In the early 90s Disney was first making its comeback via the “Disney Renaissance” and in 1991 they quickly scored a major coup: they managed to snag a Best Picture nomination for their hit Beauty and the Beast, the first animated movie to get such an honor and the only one to ever do so during the era when nominations were limited to five slots.  This didn’t instantly change how Disney made its movies.  Their follow-up, Aladdin wasn’t necessarily made with prestige in mind and they didn’t have Oscar gold in mind with The Lion King either, but after Beauty and the Beast won its nomination studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg did want to repeat that and decided that the next movie in the pipeline would be the one where they went for it all and that movie was… Pocahontas.  Yeah, it doesn’t take an in depth knowledge of the Academy Awards of Disney to know that didn’t work out, but it was what they were trying to do and it affected that film’s production in a number of ways.  I bring all this up because I think Marvel may have made a similar mistake with their latest film Eternals.  Kevin Feige got his own taste of Oscar gold in 2018 when Black Panther got a Best Picture nomination and I think with Eternals he was trying to produce a film that was still in the MCU continuity but which would also feel larger than that and would in many ways be “one for the critics.”  Unfortunately that seems to be a bit of a miscalculation because the critics have not liked this movie at all and have in fact given it one of the lowest RT and Metacritic scores of any MCU film and the movie’s Oscar chances look dim.  Despite that, I would argue that this is no Pocahontas.  That movie sucked in 1995 and has looked increasingly misbegotten ever since while Eternals actually has a lot going for it.

Eternals is primarily set during the present MCU timeline but has flashbacks going all the way back to the dawn of humankind.  The titular group it follows are entities from a distant galaxy who look like humans but don’t age and have special powers and are tasked by god-like beings called celestials with going to planets and fighting off these snarling monster things called deviants that show up and attack people throughout history.  These eternals believe they killed the last of the “deviants” around the 16th century and have been waiting for orders from the celestials ever since and have mostly assimilated into human society in the centuries since.  Our main point of view character is Sersi (Gemma Chan), an Eternal that has the power to manipulate matter.  After an earthquake she and another Eternal named Sprite (Lia McHugh), who is permanently twelve years old and can conjure illusions, spot a deviant in London.  They and another Eternal that shows up, the Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), fight this deviant off but can’t finish it as it seems to have a healing power these creatures never had previously.  Soon they find out that this is because it had killed and drained the power from the lead Eternal Ajak (Salma Hayek) and was likely hunting for the rest of them.  As such they decide to seek out the rest of their group around the world in hopes of putting an end to this situation.

Eternals was directed by Chloé Zhao, the filmmaker behind last year’s Academy Award winning Nomadland making her the first Oscar winner to direct an MCU film and this along with its rather ambitious scope have kind of raised expectations for the movie in a number of ways, perhaps unfairly.  The film is not necessarily a trying to do anything unprecedented in cinema and it does still have a lot of the usual trappings of an MCU film like post-credit scenes and the like, but in terms of scope and format it does legitimately play differently.  Structurally the comic book movie it most resembles is actually Watchmen in that it has a broken up team of superheroes reforming after many years to figure out what’s hunting them down while also flashing back to an alternate history in which said superheroes are changing the course of world events.  The film also generally has a different tone than the other MCU films in that those films normally play out over the course of a couple of days and follow a simpler action movie format and tend to feature quipy protagonists.  I suppose the A-story here also plays out over a similarly short period of time but the flashbacks to previous eras are so extensive here that it feels a lot different and while the movie is hardly humorless the characters are a bit more jaded from having seen so much misery over the course of the thousands of years they’ve walked the Earth.

Of course unlike other Marvel origin movies, with the exception of The Guardians of the Galaxy, this film needs to introduce a whole team rather than an individual superhero and there are a whole lot of them.  There are upwards of ten different “Eternals” in the film each with unique powers and personalities that need to be introduced.  They don’t really have equal screen time and at times it feels like the movie could have benefited from cutting a few of them.  The movie also isn’t super consistent about how much these Eternals are supposed to keep their identities secret and refrain from interfering with human endeavors.  The fact that they were ordered not to mettle in human events not involving the deviants is used to explain why they didn’t help in the fight against Thanos or any of the other threats that have emerged over the course of these movies, but there doesn’t seem to be a “Prime Directive” logic at play here as the Phastos character is actively advancing human technology through history.  There is eventually something of an explanation for all of this but it isn’t the easiest plot twist to swallow.  And speaking of those deviants, they’re not great monsters.  They kind of look like a recycling of a recycling of the creature from Cloverfield and the somewhat intriguing idea that they’re stealing the Eternals’ powers ultimately kind of goes nowhere.

As an action movie Eternals has its moments but may frustrate some of Marvel’s normal fans.  There isn’t really an action scene here that’s as much of a standout as something like the bus scene in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or the finale of Black Widow though it’s not devoid of action either and it is definitely interested in showing off visual effects to some extent.  Chloé Zhao seemed like an odd choice to direct the film when she was first announced (back when she was primarily known as the director of The Rider) and this is indeed quite different from her previous movies, which were primarily known for incorporating non-actors and focusing in on the gritty realities of fringe sections of America.  This… isn’t that, but it’s also probably not a coincidence that sections of the movie are set in South Dakota and she brings a certain grandeur to some of the visuals here that are missing from other MCU films.  In fact in some ways this almost feels more like a DC movie than a Marvel movie, which might be part of why critics haven’t been vibing with it even though it kind of feels like it was made for them.  I do get why the film might feel a bit disappointing, it certainly never quite lives up to some of the promise that a mold breaking MCU film directed by Zhao suggested but I’d also hardly call it “bad” either.  It’s a movie that break’s Marvel’s usual formula and house style more than anything that’s come before, which I think is admirable, and the fact that it’s received such a cold reception bodes poorly for how the company will be received as they dig deeper into the strange pockets of their catalog.

***1/2 out of Five


Crash Course: Early Almodóvar

When I started this “Crash Course” series my goal was to use it as a series where I’d dive into aspects of cinema I was heretofore unfamiliar with be they movements, filmmakers, countries, genres or combinations of them all.  For this series though, I’m kind of cheating because it’s looking at a filmmaker that I’m already pretty familiar with: Pedro Almodóvar.  This Spanish auteur is pretty much a living legend at this point who has more than solidified his place in film history and of the twenty three films he’s made I’ve already seen eleven.  The thing is, my Almodóvar viewing is pretty skewed to his more recent work by which I mean the films he made after the late 90s, when films like All About My Mother and Talk to Her introduced him to cinephiles of my generation.  I have gone back and watched three of his pre-1997 films (Law of Desire, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) but I’ve never dipped into his really early films and there’s also a stretch in the early 90s I haven’t checked out.  So, that’s my excuse for doing a “crash course” in a filmmaker I’m already familiar with, but I’ll come clean: the real reason I’m doing this is because I recorded a bunch of them when TCM ran a marathon of the guy’s movies recently and I need to clear up space on my DVR and this seems like a good reason to watch them all at once.

Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980)
The usual logline about Pedro Almodóvar’s first movies is that that they’re more straightforwardly farcical than his later films, which often leaned more into the elements of melodrama he would also become notable for and that conventional wisdom proves to be pretty much correct in the case of his debut film Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t very identifiable as having come from the same auteur I’ve come to know through later films even though his work here is much cruder both in terms of content and craft.  This was a movie made on an absolute shoestring: Almodóvar still had a day job while making it so it was mostly shot on weekends over the course of two years with mostly volunteer actors and on cheap 16mm film stock.  These modest origins certainly show, but maybe not as much as you might think.  The acting isn’t great (and frankly I suspect that it would have bugged me more if I spoke the language) but the performers seem to be having fun and despite the technical limitations Almodóvar doesn’t come off like an amateur (even though he technically was one).  More importantly Almodóvar is able to establish a fairly complicated tone with the film that certainly wasn’t easy to achieve.

It would probably be a mistake to talk about early Almodóvar without bringing up the scene he came up in: La Movida Madrileña.  La Movida Madrileña (The Madrid Scene) was a cultural movement that emerged in Spain in the years after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 and embraced the newfound cultural freedoms this brought.  While the rest of the world was having something of a hangover from the party that was the 60s, Spain was just getting started and the Madrid scene embraced punk rock and explored alternative lifestyles.  The film focuses on three women: a woman who is assaulted by a police officer, a punk lesbian friend of her, and the middle-aged housewife married to the police officer who assaulted the first person.  The plan is to corrupt said wife out of her domestic slavery and make her wild like them as part of a revenge plot, but eventually it sort of backfires.  There’s a bit of an early John Waters feel to the movie, both in terms of its low budget cult movie approach and also it’s occasionally crude humor (including a lesbian golden shower scene that was rather infamous upon the film’s release).  More interestingly you see here that many of Almodóvar’s pervading themes, namely the resilience of women and the handling of sexual taboos, were all right there from the beginning and that makes looking at this knowing what career it’s the start of makes it more interesting than it would be if looked at in a vacuum.
*** out of Five

Labyrinth of Passion (1982)

With his second film Pedro Almodóvar first began to work with the actor who would become his John Wayne/Robert De Niro: Antonio Banderas.  I’m not sure if it’s fair to say Almodóvar discovered Banderas as he had been in one other movie before this but it was almost certainly his work with Almodóvar that first brought him to international attention and as Banderas star rose in Hollywood he would eventually return the favor and bring some attention to Almodóvar.  Here though Banderas is more just a member of the ensemble than he is the star, in fact the whole movie is very much an ensemble film and one that doesn’t have much in the way of a high concept to it, it’s just a whole bunch of eccentric people crossing each other’s paths in various madcap ways.  Unlike Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom this isn’t a total gonzo production and Almodóvar clearly had more of a budget to work with and in general the film looks and feels more like a “real” movie.  Nonetheless Spanish critics of the time were actually less impressed by the film than they were by Almodóvar’s debut and fans tend to see it as being a bit of a sophomore slump and to some extent I agree.  The film is in this odd place where Almodóvar has gotten professional enough that he doesn’t have that “audacious amateur” charm but also still isn’t a fully seasoned filmmaker.  The movie has a few to many side characters and sub-plots and never really focuses in on anything long enough to really get you engaged.  It is still interesting to see Almodóvar’s development here and there are some clever bits here and there but it’s not really one of his better efforts.
**1/2 out of Five

Dark Habits (1983)

There’s an upcoming Paul Verhoeven film called Benedetta that has been getting a lot of “scandalized” responses about the fact that it has nuns behaving in ways that are not in keeping with what you’d expect from sisters of god, which is odd because there’s really nothing new about subverting the alleged purity of nuns whether it’s nuns going totally wild in Ken Russell’s The Devils or nuns getting enmeshed in psychodramas in Black Narcissus.  One of the more famous examples is Pedro Almodóvar’s Dark Habits, which is most likely the most famous movie Almodóvar made during this early pre-Laws of Desire period and for a little while it was the film that defined him.  It was his first film to really break outside of Spain and made him one of the definitive Enfant Terrible of European cinema during this era.  A big part of why it got so much attention was controversy, the film was an attack (or perhaps more accurately a sly commentary on) the Catholic Church in a time and place where that sort of thing could still piss people off.  It was made as something of a parody of several films about nuns and the church that were made during the Franco period and follows a woman who is fleeing from police after her boyfriend overdoses on heroin that she procured for him and hides at a rather unconventional nunnery populated by women of the cloth who do not really act like the solemn sisters you normally run into and taking in prostitutes and drug addicts used to be their specialty and some of the nuns themselves engage in “sinful” behavior like taking drugs.  Also they have a pet tiger at the habit, as you do.

This all sounds like high farce and there are elements of that here but it’s actually a film that’s meant to be a bit sweeter and more interested in emotions than his previous two films.  The sight of nuns taking drugs and tolerating sexuality has a sort of Buñuelian absurdity to it but there is a method to the madness.  The film does not really attack Catholicism on theological grounds and does not really view the nuns as depicted negatively, on the contrary in many ways this seems to be presenting a vision of Catholicism that is closer to what Almodóvar might like the church to be like in a more ideal world: non-judgmental, focused on helping people, non-puritanical.  That said, being judgmental and puritanical is kind of core to the mission of Catholicism so this vision of taking the good without the bad is very much a fantasy more than a practical guide.  Other elements of the film are a bit more iffy.  There are sub-plots about people being sent to Africa on missionary trips being eaten by cannibals that are rather problematic, also I’m not sure I ever got entirely on the film’s comedic wavelength in general but there’s a definite evolution to Almodóvar’s style here even if he still isn’t entirely what he would eventually become.
*** out of Five

Matador (1986)

I neglected to record Almodóvar’s 1984 film What Have I Done to Deserve This? when it aired so I’m leapfrogging a bit to his next film, 1986’s Matador.   I do hope to go back to that 1984 film someday both out of completism but also because I’m thinking it may have been a key transitionary work because Matador feels like a bit of a jump and more closely resembles the films from his upcoming breakthrough period like Law of Desire or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!.  It is however Almodóvar at some of his taboo breaking and challenging.  The film primarily focuses on (self-proclaimed) heterosexual men and in general Almodóvar films about straight guys (and men in general frankly) like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In tend to be darker and focus on the negative side of attraction and rather unhealthy and violent urges.  This one is no exception and uses Spain’s national sport of bullfighting as something of a metaphor for violence in general and a sort of toxic masculinity.  From there it goes in some rather kooky directions involving failed sexual assaults, serial killers with pins, and other assorted nuttiness.  It’s a prickly movie but mostly prickly in a good way and it’s made with style by a filmmaker that’s really coming into his own.
***1/2 out of Five

The Flower of My Secret (1995)

