Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Top 9 Most Emotionally Scarring Disney Animated Movies

I admit that I was a wimpy little kid, especially when it comes to Disney movies. Just about every one of them had a scene that I had to fast forward because I found it too intense. Some of these scenes I look back on and laugh to think that they used to bother me that much, but I still feel that there's a lot of Disney movie moments that are legitimately not kid-friendly. Thus I now create my list of the films that bothered me most as a child to honor the suffering of all the children who had to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous Disney movies. I realize that I don't include a lot of Disney Renaissance films on this list, and that's not because they don't have their disturbing moments but rather because I was too old when they came out for them to affect me as deeply as the ones I saw in my preschool days. Also I really feel that Disney had learned at that point to tone down their villains in comparison to their early work, so the level of terror in the newer films will never again reach the level that their forerunners possessed--although The Princess and the Frog seems to have made a decent attempt at it.

Of course fear isn't the only factor that puts movies on this list. Some of my deepest mental scars do not come from the villains themselves but rather from the suffering of the good characters. Deaths and unfairly cruel situations can be just as unsettling to children as the image of a scary monster. In fact I will contend that they are inherently more frightening than monsters because in the case of monsters at least parents can tell their children that they aren't real whereas suffering and death cannot be explained away because they are an inevitable part of every person's life.

There's a lot of people who are of the opinion that these kind of films toughen kids up and prepare them for the real world, but I think that's not necessarily true for all children. Honestly, some children just can't take that kind of brutality at a young age, and exposing them to it before they're ready will only result in more neuroses than if they'ed worked up to that level of intensity gradually. And unfortunately I fell in that category as did my brothers and many of my acquaintances. So in honor of all these casualties, here is the list of Disney movies I condemn as unsuitable for little kids:

Even the flowers in this film are ready to kill Alice
at a moment's notice.
9. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
This movie disturbed me as a kid because nothing in it made sense, and everyone, even the Cheshire Cat, seems vaguely menacing. The other awful thing about this film is that even though Alice is in distress, no one seems to even care, let alone try to help her. Also they all have sharp tempers and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Probably the worst point for me is when the walking pencil erases Alice's path and strands her, making her sit down and cry about never getting home. So even though the main villain of this film, the Queen of Hearts, doesn't seem that threatening, this remains a movie that's not at all designed to be comforting to kids. That's what you get from a movie written by a junkie while doing opium.

8. The Little Mermaid (1989)
I was only three when this movie came out, which meant I was still young enough to have my psyche injured by it. Ursula's lair is a profoundly dark and evil place, and when she gains the power of the trident, she's just as cruel and vindictive as any villain you can name. Surprisingly, though, I found one "good" character to be almost equally disturbing. The way King Triton flies into a rage and destroys all of Ariel's things scared me almost as much as Ursula herself. Talk about sending mixed signals to a kid. Still, I have to admit that I liked the music in this film so much that I continued to watch it despite the scary elements. So while this movie may be scary, it's not quite unwatchable most of the titles on this list.

These cats practically exude evil even in this picture.
7. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but reading a review of it recently reminded me why I could never sit through it as a child. I hated how Lady gets neglected and mistreated after her owners have a child. I think this feeds into children's fears that their parents might stop loving them or that something might supplant them in their parents affections. Then there are some other dogs and dog-catchers who are scary, and Trusty's accident in the end is disturbing, especially when it looks like he could be dead. I haven't even touched on the Siamese cats yet, who are both cruel and calculating. And somehow I found their song really disturbing as a kid even though I didn't really understand what the were saying. Still, they make a bunch of trouble and plot for Lady to take the rap, which I found deeply unfair and unesttling.

6. Fantasia (1940)
For those of you who don't remember, the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment is about the devil. 'Nuff said. I can appreciate it now that I'm an adult, and realize how well they matched their imagery to Mussorgsky's music, and the fact it gets defeated by Schubert "Ave Maria" (Schubert for the win!!!!). But especially since I've believed in the devil since I was taught the concept, seeing such a depiction was horrifying, and the music feeds perfectly into the terror. I can understand why that segment was banned in many countries in its initial release. Fortunately I escaped without bad mental scarring by not being exposed to this film until I was six or seven. The fact that it still makes the list, though, tells you just how powerful the effect is. Also there are parts of the dinosaur "Rite of Spring" segment, especially when the T-Rex kills and eats a stegosaurus that made me want to run for cover. Little Foot's mom eat your heart out; that's a gruesome scene.

