jakebe: (Entertainment)

Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the "Dark Ages" of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you've been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo's classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn't know what it's doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies -- it's that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to "care for" Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church's bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that "you will only see in the world what you see within yourself".

Frollo's mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I've felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that's because Frollo is so horrific. His "villain's song" is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You're still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo's fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That's frightening because it's so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda's song, "God Help The Outcasts," is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. "The Bells of Notre Dame" is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; "Out There" is an amazing "I want" song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo's awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; "Hellfire" is nothing short of an epic villain's war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character's motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he's every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn't stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn't really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997's Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio -- basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what's essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society -- but for an entirely different reason. He doesn't know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn't given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn't have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn't come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there's something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn't quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don't spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we're in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It's certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it's a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that's the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really -- most of Disney's films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there's almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that's what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don't seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn't that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don't root for him because he's an exceptional specimen who just won't fail. Here, he's a Greecian Superman, and it's always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie -- there's certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that's all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen -- it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn't fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn't have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She's accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a "lucky cricket" who serves as Mushu's sidekick.

Mulan's problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don't fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn't want to be demure and quiet; she's smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What's interesting is how Disney doesn't pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I'm impressed by Disney's careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn't perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn't need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character's facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous "A Girl Worth Fighting For". It's a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that's both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there's just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone's changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that's only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it's another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we're up to the latter half of the studio's first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he's embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar's "Be Prepared"? I've seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and "Hakuna Matata" is one of those songs that's fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba's plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what's come before. When it's job is done, it's time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It's ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they're at the top of their game, there's simply no one better.


Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it's the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn't work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don't talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough -- when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it's easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she's come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe's strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange "new world" for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they're simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew -- headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe -- cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it's useful.

What's impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It's a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can't think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.


Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge -- it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That's not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it's also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven't aged that well in the two decades since the film's release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn't that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy's favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy's room. He runs a tight ship, but he's a benevolent dictator -- as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That's a good thing; Andy's family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what's worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody's jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy's home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That's what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy's-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor's house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What's scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar's catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it's a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that's why they've pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that hot second in the 90s when Australia was the coolest thing ever? It was a strange moment in pop culture -- all of a sudden, Paul Hogan was awesome again, and boomerangs were a fad, and Yahoo Serious was unleashed on the world. I'm still not sure why Aussie fever overtook the States for a few glorious years, but I am pretty sure that it was a major formative experience for me.

Part of the Australian wave was The Rescuers Down Under, the very first sequel ever produced as part of the animated Disney canon. Made 13 years after the first installment, it continues the adventures of mice Bernard and Bianca -- two of the best members of the Rescue Aid Society. It's sort of a United Nations of rodents dedicated to helping children and animals whenever they're in need. This is such an amazing idea, and just typing it makes me fervently wish for a third Rescuers movie.

Cody is a young Australian boy who has the ability to talk to animals; he spends most of his days in the Outback befriending the local wildlife and saving them from dangers they face. He saves an enormous eagle named Marahute, which doesn't sit well with a poacher named Percival McLeach (a seriously underrated villain in the Disney canon if you ask me). McLeach kidnaps Cody in order to force the location of the eagle out of him, and that's when the Rescue Aid Society gets involved.

Bernard really wants to propose to Bianca, but it never seems to be the right time. When they meet dashing Australian kangaroo rat Jake, Bernard has to basically prove his worth against this rough and tumble tour guide. Because this is a Disney movie, of course he does -- he saves the day, proposes to Bianca and Jake approves with no hard feelings. It's a breezy little film that has a few really breathtaking action sequences, and even though the stakes feel relatively light in comparison to other Disney films you never feel bored or resentful of the investment the movie asks to make of you. The movie is populated with adorable, well-designed characters and Marahute is a stand-out; an eagle the size of a roc, with that sort of alien and almost goofy look that almost -- almost -- makes you forget how dangerous such an immense creature would be.

The world of the Rescuers is the true joy of the movie, though. I couldn't handle the montage of Cody's distress signal being transmitted by a team of dedicated mice, and the thoroughly sadistic doctor mouse and his team of eager nun nurses were wonderful interludes between action set-pieces. Jake is definitely one character who deserves more attention, and both Bernard and Bianca feel like old friends.

The Rescuers Down Under was the least-successful of the films of the Disney Renaissance; it was released on the same weekend as Home Alone, came in fourth for the domestic box office during its debut and had all of its advertising pulled soon afterward. It's also the only Renaissance movie that doesn't feature musical sequences, so there aren't any instant classic songs to keep it fresh in our memories. All of this makes it a bit of an odd duck in the Disney animated canon, but it's not any less enjoyable for it. In fact, if you're an Australophile it might just be one of your surprise favorites.


Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The 30th film in the Disney animated canon is a landmark for the studio; it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and four Golden Globes (winning Best Picture - Musical or Comedy), the third-highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and man, did it inspire a whole generation of furries who were sorely disappointed by the "happy ending". It was the film that restored Disney to greatness after its stock had diminished through the 70s and 80s and proved The Little Mermaid was no fluke. The cultural impact of this film is staggering.

Belle is the beauty, a lovely girl who would rather read books than be more "traditional"; she takes after her father, Maurice, a crackpot inventor who moved to this provincial town in France only recently. She's pursued by the handsome but arrogant Gaston but would rather have someone (or do something) more interesting; her suitor's constant wooing is rejected as she hopes that she can live a more exciting life.

Enter the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster for refusing hospitality to an old witch. If he can find someone who will love him despite his fearsome appearance by his 21st year, the curse will be broken; if not, he'll have to live as a beast forever. When Maurice seeks shelter after being attacked by wolves, the Beast takes him prisoner until Belle offers to remain within his castle instead. And we pretty much know where it goes from here.

When you aren't dazzled by the truly amazing songs and score, the wonderful environments and the distracting, er, qualities of the Beast, you start to notice how truly insane this story is. An enchantress goes around disguised as an old beggar woman for...what purpose, exactly? And she punishes a prince who is pretty much at the worst age possible for a test of compassion and hospitality instead of his parents? And every single servant in the castle is also cursed to be furniture, silverware and various tools because their lives weren't hard enough? And the nearby town has completely forgotten that there used to be a king in a castle before his son was cursed just ten years ago? And….

I know it sounds like I'm ragging on the story, and I'm not. (Well, only a little.) Despite the very questionable details within the story, Beauty and the Beast holds up as well as it ever has. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are outstanding; the musical sequences are amazingly animated, and the character design is Disney at its most creative. Gaston is a villain for the ages, all bluster and noise, and Belle is a well-drawn heroine in her own right. The Beast is a unique and awesome creation, and the way both he and Belle are changed through their deepening relationship is wonderful to see.

Despite the strangeness of the underlying story, there's almost nothing that doesn't work well here. There are a few minor quibbles with how the Beast and his servants move from frame to frame, but their designs are so unusual it's hard to fault the animators for not having the character models totally consistent. Belle, Beast and Gaston are all-time great characters, and the supporting cast is populated with wonderful, colorful personalities. There's so much here to like, and there is nothing that makes you question the good will the movie earns.

So yes, Beauty and the Beast is a top-five all-time great in the Disney animated canon, no question. I'm really pleased that it's aged as well as it has. It's an easy movie to love, warts and all.


Aladdin (1992)
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially when the person in question succumbed to an illness that personally affects me. But I was quite surprised by how little I enjoyed Aladdin, and most of that comes down to Robin Williams' manic performance of the Genie. When I thought back on the movie, he was the biggest deal in it -- and I think that's true for almost everyone. But the Genie's schtick simply hasn't aged well and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There's not much energy left for the rest of the story to breathe.

