Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice(3/26/2016)

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I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.  To the point where it was in my top ten that year.  This was not a popular opinion.  I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth.  At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past.  Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic.  I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on.  Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery.  I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.

The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck).  This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story.  Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis.  The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa.  There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all.  As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight.  Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with.  The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly.  Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage.  Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.

The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters.  It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people.  He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand.  That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for.  But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that?  Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter?  That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all.  You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this.  It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.

Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out.  For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start.  The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie.  What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction.  There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures.  The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.

Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it.  The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done.  There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands.  In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point.  I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie.  In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.

Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task.  The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie.  The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much.  What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste.  A simple team-up would have been sufficient.  Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate.  The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess.  DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim.  It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.

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Knight of Cups(3/19/2016)

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Not too long ago the release of a new Terrance Malick film was a rare and special thing.  Even if you ignore his famous twenty year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line it remained the case that you were likely to wait at least five years in-between each one of his efforts.  But it seems something has changed because just two years after his much beloved The Tree of Life he managed to release a brand new movie called To the Wonder in (by his standards) record time and now just a few years after that he’s come out with another new movie called Knight of Cups.  The big question of course is whether or not these long stretches in-between movies were in fact necessary to Malick’s creative process or whether they were simply unfortunate droughts worth filling in with new product.  To many To the Wonder suggested that this sped up schedule was not doing him any favors, but I was not among them.  I wouldn’t say that was his best film, in fact it was probably his weakest up to that point, but I did quite like it and thought it was a worthy companion piece to The Tree of Life.  Unfortunately I’m not so sure I can say the same about this latest movie in his newly expedited slate of films, in fact I’m not really sure what to make of it at all.

The film is set in present day Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, and focuses on a man named Rick (Christian Bale) who I had assumed was a movie star but who the various online plot descriptors say is actually a screenwriter.  Yeah, that’s the level of non-narrative abstraction we’re dealing with in this time around.  The film is divided into eight segments, each one roughly dealing with his brief interactions with a handful of other people, many of them having had some sort of relation to him in his past.  We meet his brother (Wes Bentley), his father (Brian Dennehy), his current friend/lover (Imogen Poots), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), another ex-flame (Natalie Portman), and various other Los Angeles denizens like a decadent millionaire (Antonio Banderas).

Malick’s career can pretty easily be put into two stages.  The first stage goes from his debut film Badlands goes through his first four films and reaches its crescendo with The New World.  These films basically take a concept that easily could be turned into a standard Hollywood project (a serial killer and his lover on the run, the battle of Guadalcanal, the Pocahontas story, etc.) and then tackle it using his signature ethereal style in order to make it feel wholly different than it would have.  Then with 2011’s The Tree of Life he kind of reinvented himself in terms of content if not style.  Rather than focusing on a story with a high concept of sorts, that movie brought the Malick touch to a very down to earth story about a boy’s coming of age in the 1950s and this trend continued into 2013’s To the Wonder which was primarily about a rocky relationship between a man and a woman.  At the end of the day both movies were about very common situations that everyone can relate to on some level.  Knight of Cups, by contrast, is trying to do much the same thing but instead of focusing on relatively universal situations it is focusing on what it’s like to be a wealthy show business figure surrounded by obscene wealth and beautiful women at all times and that is… not something everyone gets a chance to experience.  This is of course where I think we start to run into problems.  When those other movies skipped over the conventional exposition and explanation that most movies would give you audiences were still able to follow along to some extent because the situations were so familiar.  Here not so much.

To make matters worse Malick has, if anything, increased the level of abstraction here to the point of it bordering on incoherence.  There isn’t really a story here as such.  If anything it seems to be designed as a character study of the Christian Bale character but the movie is so dearth of conventional dialogue that we barely get to know him at all.  I think the idea is to give us an idea of what he’s like based on his relationship to all the other characters, but his interactions with them are so brief and impressionistic that we only get the vaguest idea of who they are and what his past is with them.  We get that there’s some sort of strife between his family members, that his marriage to the Cate Blanchett character didn’t work out, that he somehow wronged the Natalie Portman character, but I don’t think there’s enough there to really hang a movie on.  The signature Malick voice-overs aren’t much of a help either as they are even less on point than usual and often take the form of literal poems rather than concrete ideas and the chronology of the whole film is also all over the place.