Maleficent is doing nothing in this frame, and she still
is frightening.
5. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
All I really have to mention is Maleficent and her army of orc/demons to get my point across. Man, is that a scary combination! Especially when she transforms into a large, toothy dragon. She definitely gave me more nightmares than any other Disney villain by far simply because of the physical design of her character. Her image literally became seared into my brain as the personification of pure evil. The fact that I was first exposed to her image at the impressionable age of three doesn't help either. I think Maleficent seems particularly menacing because she's so powerful, with seemingly limitless stores of malice and dark magic. The decent into her realm is literally a descent into hell on earth.

4. Pinocchio (1940)
This movie is just dark and disquieting. There's so many things I can complain about, but I'll confine myself to two instances primarily. The first is the part where all the boys turn into donkeys, and the second is Monstro the whale, who swallows all the characters except the good fairy. That thing was so huge with such monstrous teeth that there's no wonder he's been frightening children for generations. In addition I find the Pinocchio's whole world to be generally creepy. Think about it: does he actually meet any nice, kindly people on his whole adventure? If Pinocchio's world really existed, I would never want to leave my house. Then there's the suffering of Geppetto, who not only has the pain of thinking he lost his "son," but then gets eaten by a whale in his attempt to find him.

3. Snow White (1937)
I've already been pretty explicit about why I think Snow White is a horrible movie for children, but just to reiterate briefly, the evil queen really lives up to her name. The scene in which she descends into the dungeon to make her potions frightened me beyond belief with its symbols of death and evil. I remember being viscerally frightened by that scene to the extent of having a panic attack, and having to leave the room. I also find the queen's death to be excessive and cruel. Not only do they show her falling off a cliff, but she's then crushed by a boulder, and we see two vultures swooping down towards her remains, which is quite gruesome. Then there's our heroine in a coffin with everyone mourning her death. This is a case of a classic fairytale in which you know the ending going in, but they still play on your heartstrings so much that you end up crying in spite of yourself.

2. Bambi (1942)
Even though the Nostalgia Critic ranked this as number one on his list saddest kids' movies because of Bambi's mom's death, it comes in second on my list because it doesn't have the sustained angst of Dumbo. Really, Bambi is a mostly joyful movie apart from three instances: encounters with MAN, the death of Bambi's mom, and the forest fire. And while the death thing is really bad, feeding into children's fears of losing their mother on whom they depend for so much, it's not dwelt upon at all, so we really get only one scene of Bambi suffering from it. The rest of the movie he's fine. So it's a traumatizing moment, yes, but it's nothing compared to the tear-fest film released by Disney the year before.

1. Dumbo (1941)
I absolutely revile this movie because of the scars it left on my psyche. It is without a doubt the cause of unquantifiable anxiety in my early childhood. Most of the film is actually a double tragedy. First it's the tragedy of a deformed, mute baby elephant deprived of his mother and forced to be mocked in front of a live audience every night. Then it's also the tragedy of Dumbo's mom, Jumbo, who gets locked away from her child because she tried to defend him. How horrible is that? What always reduces me to a quivering puddle even to this day is the scene where Dumbo sneaks out to see his mother, but all he can see is her trunk, and she proceeds to cradle him in that appendage and sing him a lullaby. And if all that weren't enough, I haven't even touched the "Pink Elephants on Parade" part. Oh yes, this is the charming part where Dumbo gets his trunk on some alcohol and proceeds to have a really disturbing nightmare, complete with scary voices and weirdly morphing, threatening dream shapes. If you still don't get what I'm talking about, I invite you to go back and watch this movie again, and imagine it through the eyes of a three-year-old child. Horrible.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

