ReelReviews #10: Frozen (2013)

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MARCH 27, 2013 SCREENING: FROZEN (2013)

 

Disney has finally done it!

I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s when the Disney Renaissance was in full bloom, having been kick started by The Little Mermaid in 1989. At that time, Disney was making their best animated films since their heyday in the 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, the track record couldn’t be sustained, and it seemed as though Disney was losing their ability to make great animated films at the same time that I was going through my teens and losing interest in Disney films. This eventually lead to a dry spell for Disney in the early 2000s. The “Walt Disney Animated Masterpieces” during those days were films like Dinosaur (2000), Treasure Planet (2002), and Home on the Range (2004). films which I doubt you’ll be telling your grand-kids to see.

As we entered the 2010’s, Disney had somewhat of a “comeback”, and the era has been dubbed the Disney Revival. Of course, their all CGI movies like Toy Story had always been strong, but Disney finally made something decent in the traditional fairy tale genre when they did The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was a very creative film, and loud and colorful, but it was hard to follow and didn’t connect with audiences the way their past classics had. (I also thought the music was fairly bland, aside from the awesome villain song) Then came Tangled, and it was also pretty decent but perhaps in the opposite way – audiences and especially kids flocked to it, it really seemed to capture that old Disney style and strong musical traditions, but it was pretty bland and predictable. Finally, we had film’s like 2013’s Wreak-It Ralph, which did great at the box off, got great reviews, and were overall excellent movies that were perhaps underrated, because Wreak-It Ralph lost the “Best Animated Feature” Oscar to Disney’s own “safer” princess film, Brave, despite the fact Brave wasn’t nearly as memorable or fun as Wreak-It Ralph.

Finally, in 2013, Disney seems to have hit the jackpot. Here comes Frozen. I didn’t see it in theaters, so I managed to catch this one on DVD when it was first released on video – figuring that it might be my last chance to see a famous “winter” themed cartoon while it was still freezing outside.

Frozen, simply put, is the best Disney animated film of the 21st century. They get everything right in this film – its an old fashioned fairy tale story, it has a memorable princess (actually, in this case, a queen) character. The music is amazing and catchy, the story captures your attention and keeps you interested – the art design and effects are awesome, the acting is inspired, and so on, and so forth. There’s no traditional “villain” to speak of, but the antagonist in this movie was incredibly well thought out and perhaps one of the most clever and manipulative characters in Disney history – neither the main characters or the audience figure out the scheme until near the end of the film.

Frozen would be on par with the best known and loved Disney animated films like The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, etc., except for one – and only one – major flaw in the film: the talking snowman.

Yes, I hated “Olaf”, the “comic relief” wacky sidekick who neither funny nor relief. Another critic described him as the “Jar Jar Binks” of Frozen, and I’m inclined to agree. It would be like taking a bad Jerry Lewis character from a B-movie and giving him a supporting role in an amazing masterpiece like Singing in the Rain. The film is still strong enough to shine through despite his distracting presence, but it makes the film fall just short of being a masterpiece in its own right. What’s really sad is I was pleasantly surprised the female protagonists in this movie didn’t have any “super cute animal sidekick” character like is predictably used in other Disney movies, and it was working fine on own merits. Then along came “Olaf” – more than halfway through the film – to do his “loveable moron” routine and quip unfunny one-liners from scene to scene. Maybe its just seeing it through the eyes of an adult, but the character can’t compare to other “wacky sidekick” characters from true Disney masterpieces, like Timon & Pumbaa from The Lion King (which actually served an important plot point to transition the story in the middle of the film), or frivolous “wacky sidekick” characters like the mouse from Dumbo (who is actually funny, likeable, and helpful, unlike the dorky snowman). “Olaf” does provide one key point towards the end of the film where he helps the lead character make her escape, but another character could have been substituted for this scene and it would have given the film far more depth. Otherwise, you could cut him out completely and the result would be a true Disney masterpiece

