March to Disney: Pocahontas (1995)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically.

This post was originally written for 31 Days of Oscar, but I am including it for this year’s March to Disney. Enjoy!

Pocahontas (1995)

When you watch films in runs and themes, you welcome any chance that will allow you to kill two birds with one stone. Considering that I plan to write about Disney films in March, screening some now will give me a jump on that and there are some titles I have been missing, as much as I like Disney. My complicated adolescent relationship with the company and more detailed thoughts on this film will follow, for now suffice it to say: Disney did some different things that worked here, it was treacherous ground they covered and for the most part it’s very well done.

Score: 8/10
Oscar Nominations/Wins: 2/2

March to Disney: The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

The Apple Dumpling Gang is a film that I did not get a chance to see until Disney Movie Club started offering a club-exclusive Blu-ray. The exclusives are just one thing I’ve found about the Club that I enjoy. The other one would be, while like old school movie clubs there is a minimum commitment to reach in terms of purchases over two years (along with the introductory bundle for a low, low price). However, the good thing is that count doesn’t reset and when you hit your minimum you are upgraded to VIP status and are afforded deals in terms of pricing and shipping.

As for the film itself it plays with a few fairly common tropes; one being orphaned children and the other being bumbling crooks (expertly played by Tim Conway and Don Knotts). The film is based on a book by Jack Bickham, and the major wrinkles it adds to those tropes is the backdrop of the wild west, the more informal nature of relinquishing parental rights and then the involvement of a more able group of robbers. The clashing bank robbers also reminds one a bit of Take the Money and Run.

Another commonality is the fact that in this story it’s the children who find the truth of a situation where adults had given up and told them they were silly. Specifically, this is regards to gold mine that was purportedly a bust. The kids find a treasure and their doing so leads many adults to suddenly take an “interest in their welfare.”

Not entirely dissimilar from Bedknobs and Broomsticks here you have adults that are not necessarily altruistic, but the lead Russel (Bill Bixby) does change and come to genuinely care for the kids. Meanwhile, Dusty (Susan Clark) does come to care for Bill even though she ends up with him only for the kids’ well being at first.

The Apple Dumpling Gang is a humorous enjoyable tale that looks brilliant in this Blu-ray upgrade. If you are a member of the Club and a fan of the film it is definitely recommended for the picture alone even though it offers no extras.

March to Disney – Bedknobs and Broomsticks: An Overlooked Oddity

Upon revisiting Bedknobs and Broomsticks anew, and for the first time in a long time, it occurred to me that some of the more unusual aspects of the film and story should be examined some. The first thing that occurred to me that bared some investigation were the books the film is based on.

The feature-length film is actually based upon two books The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945). While that fact is not unusual by itself, it was a bit more rare for Disney. Song of the South combine many Br’er Rabbit Tales, but typically while Disney optioned many films in a series they tended not to conglomerate.

Having not read the books I cannot tell you what impact this had on the film. It does bear noting that with its whimsical structure, and flights of fancy, there aren’t too many places where this may show. Furthermore, the link between the mundane and the magical is well-established and broached properly.

Even with no more source material to fall back on it did surprise me that Disney didn’t try to franchise this idea. Granted that notion has only gained clout, but was not unheard of in the 70s. It is a prime candidate for a remake.

In some ways I think that this film has become a fairly overlooked oddity, and it should not be. It should not be, if for no other reason than the fact that “Portobello Road” is one of the Sherman Brothers’ greatest creations. Another interesting footnote is that two of the three young leads (Ian Weighill and Roy Snart) claim this film as their only screen credit. While usually this can be either a very notable or dubious distinction, the results here are somewhere in between with both boys bringing a bit of humor to the film.

Another thing that I think should be mentioned is that Angela Lansbury’s Miss Price and David Tomlinson’s Emelius are not exactly angels, but not antiheroes either and do eventually warm to one another and the wartime-displaced children.