Jasmine is a princess subject to that time-honored tradition of movie royals; she must marry a prince within a certain time frame or consequences will happen. Jafar, the Sultan's trusted advisor, has been searching for a treasure hidden within the Cave of Wonders in order to simply take over the Sultanate of Agrabah, but can't seem to find the right rube -- the diamond in the rough -- to be allowed entrance and snatch it up. That's where street rat with a heart of gold Aladdin steps in; he's manipulated into stealing the treasure for Jafar (in disguise as an old man), but ends up getting it instead.

It turns out to be a genie's lamp, and the Genie fulfills his wish to become a prince so he can have a shot with Jasmine -- the mysterious princess he met before when she attempted to escape the castle. Aladdin's courtship is rocky at best, mostly because he tries to keep up the charade far longer than he should, and eventually his deceit yields disastrous consequences.

What's interesting is the main characters -- Aladdin, Jasmine and the villain Jafar -- are all engaging, well-drawn and relatable. The fantastic elements of the story elevate the movie's themes (the danger of pretending to be something/one you're not) really well, and hyper-extends the consequences of the conflict while still making it understandable. I really like the writing in the story; the plot is tight and well-paced, the dialogue (especially between Aladdin and Jasmine) is brisk and natural, and the animation is fluid, smooth and imaginative.

And that's why it's such a surprise to me that Aladdin is my least-favorite film so far in the Disney Renaissance. But the Genie is a real problem; his constant barrage of hyper-kinetic joking and impressions is so distracting you're left wondering what on Earth he's talking about half the time. Maybe it's that his joking is so topical that it's this glaring time-stamp on what would otherwise be a timeless tale, or maybe it's a sign that my sensibilities are aging enough that I'm just not into what comes off as aggressive, almost desperate whimsy. (I know how that sounds, considering the life-long struggle Williams had with depression; maybe that knowledge is even shading my perspective of his performance.) But the Genie tends to work best when he serves as the oversized conscience of Aladdin, his shape-shifting served to illustrate or punctuate a point. Less is certainly more in this case, and Genie's presence feels so out of place with the rest of the movie's tone it's legitimately jarring.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but Genie takes this movie down a peg or two, and I wish it weren't so. Disney's strength in storytelling is its ability to walk a tightrope with tones, themes and ideas so that everything is executed carefully and with balance. One of the few times it allows itself to give in to excess earned it way more short-term gain at the cost of long-term enjoyment.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959)
Darby O'Gill is a walking cliche, that "drunken" old Irishman you find in every pub telling tall tales about his escapades with leprechauns and other Fair Folk. What's different is Darby doesn't drink and his stories are all true; so when he is finally sacked by Lord Fitzpatrick, the land-owner whose estate he's supposed to be tending, his frienemy King Brian steals him away to the innards of Fairy Mountain, where he will naturally live out the rest of his days. Darby, who has a daughter he cares for more than anything else in the world, isn't having that. So what's a wily old man to do?

I wasn't expecting to like this movie as much as I did, which is to say not much at all. When you hear about a live-action Disney film from the 1950s, you naturally think of the corniest all-ages entertainment you can think of -- at least, I do. And while Darby O'Gill and the Little People is definitely a G-rated movie, it's also surprisingly engrossing. The film exists so comfortably in its own skin that if you take it on its own terms you might just find yourself having a pretty good time.

What makes the movie work is how well they're able to capture the rhythm and flow of a good faerie tale. Sometimes Brian -- the King of the Leprechauns -- is a friend and confidant, and other times he's a dangerous adversary with powerful magic who must be outwitted. Darby O'Gill is sometimes a clever old man who tricks leprechauns as easy as breathing, and sometimes he's a poor mortal wretch so far out of his depth you can't imagine how he'll get out of trouble. The dynamics of power and emotional investment are always changing, and even by the end of the movie you're not entirely sure his experience with the fae is ultimately positive. It's fun to watch the stakes shift as much as they do.

A pre-007 Sean Connery is the romantic interest here, and he's so young he doesn't have any of that urgency or gravitas that we've come to know him for. But he does make for a good crooner, and it's fun to watch him drift in and out of Darby's narrative. It's also neat to live in a setting where everyone knows the rules of magic better than you do; their reactions tell you everything you need to know about what's going on, even though the finer details are missing.

Still, if you haven't quite gotten into the movies of old Hollywood, chances are this isn't the movie that's going to sway you. If you're more comfortable with the rhythm of old cinema storytelling, this works well. Darby O'Gill and the Little People is an old-fashioned story, but it's still well told.


Cry-Baby (1990)
John Waters made this film right after the unexpected success of Hairspray, when movie studios were practically beating down his door in order to work with him. The fact that he made this wonderfully insane ode to trash and 50s teen idol musicals just makes me love him more.

Here, Johnny Depp is playing around with his teen-idol image in ways that are actually more effective than burying it under a ton of pancake make-up. He plays the leader of a "drape" gang named "Cry-Baby" Walker; he earned the nickname by squeezing out only a single tear when something upsets him. Cry-Baby is backed up by his perpetually-pregnant sister, Pepper; "Hatchet Face," a legit crazy woman who steals every scene she's in; Milton, Hatchet Face's devoted boyfriend; and Wanda Woodward, a sexpot played by none other notorious porn actress Traci Lords.

Cry-Baby falls in love with a "square," a good girl being groomed by the stuck-up parents in charge of 1950s Baltimore society. Allison falls for his rock-and-roll singing as well as his single tear trick, and ends up forsaking her clan for the chance to live with the drapes for a while. That's the basic story, though there are all kinds of detours through it that are surprising and hilarious.

No matter what your expectations coming into this film, Waters manages to upend them. The characters are varied and expertly-drawn, so idiosyncratic that you know who they are by the end of the film's prologue and opening credits. The fact that their backstories are still surprising when they're revealed is impressive.

I can't think of another director who delights in his own weirdness as much as John Waters, and that's what ultimately makes Cry-Baby so fun. Walker's gang of drapes are undeniably insane and fundamentally broken, but there is such a passionate and loving bond between them you can't help but see them as good people. Waters has been the champion of loving weirdness throughout his career, and the fact that he made one of his weirdest and most passionate films as the major studio release here shows a dedication to that vision that's been simply unwavering.

The third act of the film falls apart a little bit, but it's still a lot of fun and really engaging. Well-drawn characters are sacrificed to get the "everything and the kitchen sink" finish that Waters wanted, but it doesn't eat up too much of the goodwill the movie earns. If you're an neophyte in the ways of Waters, I'd say Cry-Baby is an excellent film to cut your teeth on -- if you hate it, then it's highly unlikely you'll love anything else he's written or directed.


The Little Mermaid (1989)
The 70s and 80s were rough on Disney animation; after The Jungle Book, there weren't too many films that were looked upon fondly before this one. Even though I liked quite a number of the animated films of that period, there is simply no question that The Little Mermaid raised the bar for the company and began a creative high period that would take them through most of the 1990s.

Ariel is the title character, a mermaid princess who is fascinated by the human world above the surface of the oceans. Her father, King Triton, knows the cruelty that man is capable of and wants to protect his daughter from being hurt -- his isolationist demands runs counter to her curiosity and optimism. When the terrible sea witch Ursula grants Ariel's fondest wish -- to be human so she can marry a prince she's fallen in love with, the fate of two kingdoms is suddenly hanging in the balance.

The songs in this movie are some of the greatest in any Disney musical ever. "Part of Your World" is a fantastic, ideal "I want" song; "Kiss The Girl" is the most romantic song that I can think of in a Disney film; and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is so delightful that it almost gets you on Ursula's side for a hot second. The animation has to be better just to be worthy of the words, and Disney steps it up in wonderful ways here. Taking fish, crabs and other sea-creatures into anthropomorphic territory is not easy. Sebastian scuttles nervously, and you at once recognize he's a crab (ew!) and that he has these intense emotional desires (aw!) that endear you to him. Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's hench-eels, are creepy, predatory, yet hypnotic. It's easy to imagine how naive Ariel could be pulled under their sway.

