Saturday, 31 July 2010

'Toy Story 3' review: Pixar falling short of greatness...

Pixar have created a big problem for themselves. Their last two features, 'Wall-E' and 'Up', have been universally heralded as masterpieces and sit comfortably alongside the greatest animated films ever made. Of course, the studio was already well ahead of its American competitors before that - at least artistically. Films such as 'Ratatouille', 'The Incredibles', 'Finding Nemo' and the original 'Toy Story' are easily up there with the work of international masters, such as Miyazaki ('Spirited Away'), Ocelot ('Kirikou and the Sorceress') or Chomet ('Belleville Rende-vouz').

After a filmography that only really boasts one dud (the 2006 film 'Cars'), the California based animation studio have set the bar remarkably, even dauntingly, high and, with 'Cars 2' on the way and now operating under full Disney ownership, the honeymoon period could be set to end for the team that pioneered the now-dominant CGI animation art form. It is with this concern in mind that I went to see the latest entrant into the Pixar canon: 'Toy Story 3'. But does it live up to, or even surpass, the lightness of touch, the wit and the sophistication of last year's 'Up'?

In a word: no.

This is not to say that 'Toy Story 3' is not charming and funny. It is. There are plenty of endearing new characters (notably "Mr. Pricklepants" voiced by Timothy Dalton) and it is fun seeing Woody, Buzz and the gang again. But whereas the question at Pixar has always seemed to be "where can we go next?" - with them constantly pushing at boundaries (both technical and narrative) - this sequel feels as though it has been inspired by accountants and people eager to sell a few more Buzz Lightyear figures this Christmas.

Well, maybe that's a little harsh. There are some good new ideas in the film, which sees the toys being donated to a nursery. The animation of the toddlers is amazing, with the animators doing a terrific job of capturing their movements. In this respect, the film is as detailed and lovingly put together as anything they have produced. Michael Keaton is fun as Ken - the male counterpart to Barbie - as is Ned Beatty as "Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear". The gags are perhaps broader than usual, with lots of in-jokes (a Totoro toy is prominently featured), film references ('Cool Hand Luke' is explicitly quoted) and sight gags, but 'Toy Story 3' on the whole stays true to the Pixar tradition of dealing with genuinely adult themes, such as loss, death and even mid-life crisis. And it must be said that the opening sequence, which takes us into a childs imagination as he plays with the toys, is brilliant.

But whilst Jessie the cowgirl's story in 'Toy Story 2' was genuinely quite moving, helped in no small way by a splendid Randy Newman song ("When She Loved Me"), the tearjerker moments in this sequel feel forced and contrived. 'Up' reduced all except the most hard-hearted to floods of tears in its opening moments and justly received plaudits for doing so in such an elegant way, and it feels almost as though this feat has gone to Pixar's (collective) head. One wonders what great sorrow will befall Lightning McQueen next year. Maybe his tyres will deflate to the strains of a string quartet or his lady-car will take a tumble off a cliff and explode. Whatever they do it won't work: because I don't care about a talking car and, it turns out, care only a fraction more for Mr and Mrs Potato Head et al. The prolonged curtain call that ends the film feels similarly manipulative and calculated as the action which proceeds it.

Far be it from me to go on a Kermodeian rant about 3D, but I have to say that the novelty (and it is a novelty) is really starting to wear off now. I have enjoyed a few 3D titles over the last year and have been impressed by the way that the most recent films have used the technology to create depth rather then to make stuff pop out of the screen. But I am no longer impressed because I have now been there and seen it already. I saw 'Avatar' and now I'm over it. Now all I am noticing is the increased admission price (over £20 for my girlfriend and I) and the splitting headache upon leaving the cinema. The 3D is tastefully implemented in 'Toy Story 3', but you gain precisely nothing from seeing it this way.

If I sound unenthusiastic about 'Toy Story 3' it is only because of Pixar's own exceptionally high standards. Without doubt it is fun film and - along with 'Inception' - it is the must-see blockbuster movie of this summer. But am I wrong to expect a little bit more from Pixar? However much of a good time 'Toy Story 3' is, it doesn't hold a candle to any of their previous three films. Personally, I enjoyed Disney's return to hand-drawn animation, 'The Princess and the Frog', quite a bit more. And with sequels to 'Cars' and 'Monsters Inc.' in the pipeline, could Pixar's golden age be behind them? Or do they have another 'Up' in them? I hope for the latter, but on this evidence there is some cause for concern.

'Toy Story 3' is rated 'U' by BBFC and can be seen almost everywhere in 3D and 2D versions.

Friday, 30 July 2010

'Leaving' review: I Am Bored...

In recent times Kristen Scott Thomas has moved easily between big budget Hollywood movies such as 'The Golden Compass' and interesting little British films like 'Nowhere Boy'. There is nothing especially odd or exceptional about this. But what is rather more remarkable is that she has spent just as much time carving out a career in French language fare like 'Tell No One' and 'I've Loved You So Long'. We are used to seeing European actors move into English language film, but the reverse is rare. I can recall seeing Jodie Foster make a brief cameo appearance in Jeunet's 'A Very Long Engagement' a few years ago, but I am hard pressed to think of any other notable examples.

The latest in this vein of interesting Gallic offerings starring Scott Thomas comes in the form of Catherine Corsini's 'Leaving', the tale of a bored bourgeois housewife (Suzanne) who begins a love affair which both enables her to experience passion and live life again, as well as causing drama and friction within her family. It is in many ways very similar to the Italian-language film 'I Am Love' - which coincidentally also stars an English actress in Tilda Swinton. In 'Leaving' the object of Suzanne's sexual desire comes in the form of a builder who her wealthy husband has employed - distractingly played by the evil Captain Vidal from 'Pan's Labyrinth', the Spannish actor Sergi López.

This tale of sexual reawakening, forbidden love and of the impact of divorce upon a family, can be interesting. When handled properly it can be intense and deeply moving. However 'Leaving' is the single most dull movie I have sat through this year. All the characters (including the children) are unlikeable, the human emotions and events that are depicted are completely silly and handled with an unappealing level of earnestness. There is not really a moment of humour or levity. Instead we are treated to boring and faintly irritating movie which lurches from one uncomfortable sex scene to the next with only the blatant product placement for Peugeot holding any interest.

Suzanne travels between France and Spain frequently in her ultra-reliable French-made car, with a car ad aesthetic taking over whenever she glides across the picturesque countryside. I was not much of a fan of the aforementioned 'I Am Love', however after viewing 'Leaving' I can appreciate that movie's score, it's cinematography and it's set design - all of which are self-consciously "arty" yet provide a level of interest and entertainment missing here in this bland and conventional drama.

On a dramatic level the film has very little to offer. Kristen Scott Thomas' Suzanne could be seen to behave in a way which is interestingly morally grey and her husband's initial reaction to her infidelity is intriguing and sympathetic as it is one of extreme and inconsolable grief. However, seemingly unsure of how to navigate these characters through a story of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity, the film almost immediately finds safer, more surefooted ground. The husband (played by the Israeli-born actor, Yvan Attal) is soon turned into a two-dimensional villain and audience sympathies are reassuringly left to lie with the protagonist. With this lazy writing any hope that 'Leaving' might shed some light on the human condition quickly vanishes and we can set ourselves to autopilot until the film's contrived and completely overblown conclusion.

