Weekly Film Log: February 23 – March 1

This post is coming several days late, due to my having schoolwork, Oscars, and other stuff being placed at a bit of a higher priority. Nonetheless, it’s complete now! I’m awfully proud of the volume of material I watched last week, as well as the amount that I was able to write for each. Check them out!

(Also, this marks my 50th post on this blog. Yippeee!!!)

The Sword in the Stone (1963) – dir. Wolfgang Reitherman

  • Watched on 23 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 5/10

I remember watching this film as a child (well over a decade ago) and have even mysteriously committed a few scenes to memory. Therefore, I was disappointed to find that The Sword in the Stone doesn’t really do much with the promising adaptation of the much-told legend. The film spends the bulk of its time embarking on the silly hijinks of young Arthur and his mentor Merlin than it does actually telling a worthwhile story. We all know how the story pans out, but instead of building up to this climax in interesting ways, the narrative seems to run in circles in order to fill up its 80-minute length. As a result, it’s not very medieval and not very magical. Not even the character fared with much personality, outside of Merlin’s clumsiness and Archimedes’ crabbiness, both of which gets old rather quickly. The highlight of the film is easily the wild and wacky wizards’ duel which still, like many other scenes, tends to drag on for far too long. Overall, it’s a film from the Disney folks that simply (and sadly) hasn’t stood up well over time.

Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) (1943) – dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

  • Watched on 23 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 6/10

Based on the few films I had previously seen from Dreyer – The Passion of Joan of ArcVampyr, and Ordet – it really seemed like he could do no wrong. Unfortunately, Day of Wrath proved to garner nowhere near the level of bleak magnificence as the others, to me at least. I was excited to watch yet another film that deals with the enigma of religion and mysticism. Yet by the end of the first third, this is all left behind for a drastically more uninteresting love triangle tale, which was just drab and quite plodding. The film was shot well enough and unmistakably consisting of Dreyer’s talents; yet the power and intensity that was present in his past films is nowhere to be found here. Not even the actors seemed convinced of their performances (which is even more frustrating since his films always have the most magnificent performances). Therefore, it was a film that felt to drag on and on, leading to an uninteresting climax and an shamelessly tacked-on resolution. I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more than I was expecting, but nonetheless, the mark of Dreyer in the cinema world continues to shine ever so bright.

Robin Hood (1973) – dir. Wolfgang Reitherman

  • Watched on 24 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

This viewing of Disney’s Robin Hood was my very first; therefore, I don’t have the nostalgia present for this one. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it very much, and I see it as one of the high points of the studio’s animation during its supposed slump. The detail put into the settings and diverse cast of characters really gave this film a sense of medieval glory that it uses to its utmost advantage. Sure our titular hero comes off as pretty generic (as do most of the supporting characters), but the film certainly makes up for it by inserting a sense of vibrancy and aptness for entertaining its audience – which it does successfully. There’s really no need for a complex, fleshed-out story when the characters and exciting tales surround them are all so fun. And this is exactly what Robin Hood is: just good-natured, family-friendly fun. While nothing could top Errol Flynn in his faultless transition into the folklore hero, Disney’s attempt at encapsulating the legend isn’t a far cry from a swashbuckling good time.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (2012) – dir. Benjamin Timlett, Jeff Simpson, & Bill Jones

  • Watched on 24 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 4/10

I went into A Liar’s Autobiography not expecting much but hoping it would be at least tolerable. Needless to say, I was disappointed – on many levels. As the title states, most of the content in this “documentary” is probably bollocks. And while I’m very comfortable with calling myself a Python fan and truly understand the absurd, sometimes crude nature of their humor, the comedy bits of this documentary were overdone, forced, upsetting, and just plain unfunny. With the exception of a couple segments (including one deliciously surreal boxing scene which I’m sure Chapman himself would have marveled over), most of the animation comes across as rather ugly, further illuminating the unsettling nature of the film. As a whole, it’s just a huge sloppy, boring mess, which severely disappoints me since (a) most of the original Pythons contributed to it, and (b) Chapman simply deserves much better treatment than this excuse for an homage.

Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman) (1971) – dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos

  • Watched on 25 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is an unusual kind of film from Brazil, covering a certain time and place which I’m relatively unfamiliar with. It sets itself up as a black comedy, as the opening exposition satirizes the absurd French-Portuguese relations going on at the time. While the natives of the Tupinambás tribe are depicted as primitive and barbaric (with historically-correct nudity!), the supposedly modernized French people are shown as greedy and backwards in their own way. From the start, the intentions of the narrative are clear and the film aims to tease out these contradictions. Unfortunately, these very promising scenes don’t pan out to much through the remainder of the film, as the story seems to float around for quite a bit before reaching its riveting (though predictable) climax. Its impressive use of viable locations, natural lighting, and lovely cinematography is certainly notable, and I appreciate it for certainly being a distinct staple of Brazilian cinema. I just wish that this film more avidly took the dark comedy route it was undoubtably going for. But then, I’m no filmmaker, and I’d still grant this a healthy recommendation, if only for its lovely ambiance and historical context.

Ônibus 174 (Bus 174) (2002) – dir. José Padilha

  • Watched on 26 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 8/10

Bus 174 is a unique kind of documentary, the tragic result of many unfortunate, corrupt elements of Brazilian society crossing paths. As the terror of this infamous hostage situation culminates, it becomes more and more intense, almost unbearable for us, as passive viewers, to engage in. However, the film presents this event in ways that transcend conventional documentation of an individual. Instead, it takes a multi-perspective, multi-angled approach to the topic in order to expand it as an allegory of the rampant poverty and depravity that allows such things to happen. It effectively blurs the line between mediated documentary film and unpredictable news broadcast – and, in some ways, the fine boundaries between fact and fiction are also hazy as all hell. Its technical aspects, while certainly effective, do tend to lose its steam around the final third and results in some murkiness in quality near the end. Nonetheless, it remains one of the more gripping documentaries out there, as well as one of the most insightful and rewarding. It’s one that everyone with the resources should seek out.

This week in my History of Animation class (Feb. 28, Little Coppola Theater), we watched 15 short animated films! Most of which were from the Merry Melodies/Looney Tunes series, but with some contemporary animation thrown in for good measure.

1) Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! (1931) – dir. Rudolf Ising

  • Rating: 7/10

Last week I watched one of the three Merry Melodies films featuring the character of Foxy (One More Time); this week I watched another. And while I still generally possess the same ambivalence toward the character and everything surrounding him, I enjoyed this particular cartoon a bit more. Sure, we don’t get very much from this character’s personality, given that he spends a good deal of time trying to throw a cow off his train*. Yet this one is a bit more fun, in that there are a few interesting gags thrown in that fall outside Foxy and Roxy themselves. The film is guided along by the titular song (most famous for its usage in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and frankly I had a really good time whenever music played a big part in the narrative. Also, I found the ending train chase rather interesting – even though it’s apparent it is heavily inspired by Mickey’s Choo-Choo (1929). In all actuality, the film mostly suffers from unoriginality – in both the characters and the narrative – therefore, it was a bit less fun than a lot of much better cartoons to come out around this era. Good riddance to Foxy. Watch it here!

*Note: unlike earlier cartoons from Disney and the ilk, by 1931 it was considered obscene to show udders on a cow. Therefore, this cow is wearing a skirt. Just an interesting tidbit of info.

2) The Case of the Stuttering Pig (1937) – dir. Frank Tashlin

  • Rating: 7/10

It’s been said that Frank Tashlin is a director who (in paraphrase), “directs his features like cartoons, and his cartoons like features”. The Case of the Stuttering Pigmakes this apparent, particularly in its technical aspects. From a person who is particularly seasoned on the traits of Looney Tunes shorts, I initially found this to be a rather sub-par cartoon of the series. In many ways, it is – Porky Pig is certainly apparent, but his character isn’t quite as fleshed-out as it would be later. However, the real pride and joy in this piece comes from its neat technical aspects, particularly in a couple parts that mirror stylish camera angles and tracking shots that would normally be found in live-action cinema. The inventiveness of cartoons like these are my lifeblood. Also, while the characters themselves – heroes and villains – are rather formulaic and disposable, the motif of the bad guy breaking the fourth wall is pretty great. Especially since the guy in front of me gave off the biggest laugh when he confronted “you in the third row!” (I was in the fourth row). So overall, this has got its clever moments, its funny moments, and its awe-inspiring moments… but overall, it isn’t quite as consistent as I would have preferred in a Porky Pig cartoon. Watch it here!

