March to Disney: From Snow White to Cinderella

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.

It’s interesting to note that Cinderella was released in 1950. If you count the hybrid films (Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart) and the package films (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros) it was the 12th animated feature that Disney had released. In a way it was like the circle closing after having started with a princess tale and embedded Silly Symphonies, Disney’s name for their early musically-inclined shorts.

In both the case of Cinderella and Snow White the anthropomorphism of the animals manifests itself by their interaction and communication, non-verbal in the former and verbal in the latter, that the protagonist shares with them. What Snow White possesses is much of what would become staples of Disney fare such as the great heightened moments. The innovation of technique in Snow White to an extent masquerades the embedding of familiar, albeit more defenestrated, tropes of earlier shorts. If you compare the narrative movement of Snow White to the films that follow, the progenitor of the Disney films ends up feeling like a cozy, quaint dream that, aside from the inherent value of the story and its bolder moments, isn’t tremendously riveting on a purely narrative level.

Cinderella is not entirely dissimilar with its asides to the mouse subplots, but is differentiated by having more parallel action. The ball is introduced early on and the Stepmother is a terrifying, yet very real, and down-to-earth villainess. The witch’s transformation and magic mirror are bold, tremendous images that stand out more than does anything in Cinderella. Cinderella’s coach, and, of course, the iconic castle are the standout visuals there.

This isn’t really to knock either of the two films. Of course, I still enjoy them both. Between the films I think Cinderella may work better and definitely has a slightly more forward pre-feminist-movement Disney princess.

The experiments that Disney went on after Snow White and before Cinderella, were highly interesting and for the most part wildly successful. In 1940 there was both Pinocchio and Fantasia. In narrative terms on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both really push the frontiers of what they could do with visuals.

While the Silly Symphony aspect of these films stands out, the musicality of Dumbo is well-embeded. Not only that but in terms of narrative it can’t move fast enough, the tempo of the music pushes the pace of the edits and allows the story to flow perfectly. There are many beats, and much emotion wrenched out of just barely an hour in Dumbo, which makes it even more staggering.

Bambi created a world devoid of humans, allowed real fears and traumas to sneak in still managed to tell a charming uplifting story with very little dialogue and not a lot of fat either.

The last untouched upon films pre-1950 that are all-animated would be the aforementioned package films, which are a pastiche of shorts so it by definition they have a more storybook, anthology feel to them. The sensibility is overgrown, related shorts.

So between 1937 and 1950 Disney about ran the gamut of what could be done at the time, and with Cinderella seemed to be consciously setting down a milestone with a similar tale. As if to say, “Thirteen years ago we were there, now we’re here and moving upward and onward.”

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Review- Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman is such an odd case. Based on the way it handles the oft told legend it has a lot of promise, however, this film has a weird handling of its two titular characters inasmuch as it seems to run from them both. At the start, yes, it is the hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) who is doing the voice over for the necessary backstory segment that kicks the narrative off, but there are a few unfortunate things about it: first, this is one of the higher points of the film and it’s a brisk, but not rushed beginning portion. Second, after this part the Huntsman is lost for a while until the queen commissions him to retrieve an escaped Snow White. Which brings us to the young princess, her dialogue is sparse throughout, her involvement until her escape is minimal and she drifts into the background more than any would-be protagonist in recent memory.

Is it just sloppy plotting and writing or is the fact that the film wanted Kristen Stewart involved for box office appeal, but didn’t want to hitch their wagon to her alone? She has a moment here and a moment there, but the big military speech falls short of what it should be and her physicality issues persist. No actress on the face of the earth has a mouth so persistently agape for no discernible reason as she does and few emote so little facially, at least in the roles I’ve seen. I’m not going to avoid seeing something merely due to her presence, but I have yet to see this other side of her that her staunch supporters keep citing.

However, as I said, the film is rarely about either of its two named characters, at times this is a good thing and at other moments it’s a failing. Charlize Theron is broad in her role as the evil queen as if she just fell out of an old Hollywood melodrama. I think that’s something most of us can agree on. I, for one, absolutely love her performance and find nary a misstep in it. At the very least someone, is bringing energy and commitment to this film, and more often than not I found her scenes rather chilling.

Much of the conversation has been about the performances thus far because there is little else holding this precarious piece of work up. The pace of the film is decent up until about the midpoint when the dwarfs are introduced and then the film gets a bit unfocused, lost and extraneous. The narrative does pick up again eventually but never recovers from this unfortunate area. This section also introduces the odd production choice of having average size actors be the faces of the dwarfs. I’m really not sure why it’s deemed necessary, and it is a distraction.

