31 January 2013

Cinematic Capsules: January 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

This elegant little documentary follows the greatest living sushi practitioner in all of the world, Jiro Ono, who owns a tiny, whole-in-the-wall restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. The film shows Jiro's dedication, or more like obsession, with his craft and how he is constantly trying to refine his skills even at the age of 85. The film also tracks the lives of some of his employees, including his son Yoshikazu, who must toil underneath his father, expecting one day to take over the business. It is heartbreaking to hear of Yoshikazu's failed dreams of being a fighter pilot or a racecar driver. He knows that he will never surpass the work of his father and yet he must remain with the business because in his culture it is expected and by now, in middle age, he has no other skills. The documentary itself is a little repetitive, perhaps formally echoing Jiro's painstaking work ethic, but it is an engaging film throughout. For the most part director David Gelb stays out of the way, letting Jiro espound on his philosophy while lovingly photographing the deceptively simple dishes the master serves up. One wonders what a filmmaker obsessed with obsessives like Werner Herzog would have done with the material.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero's low-budget black-and-white feature is the ur-zombie movie of our time. A disparate group of people end up in an abandoned farm house when the undead rise to stalk the earth. The film uses its meager budget to good effect, having characters intimately describe traumatic events that were certainly too expensive to film. Romero, who co-wrote the script with John A. Russo, also teases out the narrative in clever ways, having half of the cast waiting in the wings for a large portion of the picture by locking them in the cellar. Once they make it upstairs the dynamics in the household change. The rather brief scenes of zombies encircling the house are sufficiently creepy and even back in 1968 Romero did not skimp on the gore. Most of the actors are playing one-note archetypes, rather poorly I might add, except for lead Duane Jones who brings a solid, well-rounded performance to the screen. The biggest problem with the feature is that the women characters are all completely useless. If they're not literally catatonic, they are whiny or used as devices to slow the men down. The best a woman is allowed to do in the film is tear up rags for Molotov cocktails. She isn't allowed to throw them or in any other way fight for herself.

A Separation (2011)

Winner of the Best Foreign Language Feature at last year's Oscars, writer/director Asghar Farhadi's tense depiction of a family moving apart in the midst of a criminal trial is a riveting piece of filmmaking. The excellent Payman Maadi plays the patriarch, a white collar banker whose wife leaves him with his daughter and Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Before she moves out she suggests housekeeping help from a struggling woman, pregnant and married to a hotheaded schlub. The film shows the damning effects of lies in the eyes of gods and daughters. No one here is untainted by faults, although some are more flawed than others. The film can be exhausting as most of its running time is devoted to people yelling at one another, justifiably so, but it can be taxing. The constant use of handheld cameras is occasionally distracting with its bobbing and weaving but the film is wisely framed in medium shots and set in claustrophobic hallways and offices, which subtly and incessantly increase the tension. The film serves a secondary fucntion as a decent portrait of contemporary Iran because many of the film's events hinge on the societal mores of the nation. This plot would play out vastly different in say, France or the United States.

Lonesome (1928)

Director Paul Fejös' recently restored film is a fairly breezy romance involving two working class people who find--and lose--one another during a whirlwind day at Coney Island. Fejös fills the frame with technical wizardry, using most every effect at his disposal including some choice color tinting, a host of superimposed shots, and some great scenes of montage, the best coming in the beginning which shows the bustling workaday world going through its paces. The film was released into a post-Jazz Singer world which demanded that the feature add three clunky scenes of dialogue which do nothing but kill the narrative's momentum, thanks in part to star Glenn Tryon's stilted delivery. In the silent scenes, Tryon and co-star Barbara Kent have a decent onscreen chemistry but once the microphones are on she seems far too good for him. And he seems just a tad bit creepy. At one point he tells her that he wants to buy her a house with blue shingles that match her eyes. This is after knowing the woman for approximately twenty minutes. The film's climax which sees the pair separated amidst the flood of holiday revelers is sufficiently emotional and effectively disorienting.

28 January 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 4: Plane Crazy

In terms of production, Plane Crazy was truly the debut of Mickey Mouse. While the film was not released until after Steamboat Willie's success and a post-production soundtrack was added, the antics and actions contained within are the first ever created for the world famous mouse. It is surprising to note that Plane Crazy was produced just a few short months before The Gallopin' Gaucho and Steamboat Willie. The short feels much more primitive than the two films released in 1928. Mickey as a character is almost completely undefined here, he is just a cipher for the pratfalls and mishaps that transpire. Ever savvy, Walt Disney was well aware of the short's faults and shelved it until the character was more established and he could use it more as a crowd-satiating stop-gap between current productions.