There are some problems. This time around I found Ariel's character design a little weird; her head feels really long, accentuating the forehead in this distracting way. And Prince Eric is kind of a terrible character, this wishy-washy dude who seems to be mostly defined by his love of alto voices. Even when Ariel gets Eric in the end, you get the feeling that she could do so much better; the humans in the story are more bland than sadistic, so what was King Triton even worried about there?

The stakes are supplanted by the battle between Ariel and Ursula in the third act, and even then Prince Eric effectively kill-steals the encounter. What did Ariel actually learn through this? How will she be a bit more discerning and a bit less reckless in the future? How did she earn her happy ending?

The argument could be made that this is not that kind of children's movie, and you might be right. But Ariel's flaw -- the thing that gets her into trouble -- is never really identified and addressed through the course of the story. The happy ending feels just a little lessened because of this, even though the rest of the movie is nothing short of delightful.

Still, if it's been a while since you've seen The Little Mermaid, it is definitely worth another look. The songs are amazing, the environments and (most of) the character designs are fantastic, and its ambition is really something to admire. After the long dark time of Disney's lesser canon, it's a great example of how you can take Walt's original passion for telling great stories and update it for modern audiences.

jakebe: (Politics)

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
Starring Spencer Tracy, Maximillian Schell, Burt Lancaster and Marlene Dietrich
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Abby Mann

A few years after the end of World War II, a battered Europe is beyond ready to move on. Germany, now that the atrocities of the concentration camps are out in the open, is in a state of shock as a country. Its people struggle to deal with the reality of what it's done, wondering how it could have allowed the systematic eradication of its Jewish population, undesirable elements and political enemies. The United States is already moving on to its next conflict, setting the pieces in place to fight a cold war with the growing communist threat of the Soviet Union.

But before we can put the war to rest, there's this small matter of deciding what to do about the judges, military officers and others who solidified Nazi policies into the law of the land. When these orders came from the top down, how much responsibility do the people in charge of putting them into motion carry with them? Should they be prosecuted for the horrific effects of these policies? Or is their duty to carrying out the will of their state -- right or wrong -- of greater importance than a more universal set of morality? How do we decide to treat war criminals when they had only limited power with which to resist committing these crimes?

Judgement at Nuremberg is about the trial of 98 civil servants in post-war Germany, mainly boiled down to the question of what to do about five judges who presided over the courts and passed rulings that lead to the sterilization of some, the death or imprisonment of others, the horrors of the concentration camps to too many. The crux of the trial is that very question -- how much responsibility do we give to actors of the state when the country has essentially legalized war crimes? Does personal and/or social survival form an effective excuse for a complete lapse in moral judgement? Or should we expect people to abandon their duty to their country if a more fundamental set of beliefs are violated?

Spencer Tracy stars as Presiding Judge Dan Haywood, a former district court judge from Maine who is called upon to determine what happens to these men. Judge Haywood must not only decide the considerable issue in front of him, but he must also attempt to understand how an entire country could fall in line with these terrible ideals and resist the political pressure of his own country's military as they prepare for a Cold -- and possibly real -- war with the Soviet Union.

I'll jump right in and say this: Judgement at Nuremberg is an excellent movie that everyone in this country should see. The acting is genuinely great all around, lead by elder statesman Tracy as he guides a parade of stars through the proceedings. The cinematography is amazing, focusing on the people who are grappling with the consequences of their actions but pulling back just enough for you to understand the context and society in which they're doing so. The direction is tight and crisp; even though this is a beast of a movie at 179 minutes, it really doesn't feel like there's any wasted time. Every scene is necessary to understand a facet of the issue, or the motivations of the characters dealing with them.

Director Stanley Kramer does a wonderful job exploring the full texture of Abby Mann's Oscar-winning Adapted Screenplay. There are so many interesting ideas at work here -- watching Germany wake up from its National Socialist nightmare with bewilderment and guilt and a desperate desire to reaffirm its own morality makes many of the "ordinary" Germans Haywood meet sympathetic but also infuriating. "We had no idea" is a common refrain for so many of them, but how could they not understand what was happening in their own country? How much of that ignorance was intentional -- faced with the choice of confronting the knowledge of wrong-doing and being forced to act on it, or keeping your head down to attract as little attention from a brutal power structure as possible, what would you do? It's hard to imagine myself in that position and not thinking I would be just like them -- especially if I had a family or children to think about.

Beyond that, the movie posits that it wasn't just Germany's responsibility to stop Adolf Hitler before he attained a stranglehold on power; the world at large sat by and watched it happen -- so if Germany's judges and prosecutors are on trial then the governments of Europe should be too. Many of them also "had no idea" how far Hitler would go before he did, but how much of that ignorance was intentional? If we hold those in the judicial system responsible, why not the executives of other countries, or the diplomats, or the militaries? Where do we stop assigning the blame?

Judgement at Nuremberg also draws very interesting parallels between the Germany of the 1930s and the United States of the 1950s. Judge Haywood is told that political considerations must be factored into his decision, and that in order to successfully repel the threat of Communist Soviets America must have Germany on its side. Early in the proceedings of the trial, it's accepted as fact that the National Socialist rose to power on the promise of stopping the Communist threat. It's a slippery slope argument, true, but the idea that Haywood is asked to repeat the shading of the law here at the same time he's supposed to condemn that very thing is unsettling -- and likely true.

And that's what makes this movie so vital for us today. It's rare that you see entire nations reflect in on themselves about what it means to be American, or German, or British -- and what, precisely, is the individual's duty to the state. Judgement at Nuremberg reminds us that Nazi Germany put monsters in charge but was also populated by people just like you and me who thought being patriotic meant enacting the law of your country even when you disagreed with it, knew in your heart that it was unjust. Their reasons -- and they all had their reasons -- ranged from "what could we do about it even if we disagreed?" to "my country, right or wrong". If we put ourselves in their positions -- a married set of servants, or a wealthy socialite, or an intellectual interested in the rule of law -- and we had to deal with our government systematically strip the rights of its minorities or political dissidents, what would we do? Honestly.

The political environment of Germany in the early 1930s has startling similarities to the political environment of our country in the 2010s. We're willing to do anything, sacrifice anything in order to give ourselves the illusion of safety and control. We want to blame the foreign elements in our midst for our problems; we see a vague and shadowy threat to our very existence and want to attack anything that we know might upset the status quo. We are a deeply divided nation. And we have individuals running for office who claim to know just how we can restore our country to greatness -- by tolerating no dissent, refusing any attempt at discourse, at identifying and removing anything that could even vaguely be a threat to our national security.

I wish I was being hyperbolic or alarmist by saying this, but I'm not. But we do have a choice, each and every one of us, about how we deal with what's happening. Does history repeat itself? Or do we learn the hard lessons that were taught in our past?

In order to have a hope of answering these questions, we have to understand how it could have happened in the first place. What lead an entire nation of moral, upright people to install one of the most terribly brutal regimes in human history? What justifications did they use? How can we make sure we don't fall prey to those same justifications?

I won't claim that Judgement at Nuremberg offers complete answers to these questions, but watching this movie is an excellent start at wrapping your head around them.

jakebe: (Entertainment)

Get Hard (2015)
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart had to manage a storm of controversy around the release of this film; a lot of people thought it was pretty blatantly racist at worst, and tone-deaf at best. Their response wasn't the best -- basically, they were telling racist jokes to make fun of the people who would think that way. While I've been a defender of comedic boundaries before, I couldn't say that I liked the rationalization for it. You can make fun of the mindset of racist people without resorting to racially-insensitive comedy; yeah, it's more difficult, but good comedy is hard, right?