The cinematography, scoring and production design of the film were all really quality components that could’ve truly elevated this film to its potential had the narrative it was supporting been up to snuff. The beginning of the tale works best because it’s in storybook mode and frames the queen as much more of a power-hungry madwoman than say, Disney did. The stepmother queen in either tale is motivated, it’s just that this film explains the motivation a bit more. Where it develops her plot and psychology it works, but little else is substantial here at all, which is not the case of the animated version, or even some others for that matter. Where it sets up Snow White’s initial struggle it works, but it loses her along the way, as it not only fills in blanks but colors outside the lines, so to speak, and adds running time and trivially valuable sub-plotting with the love triangle that evolves. The richness it builds is soon watered down by excess.

Snow White and the Huntsman
starts with a few clear objectives but then becomes occluded and can no longer see the forest for the trees and like many travelers in this imaginary world gets lost in a dark forest, and all hopes of its being a quality piece of work perish.

5/10

Rewind Review- Iron Man 2 (2010)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Iron Man 2 is the kind of sequel that has a lot to live up to. It comes on the heels of the wildly successful, aesthetically and financially, film from last year. When seeing this film two things make you wonder: first, did it come too fast, and second, is Shakespeare wrong and is there really something in a name as merely calling the film ‘2’ seems uninspired. What you get in this film is not a bad product but an indifferent one, a film most deserving of the moniker of ‘meh.’

What this film does afford its leading players is a chance to strut their stuff, in spite of the built-in limitations of their characters. For example, Tony Stark, as portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr., didn’t get much deeper or more fully realized in this film but what the material did allow was for Downey to flaunt his considerable talents, both dramatic and comedic. Similarly, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer is hysterical and has his high point when be-bopping onto the stage at Stark Expo. He is quite good but he also is only ever established in this film as someone out to get Stark for business reasons. You get the impression there is more behind it but it’s never explored. Last but not least there’s Mickey Rourke who plays Ivan Vanko, again who does huge amounts with such limiting material. There is so much more to Ivan Vanko than the film lets on. However, all the film seeks is to establish what the motive is and not have us fully understand and feel said motive.

Much the same can be said of the all-star supporting cast which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johanssen and Samuel L. Jackson. Each does what they can with minimally arcing storylines, none of which ever gets pronounced or explored enough to truly add significant depth to this film. The love interests are buried until the end, the running of Stark remains a buried but seemingly necessarily evil subplot. Even the political interventions and the possible proliferation of the Iron Man suit never seems like the stakes are high enough and doesn’t add to the tension like it should partially due to timing in the tale and partially due to execution.

Again not to say the film is uninteresting, poorly executed or not entertaining. It is well-done and interesting but not nearly as engaging and entertaining as it could be partially because the stakes seem lowered in this one and almost all subplots seem subjugated and nearly unnecessary encumbrances rather than necessary depth.

In the end, you walk out of this film just feeling like you watched another tale where a few key pieces were moved into place for the next film but you didn’t feel you learned too much about any of these people whom seemed much more alive the last time around.

Similarly, in a film where the stakes of all the ulterior storylines is lowered then it should come as no surprise that the climactic battle is somewhat anticlimactic. It is well-shot, edited and conceived but it’s just not terribly compelling and it could’ve been ratcheted up. The extra suits could’ve been disposed of quicker and it could’ve benefited from a villain monologue in that situation.

The CG in the film doesn’t particularly stand out in one way of another which is almost as high a compliment as you can pay a film in this day and age. So it definitely does not detract from the experience.

With all that said it does bear repeating that this is a good film. Based on its disparate elements it was, of course, not nearly as good as it could have been or as its predecessor. That being said it was well worth the watch and good escapist entertainment.

6/10

The Perfect Subplot in The Sitter

Attention Dear Reader,

Prior to reading any further I feel it only fair to warn you that a narrative thread in the film The Sitter will be discussed in detail herein and not a portion of it will be left unspoiled. If you have yet to see this film please do so. If you have seen it let us begin…

Landry Bender, Jonah Hill, Max Records and Kevin Hernandez in The Sitter (20th Century Fox)

In the critical lambasting this film has received, that I noticed both via its Rotten Tomatoes score and the encapsulated consensus that the site offers, what is missing is an insight. Granted a majority of the issues that critics have with the film are questions of taste. This is true of many comedies. Perhaps nothing is more subjective. However, I will not seek in this space to convince you that the film is funny, though I did find it to be very funny. Some also call out the film for not being very original. I cannot claim that this film re-invents the wheel.

