Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dancin' Ginger Lumberjacks

If you were enrolled in a West Texas high school, chances are good that at least one (if not all) of your history/social studies teachers pulled double duty as athletic coaches. This meant that on the all important game days, they would roll in the TV/VCR combo and put on some sort of topically irrelevant video. One particular favorite of mine was watching Andy Griffith reruns in Geography while  being told to "study the mountains in the background"...

I am forever grateful to one of my coaches however. He broke the stereotype. When he put on a movie, it was rarely boring and always what you would least expect. The day he put on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I about had a stroke. This gruff football coach was putting on a musical?! Not only did he hush all of the "guffaws" and bored moans but occasionally you could hear him humming along with one of the songs... He even rewound the tape to watch the "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" twice to teach the teen boys how to look for a "proper woman"...

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is a rare musical gem. A brief synopsis: Adam Pontipee, travels to town in order to find himself a wife to take care of his homestead. He stumbles upon a woman who meets his criteria, Millie, and marries her the same day. Millie is a strong Western woman who just happens to have fallen in love with her male chauvinist husband. The two of them have a tricky relationship. Adam doesn't know how to love his wife and he isn't even sure if he does... love wasn't on his mind when he decided to marry. In the mean time, his 6 younger brothers have each fallen for a girl from town and at Adam's advice they kidnap their sweethearts and hold them at their farm all winter. 

Sound a little strange... well... it is. Not to mention their is a lot of singing, dancing and red headed men wielding axes. My favorite of the Pontipee clan is the second to the oldest brother, Benjamin. (Each Pontipee is named alphabetically with a name from the bible). Benjamin is the biggest broadest of the clan next to Adam. You can tell all the other guys are dancers just from the way they walk and move but Benjamin isn't quite as graceful as his siblings... he loafs around a bit more...I kind of love him for that. Not to mention Jeff Richards was a cutie! I mean come on... look at that smile... Each of the Pontipee men have something going for them. The writers didn't just lump all of the guys together but went to the trouble of giving them each personalities. Frank has a bit of a temper (especially when it comes to his name... Frank is short for Frankincense).Gideon is the sweet youngest brother who sees and understands more than any of the others... I love how they took the time to distinguish the brothers and make them unique.

It's crucial to watch this movie in widescreen, you miss so much of the dance numbers when the image is cut down to fit smaller TV sets. (It's also quite remarkable in restored technicolor!) Director Stanley Donen is one of my absolute favorites. He was truly an artist when it came to crafting musical numbers (given that his start was with Gene Kelly... this isn't surprising). He was also constantly reinventing the wheel, adding new techniques, longer cuts and variations on the traditional. For example, in Seven Brides, Donen films the entire lament song sequence in one single shot, this required the actors to be in complete unison as well as painstakingly choreographed to perfection in order to get it just right... and the effect is stunning.

I love watching this movie because it reminds me not to ever judge a book by it's cover. Clean up a rough looking Pontipee and you get a really handsome gentleman... give an old football coach a chance, and his film choices might just be worth the game day win... And every time I hear Howard Keel affectionately objectify his future wife, I hear my crazy coach humming off-key in my head...

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Animation Evaluation

I was born and raised in the Disney Generation, this means that a few undeniable truths are irrevocably connected with my childhood. Just a few examples: I can sing every word to every Little Mermaid song ever written, my favorite poster was a glow in the dark Lion King print that hung above my bed for years and I was Tinker Bell more than once for Halloween. Most kids who grew up in the same span of time that I did have similar memories. It's impossible to deny that Disney made it's mark on me growing up.

I still watch animated movies. I often times drag my little cousins to the theater to see the newest "kid movie" just so I have a good excuse to go myself. There's something magical about that opening sequence of Tinker Bell flying around the silhouetted castle... all of a sudden, I'm 6 years old again letting the magic take over.

