One Hundred and One Dalmatians ***½/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras A story by Bill Peet, based on the book The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi
by Bill Chambers 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (hereafter 101 Dalmatians) make for an illuminating double-bill; the latter could even be construed as a Godardian rejoinder to the former. An anti-auteur of these movies, Walt Disney determined their outcome by divesting resources from their development--including his own expertise--and pouring them into his personal Taj Mahal, Disneyland. This deprived the expensive Sleeping Beauty of the talent that may have been able to crack its deceptively-simple fairytale formula and transcend the limitations of a graphical style inspired by medieval tapestries. When the film barely broke even, Disney decided his next animated feature would adapt a property with some grounding in contemporary prose and cost a lot less, leading to the shuttering of the ink-and-paint department and a vigorous embrace of Xerography, whereby the animators' pencil drawings were photocopied directly onto acetate rather than delicately retraced and refined by hand.
*/**** starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book "The Secret Service" by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons directed by Matthew Vaughn
by Walter Chaw Whatever surface similarities they might share, the difference between something great like John Wick and something like Kingsman: The Secret Service (hereafter Kingsman) is that Kingsman is smug and misanthropic. It's a self-knowing ape of the James Bond franchise, literally name-dropping both it and Jason Bourne with a kind of Cabin in the Woods smirk as it goes through the comic-book, Mark Millar-ugly motions of gadgets, high espionage, and a plot by lisping supervillain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) that involves the cell-phone triggered, rage-fuelled annihilation of billions. (Yes, it's also a weird rip on third-rate Stephen King novel Cell.) Gone mostly unexamined by critics for fear of "spoiling" the film, I guess, it features a scene in which Barack Obama commits treason and is then rewarded with an explosive decapitation--which is, itself, a form of treason, I think, although I admit the modern political landscape has made the limits of treasonous disrespect of the office somewhat murky to me. It's a jaw-dropping moment in a film that has not only a foreign head of state offer anal sex as a reward to our sprightly young protagonist, but also our Bond-ish hero, Harry (Colin Firth), slaughter a few dozen unlikeable yet innocent civilians in a church. Edgy, non?
**/**** starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jennifer Ehle screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
by Walter Chaw In an age of post-satire, where Sarah Palin has a cognitive episode on every channel and prints the take, where it's actually become impossible to mock something that's constantly in the process of taking itself down, enter E. L. James's radioactively-popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, which creeps under the low bar set by key inspiration Stephenie Meyer. It all sets the stage of course for Idiocracy's most popular movie in the land being a continuous loop of an ass, sometimes farting. That's what makes the first hour of Sam Taylor-Johnson's film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey actually something like a revelation. She, along with screenwriter Kelly Marcel, has somehow managed to turn the excrescent source material--excrescent not for its eroticism (I like me a good Henry Miller any day of the week), but for its illiteracy--into a satire of that section in the used bookstore where you can buy a grocery-bagful for a $1.00, trade-ins welcome. The picture does the impossible: It makes fun of something so stupid and anti-lovely it was already making fun of itself, and for at least that first hour, I understood completely the camp/communal value of Fifty Shades of Grey. And then there's another hour.
Image A Sound A Extras C "Looking for Now," "Looking for Uncut," "Looking at Your Browser History," "Looking for $220/Hour," "Looking for the Future," "Looking in the Mirror," "Looking for a Plus-One," "Looking Glass"
by Jefferson Robbins Not fair to call it a gay "Girls", in part because it dodges the character grotesques of that show in favour of...a less provocative mix of personality types, shall we say. That's a polite way of calling Michael Lannan's HBO dramedy "Looking" boring by comparison--and finally, prettily, boring on its own merits, however better-lensed and more grounded in real personal motivations it might be than Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow's zeitgeister. Handsome gay men abroad in San Francisco's fully actuated sexual culture is a fine launchpad; Lannan and collaborator Andrew Haigh treat their core trio of characters with respect and care; and the cast is all-pro, managing the mini-crises thrown their way as if they actually matter. But while there's no there there in either "Looking" or "Girls", at least the latter goes big and madcap enough to tempt continued viewing; it's not afraid to entertain, or to anger. The curtainfall on "Looking"'s first season incites little hunger for the second.
