Wednesday, July 13, 2016

An Honor To Be Nominated: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(If it can be difficult to remember what won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)

The Contender: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Number of Nominations: 10 - Picture, Director (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung), Foreign Language Film, Original Score (Tan Dun), Original Song (“A Love Before Time,” music by Jorge Calandrelli and Tan Dun, lyrics by James Schamus), Art Direction (Tim Yip), Cinematography (Peter Pau), Costume Design (Tim Yip), Film Editing (Tim Squyres)

Number of Wins: 4 (Foreign Language Film, Original Score, Art Direction and Cinematography)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is frequently (and justifiably) criticized for seeming to favor certain movie genres over others. It is highly unusual to see a broad comedy, a horror flick or a superhero epic compete in any category, much less Best Picture. But there are really only three types of feature film that the Academy treats as completely separate entities, relegated to their own categories: animation, documentaries and foreign language films. These movies are expected to stay within their own little niche groups, competing only against each other, and for the most part, they do. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture so far (Beauty And The Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and no documentaries have ever broken out of their race.

Foreign language films have had slightly better luck but not much. As of 2016, less than 10 non-English-language movies have been up for Best Picture, and that’s including Clint Eastwood’s US-produced, Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima. They’ve competed and occasionally won in other categories, including acting, directing and writing, but Best Picture remains just out of reach for most international productions.  Of course, it hardly comes as a surprise that an organization that has struggled with diversity should remain stubbornly America-centric.

In theory, the Best Foreign Language Film category ought to provide a thoughtful alternative to the Best Picture category, a true lineup of the best in international cinema. But the rules in that category are both convoluted and restrictive. For example, each country is required to submit one, and only one, film for nominating consideration. This effectively turns the category into the Olympics of moviemaking. These submissions reflect the prevailing current attitude of each country, so there’s no way that someone like acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, officially banned from filmmaking by his country’s government, is ever going to have one of his movies submitted for Oscar consideration.

Considering how narrow a field the Foreign Language Film category has to select from, it’s a bit disappointing how many foreign-language Best Picture nominees were already represented in that category. This includes the strange case of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and then nominated for four additional awards, including Best Picture, the following year thanks to some of those convoluted rules I mentioned. But by far the most honored foreign-language film in Oscar history is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nominated for 10 Oscars back in 2001, coming in just behind Best Picture winner Gladiator as the most nominated film of the year.

Ang Lee is undeniably one of the most respected filmmakers working today but it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also one of cinema’s most quietly eclectic and innovative directors. Unlike many international directors, Lee achieved crossover success outside of his home country early on. He received consecutive Best Foreign Language Film nominations for his second and third films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He successfully transitioned to Hollywood with Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm but suffered a high-profile setback with the costly western Ride With The Devil (although that too has enjoyed a bit of a re-evaluation since). Returning to Taiwan for his next feature may have seemed like a lateral or even backwards step. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be an enormous stride forward in both Lee’s career and for filmmaking in general.

While mainstream Western audiences had never seen anything like Crouching Tiger before, Eastern audiences (as well as hardcore Western movie buffs well-versed in the Hong Kong movie scene) immediately recognized this as a traditional wuxia movie, albeit one with a classier pedigree than usual. Wuxia tales are essentially Chinese martial arts fiction and they’d been part of the Chinese and Hong Kong film industries for about as long as those countries had been making movies. They exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 70s thanks to such producers as the Shaw Brothers and actor/directors like Jimmy Wang. But movies like The One-Armed Swordsman, Master Of The Flying Guillotine and even the acclaimed A Touch Of Zen didn’t really reach Western shores until much later. And when they did, they were often relegated to the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, all but guaranteeing that no one would ever take them seriously.

A truly international coproduction, Crouching Tiger was the first real attempt at reaching both Eastern and Western audiences simultaneously. And despite the fact that nothing in his filmography to date suggested that a martial arts movie would be in his wheelhouse, Ang Lee proved to be the ideal director to bridge that gap. Lee has always been a meticulous filmmaker, paying careful attention to the details of his film’s specific periods, be it contemporary Taiwan, 18th century England or suburban America in the 1970s. Crouching Tiger was his first foray into a more fantastic realm but Lee takes his time and works up to that aspect of the story, grounding it in sets and costumes that feel both authentic and lived-in.