In the end Kristen Scott Thomas' grasp of French is impressive and I applaud her versatility, however 'Leaving' has little to recommend it. If you want to see an up-market version of this story, watch 'I Am Love'. If you want to see a really good film about temptation and desire for a married woman gone numb, then watch 'Brief Encounter'. This film has no real reason to exist.

'Leaving' is rated '15' by the BBFC and can still be seen in selected cinemas across the UK.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

All moved in: Back to work...

As I said a week ago, I haven't updated very much recently due to moving house - though thankfully not as literally as in the 'Gold Rush' (which I re-watched the other day for an upcoming Chaplin podcast... and that is synergy). But now that is all behind me and I will be returning to my more frequent updates.

A lot has happened since I last wrote anything here. Firstly, I am due to get a regular guest slot on Brighton's Radio Reverb, reviewing films. I am having a meeting with the host of a breakfast show tomorrow to see what I can offer and what format my slot will take. Secondly, the UK Film Council has been dissolved by the Tory government. Jon has written a typically excellent piece on his Splendor Cinema blog, but you should also read this 2007 Guardian article by Alex Cox to get a really spot on account of the council and its failings during its decade of operation. Thirdly, Jon and I recorded a podcast all about the films of Stanley Kubrick as part of our "Pantheon" series chronicling great directors and it should be up on iTunes and the Picturehouse website very soon.

And whilst I am still yet to see 'Toy Story 3' or 'Leaving' (which is playing at the Duke's until Thursday), I have had the opportunity to watch Joon-ho Bong's 'Mother', a brilliant South Korean thriller which is released in the UK in late-August (20th?) across Picturehouse cinemas (the same week as the excellent looking French animation 'The Illusionist'). I will review that film, and record a podcast on it, closer to the time of release.

I have also just watched the first Nicaraguan film made in over 20 years: 'La Yuma' - which I believe will be playing at this year's Cinecity Brighton Film Festival (and for which I hope to write the programme copy). The story of a spirited young female boxer trying to get by in a tough Managua neighborhood, I will review 'La Yuma' closer to the festival which comes to the Duke of York's in a few months time. Last year's festival included advance screenings of 'A Prophet', 'Ponyo', 'Dogtooth', 'Micmacs', 'The Road', 'Humpday' and 'Limits of Control' (among others) so keep an eye out for the programme when it is available.

Last night I watched a 2004 Herzog documentary called 'The White Diamond', which was typically bizarre and mesmerising. In it you can see all the ingredients of Herzog's philosophy of 'Ecstatic Truth' as he follows another dangerous obsessive: this time an English scientist determined to fly his airship over the forest canopy of the Guyana rainforest - a man haunted by the senseless and violent death of a colleague during a similar expedition ten years prior for which he feels responsible. Quite moving and very absurd, 'The White Diamond' is a must see documentary for anyone who enjoyed 'Grizzly Man', 'Encounters at the End of the World' or 'My Best Fiend'.

Anyway, that is all for today. Expect reviews of 'Toy Story 3' and 'Leaving' later this week (probably Thursday and Friday respectively). Until then: listen to the most recent podcasts and check out my last episode of 'Flick's Flicks' if you haven't already done so.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

2010 so far...

We're more than halfway through 2010 now and I am about seven months into my blog. Personally, the year so far has been very exciting. It started with a (brief) appearance on BBC Radio Sussex talking about the results of the Golden Globes. Since then I have recorded a bunch of podcasts, reviewed a lot of films and had a lot of amazing opportunities. I have been to a premiere, interviewed stars and written entries for a book. I have also very recently had the pleasure of filling in as temporary host on 'Flick's Flicks', which has been another new and enjoyable exercise.

But (more interestingly for everyone who isn't me) 2010 has also been a very good year for films so far. My friend and fellow film writer, Dennis, today asked me what my top ten films of the year would be up to this point and this has proven a difficult task.

There have been lots of "good" films this year to choose from. Films like the enjoyable 'Kick-Ass' and the extraordinary 'Dogtooth' have failed to make my final list. I could also have put the re-issue of 'Rashomon' in the list (and it would have been very high up) but decided against it. The Cuban boxing documentary 'Sons of Cuba' could just as easily have found its way into the top ten, as could Chris Morris' hilarious 'Four Lions'. It also pains me to leave out Disney's 'The Princess and the Frog' which I really loved every traditionally animated second of.

Anyway, my final list is as follows:

10) Life During Wartime (Solondz/USA)
9) The Father of My Children (Hansen-Løve/FRA)
8) Lebanon (Maoz/ISR)
7) Cemetery Junction (Gervais and Merchant/UK)
6) Capitalism: A Love Story (Moore/USA)
5) Ponyo (Miyazaki/JAP)
4) Greenberg (Baumbach/USA)
3) No One Knows About Persian Cats (Ghobadi/IRN)
2) Micmacs (Jeunet/FRA)
1) The Happiest Girl in the World (Jude/ROM)

These may not be anything like the objective "best" of the year (if such a thing exists), but they are probably the ones which have stuck in my mind and impressed me the most. They also all moved me, many of them to tears. I think there are two big reasons why 'The Happiest Girl in the World' has emerged as an unlikely winner so far this year. The first is that I had no expectations going into the film. Absolutely none. It was able to surprise me. The second is that it is a film of patience and with a simple premise. There are few actors, one setting and the premise is explored fully as a result. The characters are multi-layered and their motivations interesting. The film can also be taken as a look at contemporary post-Communist Romanian society or of the film industry as a whole - and equally could be read as neither.

'Micmacs' was purely joyful from start to finish, though I know many people who really hated it so I think it is a Marmite experience. Regardless, I left it buzzing. 'Persian Cats' hit me a bit like 'Happiest Girl' and came from out of nowhere to really leave an impression upon me. 'Greenberg' hit a nerve with me and I found myself relating to it in a similar way to how I did when I saw Baumbach's 'The Squid and the Whale'.

'Ponyo' is Miyazaki, so it is splendid from start to finish. Michael Moore is as polemical as ever in 'Capitalism', but I agree with him, so I guess I don't mind. I really felt moved by some of the stuff in it too. Especially the part where he explains how FDR backed a group of striking workers and sent in the army to protect them from the police. 'Cemetery Junction' is the most American British film ever made - in a really good way. A fresh and exciting look at British youth that refuses to ignore 1970s social issues, but refuses to be depressing and really feels like Reading's answer to 'American Graffiti'.

'Lebanon' is a fantastic account of the brutality of war from the inside of a tank. Again, like 'Happiest Girl' it is one idea used to its maximum potential and effectiveness. The fact that it is based on the director's real experiences makes it even more vital and compulsive viewing. 'Father of My Children' takes a non-judgmental, un-sentimental look at a suicide: both the cause and the aftermath. And 'Life During Wartime' is daring and strikes exactly the right comic note in uncomfortable territory.

This is how I feel tonight. Who knows? I may change my mind entirely by the end of the year and many of these films may not feature in my 2010 poll. Some may be higher up and others may enter the list which have so far been left out. But I suppose these lists can really only ever be a platform for discussion and an interesting diversion. Hopefully it may also have encouraged you to check out a few movies you may not have considered. If that happens on even one occasion I will have been proud to invest the time in making it. Probably because it didn't take that long.