Malick is, as usual, a visual stylist worth taking note of and his imagery often remains quite beautiful although it never quite had the same bite here as it did in his last couple of films. Emmanuel Lubezki returns as his cinematographer and while his and Malick’s eye for beautiful framings a and seemingly weightless camera movements remain just as impactful as ever the raw cinematography here felt a little more digital and bland than it has in the past.  At times some of the imagery felt a little more indulgent than it has in the past as well, as if Malick came up with a laundry list of interesting shots he wanted to get and then made sure they all ended up in the movie one way or another.  On an intellectual level I kind of get what he’s doing.  Malick has spent much of his career bringing out the beauty in nature through his camera work, but throughout his career he has shown a similar level of awe towards man-made creations whether its his treatment of 17th Century England in the last act of The New World or his admiration of Urban Texas during the Sean Penn portions of The Tree of Life.  This is in many ways a film that’s trying to focus more in on his perspective of modern urban life in both its beauty and occasional ugliness and in this way it is a valuable inclusion into his larger body of work… I just wish he had found a better way to do it.

The film takes its title from a tarot card called “The Knight of Cups” and there are various title cards along the way that assign other tarot cards to various characters.  Wikipedia tells me that according to standard tarot divination the Knight of Cups represents “a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.”  That sounds like an interesting person, and if I look back at the film I suppose I could apply those attributes to its central character if I wanted to, but I kind of wish the film itself had made those character traits known to me in the actual text rather than some riddle that I have to look up by googling the film’s title.  I’m a pretty hardcore Malick defender, the kind of person who loved To the Wonder and think The New World is somewhere in the director’s top three but with Knight of Cups he’s finally found a level of abstraction and general aimlessness that I can’t even get behind and defend.  There are hints of a solid Malick film that seem to be hidden beneath some of the obliqueness of the whole thing that I wish could break free, but at the same time I almost kind of wonder if Malick should have given up any pretense of storytelling and just gone full-on Koyaanisqatsi with this thing. Either way, I can’t say that I got out of it what I wanted and I’m hoping that Malick maybe slows down a bit before he tries to push this style even further into depths of the unintelligibility.

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10 Cloverfield Way(3/12/2016)

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In 1982 John Carpenter engaged in a strange little experiment that’s still debated in genre circles.  Having already produced one sequel to his 1979 classic Halloween in which he definitively killed off the Michael Myers character, Carpenter needed to find a way to please producers who were demanding a third film for the franchise.  His solution was to convert the Halloween brand into a sort of anthology series in which each installment would be a standalone horror film dealing in some way with the titular holiday and the movie he delivered, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, was about a cult selling possessed Halloween masks rather than a knife wielding killer.  Long story short, that movie left fans expecting a more conventional sequel confused and the movie did poorly as a result.  That movie has amassed something of a cult following and many have argued that if it had simply been released without the Halloween branding it would have done better.  I’m not so sure about that.  I’d argue that the movie is more flawed then some of its defenders suggest and that few people would be talking about it today were it not a distant cousin of a more famous horror movie.  Either way the experiment didn’t work out.  The next Halloween movie brought back Michael Myers (as did the next six sequels/remakes) and no other franchises tried to do the anthology thing… until now.  Thirty-four years after Halloween III J.J. Abrams has seemingly decided to have another go at making an established horror franchise into an anthology series with the “sequel” to the 2008 monster film Cloverfield entitled 10 Cloverfield Lane.

This spiritual successor to Cloverfield is seemingly set in a different continuity from the original film and doesn’t use any kind of found footage conceit.  Instead it focuses on a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has just left her boyfriend moments before the film begins and is driving off to some other location when her car is seemingly struck and run off the road.  Moments later she wakes up in a small room in what appears to be an underground bunker.  This bunker is being run by a man named Howard Stambler (John Goodman), a doomsday prepper and conspiracy theorist who tells her that there’s been an attack of some kind and that if either of them try to leave they’ll be killed by the radiated air outside.  Michelle is obviously suspicious of this and thinks she’s been kidnapped, but we did hear just before her accident that there had been some kind of blackout across the Southeast and the one other inhabitant named Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.) also claims to have seen a flash in the distance before fleeing to the bunker.

In interviews producer J.J. Abrams has described this and the original Cloverfield as “two different rides at the same amusement park.”  In other words he’s using the “Cloverfield” brand in order to help market stand-alone science fiction films produced by his production company that happen to share a certain Twilight Zone sensibility.  It’s a move that anthology TV series like “American Horror Story” and “True Detective” may have prepared the public for and is basically a smart way to give a leg up to movies that would have lacked name recognition otherwise.  I’m not sure how well this will work exactly.  I like the original Cloverfield a lot but it was a divisive film and it’s also been a while since it came out, I’m not sure how much hunger there is out there for something similar and I’m also not sure how many people are exactly going to understand what they’re going for, but if this is what has to be done to get original IPs out there I’m not going to complain.