But Lee’s greatest gift as a filmmaker lies in his ability to find the emotional truth that lies beneath scenes of grandly sweeping romance. (He can also reverse that, turning very ordinary gestures into symbols of aching romance, as in Brokeback Mountain). This was evident in Sense And Sensibility, where his humanistic worldview meshed beautifully with Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel to create a film both sardonic and sweet. In Crouching Tiger, he crafts two towering romances with such subtlety that you’re barely aware he’s doing it. Indeed for about half the movie, aristocratic governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is presented as a rebellious spirit, rejecting her arranged marriage and having secretly trained to be a warrior for years. We don’t learn anything about her clandestine relationship with the desert bandit Dark Cloud (Chen Chang) until we’ve fully started to know her as a strong, independent character in her own right. When that aspect is finally introduced, it doesn’t weaken her in the slightest. She rejects him as well, continuing to forge her own path, right or wrong. Her literal leap of faith that concludes the film is no empty romantic gesture. It’s transcendent because she fought long and hard to reach the top of that mountain. That choice…that wish…is nobody’s to make other than Jen’s alone.

But the truly timeless romance at the heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the unrequited love between master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Both warriors have sacrificed their own personal happiness in the name of duty and honor. They are clearly meant for each other, two souls tied together by common history and extraordinary ability, but doomed to remain separate. Given that both move with a grace and agility that defies the laws of physics, it makes perfect sense that their love also exists on a higher plane. Chow is given one of the most yearningly romantic lines in movie history to drive the point home: “I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also the first real indicator of Ang Lee’s tremendous technical skill. In recent years, he has proven himself to be every bit as fascinated by and adept with the most cutting-edge filmmaking technologies as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas. But in Lee’s hands, these tools are used much differently, creating indelible images of visual poetry. Even a movie like Hulk, which even the most ardent Ang Lee supporter has to admit is kind of a misfire, looks and feels like no other superhero movie before or since.

Lee’s key collaborator on Crouching Tiger is undeniably the legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen made his name in the 70s and 80s working with such icons as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He had just broken through internationally a year previous, helping to transform the look of movies forever alongside the Wachowskis with The Matrix. Largely thanks to the success of that film, wire fu was not an entirely alien concept to Western audiences when Crouching Tiger debuted. But hardly anyone had used the technique with such style and fluidity prior to this. Lee and Yuen start slowly but steadily build on their use of the effect. The actors genuinely seem to be defying gravity and yet still seem to be accomplishing this feat through their own physical effort. By the time Chow and Zhang take to those vertiginously swaying bamboo trees, it’s clear that this has moved far beyond a simple visual effect and entered the realm of magical realism.

In the wake of Crouching Tiger’s success, a wave of sumptuously filmed, serious-minded wuxia films hit cinemas. Zhang Yimou delved into such wildly colorful efforts as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and Curse Of The Golden Flower. Chen Kaige produced the middling The Promise and, more recently, Monk Comes Down The Mountain. Wong Kar-wai, who had experimented with the genre early in his career with Ashes Of Time, took a stab at a more contemporary martial arts film with The Grandmaster. Even the Kung Fu Panda franchise owes its existence to the success of Ang Lee’s film.

Surprisingly, it took over a decade for an official sequel to arrive, despite the fact that the movie’s source material is just one in a series of five books. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny debuted theatrically in Hong Kong and China and on Netflix in the rest of the world this past February. (It also received a cursory release on a tiny handful of American IMAX screens.) With choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over as director and only Michelle Yeoh returning from the original cast, Sword Of Destiny is an odd, unsatisfying but not entirely worthless follow-up.

Where Lee struck a perfect balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities, Yuen immediately tips things in favor of the West. The movie was shot in English, not Mandarin, and digital effects are much more of a factor this time out. Sword Of Destiny essentially retells the original movie’s Quest for the Sword plot with less focus, tossing in a quartet of comic relief warriors-for-hire and a pair of would-be romantic relationships that are pale shades of those in the first film. But many of the action sequences are impressive, especially those involving the always-incredible Donnie Yen. If this was just a direct-to-video martial arts flick, you’d probably think it was pretty good. But as a follow-up to a bona fide modern classic, it can’t compete.

When the Oscars were finally handed out on March 25, 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had virtually no chance of winning Best Picture. It had already overcome nearly insurmountable odds just by landing a nomination. And for Ang Lee and everyone involved with the film, the awards were no doubt appreciated but they were kind of beside the point. The real prize was how well audiences around the world responded to the film. Even today, it remains the highest grossing foreign language film ever released in the United States, proving that there are indeed some things that transcend borders and language.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Classics.