**except of my final post in the Disney Princess series for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Being a lover of the Art Deco Era in which this movie is set, I absolutely could not resist reviewing it. Like most Disney animated films, it's not without it's problems, but I still find a lot to admire in The Princess and the Frog. Pixar head honcho John Lassiter had a large part in the restart of the Disney hand-drawn features, and his influence shows clearly in the quality of this film, which is higher than that of any Disney animated film since Mulan (I'm not counting Enchanted since it was mostly live action). It also features an earnestness in storytelling that recent Disney fare seems to have forgotten in the din pop culture references and cheap humor, and I think that quality will make this film stand the test of time.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this film is the characterization, especially of Tiana and Prince Naveen. Ironically both are extremely materialistic, though Tiana doesn't realize how much that aspect of her personality has affected her. I feel like with Prince Naveen we get our first realistic depiction of royalty from Disney: a prince who's a selfish, womanizing spendthrift and plans to marry for money. This is an improvement because it shows young girls that having a royal title doesn't necessarily make a man a desirable mate. Whereas Charlotte is prepared to marry Naveen purely to become a princess, Tiana won't even consider him until he has a major change of heart. I also find Naveen's chagrin at being raised to be "decoratively useless"--i.e. having no life and survival skills--to be quite believable, a common complaint of coddled children. Tiana's simple act of teaching him to cook, therefore, empowers him to take control of his own life instead of remaining a sponge. In fact his fulfillment in learning that skill reveals to us that his whole previous lifestyle was really what Pascal would call "diversion," a ploy to distract him from his meaningless existence. Once Naveen finds a purpose in helping Tiana achieve her dream, everything else takes is proper place in the order of importance for his life. He can still have fun playing the ukulele on occasion, but fun is no longer the point of his life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Enchanted (2007)

**Except of an article for Worthy of Note. For the full review, click here

Ten years after they made their first film questioning the princess archetype, Disney would revisit these problems with their hilarious parody Enchanted. I have to hand it to Disney for making a film that satirizes its bread-and-butter, especially when it was the first traditionally animated feature (or at least partially so) they'd produced in the better part of a decade. Of course admitting that their starry-eyed optimistic take on life is wrong would be shooting themselves in the foot, but they do a good job mocking the over-the-top nature of some of their stories anyway.

...One essential problem with the Disney princess character becomes abundantly clear when Giselle meets Robert. After he catches her when she falls off a billboard, she tells him her story, in which she mentions getting to New York by falling down a well. Catching the irony, Robert asks her, "Is this a habit of yours, falling off things?" Giselle responds, "Well, usually someone catches me." Giselle, you see, relies on other people to get her out of scrapes instead of learning to take care of herself. That kind of attitude is a flatly unhealthy. Of course there's nothing wrong with having your friends help you out in a pinch, but that's no excuse for staying helpless yourself. After all, you can never tell when you'll be alone and need to get by on your own abilities. You can't always count on even the best of friends being there for you every time. I'm sorry for spelling out something that should be completely self-evident like this, but it needs to be said for the sake of rhetoric. Because it's the rightly-noted problem with the old school Disney Princesses.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hercules (1997)

**This is an except of an article I published for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Although I believe this movie qualifies for Disney Princess status--heck, marrying a demi-god beats marrying a lousy old prince any day--it's usually not included on the list because a) it wasn't that successful in theaters, and b) Megera isn't technically a princess in Disney's version of the story, though she certainly was a princess in the Greek myth. I also really think she should be included because she was the very first anti-princess character in a Disney movie, and it always speaks both to the influence and weaknesses of the type when an anti-type is produced.

Obviously the most appropriate person to review a Disney film making fun of Greek mythology would be a Greek-American, and fortunately I am both genetically and culturally qualified for the daunting task. As a child I was both strangely attracted to this movie by my ethnic ties and repelled by the subject's dark moments. In fact, when I first heard that Disney was going to make a children's movie out of a Greek myth, I thought it an impossible task considering everyone short of the two virgin goddesses is promiscuous in those stories. Somehow Disney manages to alter the narrative in order to weed the gratuitous sex out, and they make everything look and sound superficially Greek,  neither of which is any mean feat. Still, the movie is so blatantly anachronistic in order to put in pop culture references that we can never suspend our disbelief and think it's really Ancient Greece. But I must admit that I enjoy the mention of food like pita and mousaka enjoyable along with the casual mention of other myths. It's not Greek, but it's a very pleasing imitation, especially since Greek Mythology is such a ripe subject for satire.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

**excerpt of a review written for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Although I found this movie far too scary to watch as a child, I enjoy it greatly now that I'm older. One of the key reasons for this is because they used the music from Tchaikovsky's magnum opus, The Sleeping Beauty for most of the score. As an admirer of Tchaikovsky, therefore, I'm already hooked on that point. Sleeping Beauty, however, is a very different film from anything Disney made before or since. While some of the innovations are positive, and it proves to be a beautifully lyrical production, fans of the older style Disney production may find this film lacking.