A secondary objective of the newly christened Cloverfield franchise seems to be that the films will act as launching pads for young “Bad Robot” affiliated directors who want to work from the jump in a commercial space rather than toil in the indie world.  The original Cloverfield was (sort of) the debut feature for Matt Reeves, who previously had TV credits but is now the inheritor of the newly revived Planet of the Apes franchise.  This time Abrams has tapped a guy named Dan Trachtenberg who previously mostly made commercials and made something of a splash with a short film based on the “Portal” video game.  He was also something of an internet personality and hosted a couple of podcasts that I used to listen to from time to time back when he was a nobody.  Those podcasts, which I tended to listen to more for his co-hosts than for him gave me the impression that he was very amiable personality whose taste in film runs on the geekier rather than auteurist end of the spectrum.  Also I gathered that he was rather obsessed with the 80s and nostalgia thereof.  He’s the kind of guy who would cite The Karate Kid as a “classic” and that perhaps makes him a natural collaborator with the director of Super 8.

The direction here is mostly slick and professional if not terribly distinguished.  It certainly doesn’t have the experimental edge of the original Cloverfield which was a film that was almost entirely defined by its technique rather than its story.  This one is more traditional.  There’s no found footage conceit or any other particular gimmick aside from the fact that it’s this sort of confined chamber drama with only three real characters.    The film’s real weakness probably stems from the film’s script, which was written by a couple of guys named Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken and which was also apparently worked on by Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash).  The screenplay does a decent job of setting things in motion and does seem to have a handful of good ideas, but there are some shaky elements as well like sub-plots in it that go nowhere (hint: earrings) and there’s also a pretty major scene in the film that is resolved through some really coincidental timing (hint: escape attempt).

Of course the element of the film that will probably generate the most discussion are the developments in the last fifteen or twenty minutes (and we’re diving headfirst into spoiler territory here) in which it’s revealed that Howard is not crazy and that there was a damn alien invasion going on while our three characters were hunkered down in their bomb shelter.  This isn’t a complete shock twist of the Sixth Sense variety as it was pretty clearly foreshadowed that science fiction things are a possibility in the movie, but the way that the film shifts from Ex Machina into War of the Worlds is still pretty leftfield and it also reveals the main commonality between it and the original Cloverfield: both are film that depict people who have limited and unconventional perspectives on an apocalyptic situation.   The difference is that I found the way the original film cockteased its audience by giving bits and pieces of “the goods” before retreating to be rather invigorating where a conventional take would have been boring, but I’m not sure I feel the same way about this approach.  If anything, I kind of left the film feeling like the alien invasion movie that we only got a taste of would have made for a more exciting film than the somewhat interesting bit of theatrical drama that we got.

I will give them this though: the twist ending wasn’t a pure gimmick and did play into the film’s wider story.  It is was almost certainly a deliberate choice to make the last spoken words in the film something along the lines of “we need people with combat and medical skills.”  Howard had both of those things but rather than use them to help humanity he used them to keep himself safe to no real end.  As such, the twist with the aliens vindicates his paranoia while condemning his tactics.  It’s that kind of trickery that ultimately keeps me on board with 10 Cloverfield Lane and J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” philosophy.  However, there is probably a reason why I’ve spent almost as much time discussing the ways that this film would be marketed and branded rather than its actual content.  The first Cloverfield was something special, something I’ll be talking about for a while and this wasn’t really.  We’ve seen thrillers like this with minimal casts and a single location before; they’re really not as rare as you’d think and I don’t know that this one really added a whole lot to the equation, but it’s certainly a good movie, probably the best one you’re likely to find in wide release right now but I can’t really call it a homerun.