Friday, July 1, 2016

An Honor To Be Nominated: Born On The Fourth Of July

(If it can be difficult to remember what won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)

The Contender: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

Number of Nominations: 8 - Picture, Director (Oliver Stone), Actor (Tom Cruise), Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic), Original Score (John Williams), Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman and Tod A. Maitland), Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Film Editing (David Brenner and Joe Hutshing)

Number of Wins: 2 (Director and Film Editing)

If you won the Oscar office pool back in 1990, you earned some serious bragging rights for the rest of the day. (Also, if you actually remember that as a particular source of pride, you may want to explore some other hobbies. For real.) There was no clear front-runner going into the ceremony. Indeed, most of the conversation leading up to the event had revolved around what hadn’t been nominated, most notably Spike Lee being passed over for Best Picture and Director for Do The Right Thing.

The battle for Best Picture that night was really between two films: Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July and the genteel Driving Miss Daisy (or, as Spike Lee calls it, Driving Miss Motherfuckin’ Daisy). Miss Daisy led the field with the most nominations, nine of ‘em in total, but it was by no means a lock. Its biggest perceived obstacle was the fact that director Bruce Beresford had been ignored in the Best Director category. At the time, only two films had ever won Best Picture without securing a director nomination, the last one being Grand Hotel back in 1932. It’s still exceedingly rare. Argo pulled it off a few years back. But in 1990, those kinds of long odds were about as close as the Oscars got to science.

Born On The Fourth Of July, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Oliver Stone had already mined his Vietnam experiences for Oscar gold with Platoon a few years earlier. In fact, the Academy seemed to be quite fond of Mr. Stone and his work in general. He’d won his first Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express and was also nominated for Salvador, while Michael Douglas had just won the Best Actor trophy for his work in Wall Street. After Stone won the Best Director award that evening, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Born On The Fourth Of July would be that year’s Best Picture.

 Not so fast, Sparky. As we know, the Academy decided for whatever reason to honor Driving Miss Daisy instead. Whatever else you may think about Spike Lee, he is absolutely correct in his assessment of that film. Today, Driving Miss Daisy is mostly forgotten. Nobody studies it or talks about it. It’s soft-edged, inoffensive and the best thing you can really say about it is that it’s a nice movie you can watch with your grandparents. But as satisfying as it may be for ironic purposes to say that Do The Right Thing lost to Driving Miss Daisy, it’s not true. Lee’s movie wasn’t even in the race. If anybody should be pissed off at the triumph of Hoke and Miss Daisy, it’s Oliver Stone.

On paper, Born On The Fourth Of July looks like a road map straight to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s the true story of Ron Kovic, a gung-ho, anti-Commie supporter of the war in Vietnam who volunteered for the Marine Corps, was wounded and paralyzed on his second tour of duty, and eventually became one of the most visible and best-known anti-war activists of the 1970s. The material is tailor-made for Stone, a fellow Vietnam veteran and self-appointed chronicler of the Secret History of the United States of America. But honestly, half of Stone’s work was done the second he cast Tom Cruise as Kovic.

In 1989, Cruise was already an enormous movie star thanks to his instantly iconic turn in Risky Business and the runaway success of mega-blockbuster Top Gun. He was even able to make Cocktail, a movie that is actually dumber than a bag of hammers, into a smash hit. And to his credit, Cruise has always been very smart about his career and the projects he picks. He had already started the effort to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as an impossibly good-looking movie star by teaming with respected filmmakers and well-established Hollywood stars. First, he joined forces with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman for The Color Of Money. Two years later, he hooked up with Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on Rain Man. Both Newman and Hoffman won Best Actor Oscars for their work in those films, while Cruise wasn’t even nominated.

Born On The Fourth Of July would be Cruise’s first shot at carrying a Big Prestige Picture on his own. And if it’s easy to see why Stone wanted Cruise, it’s even easier to understand why Cruise said yes. The role of Ron Kovic is straight out of the Movie Star’s Guide to Getting an Oscar Nomination. Are you playing a real person? Check. Do you age noticeably over the course of the film, say a decade or more? Check. Do you suffer some form of physical impairment or disability? Check. Is this character reflective of a broader political statement on either historic or current events? Check. Does the role fit comfortably within your wheelhouse as a movie star while still stretching you somewhat as an actor? Check and check again. Well, right this way, Mr. Cruise. We’ve been expecting you.

To be fair, Cruise is actually good in the role. He isn’t done any favors by the series of unflattering and unconvincing hairpieces he’s required to wear. Also, at 27 years of age, he was a bit long in the tooth to pull off playing a high school senior in the film’s early sequences. Stone’s solution to this, surrounding him with equally aging classmates played by the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine, gives the impression that Ron Kovic went to the same high school as Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. But Cruise/Kovic goes on quite a journey in this film and the actor sells the moments that matter most, whether it’s his steely-eyed determination to walk again, his eventual despair over being trapped in a body that no longer obeys his commands, or his growing disillusionment with the government and his rebirth as an advocate for change.