I can't wait to see what the rest of 2010 has to offer. Come back in January to find out where things stand when it's all behind us.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

August's edition of 'Flick's Flicks' is here!

I mentioned yesterday that Monday morning saw me recording next month's edition of the Picturehouse preview show 'Flick's Flicks'. Well its director and editor, James Tucker, has been super quick off the mark this month and has already put the finished show up online. I feel like it is an improvement on my first (the July episode).

I now only have one more episode to present before the rather more photogenic Felicity Beckett gets back from maternity leave. So watch this space for the September edition of the show.

Also, 'Giant Sand' were pretty awesome last night. They sound a bit like every Dylan record since Time Out of Mind, but much better (and a damn site better than Dylan was in Cardiff a few years ago - I want my money back Bob!). To make things even better, the singer-songwriter, Howe Gelb, bought me a pint after the gig. Which was nice.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

'Giant Sand' tonight at the Duke's, plus moving house delays me seeing 'Toy Story 3'...

Aside from the being the oldest functioning cinema in the land, Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse also occasionally serves as a music venue. In the past year artists such as Duck Baker and 'Angus and Julia Stone' have taken the stage and tonight it is the turn of Arizona rock band 'Giant Sand'.

I have never seen them (or heard of them), but I am planning to go along tonight and check them out all the same... and you should too!

Anyway, not strictly film related, but I am moving house this week and so probably won't be updating very much at all. This is a shame as there are few films I look forward to more than those by Pixar and I would very much like to see and review 'Toy Story 3' this week. I'll see what happens. Failing that it will be reviewed next week at the latest! I can't wait. I have been a little sceptical since seeing an underwhelming clip at a Disney conference back in April. But almost everyone who has seen it seems to have loved it, so far, so I'm sure it will be good even if it isn't as great as 'Up' and 'Wall-E'.

Finally, I recorded the August edition of 'Flick's Flicks' yesterday with the smashing James Tucker. In it I previewed the August line-up coming to Picturehouse cinemas, including 'The Illusionist' (below), South Korean drama: 'Mother', 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' and 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World'. Check it out when it is online at the start of next month.

Friday, 16 July 2010

'Predators' review: A decent start ruined by a silly alien...

What do 'Jaws' and the original 'Alien' have in common? They are both films which expertly create tension and fear in an an audience by deliberately refusing to show the titular creature. Aside from the occasional glimpse, the creature is unseen and becomes enigmatic, intriguing, more exciting. Of course, with both these examples there was a practical consideration in that the directors knew that with limited technology, showing the creature would look phenomenally silly. So when your "monster" is basically very, very silly anyway, with long fingernails and dreadlocks, it should be a no-brainer: don't show us the monster.

It is a lesson that should have been learned by the makers of the original 1987 actioner 'Predator', as well as its much-maligned 1990 sequel 'Predator 2' (AKA 'Predator: Pig in the City'). Both of which show rather too much of the Rastafarian alien then is really wise. As soon as a man in a rubber suit starts running towards the camera I am no longer scared. Worse than that: I am no longer taking the movie seriously. OK, so both those movies jump the shark way before the Predator turns up. 'Predator' has a adrenaline fuelled, explosive gun battle in which muscle bound tough-guys make evil Latino people explode by the score, all to the tune of familiar 1980s Schwarzenegger zingers ("stick around!"). The sequel sees a gun crazed Danny Glover enter a strange, dystopian LA that feels like something out of a long lost Paul Verhoeven movie. The streets are full of various over the top, ethnic scumbags who need culling.

Both films strain credibility long before the man in the rubber suit makes an appearance. However, the tragedy of the latest installment in the franchise, the Robert Rodriquez produced 'Predators', is that for the first half hour it is actually fairly well made and quite engrossing stuff. It returns the series to the jungle setting of the original (albeit this time on another planet) and sees a group of macho-types from around the world dropped into the middle of a game preserve, apparently to serve as quarry for the blood-sport obsessed aliens.

Director Nimród Antal creates a good atmosphere and is helped by a cast of decent and appealing actors in the various roles, including Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace and Danny Trejo. Antal quickly establishes all the characters personalities and backgrounds and starts the movie at a breakneck pace with Brody falling out of the sky into the jungle before the title pops up. The film is at its strongest as the unlikely band of misfits band together and try to work out what is going on. As an audience we know they are soon going to be picked apart by bloodthirsty aliens, which creates a decent tension as we ponder "when is it going to happen and who will be the first to die?"

It is far from perfect even at this stage, with the dialogue mostly consisting of people shouting "what the fuck is going on?", "where the fuck are we?" and "what the fuck is that thing?" The characters aren't especially deep, instead they are broad archetypes. But this is forgivable and the actors bring a lot to their roles, especially Brody who some may think is an odd choice here as a beefcake-commando, but he lends plausibility, intelligence and depth to a role which could just so easily have fallen to Vin Diesel.

The thing is after the initial honeymoon period the Predators themselves turn up. And from then on things get progressively sillier and sillier to the point that by the end most the initial goodwill has dissipated. Seen in daylight and in long sustained full-body shots, the Predators are perhaps the most ridiculous antagonists imaginable. The film reaches its nadir during one sequence which sees two men in Predator suits punching each other for about five minutes, which is easily as appealing as seeing two CGI robots punching each other in a certain Michael Bay movie.

There is also a fundamental problem with the concept suggested in the title: that this time there is more than one Predator. Upping the number of Predators diminishes their threat rather than increasing it. Predators used to eat units of commandos for breakfast, but now they are hunting in packs and struggling to kill Topher Grace? But maybe these are rubbish Predators anyway, on some sort of game-tourism weekend. Whereas previous Predators used to take the trouble to land on Earth and seek out bad-asses (and Bill Paxton) to skin alive, this lot are content to land on a local hunting ground and use their heat-sensor equipment (which seems like cheating to me) to hunt disorientated primitives.

In the end 'Predators' is quite disappointing. Not because I had especially high hopes going in, but because the opening minutes suggested it could have been better. But then the men in their rubber suits started running towards the camera and I was no longer tense. Worse than that: I was no longer taking the movie seriously. Maybe that is my problem. Maybe I am not supposed to be taking this movie seriously. But if you're in the market for silly, stick on the 1987 original and have done with it. 'Predators' is neither good enough, nor silly enough to warrant too much attention.

'Predators' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on general release in the UK.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Herzog on "Ecstatic Truth"

This is over a decade old now, but I've only just come across it and it's interesting and amusing. If, like me, you are a fan of eccentric German film-maker Werner Herzog, then this is a great read. In this "declaration" Herzog decries Cinéma vérité and asserts his own rules for "ecstatic truth" in documentary film-making. Anyone who has seen one of his documentary films (such as 'Grizzly Man' or 'Encounters at the End of the World') will see how all this applies. It is fascinating. It could all read as pretentious, but I honestly don't think Herzog has any time for pretension. As you can see in the accompanying video below - there is always a humility and an earnestness to what he says. He speaks a lot of sense here (italics are mine - to highlight the best bits!):

“Minnesota Declaration” / Truth and fact in documentary cinema

Werner Herzog
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 30, 1999


1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. “For me,” he says, “there should be only one single law; the bad guys should go to jail.”

Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: “You can’t legislate stupidity.”

