May 30, 2009

Peter Pan (1953)

THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a review of Disney’s 1986 animated film The Great Mouse Detective – I had sold Dash on the idea of watching it because (I thought) Mickey Mouse was in it. A valid assumption, yes?

Well, after ordering the film from On Demand, and the intro credits showed which actors voiced what characters, Mickey’s name was nowhere in sight. Sorry, little man. On to plan B: our 2-disc Special Edition of Peter Pan, still in the shrinkwrap.

• In 1897 London, kid brothers Michael and John (Tommy Luske and Paul Collins) are “playing Peter Pan” based on the stories their older sister Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) has told them. Their dad (Hans Conreid) says it’s all nonsense and tells Wendy it’s time for her to grow up: Starting tomorrow, she’s sleeping in a room of her own.
• After the parents leave to see a play, Peter Pan (Bobby Driscoll) arrives to retrieve his shadow, which the family dog Nana had taken the last time he visited.
• When Wendy tells Peter about her dad’s plan, Peter (with help from Tinkerbell’s pixie dust) makes Wendy, Michael, and John fly with him to Neverland, where they’ll never get old or have to grow up.
• Meanwhile, in his boat just off the island of Neverland, Captain Hook (also Conreid) is plotting how to get rid of Peter Pan once and for all. His focus is broken occasionally by a crocodile who’s stalking him, waiting for another taste of Hook since Peter cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to the croc.
• Multiple plots evolve from here, including Tinkerbell’s banishment by Peter for trying to get rid of Wendy, Hook’s kidnapping of Indian princess Tiger Lily and framing Peter for the deed, and a double-cross by Hook as he dupes a scorned Tinkerbell into helping him locate Peter’s secret hideout with the intention of killing him.

Peter Pan is something that’s a bit of a rarity: a Disney classic whose story, characters, and pacing have actually held up over time. It’s adventurous fun that didn’t have me glancing at the clock before it ended.
It’s an odd feeling to revisit classic Disney films like Peter Pan. It really is magical and worthy of “classic” status, but it has so many elements that will make many parents today raise an eyebrow (see “Will your kids like it?” below), including the whole “redskins/Injuns” subtext – a blemish that can’t be erased or ignored.
• Strangely, the whole “never-grow-up” theme (what most people remember about Peter Pan) is barely mentioned beyond the beginning and end – and mostly by Wendy and her parents, not Peter.
The story of Peter Pan’s voice, kid actor Bobby Driscoll, is a sad one. Just 16 when Peter Pan was released, Driscoll followed it with TV work and an occasional movie until his arrest in 1961 for forgery and narcotics possession. He entered rehab, but the drugs ultimately took their toll; he died in 1968 at age 31 in an abandoned building in New York City’s East Village (his body was found by two playing kids). Believed to be a homeless person, he was buried in an unmarked mass grave at Potter’s Field in New York and remained unknown for a year until fingerprints revealed his identity.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
Most definitely. It’s the kind of movie that has an unmistaken magic woven in its fabric. That being said, there are several elements in the film that may have you quickly making up answers in your head if your kid asks about any of the following:

• Random pirate knife/gun action
• Calling the native Americans “redskins” or “Injuns
• A cigar-smoking Captain Hook, who shoots one of his own men off-screen (albeit comically)
• Peter Pan bragging about how he cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to the crocodile
• At the celebration between the Indians, Peter, the kids, and The Lost Boys, a peace pipe is passed around and the kids each take a puff; also, the chief leads the group in the song, “What Makes the Red Man Red?
• Hook makes Wendy walk the plank of his ship
• Female jealousy rears its head, mostly around Wendy; Tinkerbell tries to have her killed, and a group of mermaids splash and verbally abuse her

Am I overreacting? I don’t know. This stuff didn’t bother or influence me as a kid, and Dash didn’t ask me about any of it. I welcome any thoughts on the subject.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Yes. For once, Disney’s overused slogan to “relive the magic” actually applies here. As a mom, she may have issues with what I listed above, but as an adult she’ll have to admit it’s a fun fantasy film.

Oh, grow up.

Peter Pan
* Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
* Screenwriters: Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, William Cottrell
* Stars: Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conreid, Bill Thompson, Paul Collins, Tommy Luske, Candy Candido
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy this movie for less at >>

May 25, 2009

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2008)

FOR MOST OF MY ADULT LIFE, I’ve been fascinated by Genghis Khan. The amount of land and people he conquered is almost unfathomable. Seriously, he makes Alexander the Great look like a punk.

So my excitement was palpable when I started watching Mongol. I was about to see how one man ruled nearly the entire Asian content for more than two decades.

Or was I…?