I had intended to include Pedro Almodóvar’s 1991 film High Heels in my little marathon of his early-ish work, which seemed like a good enough stepping stone into his not-so-early mid 90s films that were also a blind spot for me, but it turns out that there was a mishap when I DVRed that film and, well, turns out I’ll be jumping all the way to 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, which will kind of dangle at the end of my marathon despite having been made almost ten years after the last film.  So be it, this was never a super strict crash course anyway.  This movie has the distinction of being made at something of an end of an era as his next film (1997’s Live Flesh) is pretty widely considered to be the start of a new and less overtly comedic phase of his career that’s shot in more realistic (but certainly not entirely realistic) style.  Interestingly enough the film concerns a romance novelist who has become hostile to her own work and wants to switch to doing something different with her career without as much success as she might light, so you have to imagine there’s some self-criticism in all of this even if we know now that the stylistic shift that Almodóvar isn’t nearly as dramatic as the one his character is making.  So, looking at this film as a stepping stone within an auteur’s career is interesting but I’m not sure what someone would get out of this if they weren’t an Almodóvar fanatic and it certainly isn’t the film of his I would recommend anyone start with, it’s definitely a minor work.
*** out of Five

In Conclusion

So, that was a bit of a bumpy ride as it took longer than I expected and I ended up having to drop a movie.  Were I to do this again I would have been a bit more careful to record Almodóvar’s fourth film and make this strictly about his first five but, live and learn.  I’m also not sure that Almodóvar’s films are best served by watching all of them in a row like this, you need a little more time to let his style digest so you can build up your appetite for more.  Don’t be misled by my star ratings though as they’re kind of grading on a curve against Almodóvar’s other more major works and even though these weren’t the best of his films I’ve seen I’m as convinced as ever about his vitality as a filmmaker.  He’s a giant like a Fellini or a Bergman, but he isn’t a figure from the past, he’s right here with us now and still making great work including what is buzzed to be another triumph coming out this year.


I must say, if you had asked me fifteen years ago what direction the career of Kenneth Branagh would be going in during the 2010s I don’t think I could have given you a very accurate prediction.  One could say that he fits the mold of the “actor turned director” but he didn’t really become any kind of household name until he started directing projects and casting himself.  For much of his early career he was primarily known as “the Shakespeare guy” for his various adaptation of The Bard’s plays, particularly his Henry V and Hamlet, but that’s never really been the full extent of his work.  He directed several original screenplays early in his career and even when he was at the height of his Shakespeare phase he was also adapting other literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  He hasn’t actually made a direct Shakespeare adaptation since 2006’s As You Like It but his directorial career has nonetheless continued to be defined by adaptations like his version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or his dip into Disney remakes with 2015’s Cinderella.  Those were both highly commercial films actually and this guy, who you would think would have nothing but trouble in this era of franchise filmmaking, has been very willing to “play the game” and has kind of inexplicably thrived in the 2010s.  This probably isn’t too shocking in retrospect as he has in his own way always been working with “IP” and despite being associated with highbrow source material Branagh has always been a populist at heart with a focus on outreach to the masses.  This instinct really went into overdrive when he made the early MCU film Thor and it hasn’t always been the most dignified route to take as he’s attached himself to some rather regrettable projects like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Artemis Fowl but when it comes to simply getting work he’s bigger now than he’s ever been and his most recent project, Belfast has quite a bit of Oscar buzz.

This is actually the first film in over 25 years to not be an adaptation of any kind of IP and appears to actually be a recounting of his own childhood growing up in the titular city of Belfast in the middle of “The Troubles.”  Branagh’s surrogate is a nine year old kid named Buddy (Jude Hill) who lives in a Protestant family on a street that a number of Catholics live, making it a bit of a hotbed for sectarian violence.  Buddy’s role in all of this is set up from the beginning when we get a shot (one that’s suspiciously similar to a scene in City of God) in which he finds himself caught standing between dueling gangs on Catholics and Protestants about to go at each other: the innocent caught between.  His father (Jamie Dornan) does not really take either side in this conflict and just wants the violence over.  He’s also very much in debt and can’t find work because of all the violence so he frequently travels to England to find employment.  Soon he begins suggesting to his wife (Caitríona Balfe) that the family move there or even to Australia or Canada in order to escape the madness but she loves her city and doesn’t want to separate her children from their grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), but with the conflict growing ever closer and with the finances getting tighter and tighter they may soon have no choice.

The child at the center of Belfast is named “Buddy” instead of “Kenny” but outside of that Branagh has done pretty much nothing to hide the fact that this movie is extremely autobiographical.  The basic facts of Buddy’s life conform exactly to Branagh’s own circumstances in 1969 and the film does add some key scenes to establish Buddy’s burgeoning interest in film and the theater, but beyond that the film isn’t really about him, he’s more of a point of view character looking at his family and his surroundings from a certain perspective of innocence.  This sort of “child’s eye view” of conflict is a fairly common trick used by filmmakers a lot in everything from Hope and Glory to Au Revoir Les Enfants and can at times be used to very good effect like in Grave of the Fireflies but all too often it kind of seems like an excuse to kind of ignore adult complexities about a given situation or period of history in favor of a sort of easy coming of age narrative through hard times and I would say that Belfast more often than not falls into that second category.

To put it frankly, I don’t think Buddy or by extension young Branagh had a terribly nuanced or complex understanding of the conflict he was in and that does not make him a terribly useful narrator of this story.  On some level this is the point, to show how child resilience can normalize highly abnormal surroundings and continue to be a kid even when Molotov Cocktails are being thrown around them but in many ways this observation strikes me as being rather banal at this point.  It certainly doesn’t help that Branagh paints this whole picture with a heavy sheen of nostalgia and gives the film a heavy focus on the importance of family and community bonding in the face of adversity and looks at his own family with some extremely rose colored glasses.  Aside from some financial problems and associated stresses neither of his parents are shown to really be flawed in the slightest and every member of his family, to a person, does not express any sort of sympathy for either side of “The Troubles” and shows nothing but disgust for the whole conflict in general.  It is entirely possible that the Branagh family really was this sterling paragon of tolerance and understanding, but I would argue that this makes them not terribly representative of the citizens of Belfast in this era or human nature in general and it might have been more interesting if Branagh had ventured a bit further outside his own experience and looked at people with a little more of a nuanced view of the situation.

This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty to like about Belfast because there certainly is.  The film was shot in a nice crisp black and white, which was probably a good move.  There are brief sections in color, namely some clips from the technicolor films that Buddy attends as well as some bookending footage of the modern city of Belfast which frankly appear to have been added on the behest of the North Irish tourism industry.  The film also sports some pretty solid performances from the whole cast.  The main kid Jude Hill is pretty good for what the film needs from him and isn’t too annoying despite the film basically making him a paragon of innocence. Jamie Dornan is also pretty good as the father and Caitríona Balfe probably gives the film’s rangiest most “Oscar clip” laden performance, but in a good way.  I was also surprised to see Judi Dench here as the family’s grandmother, she feels different here than in other movies and works pretty well.  The film’s handful of scenes of violence are mostly well staged, though there is a sort of standoff towards the end that rang pretty false to me.  Branagh also chose to give the film a period soundtrack consisting mostly of the early music of Van Morrison, a choice that is perhaps a bit queezy given that singer’s recent foray into COVID conspiracy theories, but I’ve always liked the guy’s music and he is kind of a natural choice to be soundtracking a coming of age movie about North Ireland given both the wistfulness of his songs and the fact that he was one of the few superstars of the era from there.  Also kudos for having the self-restraint not to use “Brown Eyed Girl.”