9. The gauntlet is herby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Capital and Credibility in Sleeping Beauty: Eyvind Earle and the Disney Pre-Renaissance

I said, yesterday, that I would explain why it is that 'Sleeping Beauty' is one of my favourite films. The following is an essay I wrote in 2008. It explains the auteurist nature of the film and its unique place in the wider Disney canon. I was tempted to edit or improve upon it, but instead it is here warts and all. Enjoy:

1959 saw the release of one of the decade’s most highly anticipated event movies: 'Ben Hur'. However, William Wyler’s mega-hit was not the only big Hollywood event movie that year. 1959 was also the year that Walt Disney would release his long anticipated 'Sleeping Beauty' (1). Four years had passed since Disney’s fifteenth animated feature 'Lady and the Tramp' (2) had hit the world’s theatres. Disney fans had not been kept in the dark during this wait, however, as Walt promoted 'Sleeping Beauty' throughout its six year development (3 p. 299) on his weekly television show (4 p. 75) (even opening the Sleeping Beauty Disneyland attraction two years before the film’s release (5)). The film marked the studios return to the classic fairytale (6). At the beginning of the decade, in 1950, 'Cinderella' (7) had been a huge success credited with getting the studio back on their feet after financial difficulties during the war years (4 p. 75), where the studio released a series of progressively banal musical package films (3 p. 276). During a decade which had seen the success of 'Cinderella', 'Peter Pan' (8), 'Alice in Wonderland' (9) and 'Lady and the Tramp' (10 p. 9;48): 'Sleeping Beauty' “was conceived as the most spectacular of the postwar productions.” (3 p. 299) This hope is reflected in the following passage of Walt Disney’s biography by Neal Gabler: “Lady [and the Tramp], despite its long gestation period and despite the fact that it turned out well, was essentially make-work. Sleeping Beauty was something else. It was intended to be a magnum opus – ‘our most ambitious cartoon feature, to date’ Walt wrote...” (11 p. 558). But with a growth in the production of live-action films, with the creation of an ever expanding theme park empire, with aggressive interest in television programming and with ancillary revenues more important than ever to Disney (12 p. 4) (and more demanding of Walt’s attention (3 p. 300)), was there a place for art in an increasingly commercial House of Mouse?

'Sleeping Beauty' was certainly an expensive film to produce. It was the last Disney film to be hand inked before new Xerox practices were developed, which would be used on their next feature 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' (13), saving time and money (and indeed making that film, with its hundred and one puppies, possible) (3 p. 301). The hand inked 'Sleeping Beauty' was incredibly labour-intensive as inkers had to hand paint all of the animators drawings onto each cell (it took 24 days to animate a single second of movement). This came at a great cost as the budget went through the roof. Eventually Disney spent over $6 million on 'Sleeping Beauty' (14 p. 15), although nothing in today’s Hollywood (Leonard Malton has joked that $6 million would be the “lunch budget” for a modern action movie (5)), it was a huge sum for an animated feature the fifties (indeed 'Lady and the Tramp' cost half the amount) (11 p. 557). The relative commercial failure of 'Sleeping Beauty' (11 p. 560), which “began in high hopes and ended in disaster” (3 p. 229), almost convinced Walt to scrap the production of animated feature films altogether (11 p. 559). Whilst 'Sleeping Beauty' and its relative lack of success at the box office didn’t put an end to animation at Disney, it did lead to a growth in live-action features, which continued to do well for the studio into the mid-70’s (11 p. 585). It also led to '101 Dalmatians' being made on a significantly reduced budget, which was cut even further for 'The Sword and the Stone' (15) (11 p. 620).

At the time of the film’s release, studios were experimenting with various widescreen aspect ratios. Sleeping Beauty was made in one of the widest: the Super Technirama 70mm format (3 p. 299). The film also took advantage of developments in sound recording, bring released in 6-track stereo sound (5). The widescreen process presented particular problems for animators, who, faced with more characters on screen at any given time, would have to spend more time animating each frame than they would traditionally. Ollie Johnston, who animated the fairies in 'Sleeping Beauty', noted this as a particular concern in regards to close-ups saying “you couldn’t get rid of a fairy” as they always seemed to co-exist within each frame. This complicated the staging of the movie in regard to the use of space, as animators had to think creatively to avoid the frame looking bare.

Though Sleeping Beauty was made by much of the same crew as those other 1950’s Disney features, celebrated Disney animator Andreas Deja describes the films style as being “more graphic than 'Lady and the Tramp'” (5). The film proved to be a break from the traditional Disney style in a number of ways. With Walt eager for the film to boast “a more unified look” (5), apparently inspired by an exhibition of medieval artworks known as the “unicorn tapestries” (fig.1) (5), he turned to background artist Eyvind Earle. Up to that point Earle’s work at the studio had consisted of backgrounds for 'Lady and the Tramp' and 'Peter Pan', as well as work on a handful of experimental short subjects, including the Academy Award winning 'Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom' (16). However, Walt was convinced of his talent and charged him with responsibility for styling 'Sleeping Beauty', with Walt’s instruction that it should resemble a “moving illustration” (11 p. 558). Ken Anderson, the film’s production designer, described Earle’s work on the film as a “strange and sterile look” given the dominance of vertical and horizontal lines and geometric shapes. Earle came to the project with a rich understanding of pre-renaissance, medieval and gothic art, which he faithfully incorporated into the look of the film:
“I’ve always been informed by pre-renaissance, medieval, gothic and here’s a movie based on that period of time. I first started with the old medieval artists and almost everything that was gothic. The tapestries [fig.1] were perfect examples of how foregrounds ought to be. The gothic came from the Persians and all their little details of grasses and weeds and trees fit perfectly, so I realised I could use anything that was in harmony with what I was trying to accomplish. And out of all of that a little tiny bit of myself came through.” (5)

Earle’s studies of Persian painting gave him major inspiration as he realised that everything was painted in focus, clear and clean all the time (5). This stylistic choice led to one of the biggest departures from traditional Disney on the movie, as Earle’s insistence on everything being in focus went against the purpose of multi-plane camera techniques Disney had made famous on previous films. The illusion of reality (by way of the presentation of depth) was being cast aside to give the film the more unified, stylised look Disney had insisted upon. The result was a series of backgrounds which were like nothing seen previously in a Disney picture, as Andreas Dejas suggests: “When you look at backgrounds from Bambi (17) and Snow White (18), as beautifully as they are painted in watercolour, but [if] you take the character level out of it they look like an empty stage set. These backgrounds [Earle’s for Sleeping Beauty] look almost like complete paintings with characters on top of them.” (5)

Pixar Animation Studios co-founder John Lasseter has been similarly enthusiastic about Earle’s backgrounds in 'Sleeping Beauty', also noting the departure from what had come before: “One thing Disney has always been good at is focussing the audience’s eye. Then here comes this film which is just gorgeous from one edge of the film to the other.” (5) This would prove to be a concern for the character animators, as it was feared it could distract an audience’s attention away from the characters themselves. Disney had become famous for their rounded and “cute” characters, from 'Steamboat Willie' (19) to 'Lady and the Tramp'; Disney characters were drawn to be appealing and warm. However, Earle was responsible, not only for the films lush backgrounds, but also in overseeing that the character animators styled and coloured characters to work with his backgrounds. This led to a certain amount of conflict between Earle and the animators, who petitioned Walt to remove him from the project, but Walt backed Earle and the animators were forced to make characters to fit the backgrounds (5), whereas traditionally the reverse would have been expected. Christopher Finch’s book The Art of Walt Disney describes this stylistic choice in unflattering terms: “unfortunately its [the films] stylised treatment tended to slow the action and interfere with character development.” (3 p. 299) He also backs up the concern of the artists that Earle’s backgrounds “are so busy they distract from the characters.” (3 p. 300) The way the characters were styled to achieve that stylistically unified look for 'Sleeping Beauty' marked another major change for Disney.