There’s also a lot of heated debate from the world of politics on this film. Strangely, fringe groups on both the right and left despise Frozen, for completely different reasons. Some leftists have called for a boycott because the film largely consists of blond haired and blue-eyed characters (apparently they’re shocked people would like that in a film set in Scandinavia, and missed the fact Disney just did a big budget animated film with all black characters and a black princess a few years ago). Some on the right have claimed the movie is “secretly” sending pro-gay rights propaganda. It must be pretty “secret” indeed, since I’m an adult viewer and all I saw was traditional heterosexual romance throughout the movie. So in conclusion, Frozen loses half a star for one of the worst and least funny “wacky sidekicks” in history. Aside from that, this is the perfect Disney film

 
*** out of ****

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RetroReviews #54: Brazil: The “Love Conquers All” Version (1985)

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JULY 12, 2013 SCREENING: BRAZIL – LOVE CONQUERS ALL (1985)

Last but not least is a brief look at “Brazil: The ‘Love Conquers All” Version. This special re-cut of the movie was never released commercially, but comes as an extra on the 3-disc Criterion DVD release of the movie, and is an interesting little curiosity for fans of Gilliam’s work to check out.

The story behind the “Love Conquers All” version is quite simple. The theatrical version of Gilliam’s movie runs 142 mins., and that made it a pain to book for theatrical distribution. Like all Gilliam movies, the film is very surreal and has a depressing, downbeat ending. As a result, American movie studios wanted to re-cut the movie into a much leaner mainstream movie running only 94 mins. This was done without any of Gilliam’s input or consent, and not surprisingly, he hated it. The whole project turned out to be a non-issue, however, since Gilliam fought against the 94 min. version, and the 142 min. version on DVD, as well as the one that had been released to theaters, is Gilliam’s original “vision” for the film, whereas the re-cut version was never released commercially, and only appeared on television and in its intended form as an extra on the Criterion DVD.

Naturally the film corrupts Gilliam’s “vision” for Brazil, but going into the 94 min. version, I felt the DVD itself was biased towards the film, as well as every tidbit of information I could find about this cut online. They all conveyed one idea: this re-cut was an abomination, and should only be seen as a textbook example of how NOT to edit a movie, as it complete destroys the integrity of Gilliam’s masterpiece In other words, we the audience should completely hate and despise the re-cut.

I watched the re-cut in its entirety, and I did it with the audio commentary on from a film historian who was there to “explain” all the major changes to the film (he also conveyed the idea that I should hate the re-cut). The subtitle of the movie wasn’t originally part of the 94 min. cut. Rather, the film is dubbed “Love Conquers All” because once the re-cut was made public, it was clear the studio’s intent was for the film’s message to be that “love conquers all”, and this leads to the much despised happy ending.

So did I hate the re-cut? No. In fact, despite running over 40 minutes shorter, I really didn’t think it “butchered” the original movie at all. Some subplots were removed and some characters and situations changed around, but 80% of the major events in the original movie were more so less unchanged, and Brazil itself doesn’t really have any type of direct narrative structure anyway, its more of a character study, and it retains that in both the original and the “love conquers all” version. The intent is definitely changed with the ending, but its not really a “new” ending at all – the scene was shown in the original film at the end as well, though in a slightly different cut and it was presented a dream sequence, whereas its real life in the “love conquers all” version. Essentially, the ending is only different because the re-cut removes the final scene that reveals the earlier scene where the couple happily drove away  was a dream.

To give the high brow critics their due, however, I must admit the re-cut is clearly a weaker movie than the full 142 min. version. It’s simpler and easier to follow, which is a positive, but a lot of quirky moments from the original are lost, and the pure strangeness and surreal quality of the original kicked it up a notch over this version. Disastrous and horrible, no, but it’s definitely watered down. Since there’s not much of a story to begin with, telling that story more directly doesn’t really help things. If you’re going to watch Brazil, watch the uncut version. But honestly, neither version of the movie struck me as particularly great, or particularly terrible.