To clarify where I’m coming from, Belfast was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is an award that tends to align with a certain kind of uplifting middlebrow prestige.  With only one exception every movie to have won the award since 2008 has been some kind of Oscar contender and previous winners include the likes of Jojo Rabbit, Green Book, and The King’s Speech… better movies than those win sometimes but in general they tend to be the kind of movies that your mother will love but “film twitter” generally won’t.  I bring this up to say that movies that win these awards often come with some pretty big expectations and the question about them very quickly stops being “is the movie good at all” and instead becomes “does this movie deserve to be among the year’s best,” which can be a little unfair but, heavy lies the crown and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to begin looking at movies like this in terms of legacy given that they are plainly seeking awards attention.  Belfast is in my mind better than all three of the movies I listed above but I’d also say it fits pretty well in that group more generally.   Make no mistake I get why the movie has appeal and would impress a festival audience, it’s the kind of thing you can take the family to over Thanksgiving weekend and get more culture out of than whatever the latest Illumination movie is and it will be a very easy movie to recommend to casual movie goers.  But personally, a “nicecore” movie about a pleasant family whose only failing is loving each other and their city too much is not what I’m looking for out of movies about sectarian violence or out of prestige cinema.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/3/2021

Nobody (8/15/2021)

When I first learned about this action movie starring Bob Odenkirk as a badass action hero I assumed it meant he was trying to pull a rather implausible Liam Neeson career move.  In a sense that is the case, but the movie he’s in very much plays on the fact that Odenkirk doesn’t look like someone you’d expect to be able to fight and the action movie in question has less in common with Taken than it does with John Wick.  In fact I might make the argument that it’s one of the first truly John Wick influenced films almost to the point of being a blatant ripoff.  Both movies deal with people who find roundabout ways of getting a very stylized version of the Russian mafia angry at them and in both the Russian mafia ends up realizing that they chose the wrong guy to mess with and both barter in a sort of highly choreographed and rather brutal combat, albeit with Nobody focusing a bit more on melee fighting rather than the gunfighting that is John Wick’s bread and butter.  That said, I’m not the world’s biggest John Wick fan; that series delivers on the action and there is something kind of fun about the bonkers world it tries to build but at the end of the day I don’t think there’s really a lot there and that means that an imitator that’s only 80% as good runs the risk of inheriting a lot of that franchises negatives without the things that make up for them and I’d say Nobody comes pretty close to having that fate.  I think the film has some pretty glaring tonal issues and the action scenes rarely rise above the level of a B or B+.  Odenkirk is a quirky choice for a leading man in a movie like this and brings something to it, but most of the rest of the cast didn’t do much for me, especially the villains (can we please give the Russian mafia a rest?) and ultimately I don’t think it was all that memorable despite some rather wacky elements.
**1/2 out of Five

The Reason I Jump (8/18/2021)

Autism is a subject that has proven to be rather fraught as of late with a couple of high profile film and TV productions on the subject having been mired in controversy with the communities of those affected by the condition clearly having very strong opinions about how the topic is supposed to be depicted.  The documentary The Reason I Jump hasn’t prompted the same outcry but some additional research suggests that it has some controversial elements of its own.  The film is about people with severe forms of autism that leaves them non-verbal and uses as a jumping off point a book said to be written by a teenage non-verbal autistic person named Naoki Higashida, who does not appear on screen but who does have passages from his book read via voice-over and accompanied by some artistically rendered images of a child actor meant to represent him.  There has been some skepticism as to the veracity of this book with some suspecting that it was a hoax written by his parents and the best of my knowledge this hasn’t really been resolved and there’s no mention of this debate in the film, which I find kind of questionable.  But the film isn’t really about Higashida so much as it’s a documentary about non-verbal autism writ large with Higashida as a framing story, and more screen time is devoted to other autistic people around the world which act as case studies.  Some have viewed the film as an advocacy piece for a practice called “facilitated communication,” which I’ve heard some pretty bad things about in the past but no one seems to agree about anything when it comes to autism so I’m not really sure who to believe and I’m not sure this documentary ever really instilled in me a lot of confidence about its journalistic seriousness, instead it just felt kind of “touchy feely” and rather sanitized (if artful) in its depiction of its subject.  I don’t think I can get behind this thing.

**1/2 out of Five

Luca (8/19/2021)

It was pretty shocking when it was announced that the newest Pixar movie Luca was going to be released direct to Disney+ without even a “premiere access” window.  That move made sense in the case of Soul given that they needed it to come back before the end of the year to compete for Oscars and theaters were in no position to host it, but that wasn’t the case here.  Frankly it suggested that the movie was going to be sub-par, but having finally seen it I don’t think that’s the case at all… frankly I think Disney did this movie dirty as it’s definitely among the best movies Pixar has made since their heyday and was more than worthy of theatrical release.  The film looks at a pair of sea monsters who operate on the mermaid rules of “become human upon coming to land” running away from their families and coming to the surface where they try to ingratiate themselves into town and make friends with a local girl at a seaside Italian town in the 60s.  That setting reeks of nostalgia even if its nostalgia for a time and place that none of the film’s makers likely had any experience with and they render this town with a really nice sense of detail.  The animation and art style here looks different but not too different from a lot of Pixar’s other movies with the characters being designed in a knowingly stylized way but not because they’re trying to avoid the uncanny valley like they were early on.  The kids here feel more like actual kids than they do in a lot of animated movies these days (not 100% authentic by any means, but a little more) and I generally found most of the film’s humor a lot more charming than I often do with Pixar movies

Now, ever since this movie came out there has been a lot of debate about whether the film is meant to be a coded homosexual coming of age film.  When I first heard this I was skeptical because there are sections of the internet that seem to exist to find gay coding in anything and everything, but having seen the movie… yeah I think the subtext is there, and despite the protestations of Disney and the film’s makers, I think it’s probably intentional.  The film centers on a very close friendship between these two adolescent male protagonists on the run together and the two do not really interact like normal platonic friends.  There’s clearly jealousy in the air when one or the other become too close to the girl in the movie to the exclusion of the other.  That’s not to say that this is meant to be a metaphor for an actual romantic relationship between the two, more it kind of seems like these are some very young kids with feelings for each other they don’t fully understand and aren’t about to act on.  On top of that, the fact that they’re sea monsters living among humans and having to hide their true identities can pretty easily be read as a metaphor for the closet, at least when combined with the other queer undertones that aren’t too hard to sense.  I’m not saying this should be viewed as true “representation” but it feels like a smart way to touch on this type of thing without touching on it in a movie like this.

