March to Disney: Zokkomon and Disney World Cinema

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

Disney has two fairly recently initiated and under-exploited and under-publicized home video lines. I may write about them both here today, but the focus of this piece is Disney World Cinema rather than Disney Generations Collection.

Disney World Cinema, as the title implies, makes available in the US Disney-Produced titles from overseas. The selections so far a mainly original content, and not as diverse as they could be.

For example, I was once linked to a clip of a visually stunning film produced by Russia’s Disney Channel, but understanding 0.001% of the Russian language I couldn’t watch all of it. The point being there is plenty of content out there this line could make available. Out of the initial wave of releases I selected one and finally gave it a whirl for this theme.

One of the examples in this line is a High School Musical set in China. Now Foreign versions of movies or TV shows, that are remakes as opposed to subtitled or dubbed are not new. In fact, in the early days of sound, scripts used to be translated and re-shot on the cheap after an A-List feature was done. Paramount was a prime example using everything identical to the American version for Spanish features.

The film I saw comes from India and is entitled Zokkomon. Now, while simplified, there is a more indigenous approach to the film in terms of the fairly apparent themes it tackles with minimal didacticism. The feel of the film is a hybrid between a DCOM and a big budget Bollywood musical, which also includes elements of tentpole action films towards the end. Yes, there are story-commenting, fairly random musical numbers that border on non-diegitic inasmuch as a narrator/singer is introduced, but it still remains a fairly hybrid product.

While even at a relatively short 105 minutes there are a few flashback montages too many and a spare song or two, but it’s not so bloated that it weighs down the entire project. There are some universally recognizable, and identifiable fairy tale tropes updated to make this perhaps one of the more obvious titles to try this series out on. The principal cast is fairly good as a whole, namely Majari Phandis, Tinnu Anand with the standout being the young lead Darsheel Safary.

Disney has their Channel and distribution arms the world over, there are likely more markets where titles can be found for this line. Perhaps merging this concept with the also under-ultilized and under-publicized Disney Generations Collection, a disc-on-demand concept similar to Warner Archive in conception, if not in practice, is the way to go for these films, such that there’s less monetary commitment to pressing copies, thus making a larger library available. In a similar vein, a DisneyNature feature, Wings of Life, that was originally only released in France will soon hit US home video for the first time. This will be its only release here, in lieu of a theatrical run, but in time for Earth Day.

Zokkomon served as a good introduction, that had I seen it as soon as it was available may have been in the running for some BAM Awards, I may look into the other selections and you should check them out and see if any titles appeal to you.

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Review- Being Flynn

Robert De Niro and Paul Dano in Being Flynn (Focus Features)

If one watches the trailer then a lot of Being Flynn is revealed. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in this era of film, but it was enough to convince me to watch this film, and it also illustrates the major hurdle the film has. The film deals with what occurs when Nick (Paul Dano), a youth seeking direction in his life, starts to work in a homeless shelter and sees his estranged father (Robert De Niro) there.

It’s a plot in the trailer that makes it seem like a very unlikely chance encounter. In actuality, the leap of faith needed to believe this scenario is not nearly as large. There are furtive awkward reunion attempts prior to fate intervening as it does. This is a very good thing indeed and it allows all the baggage the two characters have to be dealt with when tension is at a boiling point.

The film does use a good deal of voice over narration and what’s more it has two narrators, father and son. Voice over is always a treacherous balancing act but this film does rather well with it and gives additional insight into these two not completely dissimilar characters. Voice over can be looked at as a story-telling bridge, bridging the gap that a visual cannot for editorial or aesthetic reasons. The key is to build footbridges not suspension bridges, to build them intermittently and this film does that.

That does not mean this film is devoid of visual signature and style quite the opposite there is quite a bit of visual interest, which is mainly added through the edit. The film has quite a few flashback sequences that mainly serve to illustrate Nick’s upbringing and the impact his father’s absence had. The film enters these passages creatively and more often than expected but always with great results and it really resonates.

These flashes aside from giving us very good fragmentary performances from Julianne Moore, shades of her turn in The Hours, and Liam Broggy as Young Nick, also help establish the tonality of the film. The sequences aren’t juxtaposed as much as they are forerunners to the twists and turns of fate in the present day. There’s a bittersweet quality as it shows what was, with hints of what could’ve been and eventually there are echoes of the past in the present that seem equally unavoidable.

Yet as dour as the film is at times there is a certain balance of emotions at play. There is some humor to it when appropriate and certainly tenable drama not just voyeurism, you feel this movie not only watch it.

This is the kind of film that for all its other merits hinges on its performers and with these two the film excels. This is the kind of challenging emotional and engaging work that Paul Dano does frequently and that Robert De Niro doesn’t do nearly enough of anymore. They work brilliantly together and regardless of the frequency with which either does this kind of film it’s great that they do it here.

Since the Weitz brothers have stopped working exclusively in tandem they’ve done some rather interesting work, and this film is no exception. While this film takes its unexpected turns and ends well but a bit loosely but is very good and worth seeking out.