• In late 12th-century Mongolia, young Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren), aka the future Genghis Khan, is choosing his bride at age nine with the guidance of his father and ruling khan, Esugei (Ba Sen).
• Later, Esugei is poisoned by an enemy tribe and dies, and his kingdom is ransacked by one of his lieutenants, Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) – who vows to return when Temudgin is older and kill him to prevent the boy from getting revenge as an adult.
• Fast forward a dozen years, and we follow the trials and tribulations of adult Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano) – watching him suffer through slavery, the quest to reunite with his child bride Borte (Khulan Chuluun), his strained relationship with childhood “brother” Jamukha (Honglei Sun), and his quest for revenge against Targutai.

• You may be surprised to know that Mongol is not about epic battles and Genghis Khan’s domination of Asia. It plays more as drama than war epic, with long bouts of exposition and an underlying love story. Yet don’t be mistaken, there are several battle sequences between warring tribes, and they’re masterfully shot in all their impaling, blood-splashing glory.
• Russian-born director Sergei Bodrov keeps Mongol moving at a methodical pace, using unexpectedly deep dialogue (with co-writer Arif Aliyev) as well as sweeping cinematography by Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers of sprawling deserts, snow-covered terrain, and thick, green mountains – plus an incredible scene near the film’s end of Temudgin riding on horseback during a thunderstorm.
Japanese film star Asano is a revelation as the adult Temudgin – bringing the commanding presence, piercing gaze, and steely reserve needed to take on such a larger-than-life historical figure.
Mongol was nominated for (and won) a slew of international awards, including a 2008 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

As for the abovementioned absence of large-scale battles and one man’s domination of a continent, be patient…Bodrov is developing The Great Khan for 2010, with Asano and Chuluun reprising their roles. I can hardly wait.

Mongolian, with subtitles.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I’m not sure if young kids will even have heard of Mongol, which is fine because it’s definitely not for young’uns: There is a lot of bloody warfare and one very audible sex scene shot in silhouette. That said, it’s nothing teens or even late tweens couldn’t handle.

Will your FilmMother like it?
On the surface, Mongol may not seem like a date movie for you and the missus. But with strong female characters and an against-the-odds love story, she may actually enjoy it if she can handle the intermittent bloodshed.

Do not scorn a weak cub. He may become the brutal tiger.
- Mongolian Proverb

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan
* Director: Sergei Bodrov
* Screenwriters: Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov
* Stars: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun, Amadu Mamadakov
* MPAA Rating: R (bloody warfare violence)

You and what army?
Oh...that one.

Buy this movie for less at >>

May 20, 2009

Garfield’s FunFest (2008)

AS CHILDREN OFTEN DO, Dash is currently on a “kick” where he latches on to one book, movie, song, TV show, or toy and wants to play with / listen to / watch / read it repeatedly.

His current kick? Garfield. It started with a Christmas tree ornament we have of the fat feline, and from there it grew to books, to DVDs of the ‘90s TV show, to full-length features…which brings us to Garfield’s FunFest.

• In the surreal comic-strip town where Garfield, owner Jon, and frenemy dog Odie live, it’s time for the 30th annual FunFest – a talent show where the winner gets the top spot on the Comics page (just play along).
• Garfield and his girlfriend Arlene always win FunFest with their standup routine, and Garfield sees this year as no exception. But Arlene’s tired of doing standup and wants to try something different with Garfield for their talent: dancing the tango! Garfield vehemently refuses and storms off.
• Enter Ramon, a dashing latino feline who has no qualms about doing the tango with Arlene…and making time with her in the process.
• Dejected, Garfield goes to The Mythical Forest to find the answer behind being funny (he read in a book that you can “drink the funny water”) – and along the way, he just might learn a bit about himself.

• Directors Mark A.Z. Dippé and Eondeok Han (working from a script by Garfield creator Jim Davis) keep things moving just fast enough to be interesting, without resorting to ADD-type, attention-grabbing action. Yet ironically, the time Garfield spends in the Mythical Forest is where the film loses some momentum.
The film’s jokes are much like the original comic strip and TV show – very zinger-esque but not quite knee-slappers (though there is a funny reference to those annoying Garfield suction-cupped car window displays from yesteryear).
• The CGI animation (farewell, 2-D Garfield) is well done for a straight-to-DVD film – very fluid movement and good use of shadows.
• Animation voiceover veteran Frank Welker (Scooby Doo’s Fred) portrays Garfield with an even more sedated delivery than that of original Garfield voice Lorenzo Music.
• It was surely no casting accident that comedy legend Tim Conway is the voice of an elder frog who teaches Garfield what it means to be funny (embrace your humility, it’s all about your audience, etc.).
• The fact that this 2008 film is about the 30th annual FunFest may not be an accident either, but perhaps an in-joke by Davis: His first Garfield strip premiered in 1978.

