia, to be a work in progress. As the years went by the film would be re-released into theatres with some segments removed and new pieces included. Unfortunately due to the lackluster response greeted the film's initial run in 1940, these plans fell by the wayside. Ideas for future segments were dreamed up now and again but it would not be until almost sixty years later that a new version of Fantasia would reach the big screen.

As much as The Lion King can be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg's baby, Fantasia 2000 was the passion project of Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney. When Michael Eisner took over as head of the Disney corporation, thanks in large part to Roy's manipulation of the board (which ironically would also become a huge part of Eisner's subsequent ouster), Roy was given a position overseeing much of the studio's animation department. No one was too keen on revisiting the experimental art of Fantasia but Roy was nothing if not persistent. Production was set in motion almost a full decade before the film's release, with pieces being worked on intermittently.

Fantasia 2000 opens with images from the original film floating through space, as we hear the iconic introduction of Deems Taylor, who explains the basic concept behind Fantasia. Beneath his floating visage we see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra tuning up in a gorgeous ethereal concert hall. Like Fantasia we are then shown the first animated piece, which in both films is the most abstract sequence. Here it is set to Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 in C minor". This is the first glimpse of the real differences between the two features. The original Fantasia gave us truly outrĂ© images of bloated, rippling lines rumbling across the frame and twinkling shapes with no logical rhyme or reason. Meanwhile, Fantasia 2000 pretends to get abstract with a series of two-dimensional floating triangles but the scene feels all together more conventional. One cannot help but ascribe bird or butterfly-like attributes to the floating shapes. They feel like characters. Also, the choice of one of the most famous composer's most famous compositions, a piece that has been used over and over again in pop culture, brings with it its own freight of baggage, which makes it difficult to get wrapped up in the sequence.

In between animated sections Fantasia 2000 provides live-action introductions, but unlike the consistent guidance of Deems Taylor, here we get a panoply of celebrities, some more appropriate than others. All decked out in their best formal wear are Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, James Earl Jones, and Angela Lansbury. The sections are brief and for the most part serviceable, although several of the jokes don't quite land. The best introduction is the first, by Steve Martin and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perhaps it is Martin's long history with the company (he worked at the Disneyland Magic Shop in his youth) but his appearance is one of the least incongruous in the picture. Plus, Martin is just effortlessly funny. He segues into Perlman's introduction of Ottorino Respighi "Pines of Rome", which is set to a delightfully weird sequence featuring a legion of flying humpback whales. Those looking for the mind-blowing psychedelic experience associated with the original Fantasia will be most pleased by this section. Unfortunately, the sequence is marred by its heavy use of inadequate computer generated imagery. Apparently the section was one of the first completed, and the CGI actually predates the release of Pixar's Toy Story, so the crudeness is a bit understandable. That does not however make it acceptable. The whales all look too sleek, without a true sense of their weight and majesty. It is not a matter of one style of animation being superior to another. Surely Walt Disney, the visionary and explorer, would have been one of the true pioneers of computer animation, but he was also a consummate artist and perfectionist who would not have settled for something that did not achieve his exacting specifications. "Pines of Rome" could have been a truly transcendent piece of animation had it known what wasn't working. 

Another interesting idea that does not quite reach its mark is the following marriage of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with a hand-drawn animation style in the vein of caricaturist Al Hirshfeld. The scene is 1930s New York, the height of the Great Depression. We follow four different dreamers going about their day, longing for escape of some sort. There is the construction worker who moonlights as a jazz drummer; an out-of-work man who longs for employment and purpose; a clumsy little girl, missing her parents while being shepherded through town by her nanny; and a sycophantic husband who just wants to be an animal, any animal. The section calls to mind another previous Disney piece, surprisingly not from Fantasia. "Rhapsody in Blue"'s swinging style is most reminiscent of the great "All the Cats Join In" section of Make Mine Music. The fluid line style of the animation set to a jazzy score makes for a potentially lively sequence. However, "Rhapsody in Blue" doesn't quite succeed. The marriage of the music and images sounds great in the abstract but the execution leaves something to be desired. It all falls a bit flat. The section is somewhat redeemed though by a fabulous final shot depicting the neon at night in Times Square.