One major point in which this film differs from the rest of the Disney oeuvre is in the animation. The incredible animators at Disney tried their best to make the art look like illustrations in a medieval tapestry, and they succeeded to a large extent. So we are treated to the bright colors and flat, angular style of the Middle Ages, which certainly renders a fairytale aspect to the proceedings. Until that point, Disney had tried to do their full-length films in a semi-realistic style with some cartoon-ish shapes and flourishes reserved for comic relief characters. Animation aesthetics started changing in the 1950s, however, and Disney had been slow to adapt. In Sleeping Beauty, however, Disney proved that the new taste could be catered to while paying homage to the great illustration traditions of the past.

In addition to these aspects, Sleeping Beauty also lacks the great quantity of musical numbers that we tend to see in the other films--though Disney had been straying from that model in the '50s as well. That tends to make it less appealing to young children. Combined, moreover, with the fact that the cast of characters is so small and the only real comic characters are the three good fairies and the two kings, it doesn't seem to paint with as broad a brush as the other princess films.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cinderella (1950)

**Excerpt of a post I did for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here**

Unlike yesterday's review, this film is a true pleasure to review because it was one of my favorites as a young child. First off, it doesn't contain anything scarier than a mean stepmother and a fat old tomcat.  It's also got plenty of cute songs and anthropomorphic animals along with a comically violent king and inept stepsisters. So yes, this is a truly kid-friendly Disney film. How rare are those? Well, at the time this film was made, they were non-existent.

Unfortunately this movie's very popularity and watchability has made it the target of relentless over-marketing and shameless sequels. The marketing may be distasteful, but it doesn't bother me nearly as much as the sequels. Call me simplistic, but when a movie ends with the words "and they lived happily ever after," that should be the final word. If you want the "happily ever after" concept challenged, let me refer you to a lovely little Preston Sturges movie called The Palm Beach Story, which opens with a wedding and the caption "and they lived happily ever after--or did they?"Please don't do that to Cinderella unless it's a satire. Legitimate sequels ruin the whole point of a fairy tale.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

***Except of an article posted on Worthy of Note. Check out the full review here***

Welcome to the first entry in our Disney Princess Series. We will be going through all the entries on this list in chronological order for the rest of the month, culminating with Alex's review of Disney's new take on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled.

When I was asked to do this review, I realized that I really needed to go back and watch it again because I hadn't actually seen it in nineteen years. There's a reason for that, too, namely that it was way too frightening for a wimpy kid like me. I really wanted to like this film when I was little, especially since it has many charming moments, but quite frankly it scared the pants off me. And when I went back to watch it again recently, I still found it profoundly creepy. Not only is the sorceress/queen frighteningly evil, but our princess gets put in a coffin, and there's disturbing, dark imagery throughout the film.

One thing I'll say about for this film, however, is that it hasn't been overly marketed with shameless sequels, which is good considering it would probably make Walt Disney's ashes spontaneously combust. Incredibly popular at the time of its release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is all but overlooked by the current generation, and even classic Disney fans seem to find the film unpalatable compared to other old Disney movies like Cinderella and Peter Pan. So why is this former classic now such an ugly stepsister (pun intended)? I mean, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were seen openly weeping with delight during the premiere, which opened to unanimously raving reviews. Why doesn't it touch us the same way anymore?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: the 1950s

As reluctant as I am to re-hash an overused Dickens quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," really does seem fitting for this decade in cinematic history. Whole new frontiers were opening their doors, and at the same time studios were facing their most dire financial crises as their audiences were being stolen by television. Of course those two media would learn to get along eventually, but for the moment they were each other's worst enemies. The sad part about the conflict was that movies started getting gimmicky to draw people in instead of relying on the tried-and-true methods of good acting and storytelling. This Cole Porter written for 1957's Silk Stockings lyric describes the situation perfectly:

"Today to get the public to attend the picture show
It's not enough to advertise some famous star they know
If you want to get the crowds to come around,
You gotta have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound!"

Despite this, there were still plenty of good films made in that decade, and some even rank among the greatest of all time. I could probably fill this list just with memorable Hitchcock films made in this decade, but that would be unfair to the many other great movies that came out. I'm going to forget honorable mentions this time and simply list the films that have the greatest merit and watch-ability in my book. Please do not be offended if you think I've left out one of the many memorable films from this decade. I'm most likely aware of them, but they're not to my taste.