The short sees Mickey inspired by the exploits of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. With varying degrees of success he attempts to fly a plane of his own. His first vehicle fails to launch and while the second becomes airborne, it ultimately crashes. There are nary any gags to speak of in the short, the closest we get is Mickey mussing up his hair to look like Lucky Lindy and Minnie uses her bloomers as a parachute. The one saving grace visually comes from three point-of-view shots framed from inside the plane, the first as it chases down a cow, the second as it bounces between light poles, and the third as it crashes down to earth. Ub Iwerks's delightful sense of perspective is given brief opportunities to shine here.

All in all, Plane Crazy is a directionless short without much merit. The characters never connect, there is very little humor and most of the animation is rote and uninspired. Humble beginnings to be sure. While Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney would go on to worldwide fame and success, their first production does little to hint at the creative and commercial potential that lay ahead. It never really gets off the ground.

Viewing Verdict: Avoidable

21 January 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 3: The Barn Dance

The Barn Dance was the first short produced after Steamboat Willie, meaning it was the second film to be produced with a synchronized soundtrack. This is evident from the short's subject matter which is mostly set at the titular party, featuring a trio of barnyard animals playing a hootenanny version of "Pop Goes the Weasel". Unfortunately, the film does little more with its soundtrack besides an extended bit of Pete and Mickey vying for Minnie's attention by honking on their vehicle's respective horns, (Mickey's is a borrowed duck).

Minnie comes off quite poorly in the short, her character bouncing between her two suitors at the very moment one of their prospects change. At first, she gladly climbs aboard Pete's flashy automobile, a more distinctive ride than Mickey's horse-driven cart, but as soon as the car breaks down she jumps ship for Mickey's affections. Arriving at the barn she first dances with Mickey until he proves he has no moves by stepping not only on her feet but also her elastic legs. She then waltzes with Pete until Mickey concocts a scheme to give himself a lighter stride by inserting a helium balloon in his shorts.

This bit of animation with a gracefully floating Mickey is easily the highlight of the film. The action is composed perfectly, with the mouse's slow aerial arcs providing a dreamlike quality to the scene. His subsequent deflation courtesy of a nail thrown by Pete comes with shock as the character is instantly suffused again with horrible gravity, plummeting crushingly to the floor, where he weeps as his girl leaves with the other man. Unfortunately this final sequence is the only truly successful section of an otherwise forgettable film.

Viewing Verdict: Avoidable

14 January 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 2: The Gallopin' Gaucho

The Gallopin' Gaucho was the second short produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks after Plane Crazy and the second film released after the blockbuster Steamboat Willie. The short was originally silent, music and sound effects were only added after Willie's phenomenal reception. This post-production work is readily apparent as the music throughout The Gallopin' Gaucho is more generic than Steamboat Willie's hit parade jamboree. Also, every time a character makes a sound, for example, when Mickey whistles or laughs, we not only get the sound of it but onscreen visual cues such as musical notes and the word "ha-ha". This lack of synchronicity hinders Gaucho, but it is still a fun production. Like Steamboat Willie, The Gallopin' Gaucho is a loose parody, this time of the Douglas Fairbanks film The Gaucho released the year before, in 1927. The short's plot sees Mickey ride up to an Argentinian cantina on an ostrich to smoke, have a beer and watch Minnie dance. However, the sultry chanteuse is soon abducted by the villainous Pete and Mickey sets off to save her.

The greatest bit of character animation in the film comes when Mickey leaves the cantina to chase Pete down. He calls for his ostrich who comes out of the bar drunk as a skunk. Iwerks's depiction of the tottering, giddy bird trying to keep it together is an absolute delight. Meanwhile, the film possesses quite a number of great gags. When Mickey arrives at the cantina, he climbs in through a high window, where he remains perched to watch the show. He takes off his shoe to roll a cigarillo with his foot and his shoe just hangs there in mid-air, an early version of the classic cartoon depiction of gravity defiance. Later, when Mickey arrives at Pete's three-storey hideout, he stretches his tail and uses it as a rope to pull himself upstairs. To do this he brandishes a wind-up key that he inserts into his belly to reel himself in. But the best bit comes at the end, as Mickey and a rescued Minnie ride off together on the bouncing ostrich. They try and kiss one another but the bird's movement thwarts their amorous attempts, so they both twist their tails into springs to cushion the bumping and allow them to make-out. Adorable.

Overall, the animation in The Gallopin' Gaucho is more flat than in Steamboat Willie. The short does not change perspective or try and create a three-dimensional atmosphere. Characters move back and forth across the screen, never forward or backward, and the simple backgrounds remain almost entirely static. But there is a charm to this threadbare style, a ruggedness that works with the characters and this setting. It would be more distracting if the short took place say, in a bustling cityscape, but in a dusty, depopulated South American locale, the design works. Had The Gallopin' Gaucho been released first, the saga of Mickey Mouse may be very different today. It is a thin, ramshackle entertainment, but entertaining nonetheless.