But whether you want to pick up on those themes or not, it is a testament to how well drawn the characters are here for a cartoon like this and it’s that character based intimacy that makes the film feel special… and is also probably why Disney chickened out and set it to streaming instead of putting it in theaters.  As refreshing as I found it to get a Pixar movie that didn’t involve some sort of epic adventure across a continent, I think the powers that be are trying to push a narrative that theaters are for explosions and smaller scale stories are for home viewing even when they’re realized in as rich a way as they are here and that is a toxic and dumb approach to distribution.
**** out of Five

The Viewing Booth (8/24/2021)

The Viewing Booth is a movie that’s a bit more obscure than a lot of the new documentaries I tend to review.  I don’t think it’s been put in theaters and hasn’t been picked up by a streaming service but it’s had a festival run and is currently streaming on the BBC website and seems like the kind of thing PBS might pick up for POV or Frontline.  The film was made by a guy named Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, who is an Israeli activist and filmmaker opposed to the occupation of Palestine.  The film looks at an experiment he ran at Temple University in Philadelphia where he brought some students with strong feelings about The Middle East into a laboratory of sorts and showed them some viral Youtube videos from Palestine which showed the plight of the people living there with the goal of watching their reactions and seeing what does and doesn’t reach them.  He did this with a few different people but he ended up focusing his attention on a woman named Maia Levy, whose parents were Israeli and who spent a lot of time there and is a fairly strong supporter of Israel.  Alexandrowicz comes to be interested in her in particular because in many ways she seems to be the kind of thoughtful and potentially reachable Israel supporter that he wants to be able to reach with his activism, but most of the movie is about his frustration with her, with how she seems to resist the lessons of each of these videos and looks at all of them with skepticism even when she concedes that they “look bad” for Israel.  In many ways it’s a movie about just how hard it is to bring people around once they become entrenched in a certain way of thinking, and I think this lesson can apply to issues far wider than just the Israel/Palestine conflict and that you could see a similar dynamic with things like COVID Vaccines, Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, etc.  There are a lot of movies about the power of cinema to change people’s minds, but this is a movie about cinema’s limitations; about how the hope that you can change people’s minds though imagery and empathy can often fall short in the real world.  That’s kind of a depressing conclusion but there’s a certain honesty to it.  The film itself is kind of brief and its format makes it a bit uncinematic by its nature, but I certainly got something out of it.
***1/2 out of Five

Infinite (9/3/2021)

I’ve complained a lot this year about certain movies getting dumped onto streaming services when they deserved better but few movies got dumped more unceremoniously than the Antoine Fuqua directed Mark Wahlberg vehicle Infinite which didn’t even get dumped onto a popular service like Disney+ or Netflix… it got banished to Paramount Plus, a service enjoyed by very few but which I do periodically subscribe to in order to catch up with “The Good Fight” and that is how I ended up watching Infinite… a movie that actually probably did deserve its fate.  Infinite is not a terrible movie, it’s made professionally and moves along reasonably enough but it’s extremely bland and derivative.  It looks at an ordinary-ish guy who has it revealed to him that there’s a war going on between an underground of people who can recall all their past lives with one side wanting to end the world and the other side trying to stop them, and the guy who has all this revealed to them is this super important chosen one who needs to access his past life memories in order to save the world.  That “underground of immortals” concept will bring to mind last year’s The Old Guard but really the movie even more shamelessly rips off in terms of story structure is The Matrix.  Granted some of this is basically just standard “hero’s journey” stuff but still, this is such a direct copy that even the most casual of viewer will make the connection.  Unlike The Matrix however this thing doesn’t really have any stand-out action movie visuals to make it the slightest bit memorable and beyond that it’s just kind of bland as hell.  It’s the kind of movie you almost wish was worse than it was just so that it would be memorable in its blandness but instead this thing is just the most vanilla white bread product you’re likely to ever see.
** out of Five

The French Dispatch(11/6/2021)

There was a time when Wes Anderson looked like he was going to have to adjust his style a bit in response to a bit of a backlash that had been building.  The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t do great at the box office and it had seemed at the time like he’d spent too much on a movie that would ultimately only have a niche audience and The Darjeeling Limited is probably his least critically acclaimed movie.   Moonrise Kingdom with its outdoor sets felt at the time like Anderson finally toning down his signature style a bit and moving, just a little bit, out of his heavily directed and intentionally artificial style.  But that didn’t happen, instead with his next film The Grand Budapest Hotel he instead opted to give the middle finger to the haters and tripled down on his usual style and was rewarded for this with what is, by a very wide margin, the biggest box office hit of his career and several Oscar nominations.  Since then he’s continued to target his films directly at the people who already dig his stuff rather than trying to dilute the style to make it more palatable for non-fans, first with his 2018 stop-motion effort Isle of Dogs and now with his latest film The French Dispatch which is even more purely Wes Andersonian than anything he’s made before.

The French Dispatch is essentially an anthology film which uses the fictional newspaper/magazine “The French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun” as something of a framing device.  That paper is pretty clearly meant to be a fictionalized version of “The Paris Review” and “The New Yorker” and is edited by Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) and has an office in a fictional French city called Ennui.  The film starts in 1975 with Howitzer death and that Howitzer had specified in his will that the paper should be shuttered after his death, so the film is framed as a farewell issue featuring his obituary and reprints of three of their best past articles, with those articles making up the three main portions of the anthology film.  The first is reported by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) and focuses in on an art dealer named Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who has discovered a painter named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) who is incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane after decapitating two people.  The second appears to have been inspired by the events of May 1968 and has Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reporting on a student uprising led by a guy named Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and his even more militant girlfriend Juliette (Lyna Khoudri).  And the third story is recited by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) and looks at an elaborate crime story in which the son of a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) is kidnapped by a mastermind called The Chauffeur (Edward Norton).

Stylistically The French Dispatch pretty much picks up where The Grand Budapest Hotel left off.  Like that movie this incorporates a variety of different aspect ratio and film formats but uses them all a bit more freely than that one did, basically rolling with whichever one seems right for a given scene or shot.  This time around he periodically experiments with black and white, basically using it whenever a scene is set within on of the “articles” being referenced while switching to color during the “present” when people are in the Dispatch office looking back on these things or in sort of framing stories within framing stories like a lecture being given by the Tilda Swinton character or a TV interview being given by the Jeffrey Wright character, but sometimes it will just switch to color within one of these past-tense stories just for the hell of it and the film is also unafraid to just go wild and do something like incorporate traditional animation for an action scene.  The film is very heavy on Wes Anderson’s meticulous and whimsical sets and probably uses his signature “ant farm perspective” dollhouse sets more than any other movie of his.  I’m told this only cost $25 million to make but between the sheer size of the cast and the number of sets that must have been built to make this movie happen I have trouble believing that number.  And this cast really is staggering.  I mentioned a handful of the actors with larger-ish parts in my summery but by my count there are at least twenty reasonably famous actors in this thing (often in tiny roles) plus a decently impressive French cast.

Anthology films are an inherently tricky format to try to make work and when looking at movies with formats like that you kind of need to assess each part separately before seeing if they really cohere into a greater whole.  I’d say the weakest element of the film is a short if kind of pointless travelogue segment featuring Owen Wilson which I think was intended to draw the audience into the world of the film but which I think just kind of slows down its momentum early.  In fact it took some time for me to warm up to a lot of the main segments too but once they finally got into the swing of things I think all three of them were pretty successful.  My favorite of the three is probably the first one, in part because I found Benicio del Toro’s performance very amusing and also thought its take on the commercialization of art had some legitimate teeth to it.  The middle section I think will prove divisive as it has a certain affection for youthful radicalism as a concept while also satirizing it as ill-conceived bourgeois radical chic performance art more so than any kind of serious political endeavor.  The third segment is the one that feels the least “French” of the three and feels the most like Wes Anderson just going on a bit of a romp with his usual stylistic tricks, but it is good at doing this and has some very fun set pieces towards the end.