Cruise is such a uniquely American movie star (himself born, improbably enough, on the third of July) that his casting here is used as a canny bit of cinematic shorthand by Stone. Cruise is one of the few actors who could go from “America, love it or leave it” to “the war is wrong and the government lied to us” without making one extreme or the other sound hollow. The mom, baseball and apple pie Tom Cruise at the beginning of the film who volunteers to go end Communism in Vietnam is the same god-fearing, flag-waving guy at the end calling the government a bunch of thieves and rapists. A lot of other actors probably could have played Ron Kovic. But none of them would have been able to drive home Oliver Stone’s thesis about America as effectively or efficiently as Cruise.

Perhaps the strangest thing about revisiting Born On The Fourth Of July today is how conventional it is. Stone will never be accused of being a particularly subtle filmmaker but his movies are usually more dynamic, challenging and provocative. His earlier films courted controversy with their subject matter. Later films like The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon would push boundaries stylistically. Say what you will about the historical accuracy of JFK, it’s tough to argue with its Oscar wins for Cinematography and Film Editing. But Born On The Fourth Of July is a pretty straight-forward biopic, told linearly with helpful subtitles to establish time and place every time we jump ahead a few years. The two Oscars this movie took home, one for Stone as director and one for Film Editing, feel in no way inevitable.

In fact, a look at the entire list of winners and nominees for the 62nd Academy Awards inspires a collective shrug. Of the five movies up for Best Picture, perhaps the one that has had the most lasting cultural impact is Field Of Dreams, another perfectly nice, crowd-pleasing movie of the sort that almost never wins Oscars. At the end of the day, the great American movie of 1989 really was Do The Right Thing and the Academy dropped the ball by only recognizing it with two nominations (Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Original Screenplay for Spike Lee). But righteous indignation had no place at the Oscars that year. Born On The Fourth Of July was the most incendiary movie up for Best Picture but it doesn’t burn hot. Instead, it’s one of Oliver Stone’s warmest, most sun-dappled movies. It isn’t angry so much as it is mournful and nostalgic, from Robert Richardson’s lush cinematography to John Williams’ elegiac score. Perhaps Stone won the Oscar simply for delivering the least controversial movie of his career. 

Born On The Fourth Of July is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Friday, June 24, 2016

An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

(If it can be difficult to remember what won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)

The Contender: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 - Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other. 

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Criterion Blogathon: Criterion And Animation

The key to the Criterion Collection’s success has always been the remarkable diversity of films welcomed into their lineup. It would have been easy, and perhaps expected, for them to focus solely on foreign films or acknowledged classics. But as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”, Criterion has released titles from every genre, every era and from seemingly every film-producing nation on Earth. This diversity was even more apparent back in the laserdisc era, when the major studios’ almost total lack of interest in the format allowed such blockbusters as Ghostbusters and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to rub spine numbers with the likes of Floating Weeds and The Devil And Daniel Webster.

But despite this commitment to diversity, there is one area where Criterion stubbornly continues to have a massive blind spot: animation. Animation is one of the cornerstones of the film industry dating back as far as 1900. Any history of film that failed to take animated movies into its consideration would be considered laughably incomplete. Despite this, Criterion has released a whopping three animated films on either laserdisc or DVD/Blu-ray. That’s only one more than there are Michael Bay movies in the collection.

Criterion’s first (and only) animated laserdisc was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, released in 1992. It was a natural fit for the company, given their affinity for Japanese culture and cinema. Acclaimed as one of the greatest animated films of all time, no one could dispute the fact that Akira deserved its place in the collection. If nothing else, Akira burst open the floodgates, exposing Western audiences to countless anime they may otherwise never would have encountered. 

Unfortunately, Akira’s time in the Criterion Collection was short-lived. It’s one of many titles that Criterion has been unable to relicense for DVD or Blu-ray. The long out-of-print laserdisc is now highly prized by collectors. No doubt if Criterion is someday able to re-release the film on Blu-ray, fans will snap it up in a heartbeat.

It would be over twenty years before Criterion released another animated film, this time Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. Once again, this was a no-brainer for Criterion. Having released every other Wes Anderson movie to date, why would this be any exception?

