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-

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

(Japan 2017)

This theatrical cut of director Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel [東京ヴァンパイアホテル] (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/tokyo-vampire-hotel-sion-sono-amazon-1201808369/) is a fast-paced stylish and colorful bloodbath, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Manami (Tomite Ami) is a nice girl who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend (Saito Takumi) in Tokyo. Just after she arrives for dinner with her friends on the evening of her 22nd birthday, a crazy gun-toting assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) in a fuzzy pink mink shows up and takes out everyone in the restaurant — except Manami, whom she came to kidnap.

Manami flees, only to be picked up by another kidnapper, the mysterious K (Kaho). K in not so may words explains that Manami is a pawn in a war between two vampire clans, the Draculas and the Corvins, who have been enemies for centuries. Unbeknownst to Manami, she’s the target of a worldwide vampire hunt. K takes her to the glamorous Tokyo Vampire Hotel, which is run by a creepy geisha empress (Adachi Yumi) who needs blood.

The end of civilization is coming, but the empress has a plan: use the hotel to trap a healthy supply of humans to serve as food. Things don’t pan out as planned when the humans figure out what’s happening and the Draculas show up to crash the party.

This photo sums up what you’re getting into here:

Tokyo still.jpg

Tokyo Vampire Hotel is quirky, sexy, lavish, and fun. Sono serves up an imaginative feast of dazzling eye candy and nonstop action. His use of Christian symbols adds a nice touch. The sets are fantastic, and the action moves from the streets of Tokyo at night to inside the hotel to Bran Castle in Transylvania, and back. The editing works to make nine episodes flow seamlessly into a feature length film. However, the story wears thin after a little while, and it can’t sustain the interest I started out with. The gore gets old, too. The length, nearly two and a half hours, is a problem. It demonstrates why Tokyo Vampire Hotel is probably better in smaller doses.

With Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Yokoyama Ayumu, Kagurazaka Megumi, Shibukawa Kiyohiko, Takatsuki Sara, Tsutsui Mariko, Sakurai Yuki

Production: Amazon, Django Film, Nikkatsu Pictures

Distribution: Nikkatsu International Sales

142 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Ginger Snaps

(Canada 2000)

“Shit, wrists are for girls. I’m slitting my throat.”

— Ginger Fitzgerald

Puberty is tough enough without your older sister turning into a werewolf. Just ask 15-year-old Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins), who with her sib, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), stages gory death scenes and takes pictures of them, like a pair of morose Cindy Shermans. When they were kids, they made a pact to die together. Their classmates think they’re weird.

A run-in with mean girl Trina Sinclair (Danielle Hampton) sparks a war. Walking through the woods on their way to exact revenge one October night with a full moon, Ginger gets her first period. She also gets attacked by a mysterious and savage beast — the same one responsible for eviscerating all the dogs in the neighborhood.

Ginger turns increasingly feral over the next few days, growing more aggressive and sexual. Her wounds, which heal almost immediately, are sprouting hair. Oh yeah, she’s also developing what appears to be…a tail?

Brigitte, or “B,” connects with cute, brooding dope dealer Sam (Kris Lemche), who struck and killed the beast while he was driving his van down the road where it ran after it attacked Gretchen. He’s got a recipe for what might be the cure. The clock is ticking as Gretchen gets farther out of control, and Halloween — with another full moon — approaches.

On paper — all I had going into it because I’d never heard of it — John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps sounds dubious at best. The premise seems trite. The part about the period sounds stupid, and the analogy to “becoming a lady” is obvious.

Turns out, Ginger Snaps is surprisingly good. Incorporating familiar elements of teen movies and splatter flicks, Fawcett, who wrote the screenplay with Karen Walton, pushes the “suspension of disbelief” envelope. He knows just when to stop, though. There’s quite a bit of gore here. The special effects are dated but effective nonetheless.

What really sells this film, though, is the acting: Perkins and Isabelle evoke a warmth to their relationship despite their offputting personalities and a fierceness to their bond. They’re totally believable as sisters. The final scene, which involves only them, is downright sad. Crushing, even.