Viewing Verdict: Worthwhile

07 January 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 1: Steamboat Willie

Few events in cinema history are as apocryphal as the release of Steamboat Willie, the first fully post-produced sound cartoon and an unqualified success for the young, newly independent creators Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. Disney had recently lost control of his previous cartoon creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to producer Charles Mintz. Upon returning home to California, Walt instructed Iwerks to develop a new character, perhaps one based on a mouse he had on his boyhood farm. After approving Iwerks' design, Walt wanted to name the new character Mortimer before his wife Lillian suggested Mickey.

Steamboat Willie would not in fact be the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. Both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho were produced as silent shorts but their lackluster reception at test screenings left them on the shelf as Disney and Iwerks tinkered with an attempt to marry sound to animation. The young company, run with help from Walt's brother Roy, exhausted their coffers to produce the soundtracked cartoon, Walt even had to sell his car to finance the production. Luckily, Steamboat Willie was an immediate success and Mickey Mouse became an instant celebrity. Sound was quickly added to the two previous shorts which were then rushed to theatres to satiate demand.

The name and setting of Steamboat Willie is a parody of the great Buster Keaton feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. released earlier in 1928. The short opens with a diminutive mouse steering the ship down river and whistling the tune, "Steamboat Bill". Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse, as well as every other character in the film, including Pete and Minnie. Current Walt Disney animated features use this introductory scene of the whistling Mickey as their logo, highlighting both the studio's most famous creation while subtly incorporating the company's creator. Pete, the ill-tempered captain of the ship catches Mickey at the wheel and boots him to the deck below. The boat then stops in port to pick up cargo, along with Minnie Mouse, and then turns into the setting of a manic musical. 

The funniest gag in the short comes when a goat eats up Minnie's ukulele and the sheet music for the ice cream truck staple, "Turkey in the Straw". A few stray musical notes fall out of the goat's mouth, tinkling their respective tones as they hit the deck. Minnie discovers the goat's bad behavior and she and Mickey turn the animal into a makeshift music box by wrenching open its mouth and winding its tail. The remainder of the film showcases Mickey jamming out to the song with any object he can find on deck. He starts with trash can percussion before moving on to pots and pans and then a series of evermore bizarre instruments, culminating in him playing the teats of a mother pig.

The design of Mickey Mouse has often been ascribed as the reason for his popularity. Psychologists and sociologists point to his rounded form as a subconsciously comforting creation and even here in his very first appearance, Mickey is absurdly adorable. What works best with the character in Steamboat Willie is that he is so small, not only in relation to the towering Pete, but even a cow that he is trying to bring onboard the vessel. Later in his existence, Mickey would grow in stature, in part to better work alongside characters like Donald Duck and Goofy, but here he truly feels like a little rodent. 

Meanwhile, the surrounding animation, all completed by Ub Iwerks, is a delight. Iwerks had a knack for injecting strong personality into even the most mundane objects, as evidenced early on by a family of steamboat whistles. Iwerks, with Disney's guidance, chooses some very interesting angles of perspective, the best being a view downriver as the boat chugs along with a chasing Minnie running beside onshore. These early shorts also have a tendency to use the confines of the film frame to its advantage by occasionally having a character lean forward, thus completely filling the image. Here, Mickey stretches the neck of goose who howls out the song and almost entirely engulfs the screen.

Steamboat Willie introduces the world to a mischievous, fun-loving, darling little mouse whose continuing exploits would charm generations of moviegoers. The short is the launch pad for one of the most successful, fertile imaginations in American history. Without Steamboat Willie there would be no Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (released less than a decade later!) or Disneyland. While there is no way to predict the future from this enjoyable, yet innocuous short, its strengths prove thoroughly tantalizing.  

Viewing Verdict: Essential 

01 January 2013

My Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2013

Welcome to the most optimistic post of the year! It's all a spiraling ball of negativity from here on out. Below are the ten films scheduled for release sometime in the next 364 days that have me standing outside at midnight in the theatre of my mind. There is a new rule being implemented this year so please pay close attention. If a film I mentioned in a previous year's list is finally making its way into theatres after any number of delays, it can't make the cut, as I hate repeating myself. Sorry The Grandmaster and To the Wonder. Without further ado, here are your ten 2014 Best Picture Oscar nominees!

10. Upstream Color

There are a few distinct camps centered around Shane Carruth's directorial debut, the mega-low-budget time-travel feature Primer. There are those who find it an impenetrable mess, those that understand it completely (I call this camp "the liars") and those that were puzzled, fascinated and invigorated by it. Count me in as a card-carrying member of Group C. Excepting some work on Rian Johnson's Looper, Upstream Color will be Carruth's first film work in nearly a decade. The film is a love story featuring two people living in an ageless organism. Seeing the film probably won't make it any clearer.