As delightful as Fantastic Mr. Fox is, it would be a mistake to view its Criterion induction as a new-found interest in the art of animation. This was nothing more than a case of filmmaker loyalty. At this point, Wes Anderson could make a Smurfs movie and Criterion would have no choice but to release it at some point. (Note to Wes Anderson: please do not make a Smurfs movie.)

Criterion’s next foray into animation was a bit more of a surprise. Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down is a beautifully animated and mature piece of filmmaking. Thematically, it makes perfect sense as a Criterion release. But it’s hardly the highest-profile animated film of the last forty years.

Theories abound as to why Criterion has paid so little attention to animation. Certainly, many of the most
important examples of the form are tied up in rights issues that make even inquiring about them a waste of time. That said, nobody really expects Criterion to go after any of the Disney classics. Frankly, Disney’s done an excellent job releasing most of those on their own. These movies don’t need anybody’s help.

Disney also controls most of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in the US. These would actually be a better fit for Criterion. Disney’s done all right by them, barring a few instances of bad subtitling, but Disney is more focused on commerce than art. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but it does mean that the studio treats all of these movies exactly the same way. They can’t really be bothered to delve into the unique qualities that separate Porco Rosso from Spirited Away.

In addition to licensing hurdles, Criterion has always been known as a director-oriented imprint. It’s fair to say that nobody subscribes to the auteur theory more fervently than the folks at Criterion. The job of “director” in animation is a bit more mysterious. Most of the names that pop immediately to mind, Ralph Bakshi, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, are more frequently described as “animators”, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

All good movies have a degree of magic in them but perhaps none have as much as animation. The ability to instill life and emotion into a series of hand-drawn images or puppets or pixels requires a remarkable depth of artistry from a legion of collaborators working in perfect harmony. It’s an art form every bit as worthy of celebration and examination as any in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion needs to get busy if they hope to plug this gaping hole any time soon and naturally I have a few suggestions to get them started. Some of these may be obvious, others may be the longest of longshots, but all of them would fit right in with the Criterion mandate.

The Compleat Tex Avery
 It could be argued that animation’s purest form is the short film and few mastered it as well as Tex Avery. Back in 1993, MGM released the definitive collection of Avery shorts on laserdisc. Odds are slim to none that this will ever make the transition to Blu-ray, much less DVD. This would probably be a licensing nightmare for Criterion but it’d be oh so worth it.

Song Of The South 
 Again, probably not gonna happen. I doubt very much that Criterion would want to willingly stick their hand in this particular hornet’s nest. But this is a genuinely important film with some of the most seamless and artful blend of live action and animation ever created. Besides, Disney sure as hell isn’t going to release it. Bring in Leonard Maltin to provide the context he did so well on the Walt Disney Treasures collection, market this to collectors instead of kids, and allow viewers to make up their own minds.

Fantastic Planet
René Laloux’s trippy science fiction masterpiece seems like an obvious choice for Criterion. It’s a still-relevant allegory with a unique visual style like none other. Eureka has it on Blu-ray in the UK as part of their Masters of Cinema line. If it’s good enough for them, surely it’s good enough for Criterion.

Fritz The Cat 
Ralph Bakshi has made any number of films that would be right at home on Criterion, including Wizards, Coonskin and American Pop. Fritz is probably Bakshi’s best-known work (with the possible exception of The Lord Of The Rings) and it’d make a nice introduction to his work. Plus, it’d be an excellent companion piece to Criterion’s release of the documentary Crumb.

The Complete Short Films Of Jan Svankmajer
Zeitgeist has a nice looking collection of the work of the Brothers Quay due later in November, but Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is overdue for similar treatment. I have an excellent DVD from the BFI collecting Svankmajer’s surreal shorts but I would absolutely shell out for a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion.

Charlie Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation is collecting critical hosannas on the festival circuit and seems a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination. It might be a little premature to dub this one Criterion-worthy. But the company has a history with Kaufman, having released Being John Malkovich in 2012.

These are just a few examples of Criterion-ready animation. There are plenty of others, including Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, the 1954 adaptation of Animal Farm (already released on DVD by Home Vision), Martin Rosen’s Watership Down follow-up The Plague Dogs, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures Of Prince Achmed…the list goes on. Criterion has barely dipped a toe into the shallow end of the animation pool. It’s long past time for them to dive into the deep end.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dr. Jahnke's History Of Film - The Complete Goofy

Considering the lavish treatment Disney gives to its animated features, it’s a little shocking how little respect they often pay their short films. After all, these are the primary showcases for Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the gang, iconic characters that these days turn up mainly in consumer products if they turn up at all. Warner Bros. doesn’t often know what to do with their stable of Looney Tunes characters in modern times, either. But at least they’ve done a good job keeping the original shorts in the public eye, first on DVD and now on Blu-ray.

