Monday, 11 August 2014

You Rocked Our World, Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)

I started laughing at Robin Williams when I was 8 years old (Mork & Mindy) and I never stopped. Until today when I found out he'd died at the way-too-early age of 63. But give it a little time, he'll have us laughing again. It's what he does. It's what YouTube and DVDs were made for.

I still remember him coming out of nowhere in the 70s, relentless and unhinged like a roller coaster on cocaine, literally in his case. Like the indefatigable Groucho Marx before him, it seemed there was nothing he couldn't turn into a (really funny) joke.

After and during years of standup, he premiered on the big screen in 1980's Popeye (still one of my faves, critics be damned), then spent subsequent decades killing in comedies like Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Cadillac Man, Aladin, Hook, Jumanji, Death to Smoochy, The Birdcage, Night At The Museum, and Happy Feet, as well as on TV's Friends, Whose Line Is It Anyway and the hugely successful Comic Relief with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg.

But there were times he didn't make us laugh. Many, in fact. Even some of his most hilarious comedies provoked as many philosophical reflections, tears and group hugs as they did chuckles. The World According to Garp comes to mind, as do Moscow on the Hudson, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and my hands-down favourite, Good Will Hunting, for which he won his only (and much-deserved) Oscar.

Then there were those downright unfunny, dramatic turns in films like Awakenings, What Dreams May Come, Jakob The Liar, Insomnia, and the terrifying One Hour Photo. Who knew he could give a guided tour through heaven and hell as easily as he could nail a good fart joke?

It's hard to say goodbye to someone you grew up with, who meant that much to you without even realizing it sometimes. To me, he was as much a de facto uncle as he was The Comedian or The Actor Robin Williams. An uncle who kept me in stitches, who inspired me to be the best version of myself, who struggled with addiction and depression but who always managed to keep one step ahead of his demons.

And now he's gone. I still can't believe it. But I still have my DVDs. And my memories. Thankfully, there are a whole lot of them.

Love you, Robin.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Country: USA
Based on: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
Director:Victor Fleming
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton
Music: Herbert Stothart (score), Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. Harburg (lyrics)
Length: 101 minutes

A girl and her dog make an unscheduled trip by tornado to the magical land of Oz and traverse a yellow-bricked gauntlet of midgets, monsters, witches, and wizards to find their way home.

1939 was a banner year for Victor Fleming, who directed both Oz and Gone With the Wind then sat back and watched them compete for Best Picture at the 12th Annual Oscars. Piggybacking on the success of Disney's Snow White at a cost of $2.8 million, Oz barely broke even before rocketing to $248 million in re-releases, especially on television where it quickly became a perennial favourite and one of the best-reviewed films of all time.

The producers nearly caved and turned Oz into a hip and swingin' Jitterbug club with Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger as the Tin Man, and W.C. Fields as the Wiz. Meanwhile, Dorothy's classic rendition of "Over the Rainbow" was almost cut because the same producers considered Garland too good to sing in a barn. Thank the Good Witch that calmer heads prevailed.   

Some movies appear untouchable: classics so firmly embedded in our hearts and entrenched in pop culture that there's little to do but bow and move on. But The Wizard of Oz deserves better than that. All "classic" considerations aside, it is important to remember why Oz staggered imaginations and warmed hearts not just in 1939, but every year since.

This became especially evident after watching Disney's execrable 2013 cash-grab "prequel" starring James Franco, a film in which exactly nothing happened or mattered. A cheap and pointless amusement park ride of a film, it represented the Magic Kingdom at its worst. By contrast, Fleming's interpretation of L. Frank Baum's socially-progressive fantasy is still a superbly acted, emotionally stirring, soul-searching marvel of technicality and filmmaking 75 years later. Taking us down the well-trod path of the hero's journey, it continues to make us laugh and cry and sing and dance as we follow along. It carries us away from the worries of this world to one filled with Technicolor delights and adventure. It surrounds us with good friends who would never leave us. And it reminds us what truly matters in life, while giving us (like Dorothy) the courage to go after it. 

Speaking of Dorothy, I wonder if viewers notice that she, not any of the men in her life (including the Great and Powerful Wizard), is the stable one holding it all together as they make their way to the Emerald City. The fact that Baum was the son-in-law of women's suffrage pioneer Matilida Joslyn Gage may have influenced his tendency to create strong female protagonists in his stories. Either way, the credit is all his for doing so. Like Snow White before her, Dorothy Gale stands as one of film and literature's great action heroes: resilient, resourceful, optimistic, persevering, and above all, unfailingly kind.