** out of ****

RetroReviews #53: Brazil (1985)

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JULY 11, 2013 SCREENING: BRAZIL (1985)

To finish out my week of Terry Gilliam films, I decided to take a look at two different versions of the film “Brazil”, (the theatrical version and the “Love Conquers All” version). This is the film that critics widely consider to be the “greatest” effort of Terry Gilliam’s directing career. At least, they feel that way about the theatrical version.

Count me in the minority, because this isn’t my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, nor would I consider it his strongest film overall (I’d probably say my favorite movie is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but I might be biased because its fresh in my mind and I haven’t seen 12 Monkeys in a while). To be fair, however, I still liked Brazil, and I think its worth checking out.

In this case, the film wasn’t what I was expected because the content of the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the title. If you hope to watch Brazil and see a movie about the nation of Brazil, look elsewhere. The title of the film comes from the song “Aquarela do Brasil”, a catchy tune that is repeatedly played throughout the movie as a reoccurring motif. The actual setting of the movie takes in a vaguely United Kingdom style setting, but occurring in a dystopian futuristic “1984” type society, where big bureaucracies control every aspect of people’s lives. The main difference between than and 1984 (which was probably fresh in the audience’s minds, since the classic John Hurt movie had been released only a year earlier) is that Brazil presents that type of a world in a light-hearted, whimsical tone, and there’s no central “Big Brother” type adversary. Instead of an “Airplane!” type straight out parody of 1984, this film seems more inspired by that type of world as a basis for its comedic setting, in much the same way Dr. Strangelove used the traditionally bleak scenario of nuclear Armageddon to make an over-the-top comedy.

I wouldn’t rate Brazil anywhere near the level of Dr. Strangelove, which really pushed the envelope when it was released in the 1960s. Brazil has much milder humor and some fun ideas, but I thought it was a bit overlong and boring at times. The basic storyline is a case of an identity mix-up because of a computer error, so this film gave us The Big Lebowski before there was The Big Lebowski. Jonathan Pryce is the lead here as a bewildered man who keeps digging himself in deeper no matter how earnestly he tries to resolve the identity crisis problem at the start of the film. He personally considered this film to be his best role, so I’d probably select “Something Wicked This Way Comes” for that honor. Visually the film is great and has some really notable scenes that wow the audience, but both the script and the direction seemed a bit pokey compared to Gilliam’s other films (though this is far better than his first effort, Jabberwocky)

Overall, I can’t help wonder if there’s something I’m missing. Why is it that high-brow critics think Brazil is so “deep” and “brilliant” and “masterful”? It’s beats me. I’ve carefully watched the film three times now with two different edits of the movie, and all I see is a mildly amusing comedy that takes forever to reach its conclusion, and has a twist ending that’s a bit anti-climatic. Fun, yes. Masterpiece, no.

** ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #51: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

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JULY 9, 2013 SCREENING: BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s fourth solo movie (and the third I’ve reviewed) is “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” (I really dread having to keep having to type out that title) and in my opinion, it’s where he really hit his stride. Baron (there, now I don’t have to type out the long title anymore!) is a wildly creative and hysterically funny fantasy adventure, and deserved far more attention than it originally received. It is a classic example of a film that got universally strong praise when it was released, and then preformed weakly at the box office (it has since become a cult classic).