Age brings about a difference in taste however. I've noticed that the animated movies that I tend to be drawn to now are a bit different than the ones I would have chosen at 10 years old. I  was reevaluating what I consider to be my current favorite animated movies... and I'm shocked at the lack of princesses on my list! So as of May 2014, here is a countdown of my top 5 favorite animated movies:

5. The Rescuers (1977)
Starting the list with this movie may sound a little strange. I rarely meet anyone who considers this film to be one of their favorites but for me, it strikes a resounding chord. I adore these crazy little mice and their singular devotion to helping Penny. The unlikeliest of heroes, a villain of mythic proportions (she's named Medusa for goodness sake) and the spunkiest little orphan girl to ever search for love (step aside Annie!). It all makes for an original story full of heart.

 The animation is rough, not neat and precise like the computer generated gems kids today are used to. The Rescuers retains a genuineness rooted  in beautiful story telling, the hand drawn frames make it feel like a bed time story, its effect is incredibly comforting and the music is hauntingly unique and beautiful.

Some days I feel like Penny, discouraged and lonely, wondering when things will start to look good again. This film is filled with hope... that even in the darkest of circumstances, there is always room for faith in a happy ending... a good reminder at any age.

"Faith is a bluebird. You can see it from afar. It's for real as sure as the first evening star. You can't touch it or buy it, or wrap it up tight but it's there just the same making things turn out right."
 - Penny

4. Robin Hood (1973)
I'm a sucker for Robin Hood in any format, whether it be live action, animated, in green tights or with a fox tail... it's a story I never get tired of. This Disney animated version is fabulous. It has song and dance, romance, drunken serpents and unruly hens... my kind of kid movie for sure.

I love how they allowed the story to grow and develop. Robin Hood has so much back story and it's hard to give that much information in a movie with a fast moving plot. Disney was good at giving you only what you needed without overwhelming the audience... especially since it was made for youngsters. I will say  though that the scene stealing moments belong to the straight shooting Little John and feisty Lady Cluck. This is the movie I go to when I need something reliable, that I know inside and out.

As far as animated romance goes, this foxy couple set the bar pretty high for my 6 year old heart. I love how straightforward the affection is. It isn't about two people falling in love, in this version, Robin and Maid Marian are already "sweethearts" albeit separated by the current political situation. Instead, the romance is about staying in love and finding a way to be together even when things look bleak. All the characters in this movie face their seemingly hopeless situation with a garnered measure of faith. I love the optimism of that and think it's something that kids need to learn (and adults need to be reminded of).

3. Despicable Me (2010)
This is the only modern animated (and non-Disney) movie to make my list...and if you've had the pleasure of seeing it, I know you aren't surprised. I didn't see this film in theaters, in fact, I think it had been out on DVD for quite a while by the time I finally watched it. I guess I was skeptical at the premise and it was so far from anything I thought I would like... but boy does this movie get me... (either that or I just have a thing for orphan kids... it is the second movie on my list centering around parent-less children).

This movie works on so many levels. The characters have a depth you don't expect, the relationships and themes have genuine heart and don't come across cheesy or overdone... and the humor is spot on. In fact, it's hilarious. I laugh every time and kind of want my own set of minions... I'm only a tad obsessed with these little yellow guys... pretty sure I could have a whole pinterest board devoted to them!

The way the film makers allowed for Gru's change of heart from beginning to end is brilliant. They could have easily have painted him very flat and one dimensional but they use his childhood, his broken dreams, his faulty relationship with his mother to show how he became the man he was at the opening of the movie.... and then with the help of 3 special orphan girls (geeze... what is it with me and orphaned kids?!) he becomes a man with a purpose and a new heart. It's a message that everyone can relate to and learn from...and who can resist a well timed fart gun?!

2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The only "princess" movie to make my top 5 and golly, it's a hard one to beat. Disney girls of my generation tend to pick a princess to relate to. Sometimes we choose them based on hair color, who scored our ideal kind of prince or simply on whose song we can shower sing the best. For me, Belle was always my girl. She was an odd bookworm with big dreams and mighty amounts of courage. She didn't settle for what other's thought she should do but instead held out for what else the world had to offer. She also fell for a beast...  and as a girl who has often fallen for the bad boy myself, I find this trait totally relate-able, (however, none of my poor choices have yet to change into wealthy handsome gentlemen a midst raining fireworks...or bestow upon me a two story library!)