11. The Quiet Man (1952)
When John Ford made a sort of romantic comedy set in his beloved Ireland and decided to film it on location, everyone thought he was nuts. But he made it anyway, and 50 years later, it's still a great movie. John Wayne stars as an Irish-American prizefighter who hangs up his gloves and returns to his ancestral village in Ireland. He instantly falls for the local beauty played by Maureen O'Hara, but runs afoul of her surly brother, the town squire played by Victor McLaglen. Wayne's character has problems adjusting to this backwards, honor-based culture where fistfights are the only way to settle disputes, women can't marry without their guardian's permission, and dowries constitute a wife's self-respect. When Maureen's brother refuses to pay hers, John Wayne must either seriously reconsider his stance on renouncing violence or risk losing the woman he loves. Despite the seemingly dramatic plot, this move is quite funny, and all of the character actors are completely charming, especially Ward Bond as the parish priest, and Barry Fitzgerald as the town bookie and drunk. The brawl at the end was the longest fight every recorded for a movie, and it's hilarious. I really love this movie. The dialog is witty, the actors are great, and Ireland lives in all its verdant beauty.

10. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Based on an Agatha Christie play, this movie boasts a stellar performance from one of my favorite character actors, Charles Laughton. He plays an aging lawyer suffering from severe heart problems and takes on a case of an innocent man who seems to have a hopeless circumstantial case mounted against him. Marlene Dietrich is coldly brilliant as the defendant's wife who appears as a witness for the prosecution. This film made waves when it was released because of its shocking twist ending, and audience members were actually forbidden to tell anyone what happened, something that was parodied on an episode of The Honeymooners. The reason that this movie doesn't rank higher on this list is mostly do to Tyrone Power's hammy performance as the defendant.

9. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Being a woman, I had to include this film. I know it's sappy, but I cry every time I see the ending. Why is this film so great, though? What keeps people coming back to it despite its faults? Well, first of all Cary Grant breaks our hearts, especially in that final scene. The writing is really good. The script is witty and touching, and the music strikes all the right chords. Really the funny, charming beginning of the romance only highlights the tragedy that occurs in the middle and the glimpse of healing love we get at the end. Leo McCarey originally wrote this for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne back in 1939 but was unhappy with the result because he couldn't get Grant for the role. There's a lot of argument about the two films' comparative merits, but I like this one better because Grant does a much better job capturing our pathos, and since his character is the reformed rake, if that doesn't ring true for us, the rest of the film won't work.

8. North by Northwest (1959)
One of Hitchcock's most iconic films, North by Northwest follows the story of an innocent man who accidentally get implicated in a spy conspiracy, and must chase across the country to avoid their assassins. The two scenes that everyone remembers are the scene where Cary Grant gets chased by a crop-duster in a cornfield and the scene where he's hanging off Mt. Rushmore. It's certainly one of the best examples of the plotting and suspense for which Hitchcock is so rightly famous, but it falls down my list because Eva Marie Saint is such an abysmal actress in this film. She's just completely wooden, and it doesn't come off as being from her spy training. Also I feel like character is sacrificed in this in favor of action, and that's never something I can stomach. Still, it's a really good movie.

7.Some Like It Hot (1959)
I'm not much of a Marilyn fan, but I love this movie with Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. People who don't think that guys and drag are funny have obviously never seen this film. After witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two jazz musicians in 1920s Chicago go into hiding as women musicians bound for Florida. Situations just keep getting funnier as Tony falls for Marilyn and Jack finds himself with a rich suitor. We also get to see Curtis' famous Cary Grant impersonation when he pretends to be a millionaire in order to woo Marilyn but still maintain his female cover. "Well, nobody's perfect," it ends, and I'll leave you to find out why that line's so funny.

6. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Apart from making Passepartout Spanish instead of French, it's really a fairly good adaptation of Jules Verne's famous novella about a rich Englishman who embarks on a journey to go around the world in less than three months during the Victorian Era. David Niven is delightful as the punctilious and unflappable Phileas Fogg, and the film features the best array of cameos ever assembled. Old movie fans will be delighted to see Ronald Coleman, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Buster Keaton, Ceasar Romero, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, John Mills, and countless other famous faces flit across the scene in bit parts. And it's just fun to see the characters go everywhere from Bombay to San Francisco and back.