At the same time, every man is in the story is incomplete in his own way, though determined to find what he's missing. While not necessarily a masculine slight (Dorothy, too, is in search of something), it is noteworthy that women have all the real power in the land of Oz and do all the saving, from Dorothy to Glinda the Good Witch to Aunty Em. But not without the help of everyone else, including the boys. And Oz's male roles, or more specifically the manner in which they are portrayed, are indeed refreshing. The conventions of the time allowed actors Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr to be silly, vulnerable, and even girly in a way that might seem stereotypically gay today, but which was perfectly compatible with that era's concept of manliness. The result is a convincing and highly entertaining group of men unafraid to admit and explore their weaknesses while behaving in truly heroic ways. 

Great pacing, engaging performances, an enduring soundtrack, gorgeous costumes, lavish sets, groundbreaking special effects and that heart-stopping transition from B&W to colour make The Wizard of Oz a wonder even today. But it's Judy Garland's Dorothy and her journey of desire, endurance, friendship, and the power of belief that puts the film over the rainbow and near the top of my all-time favourites list!

This was fun! I haven't seen TWOO (oh, that was fun, too) since I was a kid so it was full of surprises, like seeing it for the first time. I don't remember, for example, seeing any of the introductory black-and-white scenes, only the stuff in colour. Who knew how great those parts were?? Everyone who saw it from the beginning, I guess.

I used to think it was a story about a fidgety girl who had to fight a witch in La La Land to get home. Instead, I discover this beautiful exploration of human isolation, hope, community, and how much in the end we all need each other. A gorgeous film about broken people helping each other find the answers they need, people I instantly recognize: the mean-spirited neighbour, the affable uncle, the passive-versus-disciplinarian parent figures. And who says it's just for kids? Oz speaks to everyone who's ever gone searching for adventure while wishing they could return at whim to the safety of home to be taken care of Aunty Em, whoever that is for each of us. 

Like I said, I used to think it was a story about a girl and a witch. Turns out, it's about me. :)

Friday, 18 July 2014

Does Loving Captain America The Way He Is Make Me a Racist, Sexist Homophobe?

By Paul Donnett

This past week, Marvel announced that iconic superheroes Thor and Captain America will be passing their hammer and shield to a woman and an African-American respectively. 

And then the shit hit the fan:

“They are ruining classic characters!” said Jev Miller 

“All these feminists need to chill out. THOR IS A MAN! Leave him as he is!!!!” cried Anitaaaxo.

“Remember when #marvel wasn’t run by a pack of political (sic) correct gelded men”, grumbled Juggernaught.

“Can’t wait for their transgendered superheroes, The Ex-Men,” barked Alan Cox. 

Racist, sexist rednecks all! Right? Mmmm, not so fast.

I’ll be the first to admit that Marvel’s decision and the reaction to it looks, at first blush, like a standoff between corporate political correctness and diversity-phobia. And no doubt, these forces are at play somewhere beneath (or even above) the surface. But it would be, in my opinion, a huge mistake to let this issue get mired down in yet another endless straw man debate that misses valuable points raised on both sides. 

The fact is popular entertainment has always made changes as society has moved forward. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like, but yes, always

For years, I’ve wallowed in the non-male, non-white diversity of action heroes in film, TV, comic books, and popular fiction: Ellen Ripley (Alien), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Hanna (Hanna), Black Widow (Avengers), Hit-Girl (Kick Ass), Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill), Trinity (The Matrix), Princesses Leia and Amidala (Star Wars), Sarah Connor (The Terminator), Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Jean Gray, Storm, Mystique, Emma Frost, and Kitty Pryde (X-Men), Leeloo (Fifth Element), Alice (Resident Evil), Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy), Lara Croft, Buffy, Xena, Supergirl, Batgirl, She-Hulk, Wonder Woman. . . I could do this all day.  

I suspect that many who object to Marvel’s recent announcement - male and female - are also big fans of these ladies. Let's call that Exhibit A.