With Mimi Rogers, Jesse Moss, John Bourgeois, Peter Keleghan, Christopher Redman, Lindsay Leese, Wendii Fulford, Pak-Kong Ho, Lucy Lawless

Production: Motion International, Copperheart Entertainment, Water Pictures, Lions Gate Films, Oddbod Productions, TVA International

Distribution: Motion International (Canada), Unapix Entertainment Productions (USA), Lions Gate Films

108 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

Music Box of Horrors

http://www.gingersnapsthemovie.com

Foxy Brown

(USA 1974)

“That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lot of woman.”

— Link

 

“Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.”

— Foxy

To use a term straight from Willie Hutch’s theme song, director/screenwriter Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown is superbad. It’s definitely not something to see for technical or artistic excellence, but it’s cool nonetheless. A sort of reworking of Coffey, it’s a sexy vigilante revenge tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a bodacious woman on a mission to track down the goons who shot and killed her boyfriend (Terry Carter), a government agent who just had plastic surgery to change his identity, right outside her door. Obviously, this is the work of a Los Angeles drug ring.

Foxy quickly figures out who the rat is: her own brother, Link (Antonio Fargas). He identifies her boyfriend’s killers as affiliates of a “modeling agency.” The agency is run by fixers Miss Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and Steve Elias (Peter Brown). Their clients are crooked high profile men of the law like judges and politicians who trade favors for girls.

Posing as a prostitute, Foxy gets inside the operation and does some major damage. It gets her in serious hot water when she’s exposed, bringing her into the center of a lesbian bar brawl and then onto a coke ranch as a junky sex slave. Fortunately, she’s tough and resourceful. No one gets the best of Foxy.

Built on sex parties, chase scenes, shoot outs, and boobs, the plot is structured like a sitcom, and it’s about as complicated and predictable. Naturally, Foxy gets what she wants in the end. Except for the very cool opening titles, there are no effects to speak of. The acting is average at best. However, the action is surprisingly steady, leaving very few dull spots. Plus, there’s real sas here, mostly from Grier, that keeps the whole thing interesting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxy Brown a feminist work, but Foxy is a badass heroine with her heart — and her head — in the right place. It’s a thrill watching her take control, especially in heels and those fabulous frocks. I wouldn’t want to piss her off.

With Harry Holcombe, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown, Sally Ann Stroud, Bob Minor, Tony Giorgio, Fred Lerner, Judy Cassmore, H.B. Haggerty, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Jack Bernardi, Brenda Venus, Kimberly Hyde, Jon Cedar, Ed Knight, Esther Sutherland, Mary Foran, Jeannie Epper, Stephanie Epper, Peaches Jones, Helen Boll, Conrad Bachmann, Russ Grieve, Rodney Grier, Roydon E. Clark, Don Gazzaniga, Jay Fletcher, Gary Wright, Fred Murphy, Edward Cross, Larry Kinley Jr.

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Sociedade Importadora de Filmes (SIF) (Portugal), Film AB Corona (Sweden), Cinema Mondo (Finland)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) C+

A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune]

(France 1902)

I’m guessing that a large number of people recognize a particular still from A Trip to the Moon — the one of the “spaceship” lodged into the moon’s “eye” like a bullet. I’m also guessing that a large number of people have never seen the film. I was one of them — until this afternoon.

Written and directed by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is a lot cooler than I expected. Imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated, it’s downright cinematic in the way it approaches its subject matter and tells its story. Méliès demonstrates far greater artistic and dramatic flair than his American contemporaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

In a Medieval chamber, a wise old astronomer (Méliès) proposes traveling to the moon, only to be scoffed at by his colleagues (Victor André, Brunnet, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm). Undeterred, he shows them how it will work. Soon, they’re heading for outer space in a vessel that looks like a big bullet fired with a cannon from the rooftops of Paris.