3) Porky Pig’s Feat (1943) – dir. Frank Tashlin

  • Rating: 8/10

Porky Pig’s Feat is yet another Looney Tunes short film directed by Frank Tashlin. I had seen this one fairly recently, but watching it on a big screen really helped me to pinpoint what it is that I really enjoyed. The narrative here is tighter than would be featured in those directed by Clampett, which usually aim toward gags and overall silliness. That’s not to say that this one isn’t cartoonish in its own right, because it certainly is and its sense of human is one of its biggest strengths. What I loved especially is the way that the story is animated in ways that would mirror cinematic techniques, implementing intense zooms and camera angles in rather creative ways. The extreme close-up of the bad guy with Daffy reflected in his monocle really won me over. As did some of the clever and interesting things done with depth of field, especially in the scene where Daffy and Porky swing on a rope. So while Porky Pig’s Feat remains simplistic and predictable in its storyline (with the exception of its wonderful, fourth-wall-breaking ending!), the wonderful, wacky things it does on a technical level really do wonders for it. Watch it here!

4) Porky in Wackyland (1938) – dir. Bob Clampett

  • Rating: 7/10

In contrast to Tashlin’s sleek, reserved directorial style in animation, Bob Clampett aims to make his additions to the Looney Tunes collection, well, loonier. Enter Porky in Wackyland, a film with characters and imagery that makes Bimbo’s Initiation look like chicken feed. It’s almost as if the sweet and simple world of Porky Pig clashed heads with someone’s bad psychedelic trip. Of course, the fact that the location of the titular setting takes place in “darkest Africa” is problematic in its own right, along with the fact that some of the zany beings possess rather exaggerated characteristics of black folk. Besides all this, the film sorta wanes in quality after the initial expository showcase of Wackyland, which is as surreal and extravagant as the rest of the short is formulaic. Sure, the showoff between Porky and the Dodo are certainly fun to watch, but the three-dimensional trickery going on is solely made up of recycled concepts, and the payoff isn’t all that rewarding. Nonetheless, the first half of the short alone gives it all the praise it deserves; boy what a wacky land this is. Watch it here!

5) The Daffy Doc (1938) – dir. Bob Clampett

  • Rating: 5/10

Meh. This film isn’t very fun. Some of the downsides of Bob Clampett’s directions as pertains to Looney Tunes is he often pays a little too much attention to making his shorts as informal and wacky as possible. This can lead to the film seeming generally sloppy, annoying, and inevitably, unfunny. This is especially the case with the early characterization efforts of Daffy Duck, who was just such a loud, annoying shit. Moreover, all we really get from this short is that (a) there is a operation going on that isn’t what one would expect, and (b) Daffy is the worst doctor to ever exist. And scattered in between are a bunch of mildly funny gags and jokes that fall kinda flat and seem to only exist to fill up time. This is marketed as a Porky Pig cartoon, but Porky himself doesn’t show up until the final third and doesn’t put on much of a show. This was definitely a short made to showcase Daffy – and given the fact that his character is so two-dimensional and irritating, it isn’t much of a reward. Watch it here!

6) Porky’s Hare Hunt (1938) – dir. Ben Hardaway

  • Rating: 5/10

Porky’s Hare Hunt is notable for being the first cartoon to feature Bug Bunny – or rather, a caricature of a rabbit that would become Bugs. Indeed, this character possesses a noticeable amount of trickery, witticisms, and Groucho-esque personality that would set him aside from other characters in years to come. At the very least, he’s certainly the most exciting thing about this film, which is rather plain and predictable. One good thing about it, though, is that it essentially set the standard for future Bugs cartoons to come, only featuring Elmer Fudd instead of Porky. And the ending of this film is certainly rewarding, offering probably the biggest laughs of the entire duration. I wouldn’t say that this film is “bad”, per se; it just doesn’t offer anything new or exciting to the table, which doesn’t exactly fare to well with a plot that’s already rather simple. Watch it here!

7) Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940) – dir. Chuck Jones

  • Rating: 5/10

At this point, I think the people over at Warner Bros. felt that they were getting somewhere with the path that Porky’s Hare Hunt was taking. Thus, a rabbit of some changes of form and personality was presented in Elmer’s Candid Camera, and in many ways this film would set the precursor for many of the Bugs Bunny cartoons to come. The rabbit here has a very similar look and attitude to Bugs, as does this early precursor to Elmer does to later depictions of the character. At the same time, though, it simply doesn’t rise up to par. The jokes fall flat and the animation doesn’t do anything impressive to mark this one as particularly memorable. Chuck Jones is a magnificent animation director and a lot of the concepts used here were perfected in much later Looney Tunes shorts. Therefore, this cartoon has aged as a rather obsolete addition to the Looney Tunes family. It’s not particularly interesting, except in historical context. Watch it here!