What this film does brilliantly, which I will argue with any and all comers, is fold in a completely unexpected subplot based on the fact that it’s a comedy and the type of comedy it is. The term fold in is picked specifically to borrow the cooking term. In that vernacular it has a much more homogenizing context, somehow, in film it seems like it applies to putting something other where it does not belong.

In The Sitter Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) is your typical slacker and atypical babysitter making it kind of a typical setup. A ne’er-do-well who in many ways has arrested development will see the truth of these children’s lives and connect with them in ways their parents cannot. Furthermore, these insights he has into their personalities and lives will better him.

The surprise comes in Slater’s subplot, it’s by far the most well-executed and most subtle of them all from start to finish. Slater, played with stunning adroitness by Max Records (whom you may know from his pitch-perfect performance as Max in Where the Wild Things Are) and countered beautifully by Jonah Hill’s usual potty-mouth with a heart of gold, not to sound snide but that’s how many of his characters can be pigeon-holed.

How does this all unfold?

We meet Slater as Noah does. He is arriving at the kids’ house and sees him in the living room lounging watching TV. The programming is a shirtless male gymnast set against a woodlands background. The thought that Slater is gay occurred vaguely to me but I dismissed it simply because the image on screen was so odd and because “that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in films of this kind.”

The second step in the progression of this subplot is the introduction, at the time as a literary ghost, of Slater’s best friend Clayton. He is merely identified as his best friend and someone who Slater is texting incessantly. Again no bells really sound at this revelation because two assumptions are made by me and likely the average audience member: One, kids text a lot and two, he’s getting responses.

The third step is where suspicions start being aroused. Slater isn’t getting responses and he’s distressed by that. However, the filmmakers deflect this for many by having it play into Slater’s myriad partially self-diagnosed manias. So we move on…

The fourth step is where it likely clicks for most audience members. In their wild night about New York Slater runs into Clayton (Alex Wolff) at a Bat Mitzvah. Slater catches him in a lie and with another friend. This creates the need for Clayton, prodded by his friend, to blow Slater off to his face and tell him he’s acting “weird.” Slater, of course, is devastated. Here is where I jumped the gun and finished the equation.

However, many times in a film you’ll know a certain event is going to happen and it’s how it unfolds that really matters. That is evidenced by this film.

What occurs in the 5th and penultimate step (The Sixth being Slater being at peace in the denouement) is just flat out brilliant. In a confrontation with his adopted brother, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), Slater’s meds are thrown out the car window. He freaks out and makes Noah stop the car. He looks for them and shouts that he needs them because he has problems. As is the case with all the “Remedy Scenes” Noah doesn’t act out of character at all but wisely. It’s truly a tribute to Jonah Hill and his abilities that he can play a scene wherein his dialogue is flat-out blunt, button-pushing and confrontational but yet delivered sensitively and is precisely what is needed to get a desired reaction from his scene partner/opposite character.

Slater is told to his face he’s gay and in a film of this nature the magnitude of those two events alone is incredible. Firstly, the fact that another character recognizes it and points it out to him allows for the allusions to the It’s-not-a-choice aspect to be made naturally. Also, it allows the character in question to deny it before confirming it. The singular most moving moment in a film where anyone in their right mind would expect their to be none is when Slater, protesting too much, shrieks “I don’t wanna be a faggot!”

It’s also precisely this kind of scene that proves the point that I’d rather have society police language rather than the movies. The F-word in real life has become intolerable in the 21st century. That does not, however, mean that it’s been eradicated, which is precisely what makes it such a powerful choice here.

Not only that but you have in one short coming out scene, in a movie you’d never expect to see one in, the vocalization of so many truths about homosexuality and being closeted that it’s staggering.

Namely: No one wants to be gay, no one chooses to be gay, when one is closeted you almost want to be called out to relieve yourself of the burden, you and others around you think there’s something wrong with you, it’ll make your life more difficult, you’ll go through very hard times but it gets better and people get over it, coming out to your parents is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do and so on.

I belabor the point about the kind of film it is because these kind of talking points are typically that they’re reserved for so-called Gay Cinema. The only problem with Gay Cinema is specifically that, it’s too much of a niche. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir. Even a mainstream hit like Brokeback Mountain can’t carry this message as well because first it’s about homosexuality and moreover it’s about repression thereof and the gay characters don’t receive the liberation that Slater does in this film. So many of his fears are allayed that you do hope somewhere a conversation like this is really happening between a parent or guardian and a child.