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Rams(3/6/2016)

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It’s too tempting to take the easy way out sometimes.  Film buffs like to champion the seeking out of unique counter-programing but all too often find themselves marching off to see the exact same Hollywood product that everyone else is going to.  That’s not always a terrible thing, Hollywood does make worthy product sometimes and even when they don’t it isn’t exactly the worst crime to indulge in some junk food every once in a while, but all too often people find themselves just following the heard off to some questionable movies even when it’s against their better judgement and I’m just as guilty as anyone.  Case in point; this week I was strongly thinking about going to see the movie Deadpool.  I wasn’t thinking that way because I really thought that was going to be a great movie, in fact I was pretty skeptical about it what with its obnoxious looking trailer and untested director.  Rather, the only reason I was really planning to see it was because I knew it was making a lot of money and wanted to get in on the cultural conversation.  I did stop myself, however, because I’m trying to make a concerted effort to challenge myself a little more and go off the beaten path more often, at least when distribution patterns allow.  And that’s why I instead went to see an Icelandic movie about feuding brothers this week and will probably only be catching up with Deadpool when it comes out on blu-ray.

Rams is set in a small pastoral village in rural Iceland and focuses on a middle aged man named Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) who has been living on a sheep farm in a plot next door to his brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), also a sheep farmer, although the two of them haven’t been on speaking terms in years.  As the film begins both are bringing in prized sheet, both descendants of the family’s strong bloodline, to a village competition where they come in first and second place.  Jealous of his brother’s first place finish, Gummi inspects the winning sheep and thinks he sees signs of a livestock disease called scrapie.  This poses a threat to the entire island’s herd and eventually it starts looking like the brothers are both going to have to exterminate their sheep.  This is a devastating blow for both of them and soon Gummi starts making plans to take desperate measures.

On its surface Rams is a dry comedy about a couple of eccentrics bickering over unspecified issues, a sort of Grumpy Old Men but for a slightly more discerning crowd.  There is, however, a little more going on here.  At its base this is a movie about the power of legacy and family dynamics.  Throughout the movie there seems to be very little discussion of the actual economics of sheep raising and when the herd is threatened there is very little discussion of how their slaughter will effect anyone’s bottom lines, especially in the case of the two central brothers.  Rather these two men’s attitude towards their sheep are largely symbolic of the brothers’ attitudes towards one another.  At the start of the film Gummi largely uses his sheep in order to compete with his brother and prove himself to be the better farmer than his sibling rival, but as the film goes on he starts to be less concerned with his own sheep and more concerned with this bloodline that he views as his family birthright and Kiddi starts to feel the same.

The humor here is really deadpan, to the point where I hesitate to even call it a comedy for fear of making people expect it to be this laugh out loud kind of thing rather than a story with a sort of dry comedic undertone.  It also has a sort of homespun charm to it in the way it knowingly conveys the valley its set in and give the audience a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live there.  It’s one of those movies that is a little hard to reach a final verdict on, there’s nothing I really dislike about it but its accomplishments are also kind of modest and specific.  At Cannes it competed in the Un Certain Regard division and won the top prize there, and that sounds about right, it’s a movie I have a certain regard for to be sure.

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Disneyology 101: The Golden Age

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For years I refused to watch any kind of children’s or family movie and while I don’t think I was missing out of a whole lot I did eventually come to realize that if I wanted to be a fully rounded film expert I probably shouldn’t be completely cutting myself off from one of the most popular genres in all of film.  So, in 2011 I embarked on a little viewing odyssey to catch up on the acclaimed films of the Pixar animation studio and when I was done with that I expanded my little odyssey to get a broader knowledge of the contemporary family film landscape.  However, something was missing.  I’d been focusing so much on the modern state of family cinema that I hadn’t really gotten a better idea of the broader history that had led us to that point.   That will end with my next series which will go all the way back and examine the roots of this genre vis-a-vis the studio that pretty much invented it: Disney.  This will be a little different from my other two series in that I had a little more experience with some of these movies… sort of.  I know I’ve seen some of these movies during my youth but that was so long ago that I’m not even really sure at this point which ones I actually saw in their entirety and which ones I just saw a few clips of at one point.   Either way I think it would be for the best to give them a view with adult eyes to better appreciate their place in film history and to see if they actually hold up.  From a writing perspective this series will be a little different than the earlier series in that I’m taking something of a quantity over quality approach to my write-ups.  I’m thinking I’ll be making a bunch of short-ish reviews rather than the long ones I wrote for the other two series.  I’m also not entirely sure what the pacing on this is going to be and I am planning to take some longish breaks at certain points in the series, so we’ll see how things develop.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