8) A Wild Hare (1940) – dir. Tex Avery

  • Rating: 7/10

This film marks the official premiere of Bugs Bunny, in full personality, looks, and all. At this point, it seems that the folks over at Merry Melodies really felt they had something with this “man vs. rabbit” conflict that would permeate through the remainder of the more popular Bugs and Elmer cartoons. Granted, this one still isn’t particularly fresh or exciting in the grand scale of things – but it certainly gets somewhere! The personalities of Bugs and Elmer have (almost) fully flourished at this point and the narrative – a hunter leaves to shoot down a rabbit who happens to be smarter than him – begins to really progress in form. The personality of Bugs here is as vibrant and humorous as it has ever been, and the payoff of it all is far more funnier and rewarding than it had ever been before. As an early effort from Tex Avery, this is marvelous and certainly shows off his potential for greater things. But as a Bugs Bunny cartoon – there certainly are better things to look forward to. Watch it here!

9) Rabbit Seasoning (1952) – dir. Chuck Jones

  • Rating: 9/10

Possibly the pinnacle of the Bugs-and-Elmer series, Rabbit Seasoning is just great. The terrific thing about Chuck Jones, as an animator and director, is that he eventually came to the realization that surely cartoons couldn’t live on clever gags and visual tricks alone. In this short, certain respects were made to the dialogue, which make up a good deal of the humorous aspects of it. I mean, come on – a short film that supports itself almost entirely on an issue of “pronoun problems”? And it still works? Genius! Also, there’s something inexplicably amusing about Daffy Duck duping himself into getting shot in the face half a dozen times – especially when his beak emerges at a different spot each and every time. Sure it’s simplistic and it isn’t visually remarkable nor does it offer many twists and turns along its duration. But the amazing things that are done with the inevitable simplicity present here makes it totally worth the praise and commencement. Watch it here!

10) Duck Amuck (1953) – dir. Chuck Jones

  • Rating: 10/10

Duck Amuck is pure, unadulterated, weird, surreal, fourth-wall-breaking greatness. There had been nothing like it ever before, and those who’ve tried to match it since often fall short. Though in all respects, it’s hard to really match up to one of the greatest animated shorts of all time. In this film, Daffy Duck becomes more than just a distant fictional character we watch for mere entertainment. He becomes a being who is strangely, suddenly aware of the components that make up his life as a cartoon character. His vivid awareness of scenery changes – or lack thereof – as it reflects to narrative brings to light something that we, as viewers, rarely think about in terms of cartoons. But it doesn’t stop there. As the film steadily progresses, Daffy – through his one-sided arguments with the unseen perpetrator of his inconveniences – begins to dismantle nearly every aspect of cartoon life before our very eyes, with humorous intent that completely works!

And it’s not through purely visual appeal either. I’m still trying to figure out which is funnier: the slapstick comedy that ensues at Daffy’s expense, or the numerous hilarious instances of monologue (“Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin”, “what a way to run a railroad!”) emitted by our annoyed, hot-headed character. Thus, despite its simplicity, there really is a lot of greatness as work here. The clever minds behind such a concept, the surreal yet simple artwork, Chuck Jones’ direction, the masterful voice acting of Mel Blanc. In all, Duck Amuck is one of those rare classic cartoons that truly stands the test of time in every way. On a first watch, it’s amazing. With rewatches, it becomes hilarious. I’m so glad to have grown up with this one and can now, as an adult, appreciate it for the genuinely masterful work of art it truly is. Watch it here!

11) What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) – dir. Chuck Jones

  • Rating: 9/10

What’s Opera, Doc? has probably one of the weirdest concepts for an animated film – especially for its time – but wow, it pulls it off brilliantly. The great thing about the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoons (especially those directed by Chuck Jones) is that it’s essentially the same plot each and every time, though recycled in different, creative ways. In ways, I see this film as not only a self-parody and not only an homage to opera theater, but also as a satire of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series of the late 30s. While in Fantasia we get ethereal visions of centaurs, fairies, and dancing mushrooms, What’s Opera Doc? gives us a bunny in drag riding an oversized white horse – with the oblivious viking gazing admirably. Comedy gold! This film also has some of the more impressive visuals of any Looney Tunes short, though that probably goes without saying. Such magnificent things are done here with light, shadows, and sound (even incorporating them in subtlety comedic ways), all enhanced by the wonderful operatic narrative arc and a Wagnerian score. And that ending! Such a weird collaboration of comedy, sadness, and bitter irony. Yet it works – this all works. With this film, Chuck Jones succeeds at displaying how cartoons can indeed be portrayed as high works of art, all while keeping both their dignity and comedic flair. Watch it here!