by Bryant Frazer First, let's be clear about what kind of movie A Walk Among the Tombstones is. The film's signature image is that of a blonde woman, nude or nearly nude, atop a white bed. A man caresses her slowly, runs his fingers through her hair, and nuzzles her face. If we watch closely, we eventually notice that she cringes at his touch. As new camera angles afford us a better look at the tableau, we notice the bed is covered in plastic. Two men are watching the woman. And her mouth is taped closed. The newly-disturbing scene is photographed with a luxe aesthetic--soft light, lush bokeh, off-axis shot compositions--that suggests a commercial for pharmaceuticals, if not early-'90s Playboy Channel programming. The intended irony is clear enough, but the coyness makes the scene ugly. After a close-up on the woman's dirty feet, the camera cuts to a view of her face, looking directly into the camera, as her body is being pushed at, rhythmically, from just outside the frame. The question, then, is whether she's being raped, dismembered, or eviscerated.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne written and directed by The Wachowskis
by Walter Chaw "Call me Jupe!" pipes Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) in her breathy, little-girl Lauren Bacall voice, and the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending in the same moment announces itself as the siblings' latest insufferable piece of shit about being born with a secret and embracing the real you. With mascara. Jupiter Jones is not the oldest of the Three Investigators, but she is the reincarnated Mina Murray, space queen of a clan of Atriedes/Harkonnen industrialists, and she has a special way with honeybees. That's good, since there's a scene where she visits a guy (Sean Bean) living in a house infested with honeybees. The guy has a daughter who is sick, which we know because she coughs a little before disappearing into the editing-bay ether with the rest of the connective tissue of a film too terrible to waste a summer slot on. Jupiter Ascending is kind of the Radio Shack of movies in that it's too expensive to not open, though it desperately needs to close. Just the fact that this reference will be completely obsolete in six months or so says everything that could be said about this trainwreck. And yet I persist.
by Walter Chaw Stop-motion animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman) continues its winning streak with the perverse, lovingly-detailed The Boxtrolls, which nails the company's developing penchant for inserting a sting of relevance on the trailing end of assorted Nick Park-ian silliness. It's basically the usual kid-flick moral of not judging lovable books by their horrible, green, warty covers, but there's also a little bit about the danger of starting wars based on black pretense for unsavoury purposes. Likewise buried in the puns and gross-out gags are a class melodrama, a deep criticism of the ruling class, and a fairly disturbing aside about anti-intellectualism and the misuse of technology. It's Schindler's List in the sense that even that film was Spielberg's own remake of E.T., substituting the industrious, wizened space goblin for Ben Kingsley; The Boxtrolls isn't as effective a Holocaust/Łódź ghetto allegory as the hotel-clearing in Babe: Pig in the City, but no question the aim of its villains is ultimately genocide.
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti screenplay by Liliana Cavani and Italo Moscati directed by Liliana Cavani
by Bryant FrazerThe Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the "little girl" (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn't Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani's first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie's sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby's pan deriding it as "romantic pornography" was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image--Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer's cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.
by Bill Chambers When Bob Clampett left Termite Terrace in 1946, his unit was assigned to Arthur Davis, who had years of experience behind him as the industry's first in-betweener (the person who draws the steps that get a pose from point A to point B) as well as a director in his own right, having helmed a number of cartoons for Screen Gems, where he worked closely with the great Frank Tashlin. (The two migrated to Warner Bros. together.) But Davis's name never became synonymous with Looney Tunes like so many of his colleagues' did, perhaps because his style is so unorthodox as to seem discontinuous with, even supplemental to, the studio's general output. Comparing Dough Ray Me-ow to the previously-reviewed Porky Chops also suggests that it's because Davis did better with characters denied immortality by their one-and-done status. Louie the Parrot and the gloriously stupid Heathcliff the Cat, who has to be reminded to breathe, are like Tweety and Sylvester reconfigured as Of Mice and Men's George and Lenny--a familiar-enough trope/dynamic, unconventionally applied to natural enemies and almost immediately upset by the intervention of a will that makes Louie next in line for a big inheritance in the event of poor, dumb Heathcliff's "disappearance." A clever running joke has Louie's fiendish murder plots inadvertently prevent Heathcliff from committing certain suicide, while the grand finale must be the ne plus ultra of dynamite-as-birthday-cake-candle gags, as the fuse stays lit for two whole minutes--a Hitchcockian eternity. Only the cynical button Davis and writer Lloyd Turner put on it feels rote; from its bulbous, anti-cute figures to its frequent dusting-off of the z-axis, Dough Ray Me-ow is a restless tweaking of the form that explains at once the brevity of Davis's stint as as a Warner director and his current cult reputation. Alternate Audio (Blu-ray/DVD): In a research-dense commentary, CARTOONRESEARCH.COM editor Jerry Beck credits specific animators with specific gestures, trainspots the musical references, and discusses the audition process by which Turner became a writer for Looney Tunes. Available on:Looney Tunes: Platinum Collection, Volume Two [Blu-ray]|Looney Tunes: Golden Collection Volume Four(Running Time: 7:04)
by Walter Chaw I recall Luc Besson confessing that his The Fifth Element was based on an idea he'd had as a child; I'm going to wager the same is true of his dreadful Lucy. It's a pre-pubescent boy's fantasy of cool: a mash of silly pop-science buoying a beautiful woman's mutation from impossible party girl into deity through the agency of stem-cell-related drug abuse. The good news is that South Korean superstar Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) gets a mainstream American debut in a juicy role that nonetheless feels like a wasted opportunity (see: Beat Takeshi in Johnny Mnemonic). The bad news is Lucy is prurient pap that pup-critics will declare proof of "vulgar auteurism," no matter the redundancy and ignorance of the term itself. Perhaps fitting, then, that the only defense of a movie this obnoxious and wilfully dumb is a term and movement founded on the same principles. I've defended Besson in the past--I'm an unapologetic admirer of Leon/The Professional and The Messenger (and Danny the Dog, which he produced, is a peerless statement on the relationship between Western and Asian action stars). But Lucy is reductive, sub-La femme Nikita effluvia that takes a premise niftily played-with in Ted Chiang's beyond-brilliant 1991 short story "Understand" and grinds it into a grey paste.