Garfield’s FunFest is sufficiently entertaining, if a bit nonsensical. Put it in the “solid rental” category the next time you’re thinking of something to watch with your kids.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
He was attentive throughout and chuckled often. He also let me know Ramon’s role in the film every time the lothario was on screen: “I think he’s the bad guy.” “He’s bad.” “He’s doing bad things.” Just in case I wasn’t sure, I guess.

Will your kids like it?
They probably will, though be forewarned there’s a scene where Garfield, telling another cat why the cat won’t win FunFest, says it's “because you suck.” I’m no prude, but it’s sad and disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something softer for this kids’ movie (“you stink” immediately comes to mind). There’s also the occasional insult of “fatso” thrown at Garfield. Dash didn’t latch on to any of this, and your kids might not either, but FYI…

Will your FilmMother like it?
I think she’d find it a fun (though ultimately forgettable) film to watch with the kids.

Official trailer:

Garfield’s FunFest
* Directors: Mark A.Z. Dippé, Eondeok Han
* Screenwriter: Jim Davis
* Stars: Frank Welker, Tim Conway, Audrey Wasilewski, Gregg Berger, Wally Wingert
* MPAA Rating: G

May 14, 2009

My Best Fiend (2000)

WHEN IT COMES TO longstanding director/actor partnerships, a few pairs of names come to mind. Scorsese and DeNiro. Fincher and Pitt. Kurosawa and Mifune.

But for casual or younger moviegoers, probably one of the lesser known pairings was that of German director Werner Herzog and mercurial actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski made five films together between 1972 and 1987, and each was plagued with Kinski’s outrageous demands, tirades, and threats to walk off the set. (His antics put Christian Bale [NSFW] to shame.)

This love/hate relationship is the basis for Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, in which he chronicles his (mis)adventures of making movies with Kinski – telling stories about Kinski’s craziness through his own experiences and first-person accounts from a handful of interview subjects.

• From the opening scene of My Best Fiend – archive footage of Kinski lambasting a crowd of people from a stage, then nearly starting a fistfight with a stagehand – we get a taste of his ability to verbally abuse and instigate anyone who he feels deserves his wrath.
• In the course of the film, Herzog visits locations of the films he shot with Kinski, including the mountains and rivers of Peru (Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo) and a town square in the Czech Republic (Woyzeck).

It’s easy to say that My Best Fiend is inherently biased, since Kinski isn’t alive to tell his side of the story (he died in 1991 at age 65). But there’s plenty of video evidence beyond My Best Fiend to indicate that Kinski was a pisser to deal with – not just in moviemaking, but in interviews as well.
• Herzog offers a few behind-the-curtain revelations about him and Kinski: He debunks the myth that he pulled a gun on Kinski on the set of Aguirre; he did help ghostwrite Kinski’s rare, explosive autobiography; and once, he actually planned to firebomb Kinski at his home!
Herzog does show some moments of compassion and unity from Kinski, particularly during the grueling Fitzcarraldo shoot. We see Kinski help bandage an injured cameraman’s hand, and later, as Herzog is about to shoot a dangerous scene on the film’s large (and damaged) boat with a skeleton crew, Kinski tells him: “If you go on board, I’m coming with you. If you sink, I shall sink too.”
• While Herzog may be an acclaimed director, he’s not the most compelling storyteller. His monotone delivery of outrageous stories about Kinski is a bit disjarring.
• Herzog’s interviews are dubbed from German to English, but all foreign-language footage of Kinski (both in film clips and his frenzied outtakes) is not translated. This is a shame if not a crime – it leaves the viewer with Kinski’s rage but not his reasons, however delusional or demented they may have been.
• The long passages of undubbed footage, combined with Herzog’s dreary narration, make My Best Fiend feel a lot longer than its 99 minutes. (I watched it for free at YouTube’s newly launched Movies section; by the last 15 minutes, I was checking email and merely glancing at the film.)

I was hoping for more from My Best Fiend. Actual tirades and fights by Kinski have limited screen time (most are simply recollected by Herzog and his interview subjects). Sorry, but when your film’s poster and box art have an enraged Kinski with a sword to Herzog’s throat, the viewer expects the majority of Kinski’s volatility to be shown, not told.

German, with dubbing.

For an additional taste of Kinski’s on-set insanity, watch this short, funny-because-it-wasn’t-you documentary by director David Schmoeller, “Please Kill Mr. Kinski.” In it, he tells the story of trying to direct Kinski in the 1986 film Crawlspace:

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I can’t see any kid wanting to watch this film. Even for older kids or teens who study film, watching My Best Fiend will feel like homework.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Depends whether she knows who Herzog and Kinski are. If she’s a fan of their work, she may be willing to sit through the film. Otherwise, there’s no compelling reason for her to do so.

