Your Name(4/9/2017)

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I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

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Personal Shopper(3/26/2017)

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Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not.  To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler.  That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface?  Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other.  I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.

The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities.  For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf.  As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has.  She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign.  That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.

The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent.  Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person.  Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well.  Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s.  Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film.  Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different.  In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak.  Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper.  The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.

I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it.  Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film.  The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways.  Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off.   The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy.  Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier.  I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.

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Disneyology 101: The Late Renaissance

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I noted in my last installment the strange confluence of events that resulted in my having been the perfect age to have been there for what was arguably the commercial and artistic peak of Disney’s prowess, at least outside of the original Golden Age.  Between 1989 and 1994 Disney had completely transformed itself into an absolute behemoth which put out four straight blockbusters (and some Rescuers thing that they wanted everyone to forget) and seemed like there were set up to be a permanent fixture in Hollywood that would continue to dominate animation forevermore.  Then the rest of the 90s happened and everything went to shit.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, these movies are all still considered part of “The Disney Renaissance” and the true low-point is yet to come, but by all accounts Disney quickly squandered a lot of the goodwill they built up in the early 90s with the next five films leaving the door open for competitors like Pixar and Dreamworks to step in and eat their lunch in the 2000s.  Of course I speak entirely from reputation, for all I know these movies are actually hidden gems.  Unlike the movies in the last installment, I didn’t see any of these movies as a kid.  I aged out of that demo during these years, perhaps quicker than some of my peers as my long time aversion to family movies was building during these years.  So, no better way to find out the truth of this narrative than to jump in.

Pocahontas (1995)

1995 PocahontasWhen Beauty and the Beast became an Oscar-nominated critical hit it definitely gave Disney a boost of confidence but the two films they had in production, Aladdin and The Lion King, were for whatever reason deemed to be more commercially oriented and wouldn’t have much of a shot of repeating that film’s award success.  As such they decided that their next film would be the one where they went for broke aiming towards prestige, and that project was an adaptation of the famous Pocahontas legend.  Of course this would be something very different from what Disney has done before as it would be the first Disney movie (outside of certain elements of Robin Hood) to be based on actual history rather than a fairytale or children’s’ book and not just that it was also a movie about a rather prickly moment in history that would require a lot of sensitivity.  As such they did a lot of research to make sure that they knew how the Powhatan Indians dressed and what social customs they had and to make sure it was clear that they were not villains… except that for all the time and effort they put into accurately depicting certain details the people making the movie seemed to be blind to the fact that making a Disneyfied version of the Jamestown story was just an immensely terrible idea to begin with and that the story they were trying to tell was wildly misguided.

If The Lion King was Disney’s attempt at making a cute version of Hamlet, Pocahontas was their attempt to make a kid’s version of Romeo and Juliet.  The historical John Smith and Pocahontas have been turned from the story of a by all accounts rather hardened 30 year old British captain who once maybe got saved by a twelve year old girl into a story about two star-crossed teenage lovers who start a whirlwind romance despite the fact that they come from different cultures who are feuding over silly misunderstandings.  Of course the problem with this idea is that it requires both the Capulet and Montague stand-ins to be equally irrational in their animosity which very much was not the case means setting up the Powhattans and English as both being equally irrational in their distrust of one another, something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history will recognize as a ridiculous dichotomy to be setting up.  The film certainly namechecks the notion that the Jamestown settlers were a potentially murderous threat to the Powhattans but rather than suggest that animosity towards the natives was widespread among the British they instead pin all the blame on their goofy villain and then have the gall to suggest that as soon as this villain was defeated that everyone lived happily ever after.  Bull. Shit.  They might as well have just made “Disney’s The Diary of Anne Frank” and then made Anne older and hotter so that she can have a romance with Goebbels and then suggest that the Holocaust was one big misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up once their love inspired the SS to turn against Hitler and avoid disaster.

Now, before it starts to seem like my aversion to this movie is entirely rooted in liberal bellyaching let me make it clear: this movie also sucks for any number of entirely apolitical reasons.  First and foremost the entire movie rests on a pair of astonishingly boring protagonists.  Pocahontas herself is an entirely wooden and ill-defined character.  We’re told that she’s seen as “different” from the other villagers, presumably because she spends so much time doing dramatic poses on top of mountains, but really she’s just completely devoid of personality and Irene Bedard’s incredibly boring voice over does not help.  As for John Smith?  He’s… certainly very blond and, uh, daring I guess.  He decides to stop calling the natives “savages” after Pocahontas puts him through a musical montage but that’s about it.  They clearly spent a lot more time worrying about how these characters were going to look than what they’d actually do and the film suffers because of it.  The film’s villain is also really terrible.  John Ratcliffe was a real leader in Jamestown and he did have some conflicts with the natives (which would eventually result in his being ambushed and skinned alive) but by all accounts he wasn’t any worse than the rest of the English at Jamestown and even if you don’t know that you can still clearly tell he’s just ridiculous here.  I mean, this is a guy who straight up sings the line “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” at one point, which is about as nuanced as this movie’s view of intolerance is.  He’s not just evil he’s downright stupid and incompetent in his evil and he’s not even a very fun or well rendered in his over the top villainy.  Then there’s the movie’s rather bizarre prologue before the title card depicting John Smith setting sail and saving a guy in a storm, which feels incredibly stiff as an opening and feels oddly tacked on, if they’d completely cut it out the film would hardly change.