These stories are of course linked by the overall magazine motif which is meant to be the film’s glue, a bit like how The Grand Budapest Hotel was supposed to be a sort of story within a novel but the framing story is even more important here given its anthology nature.  At its heart it’s kind of meant to be an account of this fictional magazine’s staff and what they stood for and it does certainly get that across: you definitely have a feeling about what kind of stuff it was likely to publish.  On a grander level the movie almost feels like a sort of elegy for a bygone world of letters and the kind of public intellectuals that emerged from it.  That having been said, the glances we get at the actual French Dispatch office in the framing stories feel frustratingly limited.  We get brief glimpses of actors like Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman there but hardly spend any time there and despite the film building him up as this critically important figure there we only get maybe five to ten minutes of Bill Murray.  I think the film might have been better served had it started in on the main stories a bit quicker and spread the framing story out a bit more evenly instead of frontloading the movie with it and burning time on that Owen Wilson section.  The individual segments though are mostly successful and Wes Anderson’s usual style is in good form.  The film will not be winning over people who are skeptics of the director’s previous work but the fans will mostly enjoy it and I’m certainly a fan so it worked for me, but it’s probably shallower than some of his best work and it doesn’t necessarily break new ground for him.

**** out of Five

Disneyology 201: Live Action Greatest Hits (1967-1979)

Our last look at the world of live action Disney movies looked at the early 60s, which was kind of an ideal time to be making corny family films.  It was that era that all those movies you thought were set in the 50s like American Graffiti took place in.  But for this next installment will look at a period in which Disney struggled a bit more to find relevance: the late 60s and early 70s.  In this era Disney’s usual M.O. would start to look incredibly square, but even if they tried it’s not like Disney was ever going to be the go-to for this big generation of newly adult baby boomers.  This was an issue for Disney’s animation branch as well: in the 70s there simply weren’t as many children to advertise to as there were in the 50s and 60s, the boomers just hadn’t reproduced enough yet.  I will be starting in the late sixties while the company was trying and failing to make the old magic work and then start working my way through the Gen X favorites of the 70s right up to when they began taking more of a corporate turn as they went into the 80s.

The Happiest Millionaire (1967)

The Happiest Millionaire is possibly the most consequential movie to Disney history which most people haven’t heard of.  It, in its current form, is notable for being by some measures the longest movie that Disney ever put out.  It’s shorter than Pearl Harbor (which was put out by their Touchstone imprint) and Avengers: Endgame (which also doesn’t officially bear the Disney logo) but at 172 minutes this director’s cut of The Happiest Millionaire does run longer than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which would be the second longest movie to open with that castle logo.  Of course counting that 172 minute cut (the one currently streaming on Disney+) is a bit dubious as this thing actually went out at a number of different running times: it was 164 minutes long when it premiered in Los Angeles, 144 minutes when it was brought to New York.  It’s not entirely clear whether it ever got its intended roadshow release but by the time it was put into general release it had been cut down to 118 minutes and that wasn’t because anyone had any confidence in it.  The film came out during something of a turning point for American cinema and the big flashy musicals that had earned so much money in the early 60s (including Disney’s Mary Poppins) had really outstayed their welcome and were starting to bomb.  This movie doesn’t get talked about as much as Doctor Doolittle or Hello, Dolly when discussing the death of the roadshow musical, but it was definitely part of the trend.  In fact one could in some ways view this as more of a failure than those movies, which at least managed to impress out of touch Academy members, whereas this movie seemed to impress no one.

The film doesn’t really have much of a strong high concept to rest on like most Disney movies.  It’s set in the 1910s (an era that Walt Disney was kind of infatuated with) and looks at a mildly eccentric rich guy (who only strikes me as being moderately happy as millionaires go) played by Fred MacMurray and his family.  I say “mildly eccentric” because the only particularly notable things about this guy are that he runs a bible study/boxing class, has some kind of obsession with the marine corps leading into the first world war, and also that he owns a bunch of pet alligators he apparently captured in the everglades.  All of this could have been used as a satirical portrait of a bourgeois chickenhawk in a more interesting movie but here these are just seen as endearing quirks in an otherwise goodhearted man and his patriotic support of the bloodbath that was World War I likely seemed rather insensitive in a time when Vietnam was becoming increasingly controversial.  Then in the film’s second half it increasingly becomes about a very bland romance and engagement between his daughter and another bland as fuck rich white guy and some father-of-the-bride antics from the MacMurray character.

It’s a very bland and indistinct story set in a not overly interesting setting and with characters who are not overly fascinating.  It also isn’t really that much of a spectacle as these things go.  The aforementioned Doctor Doolittle and Hello Dolly at least had elaborate sets and the like to make them noteworthy and this really doesn’t outside of that odd sub-plot with the alligators.  Those other moves cost seventeen and twenty-five million to make while this thing only had five million pumped into it, which was probably good for Disney’s bottom line but it really left this thing feeling particularly anemic as a result; it has the runningtime and presentation of an epic but it isn’t one.  Clearly the people involved seemed to think that all you needed to sell a musical was good music because they didn’t have much to rely on… and they didn’t even really have that.  The film actually isn’t based on a Broadway musical, it’s based on a straight play and The Sherman Brothers were brought in to do the music and I wouldn’t say it’s their best work.  The English actor Tom Steele, who plays an Irish butler that is kind of on the margins of the film’s actual plot has most of the mildly memorable numbers.  I’m told his opening number “Fortuosity” was popular but I didn’t care for it nor did I like supposed standout “Let’s Have a Drink on It.”  Basically the only song that stood out to me as even slightly memorable is the song “I’ll Always Be Irish,” which captures the dual identity of being an immigrant in interesting ways.  Aside from that it’s rough sailing and so is the rest of this dull-ass goofy-ass waste of time movie.
* out of Five

The Love Bug (1968)

On October 17th 1968 one of the all time most iconic car movies came out: the Steve McQueen starring vehicle Bullitt, a gritty cop thriller set in San Francisco famous for a its standout car chase sequence.  A little over two months later Walt Disney pictures gave us another San Francisco-set car movie of a much different kind: The Love Bug, which was sometimes marketed as Herbie the Love Bug, a movie about a Volkswagen Beetle that can drive itself.  I’d like to say that Steve McQueen’s film was the more popular of two, and it did come close, but Disney’s movie edged it out by about two million dollars.  In fact The Love Bug was a pretty big hit, it was the second highest grossing movie of 1969 (it was released very late in December in 1968), and that made it something of an exception among a lot of the other Disney movies I’m going to be looking at in this era.  The general narrative was going to be that Disney was a bit too buttoned down and square to compete during the New Hollywood era (and the fact that Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider were numbers three and four that year is telling) but this seems to have been a bit of an exception and it ended up spawning a slew of sequels through the coming decade.  Why was that?  Well, part of it is just that people seemed to be absolutely obsessed with automobiles and movies about them in the post-war years and especially the late sixties and there seemed to even be something in the zeitgeist about small cars doing big things if The Italian Job is any indication.  But man this thing is dopey.