Lastly, while it is another World War II set tale about children ripped from London into the English countryside, but it folds nicely into the rear-view of the proceedings until is necessarily molds the finale. There’s simple magic and tropes that make this tale memorable even when omitting to mention that it’s another live action/animation hybrid.

Music Video Monday: Oren Lavie – Her Morning Elegance

Introduction

I’ve debated starting this theme for a few weeks before starting last week, and I ultimately decided I would as it would encourage me to looks for options that actually fit what I’m aiming for. If one pays too much attention to Top 40 type music you tend to see a dearth of creativity in the music video form. The music video is spawned from short films and can be as creative if not more so than their predecessor. Far too often it does just become singing heads. I want to try and buck that trend and find ones both new and old that do something somewhat outside the box, at the very least have some sort of visual narrative. Here we go.

Oren Lavie –Her Morning Elegance

Here is the first of the videos recommended to me. This one would be notable enough if it was just actors being used in stop-motion animation. You add to that the creative use of abstract staging that still concretely conveys the story and you have something rather intriguing. Enjoy!

Treasures from the Disney Vault – Tonight on TCM!

Coinciding serendipitously with March to Disney, TCM tonight will feature its second block of films from the Disney vault. This block debuted in December after a deal with Disney. Here’s TCM’s blurb on tonight’s block:

TCM is honored to present the second installment of Treasures from the Disney Vault, an ongoing showcase that features a broad mix of classics from the Disney library, encompassing live-action films, animated shorts and features, documentaries, TV series and movies and a variety of short subjects. All entries in this month’s Disney programming are TCM premieres.

Features include The Three Caballeros (1944), an animated musical feature film that mixes animation and live action as Donald Duck celebrates his birthday with gifts from Latin America; and Walt & El Grupo (2008), a documentary by Theodore Thomas about a South American goodwill tour by Disney and his creative team as they gathered material for The Three Caballeros and the 1942 Saludos Amigos.

The Story of Animated Drawing (1955), originally broadcast on the TV series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, traces the history of animation and features “The Nutcracker Suite” from 1940’s Fantasia as performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), a live-action feature about an Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns, counts Sean Connery among its stars. Another live-action adventure set in Ireland, The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) is based on the real life exploits of the 16th century prince “Red” Hugh O’Donnell as played by Peter McEnery.

The two shorts are Babes in the Woods (1932), a Silly Symphony cartoon that loosely retells the story of Hansel and Gretel; and I Captured the King of the Leprechauns (1959), a TV episode about the folklore that inspired the Darby O’Gill movie.

Having written about the Good Neighbor Policy and the Three Caballeros before I’m glad to see that film kicking things off. Then the docs I’ve not seen, including Walt and El Grupo, should be enlightening. The shorts as always should be great. The St. Patrick’s Day appropriate titles should be interesting even though I’m not a fan of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Set your DVRs!

Short Film Saturday: How Walt Disney Cartoons Are Made?

This is great contemporary newsreel look at how Disney creates its animated films. This was made in light of the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One interesting factoid is the budget cited as $1.5 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation that’s $25 million today; I am unsure how much unionization would have ballooned that but just on raw numbers it’s an interesting tidbit. Despite its dated tone its a more entertaining explanation of the traditional animation process than I would give.

Free Movie Friday: I Bury the Living (1958)

In starting this theme in the horror genre I was glad to have found this film online. This was one of my favorite discoveries of 2011 and well worth viewing. My thoughts from back then were:

I remember after I saw this film I tried to remember where I first heard of it: it was in Stephen King’s non-fiction book about horror Danse Macabre. He listed it in an appendix as one of 100 excellent horror films released between 1950 and 1980 or so. I agreed with his assertion immediately. It’s a jarring film but brilliant at both ends so to speak.