At the same time, I love War Machine/Iron Patriot/James Rhodes, Falcon, Vulcan, Black Panther, Blade, Shaft, Morpheus, Knighthawk, Amazing-Man, the Original Hulk, The Atom, Yellow Ranger, Batwing, Spider-Man/Miles Morales (African-American), Bane (Caribbean), Green Lantern (Mexican/Irish – 1994), Jubilee, Green Lantern/Kai-ro (Chinese), Nakamuro Hiro from Heroes (Japanese), Glenn from Walking Dead (Korean) – not to mention every thoroughly-idolized, non-white martial artist of the past half century (Bruce, Jet, Jackie, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Jaa, Hiroyuki Sanada, Iko Uwais, etc.) I could give a damn about where they come from or what colour they are, they’re my heroes. 

I suspect that many who object to Marvel’s recent announcement - white and non-white - are also big, colour-blind fans of these multi-ethnic saviours of humanity. We'll call them Exhibit B.

In other words, I’m not convinced that the current frustration is due simply to the fact that Captain America and Thor (or more specifically, those receiving the mantle) are about to be non-white and non-male. Nor do I think it’s reasonable to automatically assume that those objecting must be racists, sexists, or prophets of a tyrannical liberal agenda. That kind of lazy generalization does nothing to foster a positive exchange of ideas much less come to any meaningful conclusions, and perpetuates the divisive, black-and-white stereotyping we’re all trying to get past, right?

With that in mind, here is my non-racist, non-sexist, liberal-friendly reason for hating to see Captain America disappear or change (and yes, that includes when Isaiah Bradley took over in the comic books): Steve Rogers’ history as a slightly nerdy, white-bread American WWII vet, combined with his particular brand of conflicted patriotism, is at the heart of his character and, therefore, what makes him interesting. It’s not that Cap’s storyline or ability to be heroic depends on his being white or male. It's about who he is, where he comes from and ultimately, the relationship I've built with him. Throw his suit and super serum on someone else and we lose the iconic character we’ve grown to love.

The question then becomes, why bother? Marvel can have their cake and eat it too by simply introducing a new character. To jettison one for another, and to do so in the name of “diversity” when diversity doesn’t require such a change in the first place, is not only illogical, its hurtful to fans in a medium where fandom is everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I love change. I love hefty surprises, smashing the status quo, and throwing the field open as far as that mofo can go! But if I want to hold on to what is unique and meaningful about a story or a person I look up to, and I happen to be a white man, I’d like to believe that doesn't qualify me as a racist, sexist, or anything else that ends in "ist" or "phobe".

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Country: USA
Based on: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Director:Victor Fleming
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Sidney Howard
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland
Music: Max Steiner
Length: 220 minutes

During the Civil War and Reconstructionist aftermath, spoiled and fickle Scarlet O'Hara pines relentlessly for a man she can't have while Mr. Right stares her right in the face.

Nailing down Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler took two years while 1400 women auditioned for the part of Scarlet O'Hara. Selznick was almost fined for Rhett Butler's killer closing line ("frankly my dear, I don't give a damn"), but the Production Code Administration gave it a pass on the basis that the expletive was "essential and required for portrayal in proper historical context...based upon a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste."

Winning 10 Oscars including Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), the first win ever for an African American, Fleming's crowning achievement held the record as Hollywood's highest-grossing film for 25 years. Rated for inflation, Gone With The Wind is still the box office champ of all time.

I'm not going to lie: My whole life, I've avoided Gone with the Wind like the plague, a feat I'd hoped to sustain till I shuffled off this mortal coil. The posters and trailers just made it seemed so head-bangingly gutless, weepy, and boring. The Birth of a Nation as interpreted by the Hallmark Channel. No thanks.

Boy was I wrong. Scarlet and Rhett had me at "hell-no", wowing me pretty much from the post-overture intro right up to that classic moment where Mr. Butler decided he longer gave a damn. GWTW is Exhibit A proof of just how far film had come in three short decades. Delicious landscapes, set design and costumes combine with fully-realized characters, a compelling story, and brilliant pacing to set the mood for Hollywood's penultimate anti-romance. Depictions of African Americans may seem dated by today's standards, but they marked a significant (if far from complete) shift in the way black people were portrayed and black actors were treated in cinema. 

This is also the earliest cinematic representation I've found yet of something akin to an equal relationship between a man and a woman. Rhett is attracted to Scarlet's sassy personality and independence and seems genuine in his desire to not change her, even as he seeks permission to care for the woman he loves. One might argue that GWTW renders women befuddled, ungrounded and incomplete until men come to straighten them out - an argument I certainly would (and did) make for Clark Gable's other big classic, It Happened One Night. But I don't find that to be the case here. GWTW is less about gender than it is about the human search for love and fulfillment and the danger of fixing one's eyes on the ever-receding horizon of future happiness.