The movie also has this weird interest in “respecting” native people not by making them three-dimensional characters but by portraying their religion as being literally true and essentially making them all into magical shamans who talk to trees and conjure vague ill-defined swirling leaf magic at will.  There are of course ways to depict Native American connections to the environment without literally making them magical as Terrence Malick would go on to prove with his infinitely better Jamestown/ Powhattan movie The New World.  It’s also kind of clear that they were sort of making up these aspects of native culture as they went.  Like, do you know what “blue corn moon” means?  It means nothing.  Songwriter Stephen Schwartz straight up made it up because it sounded right in the song and I have a pretty strong hunch that this also goes for other touches like the talking tree grandmother and the rest of the new age bullshit they’re trying to sell as authentic culture.  This culminates in the film’s ultimate “what the fuck” moment in which Pocahontas suddenly learns to speak English in two minutes through her swirling leaf magic.  I mean, the language barrier is something the film was going to have to pave over in some way, but why in the world would you even bother to bring attention to it if they were just going to cheat like that.  There was a much easier way out of this too: the Chesapeake area had already been explored by whites for upwards of a hundred years before John Smith landed, it’s a stretch but it’s plausible that some of the Natives would have already learned English.

Now, I’ve been very careful not to use the “R” word when discussing the film’s portrayal of history, in part because I think everyone involved had mostly good intentions when making the film.  The problem is that none of them were thinking through the implications of what they were trying to do.  They didn’t seem to realize that America’s painful history isn’t some fairy tale that they can just smooth out the edges on and give a happy ending.  It isn’t just that though; this failure to see the bigger picture is what plagues this entire film.  They were so focused on little details like what the characters were going to look like and how the animal sidekicks were going to behave and where the songs would be placed that they didn’t seem to notice that the film didn’t really have much of an arc, that its characters were dull as dishwater, and that they’ve accidentally denied a national tragedy.  The result is a mess of a movie and to some extent audiences seemed to pick up on that.  The movie did make some really good money, which is mostly a reflection of how hot the Disney brand was at the time, but the movie did make less than half of what The Lion King made and about two thirds of what Aladdin made.  It also got rather mixed reviews, which to me was a big overly generous.  If the movie had been made today in the climate of the hot take and the think piece it almost certainly would have been raked over the coals, and to me that would have been deserved.  I’ve been about as sick as anyone at how demanding and political the online critical climate has been lately, but watching this movie was a good reminder of just how wrong things can go when filmmakers try to deal with material like this without having to think about what they’re doing and take their responsibilities seriously.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

1996 The Hunchback of Notre DameDisney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the second straight Disney movie that I didn’t see in the theaters “back in the day.”  In the case of the first of these, Pocahontas that was largely my parents’ doing.  My mother had heard (correctly) that that movie was offensive to Native Americans and wasn’t too jazzed to take me to that one.  I’m sure that if I had begged a bit more forcefully to see it she would have relented, but it looked like a movie for girls anyway which was enough for seven year old me to be cool with skipping it.  My reasons  for not seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big closer to what would become my usual attitude towards children’s movies.  At the time I was very into reading these abridged and essentially re-written editions of “classic literature” and among the ones I’d read was Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which I was pretty fond of.  When I heard that Disney had made this classic literature into a cartoon which gave it a happy ending I was downright offended and every time I heard any of my friends talking about it I was happy to give them a lecture about it (I wish I was making that up).  This is a level of pretentiousness that… well I can’t say I disagree with it but I don’t think eight year old me had really earned that yet: I was getting angry about a movie I hadn’t seen failing to live up to a book the real version of which I hadn’t read yet.

That said, as much as I want to slap my younger self, he kind of did have a point, this was a really weird source text to turn into family entertainment at least on the surface.  Hugo’s 600+ page novel was actually called “Notre-Dame de Paris” in France and only took on the title which emphasized the hunchback in its English translation.  The book is actually more of an ensemble piece than most of its adaptations would have you think.  It also dealt with all sorts of historical, religious, and intellectual themes that would not be of a whole lot of interest to children and some of it was decidedly not G-rated.  The financial motivations behind the movie make a lot more sense when you consider that Disney was branching out to Broadway around this time with “Beauty and the Beast: The Musical” having opened in 1994 and “The Lion King: The Musical” on the way .  With that in mind you remember that the two most successful musicals in Broadway history were “Les Misérables” (which was based on a Victor Hugo novel) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (which was about a deformed quasi-horror figure who hides out in a Parisian landmark who pines after a woman who may or may not be into him) and when you consider that you begin to wonder why it took someone as long as it did to try to turn this thing into a musical.