The astronomers land on the moon and deboard their “space bullet” — no need for space suits, of course. They set up camp. As they sleep, celestial bodies like a comet, the Big Dipper, and Saturn all appear in the night sky. A moon goddess (Bleuette Bernon) makes it snow. They awake and encounter huge mushrooms and insect-like aliens — played by acrobats in tights and a mask — that explode on impact. A mob of aliens captures them and takes them to the leader. The astronomers escape and flee to their capsule, aliens pursuing them. Will they get back to Earth safely?

I found A Trip to the Moon charming. It’s got a nifty surreal Alice in Wonderland meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe. It’s theatrical and visually stunning, especially the hand tinted color — yes, color — version. The attention to detail is, in a word, heavenly.

Méliès was a wealthy Paris shoemaker who longed to be an artist. He ultimately sold his share of the family business to his brothers and bought a theater, where he performed magic shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès). A demonstration of a cinematograph, a combination camera/projector/printer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematograph), in 1895 sparked his interest in film. He’s considered a sci-fi groundbreaker.

With Jeanne d’Alcy, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène Legris

Production: Star Film Company

Distribution: Star Film Company (France), American Mutoscope & Biograph (USA), Edison Manufacturing Company (USA), S. Lubin (USA), Kleine Optical Company (USA), Niels Le Tort (Sweden), The Royal Wonder Bio (Slovenia)

13 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) A

Wonder Woman

(USA 2017)

Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.

To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.

Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.

Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.

Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.

For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.

With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes

Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)

141 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://wonderwomanfilm.com

Okja

(USA/South Korea 2017)

“We needed a miracle, and then we got one.”

—Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a lot of things; dull is not one of them. A slick, fast-paced, mesmerizing mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, action, satire, and social consciousness, this film has a lot going on—and a lot going for it. I was lucky to see it on the big screen before its official release, and that’s how I recommend seeing it if you can. Sorry, Netflix, Okja is simply too good for TV.

The story begins ten years ago in 2007: in a desperate but brilliant attempt to rebrand a disreputable family business—to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak—Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces her master plan to breed an all-natural “superpig” that leaves a minimal footprint, feeds the world, and tastes great (https://superpigproject.com). Her company, Mirando Corporation, devises a competition, sending twenty-some piglets to real farmers across the globe to raise them; the company will monitor each pig over the next ten years and declare a “winner” based on the results. Mirando hires animal television show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist whose star is fading, to lend credibility to the project as well as to generate public interest in it.

Fast forward to 2017: Mirando’s plan is coming to fruition without any hiccups, which makes her happier than a pig in…well, you know. Unfortunately for Mirando, a young South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), whose grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) signed onto the project, threatens to derail the entire mission. Mija, you see, essentially raised her grandfather’s pig, Okja. They’ve become dependent on each other. He never explained to her what the deal really is—that Mirando’s silk purse is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

Dr. Johnny and his television crew show up at their home in the mountains and marvel over Okja, now a magnificently enormous hippopotamus-like creature. He presents her grandfather with an award and takes Okja to Manhattan—actually, New Jersey—for a pig roast sponsored by the Mirando Corporation.

To put it lightly, Mija’s not having it—she takes off after Okja on a chaotic chase through Seoul, where she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group of inept animal rights activists led by idealistic but ineffective Jay (Paul Dano). They make a pact, but unfortunately she doesn’t speak English. Mija ends up at the world headquarters of Mirando Corporation in New York City, completely unaware of the cards she holds.

I went into Okja blind—the only thing I knew about it was that its central character is a big pig. I left more than satisfied: the cast is stellar, the effects are flawless, and the script is smart and strong despite its flaws. If that don’t beat a pig a-pecking, I don’t know what does.

In simplest terms, Okja is about our complicated consumerist relationship with food. As one pig farmer put it best, “Okja’s a fake pig in a movie I watched on Netflix. But plenty of real animals are suffering inside a horrific system that don’t have to.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/okja-thoughts-from-a-pig-farmer_us_595bd1cde4b0f078efd98cbd). On this point alone, Okja will resonate with anyone who’s ever connected with an animal—pig, dog, cat, bird, horse, aardvark. The story has been compared to E.T. (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/29/e-t-the-extra-terrestrial-e-t/), and it’s pretty wonderful. The final scene, which takes place in a slaughterhouse, is hard to watch—I got anxious. And queasy. I thought of Morrissey!