5. High Noon (1952)
There's a lot of cliches in the western genre, but none more iconic than the showdown at high noon. Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley star in this classic gunslinger filmed in real-time. That's right: all the action in this two-hour film takes place in the two hours leading up to the duel at high noon. There's 5something poignant about this situation where everyone in town is too frightened to stand up and do the right thing except one man. Even Cooper's wife is opposed to his fighting because she's a Quaker.  But in the end, there are things worth fighting for and sacrifices worth being made, and this film affirms that so well that most other westerns pale in comparison.

4. Ben-Hur (1959)
This is probably the best movie of the epic genre that was popular in the '50s and early '60s. It is not, however, a particularly faithful adaptation of the novel by Lew Wallace. It won Best Picture, and Charlton Heston took home the Oscar for Best Actor on the strength of the compelling narrative and the sweeping ultra-widescreen in which it was filmed. The journey of Judah Ben-Hur from wealthy Jew to Roman Slave to nobleman, and ultimately from revenge to forgiveness for the false friend who betrayed him had captured imaginations of of people for it to be made twice as a silent movie, the latter of these by DeMille, but this is the one that most people remember. It certainly doesn't let us down in capturing the emotion of the character as well as a spectacular visual tour of the known world of the time. And then there's the chariot race. That scene has inspired countless homages including the pod race scene in Star Wars: Episode I, which is pretty much a moment-by-moment recreation of the scene, especially at the finale.

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

I've only recently discovered the brilliance of this film, but I don't hesitate to tout its merits. Sir Alec Guinness won an Oscar for his role as the ranking British officer in a Japanese POW camp, forced to build a railroad bridge in Thailand to aid the enemy. Guinness struggles to maintain dignity for himself and his men while forced to labor under inhuman conditions. At first he refuses to do the labor himself, since it's against the Geneva convention for officers to do manual labor, but eventually he decides to go along with it if only to help his men, and his example grants them a modicum of self-respect needed to survive. Meanwhile William Holden and a band of Allied saboteurs trek across hostile territory to destroy the bridge before it's completed. Truly a fascinating film about how two men on the same side of a war can each be doing the right thing yet end up fighting each other. It really challenges our notions of what duty and honor mean.

2. Rear Window (1954)
This is without a doubt my favorite Hitchcock film, and arguably his finest of the decade--although people make cases for Vertigo and North by Northwest. James Stuart plays an invalid who believes he witnessed the murder of one of his neighbors from his apartment window, but his evidence is purely circumstantial. Thelma Ritter steals the show as Stuart's wisecracking nurse, and Grace Kelly is devastatingly beautiful and spunky as his girlfriend. Perhaps what makes this film so good is that it's got so many subplots in the lives of the many neighbors on whom Jimmy Stuart spies. In order to appreciate these nuances, though, this  movie requires a large screen preferably with an HD setting,

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
What can I say that hasn't been said or that I didn't already say last week in my Top 10 Movie Musicals? It's the greatest musical ever made, it made the top 10 of AFIs 100 Greatest Movies of All Time both the original time and for the 10-year anniversary. In fact it got bumped up five slots when it was re-assessed. The dancing is beautiful, the songs are great, the script is corny but really entertaining, and Donald O'Connor is way too funny for his own good. Jean Hagen is unbelievable as Lina Lamont and really fun to imitate with her squeaky, nasal voice. I just want to reiterate once more, however, that Gene Kelly is an inferior dancer to Fred  Astaire because he makes his audience feel how hard his dances are instead of making them free and effortless as the best dancers do.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Special Book Review: Remake

As a reviewer of Golden Age Hollywood films, I find myself among the countless people who look back longingly at the films of the mid-20th century and lament the loss of the "purity" of those films. Whether or not we're deluding ourselves remains to be seen, but it can certainly be argued that older movies had just as many problems as contemporary ones, albeit in different areas.

Apparently one of my favorite authors is among this group of rabid old movie fans. Connie Willis wrote a novella called Remake in the mid-'90s that was a love song to the Golden Age of film, and particularly the movie musical. I've known about this book for a while, but I found it difficult to procure a copy because it was never very popular. I finally read it recently, though, and since it fit in so well with my recent themes of musicals and Fred Astaire in particular, I thought I should include it.