9. Frozen

I may not be obligated to see every single animated Disney film from now on but the CGI Frozen sounds promising enough. Based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen, the film stars Kristen Bell as Anna, an estranged princess who must trek across icy tundra to vanquish the wicked queen. Let's hope that this role is a winner for Bell who hasn't been able to parlay her idiosyncratic talents into anything worthwhile since Veronica Mars. The production art for the film teases a crisp, unforgiving environment and Disney has done all right by itself when adapting the works of Hans Christian Andersen in the past.

8. Queen of the Desert

Werner Herzog and Naomi Watts. Naomi Watts and Werner Herzog. Queen of the Desert is the story of the explorer Gertrude Bell, British attaché in the early 1900s. It is Herzog's first fictional film since Nicolas Cage talked to imaginary iguanas and by all accounts seems like a far more austere affair. (However, don't entirely dismiss the potential for some crazy camel shenanigans.) Sure, detractors will point out that Robert Pattinson is attempting to fill the shoes of Peter O'Toole by playing T.E. Lawrence, and Jude Law is also running around here somewhere, but just remember: Werner Herzog and Naomi Watts.

7. Her

The restlessly inventive Spike Jonze returns to the big screen with this story of a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his computer's new operating system. While the premise sounds like the work of frequent Jonze collaborator Charlie Kaufman, this go-around it is borne solely from Jonze's mind. Spike has yet to top the achievement of Being John Malkovich, his feature film debut, but both of his films since then have shown potential and contain several glimpses of the genius more frequently found in his short film work. Samantha Morton, Rooney Mara and Phoenix's co-star in The Master, Amy Adams, also appear.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis

Following their Oscar-winning return with 2007's No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers went into a steady rhythm of releasing a film per year. But since 2010's enjoyable but rather thin remake of True Grit, the brothers have been silent. Come February that will change with their tale of a Greenwich Village folk singer in the early 1960s. The film is loosely based on the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk and should provide the brothers with a cast of characters crazy enough to rival The Big Lebowski and a soundtrack that might match O Brother, Where Art Thou's ubiquity.

5. Star Trek Into Darkness

Step aside Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams is the real blockbuster auteur of our time. His last two features, Super 8 and the Star Trek reboot, were the best films of their respective summers. Now that he got the pesky introductions out of the way and created that genius parallel timeline so that the new films can go and do whatever the hell they damn well please, the real fun should begin with this Star Trek sequel. How could it not, when the villain is played by Sherlock's own Benedict Cumberbatch? Let's hope this film has more of Simon Pegg's Scotty. Bring on the lens flares.

4. The World's End

Speaking of Simon Pegg, he has finally reunited with his Spaced companions Edgar Wright and Nick Frost to complete the third and final installment of their epic Cornetto trilogy, after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg and Frost play friends who come together in their forties to recreate a pub crawl they completed twenty years ago. Meanwhile, the Earth decides to bring about Armageddon. It is going to be quite a task reaching the heights of wit and hilarity of their first two collaborations but The World's End sounds just epic enough to achieve it.

3. Only Lovers Left Alive

My favorite film of 2009 was Jim Jarmusch's little seen and little loved, The Limits of Control, a glorious synthesis of themes the auteur had been pondering for roughly a decade. The Limits of Control can be seen as a cinematic culmination, a film that wipes the slate clean and leaves the director with a bold, white canvas with which to work with. His new film appears to take that freedom and run with it full throttle. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old vampires who reunite when Hiddleston, now a musician, becomes depressed by mankind's direction. Who's a what now?

2. The Wind is Rising

Chances are Hayao Miyazaki's new film won't reach American shores before the end of the year but I don't care, I'm throwing it on here anyway. Maybe I'll just hop on over to Tokyo one weekend and catch this. That'll show you. This new animated feature is about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, celebrated designer of World War II fighter planes. The film continues Miyazaki's obsession with flight and rumor has it some of the pilots are anthropomorhized pigs, like the star of Porco Rosso. Expect some exquisitely designed backgrounds, flawless and kinetic action scenes, and some crazy magical stuff you can't wrap your head around.

1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, exactly twenty-five years ago the famed animation company released Miyazaki's masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro on the very same day as studio co-founder Isao Takahata's heartbreaking tale of two brothers struggling to survive in the ruins of World War II, the phenomenal Grave of the Fireflies. To commemorate the greatest day in Japanese cinema history, the studio will be releasing Takahata's new film about a princess borne of bamboo the same day as The Wind is Rising. How can the world be so awesome?