Review: Futuro Beach (Praia do Futuro)

Futuro Beach is a film that may upon a cursory, superficial examination be as opaque as the atmosphere of its closing shot. However, much as the fog, the source music and score paint in tones and moods; so does this film. In this painting it explores emotions unspoken through the most part via its imagery, edits, compositions and contrasts. However, this ought not scare anyone away as there is not some hidden mosaic that the viewer himself needs to refocus. The conflicts are mostly internal but the struggles and emotions are clear; insight into the cultures in question here will only deepen appreciation, but are not critical.

The synopsis from Strand Releasing is as follows:

Part gay romance, part inquisitive self-journey, FUTURO BEACH is a stunning examination of lives lost and found. Donato (Wagner Moura) works as a lifeguard at the spectacular but treacherous Praia do Futuro beach in Brazil; Konrad (Clemens Schick) is an ex-military thrill-seeker from Germany vacationing with a friend. After Donato saves Konrad from drowning, but fails to save his other friend, initial sexual sparks give way to a deeper, emotional connection. Donato decides to leave everything behind, including his ailing mother and younger brother, Ayrton, to travel back to Berlin with Konrad. There, he finds both confusion and liberation, and his journey for love soon turns into a deeper search for his own identity. Eight years later, an unexpected visit from Ayrton, brings all three men back together as they struggle to reconcile the pain of loss and longing, instinctively drawn to each other in search of hope and a brighter future.

The film’s three acts are headed with three title cards that introduce titular theme for each segment of the story: “The Drowner’s Embrace,” “A Hero Cut in Half,” and “A German-Speaking Ghost.” In the first portion of the film there is the struggle to overcome as a professional’s confidence and a foreigner’s relationship is torn apart. In this portion of the film, as in the rest of it, there is a struggle to balance relationships as Donato balances his relationship and responsibility to his younger brother Ayrton and forms a new bond with Konrad.

The first section does also set the stage for many parallels that the story plays with. The opening act closes with Ayrton on his own imagining himself as Iron Man fighting off an unseen assailant. This action will be mirrored when he is older and has found temporary refuge with a new companion to dull his pain. This superhero motif is clearly important as it is also referenced in the title to act two. It also serves the obvious function of illustrating a child’s idealized view of his older sibling. However, the fact that this theme comes back to reflect Donato’s angst as he struggles to decide on a path for his life is also highly significant.

“A German-Speaking Ghost” is not only a very fitting title to the section, but a fitting conclusion. Parallels again come into play as the film finds its climax on a beach much as it reached its first highpoint on one. The visuals in this film, and the activities that constitute screentime, are ones that need to be taken more for their significance than for the literal activity. an example being what is a character running to or from when they jump on to a bike and ride off.

This chapter title is also significant because for a while you are in a bit of doubt as to whom it refers to. In this film you not only have three distinct POVs that represent different life-experiences but you can identify with and understand all of them. There is a triumvirate of powerful performances (Moura, Schick and Barbosa) that feed off one another and take turns coming front and center.

The emotional currents and undercurrents are also strongly supported by the music both brought into the fold and created by Hauschka that allows the film to have the tenor that director Aïnouz usually desires to find in the narrative. The best evidence of this are the closing notes and frames, which act as the zenith of this symbiosis.

Futuro Beach is, from its start, about characters losing and trying to find themselves; connecting, disconnecting and trying to reconnect; saving each other and failing to save themselves; and, ultimately, finds beauty in the discomforts created by distance and yearning and the solitary journey of finding oneself. It takes a gamble with its narrative ellipse, but like a strong story it punctuates the end of its dramatic phrase properly and memorably.

9/10

March to Disney: Expanding Alexander’s Day

If there’s one critique I could never get behind in the realm of book-to-film adaptation it’s the kind I hear a great deal surrounding the transition of Where the Wild Things Are from beloved children’s classic to film property. Many found it odd, confounding even, that a 20-page book with scarcely any prose and mostly illustrations would be suitable for film treatment. I personally like the possibilities of expansion over contraction more times than not.