Earle’s influence on character design is noticeable when comparing Maleficent, the villain of 'Sleeping Beauty' (fig.2), with the stepmother from Cinderella (fig.3).These two are useful subjects of a comparison as both villains were based on live-action reference footage of the same actress (fig.4) and were drawn within the same decade. Maleficent is comprised of strong and distinct vertical and horizontal lines. Even the round parts of her design, such as her facial features and her horns, are jagged and almost appear as distinct vertical lines. Her colours are more subdued in order to compliment the dark grey spaces she usually operates in. By contrast Cinderella’s stepmother is a more traditional Disney character. She has rounded facial features, hair and clothing, whilst wearing comparatively bright colours. Whilst both characters are recognisably based on the same reference actress, Maleficent emphasises her eyes and her mouth, as well as her mannerisms, but puts then firmly within the films stylised look. The stepmother, on the other hand, resembles the actress more closely, but has exaggerated her into the more rounded classical style associated with Walt Disney. Ken Anderson has criticised the Eyvind Earle style character designs as “unfortunately quite stiff”, saying it “wasn’t possible for the characters to fit the style and be attractive” at the same time (5).

The three good fairies of 'Sleeping Beauty' represented something of a compromise between Earle and their animator Ollie Johnston, who managed to strike a balance between their geometric and angular costumes and their cute and cuddly Disney faces (fig.5). Walt Disney had discussed making the fairies identical (in the mould of Donald Duck’s three nephews), but the animators ignored this direction, giving them individual looks and personalities as distinct as those of the seven dwarfs. The fairies in the film fill the established Disney role of providing comic relief. However, this role is complicated by the fact that they are also (if only by virtue of screen time) the central characters. Rather than being the subject of a wacky sub-plot, the comic relief in 'Sleeping Beauty' is always part of the action, driving the story forwards. For example, as they make the cake and the dress for Princess Aurora’s birthday they argue and end up making a mess of everything they set out to achieve, yet this scene is not superfluous. In order to make the surprises they send Aurora out of the house and into the woods, where she happens to meet her Prince for the first time. The scene also enables us to see how much the fairies have come to care for Aurora during the years they have been charged with looking after her. It therefore serves to advance the plot of the film, show the development of the characters and provides emotional weight to the rest of the film. To a 1959 audience the three fairies voice actors would also have been recognisable, being comprised of popular radio and television personalities of the day. This would bring a certain likeable quality to the characters as audience expectation of their various roles would have provided a certain amount of pleasure, as it did to a contemporary reviewer in Variety (20 p. 6), perhaps lost on a modern audience.

Other characters with a clear medieval influence might include Malificent’s demon-like henchmen (fig.6) which resemble something from a gothic rendering of hell, like in this 15th century piece by Hieronymus Bosch (fig.7). They are not human, but nor are they animal, but some strange and grotesque hybrid. Similarly the crowds in the film are unusually static for a Disney animation and blend into the background, being comprised of ‘held cells’. This economy of movement allows for the film to feel like a moving illustration, where only the principle characters are moving in the frame.

The faces of people in these crowds in 'Sleeping Beauty' are either indistinct from one another or they are without detail altogether. Whilst art of the renaissance made a feature of celebrating the human through detailed portraits of faces, pre-renaissance art came before this humanist tendancy, the result being a lack of interest in individuals and in facial expression (21 p. 106). This tendancy is, understandably, not reflected in central characters, whose faces are expressive and detailed. The presentation of people in the art of 'Sleeping Beauty' is firmly routed in western Christian tradition: in Islamic art patterns and symbols are favoured over the depiction of humans and animals, which are considered idolatry (22 p. 110). By contrast (and in Disney tradition) 'Sleeping Beauty' depicts a plethora of woodland creatures, as well as people. The Persian influence Earle mentioned is, therefore, routed mainly in the details of patterns seen in interiors and in the painting of buildings and trees (22 p. 189).

As mentioned, the styling of these characters in this bold and graphic way was done in order to make them better read against Earle’s medieval/gothic influenced background paintings. The medieval influence on Eyvind Earle’s background work is visible throughout Sleeping Beauty. The films backgrounds are highly detailed (see the brickwork in fig.5 or the town in fig.9), and the colours are vibrant rather than naturalistic, with clean horizontal and vertical lines which dominate the look of the film. As Deja’s points out, there is also more than a hint of modernism: “It [Earle’s painting] takes the ideas and the colours and the motifs of the middle ages and then re-interprets them with a fifties point of view, being very graphic... it’s a modernist 20th century approach to re-interpreting pre-renaissance art.” (5) Flemish artists the Limbourg brothers, who painted the pictures for The Book of Hours (fig.8 & 11), “accomplished a revolution by introducing the landscape copied direct from nature into their painting” (22 p. 226). Earle has, similarly, taken their artwork and added a graphic modernism.

Shadows are usually absent in 'Sleeping Beauty' (with a few noteable absences such as the demonic fire dance in Malificents lair), which must be a stylistic choice rather than one based on limitation as shadows are rendered for all of the characters in 'The Lady and the Tramp'. Similarly, pre-renaissance art is usually devoid of the detailed recreation of lighting, including shadows, as can be gleened from the illustration (fig.8). Another influence emerges when you consider how the horses in the foreground in both pictures (fig.8 & 9) seem to exist on one plane. In medieval art details can exist in the foreground and the background, but without any real sense of perspective. Background objects are meerly drawn smaller and foregrounded items drawn bigger, all in sharp detail. The same can be seen in any frame from Sleeping Beauty (as in fig.9). The difference between this gothic stlyling and the art which would come later has been nicely described by Henry Focillon, who wrote:
“There are two kinds of painting: one imitates the light of the sun, with its play of brightness and shadow, and seeks to create the illusion of a complete space, modelled in depth; the other accepts natural lighting and utilises it for its own purposes, which are not those of nature, gives it a novel and perculiar character, and embodies it in a flatterned space... Gothic painting is essentially of the second category; even when it tends to give the figures the fullness of their substance...” (21 p. 110)

The gothic look is applied futher to the architecture of the film, with all of the castle interiors seen in Sleeping Beauty ressembling the interiors of great medieval Cathedrals like those at Salisbury, Troyes and Strassburg (23 pp. 45-53). If a Cathedral is “a universe devised by the power of human thought”, as Focillon suggests (21 p. 110), then a Cathedral is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the singular beauty of Eyvind Earle’s work on 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Earle’s unified styling of 'Sleeping Beauty' so impressed Disney that it came to infilrate all aspects of the project. The original plan for the film is that it would be a musical with broadway-style popular song tunes, like 'Peter Pan' and 'Lady and the Tramp' before it. However, when Walt Disney saw the elegance and refinment of Eyvind Earle’s paintings he decided that the song score had to be scrapped, with the exception of the song “Once Upon a Dream”. Instead he had a musical score composed based upon Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet based on the same story (5). This move represents a huge commitment to the artistry of the project from Walt Disney, seeing as how Disney films made many millions each year from the sales of sheet music and records, based on the popular songs they featured (4 p. 77) (12 p. 4). Perhaps this was borne out of Walt’s desire to make another 'Fantasia' (24), heralded by the media as a masterpiece upon its release, in no small part down to its use of “high” art in the form of classical music (25 pp. 214-36). In Walt Disney’s biography, it is suggested that Walt’s determination to make 'Sleeping Beauty' “art” was in no small way due to a desire to prove the “superiority of the Disney style, and in doing so... would also constitute a major assault on everything [his rivals] represented” both in terms of content and form. (11 pp. 555-8).