What’s really cool about this movie is that it manages to maintain the classic style of Gilliam’s surreal humor, and also be a mainstream late 80’s adventure film. John Neville stars as the title character, and its clearly the best role of his career (and sadly perhaps the only one of note). One of his co-stars was a young child actress, who stole most the scenes she was in and left me wondering whatever happened to this talented young lady. After screening the movie, I looked up the cast list on IMDB only to discover that the Baron’s precious sidekick “Sally” was played by none other than Sarah Polley in her first film role! Apparently she had a “miserable” time making this movie, although it sure doesn’t show on screen. Even more interestingly, Polley is often described as looking like “a younger Uma Thurman” these days. This is perhaps the only film where both Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley appear, but they don’t play younger and older versions of the same character, or even mother and daughter – but completely different roles. While Polley is Sally, Thurman has a fun appearance as a beautiful mermaid character. Other famous stars have some memorable scenes in this, including an uncredited Robin Williams as “the King of the Moon” (whose head often detaches from his body and floats around the room) and Sting as a “Heroic officer”.

Aside from the wonderful cast ensemble though, the writing and directing in this movie really is terrific as well. The opening caption tells us that its “The Age of Reason” (e.g. the late 18th century), but shows how ironic that name for the time period is by juxtaposing it with images of unreasonable members of the Ottoman Empire battling across Europe. The film begins to cover a play about the life and exploits of the famous “Baron Munchhausen”, and is then interrupted by an elderly man claiming to be “the REAL Baron Munchhausen”, and the rest of the film is a flashback showing how events “really” occurred in his life.

Like his earlier (and later) films, much of what unfolds in Baron is zany non-scene But in the case of this movie, Gilliam seemed to be at the peak of his creative and outlandish prowess. The film has numerous fascinating characters and situations The special effects are also top notch – and seem fresh over 25 years later. Baron Munchhausen doesn’t have any type of deep meaningful effect that would give it a four star review, but it is both visually amazing on screen, as well intelligent , funny, and engaging on the written page. I find it to be rare when films accomplish both feats equally well, so I’d rank it along side great movies like Terminator 2 and The Thing, due to the fact they also excel equally well in both areas. The only difference is the latter two were much more successful commercially than Baron Munchhausen. Furthermore, I’ll add that the only thing that keeps me from keeping Baron Munchhausen three and a half stars is because it lacks any type of interesting message behind the film, or an idea that makes the audience question and debate the events of the story. Rather, the film exists purely as an entertaining escapist fantasy adventure story. In that category, it doesn’t disappoint one bit.

If you’ve never seen Baron Munchhausen, and you’re indifferent about watching the movie like I was, this is one film that you won’t regret taking a look at. Had the film done well at the box office, it would be considered a classic 80s movie now. Give it a shot, you’ll be glad you did.

*** out of ****

RetroReviews #50: Time Bandits (1981)

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JULY 8, 2013 SCREENING: TIME BANDITS (1981)

 

 

 

Sitting down to Terry Gilliam’s second film, I found that Time Bandits was a welcome relief from the ugly environment of Jabberwocky. I’m not too keen on Time Bandits either, but its a much more entertaining film and has a much more frantic, fun-filled pace, as well as a much more lighthearted and pleasant tone.

 

 

The plot of the film really isn’t important, as the film’s “wink wink the audience” trailer makes clear. It’s really an excuse for a series of different adventures that play out like long sketch comedy pieces. The basic framing device is a young boy with an overactive imagination finds himself on a quest with a band of six dwarfs, who travel to different places and events in history folklore (mythological ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, Robin Hood, on board the H.M.S. Titanic, etc.) They are trying to stop “Evil”, which takes the form of an evil sorcerer and is able to manipulate time and space.

 

 

The film actually seems a bit ahead of its time, since it reminded very much of the “modern” (post-2005 Doctor Who) the way it unfolded, albeit with early 1980s special effects and film-making techniques. Sometimes I forgot I was watching a movie made back in 1981, until Sean Connery showed up as a medieval King and I reacted with “Damn, Connery sure was a lot younger when he made this movie!” For some odd reason I can’t quite place my finger on, the film seems much more modern than other fantasy films made around the same era, like The Dark Crystal or The Neverending Story.