To Disney’s credit, they did maintain more of the book’s themes than I thought they would.  In particular they seem to have been awfully faithful to the fact that the villain Frollo is in many ways driven by the fact that his sexual lust for Esmerelda conflicts with his religious celibacy.  They soften this a little by making him a judge here rather than an Archdeacon and also try to distract from it by also making him a bigot who despises the Romani people (a sub-plot absent from the novel which sort of injects it with modern concerns) but at its heart it’s still a pretty dark idea for a Disney movie.  In fact the whole movie seems to have a pretty healthy suspicion of authority and religion and is even at its heart a story about someone lashing out a rebelling against a father figure, which I have to assume isn’t necessarily something parents are super thrilled to teach their kids about.  Frollo is actually in many ways more of a prick here than his is in the book (where he does have his redeeming qualities) and to some extent that does put him at risk of becoming one of these cartoonishly evil Disney villains, but unlike Ratcliffe in Pocahontas the film actually explores him and tried to find motivations and roots to why he is the way he is.

It also doesn’t hurt that Disney was able to make Esmerelda into a total dime.  I don’t just mean that she’s hot (which she is) but she’s also tantalizing.  She’s feisty, she’s rebellious, she’s virtuous, but also has a way of moving and carrying herself that is about as sexual as a lady is going to be in a Disney movie.  This all matters because the movie needs to convince the audience that Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Frollo would all fall head over heels for her despite many reasons not to for all involved, and I think they pull this off pretty believably.  Phoebus is also pretty well expanded and changed from his book counterpart, who is an asshole horndog who seduces Esmerelda, gets stabbed by a jealous Frollo, then does nothing when she is accused of the attack and eventually executed.  Here is made into more of a heroic character actually deserving of her affections, which would seem to be the more conventional approach but they make it work.  He’s made into someone who ostensibly works for the government/church but eventually follows his conscious and rebels making his arc an interesting parallel to Quasimodo’s and it’s also a sign of maturity that the film doesn’t take it’s whole ugly duckling “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” theme and simplistically makes all the pretty people into Gaston-like villains to drive the point home.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve gotten pretty deep into this without really talking about the film’s title character and ostensibly protagonist Quasimodo, and that’s because his transition to film is a little more clunky.  As I said before, Quasimodo was never really supposed to be the central character of this story so much as he’s this colorful figure on its periphery.  In the novel Quasimodo is deaf and I believe mute and is treated as being sort of “simple.”  He does love Esmerelda and helps her at times, and while she does have some sympathy for him she’s repulsed just the same and there’s kind of a King Kong thing going on with the way he tries to give her one-sided affection.  He does eventually kill Frollo at the end, but this is more of a murder than a heroic act of saving the day and in many ways they the arc they present in the movie is invented and not entirely successfully.  I don’t know, when you’ve got a power made judge trying to wipe out the Romani population and Esmerelda fighting off said oppression the self-esteem issues of Quasimodo seems a bit off-topic, the movie doesn’t feel like it should be his because it shouldn’t be.

Then of course we have to get to his gargoyle friends who are your standard trademark Disney comedy relief.  Don’t get me wrong I don’t like any of these characters but generally they haven’t been as big of deal breakers for me as I’ve been watching these.  I could take or leave the servant antics in Beauty and the Beast but they generally didn’t do obnoxious fourth wall breaks and kept themselves in check, Pumbaa and Timon had their annoying moments but also had kind of a neat Abbot and Costello thing going on, and the silly animal antics in Pocahontas mostly just seemed like a waste of time and were hardly the worst thing about that movie.  These gargoyles on the other hand did bug me, partly because the writers were clearly taking notes from Aladdin and made them more prone to fourth wall breaks, but really it has less to do with the fact that they were any more annoying than what came before and more because they feel more out of place here than some of the previous comical characters did.  When you try to be more adult and weightier than what you did previously it’s all the more jarring when you have legless stone figures voiced by Jason Alexander anachronistically breaking the fourth wall.  The film does introduce the tantalizing, and kind of dark, possibility that these talking gargoyles don’t really exist and are just voices in Quasimodo’s head but it doesn’t really commit to this and by the time they’re comically participating in the battle at the end they seem to have given up on it.

There’s a lot about The Hunchback of Notre Dame I appreciate, but for all it does right I still can’t help but think that Disney bit off a bit more than they could chew here.  Of course (to belabor the metaphor) they did more to chew it than the people who made Pocahontas and just swallowed and immediately started choking, but there’s still a sense that adapting this book was a mistake.  It was too weighty for the people who just wanted an adorable fairy tale movie and it was too silly for anyone who was that interested in seeing a Victor Hugo adaptation and consequently it didn’t really find an audience.  Some critics appreciated it, but it wasn’t really championed and audiences sort of shrugged at it.  It made about a hundred million dollars at the box office, which is not much of a success by Disney’s standards at that point.  Part of that might be that audiences felt burned by Pocahontas, part of it might be that kids were just baffled by all the medival politics, part of it might have been that parents didn’t think it was appropriate (I’m honestly not sure how they managed to snag the G-rating), but one way or another it failed.  I do think the movie deserved better than that and that it’s one of the studio’s best efforts of the era, but I also sort of understand.  That Disney magic just wasn’t there despite a lot of good effort.

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Hercules (1997)

1997 HerculesWhile politics and snobbery conspired to make sure I didn’t see Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when they first came out, I didn’t really need a reason to skip Hercules, I had quite simply grown out of the demo.  By 1997 was had pretty firmly graduated from PG movies to PG-13 movies and was having all kinds of fun seeing the likes of Men in Black and Austin Powers during the summer of 1997 and never even gave a thought to seeing the latest Disney flick.  What little I did remember of the film’s marketing campaign (which was massive and extensive) made it look even stupider and more immature than usual.  The movie was actually coming at a pretty strange time for Disney.   Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were both clear disappointments for the company, they weren’t total disasters and they actually made decent bank overseas, but it was clear that they were losing a lot of momentum and by the time Hercules came along it was clear they needed a hit.  It’s almost analogues to where the studio was back in the 40s when they spent too much on Pinocchio and went too highbrow with Fantasia and proceeded to make Dumbo to be a pared down audience pleaser that would earn a profit.

Hercules was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the movie clearly takes after the latter more than the former.  More specifically it takes after the parts of Aladdin with the genie.  Out of all the movies Disney made in the 90s this (and I guess The Rescuers Down Under) is the only one that more or less ignores everything about the Disney Renaissance style and kind of just does its own thing.   This is pretty much a full on mad-cap comedy and rather than just having a couple of comic relief side characters pretty much everyone in this movie with the possible exception of Hercules himself is a fourth wall breaking jokers.  The Greek gods are goofballs, the villain is a comical figure who talks like an agent rather than a menacing force, the hero has a sidekick who is basically an extended parody of a character from the Rocky movies, and the love interest spends the entire movie doing a Rosalind Russell impression.  The movie opts for irreverence and mirth at pretty much every turn right down to the decision to have the film be narrated by a gospel group for no particularly clear reason.  They also change up the art style and the movie doesn’t really have the look or feel of the other Disney movies from this period.

The resulting film kind of feels like a strange hodgepodge at times.  The film seems to view Hercules as a super hero of sorts and borrows liberally from the Superman story (and specifically the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film) to build up Hercules’ origin story, which is very different from the mythological version.  Then the film also has this odd idea of making successful heroes into Ancient Greek celebrities akin to Michael Jordan with endorsement deals and whatnot and the film occasionally frames itself as a sports movie with a coach much talk about “going the distance,” which is odd given that Hercules was born with superhuman powers and doesn’t really need to work that hard to become a success.  Then the movie throws in a gospel choir for some random reason.  All of these ideas have some merit but there’s no coherence to the vision and I’m not sure they even wanted there to be.  It’s in some ways a movie defined by chaos and irreverence, something at almost feels more like a descendant of the old Warner Brothers cartoons rather than classic Disney.

Given how much distaste I had for the Genie in Aladdin you’d think every moment of this would grate on me, did it?  Well, sort of but not exactly.  What made the Genie so annoying is that he felt out of place in that movie, which was otherwise a pretty straightforward adventure movie and that was also the problem with the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Here the tone is pretty consistently comedic if nothing else and that makes it less of a flaw and more a matter of taste.  Do I like the humor here?  Not really, but it wasn’t painful to watch exactly.  Some of the gags were kind of clever but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny to me or anything ultimately the whole thing just feels completely disposable.  It’s certainly not a movie made for me or even for ten year old me but I would have thought all the pandering would have made it work for its target audience, but it actually didn’t.  The movie made a hundred million domestic, which isn’t any more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame made and certainly didn’t make it the comeback the studio was hoping for.  I think in some ways it may have been ahead of its time and in some ways it almost seems like a dry run for what Jeffrey Katzenberg would do when he moved to Dreamworks and started making snarky movies like Shrek.  That worked for Dreamworks because they were positioning themselves as the anti-Disney but from Disney itself people wanted something a little grander, at least in this era.

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Mulan (1998)

1998 MulanBy 1998 Disney had just tried getting very serious and literate with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and super goofy and farcical with Hercules and neither approach really did much for them.  Their next movie, Mulan, was an attempt (perhaps one last attempt) to get back to the Goldilocks zone between the two extremes and get back the mojo of their success earlier in the decade.  The movie had that sort of epic sweep that had characterized those earlier films and like a lot of the Disney movies of the 90s it was interested in transplanting the tropes of a Disney movie into a different culture’s mythology.  Having already done movies in France (twice), the Middle East, Africa (sort of), North America, and Greece it only seemed natural that Disney would go to Asia next and specifically they set their sights on China.  In 1998 China was not the vital market that it is today but I’m pretty sure the Disney executives wanted to build bridges there just the same and they had had some success selling The Lion King there.  To do that they came upon the legend of a female warrior named Hua Mulan, a sort of Joan of Arc figure who passed herself off as a man in order fight in a war in her aging father’s place.  It’s a story that would both move the Disney aesthetic into Asia while also subverting the traditional Diseny princess figure in the most radical way yet by making a female protagonist into a full on fighter.

Mulan is in many ways an attempt to do a Disney take on two genres that would be fairly familiar to adult audiences: the gender bending comedy and the “ragtag platoon bonds before going to war” movie.  So it’s like Tootsie meets Stripes but on an epic scale and for kids.  Kind of an odd direction to go but I’d say they actually pull it off fairly well.  Comedies about men and women pretending to be one another for contrived reasons obviously go back to Shakespeare’s time probably has precedent a lot earlier than that too.  It is interesting however that in cinema we tend to get a whole lot of men pretending to be women and not a whole lot of women pretending to be men.  I’m sure that college dissertations have been written about why this is but it’s probably just a simple matter of men in dresses being a much stranger sight to most audiences than women in pants.  The gags here about Mulan trying to fit in with “the guys” aren’t terribly novel but they are mostly cute.  The basic concept is kind of ludicrous of course and Mulan does not make a terribly convincing man during these scenes (in part I think because Disney still wants to make sure she’s “hot” despite the disguise) but the fact that this is animation helps.  The film also does a pretty decent job of establishing the comradery between the soldier during the training sequences and by the time they’re actually marching on the enemy you do believe their cohesion.

Of course what’s notable about these scenes is that the humor in them seems awfully grounded and human jokes rather than the goofy pop culture referencing slapstick that took over Hercules and infested other Disney movies like Aladdin.  To provide the stupider comedy that kids apparently demand Mulan was of course given a talking sidekick in the form of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu the dragon, a character I certainly expected to hate but who frankly could have been a lot worse.  He’s a little out of place and the movie would have been better off without him, but he doesn’t totally break the fourth wall as much as the Genie from Aladdin or the Gargoyles in Hunchback and he actually does serve something of a purpose to the plot as Mulan’s masculinity advisor of sorts.  On the musical front this movie presented some changes from the norm as Alan Menken finally stepped away to do other things and their go-to lyricist in this period Stephen Schwartz had defected to the newly formed Dreamworks to make songs for The Prince of Egypt.  As such they brought Jerry Goldsmith in to do the score and the songs were done by a dude named Matthew Wilder (best known for the pop hit “Break My Stride”) and David Zippel.  The new blood seems to have worked for the movie because musically it’s almost certainly Disney’s best work since The Lion King and that “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song is really something special.

So the movie has a lot of good things going for it, so why isn’t it better remembered?  Third act problems.  Much of the movie’s running time has everyone getting ready to go to war but once they finally go on their adventure it seemingly ends something like fifteen minutes later in a fairly cheap fashion.  At this point Mulan’s secret is revealed, everyone over-reacts, then they get over it something like five minutes later when the (rather boring) villain comes back shortly and launches an urban attack that is not terribly epic compared to what came before.  Then there’s this strange coda where Mulan comes home, then Li comes chasing after her but at that point the movie just kind of ends.  That isn’t handled very elegantly and there are a few other shaky moments here or there, but overall there’s not really too much to complain about here really, it’s a serviceable little movie though not an extraordinary one.  The improvements here did not however turn the movie into the comeback film Disney had likely hoped for.  It made $120 million domestic, which was $20 million more than Hercules but still not really anything to write home about.  It also didn’t end up making the killing in China that they had likely hoped, in part because Disney was on the Chinese Communist Party’s shit list because Touchstone pictures had put out the movie Kundun the year before and the Chinese government was not thrilled about it.  You could tell at this point that Disney was not “planning for success” at this point and they reported gave the film half the marketing budget that Hercules had.

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Tarzan (1999)

1999 TarzanIf I asked the average person what the two highest grossing Disney Renaissance movies were they’d probably say The Lion King and Aladdin and they’d be right.  What may be more surprising is that the third highest grossing Disney Renaissance movie wasn’t Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, it was their 1999 film Tarzan.  Ticket inflation likely had a little bit to do with this but it is still noting that the movie made $170 million while all their other late 90s films had only managed to make between $100 million and $140 million.  Granted that still isn’t anywhere near the heights of The Lion King but it does certainly feel like a bit of a comeback after a lot of decline.  I was certainly shocked when I discovered this firstly because the movie does not seem to be terribly well remembered and also because even back in 1999 the movie didn’t actually seem to make all that much noise.  It just kind of seemed like the annual Disney movie that would come and go and I don’t really remember the advertising campaign nearly as well as I do the campaigns of some of the other Disney movies of the era.  Of course it’s also worth questioning if this movie should even be called part of the Disney Renaissance.  “Disney Renaissance,” much like the real Renaissance, is kind of a vague term that was invented after the fact.  It has a pretty clear beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 but it’s less clear when it ended.  Mulan certainly seems to fit but this next film seems to be actively moving away from some of the conventions we associate with that era of Disney.

For one thing this is not a movie based on a fairy tale or legend or myth or even a famous work of literature; it’s an adaptation of a copyrighted 20th century pulp character and one with something of a long history of cinematic adaptation.  The film also has a new animation style born of a technological innovation called Deep Canvas, which allows the filmmakers to use CGI to make backgrounds that look painted rather than digital.  It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what it is about this look that seems distinct from the earlier films but the aesthetic change is noticeable.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this stylistic change a definitive change for the better as it does kind of rob the movie of that signature Disney style and in some ways makes it look more like a generic animated production, but it does look pretty cool.  Disney had been increasingly incorporating CGI into their films with varying degrees of success since The Great Mouse Detective.  Sometimes it looks good like certain shots in The Lion King, sometimes it looks god awful like the hydra fight in Hercules.  Of course the irony is that this was a half-measure of sorts and that the wave of the future was going to be fully CGI animated films of the variety that Pixar was pioneering at this time, but Disney was heavily associated with 2D animation and were clearly trying to find a compromise style to run with.  The jungle that Tarzan resides in certainly looks pretty good and the action scenes here have a lot more speed and heft than a lot of what we’ve seen before from the studio.

Another thing that differentiates this from the Disney movies of old is that it isn’t a musical.  In an interview director Kevin Lima explained that he “just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song… it would be ridiculous.”  I agree, this adventure story did not need conventional musical numbers, however the alternative they came up with was probably worse.  Instead of having characters burst into song they hired Phil Collins to record vaguely on theme songs that would play non-diegeticly at various points in the film.  I’m not a fan of Phil Collins but that’s not really the point, I’m sure these songs would sound fine within the context of one of his albums but they seem pretty out of place here.  Nothing about the music of Phil Collins screams “jungles of Africa” to me and I’m not sure what made them think it was a good idea to hire him outside of the fact that they’d had some luck working with Billy Joel and Elton John in the past and Phil Collins was next on their list of adult contemporary stars who are sort of past their prime but are still kind of famous and will appeal to the parent demographic.  Then again he managed to steal and Oscar from Aimee Mann for his trouble, so what do I know?

Ultimately I think the bigger problem here is just that this Tarzan character is a bit too bland to carry a movie like this.  Tony Goldwyn doesn’t really bring this character to life and his confusion with the other humans just isn’t as touching as the writers seem to think it is.  Jane is a little better and walks a pretty good line between being a realistically Victorian woman without seeming like a regressive doormat, but the villain is really lame.  Clayton is basically just a combination of Percival McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and the fact that Jane and her father seemed to trust him as long as they did makes them both look like morons.  Overall I think this proves to be a very thoroughly average movie more than anything.  Disney was clearly trying to use this movie to make a slightly cooler and more boy friendly kind of Disney movie, a direction that would probably turn out to be disastrous in the long run but I can see why the producers would have seen the movie to be fairly promising even if it clearly wasn’t a homerun out the gate.

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Collecting Some Thoughts

Throughout this installment I’ve referred to a lot of these movies as being “disappointments” but let’s be clear: Disney didn’t lose money on any of them.  Yes, a lot of them underwhelmed at the domestic box office but a lot of them actually did quite well overseas and even beyond that I’m sure Disney made plenty of money where it mattered: merchandising.  All of these movies had toy lines, likely sold a million VHSs and DVDs, and they all had marketing tie-ins with companies like McDonalds.  In fact the lowest grossing of all these movies, Hercules, is reported to have had marketing tie-ins with no fewer than 85 different licenses.  Still, Disney is a mega-corporation and after the massive success they had earlier in the decade you have to assume that someone in a suit somewhere must have been furious about how things had gone.  So what went wrong?  Well the movies got worse obviously, but they weren’t terrible and there are certainly worse kids’ movies out there, why weren’t they able to spin the likes of Mulan into gold?  Part of it must have just been fatigue.  When Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King came out they seemed like events but these later movies didn’t; releasing a movie every single year for a decade tends to have that effect.  Still, I’m pretty sure that if things had been reversed and Pocahontas and Tarzan had come out first and the earlier renaissance classics had come out later it wouldn’t have necessarily meant that the former would have been received better.  I feel like the bigger problem was just hubris.  By the time they made The Lion King they simply felt that they could do this in their sleep and that the public would be endlessly willing to follow them wherever they went and the proved not to be the case.  Meanwhile competition was coming into place.  Pixar emerged during this era and instantly began out-grossing their older sibling with pretty much every movie right up until Frozen and it wouldn’t be long before they also had to contend with Dreamworks and as we will soon see this combination of creative stagnation and increased competition will come to bring Disney to its true low point.

