Roller Coaster Rabbit

(USA 1990)

I saw Dick Tracy during its original theatrical run, and I don’t remember a Roger Rabbit cartoon with it. Then again, I don’t remember tee shirt tickets, either. So, what do I know?

Directed by Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall, Roller Coaster Rabbit is essentially a Warner Brothers cartoon — right down to the logo at the beginning. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is left to babysit Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) at a county fair while his mother (April Winchell) goes off and … does something else. I don’t know what.

A red balloon is the impetus for the insanity: Baby Herman drags Roger into a series of painful mishaps involving darts, gunshots, cogs, a roller coaster, and a grazing bull (Frank Welker) whose nuts become an object of Baby Herman’s curiosity. The story is a group project: Bill Kopp, Kevin Harkey, Lynne Naylor, and Patrick A. Ventura all contribute. Clearly, they’ve seen their share of ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons. There’s even a cameo by Droopy (Corey Burton). I respect that. Roller Coaster Rabbit is a fun piece of fluff.

With Kathleen Turner, Charlie Adler

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

7 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

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-

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

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

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