I was inclined to give this a miss until Ryan recommended it to me, and I'm actually glad he did. Get Hard is without a doubt a problematic comedy, but it's also an incredibly funny one. I hadn't been exposed to Kevin Hart very much before this, but I have to say I'm a fan at this point. Will Ferrell continues to find ways to refine and develop his stock comedic character so that while you know what you're getting with him, there are always a few pleasant surprises in store.

Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is completely oblivious to the class divide that he embodies; he has an immense house, a super-hot wife who's addicted to power, and is prepared to ascend to the highest echelons of the financial community. The insane lifestyle of James King is one that he feels he's earned; he's great at his job, put in his time, and is now reaping the expected rewards.

Hart is a struggling family man who just wants enough money for a down payment on a modest house in a better school district so that his daughter won't have to go to an elementary school with metal detectors outside the front door. When King gets popped for fraud and threatened with a fairly intense jail sentence, he hires Hart's Darnell Lewis to teach him to get ready for prison because being a black guy he had to have served time right? And we're off to the races.

Through the first act and about half of the second, you're actually ready to buy the excuses of Ferrell and Hart; James King is an astonishingly assinine person oblivious to the struggles of the people all around him and living a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege. The scenes where he actually has to deal with people outside of his bubble provides some hilarious and pointed social commentary. Darnell's problems are only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but Hart plays him as earnest and relatable. When James and Darnell team up, it's legitimately magical.

Then we get to Darnell's cousin, Russell (played by the rapper T.I.) and then we're suddenly in a much less comfortable place with the comedy. Russell is a member of the Crenshaw Kings, and Darnell thinks he might be able to convince the gang to protect James in prison. The usual "hoodrat black guys react to the whitest of the white guys" hijinks ensue and while it's surprisingly funny it also undercuts the point the film tried to make up front -- most black people (and other minorities) aren't the stereotypes we make them out to be. By populating the rest of the film mostly with these exact stereotypes, the message comes across as fairly hollow.

Despite that, it's still really funny. Get Hard is one of those films that I wish weren't so easily dismissed because it could open up an interesting and necessary conversation about the prejudices even well-meaning but disconnected white folks have about minorities, and how the film's ultimately letting James off the hook (his greatest crime is outstanding ignorance and that's about it) doesn't take its message far enough. It could have been so much more than it was, but what it was is actually pretty good.

The Martian (2015)
This movie is effectively anti-Gravity. Matt Damon is the title character, Mark Watney. During a months-long mission to Mars, a rather intense storm forces the astronauts to abandon their station in a hurry. Watney is hit by a piece of debris and goes flying off into the dust-storm; his vitals read as flat. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to abandon him, but surprise! Watney has survived, and now must find a way to survive until he is discovered and a mission to rescue him is organized.

What follows is an intense struggle to survive for Watney, and a series of jumping hurdles for his colleagues at NASA as they figure out just how they can help him across such great distances. While The Martian certainly pulls no punches detailing the inhospitable nature of space and other planets, it ultimately makes the case that human ingenuity, collaboration and willpower can overcome any problem -- known or spontaneous -- that the great void can throw at us. Watney is an inherently fascinating character; even though he's on the mission as its chief botanist, he quickly learns how to turn his faculties towards doing whatever it takes to hold on until he can be rescued.

Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor are equally arresting as the various NASA administrators and engineers trying to bring Watney home. They have to navigate very real issues of time and budget constraints, political realities and public relations issues to figure out the best course of action. While it would have been lovely to imagine that NASA would be given unlimited funding and time to bring Watney home with the unwavering support of the public at their back, that simply isn't the case. Forcing everyone involved to make do with less, we see the pressure everyone is under to find creative (and dangerous) solutions to accomplish what seems impossible.

In a lot of ways, the story of The Martian is the story of Gravity -- a single astronaut stranded in the unforgiving void of space after a cataclysmic event leaves them without the necessities for survival. But while Gravity tightens its focus on Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone to explore the existential question of what motivates us to soldier on in the face of extreme difficulty and lingering trauma, The Martian pulls back to examine how we as human beings pull together in times of crisis to do amazing things we never thought we could. I think both films are uplifting for different reasons; Gravity tells us that we as individuals are stronger than we could ever believe, while The Martian tells us that we as a tribe are even smarter, stronger and more resilient than that. It's really exciting to think about, and actually makes you want to see us living up to that potential.

Matt Damon is immensely charismatic here, and he pulls off the trick of effectively being alone through much of the film's run time. Watney's crewmates -- including Chastain, Michael Pena, Mara Rooney and others -- are competent and compassionate people, and watching them deal with the realization they've left a man behind is just as engrossing.

Director Ridley Scott, coming off a pretty bad pair of movies in Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, could have used a hit and I'm glad he's found one here. Mars feels like a surprisingly interesting place under his lens -- even though it's foreboding and dangerous, it can also be beautiful in the sparse manner of, say, an Arizona desert. He keeps the action rolling forward, pausing for just long enough to get a sense of place here. I'm glad that we saw the movie in theatres; the landscape and sense of distance really tracks well on the big screen.

All in all, The Martian makes a good counterpoint to the steady stream of space disaster films we've been getting recently. Yeah, things go catastrophically wrong, but the triumph over adversity actually feels better than a successful mission that goes according to plan.

Quick Change (1990)
Between Ghostbusters II and Groundhog Day, Bill Murray starred in this overlooked gem of a movie that also starred Geena Davis (right before she was in Thelma and Louise) and Randy Quaid (one year out of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation). There are small parts in the film from Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci and Kurtwood Smith (the dad on That 70s Show), and they're all great. It also features quite possibly the greatest public bus driver in all of comedic film. And I've never heard of it until now.

Quick Change tells the story of a man named Grimm (Murray) so fed up with New York City that he decides to rob a bank to get out of town. The bank heist itself is pretty funny and twisty enough that I won't say too much about it here, but the Grimm's attempt to get away with his accomplices make up most of the film. The city itself seems to conspire against them, throwing its labyrinthine geography and endless supply of random kooks to keep them in town. Grimm and his compatriots keep getting pulled down into the murk of the city the closer they get to the airport.

Murray plays the jaded genius really well -- no surprise there. His co-stars, Davis and Quaid, are pretty amazing too. Jason Robards is the crusty old police detective two days from retirement and charged with bringing them in. He's jaded too, perhaps moreso than Grimm, but still believes enough in the rule of law to keep plugging away at an impossible, Sisyphean task.

The writing is whip-smart and surreal; the characters that Grimm and company come across own their scenes completely. From the taxi driver who doesn't speak English to the bus driver with crippling OCD, to the random unhelpful sociopaths they meet in their travels, New York is populated with pretty amazing people all living their own stories. It's both one of the best and worst things about pretty much any major city, and Quick Change captures it so well.

Another surprising thing about the movie is how prescient it is; one of the big reasons Murray wants to get out of the city is gentrification and development -- new condos are going up on every block and pricing long-time residents out of the city. A huge plot point is the necessity of strapping the money to himself because terrorism has made airport security draconian and inconvenient. And the police are constantly missing their men because they're getting caught up chasing down minorities.