12) Roof Sex (2002) – dir. PES

  • Rating: 8/10

Hahahaha. Ha. Does it make me a bad person if I found this absolutely hilarious? I mean, if I wasn’t laughing so hard at the pure absurdity of it, I’d probably marvel at the unusual form of stop-animation present here. I’d also probably wonder what kind of crazed, perverted mind would think of such a concept. Indeed, the payoff of the whole bit comes with the biting conclusion – hilarious! This film works as a very short snippet of comedy (honestly, it probably wouldn’t have worked so well if it were any longer), and it’s a hilarious example of a budding animator’s first steps into the film world. Watch it here!

13) Western Spaghetti (2008) – dir. PES

  • Rating: 7/10

PES is the kind of animator whose films are undoubtably cool to watch – although it doesn’t get very much deeper than that. His films demonstrate a kind of distinct craft and presence that are certainly impressive, but nonetheless superficial. Regardless of this, Western Spaghetti possesses a sort of charm that draws one in with an initial view. A lot of comedy can be drawn from the sheer unpredictability and absurdity of the “ingredients” used to make this bizarre concoction, as well as from the pretty awesome animation techniques. It’s a fun film, though I would say that Fresh Guacamole (essentially the same concept) is much more aesthetically appealing. Watch it here!

14) A Morning Stroll (2011) – dir. Grant Orchard

  • Rating: 7/10

The bulk of A Morning Stroll consists of three separate perspectives of the same event: a chicken knocking on a door to be let in, with an outside voyeur taking the strange experience in. For the most part, this film is pretty interesting with its incorporation of three different styles of animation to show the passage of time. However, it did feel like the final third of this film was simply in there for filler, in order to show how depraved the future was in that the importance of such an event would be diminished so greatly. A “past, then present” presentation of such a film would be more more tighter and gets the point across perfectly. The whole zombies bit of the film – where it got drastically more sloppy and misguided – is where the bulk of my problems lay. It definitely is interesting enough to hold my attention through its duration, but as a whole, it’s nothing special. Watch it here!

15) The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011) – dir. William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg

  • Rating: 8/10

The first time I watched Fantastic Flying Books, I absolutely loved it. This second time, not so much, but I still think it’s exceedingly great. Not only does this short film get across the importance of printed word in a time of e-books and overall rejection of books. It also exaggerates how imperative it is for the knowledge found in books to reach as many people as possible. Sure, some of the charm of this particular short can be found in its titular character, heavily inspired by Buster Keaton. But what really guides this film along is the amount of heart and warmth toward the printed word it possesses. It is a magical and cares very much about its subject matter. Definitely not over-sentimental and cloying, as I’ve seen it being criticized by a good deal of its haters. Watch it here!

Vera Drake (2004) – dir. Mike Leigh

  • Watched on 1 March
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 10/10

Mike Leigh is a fantastic director. Every film I see of his turns out to be a new favorite. Vera Drake is my sixth of his films I’ve seen and unless something else completely blows me out of the water, this may very well be his masterpiece. It seems that with every film, his most evident strength is with his troupe of actors, coming together to present the narrative with the utmost tender realism. The writing and acting work together so marvelously to connect us with the individuals on screen, making the oncoming conflict all the more devastating. Imelda Staunton gives off a truly remarkable, sympathetic performance, emitting perfect levels of both jolliness and anguish whenever the story calls for it. The multi-dimensionality of her character contrasts sharply with the coldness of the justice system she finds herself tangled up in. It’s a very straight-forward film, but like Leigh’s other films, it is connected together by a collection of truly astounding moments that forced my eyes to the screen at every instance. It’s hard not to care for such an individual, one whose so deeply committed to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Vera Drake, overall, is essentially a collection of interactions surrounding abortion, demonstrating the clashing of heads over this sensitive topic – and it’s all pulled off perfectly by Leigh’s direction and the talents of his performers. No one can nail tender realism quite like Leigh.

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2 Responses to Weekly Film Log: February 23 – March 1

  1. Pingback: Cinema as a Parallel Universe: March ’14 in Film | Films Like Dreams

  2. Pingback: It’s a Cartoon Party!: May ’14 in Film | Films Like Dreams

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