Disney had long felt that the wonderful concept paintings of artists like Mary Blair (whose concepts for 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan' can be seen in fig.12 & 13) were being watered down and homogenised for the final film (11 p. 558). He had hoped that in 'Sleeping Beauty', by handing creative control of the overall design to one man, he could produce a piece of unparalleled animated art. As Walt Disney became more and more interested in theme parks and television, his interest (or at the least the time he could spend with) the animation department appeared to wane (11 p. 559) and in this period he seemed split down the middle between the hard-nosed businessman, whose empire had reached all four corners of the globe; and the young man with the wide-eyed facination of all things animated. People who worked on 'Sleeping Beauty' often recall that Walt would be enthusiastic about the artistic aims of the film on one day, and then go the other direction on the next, fretting about the mounting cost. On one of the bad days he fired Eric Larsen as director of the film because the scene he was working on (‘sequence 8’ in which Aurora meets her Prince) had run over budget and taken (literally) years to produce, and even then he hadn’t been happy with the results declaring that the scene needed “more cute animals” (5).

'Lady and the Tramp' could be seen as a more influential Disney movie than 'Sleeping Beauty', as it set a less formal tone, whilst being based in a contemporary setting, something which many of the 1960’s Disney films would seem to continue (3 p. 300). But whether Earle’s influence stayed with Disney or not, his time on 'Sleeping Beauty' seemed to stay with him after he left the studio following the films release to continue his career as an artist in his own right. His painting of northern Californian landscapes (fig.14) bare more than a passing resemblance to his work on the film, whereas his work prior to Disney had been more obviously modernist (fig.15).

Did 'Sleeping Beauty' represent a successful fusion between “high” and “low” culture as 'Fantasia' had been heralded as achieving nearly twenty years prior? Ollie Johnston never thought so, ever critical of the films style. He believed that the background paintings in a good film would “support the action by minimizing detail or bright colours that could distract from the action, thus the background palette is said to reinforce the characterization and the action’s effects subtly and plausibly.” (26 p. 109) Similarly, the faint praise the film is afforded in its highly critical entry in The Art of Walt Disney is that it features “some excellent moments”, but the characters are criticised as the “merest of ciphers... wholly compounded from clichés” whilst the backgrounds are “so busy they distract from the characters” (3 p. 300). In the 500-plus pages of Finch’s book (which only goes as far as 1973) there are only one and a half pages dedicated to 'Sleeping Beauty'.

The film did receive more encouraging contemporary write-ups though. Variety of January 21st 1959 featured a positive review which proclaimed the film as a guaranteed treat for audiences who it says may be impressed despite their familiarity with television. It also praises the characters voice work and singles out the Prince as “considerably more masculine than these Disney heroes usually are” and acknowledging that the characters “match the visual concept” (20 p. 6). In the next issue of January 28th a story expresses the excitement investors felt at a screening of the film, even going so far as to suggest the $6 million had been well spent (14 p. 15). February 4th sees an issue of Variety released which reports that the film had broken records for its opening showings in Los Angeles (27 p. 4).

Whatever the contemporary view of audiences and critics (and Disney animators) toward 'Sleeping Beauty', the fact remains that Disney has been (in the long-term) profiting from the film with endless Home Video reissues since 1986, as well as theatrical re-releases in 1970, 1979, 1986 and 1993 (with a limited release in 2008). When adjusted for inflation of ticket prices 'Sleeping Beauty' is the 29th highest grossing film of all-time in the US alone (28), earning a combined $523,267,600 domestically (making it the sixth most successful Disney film at the US box office). Recent years have also seen the film receiving greater critical attention, as more people start to appreciate the efforts made by Eyvind Earle to break from some established Disney traditions in form, whilst maintaining the fluidity of the animation itself (5). A highlight for this spectacular animation can be seen in ‘sequence 8’ (the forest dance) as Aurora’s dress moves so naturally in relation to her movements. The characters may have been stylised and vertical, to the ire of many of their animators, yet the Disney flair for animated movement still shines through and, arguably, compliments the films look far more than it hinders it.

'Sleeping Beauty' is a triumph of art, produced in a commercial setting. Whilst it has been exploited for theme park rides, dolls, home videos, recorded music, books, costumes, bedding and even video games, these things are irrelevant to Eyvind Earle’s art. There is a difference between the Disney Corporation and animators and artists whose life and vocation is animation, just as there was a difference between Walt Disney the businessman and Walt Disney the animator. Of course, this essay has ignored many things which would seem to criticise the art of Disney; namely gender politics. But whatever the politics of the Disney canon at large, 'Sleeping Beauty' is secure as the last classical Disney film: the last to be hand-inked and the last (for better or worse) to be so two-dimensionally embedded in a fairytale past. It was also the first (and possibly the last) Disney film to so wholeheartedly embrace the notion of animation as art: and there cannot be a better epitaph, for it or Earle, than that.

1. Clark, Les, et al. Sleeping Beauty. Disney, 1959.
2. Geronimi, Clyde, Jackson, Wilfred and Luske, Hamilton. The Lady and the Tramp. Disney, 1955.
3. Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney. Burbank, CA : Walt Disney Productions, 1973.
4. Gomery, Douglas. Disney's Business History: A Reinterpretation. [book auth.] Eric Sooodin. Disney Discource. New York : Routledge, 1994.
5. Dejas, Andreas, Lasseter, John and Maltin, Leonard. Audio Commentary. Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Edition. [Blu-ray Disc] s.l. : Disney Studios/Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2008.
6. Perrault, Charles and Translation by Carter, Angela. Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Favourites. London : Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1982.
7. Geronimi, Clyde, Luske, Hamilton and Jackson, Wilfred. Cinderella. Disney, 1950.
8. —. Peter Pan. Disney, 1953.
9. Geronimi, Clyde, Jackson, Wilfred and Luske, Hamilton. Alice in Wonderful. Disney, 1951.
10. All-Time Blockbusters. Variety. January 7th, 1959, Vol. 213, 6.
11. Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Biography. London : Random House, 2006.
12. Disney Profits Continue to Rise. Variety. January 14th, 1959, Vol. 213, 7.
13. Geronimi, Clyde, Luske, Hamilton and Reitherman, Wolfgang. One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Disney, 1961.
14. Investors Predict Disney Growth. Variety. January 28th, 1959, Vol. 213, 9.
15. Reitherman, Wolfgang. The Sword and the Stone. Disney, 1963.
16. Kimball, Ward and Nichols, Charles A. Toot, Whilstle, Plunk and Bloom. Disney, 1953.
17. Hand, David D. Bambi. Disney, 1942.
18. Hand, David. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney, 1937.
19. Disney, Walt and Iwerks, Ub. Steamboat Willie. Disney, 1928.
20. Sleeping Beauty Review. Variety. January 21st, 1959, Vol. 213, 8.
21. Focillon, Henry. The Art of the West: Gothic Art. New York : Phaidon Publishers, 1963.
22. Bazin, Germain. A History of Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. London : Bonanza Books, 1958.
23. Frankl, Paul. Gothic Architecture. London : Penguin, 1962.
24. Armstrong, Samuel, et al. Fantasia. Disney, 1940.
25. Luckett, Moya. Fantasia: Cultural Constructions of Disney's "Masterpiece". [book auth.] Eric Smoodin. Disney Discource. New York : Routledge, 1994.
26. Neupart, Richard. Painting a Plausible World. [book auth.] Eric Smoodin. Disney Discource. New York : Routledge, 1994.
27. This Week at the Box Office. Variety. February 4th, 1959, Vol. 213, 10.
28. All Time Box Office With Ticket Price Adjusted for Inflation. Box Office Mojo. [Online] [Cited: January 12, 2009.]
29. Thomas, Bob. Disney's Art of Animation. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1958.
30. Kühnel, Ernst. Islamic Arts. London : G. Bell & Sons, 1970.
31. Canemaker, John. The Art and Flair of Mary Blair. Burbank, CA : Disney Editions, 2003.