The more I think about this film, the more I love it. Everyone's at the top of their game; the story is surprising, engaging and actually driven by characters who are smart, funny and interesting; and this is one of the only movies actually directed by Murray himself. This is the first (and best) of three movies Murray collaborated on with his co-director and the writer of the film, Howard Franklin. If you're a big Bill Murray fan who's seen most of his Wes Anderson stuff, this is the movie for you.

jakebe: (Entertainment)
The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He's a horror director I've really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.
The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside -- and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn't take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.
The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.
Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O'Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn't know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn't quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope -- however small -- that these hapless men and women will survive.
If you're a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that's slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It's not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.
The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can't read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler's grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father's wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it's pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality -- for the most part.
Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It's quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson's housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.
And yet, the story itself doesn't quite land with the weight it's clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn't quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration -- the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that's really grating -- isn't as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.
Still, I don't think I've ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it's worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.
The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that's been started there. Upon arrival, they're more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of "Father", and just when they're about to shrug and say "different strokes for different folks" the movie takes its turn.
What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.
The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you're not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father -- the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.
Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I'm not sure it's a must-see film. If you're in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.
jakebe: (Default)

Oliver and Company (1988)
Ryan and I are making our way through the library of Disney animated film, and we've made our way up to this re-imagining of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The action is transplanted from Victorian London to modern-day New York, and Oliver is an orphaned orange cat that no one wanted. He's befriended by Dodger, a stray mongrel who lures him into Fagan's petty theft operation. Fagan is...a homeless guy?...who owes a ruthless businessman named Sykes a whole lot of money. Sykes menaces Fagan, while his two dobermans menace the gang. This being a Disney movie, things work out for the best, but not before the characters move through a lot of complications.

This movie is pretty heavily 80s, with Billy Joel providing the voice of Dodger and so many of the songs -- which are deeply influenced by the pop music at the time. In a way, it's kind of endearing; so many movies that aim for the "latest and greatest" in terms of attitude are usually the ones that end up being the most dated, and this film is no exception. It is very much a love letter to 80s entertainment.

I think that attitude is what makes the movie stick with you; the story is what it is, and it moves through the beats about as well as it can for something so predictable. But the characters, whether you love them or hate them, stick with you. Dodger is the star of the show; well-designed, bristling with attitude, the dog with the emotional arc that wraps up neatly at the end. Oliver is more of a catalyst character -- he has a journey that he moves through as well, but he's pretty much the "orphan in trouble" through most of the movie.

Disney has this great "shared" universe, it feels, with movies like this that runs from 101 Dalmatians, through Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, and into Oliver and Company. Who knows, maybe The Rescuers belongs to the same cinematic world? There are supporting characters in one movie that will pop up in the background of another -- or at least, their models will. It's a fun game to see what you can notice.

Most people say that Disney had a fairly rough go of it in the 70s and 80s, and while they were doing things that pushed them away from their "Golden Age" I've come to admire the risks they were taking. In a lot of ways, Oliver and Company feels like a bit of a step back into safer territory. Still, the movie was successful enough to usher in a bolder leap -- the very next film on the list begins the Disney Renaissance in earnest (it's The Little Mermaid).

If you like your Dickens stories a bit more frenetic, a bit brighter, and with talking animals, I'd recommend this. You could certainly do worse!


Man of the Year (2006)
This movie definitely could have been something special; Robin Williams stars as a Bill Maher-type who ends up making an improbable run for the White House. After several instances of speaking truth to power and being disruptive in the best way, he's taken seriously enough to be added to the debate; from there, the dominoes just keep falling.

Meanwhile, in another movie, Laura Linney is a high-level employee at Delacroy Inc., which has just been given government approval to be the sole company providing voting machines in national elections. She notices that there's something wrong with the counting algorithm, tries to talk to her superiors about it, gets shut down. Of course, that error causes some significant stuff to go down that could change the course of the country.

Lewis Black and Christopher Walken co-star as the advisers of Tom Dobbs (Williams' character). Barry Levinson directed a script that he wrote. This...should have been a lot better than it was. It felt like there were two great movies struggling to climb out of a merely-adequate one.

Williams does his usual ad-libby stuff here; sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn't. The idea of Dobbs no longer being content throwing tomatoes at politicians and showing up to change the system himself is really intriguing, and I think Williams is at his best when he presents Dobbs as someone who is genuinely interested in pushing the country through its political gridlock, using humor and tactical honesty to do it. Linney's part of the movie is intriguing in its own way, especially considering that we were just five years removed from Bush vs. Gore and the 2000 election. Rigging was hot on everyone's mind at the time.

But instead of really diving into a political satire -- or wish-fulfillment drama -- we get this sort of muddled story that tries to be a lot of things all at once. Linney is sometimes stuck in a political thriller, sometimes she's in a movie about a woman's slow and steady mental breakdown, and sometimes she's in a weird political romantic comedy. Levinson has a lot that he's trying to do here, and he doesn't navigate the shift in tones or genres very well at all.

It's a shame, because I love everyone involved here. They deserved better, and I'm not entirely sure what went wrong. Was Levinson's script tampered with by producers? Was Williams simply not a good fit for what he was trying to do?

At any rate -- if you miss Robin Williams and want to see one of his lesser works where he still shows promise but the movie ultimately fails, this is for you? More likely, you're either a Barry Levinson completist or a Williams fanatic.


The Giver (2014)
Jeff Bridges was one of the driving forces trying to bring this film to the screen, and it's easy to see why. The Giver is one of those books I absolutely loved growing up, and I could see how it would make for an excellent movie.

This adaptation isn't quite there, but it's pretty solid. The basic thrust of the story is this: in a post-apocalyptic world, a community had been built that works on very strict rules. A person's life is guided through milestones that allow them independence, or purpose, or a sense of completion of their life's work. Jonas is coming up on just such a milestone -- he is about to leave childhood behind and be given his job.

It turns out that Jonas has a few special qualities that make him chosen for one of the rarest positions: The Receiver of Memory. He must hold the collected memory of all humanity, so that he may dispense the wisdom of history when it is needed. The old Receiver shows him what has come before, and why the world is in the state it's in now. Jonas has to struggle with the crushing weight of his knowledge, and just how much it alienates him from his friends, family unit and entire community.

It's a fascinating book that shows us the power and danger of emotion, the inherent tension in society between safety and freedom, and what happens when the balances tip too far into one corner. The movie largely gets that down through the first part, but then the second half falls into the well-worn tread of most young-adult action movies we're seeing these days. Even though it becomes fairly generic, the performances of the child stars and the lovely world design is just enough to keep you from giving up on it.

Brenton Thwaites is just about perfect as Jonas, bringing the character from his unquestioning acceptance of his life through the series of painful, disorienting revelations that follow. He's tremendously emotive, so even when he struggles to find the word for an emotion he's feeling the first time, we're already feeling it with him. His confusion about the world around him, as well as the delight he has in these discoveries, are tremendous. His first days as the Receiver of Memory are easily the best part of the film.

It's just too bad they couldn't bring that same energy to the resolution of the story. Once the movie begins to sink into its familiar beats, that's all there is to it until the credits roll. It doesn't quite finish as strongly as it could, which is unfortunate because the book ends so tremendously. Still, it's worth your time if you're a fan of the novel. If you want to see Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep snipe at each other, or Eric Freaking Northman as the world's nicest, blandest dad, then this movie is for you.

jakebe: (Default)

Final Destination 3 (2006)
If you've never seen a Final Destination movie, it pretty much goes like this: one person in a group of high-school/college students sees a horrifying calamity unfolding in their imagination right before it happens and freaks the hell out. They (and a number of friends and acquaintances) avoid the disaster, but Death -- not one to be cheated -- stalks after them one by one, making sure to correct the tapestry of fate before too long. It's a really neat concept, especially since it's a slasher film with an existential threat more than an actual killer.

Even still, the Final Destination series has always vaguely disappointed me because it flirts right up to the line of doing something really interesting or thought-provoking with the premise before retreating back into the safety of its Rube Goldberg devices (each character is killed in an increasingly complicated set of freak accidents) or sophomoric foreshadowing and discussions about death. Even the really good ones (like the first two) are fun, but leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it's fair or not, I always kind of want them to be more than they are.