For years, Disney’s biggest use for their animated shorts was as Disney Channel filler, hacked up and re-edited to suit whatever fad was popular at the time (anybody remember DTV?). There were, of course, mountains of VHS and Betamax releases but they were a bit haphazard. They did a better job with their Archive Collection series of laserdiscs (in general, Disney produced some utterly gorgeous laserdisc sets) but they only scratched the surface of what they could have done with their shorts.

It wasn’t until DVD came along that Disney finally took a real interest in showcasing these classics. In 2001, they launched the Walt Disney Treasures line, limited edition two-disc sets packaged in handsome tins that promised a truly special release. Hosted by Leonard Maltin, the sets were beautifully presented and full of outstanding bonus material. In many ways, they were superior to the Looney Tunes Golden Collections (and later Platinum Collections on Blu-ray) by virtue of being more focused and better organized. There were specific collections devoted to Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Goofy, Silly Symphonies, early rarities and more. Naturally, the series was too good to last. It sputtered to a close in 2009 with the release of the Zorro TV series. So far, there seems to be no great hurry to convert the Treasures titles to Blu. If you can find a copy of the DVDs on the second-hand market, expect to pay north of a hundred bones for it.

I have some but not all of the Treasures sets, enough that it annoys me that I don’t have the rest. While I wouldn’t really want to part with any of them, The Complete Goofy in particular is one you’ll have to pry from my cold, dead hands. Goofy might not be my favorite Disney character. Donald Duck is pretty hard to beat. But the Goofy cartoons, especially the series of “How-To” shorts, are among Disney’s most inspired and funniest.

The character that would evolve into Goofy debuted in the 1932 short Mickey’s Revue, although Dippy Dawg had a ways to go before he’d be the Goof we know today. He began to come into his own once he was teamed with Mickey and Donald in such classics as Clock Cleaners and Lonesome Ghosts. (As an aside, I had Lonesome Ghosts on one of those Fisher Price Movie Viewer cartridges and was fairly obsessed with it as a kid, examining it frontwards, backwards and frame by frame.)

Goofy was deemed ready for solo stardom in 1939 with the release of Goofy And Wilbur, a pleasant but fairly standard cartoon with Goofy, ever the sportsman, using his pal, the super-smart grasshopper Wilbur, as bait on a fishing trip. The name in the title suggests that Disney may have had visions of stardom for little Wilbur too but, alas, it was not to be. (Although according to The Disney Wiki, this cartoon was later edited into a vacation-themed episode of Disneyland and Wilbur was retroactively made Jiminy Cricket’s nephew.)

Ironically, Goofy didn’t really come into his own as a solo star until he lost his distinctive voice. After Pinto Colvig left the studio, a now silent Goofy was placed into a series of “How-To” shorts beginning with The Art Of Skiing in 1941. With John McLeish providing stentorian and often pretentious narration and freed of the conventions of trying to tell an 8-minute narrative, these cartoons were more innovative and entertaining than most of Disney’s shorts during the period. Colvig eventually returned to the character but the change in Goofy’s personality remained.

As time went on, Goofy continued to change, even more than the other characters in the Disney stable. Goofy actually evolved into his own species, with Goofs of different sizes, genders and personalities populating entire opposing teams, their fans, and whole cities. A loyal American, Goofy contributed to the war effort during WWII and the post-war effort in the 1950s. Unlike most cartoon characters who had nephews or, infrequently, nieces, Goofy actually had a wife and son (Goofy Jr., later Max). Goofy may have seemed naïve and childlike at times but in many ways, he was the most adult character Disney had.

Disney essentially got out of the business of making short subjects in the 1960s. The final official Goofy cartoon, Aquamania, was released in 1961. But the character made a most welcome comeback in 2007 with a new short, How To Hook Up Your Home Theater. This title is available on the recently released Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection Blu-ray. The studio has also released two outstanding collections of shorts from Pixar. But none of the studio’s classic shorts have yet made the jump to high-def. I hope they will although Disney’s inconsistent commitment to the format doesn’t fill one with hope. These films and characters are really the foundation that Walt Disney Studios was built upon. It’d be a shame if they were left behind where only deep-pocketed collectors can get ahold of them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dr. Jahnke's History Of Film - Another Thin Man

The Thin Man series is one of the minor miracles of Hollywood filmmaking. These six movies, produced between 1934 and 1947, are among the most effortlessly entertaining, smart and sophisticated films to come from Hollywood’s Golden Age. William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as frequently inebriated investigator Nick Charles and his wife/partner-in-crime Nora. Powell and Loy made plenty of other movies together, many of them quite good, including 1936’s Libeled Lady. But Nick and Nora would prove to be their most enduring collaboration, coming to represent witty repartee and undeniable romantic chemistry at its best.