This movie is special because so much of it's beauty lies within the story. So what if the romance starts off due to Stockholm syndrome, once you get to know the Beast, you find he's pretty stellar. It's about looking past someone's exterior and getting to know what's under the gruff. Ugly can come in so many forms and it sometimes takes patience to see past the layers to the heart within. To be completely honest, Beast was taking quite a risk on Belle, he didn't have many lady options around and she could have turned out to be a real dud. It was her or nothing... and she was a bit flaky in the beginning (imprisonment aside). She also happens to be brunette and I can shower-sing the hell out of any of the songs on that soundtrack! Give me an empty shampoo bottle and step back, Angela Lansbury and I got this!

1. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
I know what your thinking... out of all of the dozens upon dozens of animated movies, I chose the one about dogs as my top pick... but there is deep history here folks. In my closet right this minute is a stuffed Pongo. He has no ears, a sewed up foot, he looks more gray than white and is fairly unrecognizable, but I've never had a home without him in it. He was the last Christmas present my father ever gave me and thus became the center of my childhood world. I had a dalmatian shower curtain, piggy bank, bed sheets and these itzy bitzy replicas from the Disney store in our local mall.

This movie will always be a bit of a dream for me. Pongo was my hope... my hope that one day my dad would come back to me. It was reassurance that a father's love is unfailing. This was a hope that ended up breaking my heart... and this movie still has an uncanny way of making me cry.

I am able to find ample amounts of joy in this film however. I recently read an article on why Roger is actually the best Disney man and it convinced me hook, line and sinker. Lanky musician with a heart for his pup... step aside beastly bad boys and sign me up for the commitment ready man in a sweater vest! Not to mention he's voiced by Rod Taylor... my love for old movie actors began even earlier than I thought!

I love everything about this movie: the animals, the humans, the songs, the heart and the ink-like animation that sets the tone from the very beginning. I sing Cruella De Vil in my head whenever I come across nasty women in the supermarket, I smile every time I see dalmatians on the street and often times find myself looking for similarities between pet owners and their respective animals (much like the opening sequence of this movie...) The romance isn't one requiring the slaying of dragons or the acquisition of legs but instead feels more natural and realistic. A couple of normal people with matching pups who just happen to get tangled up before falling into a fountain... (on a completely unrelated topic, anyone know of any fountains in Los Angeles and/or have a dog I can borrow?) The theme of this movie is simple: it's love. Love of parents for their children, honest love between couples and the unfailing love of pet owners for their four legged friends.

This movie will always be my favorite, I feel certain of it. Whenever I watch it, I'm a little girl again clutching my stuffed dog and staring out a window waiting and wondering, hoping against hope that things will turn out right. That's why we watch animated movies even after we've surpassed the intended audience age. We want to be reminded, we want permission to be children again with all the innocence of our dreams stretched out before us. It's for the promise of hope.

So there you have it, my top 5. I too was shocked by my omission of some of the most popular Disney favorites, but I'll be honest, I will almost always pick one of these films over The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. And as much as I love the Disney/Pixar collaborations, I prefer the old school's a bit more... well... a bit more Classic... and if there's anything I love, it's a Classic movie!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Nick and Nora!

The Thin Man is one of those movies that I've never been able to resist, and when I put it in, you can almost guarantee that I'm going to keep it on a loop for the next 24 hours. Most Thin Man fans will tell you that you don't watch any of the Nick and Nora movies for the plot. They all have similar story lines, Nick (a dashing reluctant private eye) solves a difficult case with the aid of his uber witty and wealthy wife, Nora and faithful pup, Asta.

You watch The Thin Man films for Myrna Loy and William Powell. The two of them were positively perfect for each other on screen. They were so effective at enthralling audiences, that the studio capitlized and paired the two actors for a total of 14 films (6 portraying Nick and Nora Charles).