I believed in and loved the characters (even when I hated them), I cared about their journey (even when I wanted to slap 'em, and good), I was satisfied with how everything wrapped up (even though it wasn't the ending I secretly wanted), and I was thoroughly entertained in the process. What more could you ask for? And what a beautiful message: Be careful you don't ignore happiness when it comes knocking or you might just find it gone with the wind. Cheesy, you say? In my books, truer words were never spoken.


I. Loved. This! 
While everything about the production is breathtaking, making it hard to believe GWTW was filmed in 1939, it's the characters and story that steal the show. I felt like I really knew these people and was truly invested in the messed up, war-torn life they shared.
I don’t think it’s any secret that Scarlett O’Hara is downright certifiable. Initially, I felt a four-hour eyeroll coming on in the face of her spoiled-brat antics, but as I got to know her, I perceived instead an (almost) admirable pragmatism in her declaration, “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again." Agree or disagree, it's difficult to dispute when war has taken everything from you.

At the same time, her scheming and conniving to steal another woman's husband, coupled with her baffling rejection of what essentially amounts to the perfect man (at least for her), made me want to acquaint her on an intimate level with a Confederate soldier's bayonet. I'd like to pretend Scarlet is a Hollywood invention or stereotype, but unfortunately I know too many women like her to do so. And it killed me to see her say no to such a wonderful, genuinely caring and egalitarian guy when he's exactly what she appears to be looking for. Glad I didn't make that mistake! (You can pay me later, Him.) She drove me CRAZY! But I wouldn't have had it any other way. 

This film may be gone with the wind, but it'll stick in my heart and mind for a long time.

Hiatus Over, Excuses Be Damned!

We'd like to say we've spent the last two months in a coma, traveling the high seas, or stuck in a Turkish prison, but that would be a lie - a pathetic, thinly-veiled excuse for what could ordinarily be construed as mere laziness or a basic failure to take this blog or its readers seriously.

Truth is, we went shopping one afternoon at IKEA, slipped into that magical quicksand of plastic balls and through a parallel universe filled with cheap hot dogs and tattooed Stieg Larsson lookalikes from which we only recently managed to escape, and that's why we haven't reviewed a movie since April. (Oh, IKEA, your intoxicating treasures never fail to beguile unwary souls.)

Hiatus over! Now back to our regularly-scheduled program. . .

Sunday, 18 May 2014

World Premiere: The Two Pauls, Episode 3 - Blood & Guts!

Are blood and guts in movies good for us? Find out as Paul Jensen and I go head-to-head on some of Hollywood's most violent films, past and present.

See Episode 1 (Oscar Edition) here and Episode 2 (Sex, God & Superheroes) here.

Big thanks again to the tireless crew at Popkin Media!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Country: USA
Based on: Snow White by the Brothers Grimm
Director: David Hand (supervising)
Producer: Walt Disney / Made by Walt Disney Productions / Distributed by RKO Pictures
Screenplay: Ted Sears and seven screenwriting dwarfs (no really, there were 8 screenwriters)
Voices: Andriana Caselotti, Lucille Le Verne, Harry Stockwell
Length: 83 minutes

A beautiful young princess flees the narcissistic, homicidal rage of her Queen mother and takes refuge with an eccentric group of forest-dwelling little people en route to meeting her Prince Charming. 

On the heels of Disney’s hugely popularly Silly Symphonies shorts, Snow White was not only Walt’s first animated feature, but the first animated feature, period. Filmed on a budget of $1.5 million, it initially raked in $8 million and another $408 million since, making it one of the top ten highest grossing films in North America (when rated for inflation). Before its release, naysayers considered it little more than an outrageously priced flop-to-be. But Disney had faith, and he mortgaged his house to prove it.

Production started in the summer of 1934 with mostly untrained animators whose only professional experience was as newspaper cartoonists. To make sure his crew was up for the task, head animator Art Babbit held classes in his home using a female model. While the dwarfs were the film’s primary selling feature, the heart of the story was Snow White’s rocky relationship with her stepmother, the Queen. Eager to strike a balance between comedy and drama, Walt ensured the movie would make audiences laugh, scream and cry in equal measure.  The film was re-released every seven to ten years between 1944 and 1993, when it became the first film ever to be digitally restored.

