Rewind Review: Escape from Witch Mountain

It’s very hard as a moviegoer to resist the temptation to watch something on opening weekend. However, there will come weekends when there’s no new release that you care to see. So what do you do?

Well, this is where my Monday review comes in. I’ll review something I’ve seen over the weekend that I think you should see next weekend if the batch of new releases doesn’t entice you.

This weekend I watched Race to Witch Mountain, I personally judge every remake, reimagining and rehash on its own individual merits. However, my rule of thumb typically is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Conversely if it was never really that good to begin with, why not?

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The original pair of Witch Mountain films fall into the latter category. They were slow-moving, not very interesting, and couldn’t even be saved by Bette Davis, one of if not the greatest actress who ever lived.

There are many, many things that work well in Race, and those that don’t are minor and don’t detract from the overall experience.

The Pros:

Pace – The move really gets humming, and I was clutching the edge of my seat at times. At the beginning the kids are involved in a chase and you think it’s going to be a two-hour trek to Witch Mountain.

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Editing – Amidst all the action the cuts are fast and well-timed; however, I was never left befuddled by what I was looking at in the frame, like in Quantum of Solace.

Dwayne Johnson – Yes, that’s right I said it The Rock. Not only has he steadily improved, and look every bit the part of ‘action hero’, he is also great with a one-liner – which is crucial for any action star. The Rock actually even emoted, some, in the dramatic farewell. Does this day something bad about actors or film? Not necessarily, considering he was always a performer he just needed to learn to transition. Of course, that doesn’t mean every wrestler, singer, rapper and reality star should do it. There needs to be some ability, talent, constant improvement and the intangible like-ability. I’d take Dwayne Johnson over Vin Diesel in a part any day.

The Young Stars – If you haven’t noticed Dakota Fanning isn’t Dakota Fanning anymore. That slot now goes to AnnaSophia Robb. You’ve probably seen her, and just haven’t put a name to her face. She was in Bridge to Terabithia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and other films, and she is excellent. It’s not easy playing a well-spoken, smart, deadpan alien and she did wonderfully, as did Alexander Ludwig, who already proved he could carry a would-be franchise in The Seeker, a film whose box-office failed its concept.

Race to Witch Mountain

Last but certainly not least is Carla Gugino – It was good seeing her on screen again. I’ve always felt she was slightly underestimated in the ‘Spy Kids’ films.

The Cons:

The FBI agent – Played by Ciarán Hinds, the agent seemed like a poor-man’s attempt at Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Garry Marshall – As the nutty alien scientist who helps them find the mountain Marshall seemed out of place. It was a comedic role, and it feels odd that it was.

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The Syphon – The assassin sent after the kids from their home planet to thwart their mission is ultimately more of a con than a plus. It does look creepy with its helmet off, but you end up forgetting about it until it shows up to throw a monkey-wrench into the equation.

Overall: cool locations, pretty good effects and a steady level of tension through make Race to Witch Mountain worth seeing, it’s not your parents Witch Mountain or your childhood’s for that matter- and in this case that’s a good thing.

 8/10

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Mini-Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up 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. Enjoy!

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks does have its surprises in it, especially if you look closely enough. First of all, without getting too spoiler-y I do not think it paints an overly generous picture of Walt Disney. Sure, it’s a Disney film about the man himself, in part, and one of the studio’s classic films, so it may not be the most impartial but there are certain plot points that come up that you would’ve expected would be sanitized that aren’t quite as much as expected.

Perhaps the film’s most surprising aspect is really its bifurcated structure splitting its time between the story meetings between P.L. Travers and the Disney staff and reminiscences of her childhood.

The film tells the Travers’ story, and it’s one that’s a harrowing, tragic one that is rather un-Disney-like. In light of that, and Disney’s persistence and insistence, it’s not a wonder she’s a stickler even with a personal connection notwithstanding. The film avoids Disney understanding her in the end, and in some ways I think too avoids portraying Travers as being at peace with her decision, but rather willing to move on.

8/10

March to Disney: Old Dogs

On occasion there will be a film that gets steamrolled by the critical mass and it really shouldn’t be. On a rare occasion it will be a film that is actually quite good, more often than not it will just be a decent film that’s just very harshly thrashed about and doesn’t really deserve it. Old Dogs falls into the latter category.

Don’t misunderstand me – the film isn’t great. It’s passable and ultimately disposable entertainment but for what it was, a simple family comedy, it’s fine. Most important, considering that it’s a comedy, I laughed quite a bit. The critical reaction I am sure are coming in response to things within the tale that are cliché like getting caught in the animal enclosure, the overly-aggressive game of ultimate Frisbee, being strapped to a jet pack, playing tea, the unwilling babysitter and other conventions. However, they are put together interestingly and cut together quickly and the execution of all these things you’ve seen is above average and typically humorous.

The one part of the film that was wholly unsatisfying was when Dan (Robin Williams) was being taught how to play by a friend of Charlie’s (John Travolta). The friend is played by the late Bernie Mac which makes you wonder how long this film has been in the can. This is the most difficult and preposterous part where Williams is turned into a “human puppet” so he can play with his daughter, thankfully the mechanism breaks and Williams is allowed to take the scene over as his normal charming self.

