28 February 2013

Cinematic Capsules: February 2013

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

Kim Jee-won's stylish Korean Western is a manic, visual thrill. Ever more outlandish action pieces burst off of the screen. It all becomes a bit too much as the film progresses and its the smaller moments that resonate the most. The film stars Song Kang-ho, whom we saw most recently in a very different type of picture. Here he plays a dimwitted bandit who comes across a treasure map coveted by some of the most dangerous outlaws in the land. The film is obviously indebted to its spaghetti western namesake as well as the rest of Sergio Leone's ouevre but there is another director whose influence outshines the famed Italian director. After a career spent aping Asian cinema, it's interesting to see a film that is inspired by Quentin Tarantino, rather than the other way around. Many shots in The Good, the Bad, the Weird come straight from the Tarantino canon (admittedly some of those may have been lifted in the first place as well.)

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck's Argo, based on the true story of a CIA mission to rescue Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis by pretending they're a film crew, is the perfect Oscar movie. That is in the most banal, calculated sense of the term. It is like the film was constructed in a lab or something. The movie mixes the tired depiction of Hollywood as a vacuous cesspool of phoniness and smarm (that industry insiders apparently just gobble up) with the perceived edginess of incorporating a hot button issue (that the film stubbornly refuses to have any sort of meaningful interaction with). From start to finish it is a defiantly middlebrow production. For a thriller Argo isn't bad but there's never any sense of real danger. There is never a shred of doubt that Affleck's CIA operative will deliver the beleagured Americans back home to safety, or that he will reunite with his estranged family, or that the hostage who intially refuses to go along with the harebrained plan will end up being the one who saves the day. The most egregious part of the film is the lack of any sort of personality from any of the Iranian characters. They're all just faceless, angry, perpetually screaming ciphers, boogeymen for the disoriented American viewers to boo and hiss. Even the one Iranian who isn't out solely for the blood of the Great Satan, despite the fact that the we are only ever given evidence to the contrary before an unearned reveal, is sketched so remarkably thin that a perfunctory coda showing her send off feels like a scene from an entirely different film. Why bother?

25 February 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 6: When the Cat's Away

The design of Mickey Mouse is truly a wonder. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short like When the Cat's Away which sees Mickey interacting with a number of other mice. To differentiate the secondary mice from the star their design is slightly more angular in the face and that makes all of the difference. These peripheral mice look like rodents while Mickey and Minnie on the other hand remain as cuddly as ever. In this minor but pleasant short, the mice have broken into the home of one Tom Cat who has drunkenly gone off with his shotgun for the day in a tantalizingly unanswered side story. Shaping a colleague into a key, Mickey unlocks the padlock and the mice run rampant in the house.

Tom must be some sort of musical virtuoso because he possesses a piano, violin and saxophone, as well as a robust record collection. The short plays out with the mice finding clever ways to play the instruments and culminates in one mouse twisting himself into a makeshift record player while another uses his tail and a funnel to amplify the sound. The best part of the short is Disney and Iwerks's attention to getting the musical bits synched correctly. Whether it is Minnie and Mickey dueting on the piano keys or a when a piece of swiss cheese is used as a roll of music in the player piano, the actions and presumably the notes are right. This difficult and subtle effect makes the short much more engaging. Another great thing about the film is that Mickey and Minnie are the correct proportions for their species. When they pop out of a hole on Tom's porch they are tiny little creatures. This small size adds to the charm of the early versions of the mischievous mouse. He remains endearing because he is so plucky. One would never mistake this David for a Goliath.

Mickey gets some decent moments here, the best being when he stretches his tail to avert a mouse trap which he eventually uses to bound up to a high shelf to retrieve the soon-to-be-musical cheese. (It's also a clever gag that the depiction of a mouse acquiring cheese does not result in the cheese being eaten.) However, the best moment in the short comes from one of the secondary mice. After Mickey and Minnie play their piano piece, the film cuts to a group of mice applauding enthusiastically, save for one, who for some reason is displeased with the performance. He stands defiantly in the front and interrupts the cheering with a loud raspberry, which he repeats offscreen as Mickey and Minnie plan their next number. This little guy is onscreen for perhaps five seconds and he steals the show!

Viewing Verdict: Worthwhile

04 February 2013

Mickey Mouse Mondays: Week 5: The Opry House

The Opry House is a simple delight released in 1929. The plot sees Mickey and Minnie working and performing at a local vaudeville show. The short opens with Mickey out front of the performance hall, sweeping the entryway. Here he gets into some very Chaplin-esque pantomine with his broom, which in his hands becomes a rifle, a flute (playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), a dancing partner, and a horse. Disney and Iwerks exhaust nearly every conceivable role the broom can play in a brief, fluid sequence. The following gag that sees Mickey attempting to push a very rotund patron through the front door does not maintain the wit or invention of the broom bit.

The short is still a little too enamored with its integration of sound, an understandable flaw considering its vintage, but the gags incorporated just to highlight the soundtrack slow the proceedings down a bit. A sequence showing the house orchestra playing on their raggedy equipment falls back on gags similar to those performed with more gusto in Steamboat Willie the year before. A drummer pounds away on his instrument, then pulls the tails of three cats to punctuate the tune. The saving grace of the bit is how perfectly ramshackle the band sounds playing their tune.

However, there are a number of bits that utilize the soundtrack that are also great visual gags in and of themselves. This marriage is where the potential of the Mickey shorts comes into focus. For example, there is an absolutely splendid piece that closes out the short, showing Mickey playing an animated piano. The two performers, musician and instrument (along with a third, a dancing piano stool) parry with one another, Mickey ultimately resorting to fisticuffs with the keys to play his composition. The three then end their performance by taking a bow, showing that their antagonism was just part of the act. It is a wonderful piece of animation and visual humor.

Viewing Verdict: Worthwhile