 

 

As has become common place for a lot of Terry Gilliam movies, it’s very difficult to follow exactly what is happening from scene to scene. There’s not a lot to tie the story together, although the framing device works and the film has a nice epilogue at the end, especially when Sean Connery’s character reappears in the real world as a firefighter, and winks to the audience (I won’t give away the reason why firefighters arrive at the end of the film)

 

 

Time Bandits is appropriate for kids (and certainly told from the point of view of a child and is intended to make kids root for it), but its really aimed at adults and has some sly humor that might go over the heads of children. I really enjoy “adventures in time and space”, although I prefer ones that actually have some sort of intelligent plot, like Back to the Future. Here, it’s just harmless fluff. I’m doubt you’ll remember any of it (I have a hard time recalling what happened in the movie myself), but you’ll probably enjoy it immensely

 

 

 

** ½ out of ****

 

RetroReviews #49: Jabberwocky (1977)

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JULY 7, 2013 SCREENING: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

July 7-12 was “Terry Gilliam” week for me, and I screened all the movies directed by Terry Gilliam that I hadn’t previous seen. Jabberwocky was the first solo film by Terry Gilliam, the only American-born member of the famous British Monty Python troupe. Gilliam seemingly did the impossible and made a narrative film out of the surreal Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky”. Gilliam is one my favorite directors, and Carroll is one of my favorite authors, so its unfortunate that I believe Jabberwocky is probably Gilliam’s worst film.

I didn’t enjoy having to sit through Jabberwocky, but that’s not to stay the film is completely terrible. Aside from turning a “nonsense” poem into a literal story, it has several other things going for it as well: although its a comedy, it stays faithful to the source material and uses lines from the poem verbatim What’s more, the on screen visuals make sense and show the action in a way that the viewer can follow the narration. Overall, the narration is quite wonderful to listen to. This is also the most “Pythonesque” of Gilliam’s films, which is not surprising since it was done shortly after Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The setup and gags are very reminiscent of the earlier film. Finally, the appearance of the Jabberwocky creature itself was very impressive, and was faithful to John Tennial’s original illustration, and very impressive for a low budget 1977 film. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked great within the context of the film,

So why didn’t I like Jabberwocky? I felt the rest of the elements of this movie were just plain lousy. None of the slapstick gags worked for me – Gilliam may have been emulating his earlier Python humor but when he did it a solo project the film time, it simply fell flat. Variety wrote a negative review of this movie claiming it was “long on jabber but short on yocks, and I have to agree. Jabberwocky is very talkative trying to stretch out a short poem into a feature length movie, and all the characters babble on endlessly, with completely uninteresting and irrelevant conversations. The film is dark and dreary (which again, worked in Holy Grail but doesn’t work here because of the pacing), the music is bland and forgettable, and all the battle and action scenes seem to be unfocused and shabbily shot).

I don’t blame Gilliam, since he had the other five Pythoneers contributing material on his earlier movies, and here he only has Michael Palin, who stars in the film but apparently didn’t contribute anything more than acting. Gilliam’s movies are always “out there” and his material isn’t for everyone, but his incoherent weird movies became more polished and sharper later on. The ultimate test for an adaptation like Jabberwocky is would a huge Lewis Carroll fan like myself want to add this movie to my collection, or even watch it again? The answer is no, and worse, that answer is not because the film wasn’t faithful to the source material or only used the title to cash in on Carroll’s name. The film is actually very faithful despite being a tongue-in-cheek satire. In this case, merely being faithful isn’t enough. You could film a twelve hour audio reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, narrated by Jerry Seinfeld, and I wouldn’t want to sit through that, either.

Jabberwocky had good intentions, and it has a lot of good things going for it. But overall, Terry Gilliam’s first movie simply sucks. Sorry, Terry. On the plus side, he got much better.

* ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #48: Lawn Dogs (1997)

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JULY 5, 2013 SCREENING: LAWN DOGS (1997)

Lawn Dogs is the greatest movie you’ve never seen.