They made marriage look like fun. They drank together, embraced each other's faults, trusted one another and genuinely enjoyed being together. My favorite scene from the first Thin Man is when the two of them are sitting after opening presents on Christmas morning. Nora sits in her huge fur coat and watches her goofy husband use his pellet gun to pop balloons off the Christmas tree. He starts with simple straight shooting but quickly builds until he's shooting between slipper-ed feet and over the shoulder. You can see that Nora knows this isn't going to end well, but she is obviously amused that her husband is enjoying his present. The inevitable happens and Nick breaks a window. He immediately drops the pellet gun and curls into a fetal position pretending to be asleep like a 6 year old boy. It's adorable. The whole scene is simple and natural. You can tell that Loy and Powell were incredibly comfortable with each other, you would swear that Nick and Nora were real people shaking up martinis every night of the week.

If you've never seen the first Thin Man, a few words of caution:

1. The first 10 minutes of exposition are incredibly dull, push through to Nick's entrance teaching bartenders how to mix the perfect drink to the appropriate song... things pick up from there.

2. If you get confused by the actual plot, don't worry about it... It isn't really all that important anyway.

3. Sensitive to drinking? Don't even start this movie... Nick and Nora's constant alcohol consumption is all a part of the fun!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boys, Beach and Sandra Dee

Gidget is one of those movies that you either love... or you don't. To really enjoy this film, you have to be able to completely distend reality and dive head first into the wonderful ridiculousness of it all. It probably helps that I first watched this movie as a pre-teen girl. I grew up one of those girls who wasn't boy crazy, I had other interests, different ambitions, therefore I sometimes felt like I didn't fit in with my peers. Watching the beautiful Sandra Dee struggle with those same issues was a balm for my aggravated not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman self. This is a movie strictly for girls, a fabulous coming of age story that all of us tomboys and girls-next-door types can identify with.

It's a story about first love, new friends, finding yourself and of course... surfing! The story goes like this, Gidget falls into step with a group of surf bums, a bunch of guys who spend their summer soaking up the sun and riding the waves in between college semesters. They are led by Kahuna, a jaded Korean War vet with the absolute worse case of Peter Pan syndrome. His second in command is the sexy crooning Moondoggie who is dealing with his own identity crisis not to mention a wagon load of daddy issues. Gidget falls for Moondoggie and spends the summer trying to figure out how to attract his attention. A difficult task for a teenage girl whose never been in love let alone a tomboy experiencing that awkward transition from girl to woman. By the end of the film, she has given Kahuna a new zest for life, put Moondoggie back on track and is beginning to understand herself what it means to understand your own heart.

This movie always reminds me that its okay to feel like a girl. That when the thunder cloud of emotions hit, I'm still normal. That when life throws me a curve ball and I can no longer do what I love, I embrace instead what I can do in the face of impossibility... I keep trying. I put my figurative surf board on my bed and imagine the waves until I can find my way back to the beach. I hold out for the guy whose ready to embrace life instead of settling for the boy who runs from responsibility. I make mistakes and learn from them.

Sandra Dee is my only Gidget... and I hope one day she will be my daughter's Gidget as well.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Those Frenchies Seek Him Everywhere..."

 Errol Flynn undoubtedly takes first prize when it comes to classic adventure heroes. No one will ever be able to compete with that dizzying smile and devilish charm, and let's face it, green tights aren't easy to pull off. No other film of the early '30s came even close to matching what Robin Hood was able to achieve in the adventure genre (thanks in no small part to a brilliant supporting cast and stunning use of technicolor). However, had it been given the same studio treatment, I think The Scarlet Pimpernel could have come real close to capturing that same brand of magic.

I absolutely adore this movie. It has everything you never knew you wanted: French villains, suave Englishmen, disguises, melodramatic misunderstandings, mistaken identities and a "love conquers all" vibe that is swoon worthy. Quick plot outline: The Scarlet Pimpernel (a.k.a. Sir Percy Blakeney) dons disguises to sneak into France and save French aristocracy from the guillotine during the French Revolution. He does it in part because his French wife admitted to denouncing (sentencing to death) some "friends" at the beginning of the French killing spree. His wife is guilty of the crime but there is more to that story than meets the eye. Because of this misunderstanding, Percy and his wife, Marguerite suffer from a strained relationship. It's kind of like a 1700's version of a separation. In the meantime, a super villainous French agent is sent to England to find out the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel and blackmails Marguerite into helping him. No one suspects Sir Percy (not even Marguerite) because he pretends to be a "dandy", a fop, a shallow English aristocrat who feigns more interest in men's fashion than he does in political affairs. I mean, come on, doesn't that sound amazing?!