Appropriately, the acting is hammy; I love that Swinton plays twins again. She looks like a deranged Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Gyllenhaal teeters on insufferable with his wimpy sniveling, but to his credit he manages to keep it in check. I’m usually unimpressed with computer animation, but here it’s amazingly well done; Okja looks as real as the humans. I think the trick is her eyes. Even with its Hollywood ending, Okja is definitely one of this year’s more interesting movies.

With Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito

Production: Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment

Distribution: Netflix

118 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B

https://www.netflix.com/title/80091936

Didi’s Dreams [Didi’s Dream]

(Taiwan/China 2017)

Just in time for summer, Didi’s Dreams [吃吃的愛] is the cinematic equivalent of a glass of lemonade: cool, refreshing, and sweet with a slightly tart afterburn, it’s a real treat on a hot day. Too bad its North American run is an extremely limited one.

An intentionally fluffy melodrama, the story follows the misadventures of its titular character, Didi (Dee Hsu), a hungry young twenty-something wannabe actress. Determined to catch her big break, she auditions for anything: a probiotic commercial, a model on a QVC-type shopping network, an extra in a zombie flick, a female wrestler. She’s not exactly picky, calculated, or disciplined about getting there—she just wants to be famous. To her credit—and the dismay of many a producer and director—she’s earnest in her efforts.

Didi’s boyfriend, Xiao-kou (Scar Kim), literally rolls along with her, carting her around on his scooter. He proves to be her rock when she receives devastating news from her doctor (Chuan-cheng Tao).

Didi has a sister, Lingling (Lin Chi-lin), who also happens to be an actress—a famous one like Didi aims to be. Some bad blood between them after their mother died, shown mainly through flashbacks, caused a falling out. As a result, they haven’t spoken in years. A scandal, a TV talk show, and a twist of fate (or maybe just a publicity stunt) bring them together—cast as sisters in a major motion picture.

While all this goes on, Didi has a recurring dream about Chunmei (also played by Hsu), her psychic alterego who runs an interplanetary noodle shop in, um, outer space. Her clientele is a creature cantina of sorts. Chunmei can’t seem to get over losing her love, and it’s affecting her broth. One particular customer, an astronaut (Zifeng Li), holds her attention. While not immediately clear, a connection to Didi comes through as the story progresses.

Director Kevin Tsai keeps it mostly light here, serving up a tangy mix of comedy, tragedy, and fantasy in a wink-wink soap opera way—more Telemundo than Dynasty. Tsai and Ming-Yi Liao’s screenplay is not at all deep, but it’s packed with surprises despite a few sappy clichés. I like where the narrative goes.

Visually, Didi’s Dreams is a colorful stunner, loaded with cute faces, vivid imagery, snazzy sets, and cool costumes. Jing-Pin Yu’s cinematography glistens; it’s slick without going overboard. I can’t imagine enjoying this film as much without it. It all looks great on the big screen—my favorite scenes are at the noodle shop and that probiotic commercial.

Yes, there are flaws. However, the whole thing is put together so well, I easily forgave them. I could’ve done without the remake of “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s over the closing credits, but the analogy is apt. Didi’s Dreams is a fun little sparkler that caught me off guard.

With Jin Shijia, David Chao, William Shen, Vincent Liang, Bruce Chen, Junior Han, Gigi Lin, Vila Fan, Yu-Lin Shen, Hank Chen, Tender Huang, Riva Chang, Berry Wen-i Kuo

Production: Cheng Cheng Films

Distribution: Le Vision Pictures, Atom Cinema, Kbro HK Limited

91 minutes
Not rated

(ShowPlace ICON) B-

http://www.chengchengfilm.com/didis-dreams-1/

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

Eraserhead

(USA 1977)

I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.

The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.

Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.

Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.

I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.

In 2004, the United States Library of Congress deemed Eraserhead “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 Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch

Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films

Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)

89 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de/head.html