Stephen King when discussing rewriting in On Writing confesses to being more of a putter-inner than a taker-outer, which is to say he’d love to expand on a narrative rather than omit any time. The wisdom to know when to edit as opposed to over-embroider makes a skilled writer. However, a literal adaptation of something as sparse as Alexander… would not only be un-artful, but also far too short for a feature film. Therefore, expansion is necessary.

Furthermore, taking a short story and making it a feature is far less embellishment than taking a single volume and making it two or three films. Therefore, in the over-analytical film news cycle of today it’s a far less worrisome leap.

In fact, expanding on the book diminishes the over-analytical complaint that Alexander is whiny. By turning the film into a narrative with many prongs wherein everyone has a calamitous day it allows the protagonist to come to a realization on his own with minimal wallowing in self-pity and maximizing comedic moments.

However, it is another successful adaptation of a children’s tale that is well-liked in the Disney realm. The only truly bothersome moments are the very Disney realm of it all, which is double-edged sword. For example, the Peter Pan musical the daughter rehearses are with songs from the film not the musical; and the principal’s reference to Wreck-It Ralph seem somewhat extraneous. It would also be a bit odd if this family was being created in a supposedly real world that pretended Disney was not a thing. Furthermore, the viral sensation that Dick Van Dyke is involved in creating is a highlight of the film for sure.

A completely appreciated wrinkle was building in a fully healthy obsession for Alexander that rounds out his character (his obsession with all things Australian). It’s happy accident that Ed Oxenbould is also Australian, but it adds good dimension, sets up a great gag and introduces cool animals – and once again shows off the knack actors of all ages have adapting to American dialects.

Ultimately, the warmth and humor of the tale and the talent of the cast win out and deliver on the promise of a well-thought out expansive adaptation.

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon – Dziga Vertov: The Man with a Movie Camera in a Gyre of Time and Truth

In preparing this post I naturally watched The Man with a Movie Camera again. In doing so I was reminded of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which I had seen more recently but was made first. Due to that fact I got to thinking about my history with this film, and what if anything had changed in my perception of the film.

To accurately try to capture this I must go back to the beginning to where I first heard of the film. For yes, it is still my assertion that every film does have a pre-life in the mind of the viewer. This pre-life ought not effect the perception of the film in the viewer’s mind, but can and does more often than not color it. Furthermore, if I am to accurately map the trajectory of this film through time as I see it I have to go back to my beginning with it, which is in a textbook in an introduction to film history course that tries to encapsulate Vertov’s intention with his experiment.

This introduction was found in A Short History of the Movies by Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin, 7th ed.:

Dziga Vertov, one of the Soviet Union’s pioneers in combining documentary footage with political commitment, experimental cinema with ideological statement, suffered similar artistic strangulation as Stalinism took hold – partly because he was a Jew, partly because his aesthetic stood for the truth, and partly because he didn’t praise Stalin enough in the last film he was allowed to make, Three Songs About Lenin (1934).

Dziga Vertov’s intense energy was evident not only in his documentaries and manifestos, but also in the name he chose for himself, which translates roughly as “Spinning Top.”

Yes, his work had quite an impact:

Vertov began by compiling footage into weekly newreels in 1918-1919, went on to edit full-length compilation films and shoot some of his own footage in 1920-22 (he called the camera his “Kino Eye”). then invented a documentary form that went beyond the reportage of the newsreel into creative journalism: a series of shorts that were called newsreels but focused on specific topics and themes. That series, which ran from 1922 to 1925 was Kinó-Pravda (“Film truth”; the French term, in homage to Vertov is cinéma vérité).

Documentary films are as old as films themselves. However, the very early documentary cinema was very literal, and would only be interested in what happened and that is all. The unseen hand theory of direction was more an iron fist.

This was the first film ever exhibited; a documentary:

Vertov clearly had other ideas in mind, and his revolutionary ideas transcend cinema as his artful treatment of real subject may predate the same concept in prose, like In Cold Blood and the birth of creative nonfiction. Did cinema beat other arts to something? I think it may have.