1937 Snow WhiteWhere to begin with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  To a certain extent it’s a movie you don’t even need to watch in order to know it has earned a place in film history.  No matter the film’s actual pros and cons, the fact remains that it was the first feature length animated film and that alone makes it a clear landmark and for whatever flaws it has (and it has many) they can all kind of be understood given that Disney was learning the grammar for this kind of movie from scratch in a number of ways.  The film’s greatest asset, by far, is its animation.  Disney had carefully honed their animation style in the decade between Steamboat Willie and this feature debut and they came out of the gate with a pretty fully formed and fluid animation style which only seems better with age.  You can really tell that most of what’s onscreen here was painstakingly hand drawn and it gives you an idea of just how many corners are cut in modern 2D animation on television and elsewhere and beyond the film’s technical merits it definitely has some cool visual design elements.  The film’s audio elements, by contrast, haven’t aged nearly as well.  The film’s voice acting generally feels stilted in much the way a lot of the early talkies were and Adriana Caselotti’s performance as the title character is particularly weak.

Truth be told, Caselotti’s squeaky voice performance is emblematic of a bigger problem: Snow White is a really terrible character.  There’s just nothing to this woman; she’s everything that people claim is wrong about the stereotypical Disney Princess.  She begins the movie as this flawless paragon of “traditional” femininity and doesn’t evolve in the slightest throughout the movie.  After being chased out of town under threat of death she just magically gets accepted by all the forest animals (who all have this disturbing grin on their faces), drifts into the home of the seven dwarves, and is quickly accepted as this perfect wife/mother figure by them.  We get no evidence that she has a single interesting thought and also proves herself to be this naïve moron who’s stupid enough to eat a poisoned apple given to her by someone who is obviously a witch (a move that even the woodland animals are smart enough not to fall for).  The film doesn’t view the fact that Snow White is almost killed by one of the dumbest murder schemes in fairy tale history as a character flaw so much as a natural result of her apparently desirable innocence and she’s quickly saved by a deus ex machine of a prince who just shows up to fall in love with her for no reason and save her with a basically unearned kiss.  When you watch stuff like this you start to get a better idea why the moderately well-developed protagonists of movies like Frozen were as heavily praised as they were.

Most of the character problems I outlined above could easily be chalked up to problems that are inherit to bringing a fairy tale to the screen and I’m not unsympathetic with that, but this movie has other problems that are more inherently cinematic, namely that the film has a pretty strange story structure and pace to it.  The film really streamlines its own first act, relegating most of the exposition to a text introduction, which is strange because there really isn’t a lot of story here and the rest of the film actually feels pretty padded.  An inordinate amount of time is spent with Snow White just hanging around with the dwarfs and the story kind of comes to a halt as we wait for the witch to finally show up.  At this point the film basically turns into a slapstick comedy with cartoony gags that are sort of interestingly staged but which I wouldn’t say I found to be particularly funny and as such the film’s rather long second act gets rather dull at a certain point.  So when it comes to this movie I’d say it’s something I have a certain respect for and a certain interest in for its place in film history but which I can’t say I particularly “liked” exactly.  Fortunately for Walt Disney that isn’t the dominant opinion about it.  This thing was a humongous success when it came out and was briefly the highest grossing movie of all time until Gone With the Wind came along.  Adjusted for inflation and including all the re-releases the film remains the studio’s biggest hit of all time and gave Disney a whole lot of momentum that would sustain them through tough times ahead.

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Pinocchio (1940)

1940 PinocchioSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a resounding financial success for Disney and with that under his belt Walt Disney decided to pull out all the stops and make his follow-up project bigger, better, and more impressive and in many ways he succeeded.  Pinocchio cost twice as much to make as Snow White and you can definitely see the money up on the screen.  There are more locations, more moving parts, and more animation effects in this movie and they definitely go a long way to making it feel more like a fully formed vision than Disney’s debut.  There are a lot of showy moments in this like an early money-shot of Geppetto’s village that begins above the skyline with birds in the foreground and zooms in on a building below with various people walking around on the roads below.  Later of course there’s the film’s finale where the principal characters escape from a whale that creates a bunch of cool splashy effects on the ocean.  There’s substantially more here in terms of big visual set-pieces like that than there were in Snow White (which largely seemed to take place in one house) and in general it’s just a more exciting watch.  The voice acting is also generally improved in so much as the actors don’t feel distractingly stilted and I might even single out Cliff Edwards’ performance as Jiminy Cricket as being downright charming in a folksy kind of way.

In terms of story-telling the film is also a big step forward, but perhaps not as big of a one as it needed to be.  On its face, the storytelling here is really kind of weird.  The whole movie seems to operate on a strange sort of dream logic where a puppet that comes to life is just blithely told to go off to school literally the next day by a father figure who doesn’t even take a day to consider the craziness that just came into his life.  It’s a film where almost all of the characters are just regular humans but two random anthropomorphic animals walk into the film and interact with humans out of nowhere, where there’s a weird nightmarish episode set at an island where naughty boys are turned to donkeys in what has to be one of the least efficient scams ever, and where characters return home in time to learn via a note that their father figure just happened to be swallowed by a whale in what has to be one of the most random third act developments you can think of.  All that is… pretty far removed from the conventional way stories are supposed to be structured and an audience’s willingness to go along with it may vary.  It’s also interesting that the film doesn’t really have one central villain but various ones like Stromboli, Foulfellow, the coachman, and the whale, none of whom are even defeated by the end.

If the movie has one fatal flaw it is its simple moralizing and borderline preachiness.  It’s not hard to see what the message of the movie is: work hard, listen to your parents, develop morals, and go to school and you’ll be a success.  The film doesn’t hide any of this in the slightest, it pretty much comes out and says all of it and even goes so far as to declare a character to be the protagonists’ conscience and one of its villains as temptation.   This attempt to speak directly to the smallest of children and instill these very middle class American values upon them all comes off  a little simplistic and almost PSA-ish and gives you a slightly queasy sense that you’re being preached to by a condescending rich guy who thinks he knows what’s best for you.  Still, there is at least something there at the center of this one, which is probably more than I can say about the last Disney movie and the film’s advanced ambitions alone make it a pretty essential part of the Disney cannon.  Oddly enough, the movie was actually something of a failure at the box office in its initial release.  Part of that was simply due to the fact that they couldn’t rely on European box office returns due to the war, but the novelty of seeing a cartoon at feature length had also worn off and while the film was certainly popular by most standards it actually didn’t make its entire budget back and start making a profit until a later re-release.

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Fantasia (1940)

1940 FantasiaFantasia is different from most of the movies I planned to look at for this series in that it is basically a compilation of shorts and that it incorporates some live action elements, but it’s considered key to Disney’s work in this era so I don’t think I can overlook it.  Also, this is the one movie from this era that I’m 100% sure I’ve seen before in its entirety in that I distinctly remember that my family owned a copy of it on VHS back in the day.  Today it would seem like sort of the ideal movie for me in that it provides me with a way to admire classical Disney animation without forcing me to deal with a silly fairy tale story filled with dumb jokes for babies.  In fact I think the film, with its blending of high culture and low culture was very much meant to be a film that would help win over the hearts and minds of snobs like me who might have minimal interest in watching a feature length cartoon but who might be won over by the prospect of seeing a classical music presentation and Disney seemed to indulge this highbrow appeal by giving the film a roadshow presentation with an intermission in order to give audiences the feeling of spending an evening at the orchestra.

You can kind of see the film using its first two segments to ease these kind of audiences into the world of a Disney cartoon by making the first segment abstract and the second segment being a slightly surreal scene of small objects dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.  From there it quickly gets a lot more Disney with the film’s most famous segment: The Sorcerer’s Apprenitce, which was actually the first part of the movie they made.  Originally this was supposed to be a standalone short but once it was clearly too expensive to make money as a short they got the idea of combining similar shorts into a feature.  You can tell things were a little different on this one both because the star is Mickey Mouse and also because it tells a clearer story than most of them.  The next segment is the most ambitious in that it depicts the dawn of life on the planet and evolution up through the death of the dinosaurs, but it’s also probably the weakest in part because The Rite of Spring is probably the dullest of the classical music pieces here and that kind of carries over into the short.  Still, seeing dinosaurs was no small thing in 1940 s I’ll give them a pass.  From there we get the Pastoral Symphony segment, which is I always remember liking as a kid because I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  Watching it now I’m surprised at how daring it was with its partly nude centaurs and its bacchanalian drinking character.  The next segment, with ballet dancing animals, is one of the least narratives but it’s also one of the segments that most directly synchs with the music and is generally amusing in its use of animals that you wouldn’t guess would be natural choices for ballet.  That is perhaps the pallet cleanser for the film’s true masterpiece, the segment I usually fast forwarded to when I was a kid, the Night on Bald Mountain segment in which a demon on a mountain chills with other various ghouls and ghosts. This bit of German expressionist inspired awesomeness makes up for any and all earlier shortcomings but I could have done without the Ave Maria closer.