We tend to think of sequels (or, to use the abominable current phraseology, franchises) as a relatively modern phenomenon. But today’s studios are positively restrained compared with their 30s and 40s forebears. It’s impressive that the Fast & Furious movies are still packing ‘em in at seven-going-on-eight entries. But Vin and crew have a ways to go before they catch up with Blondie (28 movies between 1938 and 1950) or The Bowery Boys (48 between 1946 and 1958 and that’s not even counting earlier iterations like The East Side Kids).

Of course, one big difference between today’s franchises and yesteryear’s long-running series was the budget. Back then, movies series were typically the domain of Poverty Row studios like Monogram. Even if they started life as A-pictures, like the Charlie Chan series, they’d eventually be discontinued by the majors and picked up elsewhere.

The Thin Man movies were unique in this respect as well. The six movies were spaced out over a number of years (most series back then would cram as many as three or four entries into a single year) and retained their prestige and relatively high budgets. And if none of the sequels can quite match the sheer perfection of the original, they are all at the very least entertaining.

The third entry, 1939’s Another Thin Man, introduces what should have been a surefire series killer. After two movies of unencumbered marital bliss, drinking their way from port to port, the Charles family finally produces an offspring: Nicky, Jr. Surprisingly, this has almost no effect on Nick and Nora’s demeanor or behavior. Nora stays a bit more sober in this installment but that’s about it. Child-rearing duties are pretty much handed over to a nanny (Ruth Hussey) who’s hired on the spot without so much as an interview, much less a background check. At this point, Nicky Jr. has less impact on the story than Asta, the Charles’ faithful dog.

This would be the last film in the series based on a Dashiell Hammett story, albeit one that did not originally feature Nick and Nora. This time, Team Charles is summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), an old friend of Nora’s father and the manager of her vast inheritance. Strange and troubling accidents had been occurring around MacFay recently, accidents he believes are the work of a man named Church (Sheldon Leonard). MacFay let Church take the fall for some illegal business dealings, so naturally Church is out for revenge. But when MacFay is actually killed, the case becomes a lot more complex than it first seems.

The great pleasures of these movies are obviously the sparkling dialogue and easy banter between Powell and Loy. But in the three movies based on Hammett stories, the mystery is every bit as clever and nuanced as the characters. I’ve never been one to actively try to solve mystery plots while watching or reading them. If my mind is engaged on that level, it means something else in the story isn’t working and I’m not engaged elsewhere. If a mystery plot doesn’t work, then I’ll notice and have a problem. Another Thin Man is fun because while it may not be the most plausible story ever told, it makes just enough sense to be believable.

It’s also a pleasant surprise that motherhood hasn’t dulled Nora’s instincts. At one point, Nick ditches Nora, worried that it’d be too dangerous for her to come along. A lesser movie would have her throw a tantrum and stay behind with baby. Not Nora. Within 60 seconds, she fields a phone call and heads out on her own adventure, potentially even sketchier than the one she was being protected from. It’s hard to pinpoint who deserves credit for moments like this, although I suspect husband-and-wife screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had a lot to do with it. Not to mention the fact that it’s virtually impossible to imagine an actress as vibrant and exciting as Myrna Loy being sidelined for long.

For years, a Thin Man remake was in development that would have starred Johnny Depp. While I feel like Depp’s gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap lately, his recent turn in Mortdecai didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d make an ideal Nick Charles. Since the film series ended, the characters have returned on TV, radio and on stage. I’m certain they’ll be back yet again, either on film or elsewhere. But William Powell and Myrna Loy will always cast a huge shadow over these roles. It isn’t that you can’t imagine anyone else playing them. You absolutely can. But why would you want to?

Another Thin Man is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Back To The Future

If you’ve read any of my posts here since relaunching Jahnke’s Electric Theatre in blog form, first of all, thank you. There is a LOT of content online bucking for your eyeholes, a lot of which is presented in pictographic listicle form that doesn’t require you to read nearly as much as my run-on sentences do. I appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to click on over to the Theatre.

However, you may have had a couple of puzzled thoughts I’d like to address. The first one (and I’m paraphrasing here) is, “Jeez, Jahnke. You’re posting even less here than you did when you were writing for The Digital Bits. What gives, you lazy choad?” Well, you nailed it on that score. Left to my own devices, I tend to get easily distracted and allow myself to waste ridiculous amounts of time on pointless things. I apologize and I’m trying to fix that.