The third movie doesn't hold up as well as the first two, and it's here where we start to see the seams of the formula showing. This time, the epic accident is a roller-coaster malfunction that's fairly impressive but not nearly as harrowing as the plane crash or highway traffic accident that preceded it. The build-up to the set piece is stocked with groan-worthy dialogue, and it almost feels like the writers have gone out of their way to make these characters as unlikeable as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim!) leads the cast here, and she does a pretty good job. Her love-interest co-lead (Ryan Merriman) is Wonder Bread bland, though, and it all goes downhill from there. The group of "lucky" students saved from Death by roller coaster only to be killed in arguably more gruesome ways later on are almost uniformly terrible, and it makes me feel mean to wish horrible things to happen to them only to see them suffer some pretty terrible fates.

Horror movies are at their most fun when they have engaging or fun characters to root for, an inventive premise that's fun to explore, and a sense of inevitability that never lets the main characters off the hook (even though they've won...for now). With Final Destination 3, there's really only the knowledge that everyone you're seeing will suffer and die, and after three installments of it the whole affair feels a little sadistic. There needs to be something more to it; inventive and gory ways to kill supporting characters just aren't enough at this point.

Still, if you're a horror franchise completionist or like watching annoying characters die in terrible ways, pull up a chair and pop it in. The DVD has a "Choose Your Fate" feature that opens up a few alternate scenes that might actually be fun.


Tammy (2014)
This was a rare misfire from Melissa McCarthy, a sort of mumble-core comedy that no one really knew what to do with. It was loaded with talent (Alison Janney! Susan Sarandon! Kathy Bates! Sandra Oh! Dan Akroyd!) and had a potentially amazing premise, but for some reason it felt like a hybrid between a Duplass Bros. movie and an earnest Cameron Crowe road-trip film.

Tammy (McCarthy) is fired from her dead-end burger job after wrecking her car running into a deer (don't worry though, the buck is fine) and comes home to discover her husband in an emotional affair with another woman. She runs next door to her mother's house and threatens to leave -- only to be pushed out the door by her grandmother (Sarandon), who insists on coming along. She is, after all, providing the car and the trip money.

A series of misadventures follows, of course. We see Tammy and her grandmother Pearl getting into all kinds of trouble, and it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl might actually be the hotter mess of the two. Both women learn a bit more about themselves than they bargained for, and stumble into potential relationships with a retiree and his son after Pearl has a one-night stand with the older gentleman.

The movie takes a few dark turns that feel oddly specific yet not-quite-jokey that makes it hard to navigate the emotional turns. Pearl is an alcoholic diabetic, which...we're never quite sure how to feel about. She's funny when she's drunk, until she isn't, and her diabetes is a potential problem, then maybe a huge one, then maybe not so much. It's almost like the writers themselves aren't quite sure what to do with their own characters.

Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sarandon are great when the material allows them to be freely funny, and the beginning of the film is awesome enough to carry you through the uneven, emotionally-dissonant second act. Tammy gets increasingly dramedic as it goes on, smoothing down the jagged edges of its protagonists as if admitting it would be kind of exhausting watching them be as crazy as we know they could be for a whole two hours.

Still, it's worth watching. There's great stuff there, and the worst of the film is never bad enough to make you tap out. If you're looking to put on a comedy, laugh hard for thirty minutes, then maybe fall asleep in front of your television, this is one for you.


Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie adaptation of the jukebox musical, and you can tell that this was a fairly faithful conversion from stage to screen. A lot of the narrative tricks are there -- actors breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, smooth transitions from expository monologues to in media res action, even the way actors speak their lines point to a theatricality that was meant for another medium. This isn't a bad thing per se, but I think I would rather have someone trying to take advantage of the fact that film provides them a certain amount of freedom they wouldn't have had on stage.

I think your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your awareness of the catalogue of the Four Seasons and how much you like the unique vocal stylings of Frankie Valli. His signature sound is a high falsetto that lowers to a kind of nasally tenor(?), which isn't for everyone but I find pretty nice. The story moves from the early days of Valli's career in a rough New Jersey neighborhood, to the formation and dissolution of the Four Seasons, to his later solo career and family troubles. The music matures accordingly, from nascent 50s doo-wop and crooner covers to 70s pop standards that I was surprised were written so early. Valli's songwriting partner, Bob Gaudio, is responsible for some legitimately great music.

The story, though...that's something else. While it doesn't fall into the standard musical biopic structure (earnest ingenue works hard from humble beginnings, breaks through to success, falls to excesses of drugs or affairs or general assholery, makes a comeback that ends the film), it does spend most of its time on the unhappy career of the Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito, the group's de-facto leader and money manager, is portrayed as a selfish and irresponsible grand-stander who accrues a shocking amount of debt during the group's success. His personality makes it difficult to enjoy the breakthrough of the Four Seasons, and he's the single reason the group busts up.

Frankie Valli himself produced the movie in part, so I have to be a little suspicious of the narrative here. He had enough pull to appear on the credits, so he probably had enough pull to influence the story. Did DeVito really sink the Four Seasons? Is it really true that Valli's post-Seasons career was almost entirely working whatever jobs he could find in order to pay back DeVito's debt? It feels like he could have pushed that part of the narrative to justify his absence to his family; it's clear that his wife and daughters were bitter about his not being there, and the movie suggests the only reason he was on the road so much was a misguided sacrifice of one type of family for another.

Still, the performances are solid, the direction is competent and the song arrangements are decent. It's a reasonably good adaptation that will serve you well in place of a more immediate or energetic live-theatre show. If you're really big into 50s doo-wop or jukebox musicals, or you want to see Christopher Walken as the world's most paternal mob boss, give Jersey Boys a try.

jakebe: (Default)

Philomena (2013)

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a disgraced adviser for the British government trying to determine what he should do next. At a party, he was approached by a woman suggesting he write about her mother, an elderly Catholic who had been forced to give up her son for adoption while living in a convent. Though initially reluctant to do a "human interest" piece, he eventually agrees to meet the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Her story -- uncovered in fits and starts despite opposition at nearly every turn -- proves to be shocking, tragic and almost unbelievable. Of course, most of it is true.


This was a lovely surprise. It was on our radar mainly because it had been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress. Honestly, who can resist a great Judi Dench movie? She's just amazing.


Here, she largely disappears into the role of Philomena, an old, slightly doddering woman who remains devout despite the failings of the Church she believes in so strongly. It's impressive to see her so ordinary and simple, pulling out only hints of her natural gravitas when she needs to underscore a dramatic beat. It's unlike almost any other role I've ever seen her in.


The movie is directed briskly by Stephen Frears, who guided another British treasure to a Best Actress Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen). The more we learn about Philomena's past, the more sympathy we feel for her and the deeper our desire to know what happened to her son. The answers lie in Washington, DC, and they're just as surprising. How the film handles each revelation, allowing just enough time for the shock to settle in before moving quickly through the fallout, is kind of a marvel of pacing. This is a film that knows what it's about, and doesn't waste time getting there.


Coogan is great as Sixsmith, the prickly journalist who bonds with Philomena through the search but never quite stops being himself. A final confrontation underscores the wide gulf between the reporter and his subject, and while you understand Sixsmith's reaction (and probably share it), Philomena's gives us much-needed grace and closure.


If you're waiting for more episodes of Downton Abbey or Doctor Who, this is going to be your jam.



Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Robert Towne wrote and directed this California crime film, which is pretty confusing. On one hand, he wrote the classic film Chinatown and here he is returning to the genre that made him. But on the other, maybe Roman Polanski deserves all the credit and visibility he gets for Chinatown; while that film's many, many twists are managed quite nicely, this one feels inert -- like we're standing in one place, spinning in circles, and calling it entertainment.


Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer, JT Walsh and Raul Julia all star in this movie but it's hard to care about that. Gibson is a former drug dealer who Russell's detective believes is selling again. They're at each other's throats for a good bit of the movie, but it's hard to care about that either. The dialogue sinks pretty much every exchange, aiming for crackling and witty and landing far short.


After an hour or so, when we see the seventeenth slow-burn conversation between two of the characters, I realized that I had no idea what was going on, why the characters knew what they did or why they were saying what they were saying to each other. Ryan and I turned it off without finishing it, which almost never happens. Life's too short and there are too many great (or at least more interesting) movies to watch.