1. ‘The Unicorn is Found’, ca. 1495-1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image obtained from
2. Malificent in Sleeping Beauty. See (1). Image obtained from DVD.
3. The Stepmother in Cinderella. See (7). Image obtained from DVD.
4. Eleanor Audley. Image obtained from
5. Three Good Fairies in Sleeping Beauty. See (1). Image obtained from DVD.
6. Maleficent’s Goons. See above.
7. ‘Hell’, Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1490-1500. Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna. Image obtained from
8. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Limbourg Brothers, ca.1485-1489. Musée Condé, Chantilly. Image obtained from
9. Sleeping Beauty. Image obtained from DVD.
10. Sleeping Beauty. Image obtained from DVD.
11. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Limbourg Brothers, ca.1485-1489. Musée Condé, Chantilly. Image obtained from
12. Concept for Alice in Wonderland, Mary Blair, Image obtained from
13. Concept for Peter Pan, Mary Blair, Image obtained from
14. Gothic Forest, Eyvind Earle, 1999, Gallery 21, California. Image obtained from
15. Deer, Eyvind Earle, Image obtained from
16. Various Home Video Boxes, found on

All images belong to their respective owners.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

On the "Big Screen": 3 films I want re-released...

'Breathless' and 'Rashomon' on limited re-releases recently (and 'The Godfather' and 'The Red Shoes' last year) it occurs to me that there are a great many old classics well worth a new theatrical run. The added power afforded a film on the big screen makes watching it a whole new experience. I have to admit that I never found 'The Godfather' affected me in any way until I saw it projected onto a large screen in a large dark room in front of an audience. As I wrote in my review of Godard's 'Breathless', the rules which apply to the cinema as a social space (no talking, no phones etc) make it ideal place to see a film properly.

As the way we consume film changes, perhaps theatrical re-releases of older films could become more commonplace. Think about it: if, in the future, the cinema is not the first place you can see a new film then it has to become something else. And that something else is a place where film enthusiasts go out of their way to have an experience, specifically wanting to see a film in that way and under those conditions. If future people can (legally) download new films to their phones, or iPads or directly to their frontal lobes or whatever, then what difference does it make if a cinema shows 'Spiderman 10' or 'The Seventh Seal'? In fact the latter may prove more popular as the 'Spiderman 10' crowd may care less where and how (and at what visual quality) they see the film.

Of course this could signal an end for multiplexes. This elite crowd who want to pay to see Bergman projected in a theatre will not settle for crummy customer service or a poorly projected image. Instead it will be prestigious and historic venues (like Brighton's Duke of York's, Brixton's Ritzy or Edinburgh's Cameo) that may flourish, becoming an equivalent of going to the opera or to see a play. For many patrons their local cinemas already provide that sort of experience and (hopefully) will continue to do so for many more years.

Anyway, I really started this post to suggest some old films I'd quite like to see given a theatrical re-release at some point soon. Here are three, though I could pick many more:

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Before home video, Disney used to constantly re-release their "animated classics" in cinemas. Every few years each film would do the rounds again, allowing a new generation of kids to see 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' and 'Pinocchio' who would never have had a chance to see them before. Disney still operate this policy on DVD today, with films deleted and then later re-released in an ever repeating cycle, however the chance of seeing many of the older films in a theatre is now much more slender.

'Sleeping Beauty' is my favourite (for reasons that will come apparent during the week, when I'll post a retrospective look at the film) and so I would love to catch it at the cinema. Especially in its original "Super Technirama 70" format (now available on an amazing Blu-ray). Admittedly Disney gave the film its last brief theatrical run as recently as 2008... but I think that must have been in the US, because I never heard about it!

Annie Hall (1977)

Apparently re-released in the UK in 2001, 'Annie Hall' is quite simply a masterwork. Personally I'd love to see Woody Allen's opening monologue on the big screen. The film so inventive and so influential that is as deserving as any other film as far as re-releasing is concerned. It is certainly more deserving of distribution than 'Whatever Works'. In 2012 it will be 35 years old, which seems like me to as good an excuse as any to put the comedy (which defeated 'Star Wars' to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1977) back in the cinema.

Jurassic Park (1993)

My Splendor Cinema podcast co-presenter Jon insists I am alone in this, but I have a lot of friends who, like me, were at a certain age when 'Jurassic Park' came out and know it line-for-line with a childish enthusiasm that refuses to die. I would pay to go and see my favourite Spielberg movie at the pictures again. I was eight years old last time I saw it on a cinema screen and I'd love to see it again. Furthermore (and unlike the others on this list), it has never had a cinematic re-release. Nostalgia aside, I truly believe 'Jurassic Park' is a landmark film (certainly technically) and at some point in the future it will be re-evaluated as such. And 'Hook' too... to a lesser extent...

Monday, 12 July 2010

'Breathless' re-issue review: Back in cinemas and looking good...

Jean-Luc Godard's 'À Bout de Souffle' ('Breathless') may not have been the inaugural film of the French New Wave, coming as it did a year after Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows', but in many ways it has become the most iconic, the image of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo walking down the Champs-Élysées now synonymous with the influential movement. Boasting a script co-written by Truffaut and Godard it is perhaps an appropriate signifier. Now in its 50th year, the film has been the subject of a restoration and remastering effort and has now been re-released in selected cinemas.

As with the re-releases of 'The Godfather' and 'The Red Shoes' last year, the primary benefit of the restoration is that these old and "important" films are once again available to see as they should be seen: projected on a big screen in a dark room. The new print of 'Breathless' is beautiful and sharp, but as with those other two films (and Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' last month) I was most taken aback by the atmosphere and power the film gained when set back into its original context.

Up on the screen the film can hold your complete attention better than a television can, and this isn't just down to the size of the screen and the darkness of the room. For the most part it is the social experience - more specifically the rules we must follow in a public cinema. You can not (or at least ought not) talk to the person next to or look at your mobile phone. You can not pause to make a cup of tea and you hesitate to leave for the toilet. In the cinema these norms of social behaviour work in favour of the art form: you are there to watch the movie and you watch the movie properly.