My Best Fiend

* Director: Werner Herzog
* Screenwriter: Werner Herzog
* Stars: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Claudia Cardinale, Justo González
* MPAA Rating: Unrated

Buy this movie for less at >>

May 6, 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

THERE’S NO DENYING that Chuck Jones was a legendary animator and director. His work on Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts such as Duck Amuck and Feed The Kitty are timeless and immortal.

That being said, I’m not a big fan of his later work (How The Grinch Stole Christmas! notwithstanding). To be blunt: As Jones got older, he got soft. He went from classic, riotous Looney Tunes to tepid Tom & Jerry cartoons in the ‘60s to lame Looney Tunes movies in the early ‘80s.

In between those two examples of softness came Jones’ full-length feature film for MGM, The Phantom Tollbooth. Based on the book by Norton Juster, it’s a combination of live action and animation (Jones directed the animated sequences; the live-action portions that bookend the film were directed by Abe Levitow).

• Milo (The MunstersButch Patrick) is a bored latchkey kid – bored with school, bored with home, bored with everything. While he’s home alone complaining to a friend on the phone, a gigantic package suddenly drops into his room – turning into a small car and tollbooth that take him into an animated fantasy world, and turning him into a cartoon as well.
• In his animated travels, Milo pairs up with Tock – a talking, literal watchdog (he’s got a ticker where his tummy should be) and encounters the warring worlds of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, who each think they are more important than the other. He also encounters places like Expectation, the Doldrums, and other literal animal creations such as a spelling bee and a humbug.
• From there, the plot has something to do with Milo and Tock having to restore order to the land by rescuing the princesses Rhyme and Reason, who are being held captive in a castle in the air.

The Phantom Tollbooth’s IMDb page notes that “the film was actually made in 1968, but due to MGM's financial problems and frequently changing management, the film was not heavily promoted. When it was released in 1970, it was not a box office success.” Well, the movie has an additional problem that hindered its success besides underpromotion: It’s frankly not that great.
Tollbooth starts off quite funny, but midway it downshifts from funny to whimsical to an early attempt at “edutainment.” For better or worse (mostly the latter), it manages to be educational and nonsensical at the same time.
The movie ends up alienating its two core audiences: It’s too talky and terminology-laden for younger kids, and older kids and adults will be put off by the heavy thinking required. I mean, an hour of educational programming is one thing; a full-length movie about words, grammar, and numbers is another.
• Much like other animated films of it era (see The Jungle Book), Tollbooth’s pacing makes large portions of it tough to sit through.
On the plus side, the 2-D animation was both nostalgic and refreshing, tinged with a hint of ‘60s trippiness. And Milo is illustrated in a way that provides a window into how Jones would animate young children in work such as Rikki-Tikki Tavi (1975).

Ultimately, The Phantom Tollbooth is (barely) worth watching for its uniqueness, and simply to say you saw it. As far how or where to see it…
• Maybe check out the trailer first to see if the movie interests you
• See if it airs again on Turner Classic Movies (where Dash and I saw it)
• Buy a VHS or bootleg DVD copy on eBay (the film is not officially available on DVD)

However, if you’re old enough to remember The Phantom Tollbooth fondly because you saw it as a kid, don’t watch it as an adult expecting to relive a magical childhood memory. You may be disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Dash chuckled and laughed at a pretty regular pace, though he was asleep at the 70-minute mark (it's a 90-minute film). I’m not sure if it was because we watched it on a Friday night (a la Valiant) or because the movie bored him. I’d say it was a combination of both.

Will your kids like it?
I think kids today will have the same attention-span issues with Phantom Tollbooth as Dash did: They’ll be enthralled at the beginning with the switch from live-action to animation, but the stodgy pace and classroom-esque dialogue will have them shifting in their seats, if they haven’t already left them.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Maybe the learning lessons will be intriguing to her, but as pure entertainment this movie bursts out of the gate then lurches toward a finish. Like I said earlier, if she revisits it because of fond memories watching it as a child, she may be disappointed.

"Pardon me...which way to the credits?"

The Phantom Tollbooth
* Directors: Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow
* Screenwriters: Chuck Jones, Sam Rosen
* Stars: Butch Patrick, voices of June Foray, Daws Butler, Shepard Menken, Mel Blanc
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy this movie for less at >>

May 4, 2009

Too Much Not Enough Time on My Hands

Sorry for no reviews recently. My "real" job dominated my days (and nights) all last week.

Check back Wednesday morning for a new review of a largely forgotten film by a legendary animator.

In the meantime, props to anyone who can identify the album cover above. (Hint: It's the back cover of the album.)


Related Posts with Thumbnails