Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

The Wizard of Oz

(USA 1939)

“For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now… well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!”

—Auntie Em

 

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

—Dorothy

 

“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”

—The Wicked With of the West

 

“Only bad witches are ugly.”

—Glenda

 

“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.”

“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

“You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”

—The Wizard of Oz

Growing up when I did, The Wizard of Oz aired on TV every year, and only once a year. It was a special event. I distinctly remember it being on Thanksgiving, but digging around online contradicts me—while some sources back me up, others say Easter, February, and even Christmas. Whatever. I’ve seen it so many times, I know it by heart. So do many people. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/26/willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory/ ), The Wizard of Oz is a celluloid relic from my childhood that still stirs something in me.

This annual tradition stopped sometime in the ’90s, probably because home video and cable allowed one to see it anytime. So, I was downright thrilled to see a screening near me over a different holiday weekend this year: Memorial Day. I’ve only seen this film on the big screen once or maybe twice before, so I couldn’t resist.

This is where I usually launch into the story, where I might get into some of the details of Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her weird Technicolor odyssey to the Emerald City after a tornado lifts her, Toto (Terry), and her farmhouse out of Kansas and drops her somewhere over the rainbow in Munchkinland—right on top of the unseen Wicked Witch of the East, whose crazy striped socks and shriveled feet are permanently etched in my memory—provoking the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) thanks to a pair of ruby slippers.

Let’s be honest, though: we all know the story. Does anything more need to be said about The Wizard of Oz, which is probably the best known and most seen film, ever? Classic and iconic, it set a cinematic benchmark that hasn’t been surpassed nearly a century on, and probably never will be. Loaded with character, song, color, and cool props, it’s a one of a kind spectacle. Its magic continues to inspire.

Harold Rosson’s cinematography is top notch. Seeing it today, I was wowed by the sepiatone Kansas scenes, which were plain old black and white on TV. I always feel a rush when Dorothy opens the door after she crashes, but seeing Munchkinland on the big screen is so much more awesome. So is that scene in the poppy field, and so is the Emerald City with its otherworldy green glow—like paranormal depression glass. Marvelous!

Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film’s history behind the camera is every bit as colorful as…well, Munchkinland. Victor Fleming is credited as director, but The Wizard of Oz actually had five: Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Fleming, and King Vidor (https://www.shmoop.com/wizard-of-oz/director.html ). Over a dozen writers contributed to the screenplay (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Wizard_of_Oz_Screenwriters ). Although the munchkin suicide is by all accounts nothing more than a rumor, Hamilton was burned badly (https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/06/priority-margaret-hamilton-wicked-witch-west-wizard-oz-suffered-3rd-degree-burns-face-hands-scene-munchkinland-exits-ball-flame/ ). Buddy Ebsen was initially cast as the Tin Man, but he dropped out of the film when he suffered a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum makeup used on his face (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Buddy_Ebsen ). However, his voice remains in the scene where Garland, Ray Bolger as the scarecrow, and Jack Haley, Ebsen’s replacement, sing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” after the Tin Man is reanimated with oil.

Legend has it (though it’s probably exaggerated) that the actors who played the munchkins were worse than drunk sailors, holding sex parties and trashing the hotel where they stayed in Culver City (http://www.seeing-stars.com/Hotels/CulverHotel.shtml ) (http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/wizard-oz-mucnhkins-didnt-just-9782402 ) (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/dogged-by-rumour-the-riddles-of-oz-1766264.html ). Garland allegedly claimed that she was repeatedly accosted by a number of them (http://people.com/celebrity/teenage-judy-garland-was-repeatedly-molested-by-munchkins-on-set-of-wizard-of-oz-says-her-ex-husband/ ). What a world, what a world!

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Wizard of Oz “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM, Warner Brothers

102 minutes
Not rated

(ArcLight) A+

http://www.thewizardofoz.warnerbros.com

Winter of the Witch

(USA 1970)

I never heard of this nifty gem of a short until I saw it, but it’s apparently quite big with Gen X. I can see why: a precursor to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Scooby Doo with Bewitched and The Addams Family thrown in, it’s about a single mother (Anna Strasberg) who skips town (Manhattan) in her VW Bug with her young son, Nicky (Roger Morgan), and buys a dilapidated old Victorian mansion in the boonies for cheap. Real cheap: $400 cheap. Turns out, there’s a catch: the place is haunted by a gloomy and depressed 300-year old witch (Hermione Gingold) who’s given up on the world.

Adapted from the book Old Black Witch by Wende and Harry Devlin, screenwriter and director Gerald Herman turns in something unintentionally impressive. I can see why this is such a hit with members of my generation. Aside from a few nouveau social issues for the time (a single parent and a vaguely gay little boy) and the mysterious untold backstory of this mother-son team, Winter of the Witch is really fucking weird. What kid’s story mixes the occult and “magic pancakes” laced with something no one will identify? The damned pancakes make everyone who eats them happy, so… The quality of the film is cheap and eerie, adding to the mood. Plus, Burgess Meredith narrates.

Winter of the Witch is roughly the length of a sitcom episode, which makes me think it was a pilot that didn’t get picked up. Regardless, I love it! See for yourself below.

24 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B+

Music Box of Horrors

The Kid

(USA 1921)

I must confess that I never saw a Charlie Chaplin film until The Kid, his first full-length feature—he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it. He also composed the score, something I didn’t know silent movies had; I guess I assumed organ players picked their own music to accompany films in those days. It’s a small miracle that The Kid made it out in one piece, as its production faced some financing difficulties (http://about.bankofamerica.com/en-us/our-story/making-of-charlie-chaplins-the-kid.html#fbid=eIQZsBMJxKN) and its release was entangled in Chaplin’s divorce proceedings and studio double-dealing. It was a huge success, becoming the second-highest grossing film of 1921 (http://www.filmsite.org/1921.html) (http://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Kid_(1921_film) ). It’s easy to see why.

I enjoyed The Kid more than I expected. I was taken aback at how well this film, nearly a century old, works even by today’s standards. It’s a beautifully executed story with elements that seem way ahead of its time. A penniless unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) abandons her illegitimate newborn in the back seat of an expensive Model-T type limo parked in front of a mansion. Two gangsters who steal the limo pull over and dump the baby among some trash in an alley when they discover him crying. The tramp (Chaplin) happens upon him. After a few failed attempts to pawn off the baby on someone else, he finds a note inside his blanket, begging whoever finds him “to love and care for this orphan child.” The tramp takes him in, names him “John,” and raises him as his own in the tenement where he lives.

Five years pass. The tramp has taught John (Jackie Coogan, who later in life would play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family) how to help him eke a living off a window repair scam. By now, the woman is a rich performer who does charity work to help the poor. She crosses paths with John, but of course doesn’t realize who he is. The tramp calls a physician (Jules Hanft) when John gets sick and unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to separate them when child welfare authorities take custody of John to place him in an orphanage.

The Kid may very well be the first “dramedy” ever; the opening card (this is a silent picture) gets that out up front, revealing it to be “[a] picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” Chaplin’s trademark slapstick is a prominent ingredient, but he infuses serious drama into the story. The opening sequence that tells us about John’s parents is tragic, but it doesn’t compare to the scene in which the child welfare authority agents take John away from the tramp: the kid is in tears, desperately reaching out of the truck for the tramp to rescue him. Soon, the tramp is running after the truck in an intense rooftop chase and ultimately gets to it, pulling John out of the back. You feel every rush of emotion the characters do—amazing considering it’s accomplished without sound or words. Chaplin and Coogan adeptly convey feelings with simple body movements, facial expressions, and their eyes. Even the mundane parts of their day—like making breakfast and getting dressed—ooze a tenderness that emphasizes their bond.

I picked up on a few themes, but two struck me in particular. The first is religion, though I’m not entirely sure how to interpret it. Much of it comes from the hospital at the beginning and the notorious weird dream sequence the tramp has toward the end of the film—I found this scene curious because I’m not sure how it fits into the whole picture. The point could have something to do with a number of things: mercy, the golden rule, resurrection (this film has a few examples of rebirth and reinvention), salvation, hypocrisy, or something else altogether. The second theme is urban poverty; Chaplin is obviously making a statement about it in the way he shows authority figures—cops, child welfare agents, the doctor who turned him in—barging in on his low-status life and throwing it into turmoil.

The Kid is interesting not only for the autobiographical elements Chaplin incorporates, but also for the time period it depicts. The restored print I saw was luminous and crisp, vividly showing details from the sets (bricks on the buildings, dust in the streets, the tramp’s shabby furniture), the textures of the characters’ clothing, and even the skin tone and hair quality of some of the actors. It’s simultaneously cool and mildly creepy. The exteriors, shot mainly in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, remarkably capture the look and feel of a grimy Victorian city. An extra bonus was a live organ player at the screening I caught.

Speaking of Los Angeles, many of the filming locations still exist. Here’s a great blog that shows them today: https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/how-charlie-chaplin-filmed-the-kid-2/.

The Kid is more complex that it looks. It’s thoroughly satisfying on multiple levels: narrative, visual, social, and historical. I’m thrilled I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

In 2011, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Kid “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

68 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Full movie (with sound):

 

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (E.T.)

(USA 1982)

It’s easy to forget what a big deal E.T. was in its day. The highest grossing film of the Eighties (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/), its original theatrical run lasted longer than a year (http://www.slashfilm.com/what-is-the-longest-theatrical-run-in-the-history-of-cinema/). It was the Thriller of movies—in fact, Michael Jackson appeared with E.T. on the cover of Ebony (http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/blog/pop-culture-capsule-michael-jackson-1982-ebony-magazine-spotlight). Having seen it only once back when it was current, I approached a recent screening with curiosity and trepidation. I wondered whether it held up; after all, Steven Spielberg is pretty schmaltzy, and I was Elliott’s age in 1982.

I’m happy to report that aside from outdated special effects and other superficial giveaways—hairstyles, clothes, technology, cars—E.T. has worn quite well. The reason is obvious: the story is simple, universal, and so well told it transcends its time. An alien on a mission gathering plant samples on Earth is accidentally left behind when his ship takes off in a panic. Keeping a low profile as one would on a foreign planet, the alien stumbles upon a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who takes him in (more as a curiosity or a pet than anything) and names him “E.T.” After establishing trust—not so much with words as Reese’s Pieces—the two form a bond. Elliott ultimately helps E.T. find his way home in the midst of some serious danger brewing for both of them.

Although it involves an alien, anyone can relate to this story because it speaks directly to basic human emotions, particularly fear and love. The acting and character development are superb. The child actors—including a baby Drew Barrymore—are natural; even a line with the term “penis breath” doesn’t sound forced. Elliott and his mother (Dee Wallace) capture the dolefulness of the single parent home, a relatively uncommon occurrence then. A young and ugly C. Thomas Howell has a small role as Tyler, one of the neighborhood kids.

Some of the plot straddles the line, but overall the story is believable even if it tugs at the heartstrings. I didn’t cry this time, but seeing E.T. with adult eyes didn’t diminish its impact. I say it’s Spielberg’s best film.

In 1994, the United States Library of Congress deemed E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A

https://www.uphe.com/movies/et-the-extra-terrestrial

http://www.iloveet.com

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

(USA/UK 1971)

What a great way to get into the Easter spirit: an afternoon screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory complete with Rocky Horror-esque audience participation (without the swearing) and a goodie bag filled with bubbles, taffy, a chocolate egg, an exploding popper, and a glow stick—sign me up!

One of the first movies I remember seeing, ever, is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it with my sister and my cousins (Billy and Dottie), and I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. We saw it at the Madison Theatre, which is long gone. Here’s a picture of it: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/7383

I still remember what it looked like inside: it was a big open theater with a concession stand at the top of the seats divided by a half wall that allowed one to see the screen while purchasing popcorn. Today, it’s a lumberyard as it has been for decades. Sigh.

But I digress.

So how’s the movie? The screenplay isn’t totally true to Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel—he started it but didn’t finish it, and ultimately disowned the final version (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willy_Wonka_%26_the_Chocolate_Factory)—but it makes no difference. Director Mel Stuart keeps the film, to borrow from one of the songs, pure imagination and good fun. The sets are simple and the “special effects” are really low tech, like that trippy boat scene and the graphics accompanying the Oompa Loompas as they sing. Regardless, a timelessly magic quality that doesn’t need much comes through. Clearly, this is not the United States even if Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) speak in an American dialect. One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the one in which Violet (Denise Nickerson) turns into a blueberry. And who doesn’t love watching all these shitheads meet their fate: Augustus (Michael Bollner) sucked into a tube, Veruca (Julie Dawn Cole) falling down a trash chute to be incinerated, and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) shrunk down to size? The color pallette is an awesome late 60s drab, and the clothes are amazingly gaudy. Everyone’s hair is stiff. The whole thing is wonderfully weird.

I love Wonka’s (Gene Wilder) deadpan disdain for, like, everything. The Oompa Loompas’ moralistic nursery rhymes against eating too much, chewing gum, being a brat, and watching too much TV are awesome. Some scenes are thin and quicker than I remember, but it’s a perfect movie for kids. It even has a happy ending. I never found it scary.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still brings a smile to my face after all these years. Although I didn’t mind Tim Burton’s remake, I’ll take the original any day. Oh yeah—a trip to the candy store after the film (like I had) is obligatory.

In 2014, the United States Library of Congress deemed Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

(Music Box) A-

http://www.willywonkamovie.com

I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story

(USA 2014)

I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story delivered what it promised: the life story of Carroll Spinney, who became an unlikely icon as Big Bird (not to mention Oscar the grouch). We get tidbits about his artsy mother and crabby father; his fascination with puppetry as a child; his chance meeting with Jim Henson; and nearly quitting Sesame Street during its first season because he didn’t fit in with the cast. We get archival footage and a healthy dose of nostalgia without going overboard. We also get new information; I never knew Spinney was supposed to be a passenger on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986, or that he has an understudy. It all adds up to a winner.

Despite everything right with this documentary, however, I left wanting more from it. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe more gossip? Dirt? A drug problem or behind-the-scenes sex? Something. I know, this is Sesame Street we’re talking about, so I accept my disappointment in the lack of any sleaze as my issue. Considering its subject matter, though, I Am Big Bird could have been more fun.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.iambigbird.com

Cinderella

(USA 2015)

What’s to say, really? Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of the classic cartoon was pretty much what I expected, Disney milquetoast and all. Lily James makes a good Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett makes an even better evil stepmother. Two things I enjoyed: the backstory the original did not tell and the prince’s (Richard Madden) junk showing through the white tights he wore in every scene. Helena Bonham Carter, downright magical as the fairy godmother, stole the show; her scene was by far the best if only for how giddy it made me.

(AMC 600 North Michigan) C

http://movies.disney.com/cinderella