The film’s poster and opening credits font suggest that this would be something of an attempt at outreach to the hippie audience of the time, but there’s not much of it in the actual movie.  It is about a Volkswagen Beetle (a favorite auto of the counter-culture) and is set in San Francesco so hippies do show up as periphery extras in a couple of jokes, and there is one joke where a police officer tells another officer about some outlandish thing he saw only to be rebuked with “you’ve been working too many shifts in the haight ashbury,” which I’m just going to assume was the first (albeit highly oblique) marijuana reference in a Disney movie (I haven’t fact checked that), but otherwise this is a very establishment friendly movie about a discount Steve McQueen type racing cars like a real man should.  I’ve long known that this was about a semi-sentient car but Herbie turns out to have a much less distinct personality than I expected.  “He” can’t talk like KITT and there’s nothing about it that resembles human motor functions or facial features.  It’s basically just a car that can drive itself when it so chooses and can also lock its doors and whatnot and at random points seems to be super durable when off-roading and has super speed.  I don’t think there’s ever any explanation for why this automobile is alive, it’s basically just magic and little of what “he” does is as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.

The movie is not without its charms.  Buddy Hackett has a prominent supporting role, who I feel like I should dislike given my usual tastes but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him.  David Tomlinson is also quite fun as the film’s villain, an aristocratic Brit who personally drives the antagonistic automobile against Herbie despite being decidedly middle aged.  In fact I would say that the film’s finale, a long distance race overseen by uniquely incompetent referees which is filled with slapstick hijinx, is pretty fun in general as a comic set piece.  So the movie ends on a strong note but it can be a slog getting there.  The leading man and leading lady just are not very strong characters and they kind of take forever to figure out what’s going on with the car and the ruminating about whether a car or driver matters more in a race ultimately amounts to very little.  Beyond that I simply didn’t find much in the film to be funny or interesting, but clearly audiences of the time saw things differently and the film was something of a last hurrah for a certain style of Disney comedy like The Absent Minded Professor.
** out of Five

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

The early 70s were a pretty dark time for Disney for all the reasons I’ve gone into both in terms of animation and live action.  They were making movies the whole time but the highlights were few and far between; Robin Hood was alright, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was something of a minor hit, and if you look at a list of pure live action films they made between 1969 and 1975 you see a whole lot of shit you’ve never heard of.  Roger Ebert himself called this “a period of overwhelming banality in the studio’s history” so I don’t I’m getting too much of an incorrect impression of this.  But in 1975 things started to look up for them a bit.  The Gen Xers were finally growing into film watching age in great enough numbers to support Disney movies and we start to get into movies that were nostalgic favorites of that generational cohort (who were disproportionally influential on my personal cinematic upbringing and I tend to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about some of the movies they hold in high regard).  It was early in 1975 that they made one of their first films in a while that people have pretty positive memories of: the science fiction adaptation Escape to Witch Mountain, which was a bit too early for the post-Star Wars sci-fi gold rush but which was nonetheless fairly successful and well-remembered.

The film is based on a book of the same title by Alexander H. Key and focuses in on a pair of orphaned siblings who have now been doubly orphaned as their foster parents have died before the start of the film, but no one really knows who their parents are as they were found as toddlers, but unbeknownst to the adults these kids have telekinetic powers that allow them to move objects with their minds and speak to each other through thoughts and get premonitions about the future.   Eventually they blab about their powers to someone played by Donald Pleasence (usually a mistake) who is aparantly employed by some sort of evil society of evil, and the next thing you know they’re forging documents to adopt the kids so they can study them and use their powers for evil… which will eventually inspire the kids to escape… in the direction of Witch Mountain, eventually accompanied by a random old man played by Eddie Albert.  So, if you’re a modern watcher that whole plot synopsis will sound awfully familiar as it’s a setup that’s been done time and again.  Stephen King’s “Firestarter” comes to mind as a similar “bad guys chase kid with special powers across the country” story, the movie D.A.R.Y.L. is a similarly family friendly take on it, more recently there’s Midnight Special, the video game “Beyond: Two Souls,” and of course there’s “Stranger Things.”  But this does predate all of that.  I don’t know if this originated this setup itself but I can’t really think of a clear predecessor off the top of my head so I do think this gets clear points for originality and influence but I’m not sure this is the definitive take on the idea in terms of execution.

Watching the movie I noticed a pretty radical shift in the overall “feel” of the movie from what the other live action Disney movies felt like.  Those other movies had their differences to be sure but (with a couple of exceptions) there was a clearly identifiable “house style” to them that I wasn’t really picking up on here.  This may be a sign of Walt Disney no longer being around to drive things or it may simply be the natural result in changes to the overall Hollywood film aesthetic over time but the world of this film felt more grounded and less “cute.”  There’s also a clearer sense of danger here, it’s not a comedy and you do get a sense that the villains here are willing to kill to get their way (even though they mostly don’t).  That’s not to say that this is some kind of work of gritty realism because it’s not, it’s still very much a G-rated movie that was made by this studio because it has two cute kids at its center, but if you had told me some other studio had made it I wouldn’t have had too much reason to doubt it.  Ultimately I think the movie could have used a little more pathos, the kids in it feel a bit too durable through the whole thing and the film is a bit too scared to really make this experience feel a bit more damaging to them and the characters feel a bit too broadly drawn (that Eddie Alpert character might as well be straight up saying “I’m a grumpy old man who whose heart must be warmed” when he’s first introduced).  Those other movies that this seemingly inspired would probably serve as more thoughtful science fiction and more thrilling thrillers, but this was a pretty good start and a pretty good sign for Disney going into the era of the blockbuster.
*** out of Five

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

As I’ve gone through this installment about Disney’s I’ve been building a somewhat simplistic narrative that Disney was hopelessly uncool in the 70s and that this would eventually force them to change, and I argued that the last movie I watched (Escape to Witch Mountain) was an example of them evolving with the times.  But their other big movie of 1975, The Apple Dumpling Gang, is a pretty good argument that that argument is kind of bullshit and that Disney could also succeed in the 70s without changing much at all.  The box office was indeed cooler and more adult in 1975, the four highest grossing movies were Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo, and Dog Day Afternoon, but sitting at number ten (higher than Escape to Witch Mountain) was this dopey Disney movie that seems to have been directly targeted at the people who were mad as hell that “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” had been cancelled four years earlier.  And yet it’s not exactly a forgotten film, people of a certain age do still reference it, not always lovingly, but they certainly remember it.