Production was right on the money when it came to casing it's leading man. Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy brilliantly. Most American audiences only know Howard from Gone With the Wind. He played Ashley... you know, the guy that Scarlet was obsessed with? The guy everyone thought looked incredibly underwhelming next to Clark Gable's enigmatic Rhett Butler. I think it is incredibly sad that most people don't know just how amazing Howard really was. Lest we forget, he actually bests Gable in the film A Free Soul protecting Norma Shearer. Howard was a British national treasure, a ladies' man to end all ladies' men and a creative force to be reckoned with. He could hold his own with Bette Davis on screen (a feat worthy of note) and is partially responsible for thrusting Humphrey Bogart into Hollywood. Howard refused to sign onto The Petrified Forest unless Bogart was also hired to reprise his Broadway role in the film production. Bogart even named his daughter after Leslie Howard. How's that for film trivia?!

Howard was also in the forefront of WWII, building support for the troops both in England and in America. He wrote articles, made radio broadcasts and devoted his energies to aiding the war effort. In 1943, he was shot down by Nazi pilots over the Bay of Biscay. I think to truly appreciate actors from classic cinema, it's important to know more about them than just the roles they played. It helps to build a background, character motivation, career choices, why they did what they did. Knowing that Howard was a patriot helps define why he may have decided to take on the persona of another British hero fighting worldly injustices. 

I think the Pimpernel still has a place in contemporary cinema. Not only the 1934 version but perhaps as a modern day produced reboot. The Pimpernel has only been remade a couple of times (a mini-series in the late '90s and a 1982 film version...I will admit that I haven't seen either one). Out of curiosity and because I tend to be just a tad bit obsessive, I decided to read the original story of the Pimpernel and see if I could pinpoint why modern day film makers haven't tried their hand at it yet.

If you've never read Baroness Orczy's book... I highly recommend it. Everyone knows that when books are transitioned onto the big screen, things tend to get a bit twisted. Plot outlines, characterizations and timelines of events are subject to change. The '34 version did a really good job considering... but I have to admit, the book has layers that the film doesn't even begin to delve into. The largest difference between the book and the movie is the definition of the hero. Both stories are called The Scarlet Pimpernel, therefore, you go into it assuming the story is about the Pimpernel, that he is the main hero, the main focus. However, if you read the book, the character driving the plot, the one generating and defeating conflict isn't the Pimpernel... it's his wife. The story is Marguerite's. She's the one overcoming Chauvelin, saving her husband the Pimpernel, making the drastic mistakes and in the end, it's her heart that grows and develops and changes. She's a beautifully human character with deep flaws and a pride that Jane Austen would have loved.

In 1934, they treated Marguerite like a secondary character. She had moments of truth but overall she comes across as scared and unsure almost more villain than white hat. Orczy writes her so differently. The print Marguerite is strong, calculating. She is described as the most fascinating woman in Europe. Chauvelin backs her into a corner but she never once lies down and stops fighting. Her motivation is love. Devoted love for her brother, curious love for the Scarlet Pimpernel and once discovered, a deep all-consuming love for her husband. She sacrifices everything to save her hero and her brother.I truly adore and admire this character, and in the end, I think she is the singular reason why this story hasn't been re-told.

Men don't always know how to handle strong female characters... neither do actresses know how to play them oftentimes. To make the film true to Orczy's original, you would almost have to make Marguerite the key role, build the story and the plot around her. That's risky business especially when the story isn't called Marguerite Blakeney. I would love to see how Joss Whedon would approach this story. Not only does he know how to write courageous no-nonsense women, he does it to perfection. It's a production I would love to see happen. I think Hollywood has so many wonderful actresses that could step up and make Marguerite the hero she deserves to be, not to mention the bountiful crop of British men that could rival Errol Flynn in the charm department and take Sir Percy to new heights.

The take-away:
Leslie Howard is AMAZING
Don't judge Marguerite, the girl's got gumption!
Watch movies, Read books, find new heroes!