I can't say I recommend this one, but if you want to see an early Mel Gibson movie where he hasn't quite gotten the hang of an American accent or Kurt Russell looking like he's auditioning for the part of Patrick Bateman, this is your movie.



Last Action Hero (1993)

The real star of this movie is Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, the stereotypical shouting black police chief, but Schwartzenegger actually does pretty great work here as well. This is one of those movies that got buried by bad timing and kind of unfair press; it opened a week after Jurassic Park and held up poorly against Sleepless in Seattle later. By the end of the summer, everyone called it a bomb and to this day there's not a lot of fondness the way there is for other overlooked classics like, say, UHF.


But the movie is a really solid concept held back just a bit by shaking execution. To be fair, it's a bit of a high-wire act that had never been done before -- Last Action Hero tries to straddle the line between a parody of action movies and an homage to them, while also being a parable about the value and nature of storytelling. It swings for the fences, and that earns it my respect, and it mostly succeeds. Everyone gives it their all, and it's really enjoyable if not quite as emotionally effective as it tries to be.


Teenage movie-buff Danny Madigan finds himself transported into the world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater, through a magic ticket handed down to him by the elderly projectionist of an old movie theatre that's about to be torn down. His presence in the film shades the live-action cartoon enough that the stakes are changed, especially when the sub-boss Benedict (Charles Dance!) slips through to the real world and realizes that the rules of the cinema don't apply. Benedict is a great villain -- smart, amoral, calculating, and he makes a nice foil for Schwartenegger's meathead protagonist, Jack Slater.


Not everything works here -- the big scene introducing the magic ticket is pretty corny, and not every self-aware joke lands quite right -- but Last Action Hero gets more right then it gets wrong. The action is at once silly and engaging, and the comic timing actually works well slipped in amongst the thrill beats. Schwartenegger is game for self-parody, and he's a lot funnier than he's given credit for.


It's still a minor film in his filmography, but it's good enough for me to say it's overlooked. Then again, I've been pleasantly surprised by a lot of Schwartenegger's panned films; I thought Jingle All The Way is a legitimately-good Christmas movie, and Kindergarten Cop is not great, but fun. The same could be said for Last Action Hero, but I hold it up a little higher because of all it tries to do. It's a mild success that could have been an unmitigated disaster, and that deserves at least a little love.


If you want to see Schwartenegger poking fun at his oiled-up machismo or the role that probably got Dance the part of Tywin Lannister, I'd recommend this one. It's a great one to pop in on a Friday night where you just need to decompress.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
Raging Bull (1980)
Starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty
Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (screenplay) and Jake La Motta (novel)
Directed by Martin Scorcese

This movie feels like something of an "anti-Rocky", the story of all those fighters that don't manage to stay on top very long or sacrifice something fundamental to get there. Even though there's success in the ring for the Raging Bull, his personal life is in a perpetual shambles of his own making. The adaptation of LaMotta's autobiography is surprisingly stark about painting him as an unsympathetic character, and by the time the credits roll you wonder how the real LaMotta must feel about it. Does he realize, at long last, what he's done to his life? Or does he understand what people must think about the events that unfolded on the screen? The movie suggests that he simply lacks the self-awareness to realize the consequences of his actions. I genuinely hope that's not the case.

La Motta is a middleweight boxer, coming up as a hot-headed kid raised in a neighborhood full of them. In one of the early scenes, a fight erupts in the club that La Motta hits after one of his bouts. He grew up in a place where fist-fighting were one of the major ways to resolve your conflicts, and it's clear that he took that lesson to heart. Jake is the first to take offense, the last to explain why he's offended; he simply causes things to escalate until he has the opportunity to make them physical.

His brother Joey (Pesci) is the stabilizing influence that keeps Jake on track when he threatens to go off the rails. Poor Joey has to put up with a lot; from Jake's ever-shifting moods to managing the reputation of the fighter in the neighborhood. It's a thankless job that he does because he sees the potential of his brother, and possesses a weary, patient love that's evident in just about everything he does.

Jake gets out of a relationship with a woman he ignores and marries a very young blonde he fancied from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the public pool. He's charming at first, but as soon as he's wed her he becomes extraordinarily paranoid and possessive while ignoring her as well, for the most part. Meanwhile, he reluctantly throws a fight to get the title shot that he's always been looking for after being told to take a dive by the Mob. Jake is banned for throwing the fight in such an obvious manner, but comes back to win the middleweight championship. He's on top of the world with a loyal brother in his corner and a beautiful blonde on his arm. But he's still completely miserable.

That misery gets spread to everyone he knows because he doesn't know how else to handle it. His paranoia spares no one, and he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and his brother. What's worse is how he keeps sinking lower and lower both professionally and emotionally, each side exacerbating the pain of the other, and how he never realizes that the hell he's in is the one he created for himself. It's incredibly hard to watch; at first you feel sympathy for Jake's lack of self-awareness, but then you just want to see his family get out of an awfully toxic situation.

Scorsese does a wonderful job making sure no punches are pulled. He's not working with a sympathetic lead here at all, but he doesn't try to gloss over Jake's behavior or make excuses for him. De Niro is a wonder here, as a man who is fascinating in his unlikeability, but is somehow sympathetic with this basic, relatable desire to be liked, respected, loved. The trouble is that Jake doesn't let higher thinking work for him. If he thinks he's been slighted then he lashes out with the immediate, unthinking hostility of an animal. It's instinct for him to lash back, and he does repeatedly against enemies real or (mostly) imagined.

The brutality in Jake's world is inescapable. Even when he wins it feels like a loss; he simply takes a tremendous beating without going down before the other guy. The boxing scenes, which comprise surprisingly little of the movie are memorable for the mood they create. I remember glimpses of faces rocked by oversized gloves, the sound of meat being slapped, a face that is gradually degraded. Each battle takes something out of Jake, even if he downplays it or doesn't realize it. Maybe it's living with those consequences that makes it so easy for him to fly off the handle; the movie never makes that connection for us, but simply lays the evidence there to make of what we will.

So what do we make of this? Jake serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to make sure that whatever we do, make sure we do it for the right reasons. Remember who our friends are, remember their hardships too. But most importantly, be aware that we are shaped by the people around us and we shape the people we're with. We might not be able to help the impression left on us, but we can control the impression we make. Jake has no idea about any of this because he can't think past his own pain or pleasure. And the effects of that short-sightedness are terrible to see.

I can see why so many people regard Raging Bull as Scorsese's best movie. He's a director with a sure hand here, working with two actors who give stunning performances. It's definitely earned its place here in the top 100, but that being said I'd never want to watch it again. It contains a bleakness that's hard to stomach, and no guarantees that the people involved have learned anything by what they've been through. Much like La Motta himself, it is what it is.

Rating: 9/10.
jakebe: (Entertainment)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you're thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren't, the person you're thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn't the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We're getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It's fascinating to watch these movies; they're either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they're the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we've come to think of when we say "mob movie," or "film noir".

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He's approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner's been murdered.

The man his partner was following -- Floyd Thursby -- was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly -- who renames herself O'Shaughnessy once the jig is up -- is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one's quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can't help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There's no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it's also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it's difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they're doing what they're doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it's a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that's been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that's what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they're rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It's such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn't been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven't seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they're in trouble, and they're smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.
jakebe: (Default)
Last week was fairly interesting. Over the weekend I knew almost immediately that something was wrong with me, so I told my boss I'd work from home on Monday to make sure I had everything I needed on hand; I've been dealing with an ongoing health issue that's easier to manage from home. So I put in my nine hours, and by the end of it I wasn't feeling very well. By 5 PM I felt so cold I was shivering, and by 8 PM or so I had a fever of 102. Ryan took me to the emergency room at around 9:30.
To make a long story short, it turns out I had some kind of bacterial infection and an internal problem that's relatively easy to clear up. I was given antibiotics and sent on my way. The rest of the week was spent flushing the infection from my system and gradually getting better. I was tired most of last week, and so much of my time revolved around dealing with health stuff that I simply didn't have much energy for anything else. So that's why I disappeared from the blog last week, and why I'm a little late coming back this week. Hopefully the worst of my health issues are behind me for now, but I'll try to let you know if something is happening a bit more quickly.