Winner of an honorary Oscar in 1939 and nominated for Best Musical Score, largely due to classic songs like Some Day My Prince Will Come, Whistle While We Work, and Heigh Ho, Snow White’s profits were used by Disney to finance the now-legendary Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Over the next 16 years, Disney would forever cement himself in the popular imagination with classics like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. 

Trying to pin down Disney’s influence on cinema and society, never mind on me personally, is roughly the same as trying to summarize the value of air. I can’t remember a time when Disney wasn’t a major part of my life and a fundamental artistic influence. Nor for that matter do I particularly want to. When I’m feeling blue and need me a good pick-me-up, Disney films are still my number one go-to. Walt’s much-chronicled journey from school newspaper cartoonist to roadblock-jumping businessman to shaper of dreams is legendary, a roadmap of perseverance and self-belief if ever there was one. (P.S. I cannot recommend Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination highly enough.) His inexhaustible desire to transform the American cultural landscape, on display in his films, theme parks, television programs, and more, was both unprecedented and unparalleled, except by history’s other notable (if not so noble) emperors.  

And yet despite his insatiable commercial appetite and grand ambition, he never lost sight of what mattered most: touching, well-crafted, highly entertaining stories rooted in ancient archetypes and popular fairy tales that somehow managed to appeal to everybody. And of course, I do mean everybody. So deep was his influence that nearly half a century after his death in 1966, The Walt Disney Company is still spinning cinematic gold out of Walt’s original vision. Sure, the journey hasn’t been without a few dry spells, and one can’t ignore the revival that was Pixar, but on the whole, Disney has remained an institution and inspiration for millions of aspiring storytellers, animators, and filmmakers, not to mention that little kid in all of us.    

But I digress. Snow White, Disney’s bold first kick at the can must have hit audiences like a comet. Funny, moving, visually mesmerizing, and narratively rich, it tells the simple story of a young woman handed one shit sandwich after another who absolutely refuses to let it bring her down. Ignore for a moment that she spends a good share of her time cleaning up after men, for to do otherwise would miss the deeper message. Independent, resourceful, generous and genuinely happy all at the same time, she’s about as close to a perfect female role model - or role model, period - as I can imagine. Sure, she wouldn’t mind a Prince Charming in her life (is that a bad thing?), but she's clearly able to manage just fine on her own in the meantime. The dwarfs are cute and hilarious, the Queen is suitably wicked, and Prince Charming is, well, charming. But it’s Snow White herself that steals the show, and I love her for it.

Too often, we roll our eyes at Disney’s myriad pretty princesses, superficially viewing them as some kind of affront to feminism. But I would argue the opposite: that there is no other filmmaker or studio in history that has so consistently placed strong, heroic female leads at the center of their stories, and who who almost always save the day. Think Alice, Pollyanna, Mary Poppins, Miss Bianca, Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, Nani and Lilo, Mia, Giselle, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and most recently, Elsa – never mind their many sinister and colourful female antagonists. In this way among many others, Walt Disney was a kick-ass, cutting edge innovator.

At the same time, I love Snow White’s unbridled zest for life, her Buddha-like ability to revel in the moment, and the story's emphasis on the elevating power of friendship and community in the face of overwhelming evil. It’s a massively entertaining and elegant film with a beautiful message, uplifting tunes, and wholesome laughs. And these days, who couldn’t use a bit more of that?

When I was growing up, Snow White was the Disney princess I could identify with most. She always focused on the positive even when things were truly bleak. She loved animals and they loved her back. (Bonus: they sang with her and helped clean the house!). She had a thing for apples. And she was always so darned polite!

But what surprised me most about seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs again after all these years was how truly independent and full of joy she comes off in the film - not just as a woman, but as a human being. She's not bothered by what others think she should be, one way or the other; she just is. She doesn't clean and cook and sweep because it's expected of her as a woman; she does it because she genuinely enjoys it. Intentionally or not, she stands for all women who may, in the end, find their truest joy in a role society now sadly deems "stereotypical" and "sexist": that of homemaker, mother, and hostess.

There's also a great little message about how karma works. Snow White sends love out into the world and it comes back to her in multiples of seven - plus Prince Charming! She radiates joy and the people around her can't help but reflect it back. I love that. I know life doesn't always work that way, but Snow White is a good reminder that it can if we're willing to risk throwing a little positive energy out there every once in a while. Whether we get a Prince Charming in the end or not, that just seems like a better, and certainly a happier, way to live.