Watching it this way you can notice more than you might at home on a DVD. I was able to better appreciate the ingenious and ground-breaking camera techniques, such as the jump-cuts and the long continuous takes. Likewise themes, such as Michel's (Belmondo) obsession with American popular culture and Patricia's (Seberg) obsession with being loved, were more apparent. The characters are not in love with each other, but with images and cultural symbols. "When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other", says Michel near the films climax and he seems to sum up the relationship as it has been. All of it was clearer and better defined in a theatre.

The most extraordinary thing about 'Breathless' is that it opens with a car theft and subsequent murder of a policeman and follows a man on the run, but that this story seems to take a back seat - at times seeming unimportant. Indeed the murder itself is afforded little screen time and is boiled down to the most crucial elements: the trigger being pulled and the body falling dead. Instead, the film is about the central relationship between Patricia and Michel, with elements of crime thriller and Film Noir on the side. For the most part Michel seems relaxed. He walks the streets openly and feels under such limited threat that he even tails a policemen who is looking for him. He continues to steal cars. Late in the film when he learns the police know his whereabouts he makes no sudden movements. He does not run or hide.

Written by two film critics it does not seem like too big a stretch to say that Michel behaves as though he is the self-conscious star of his own film, taking his Boggart obsession to the extreme and living that persona to the last. He is an empty vessel for popular culture. Patricia is no better, she is shown to be vain and disloyal. But if the movie seems cynical about people, it is perhaps more cynical about movies. After all, Godard once said "all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl".

In 'Breathless' there are tons of self-referential in-jokes about film itself: two scenes take place at the cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville makes an appearance and Michel declines to buy an issue of Cahiers Du Cinema (saying he objects to youth). There are also running jokes about language (with Patricia constantly asking Michel what various words mean) and there is even a lot of snappy, pseudo-intellectual, cod philosophy ("Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love").

There is a dubious sexual politics here too, as Michel, like the film's other male characters, is an unapologetic misogynist. Add all of this to the raw beauty of the images and 'Breathless' is certainly a film worthy of discussion and its place in film history. Godard said that he was "destroying all the old principles rather than creating something new" with 'Breathless'. But far from an iconoclast, 'Breathless' is a genuine movie icon. And there is no better place to see it than at the cinema. So catch it whilst you can.

'Breathless' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on very limited release in selected cinemas across the UK.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

First Pictures of Coen's 'True Grit'

As a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, I am hugely excited about their adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit. Being a Western and an adaptation of a book, 'True Grit' could be a good fit for Joel and Ethan, who have already remarked that the film will be a more faithful and (appropriately) grittier version than Henry Hathaway's 1969 film.

The picture above shows Jeff Bridges dressed up as anti-hero Rooster Cogburn, a pot-bellied, one-eyed US Marshall - a role which won John Wayne an Academy Award. Hailee Steinfeld is also pictured, in the role of Mattie Ross (originally played by Kim Darby). Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and Matt Damon are also in the film which is due out on December 25th (in time for award season). Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and Carter Burwell is scoring the film, as per usual. Scott Rudin and Steven Speilberg are on board as producers.

There are more on-set pictures from the film here and even a pointless and rather hazy piece of amateur video here, if you're thirsty for more.

Thanks go to Aaron Massie who told me about this stuff via his twitter.

I recently watched the 1969 film to get myself in the mood for the new one and was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was. There are some cracking one-liners, which I assume are taken directly from the source novel (and therefore may also be in the Coen film), and the performances of Wayne and Darby are really good fun too. It's definite Sunday afternoon stuff, but well worth a look when it's on TV (apparently it is showing on More4 later this month).

Saturday, 10 July 2010

'Heartbreaker' review: More fun than you'd think...

'Heartbreaker' doesn't seen to offer a lot at a first glance. Watching the trailer you see what looks like a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, with broad jokes and a sumptuous, Glamour Magazine friendly mise en scène. Added to that is the fact that its director, Pascal Chaumeil, has previously only worked on French television. And whilst its male lead, Romain Duris, is known for Jacques Audiard's acclaimed 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped', his female co-star Vanessa Paradis is more famous as a pop star than an actress.

The set-up is high concept stuff: Alex (Duris) is a man with a gift for seduction so great that he works professionally as a seducer of unhappy women. Friends and family of women in bad relationships call upon Alex to show the women that she is not with the right guy and that she deserves more. He has ground rules, chief among them is that he will not knowingly separate a happy couple. However, this is tested when a wealthy father offers Alex $50,000 to break-up his daughter Juliette's (Paradis) impending engagement, with ten days before the wedding. Alex refuses, as she seems happy, but crippling debts owed to threatening mobsters soon forces his hand and he poses as Juliette's bodyguard. Hilarity ensues.

On the surface it looks like a light and frothy, low-carb, calorie-free piece of cinema and the film's 105 minutes certainly do nothing to challenge this preconception. But it would take a hard hearted and cynical individual not to admit that there are a few genuine laughs to be had it what is probably the most fun, least cliché-ridden romantic comedy I was seen in a couple of years.

One of the main factors in my enjoyment was Romain Duris who is an extremely gifted and charismatic comic actor. I found myself laughing at his every movement and facial expression. There is a scene where he nervously and half-heartedly sings along to the Wham! song 'Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go' whilst driving. He mumbles his way through it, missing out lyrics and emphasising the odd line. Embarrassing, out-of-tune singing is not new to film comedy, but here Duris takes quite an ordinary bit of comic business and runs with it in a way that is genuinely amusing. Like the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, Duris is able to be genuinely charming and attractive, yet he isn't afraid to be self-deprecating either and that combination is winsome. He is also (as he proves in the third act) a damn fine dancer!

Paradis is less interesting a presence, not helped by the fact her character spends a fair portion of the film being a bit unlikeable, giving our hero a hard time. But she isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. There are also nice performances from Julie Ferrier ('Micmacs') and Belgian actor François Damiens ('JCVD'), who play a husband and wife duo working for Alex. The couple do the surveillance and research work for Alex, pinning down the strength and weaknesses, the likes and dislikes, of his targets. Ferrier in particular is quite funny, as her character constantly adopts new disguises wherever the group go.

It is also to the film's great credit that the inevitable scene of realisation (where Paradis learns Duris' identity) is not followed by a scene of conflict or misunderstanding as is so often the case in lazier films of this kind. It is for reasons such as this that 'Heartbreaker' stands out amongst its similarly glossy peers.

With its classy, chic Monaco setting and high-fashion characters, 'Heartbreaker' also offers a less tacky, genuinely classy alternative to the horrifying likes of 'Sex & the City 2'. There is really nothing to strongly object to here. Perhaps the scenes involving a silent Algerian strongman are ill-conceived and could easily be excised without doing the plot any harm, along with the entire "owing the gangsters money" sub-plot. But the film is fun enough and is knowing enough (subverting genre clichés more often that it conforms to them) that its flaws are easy to forgive and its joys easy to appreciate.

By no means a candidate for 'Film of the Year', like I said from the start this is throwaway, disposable stuff. It's the sort of film you'll forget you ever saw a week after you saw it. But for the time you are in the cinema it is more fun, more charming and more entertaining than it seemed to have any right to be. Rumoured to be subject of an American remake in the near future, it is doubtful whether the film will work without Romain Duris.

'Heartbreaker' is rated '15' by the BBFC and can be seen all week at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema.