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Thursday, Jun 28, 2007


It’s cinematic cornucopia time for the premium pay cable channels this week, especially since June transmogrifies into July midway through the seven days – and then there’s the whole flag waving, celebrate your country call of the fabled Fourth to take into consideration. With all those potential pitfalls in the way, it’s a wonder that the powers who program these channels have any nails left to nibble. Indeed, how do you keep them glued to the set when there are tons of illegal fireworks to purchase and play with? Harder still is the competition from the local Cineplex. Die Hard is back. Pixar is back. And Michael Bay and his robots in disguise are waiting in the wings. It’s clear that for many in the great unwashed demographic, television will be the last things on their BBQ and blockbuster minds. So cut the premium networks some slack. What they’ve got scheduled – including the SE&L selection for 30 June – is enough to make a dedicated couch potato smile:


Premiere Pick
A Prairie Home Companion


It’s a shame that Robert Altman had to leave this agreeable little gem behind as his last feature film. While many critics complimented its typical intertwined storylines, a few couldn’t get past the foundational material – i.e. Garrison Keillor’s twee Podunk radio show. In fact, it’s funny how many of the movie’s best bits seem to simultaneously embrace and deconstruct this perplexed personality’s Lake Wobegon stories, settings, and characters. Granted, it will be hard to see the sequences where the talent-free Lindsay Lohan battles mightily to keep in step with onscreen Mom Meryl Streep, but in the long run, this bright and brassy swansong for the fictional show will always be remembered as Altman’s last stand. And when measured against time honored masterworks like MASH, Nashville, 3 Women and Short Cuts, it has some hard company to keep in step with. Still, there is an impish kind of creativity here that shows the legendary director was still as sharp as ever. His remains a voice that will be sorely missed. (30 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Idlewild


It’s a sure sign of too much success. The duo known as Outkast (Andre 3000 and Big Boi), responsible for some of the most inventive and invigorating music in the last 10 years, parlay their popularity into a chance to create a full fledged movie musical. Oddly enough, the results are much better than one would have imagined. While the storyline is formulaic and the acting average, the songs really sell this amiable period piece. (30 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Guardian


Kevin Costner as a rough and tumble Coast Guard rescue swimmer instructor. Ashton “Demi” Kutcher is the high school athlete who thinks he’s hot spit. Together, they clash over conduct and duty while big fat CGI waves threaten innocent boaters on the high seas. If by that vague synopsis you can already see where this story is going, don’t be surprised. So did everyone else who actually paid to see this supposed action slop. (30 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction


Who, besides Ms. Stone herself, still thinks she’s capable of rip-roaring erotic sexuality? Show of hands? The fading 49 year old must have been absolutely desperate to take up the Catherine Tramell mantel again, especially with all the stink she caused over certain sequences in the 1992 original. Of course, back then, she could pull off the seductress. Now she looks like a member of the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? touring company. (30 June, ShowTOO, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Aristocrats


Humor, like music, is a highly personal and subjective passion. Either something makes you laugh, or it doesn’t. So if you find incredibly vulgar and racy jokes to be the decline of Western civilization, perhaps you should skip this otherwise fascinating documentary by comedian Paul Provenza (with some help from outsider magician Penn Jilette). Taking a traditional dirty gag – a famed piece that’s been around since the earliest days of stand-up – and allowing dozens of current and former quipsters a chance to explain and riff on it, the obvious tact taken here is to discuss the concept of taboos and onstage envelope pushing. But Provenza also manages to sneak in some commentary on how society views such subjects, as well as how free speech and speaking freely may actually be two different things. If you can handle the bewildering ‘blueness’ of the material, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this devious discussion. (05 July, IFC, 8:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Cooler


One day, Alec Baldwin will get his Oscar. He deserves it, and he’s given plenty of performances worthy of such peer recognition. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this movie contains his best work. Granted, back in 2004, the buzz was building on the actor’s turn as an old school casino boss. But come trophy time, he was barely acknowledged. That doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness, however. It’s very well done. (30 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Control Room


Al Jazeera is the controversial Arab news channel that has both the Bush Administration and their right wing wiseguys up in arms. They claim the station merely functions as a mouthpiece of the region’s radicalized beliefs. The agenda-guided journalists there might not disagree. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim finds himself smack dab in the middle of the melee as he exposes the truths, and the tricks, used by either side of the story on the War in Iraq to win support, both at home and abroad. (02 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

La Haine


The title is translated literally as ‘hate’, and there is plenty of said emotion in this amazing film from French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Addressing the despair and dissolution rampant in the ghettos surrounding Paris, we are introduced to three wayward youths who epitomize the current struggles (one’s black, one’s Arab, one’s a Jew). Aside from the obvious influence of American hip-hop and rap, the lack of power fuels a destructive, fatalistic rage inside them. Then one of them finds a gun. (03 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Grace of My Heart


Why has no one made a definitive film about the Brill Building? What? That name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, how about the songwriters who earned their music mythos while working in the historic hit factory – Lou Reed, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart? Perhaps it’s a question of publishing rights, but it seems that this subject has been ripe for a motion picture epic for far too long. The closest we’ve gotten is this Allison Anders effort that, while incredibly evocative of the time and place, must substitute newly minted melodies – and a girl power narrative center – to get its occasionally arch points across. To make matters even more meandering, the narrative includes fictionalized sketches of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that just don’t seem to fit into the overall theme being explored. It’s a noble failure, however, one that argues for another go round with what is some highly substantive subject matter. (01 July, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Additional Choices
West of Zanzibar/ The Unholy Three


Lon Chaney was not only the Man of a Thousand Faces, he was also one of the first major genre superstars. This inspired combination of Tod Browing classics, shows off the man’s amazing talent for mimicry more than his well known penchant for remarkable make-up. It’s too bad that he died so young, and that most of his creative canon is lost. Even here, toward the tale end of his career, Chaney remains a stark, stunning performance powerhouse. (29 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Squirm


Radioactive killer earthworms - you just can’t get more schlock than that. But writer/director Jeff Liebermann desperately tried to up the exploitation ante by setting the story in the steamy, slow-witted South, and piling on the hillbilly hokum. It more or less worked, as this passion pit staple proves. Liebermann leaves no hoary old cliché unturned, and even reinvents a few just for fun. The result is a dime store definition of the ‘so bad it’s good’ ideal. (30 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Left In Darkness


Every once in a while, an inventive independent horror movie will come along, using intelligence and ideas to substitute for a lack of special effects and eerie eye candy. While less than stellar, it usually soothes the horror fan’s savaged breast. Well, this isn’t that kind of fright flick. Instead, it’s a moderately entertaining work of misapplied macabre that’s just barely coherent enough to be engaging. (06 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007


They call it the ‘sophomore slump’. It’s a phrase reserved for any artist/filmmaker/musician that follows up an initial success with a decidedly underwhelming second project. In the realm of the motion picture, a perfect example would be Richard Kelly. In 2001, he concocted a little science fiction freakout named Donnie Darko. It’s tale of time travel and suburban foreboding struck a chord with disenfranchised and alienated teens everywhere, and while not a major box office hit, it found a massive audience when it was release on home video. There was even a director’s cut DVD. Yet his second film, the still unreleased Southland Tales, was met with unmitigated hatred when it premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From “unwatchable” to “a work of wounded hubris”, the outright rejection from audiences has held up any major theatrical play dates (it’s now tentatively scheduled for March 2008!).


James Wan was a little luckier than that. His Dead Silence only took four years from conception to release, and instead of blatantly burying the Australian filmmaker’s second major fright film, Universal actually gave it a massive mainstream roll out (over 1800 screens). Critics responded like they do for most horror films - i.e. they dismissed it outright without much analytical thought - and the film flopped. Of course, it didn’t help matters much that the publicity department kept stressing for director’s connection to the name-making Saw. The two movies couldn’t have been more dissimilar in tone, concept or execution.


Wan, along with writing partner Leigh Whannell, did indeed make waves in 2003 with their Sundance smash about a pair of unrelated individuals trapped in a booby-trapped bathroom, and the warped serial killer named Jigsaw who controlled their fate. Literally unknown, the pair became major macabre players thanks to the title’s cult-like success. A popular precursor to what is now called ‘torture porn’, the otherwise solid psychological thriller became an even bigger horror franchise, spawning two sequels so far (a third is on the drawing board). Whannell stayed on to guide the scripts, while his partner planned his next foray behind the lens. It turned out this old fashioned groovy Gothic ghost story was the proposed production.


For this film, Wan and Whannell developed a ghoulish female ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and borrowing a bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street, gave her a fatalistic backstory involving child murder and citizenry revenge. Jumping forward to the present, we are introduced to Jamie Ashen, who has just lost his wife to a hideous murder. On the same night that he received one of Shaw’s demonic dummies, his spouse Lisa had her tongue ripped from her mouth. Returning to Raven’s Fair, the town he grew up in, Jamie uncovers the truth about the murdered performer and her bevy of disturbing dolls. He also confronts his cold and distant father over the clan’s connection to her crimes. When the detective investigating Lisa’s death shows up to keep his eye on Jamie, they are both tossed into an unnerving cycle of restless spirits and supernatural revenge.


While it is true that Dead Silence is nothing like Saw, it is also a fact that it’s far from a failure. Indeed, if you take the movie on its own, unusual terms, it ends up being an effective and suspenseful spook show. Now, there are a couple of elements you have to buy into in order to thoroughly enjoy this film. First and foremost, you have to believe that ventriloquist dummies are inherently frightening. Seeing them, sitting there, human-like eyes staring at you, burying their gaze directly down into your soul - this has to send several unsettled shivers right along your stone cold spine. If that doesn’t happen, or you haven’t built up enough gruesome goodwill after seeing Magic, The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, or Dead of Night, then much of what Wan wants to do just won’t work. While it references other fright flicks – especially those of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento – it’s a premise that can be problematic.


The second issue has already been mentioned. Without giving too much away, Mary Shaw is a kind of sideshow Freddy Krueger. She killed children, but for reasons less sexually repugnant than our bad guy burn victim in a green and red sweater. Still, their origins are very analogous, and the whole nursery rhyme angle really seals the similarities. This will cause many fans to have a ‘been there, done that’ feeling that will cloud their potential enjoyment. It is a shame that Wan and Whannell couldn’t come up with something more original. After all, Mary Shaw has some really weird ideas about how to optimize her doll’s ‘realism’ – couldn’t that be murderous motivation enough. And since the character is played onscreen by the wonderfully enigmatic Judith Roberts, an actress capable of inciting fear with a simple look, you don’t need much more than dementia to direct your dread.


Those two elements aside, Dead Silence is a sensational looking film. Wan has lost known of his Saw-inspired directorial flair – he merely applies it in a much more controlled and colorful manner. This is a movie loaded with atmosphere and mood, where fog fills the woods and buildings practically breathe under the weight of their own disquieting ambience. Wan went all out to make Raven’s Fair the most menacing ghost-town in training since Collinsport and Collinwood withered under the residency of their namesake’s Dark Shadows. Especially eerie is the setting for the film’s finale, the decrepit old Guignol Theater. Since we also get to see it in its heyday, the transformation from showplace to sinister is truly bone chilling. But nothing can top the extremely disconcerting corpses in this film. Shaw’s murderous modus – pulling out people’s tongues - leaves horrific visages of dead bodies with their mouths unhinged and hacked open. Either in full view or suggestion, it’s potent paranormal stuff.


There are aspects to this movie that don’t quite gel, however. It seems that anyone who had just experienced the death of their spouse would want nothing to do with the doll at the center of the slaying, as well as the various unholy locales associated with it. Secondly, Wan and Whannell drop a couple of interesting subplots (the mortician’s crazy wife, the problems between Jamie and his distant dad) in favor of more moody walks through gloom drenched ruins. There is also something a tad artificial about Wan’s overall aesthetic approach. The movie looks great, but he relies on repetitive shots (cars traveling along superimposed maps) and specific framing devices (all buildings are composited head on and symmetrical) to drive the narrative. The acting is excellent all around, but we never find ourselves emotionally involved in the fate of our hero. Our attention is turned a little too much on how all this is going to turn out.


The answer is both satisfying…and a little sick. Wan and Whannell indeed save the best for last here, answering several questions (and raising a couple) with a conclusion that builds on almost everything we’ve seen before. It wraps up the film in a nice, nasty little bow, and quells any concerns that our pair couldn’t pull this off. Still, it’s strange that the final version (the unrated DVD adds some extra elements that really help establish the horror) didn’t connect with audiences. It’s the same kind of mood-oriented spine-tingler that 1408 has ridden all the way to the bank. Maybe it’s the two tenuous facets mentioned before. It could be that fans of Saw weren’t interested in something old school and subtle. Perhaps March is just a bad time to forward a fright flick. Whatever the case, Wan has survived. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next feature, a Death Wish inspired vigilante drama entitled Death Sentence (starring Kevin Bacon). Still, for fans looking for an alternative to all the blood and guts gumming up the current genre trappings, give this excellent effort a try. It’s an amazingly winning little creepshow. 


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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2007


SiCKO is sensational. It’s perhaps the best movie Michael Moore has ever made. Granted, there will be those who view his anti-gun screed Bowling for Colombine as his most heartfelt effort (it did earn him an Oscar for Best Documentary) and now that the firestorm has died down, and the winds of change are basically blowing in his direction, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks more and more like a prescient populist prophecy. But those two amazing movies, along with the retro-reactionary Roger and Me and the rest of his confrontational canon really pale in comparison to this detailed dissection of the American Heath Care system. Looking at the problem from both the inside out and the international inward, Moore manages to do what his previous films have failed to accomplish. SiCKO, more than any other movie he’s made, is guaranteed to provide a cinematic catalyst for change.


Don’t think so? Unsure that people will rise up to challenge the substandard status quo of insurance coverage for the US population? Well, just remember this. A film is forever. Mock its methods or question its facts, but once it takes a stance, that statement is set in celluloid stone. From then on, it is up to others to redirect the dialogue, to challenge its veracity and pick apart the particulars. But at the end of the day, after all the agenda-based attacks and website scrutinizing, Moore will have delivered the first AND last word on the subject. And since the enemy he picks is well known and hated by a vast majority of the paying populace, it will survive the government threats, the industry lawsuits, and the brazen backlash from dozens of self-styled experts. In turn, Moore’s version of reality will become the JFK of the HMOs. The essentials may be specious, but the overall message is right on goddamn target.


During the film’s clever opening, we see immediately where Moore is going. He discusses the case of two people sans insurance, and immediately tosses their frightening fate aside. We can’t deal with this issue, you can hear the filmmaker thinking, it’s too much of a common man slam dunk. Instead, the focus of SiCKO is on people who actually have coverage, and how said supposed security blanket is actually a lifestyle (and life) threatening ruse. We get testimonials from individuals who’ve lost loved ones thanks to seemingly random decisions by blank corporate facades, and then Moore turns around and puts a mug onto those crass kill(er)joys. It’s this material that’s the most fascinating in SiCKO. Everyone has a horror story about being denied in a time of crisis, but when do we ever get to see the person behind the decision. Granted, these former insurance company workers are all miserable and overflowing with mea culpas. But no amount of forgiveness can erase the dollar oriented disasters that lay in their wake.


Throughout this initial half of the film, Moore sets up the first of his two main themes – that insurance companies are in it for the money, not the health care management. The resounding ‘D’uh” following said sentiment should argue against his success as a pundit. But Moore knows movies, and he understands that the right story can sidetrack an entire library of statistics and consulting reports. Thus, he presents the Smith family. Amiable, hard working, and dedicated followers of America’s Middle Class dream, we watch as Mom and Pop Smith are devastated by several personal problems (him – heart attacks, her – cancer) and slowly swallowed up by the bureaucratic bankruptcy of the system. The co-pays and deductibles, let alone the financial reality of dealing with six kids of their own, sends them into a downward spiral of money problems. Eventually, they must sell their home and move into a cramped basement computer room (with bunk beds!) in their daughter’s home.


Like the scene in Roger and Me where a kind-hearted sheriff’s deputy dispossess a distraught family, watching real people suffer in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ manner is the most effective way of getting your point across. This is not an issue of mismanaged funds or individual liability. The Smiths bought into a system (paid into it, actually) that never intended to indemnify them come crunch time. Imagine – your car insurance suddenly stops taking effect right in the middle of a post-accident repair job. Your life insurance annuity ceases paying at the discretion of the company, not the contract. You sign up for disaster insurance before boarding a plane, and as the engines start to fail and the stewardesses shout out final instructions, the head rest phone rings. It’s your company, suddenly cutting off your coverage as a ‘potential risk’. Along with the other examples he provides in this section, Moore’s makes SiCKO a strong case for massive corporate reforms.


But what’s the model we should use? Which countries have the best universal coverage – or at least, in Moore’s opinion, put the American system to shame. The answer to this question composes the second half of SiCKO, and will probably be the sequence viewed with the most cynicism. Providing us a USA-ridiculing walking tour of the Canadian, French and British health care arrangement, Moore plays dupe to a bunch of everyday citizens who can’t imagine living in a country that doesn’t provide some manner of socialized medicine. Our intrepid reporter asks the same question over and over again – “what did it cost you?” – and the look of disconnect and confusion on these foreigners’ faces is classic. Time and time again, the answer is “nothing”, and Moore mimics their disbelief by wondering “what’s the catch”. Well, exploring said specifics and restrictions is not what SiCKO is on about. Again, the big picture is important here. No matter what it says in the fine print, almost every industrialized Western country has some form of universal health coverage – except the US.


Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there will be those who harp on minor misconceptions and abject realities as a means of trying to deflate SiCKO’s strategies. Unfortunately, said potshots won’t make the movie any less entertaining. The reason people will pile on this film has nothing to do with its ideas and everything to do with its effectiveness. If Moore was a moviemaking incompetent, unable to maintain a level of interest in what is an inherently intriguing idea, then his efforts would tour a few underground film festivals and that’s it. But people will be lining up to learn the lessons this director wants to discuss, and it’s the intrinsic draw of film that has opponents flummoxed.


If Moore was inherently wrong with what he puts out in SiCKO, that would be one thing. He’s not using one or two rare instances to make a gross overgeneralization about the US Health Care system. Instead, he is avoiding the 10 or 20% of satisfied citizens to focus on the far more prevalent problems. It’s not a question of balance – if 10 people out of 100 get good, trouble free service, representing their viewpoint does not provide equilibrium to the situation with the other 90. Neither does pointing out the number of areas where America beats the rest of the world in medical technology. Saving lives is one thing. Having access to the science that does such rescuing is the issue at hand. It is conceivable that the citizens of the countries Moore champions would have varying versions of their socialized medicines success. But complaining that problems exist in an arguably imperfect system is like saying an inexact science is wrong now and again. Besides, what’s more important – the fact that everyone is covered, or that when such universal coverage is in place, flaws are inevitably found? 


There will be those who cannot forgive his histrionics, who see him standing on Cuban soil, chronically ill volunteers from 9/11 in tow, calling over to Guantanamo Bay and asking for the same health care that we are giving to the terrorists, and complain about the obvious exploitation. Others will attack the man and consider it a criticism of the movie. But in a nation of apathetic arrogance, that has begun to believe much of its own hyped hubris, SiCKO needs to be seen. It does the two most potent things any successful screed can – it enlightens while it entertains. In addition, it sets the tone for the rest of the debate, providing proof against all the industry apologists while offering potential solutions, no matter how suspect. It’s what any good discussion should encompass. It’s also the foundation for any masterful film…and SiCKO definitely falls into that category.