9/10

Review- Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Carla Gugino, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll and Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins (20th Century Fox)

You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.

There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.

This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.

This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.

Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.

The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.

While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.

The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).

7/10

Review- The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In a recent review, I forget which, I was tempted to discuss the importance a title can play in a film but I didn’t because I thought in that case it’d be a bit too trite. Specifically mentioning how a title can pull everything together and put it all in focus when things seem a bit disparate. This is quite true of The Tree of Life. Before having seen this film I actually hadn’t heard (or recorded to memory) that this was a notion in many philosophies and religions and about the interconnection of all living things. However, even if you walk in without that knowledge, as I did, the film makes that very clear in its shots and edits.

Which leads to the editing of this film, I believe that aesthetically and technologically we’re approaching an edited film that can more accurately reflect the inner-workings of the mind than ever before. In some cases better than novels if you think about it because novels capture inner-monologue and describe in an abundance of words what a quick series of images can convey. This is brought up because this film is essentially a mindplay and it’s the closest to seeing thoughts projected on a screen as I’ve seen. You really go on a journey through these disjointed images and while it does take a while to get into it there will come a point when it clicks.

You can truly experience this film and more so in the front row. Yes, it’s where I normally sit and many have an aversion to it but this is where the images are bigger and the film really does feel like it’s thoughts happening in front of your eyes at times.

The reason it takes a little time to get into is that in the beginning of the film no scene starts in a conventional way and dialogue is chasing imagery left, right and center. This is the scatter-brained portion of the film once the protagonist starts to ruminate on the film’s central question: “What’s my place in this world?” it gets less scattered.

There are two extended sequences that break out of the box and go through time and space from The Big Bang to evolution to vistas of the world as it is today, along with a frame of the very Beginning I believe. These sequences are what draw this film comparisons to 2001, which aren’t unwarranted but aside from these episodes it’s a much more grounded, soul-searching and personal tale than Kubrick weaved.

After the first such episode the flashbacks get less choppy and more contiguous and aside from the editing style the narrative gets rather straight forward and very interesting. As is true with memory this film calls up things that are highlights but not all of them and leaves room to speculate and reflect on what we didn’t focus on the first time, which makes this film a prime candidate to be re-viewed.

It’s this personal approach throughout that connects you to the film. Even with the unusual structure and editing and amazingly ambitious scope it’s still about one man, and thus all men and we learn about him and his upbringing and see what torments him and what he’s seeking to reconcile.

There has been an awful lot written about the fact that this film uses religion as a story element like that’s akin to having plot holes or no conflict, in other words, it was reported as a negative coming out of Cannes. Don’t worry I’m not about to soapbox my religious views on anyone; people doing that is one of my pet peeves. What I am going to say that it’s a bit ridiculous that it’s practically verboten for a character in a piece of fiction to have religious views according to some. This is a story about a man who is having an existential crisis and is trying to figure out what his role is and his mind wanders from the dawn of creation to everywhere in between. It’s perfectly natural for him or his mother to be asking God “Why this or that?” Furthermore, if you still need a little more justification I’ve got it: not only is our protagonist a child of the 50s but this is a person who has found no answers yet, no peace at some point, no matter how devout he is or isn’t he might’ve turned to faith.

The bottom line is artists do put their views and ideas into their films but they’re not always literal. So just because a film mentions God or invokes religion in anyway does not make it preachy. This is ultimately a film about coming to terms with your past and those you’ve lost. I’d almost go so far as to say this movie is as much about preaching Christianity as The Exorcist is. So enough.

As is to be expected the cinematography in this film is absolutely breathtaking. So many of the shots look like paintings almost and all are beautifully composed. This is a must-see for students of the craft.

The acting in this film is also very strong. As an audience member it takes a while for you to feel it but as more pieces of the narrative fall into place you really start to see how wonderfully everyone did. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s characters are as different as night and day but they play them equally well. Hopefully, Fox/Fox Searchlight push for Brad Pitt come awards season. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest names and he’s proven he’ll take a risk and go out on a limb and this might get him his statue. Equally compelling but more surprising are the performances of the three newcomers as the kids particularly Hunter McCracken who plays our protagonist Jack as a boy. His burn is the slowest and most explosive in the bunch and his performance rivals that of Pitt.

It’s hard to sum up or rate a film like this. One thing I will say for sure is that while I despise the notion of “important” films in theory but I cannot deny them when I see them regardless of proclivities. Having gotten that out of the way I do like this film and I do consider it important. Would the flow of it work better for me if I saw it again? Perhaps. Would the story hit home harder with all the puzzles solved? Maybe. It’s hard to gauge a film when you’re in awe of so many achievements on a technical and structural level but in a narrative are left to ponder where it falls on the scale. So I will caveat this, pending re-view I rate this film:

9/10

However, please note that even without being re-seen time is the ultimate judge and I have had films rated 9 slide up before.