The only reason I was exposed to this movie was because we had to read the screenplay during a class I took on script comparison in film school. I read the script before I had seen the movie, and fell in love with the idea instantly. The class was polled on the quality of the three scripts we read. Which script was the best? Most of the class chose the far better known Fried Green Tomatoes as the strongest screenplay. Myself and two other students voted for Lawn Dogs. “Why?” our professor inquired. “It’s one of a kind” is all I could offer at the time.

I’ve seen the film itself twice now: once in 2003, and almost exactly 10 years later in 2013. My reaction remained the same. As some other critics have noted, the film was “hauntingly beautiful and moved me even more than the screenplay did. I judge a film’s “greatness” by its ability to raise fascinating questions and emotionally drawn the audience into its world and characters so well that you’re left thinking about the film for weeks after you’ve seen it. Lawn Dogs is such a film on my list, and thus its one of the very rare times that I opt to award a film a perfect four stars.

So what exactly is this film about? Well, on paper, Lawn Dogs is somewhat like the film I most recently reviewed, Dreamchild. It tells the story of a controversial relationship between an adult man and a young girl, which naturally causes problems and has consequences later in the film. But unlike Dreamchild and many other films that approach this touchy subject matter, there’s nothing really bad happening between Trent and Devon’s relationship in this film. The film makes it clear from the onset that the little girl is the one who initiates it. There is absolutely nothing sexual or romantic about it. Lawn Dogs shows us that Trent is obviously not a pedophile – he is involved with adult women, has no interest in the little girl at first, and wants her to just leave him alone and stop pestering him. Eventually, they discover they have more in common than they realized, and they bond in a way that forms an amazing friendship.

Thus, while the two main characters and their “special relationship” would lead us to think this film would be in the same genre as films about pedophilia, the film itself is actually more along the lines of Harold and Maude, Badlands, Lilo & Stitch, or The Professional – all films that present a scenario with two characters that seemingly would never be pals in real life, but the film gives us a believable scenario that turns them into best buddies despite the shock of the outside world. In the case of Lawn Dogs, the controversy isn’t merely from the fact that Trent is a 20-something man hanging out with a 10 year old girl (although that obviously causes major problems in the movie), but there are many underlying themes about class conflict, American culture, broken families, surgical ramifications, and the way modern society looks at taboos and civility.

Lawn Dogs is essentially a drama, although it contains a healthy dose of many other film genres. There’s some great comedic moments, adventure, father-son relationships, and even some crude (but funny) toilet humor. The film is clearly set in the “real world”,  but some fantasy elements creep it at the most unexpected times, and the surprise twist ending is particularly chilling and inspirational at the same time (another film I gave a similar four star rating for producing contradictory emotions at the same time was Let Me In. It managed to be both bleak & depressing and cute & sweet at the same time) To me, that is the true mark of a genius movie. Like its characters and scenario, the film manages to bring out opposite emotions in its audience at the same time. It‘s also a quintessential film about American culture, that ironically was british-made and filmed in the U.K. As the Brits would say, “That’s bloody brilliant!” 

Looking at the reviews of many female critics, it appears they particularly enjoyed Sam Rockwell on screen, claiming he looked his hottest in this movie. Being a straight adult male, I didn’t notice or care about Sam Rockwell’s physical appearance on screen. I focused on the direction, acting, music, and story, all of which were top notch like the screenplay. Rockwell’s performance was great here, and so was then-newcomer Mischa Barton, who went on to star in the O.C. (I’ve noticed most “former child actors” tend to give the greatest performance of their career when they were under 10.) But if the subject matter makes you uncomfortable and the only reason you’d check out the movie is to see how sexy Sam Rockwell looks, be my guest. I’d rather not spoil the ending or even how the film unfolds, so I’ll simply recommend you see this obscure little masterpiece for yourself. It truly is a textbook example of “diamond in the rough”.

**** out of ****