After three sections that come up short in some capacity, Fantasia 2000 finally delivers a sequence that is a solid winner. The idea of animating Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier had been kicking around the studio for years before an appropriate piece of music was discovered. Set to Dmitri Shostakovich's "Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major" we get a scene with genuine emotion, thrills, and pathos. A one-legged tin soldier falls for a ballerina who is terrorized by a mischievous jack-in-the-box. The soldier attempts to defend the ballerina only to be thrown into the sewers. He returns and valiantly overthrows the jester, who perishes by burning up in a stove. Like "Pines in Rome", this section relies heavily on CGI but as some of the earliest Pixar shorts as well as Toy Story proved, CGI on traditionally inanimate objects, in particular dolls and toys, works quite well. The plasticine look that was so detrimental to the aforementioned flying whales is a net positive here, giving a sheen to the graceful legs of the ballerina and the sneering visage of the jack-in-the-box. There is a fantastic action set piece in the sewers as the soldier careens through the pipes on a little toy boat. However the best artistry on display in the section comes from the lighting department who convincingly create an old-world coziness with the soft orange hues resting on the walls from the stovetop. Something so seemingly minor is subconsciously responsible for selling us on the entire world.

Fantasia 2000 is overwhelmed by the stature of its predecessor. The film cannot escape its forefather's legacy. In fact, the film almost feels at times more like a remake than a continuation. Many of the newer segments are directly inspired by sequences in the first film. "The Carnival of the Animals" scene featuring a goofy, yo-yo playing flamingo, is a direct descendent of "The Dance of the Hours". Donald Duck's showcase in "Pomp and Circumstance", is blatantly the new film's version of the Mickey Mouse vehicle "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", which is completely foolish and redundant because it immediately follows the inclusion of that original sequence. In fact, "Pomp and Circumstance" is the most egregious, incongruous piece in the entire film. Included at the insistence of Michael Eisner, the section is a tone-deaf retelling of Noah and the great flood. Donald Duck is charged with getting all of the animals onboard the sea-faring vessel. In his haste he is separated from his partner Daisy, who sneaks on the ship without Donald's knowledge. Both assuming that the other one did not make it aboard, they pine for one another, despite being a mere ten feet apart. It is a trite, sentimental section that is set to the dumbest piece of classical music one could imagine. Having Donald Duck carrying the emotional weight of the sequence is the worst decision of all. Donald is a character defined by ill temper and selfish motives. He is much more believable and entertaining being crushed by an exiting elephant than staring wistfully towards the horizon. Admittedly, the hand-drawn animation may be the most sumptuous of the whole picture. Too bad it is in service to the lamest piece of treacle one could dream up.

Fantasia 2000 wraps up with Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite", which details the life cycle of a forest. A wood nymph battles the eponymous avian beast, the latter laying waste to the natural setting, leaving nothing but char and ash. A stoic deer revives the nymph who then restores life and beauty to her surroundings. Not to sound like a broken record but once again the section harks back to the original Fantasia, this time containing elements of multiple sequences. The composer and the idea of a life cycle work as a continuation of "The Rite of Spring", while the demonic firebird and the elegiac aftermath recall the two halves of "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria". The section does not really reach the loftiest moments of its influences but that is a rather unfair assessment. On its own, it works as a triumphal closure to the picture, with some very beautiful bits of animation, particularly in the creation of the firebird itself and the green restoration of a dormant volcano near the end. The section dips a little too deeply into unearned transcendence at the end but on the whole, it is the second most successful sequence of the new feature. 

A succinct way of summing up Fantasia 2000's shortcomings is by noting that the only sequence from the original film placed in the program, the comparably middling "Sorcerer's Apprentice" is easily the best part of the new film. There is a life to it that is lacking throughout the rest of Fantasia 2000.  The marriage of musical beats to animation here is otherwise unparalleled in the rest of the feature. There is an intrinsic, ethereal grasp of the potency of the music that is elegantly teased out in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". The art serves the music, and the music, although it was written long before the film, feels like a fluid and natural accompaniment. There is a power and energy permeating the screen that is lacking throughout much of the remaining picture. One could also note that despite a running time half its predecessor's length, Fantasia 2000 feels just as long. It is commendable that Roy E. Disney sought to salute one of the most audacious films in cinema history with a celebratory follow-up. But although he looked eerily like his famous uncle, he was not a great artist. The same could be said for his pet project.

12 October 2012

Disney Daze: Week 37: Tarzan

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

Having savored critical and commercial success with films like The Jungle Book and The Lion King, Disney went back into the jungle for their adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan. Due to the familiar setting, as well as some similar thematic, musical, and visual choices, it is difficult to avoid comparing the film to its predecessors. Unfortunately this more often than not is distinctly unfavorable to Tarzan. It could not help that The Jungle Book is remembered in part as the last film that founder Walt Disney had a creative hand in, while The Lion King was the biggest box office success in the studio's history. 