In the near future, Willis envisions a Hollywood where CG rules the day. New live-action movies are a thing of the past, as it's much easier to place CG renderings of famous actors into new movies or remake old movie with an all-star cast of your choice. And if you don't like the ending to Casablanca you can change it on demand. It's a sort of post-modern dystopia where everything is simulated from sex to movie stars to feelings via designer drugs.

Inside this mess, we meet our main character, a college student named Tom who CG edits remakes in order to get through college and fuel his drug habit. His current project is to edit all the addictive substances out of classic films--a job he hates because virtually all of them contain alcohol, and cutting it out basically ruins great films like The Thin Man, The Philadelphia Story, and Casablanca.

At a party one night, Tom pops the wrong pill and rushes off to find a girl to have sex with because that's basically all the drug is good for. To his dismay, however, the party seemed to be entirely populated by Marilyn Monroe impersonators except for a single girl named Alis (pronounced Alice) who is simply there as herself. Alis is a starry-eyed newcomer who dreams of dancing in the movies, and is impressed by Tom's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films. In an effort to get her into bed, he offers to CG her into a movie with her favorite dancer Fred Astaire, but Alis doesn't want a fake dance. She wants the real thing.

Alis represents a purity of intent and a repudiation of the status quo which Tom has reluctantly accepted, and this bothers him. Although he has already sold his soul to the system, he fights violently to ensure Alis avoids the same fate, even when it means breaking her heart to make her see the truth. And it seems to work: Alis disappears, and Tom sinks into an alcohol-and-drug induced stupor for several months as he ironically tries in vain to edit the addictive substances out of the classics of the silver screen.

Then in one serendipitous moment, he sees Alis again--not CG edited, but actually in a classic musical dancing to her heart's content. This inspires Tom to sober up in order to make sure what he sees is true. Sure enough, she's actually found her way to take part in dance sequences from old musicals in a real, physical sense. Realizing that Alis has found a way to fulfill her dream, Tom searches desperately for her, and when he finds her, he also finds the secret of her seeming "time travel."

What Alis had done in reality is used the movies as her dancing coach and replicated their moves so perfectly that she fooled the computers into thinking hers was the original image. Tom tells the oblivious Alis what she has accomplished, she realizes that her impossible dream of dancing with Fred Astaire can finally come true. In order to to get up to that level, however, she needs to go to China, the only place left where they still do live movies, and thus the only place where she can find a real dance instructor. Before she leaves however, Tom finally has a chance to admit his feelings for her and remind her that "We'll always have Paris." A few years later as Tom is looking through old musicals, he sees Alis dancing "Begin the Beguine" with Fred Astaire, her ultimate goal, and knows he made the right decision in letting her go.

Although he doesn't realize it right away, Tom takes a parallel path the the character Rick from Casablanca. He's someone who's lost his his will to fight and instead is out just for himself--until the love of a women awakens his heart. She reminds him of all the reasons he used to have a passion for classic film while highlighting how much he has lost. Like Rick, Tom initially acts out of frustration and cynicism, but eventually becomes inspired to pick up the fight again. Then finally he must give up the one thing he loves best.

One of the reasons I don't find this book as charming as some of Willis' other entries is because the protagonist is such a reprobate and unashamedly so. Especially in the beginning when all he's trying to do is take drugs and have sex with women, I find him very hard to relate to, kind of like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, whom we watch with a kind of dark fascination as he sinks into nihilism. Of course Tom changes his tune as the narrative progresses, but you have to wait a long time for the payoff. Since the theme of the novel is hope infused into a world of darkness, however, the end might be worth the wait, especially in our postmodern world where everything seems fake and ultimately controlled by the law of entropy. Still, it's just not my style of book.

I have to say, however, that if you're an old movie buff, you will definitely enjoy all the references that get made and the honest reckoning of the comparative talents and merits of old musicals and movie stars. I personally love Alis's comment that the reason Fred Astaire is a better dancer than Gene Kelly is because he makes his work seem fun and effortless whereas Gene Kelly wants everyone to see exactly how difficult his routines are--something I've always felt myself. I did not, however, appreciate her implication that Casablanca has a lousy ending. I love the ending to that movie, and I don't think I'd enjoy it nearly as much if Rick and Ilsa got together because it wouldn't involve the brave sacrifices in order to do the right thing.

Still, if you want to find a book that pays homage to the great films of the past while dealing with modern cynicism in an intelligent hopeful manner, you can't go wrong reading Remake. Just keep in mind that it's not one of Connie Willis' strongest outings.