Get Out(3/10/2017)

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Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Anyone remember that show called “On the Lot?”  This was a reality competition show from about ten years ago that was made when the networks were trying to apply the “American Idol” formula onto all sorts of random things, in this case filmmaking and it took the form of contestants making short films every week for the viewing public to vote on.  It wasn’t very good.  I bring this up because one of the most memorable things about it was a contestant named Mateen Kemet, an African-American fellow who was very interested in reflecting his political beliefs in his films.  His most memorable short on the show was for “horror movie week” in which he interpreted the theme creatively and made a movie about the anxiety that minorities feel when they’re pulled over by the police.  It was pretty interesting, certainly more memorable than every other contestant’s films even if a lily-white Fox Network show maybe wasn’t the most obvious place for biting political statements.  If I recall correctly I think it actually got a decent number of votes and he moved on to the next round but the short seemed to function better as a political statement than as a true genre film, a fact that I doubt troubled him much.  I was reminded of this obscure moment in reality television when watching the new hit horror film Get Out, which uses the language of the horror movie to look at the anxieties of being black in modern America.

The film begins in modern New York City, where an African-American man named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are planning a trip to visit her parents in upstate New York.  Chris is wary of this as visiting white people of an older generation can always go in some bad “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” directions but Rose tries to assure him that her parents aren’t like that and that they “would have gladly voted for Obama a third time if they could.”  When they get to her childhood home we meet those parents, who seem to be affable upper-middle class former hippies with all the trappings of modern progressivism.  Her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) talks rapturously about Jesse Owens and her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has a sort of earth-mother vibe going on and is apparently an accomplished therapist with an interest in hypnosis.  Things seem to be going alright in theory but something seems to be profoundly off about the place.  The parents have a pair of African American servants, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who seem oddly servile, almost inhuman.  Something’s going on and he’s not sure what.

The setup for Get Out would seem to immediately remind audiences of the 1975 feminist thriller The Stepford Wives, in which it’s revealed that the town a woman has moved into have been replacing all of its women with servile robot housewives with the not so subtle message being that society forces women to give up their individuality to meet patriarchal demands.  It wasn’t really a particularly scary movie, at least scene to scene and it’s not really a movie that all that many people actually watch all that often anymore, but it made its point pretty well and has remained something of a cultural touchstone ever since.  Get Out is similar in that it’s not a particularly frightening movie in terms of raw suspense.  People who go to this expecting to be scared by it the way they’d be scared by a James Wan or something and who have no interest in engaging in its racial messages will leave disappointed.  The film lives and dies by its allegory and to me that allegory is a bit hard to grasp.

The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (he’s the one with the hair) who are both bi-racial and much of their comedy stems from the tension of straddling the worlds of white and black.  That was the main theme of the duo’s feature film debut Keanu, which featured the likes of Keegan-Michael Key introducing some gang members to the music of George Michael.  Here Peele looks at the darker side of all this.  Malcom X once said that Southern white conservatives were like angry wolves lashing out at African Americans but that Northern white liberals were like foxes who hunt the lamb by acting friendly towards it before striking out and betraying it and believed that they were both two sides to the same coin.  Get Out seems to share this belief at least to some extent, as it is ultimately a story about two-faced liberals who put on a nice face but hold a secret agenda.  Here most of this secret racial animus takes the form of micro-aggressions: the slightly off tone that Rose’s parents take on when they see him, the stupid questions that he has to answer when attending their boujee dinner party, the agro tone that her brother takes on (which I guess isn’t that micro).

All micro-aggressions certainly seem annoying and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them, but they alone would seem more annoying than scary, but this isn’t a satire (at least it’s not just a satire) it’s a horror movie so this family’s ill-intent needs to go quite a bit further than that.  Eventually it’s revealed that they are not only less progressive than they appear but are in fact taking part in a scheme to kidnap black people and implant the minds of the elderly white people into their bodies in order to reverse the aging process… and this is where the movie’s allegory starts to lose me.  In the film white liberals and their micro-aggressions aren’t merely clueless people who aren’t as enlightened as they think they are: they’re evil.  They aren’t blind to their own racism, in fact they’re perfectly aware of it and are quite deliberately hiding it so that they can actively exploit and harm the black victims they’re luring to their spaces.  What exactly is this next step supposed to be a stand-in for?  What end game is the film positing is the result of the sort of benevolent liberal racism the movie is attacking?