The sensitivity with which David Gordon Green, Jonah Hill and Max Records convey this scene is to be applauded long and loud. Typically, films branded as important are so because of their overall theme or their impact on cinema as a whole. While I enjoy it, this film may end up on neither end of the spectrum in time but what ought not be overlooked in an age when many with a social conscious are flat out saying that “It’s OK to be gay” and “It gets better” and other well-meaning statements that can be construed as platitudes by some, it is vitally important that the youth of this country are shown clearly and irrevocably that these things are true.

Fiction does not diminish a truth but rather can echo and amplify it more so than anything else. The true importance of The Sitter then cannot be measured in either category listed above but the reason it has importance is that it perfectly, in a social and aesthetic sense, includes a message in a film made for mainstream consumption and for they all need to be congratulated.

Review- Our Idiot Brother

Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother (The Weinstein Company)

Our Idiot Brother through its marketing gives you the impression that it’s just going to be a laugh-a-minute-comedy about a slacker brother and his more well-off family’s interactions, while it is funny there is more than meets the eye with this film. That can go both ways but it truly ends up being a good thing in this case.

First and foremost this is a showcase for the comedic talents of Paul Rudd, who rarely finds a vehicle like this where he can really showcase what he can do. From beginning to end in this film Rudd is in top form and there are exchanges whether it’s scripted or he went off-book that only he could make that funny. One of his confrontations with his ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) comes to mind.

Not to say this is a one man show, quite on the contrary. The aforementioned Kathryn Hahn is hilarious in this film as is her new beau, the good-natured Billy (T.J. Miller). In the family there are strong performances that show a good deal of range from Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Rashida Jones and Steve Coogan. While playing a relatively simplistic character on the surface Rudd displays a different side of himself with each of the aforementioned characters as well as with Jeremy (Adam Scott), his sister Miranda’s (Banks) neighbor/potential love interest, they both share an affinity for Sci-Fi and with River (Matthew Mindler), his nephew, he can see what it is he really wants but never tells his parents.

This film toes the line of drama and comedy very well and in doing so manages not to be overly long. It keeps things funny but also keeps real world consequences involved but doesn’t let the bad things that can and will happen to people put a damper on things. The film like life goes on and it chooses to laugh at it.

Having said all that it is a very funny film indeed and you will likely walk away from it quoting one or two things there are some very good exchanges and some memorable, witty dialogue.

It also has one of Those Scenes. Meaning one of those great scenes by which you will remember the film and Paul Rudd’s performance. I refer to it as The Charades Scene and it is a perfect calling out of all the characters in the film without being too heavy-handed it shows just enough restraint and achieves brilliance due to the writing and performance of it. Naturally, it is also a crucial scene.

The film takes all of its narrative strands and subplots and deals with them rather neatly. Then at the end it meanders a bit and you don’t quite know why. When you find out it’s good for a laugh and a truly happy ending but you’re left wondering if that was truly needed.

Our Idiot Brother
is a good comedy with some very good dramatic moments thrown in. Though in the end the results a re bit mixed in some areas, not just the very end, it’s very much worth viewing.

7/10

Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10

Review- Due Date

Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in Due Date (Warner Bros.)

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should see Due Date it boils down to one key question: How big a fan of Zach Galifianakis are you? As a film it passes marginally. As a showcase for Galifianakis and all his quirks it soars. So that is really what’ll tip the scales for you one way or another.

The epitome of this is shown through the fact that his character who is an aspiring actor seeking to move out to LA. A doubtful Downey Jr. asks him to play out a scenario for him. On his second chance, after another false start, he really shines and it’s a great moment.

Before getting into some of the issues that do face this film it does need saying that this is indeed a very funny film. The three men who deliver the largest doses of that comedy are, of course, Galifianakis, Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Some of the situations are also rather humorous so that helps buoy the film along.

The major hurdle this film faces is the question of how forgiving are we as an audience and in turn should our protagonist be. Some of Ethan’s (Galiafianakis’s) mistakes are through sheer ignorance and naivete but towards the end you learn something that really changes things and you stop for a second and wonder how it would really pan out or how you’d prefer it to pan out, depending on your level of outrage.

Granted Galifianakis’s character does not have bad intentions he is just very socially maladjusted and awkward but still everyone has a breaking point and perhaps this had exceeded it. Only the logic that he does have to get there for the birth of his child and he’s already gotten so far really makes it feasible.

The baby brings to mind another quibble: the film plays up the “Is she cheating subplot?” a lot. Such that you think it’s a definite only to squash it. It only ends up being good for some humor but it went too far in terms of circumstantial evidence to be brushed aside so simply.

There are many good laughs to be had in this film it’s just the form it takes and some of the decisions that it makes along the way that are counterproductive to it reaching maximum effectiveness.

6/10

Due Date is out on DVD today.