In the meantime, I hope it's back to business as usual with the blog here. I'm still planning four posts a week -- a general interest post, two AFI movie reviews (at least until I've caught up) and a bit of short fiction from a project I'm working on. I'm really hoping to sharpen my movie reviews; I love the idea of exploring these stories that are widely regarded as the best examples of American cinema and breaking down why they've struck such a deep chord with audiences throughout decades. And while I know appreciating art is largely a personal affair, I think there's something in the discussion of it that helps us to understand its message a little better.

Mostly, I'm hoping to get better at reviewing because I'd like to expand the reviews to furry fiction. This is a post for another time, but I think it's important to apply the same kind of standards inside the fandom that we do for entertainment of a broader genre. I'd like to seriously discuss the writing of our little internet community as an art form -- trends that tend to pop up among and between writers, common themes in 'modern' furry fiction, what our writers tend to do well and where we could be better. I think that level of discussion and scrutiny could help us out, or at least make us more aware of what we want out of our writing.

Right now, though, I'd like to talk about my own writing! I've been posting the "Unstable Future" snippets for Friday fiction the past few weeks to get my head around two of the main characters. My ultimate goal with it is to try and launch an 'episodic' storytelling model, where short stories are released at the same time every week for a certain length of time. Each short story is self-contained, somewhat, but also carries a larger arc forward until that too is completed. That marks the end of a 'season', and depending on the response further seasons are written.

I think this is a model that could work well, and "Unstable Future" is a great story to start with. In order to try and kick-start myself into writing it, I've decided to make it my project for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. The Write-A-Thon is a great fundraising drive for Clarion and Clarion West, a pair of six-week workshops where aspiring genre writers are taught various aspects of the craft and business of writing from folks who've made it. This year some lucky folks will be taught by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill!

However, in order to make the whole thing work and to make sure the people who deserve to be there can actually afford to be there, a little help is needed. The Write-A-Thon is a great way to do that; each writer makes a goal for the duration of the drive and posts excerpts and updates to his personal drive webpage. And his or her audience can make either flat donations of pledges based on word count. It's a lot of fun, and a great way to meet some of the folks associated with Clarion. A lot of the people who participate are Clarion graduates!

I'll be writing at least 25,000 words of "Unstable Future" for Clarion, and I would like your help to spur me on. I'll be posting daily updates here on the blog, and excerps of the story at least once a week. If you would be so kind as to offer a small donation -- like, say, $1.00 for every thousand words -- I'd very much appreciate it. I'm setting a goal of raising $500 for Clarion this year, and I'd love to make it.

Here's my author's page, where you can take a look at my progress and make donations: http://clarionwriteathon.org/members/profile.php?writerid=177495

All right, I think that's it for now. I have quite a lot of writing to do in order to catch up to things, and I'd better get started.
jakebe: (Entertainment)

West Side Story (1961)

Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno

Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)

Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It's been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it's a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it's easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I'll admit that I didn't know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there's also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.

Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They're a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets' leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.

This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds -- the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can't catch an equal break in this country. Maria's choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here -- do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria's choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.

The plight of the country's inner-city minorities wasn't exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I'm impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they're protecting the only space carved out just for them -- the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there's only so much space to go around. It's understandable that each group would want to own it; if they're not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.

It's the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song "America", Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they're going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They'll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.

The movie's influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It's as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.

The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That's a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.

So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it's a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it's also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950's New York that's surprisingly intelligent. You can't ask for more from your pop art, really.

Rating: 4/5.

jakebe: (Entertainment)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Stewart Stern (screenplay), Irving Shulman (adaptation) and Nicholas Ray (story)


At first glance, Rebel Without a Cause is one of those old 50s-era melodramas that don't age too well. If you look past the over-acting common to dramas of the day and take the movie on its own terms, it's actually a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of teenagers coming to grips with their own identities, their thoughts on how society views them, and what values are most important to them. It sounds kind of basic, and the territory has been well-mined it's true, but what makes it interesting is how maturely the subject is handled. Given the nature of the style director Nicholas Ray is dealing with, it would be easy to fall into a preachy kind of melodrama that chastises the wayward kids or a sensational soap-opera where kids are all noise with no meaning. Instead, the rebelling kids have logical, sympathetic grievances that make sense even if you can't agree with them.

The movie opens with three youths spending a long evening in the local police office for various transgressions. Jim Stark (Dean) has been brought up on charges of public drunkenness, Judy (Wood) has been caught running away, and Plato (Sal Mineo) was caught shooting puppies. We get a basic sense of the troubles for these three kids, but we spend the most time with Jim and his parents. After that, we learn the Starks have been moving around a bit because of their son's problems, and this is just the latest in a long line of restarts for the family.

The kids all find their way back to each other eventually. Plato quickly latches on to Jim as a best friend and possible father figure, and Judy doesn't take long to catch Jim's eye. Their flirting gets him in trouble with the popular kids, which leads to altercations and finally a rather intense game of chicken featuring fast cars and a looming cliff. What's interesting is that once you get to know the bullies, even they have a reasonably affable nature. They're not terrible people; they're filled with an existential emptiness that they struggle to mask with bravado and any excitement they can manage.

I don't want to give anything away, but the drag race brings with it a surprising consequence that the new trio has to work through. Jim and Judy both go to their parents for solace and guidance and come away wanting, so they turn to each other with Plato in tow. In an abandoned mansion they discuss the things they most want to see in other people (honesty and a sense of resoluteness) and play at the kind of adults they want to be. All of this could be pretty inconsequential if taken at face value, but if you stop to think about what they're playing at, why these kids are doing the things they're doing, it reveals a surprising...yearning in all of them for something they feel they lack.

Jim wants a father who's strong enough to teach him what it means to be a man. Judy wants a father who is affectionate and close. Plato just wants...any sort of father at all. These are children who feel they've been wronged by the previous generation, and have given up hope on ever being understood by them. They're smart enough to see what's wrong with the world, but they're too impatient to really consider how their parents and teachers have turned out that way -- they just know that when they'll get older, they'll fix it. They won't make the same kind of mistakes, they'll be better.

Director Nicholas Rey uses cinematography, lighting and the serious acting chops of Dean and Wood to make these basic ideas much richer and subtle than they would be otherwise. Even though it doesn't have any right to work, it really does. Dean imbues Jim with the uncertainty and earnestness of a high school student -- this is a good guy who makes bad decisions, and has no one to teach him how to navigate the consequences and learn from his mistakes. He's all but crying out for someone to teach him how to stand up for himself, and it's a lesson that his beleaguered father and bullying mother are ill-suited for.

Plato, whose parents are absent through the length of the movie, fares the worst. His need for a stabilizing influence is so great it appears pathological, and his emotions are so forceful they overwhelm him almost all of the time. Because none of these children have the insight to explain their issues or needs to the adults around them, they're forced to wander through their lives angry and unfulfilled, but unable to say why.

It takes a little patience to see this underneath the dialogue that can come off as coarse and hokey. But like the children it follows, Rebel Without a Cause is definitely worth sticking with and making an attempt to understand. If your tolerance for 50s melodrama or the plight of upper-middle-class white kids is low, you might want to skip this. Otherwise, give it a try -- you may find the Technicolor world of these children surprisingly rich and deep.

Rating: 7/10.

November 2016

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