If there’s a fatal flaw to the film it’s that some of the segments perhaps overstay their welcome a bit.  In fact at 126 minutes this is the longest animated feature Disney has ever released and by a relatively wide margin (to the point where the second longest Disney animated movie, Zootopia, is only 108 minutes long and very few of their traditionally animated films were over 90 minutes).  This is perhaps a byproduct of the fact that Disney was working with classical pieces that had a set length and you couldn’t exactly just cut those pieces down at will.  What’s more, I kind of think that a shortened version would sort of miss the point.  The movie is supposed to feel like a night out at the symphony, but with cool imagery added to give you something interesting to focus on while you listen.  When it played in urban centers in its roadshow version at nice theaters with an intermission for effect it did quite well, when it played in a heavily cut form with all the orchestra interstitials removed it did very poorly.    It also suffered from all the same distribution challenges that Pinocchio faced and as such it wasn’t a box office success, but over the years it was re-realeased just as often as the other Disney classics and built a reputation, but the damage was probably done.  Disney wouldn’t try to go in a mature direction like this again anytime soon.

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Dumbo (1941)

1941 DumboHaving lost money on two straight movies, Walt Disney realized that in the economy they existed in they couldn’t afford to make projects as lavish as Pinocchio and Fantasia anymore and went into their fourth feature intent on making a cheaper project that would turn a profit and the result was Dumbo: a sixty-four minute feature about a misfit circus elephant.  The corners that were cut in the animation on this one is readily apparent from moment one.  The style here is simpler and more in line with the kind of animation I tend to associate with television rather than film in a number of ways.  Just compare the elephants here with the ones from the penultimate Fantasia segment and the downgrade is striking.  Of course this is different from the other “golden age” Disney films in a number of other ways as well.  Unlike Snow White and Pinocchio, this is not based on a timeless fairytale or decades old children’s book, it was instead based on a truly obscure illustrated children’s book that was meant to be a prototype for a short lived invention called a Roll-A-Book.   Most people who weren’t paying close attention to the credits probably just assume it’s an original Disney story rather than another adaptation.  It’s also the first Disney movie to take place in the “here and now” and the first one to primarily be about talking animals.  It’s also less of a musical than previous Disney movies.  There are songs in it but until very late in the movie most of them are performed non-dietetically by singers who are off screen

The movie starts off pretty weak, establishing quickly that this isn’t going to be as serious of an effort when it’s shown that this is set in a world where baby animals are delivered to their mothers by storks and train engines have a personality of their own.  If Snow White operated on fairy tale logic and Pinochio operated on dream logic, this operates on cartoon logic.  It’s a world where trying to run while having very large ears will inevitably lead to you tripping into a stack of elephants and having them tumble to the ground while finding various unlikely ways to survive said fall.  Hell, the central idea of having an elephant fly by flapping its ears is itself a cartoonishly ridiculous idea with no bearing at all on real world physics.  It should probably go without saying that this style isn’t really my jam and during the first half I was pretty ready to write the thing off, but it did start to win me back a little in its third act.  The whole “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is… interesting.  It’s adventurous and different in a way the rest of the movie isn’t.  I hear a lot of people list that scene alongside the likes of the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz in the cannon of scenes that allegedly traumatized them as kids but I’m not exactly sure why, especially after watching that Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia.  It’s more trippy than scary.  I also found the crows that showed up shortly thereafter fairly entertaining even though I realize they’re “problematic.”  They are clearly a caricature of the mannerisms of African Americans, but in their defense they were (mostly) voiced by a real African American entertainment troupe, their dialect appears to mostly be accurate, and the characters are mostly positively portrayed and don’t really play into many negative stereotypes.  The one thing that kind of makes it queasy is that a white guy (Cliff Edwards, voice of Jiminy Cricket) was brought in to play their leader, and his voice acting does seem a little more exaggerated than the others.

Despite a couple of highlights I still think this story is kind of weak.  This is the second straight Disney narrative feature where the sidekick pretty clearly outshines the star.  Dumbo himself is kind of lame.  He’s mute and spends much of the film moping around and has few personality traits outside of his general victimhood.  His mouse buddy by contrast is this amusing plucky little guy with a really amusing New York accent provided by voice actor Edward Brophy.  Beyond that this just doesn’t feel terribly cinematic to me.  Between the second-class animation and the fact that it’s only a little over an hour long, the thing almost kind of feels like a long short film or something that would play before a real movie.  David Mamet once claimed that this was a perfect movie and it is seen as a Disney classic right alongside the other Golden Age efforts, but I just don’t see it, it seems notably inferior to me.  Audiences at the time seemed to dig it though, sort of.  The thing actually made slightly less than Pinocchio did in its initial run and only slightly more than Fantasia did, but all those cost saving measures that Disney employed meant that it cost significantly less than either of them so it and Snow White remain the only of the “golden age” Disney movies to turn a profit in their initial runs.