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One also need not be concerned with pacing in this film as the bulk of the story is almost immediately taken on. You witness the usual formula for Dan and Charlie at a pitch, this usually involves Charlie telling one embarrassing story about Dan and softening up the client. What is unexpected is that this story which is cut to with frenetic pace actually factors into the plot so almost immediately there is pertinent information conveyed.

This being a Disney film there is the compulsory family content aside from the silliness. In this case it was Dan trying to connect and reconnect with his kids. It was surprisingly rather effective and really what held the story together. There’s certainly nothing new under the sun in this film but it a film that achieves its modest goals and one can’t fault it for that. There is also commitment from all involved to their roles especially in the smaller roles played by Seth Green and Justin Long.

The film actually manages a few sight gags, which is rare, after Dan and Charlie take the wrong medications and while some of the CG went a bit far the mesmerized images were rather humorous as was the scenario.
Should family fare over the next few weeks prove insufficient you should give this a chance. It’s a funny little movie with something for everyone.

6/10

March to Disney: The Education of Where the Red Fern Grows

Though branded as a March to Disney post the only discussion of Disney will be at the open, as this film was independently produced and sold to Disney. I got this film as a redemption on Disney Movie Rewards, which is where you can redeem codes and movie ticket points for swag – I usually go for DVDs. It’s a good deal.

As for Where the Red Fern Grows I had not seen this version, but I was aware that it was one of Joseph Ashton’s few follow-ups to The Education of Little Tree – there rare onscreen one as he usually got voice work.

The Education of Little Tree and Ashton’s performance was well-received. Ebert singled him out: “And Joseph Ashton, as Little Tree, is another of those young actors who is fresh and natural on camera; I believed in his character.”

He was also nominated for a Young Artist Award and in my own BAM Awards.

I also have yet to see the original Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) so I was a virtual blank slate going in (which is always a good thing). Essentially, it ends up being a Disney dog-film, one of many. As the film started I wondered if Ashton’s ethnicity would be referenced in the story or if he was just cast for the role in an open casting.

When it comes to casting I have written on it a few times in the past. One casting precept I am fine with is just casting someone “just because.” What I mean by that is exemplified by Love Actually: one of the many characters in the film is Karl, played by Brazilian actor, Rodrigo Santoro. Karl is the unrequited, secretly admired love interest of Sarah (Laura Linney). What I liked about that piece of casting is that it’s a Brazilian actor just cast as the “hot guy,” the crush with no indication from the script or film that he had to be the “hot foreign guy.” It’s incidental and that’s refreshing from time to time.

The reason this is, is that true inclusion and universality means casting actors from all over, as rounded characters and in mixed films. Having all films be a melting pot is utopian, and I get arguments against films for targeted audience, but for the time being they are sadly a necessity. Roles in general for African Americans, Asians, Latinos, women, Native Americans, little people and other groups are limited. Roles for the aforementioned groups in a dimensional piece they play a part of are more limited still. Roles for these groups are usually reserved, in the US, for race-specific films like civil rights tales.

Therefore, when I was under the impression that Ashton was just in the film I was intrigued. However, that only lasted so long as a fractional Cherokee heritage of his mother was referenced. So it does not meet the Love Actually standard, but one thing it did is fully embrace Billy’s heritage. Another thing it does is cast an actor of Native American lineage in a film not ostensibly about his lineage as The Education of Little Tree was.

While I have not read the book there is some American Indians in Children’s Literature did some great research on a post about Native depictions in the School Library Journal’s Top 100 Children’s novels:

On page 10, “The land we lived on was Cherokee land, allotted to my mother because of the Cherokee blood that flowed in her veins.”
Page 43, “I reached way back in Arkansas somewhere. By the time my fist had traveled all the way down to the Cherokee Strip, there was a lot of power behind it.
On page 143, where Rubin says “A long time ago some Indians lived here and farmed these fields.”
On page 254, Billy recalls that he “had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.”

With those being the sole references to the Cherokee people in the book clearly the boy-and-his-dog(s) aspect has more impact since his goal is to save up to be able to buy them, he has to figure out how to get them train them, and they build his self-esteem.

So this does not quite reach the threshold that a few Māori actors (Temuera Morrison in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Keisha Castle-Hughes in Nativity Story) achieved, but it still is significant. Casting is still a battle. When superheroes ethnicity is changed to anything non-white racist trolls come out of the racist woodwork; whether it is in the best interest of the project or not sometimes actors will be cast to learn a dialect as opposed to being portrayed by a native; even little people have to deal with being digitally multiplied, and now with being replaced by shrunken normal-sized actor; therefore, whenever there’s a Tyrion Lannister, Ellis Redding or Valentin Arregui part it’s notable even more so when it’s a project with many things to say and not just one.

In a utopian world Ashton may have been cast when an actor of Cherokee descent was not a prerequisite, but at least that was a Cherokee cast as a Cherokee.

March to Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

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 featured during 31 Days of Oscar and I have decided to include it here for March to Disney. Enjoy! The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Due in part to the fact that I just didn’t know very much about this title, I expected less from this Disney selection than the above, but in the end I liked it a lot more. It does things a little differently in the end, and with regards to anthropomorphism, but it goes back to the theme of ostracism and has a solitary character effectively drawn, literally and figuratively, that really make this film work. It also by its nature takes on aspects of religion and racism with a lot more finesse than you’d ever expect out of a Disney film, which makes it highly underrated in my mind. Score: 9/10 Oscar Nominations/Wins: 1/0

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.

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!