by Bill Chambers Napoleonic quickdraw Sam--who went by several aliases, such as Chilkoot Sam, Seagoin' Sam, and, most popularly, Yosemite Sam--was story man Mike Maltese's burlesque of the Missouri-born Isadore "Friz" Freleng, who appeared often as the butt of in-jokes in Warner cartoons, some of which Freleng himself made. Freleng subsequently became the character's custodian, and he was the only one foolhardy enough to give this most hostile and venal of Bugs Bunny's adversaries a solo outing, rising to the challenge not by neutering Sam, per se, but rather by identifying Bugs as essentially extraneous in their conflicts: Sam is already his own worst enemy. In Honey's Money, Sam plays a kind of Bluebeard who marries a rich widow to take advantage of her millions (his plans for the money include tearing down orphanages and old-age homes as well as dismantling the police force); one look at her gorilla features almost sends him out the door, but as soon as she mentions her bank account his wilted bouquet is not-so-subtly erect again. Unfortunately for Sam, "Honey" expects him to keep house and be a playmate to her overgrown son, Wentworth (one of Looney Tunes' patented sweet but not-so-gentle giants, voiced by child actor Billy Booth), whom Sam repeatedly schemes to murder, just to make life easier. At the end, suitcases in hand, Sam walks out on his new bride because his self-respect is worth more than material wealth...only to turn around because, no, it's really not. From concept to execution, Honey's Money is captivatingly perverse (or perversely captivating), though the corner-cutting animation--a harbinger of Freleng's '60s work in television--and inelegant shift in focus from Honey to Wentworth make Sam's first and last starring vehicle an uneven one at best. Alternate Audio (Blu-ray/DVD):CARTOONRESEARCH.COM editor Jerry Beck interviews the great June Foray, who used her "Marjorie Main" voice for Honey. Beck's geeky line of questioning about recording for Warner Bros. alas squeezes Honey's Money itself out of the conversation. Available on:Looney Tunes: Platinum Collection, Volume Three [Blu-ray]|Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Two(Running Time: 6:20)
***/**** starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle directed by Clint Eastwood
by Angelo Muredda After delivering the first funereal jukebox musical in Jersey Boys just last summer, Clint Eastwood returns to better-fitting material with American Sniper, his most muscular and dramatically charged work in years, for whatever that's worth. The common thinking about Eastwood these days--at least, outside the critical circle that deems his every tasteful composition and mild camera movement a classical masterstroke--is that his internal compass for choosing projects has been off for a while, making him susceptible to the bad taste of undistinguished screenwriters. What's interesting about American Sniper, which works from a dicey script by Jason Hall that's always in danger of becoming either a rote action thriller meted out in shootouts or a rote antiwar melodrama about how veterans never quite make it back home, is how obstinately it resists this narrative. Contrary to the vision of Eastwood as an efficient director prone to gliding on autopilot, American Sniper shows him forging something tough and difficult to grasp out of what might have been on-the-nose material.
Picture “American Sniper” Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan, Producers = yay “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole, Producers = barf “Boyhood” Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland, Producers = okay “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Producers = ugh “The Imitation Game” Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman, Producers = whatevs “Selma” Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers = yay “The Theory of Everything” Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Anthony McCarten, Producers = lol “Whiplash” Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster, Producers = lol
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Some kind of as-yet-unclassified spin-off/rip-off hybrid, Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring's prologue that recycles said prologue for the purpose of reacquainting viewers with its title character, even though Annabelle is in fact an origin story. The Conjuring, of course, purports to be based on the actual exploits of the paranormal researchers fictionalized in Poltergeist, which was shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, brother of The Conjuring's DP John R. Leonetti, who moves into the director's chair with Annabelle, a movie that arguably owes less to The Conjuring (despite labouring to evoke it) than to the malicious clown doll from Poltergeist. That low-frequency thrum you sometimes hear on its soundtrack is Hollywood getting ready to fold in on itself.