Your second thought may have been, “Is there, you know, like a point to all this? A lot of what you’re doing here doesn’t seem all that different from what you were doing on the Bits. Why aren’t you just putting it there? And the rest of it’s kind of all over the map. Focus up, dude.”

OK, fair enough. First off, there were a number of reasons behind my decision to leave the Bits. But the driving force was that as much as I enjoy writing about film, I really didn’t want to write about DVD and Blu-ray anymore (and I sure as hell didn’t want to have to write about whatever 4K nonsense is coming next). Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a fervent champion of physical media. Witness the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted crusade over on Facebook. But writing about discs has turned a corner in the last couple of years and is headed down a road I didn’t want to live on.

When you’re writing a review of a DVD or Blu-ray, you are writing about the film as a consumer product, not as a work of art. This is actually an obligation the disc reviewer has to his/her audience. Nine times out of ten, the person reading the review has already made up their mind about the movie itself. These days, they may have already purchased it on different formats two or three times. If you’re lucky, the reader will listen politely to your opinions on the film itself but that isn’t really why they’re there. This reader wants to know how this particular product stands up to every other product that’s come before it. And heaven help the reviewer who misses something because there will always be someone looking at the product with a far more critical eye than you.

To a certain extent, I understand and sympathize with this viewpoint. For years, every new home video format was, at best, a little better than the one it was designed to replace. Then Blu-ray came along, touted as the ultimate home entertainment experience. Of course, now we know it’s not but whatever. After years spent building a DVD library, consumers rightfully demanded to know why they should bother starting all over again.

But the rise of high-definition also helped prove the old adage a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now that HD televisions were commonplace and people were adding more and more speakers to their systems, it seemed there were a lot more “experts” than ever before. Unfortunately, this all came at a time when quality control at the studio level was on the decline. There have absolutely been far more discs making it to market with serious flaws than should ever be acceptable. But now we have people seeing mistakes where there aren’t any or, at the very least, so negligible that they’re scarcely worth mentioning.

The miracle of being able to own a library of films and television programs, including many that were once virtually impossible to see, has been overshadowed by complaints about color timing, aspect ratios and audio mixes. It seems the only people reading DVD and Blu-ray reviews anymore are the people who intently study screengrabs trying to decide between a US or UK release. That’s only going to get worse in the Ultra HD era, so I decided it was time for me to bow out.

That said, I’ve been writing about the movies in some form or another since I was a teenager. I wanted to keep doing so, even though there isn’t a dime to be made in it. The recent shuttering of The Dissolve, home of the best film writing on the internet, was a bucket of ice cold water to anybody who still harbors dreams of making it as a full-time film critic. Right now, I make no money off this blog, although that’s chiefly because I have no idea how to monetize it. If anybody has some advice, I’m all ears, even if I only make the same amount per post that Lucy Van Pelt earns for a session of psychiatric help.

But writing about “The Movies” is a great big blank canvas that could lead anywhere. I don’t do well with absolute freedom, so I wanted to steer this in a particular direction. After giving it some thought, I realized the answer was literally staring me right in the face.

For years, I’ve had a “Now Playing” DVD display stand hanging in my living room. I’ve always enjoyed rotating wall art, so I decided to switch it out weekly. A couple of years ago now, I hit upon the idea of using this so-called Movie of the Week project as a way to watch my entire collection in chronological order, from the silent era on up. It’s been a fascinating experiment, so why not bring the Movie of the Week to the Electric Theatre?

In fact, I already started this with my last post looking at the Jimmy Stewart/Ginger Rogers comedy Vivacious Lady. I’m now about to embark on 1939, widely considered Hollywood’s greatest year, so I figured that would be the ideal time to jump on board. Bear in mind, this project is only roughly chronological. I’m not such a stickler for detail that I’m looking up exact release dates. Also, if I add something to my library later (say, for example, I pick up a copy of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in a few months time), I’ll pause and include that earlier title. This project will also incorporate my ongoing themes such as Captures and An Honor To Be Nominated, so watch for those to return.

Dr. Jahnke’s History of Film will be the primary focus here from now on, although I reserve the right to toss in other stuff and non-movie-related content from time to time. What’s the fun of writing a blog if you don’t allow yourself to write about whatever crosses your mind from time to time? Anyway, this should be fun and, if nothing else, my collection is eclectic enough that you probably won’t get bored. Join me next week as we go back to 1939. I hope you’ll enjoy it.