 


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Monday, Jun 25, 2007


As June comes crawling to a close, the final retail Tuesday sees some interesting choices, all available at your favorite local home entertainment emporium. Granted, they tend to represent the less than successful members of the mainstream set, movies that failed to make their mark at the box office four to six months ago, and are just now seeing a seismic turnaround onto the fiscally friendly format. But there is a great deal to enjoy here, including a solid second film from a critically acclaimed director,  a stereotypical uplifting sports film, a by-the-numbers actioner and one of the most intelligent looks at the horror film ever created. Toss in some off title entities and the usual under-performing suspects, and its standard Summertime fare. While it would probably do better come October, SE&L suggests you forget the sunshine and pick up its selection for 26 June. It will have you thinking of Fall’s autumnal terrors lickety-split:


Behind the Mask: The Rise of Vernon Leslie


Attention all horror fans – it’s time to rejoice. After six months of fading fortunes at the box office, there’s a new scare sheriff in town, and his name is Scott Glosserman. An obvious genre maven, this first time filmmaker has crafted one of the cleverest, most inventive movie macabre spoofs since Wes Craven made us Scream. Using the novel idea that all slasher serial killers (Jason, Freddy, Michael) are real, and that they all conform to a kind of slice and dice code of ethics (can’t enter closets, must locate virgin to act as ‘survivor girl’), Glosserman deconstructs the ‘80s splatter favorites and turns them into psychological studies worthy of Freud. Then we meet the title character, a mass murderer wannabe who has hired a documentary film crew to follow him around. It’s their interaction, and the last act switch into a standard scary movie, that really sells this sensational experiment. If you’ve been burned by the recent redundant dread, give this indie effort a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Titles of Interest


Black Snake Moan


For a follow up to his wildly successful Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer decided to go down the old fashioned exploitation route. He came up with a story about a black blues musician taking a slutty white girl under his wing, attempting to cure her ‘provocative’ ways by chaining her up. While it wants to be a Baby Doll for the new millennium, there’s more tenderness than taboo here.

Dead Silence


It took James Wan almost three years to return with an answer to the massive sophomore success of Saw. The result was this movie macabre oddity, the story of a killer ventriloquist and her possessed dummies from Hell! Trying to fuse old school terror with nods to both the Italian and Japanese styles of horror, many fans failed to see the fright. DVD will be the perfect place to rediscover this potential cult classic.

Peaceful Warrior


Victor Salva is at it again. No, not THAT. Instead, he is making yet another film about a loner like teenage boy looking for guidance, and in this case, finding it from a kindly older man. Salva’s scandalous past, including a conviction for child molestation, doesn’t seem to deter his directorial fortunes. While other artists struggle to get movies made, he consistently finds films to forward. Such is the weird workings of the industry.

Pride


At this point in the genre, it must be harder and harder to find motivational stories of unlikely sports teams beating the odds and showing the status quo that they too matter. But this tale of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim club started by urban do-gooder Jim Ellis (a decent Terence Howard) has a nice period feel, as well as an inspirational hook that most movies of its type can’t match.

Shooter


Mark Walhberg is a marksman lured out of hiding to protect the President from assassination. Naturally, he is double crossed and accused of the eventual crime. What follows is another standard big budget action extravaganza with too much bombast and not enough believability. It’s a shame that director Antoine Fuqua has had such a troubled time of late. All Tru Blu scuffle aside, he remains a promising feature filmmaker.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Frankenstein Conquers the World/ Frankenstein vs. Baragon


It has to have one of the greatest premises of any Toho production. The heart of Frankenstein’s monster is recovered from a European stronghold during WWII, and is kept in a Japanese lab. When the Hiroshima bomb is dropped, the organ takes on a life of its own. Soon, it’s guiding a feral boy with a freakish facial deformity. Baragon shows up, and the two square off in standard man in suit style. Originally scheduled as another Godzilla sequel, this unusual take on the giant monster movie has to be seen to be believed. And what makes matters even more unbelievable, DVD distributor Tokyo Shock is giving this far out film the two disc special edition treatment. Offering both the original and English language versions, as well as commentary and other contextual tidbits, we gain insight into series creator Ishirô Honda, and how seriously said film were taken. Fortunately, for us, it’s all fun and foolishness.

 


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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007


It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.


At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).


Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.


With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets. 


Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.


It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.


Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.


But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.


The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.


Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.


But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.


Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.


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