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Bambi (1942)

1942 BambiOut of all the Golden Age Disney movies Bambi is the one I have the haziest memory of from my past, to the point where I don’t think I ever saw it at all as a kid.  Since then it’s probably the Disney movie I’ve spent the most time blindly scoffing at.  After all, it’s a movie about adorable talking animals frolicking around in the forest: lame.  Where’s Godzilla when you need him?  That was probably a bit misguided though because, outside of Fantasia, it’s probably the most mature effort out of all the early Disney movies.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel written for adult audiences called “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” which was written by an Austrian named Felix Salten and was meant as an environmentalist work of the “how would you like it if you were in the animal’s shoes” variety.  It doesn’t have any fantastical elements really (aside from the fact that the animals talk of course), it has fewer stupid jokes than usual, it doesn’t really have any musical numbers outside of a few non-diegetic bits and there’s a definite undercurrent of melancholy and struggle at various points in the film.

Watching it now the movie felt a bit familiar.  You have a film that begins with animals gathering to see the birth of forest royalty, a young kid who would tragically lose a parent, live in exile until adulthood only to then return, save people from a threat, and then mate with a childhood friend so that the film can then end with the birth of his children (again witnessed by a crowd of animals) in order to underscore the circle of life… yeah, The Lion King was kind of a ripoff.  The one difference between the two (aside from the setting and species involved) obviously the presence of the Scar character in the later film, which doesn’t really have an analogue here.  Adding that villainous element in that version of the story was probably an improvement as it gives the hero something to fight against beyond simple survival and generally provides more in the way of story, but on the other hand there’s something to be said for the relative simplicity of Bambi’s story.  The movie is only about six minutes longer than Dumbo and yet it feels more complete and feature-like and while Bambi’s character arc does seem to skip a couple of beats there is something oddly dignified about the way we simply see this animal go from boy to man over the course of the film.

With Dumbo we saw Disney move in a more frugal direction in order to adjust to the new realities they were facing and the effects were noticeable.  Fortunately production on their last golden age project was already well under way by the time it was a fiscally irresponsible project and they were already kind of committed to making it as another large budget production.    The film has a pretty interesting art style in that the characters are rendered using the conventional Disney style while the backgrounds are these immaculately painted settings.  These backgrounds really give a great sense of mood but the downside is that they don’t move at all and the characters don’t exactly blend in seamlessly.  The style oddly reminded me of the old PS1 Resident Evil games of all things in the way the moving characters seemed different from the highly static and better looking environments.   It’s a pretty visual film in general so it’s a good thing that they had the budget to make it happen.  Unfortunately the movie did suffer from most of the same box office woes as Pinocchio and Fantasia.  It made about as much money as Dumbo but cost a lot more to make and didn’t make a profit in its original theatrical run.

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Collecting some thoughts

The five films I’ve watched so far are believed to constitute Diseny’s golden age and are almost certainly the movies that Walt Disney himself had the most pride in.  Watching them you could see the company creating an art form and seeing how far they could push it.  Granted they generally used that art form in ways that aren’t entirely in line with my tastes but seeing the stylistic choices has been interesting just the same.  I’ve talked a lot about these movies underperforming at the box office, but it would be a mistake to read too much into that.  If anything Disney was guilty of bad timing, if the European market wasn’t mired in war and destruction all of these movies would have played overseas and made a profit and most of them did just that eventually after a re-release or two.  Either way, the domestic hauls that the movies raked in would have been pretty respectable if not for the large budgets and the studio’s financial woes during this era shouldn’t be viewed as a public rejection and if nothing else all of them did a lot to bolster the company’s brand.  Still, financial problems are financial problems and if they hadn’t done the studio in Pearl Harbor would have.  With America entering the war a sizable number of Disney’s animators found themselves drafted and the ones that stayed behind were enlisted to make instructional cartoons for the army (these are pretty interesting BTW, if you aren’t familiar with Private Snafu you should check Youtube).  Those government contracts actually probably did a lot to get the company back onto its feet but they’d be out of the feature film business for the rest of the 1940s.  However, they would be making a pretty big comeback during the Eisenhower years and that will be the subject I cover when I return to this shortly.