Perhaps the suggestion is that by trying to incorporate these black people into white society they’re trying to rob them of their culture and heritage and turn them into “Oreos,” but Chris doesn’t really present himself as being particularly “black” in his mannerisms to begin with and the earlier micro-aggressions rarely seem to show all that much hostility towards his culture.  Perhaps the film is suggesting that white people all secretly want to be black out of some primal jealously, but that kind of thing seems to be more the domain of teenagers who want to emulate rappers than elderly people who pine for whatever slight athletic advantages they have, and again this doesn’t seem to be at the root of the micro-aggressions that were occurring earlier.  I think the more plausible message would seem to be that these white people only like black people insomuch as they can use them as props in order to make themselves seem cooler and more progressive, but if that’s their ultimate end-goal why would they be keeping their current brainwashed black people as servants?  That would seem to be the opposite of that goal.

I went into this movie pretty earnestly trying to get to the bottom of Peele’s critiques of the white liberal racism but I must say by the movie’s end I felt like I was left with more questions than answers.  I feel like what the movie may be missing is some model of what the “right kind” of white liberal looks like.  In the film every one of the white people turns out to be two-faced and awful both before and after their full motivations are revealed, and yet I’m not entirely sure what they could have done not to be judged as such.  Early in the film Rose is depicted as being a privileged fool when she stands up to a cop on Chris’ behalf and yet later she’s depicted as a traitor for failing to stand up on his behalf when other people around her start asking inappropriate questions and her brother starts acting like a dick.  People who go out of their way not to seem racist are believed to be hiding racial animus, people who do the opposite and make their racism clear are also obviously awful, and people who try not to bring up race at all are likely to also be seen as conspicuously two faced.

The movie perhaps inadvertently makes being white something of the ultimate catch-22 in which one can never really be without sin… and maybe that is a legitimate point of view and I can also see why Peele wouldn’t want to give white audiences and easy out, but there’s something rather hopeless about the film’s view of race in America.  Again, Jordan Peele is the product of an inter-racial marriage and he is himself married to a white woman, clearly he doesn’t really think it’s impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony and yet he still ends the movie with Chris killing the “white bitch” and then returning to his black friend and by extension the black community, presumably never to make the mistake of going to a white girls’ parents’ house again.  That’s pretty damn dark, and again, I’m sure Peele isn’t really a segregationist and that I’m maybe taking this to some symbolic extreme but what other conclusion am I to come to from this?

Of course maybe I’m just making the white boy mistake of trying to make this about me. This is a movie about a black man told from the perspective of a black man, maybe it’s a big mistake to be looking at it as some kind of how to manual about how to be a white guy and how not to be a white guy.  It’s more likely that the movie is simply trying to make you feel empathy for this guy and give you an idea of how and why he’s so ill at ease in these elite white settings, but then I have to go back to the point I made two pages ago: the movie isn’t that scary.  I feel like there would have been more tension to the whole situation if the film had done the Rosemary’s Baby thing and left it ambiguous for much of the run-time as to whether there was truly a threat here or whether Chris was being paranoid but with the film’s opening scene and the absolutely bizarre way the black servants behave it’s clear that Chris’ concerns are more than valid and you’re actually ahead of him in realizing that he’s in mortal danger.  Otherwise there just isn’t a whole lot in the way of really scary scenes here.  There’s a jump scare or two complete with musical stings and things do start to get a little gory at the end and there are one or two legitimately suspenseful scenes here or there but I do think Jordan Peele’s inexperience behind the camera shows and he’s not terribly elegant in executing on some of the horror sequences.

As of now Get Out is sitting at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with 176 positive review and only one negative review, meaning that if I was deemed worthy of contributing to that website’s aggregator I’d be sitting alone with Armond fucking White in not being terribly impressed with the movie.  That’s not good company to be in.  Honestly though that score kind of makes me think there really is something wrong with the movie.  I’d think that if a movie was truly provocative then unanimous praise should be the last thing it wants to receive.  Movies that break boundaries and tell harsh truths should divide people and get people riled up and if all the do is receive praise from the very people it’s speaking out against then something’s wrong.  In the case of Get Out I think Peele has oddly found a way to appeal to all sides in all the wrong ways.  Conservatives, who tend to hate latte liberals even more than black people, will watch it and say “see, those liberals are the real racists” and will proceed with their usual deplorableness secure in knowing that they’re no worse than the other guys.  Liberals will watch it and vocally approve of it lest they be accused of being the kind of two-faced liberal the movie is out to attack.  And finally the actual minorities will watch it and appreciate that a movie is finally acknowledging their lived experience.  That last reaction is fair enough, I’m certainly in no position to argue with that, but reviews are meant to be a personal reaction and I personally don’t think the movie worked for me.  As a horror movie I found it limp and if it set out to prove that liberal racism was just as bad as overt racism, well, consider me unconvinced… I don’t know what that says about me.

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