Next in my journey, I read some of Eisenstein’s works. He was not mum on Vertov’s works. In Film Form has some less sparkling things to say on Vertov.

With regard to the use of slow-motion:

Or, more often, it is used simply for formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief as in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.

And with regards to his experimentation:

The young Soviet cinema was gathering the experience revolutionary reality, of first experiments (Vertov), of first systematic ventures (Kuleshov) in preparation for that unprecedented explosion in the latter half of the ‘twenties, when it was to become an independent, mature, original art, immediately gaining world recognition.

Great filmmakers often disagree. Tarkovsky thought Eisenstein’s overemphasis on editing was misplaced, as all arts have editing; so montage, in his mind, did not define cinema, but rather time did. Art is subjective and different perspectives lead to personal and unique works. Vertov acknowledged he was experimenting in title to The Man with a Movie Camera, so as he wrote (both scripts and theory), shot and cut he too developed his own ideas.

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

This idea took root after he had seen, and decided to respond to, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. What Vertov seeks that’s different he states straight from the outset:

Man with Movie Camera
A 6 reel record on film
Produced by VUFKU in 1929
Excerpt from a camera operator’s diary

Attention viewers:
This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events/
Without the help of intertitles/
Without the help of a story/
Without the help of theatre/

This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Author-supervisor experimenter
Dziga Vertov

With that in mind the mind instantly opens upon the start of the film. Yet it’s the creativity and positively kinetic nature of the film that makes it a unique experience. Yet, despite some of Eisenstein’s grumbling of the primitive nature of the trickery it’s not the party tricks, or the editing pattern that make this film standout, but the embodiment of statement; the visual unity created through theme that’s so clearly communicated.

Mast and Karwin put it best:

Like everyone else in society, the man with a movie camera has a job to do — his special work being to record and reveal the work of everyone else. And like everyone else in society, the man with the movie camera likes to play. Vertov allows the playful camera to dazzle us with accelerated motion split screens, superimpositions, stop-motion animation — demystifying the cinema even as it gives the audience the visual treats it came to the theater to enjoy. Grounded in daily life as much as in the theory and practice of cinema, this brilliantly reflective documentary renders cinema and life inseparable.

The only way in which the film relies on any other art-form (barring photography, of course) is in the use of music. Even upon its release it, like many other silents, was accompanied by a live orchestra. Since the silent days it has acquired many other scores to accentuate the cuts and changes in composition that this film has.

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

This is not to discredit the film in anyway. Music and film have always co-existed. Films need music. Especially this one cites Roger Ebert:

The experience of “Man With a Movie Camera” is unthinkable without the participation of music. Virtually every silent film was seen with music, if only from a single piano, accordion, or violin. The Mighty Wurlitzer, with its sound effects and different musical voices, was invented for movies.

This film seeks to unshackle cinema, and I feel it did, and most importantly it continues to do so as new viewers find it. For film, which relies on motion, both within the frame and in swapping those images out, the parameters must be challenged. Film was once a new toy, vibrant, irreverent and disrespected, looked down upon, and thus somewhat more unafraid to try things on for size. Yes, certain universal narrative precepts needed to be borrowed, but film needed to find its own voice with which to speak. Experiments like this one were crucial in developing that voice not only in documentary but in narrative cinema as well. This restless creative audacity is something that ought not be lost and held onto; the more fertile imaginations; the more impressionable viewers that catch a glimpse of this film the more possibilities the future of cinema has.

For that’s really what is being discussed here. Too often film history, like any history, can be bogged down in facts, dates and events that have happened without discussion the domino effect of influence that events, filmmakers and films can have. The concussive impact of one stellar film can have repercussions throughout time, and not just in the zeitgeist. The Man with a Movie Camera is such a film because it not only tests aesthetic norms and boundaries, but asks the important questions of “Why are we creating this way?” and “What can we do with it?” and most importantly it shouts “Yes, it is important and worthy and should continue!”