The film is something of a comedy western.  It’s not really a spoof or parody of the genre given that its conventions aren’t really questioned, rather it’s more like a traditional B-western but with a much heavier emphasis on comedy and family values.  It’s primarily remembered for the antics of Don Knotts and Tim Conway as a pair of extremely dim and mostly harmless outlaws, but they’re only really half of the movie.  The other half is this very dopey story about Bill Bixby (yes, the “The Incredible Hulk” guy) being forced to act as a guardian to three precocious children through some plot contrivances.  That story is boilerplate family movie cutesy nonsense and the less said about it the better.  As for the Knotts and Conway material… it’s not the worst stuff I’ve ever seen.  The two are kind of like precursors to The Sticky Bandits from Home Alone but even more incompetent and even less villainous and there are some cute bits with them and their extraordinary stupidity.  The two would end up becoming something of a comedy duo in the late 70s and Knotts would show up in several other Disney movies through the remainder of the decade (including a sequel to this one), so the success of this one would have some long lasting implications.  As these things go there are worse movies out there, I can see why this would appeal to people in the 70s looking for some really, really, really unchallenging fare to pass their time but I think it’s time this thing was moved past.
** out of Five

Freaky Friday (1976)

Though it was hardly their largest or most ambitious project of the era, Disney’s most enduring live action project of the 1970s was likely their modestly budgeted 1976  effort Freaky Friday, in which a thirteen year old Jodie Foster switches bodies with her mother played by Barbara Harris.  I’m not sure how well remembered that original film is but it’s certainly left a trail of imitators both in the form of official remakes like Disney’s 2003 version with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan and less official riffs like the recent horror film Freaky but it’s even bigger legacy comes from various sitcoms and cartoons which will frequently have their own “Freaky Friday” episodes in order to give their actors something fun to do.  Freaky Friday was by no means the first piece of fiction to do the “body swap” thing but it certainly popularized it and if you look at a list of media that use the trope there ware way more after this film than before it.

Early on in the film you notice that this does feel notably more modern in sensibility than a lot of the Disney movies that came before.  The movies that Disney made in the 50s and 60s were very into the valorization of the nuclear family and traditional gender norms and were generally populated with families that felt like they were straight out of “Leave it to Beaver.”  This isn’t a radical departure from that exactly, it’s still ultimately about an upper middle class family in the suburbs, but Jodie Foster’s character is notably tomboyish and has a bit of an attitude and her parents have definite foibles that made her less than respectful to her elders as a result.  Of course some of that is just inherent to the nature of film (in which mother and daughter come to realize the other doesn’t have it so easy after all) but she never really comes around on her dad, who she (correctly) calls a “male chauvinist pig” multiple times which is not exactly something Pollyanna would have done.  I don’t want to oversell how progressive this is because it only really seems like progress compared to midcentury Disney movies and would be much less apparent to people who haven’t been marathoning those, but I certainly noticed it.

Obviously what the film ultimately rests on are the body swapping gags in which the two actors don’t act like themselves and while few of them are revelatory they do mostly work.  The mother character seems to be particularly high strung, which gives Jodie Foster a lot to work with when imitating her while that character “possesses” her body.  I actually may have enjoyed Barbara Harris more though as she really actively seems like a younger person while the daughter character is in her head through sheer mannerisms.  There is a bit of a missed opportunity here in that a lot of the problems the two characters encounter have less to do with either really not being able to “last” in the other’s shoes and are more specific to the peculiarities of this high concept, like the mother not knowing which locker is her daughter’s or where she keeps her bus fare.  I also thought the film lost its way in its third act a bit as it seems to feel obligated to give the audience a climax filled with broad physical comedy involving water skiing and car chases.   Still I was mostly impressed by the ways Disney was able to loosen up and delivery on this movie and can see why it left such an impression on audiences.  Fun little movie.
***1/2 out of Five

The Black Hole (1979)

Among all the Disney movies I’ve been planning to watch for this retrospective 1979’s The Black Hole was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.  This was an example of Disney trying to break out of their usual patterns and make a big blockbuster that would be directed more at general audiences than their usual families and kids audience.  It would have a bigger budget than usual and would also be the first PG rated movie that the company produced and would be released in 70mm prints complete with an overture (one of the last Hollywood movies to feature one).  It’s also not clear how much it can even be called a Disney movie at all, the opening logo is just “Buena Vista Pictures” and you would need to look pretty closely at the film’s poster to find the words “Walt Disney,” though it is there.  In fact the film is a big part of why they would shortly create the Touchstone Pictures label in order to distinguish their more adult skewing material from their family friendly brand.

So what is this Disney space epic?  Well it’s a science fiction film released in 1979, the year of Alien, Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so it’s not too hard to see it as one in a string of movies Hollywood quickly greenlit in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars two years earlier.  And in some ways it is, but this was actually originally envisioned to be less of a Star Wars ripoff and more of a ripoff of 70s disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno: an Irwin Allen film in space if you will.  But the movie was heavily re-written since then and by the time the film came to the screen it actually more closely resembled another Disney live action film: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Both films involve protagonists being taken in by malevolent eccentrics, hanging out with them kind of peacefully before coming to learn their evil plans, and then eventually breaking out and Maximilian Schell is definitely giving off clear Captain Nemo vibes.  But whatever the script’s origins it certainly was greenlit after Star Wars had come out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a post-Star Wars sci-fi movie.  The sets and crew composition look a lot more like “Star Trek” or perhaps even a 50s or 60s space movie like Forbidden Planet or Planet of the Vampires.  The film does have some really large and impressive looking sets, but they seem to be partially accomplished through some sort of not fully formed green screen technology and you can see clear outlines around actors’ faces as a result of it.

So what makes this film more “adult” than their previous movies?  Well, on a basic concept level it mostly seems to have earned its PG rating for one death scene where a robot seems to kind of drill into a guy, which wouldn’t have been terribly noteworthy had it happened in a movie from another studio.  Beyond that there aren’t any child characters in the movie and it basically looks like a regular studio science fiction movie from 1968 but there is one conspicuous bit added to the movie to appeal to kids and that is the robot V.I.N.CENT. (“Vital Information Necessary CENTralized”) which is a floating rice cooker looking thing with googly eyes… not really much more to say about it, it just kind of looks stupid and makes the movie kind of a tonal mess that doesn’t know what audience it’s going for.  Otherwise the movie is just kind of a misfire.  None of the protagonists are all that interesting and the film doesn’t really explore the implications of the titular hole very compellingly.  I really wanted to like this thing but I don’t think anyone making it was terribly passionate about what they were doing.  It’s certainly more ambitious and progressive than your average Disney movie but that still means it’s about a decade behind what everyone else was doing but if vintage sci-fi is your thing that might not necessarily be a bad thing.  I admired some of the film’s production elements and with a better script it might have had potential but the film we actually have is kind of dull.
**1/2 out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that concluded a decade that Disney was probably happy to see put behind them.    The studio was clearly out of their element in an era where they had to compete with “The New Hollywood” but there were plenty of signs for them to make a comeback.  The 70s also gave us the start of the era of the summer blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, and while Disney wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of this with The Black Hole it’s obviously something that would signal a renewed demand for movies for kids and families which they would be the natural beneficiaries of and we all know they dominate that form today, though there would still be a long road to that point and in our next and final installment we’ll look at how they grew into that over the course of the 80s and early 90s.