Tarzan begins well enough with a poignant wordless prologue that shows how an orphaned boy ended up being brought up by gorillas. Playful scenes of two joyful families, one human, the other ape, are cleverly cut together to show their similarities. One mother hoists her child into the air and we cut to the other child falling into its mother's arms. The juxtapositions continue as we see the infant gorilla chased and killed offscreen by a leopard on the hunt, who then brutally slaughters the young human child's parents. The baby's wailing unites it with the grieving gorilla who decides to become the orphan's guardian. 

Like Bambi and The Lion King before it, we spend ample time with the juvenile protagonist, seeing him learning the ways of the wild and getting into all sorts of mischief. The antics in this section beg for a wacky sidekick and as has become routine, Disney doubles down by giving us two of them. The Thumper to Tarzan's Bambi is Terk, a garrulous gorilla voiced with the utterly incongruous voice of Rosie O'Donnell. Hearing the Brooklynese accent coming out of an African ape is distancing and distracting the whole picture through. Terk plays a prank on Tarzan that serves as an introduction to his second buddy, the elephant Tantor. Tantor supplies the trio's super-ego, acting as a cautious, paranoid killjoy whose warnings lead to a series of comedic catastrophes. The characters are both stock roles with nothing tangible to distinguish them from the long lineage of goofy supporting animals. 

While the film fails miserably when it tries its hand at comedy, the picture's biggest achievement is in its many well-conceived, surprisingly robust action sequences. The film is punctuated with several of these splendid set pieces. The best segment provides Tarzan with his introduction to his first human female, the British explorer Jane Porter. Jane finds herself being chased through the dense jungle by a congress of baboons. Tarzan swoops in to save her and the resulting pursuit through the treetops and across vines is a monumental accomplishment. The animation, blending hand-drawn characters with a new 3-D background process dubbed Deep Canvas, provides a seamless kinetic experience. 

Perhaps befitting its foremost strength as an action film, Tarzan is a surprisingly violent picture. The animators do not shy away from showing the lifeless bodies of Tarzan's parents, a series of bloodstained leopard prints circling them. Meanwhile, the climax sees the poacher Clayton inadvertently strangling himself as he gets ensnared in some vines. His swinging shadow is shown dangling morbidly in the background. This gruesome death occurs moments before the noble, bullheaded alpha ape Kerchak dies from a shotgun wound. He lies against a tree, his pupils going in and out of focus, as he finally accepts Tarzan into the gorilla family before expiring. Quite a bit of mortality for a Disney picture. 

The film's emotional core comes not from Tarzan falling for the porcelain charms of Jane Porter, but rather from the struggles, pain, and disillusionment of his adopted mother, Kala. The film starts with her despondent over the death of her first child and after taking Tarzan under her wing she is ostracized from the gorilla community. She defends her son and must console him when he recognizes and regrets his differences. After Tarzan meets Jane, Kala watches him drift away from her and the gorillas, silently and somberly witnessing a reality that she always knew would come to pass. All she tells him is that she wants him to be happy, with or without her. It is a decent depiction of decidedly mature themes, heretofore unfamiliar in Disney pictures.

Phil Collins provides a thoroughly Phil Collins-y soundtrack to Tarzan. The reverb-heavy synthetic pop is no less out of place in the African jungle than the jazzy jive of Louis Prima in The Jungle Book, but the songs in Tarzan are certainly vastly inferior. Collins takes a page from the Elton John playbook, placing his tried and true pop template over the most vacuous, facile lyrical treacle. The only tune with any bit of life in it is the one that actually steals its conceit directly from The Jungle Book's "I Wan'na Be Like You". Terk and Tantor, along with a posse of gorillas, descend upon the British explorers' camp. There they end up breaking dishes, banging away on a typewriter and creating a jumble of clanging rhythm that Terk finds so funky that she just needs to scat. Besides the guttural gobbledygook there are no lyrics. Perhaps that is why it is the strongest song in the picture. However, it remains an inferior jamboree on all counts. 

Tarzan is considered the final film in the decade now known as the Disney Renaissance. Looking back however, this renaissance was quite a mixed bag. There were a handful of regal productions that were thwarted from greatness by either stuffiness or forced juvenilia. There was one flawed but fascinating production that beautifully pushed the visual boundaries of the animation medium to exciting new heights. There was one true masterpiece and a handful of shoddy, pale imitators. Clones that would get just one or two pieces of the puzzle right, hoping that would be enough. Tarzan falls squarely in the middle of the bunch. Another face in the crowd of squealing masses. The film has its share of charms but it neglects components essential to achieving something truly extraordinary. The moments that succeed, for instance, when we see a child raised by beasts flying happily and effortlessly through the trees, remind us that we need not be constrained by convention, that we are capable of more. Frustratingly more.