Fantasia

Director: Ben Sharpsteen

1940

“Although now commonplace, creating images to interpret music was revolutionary when this audacious milestone in animation and stereophonic audio recording was conceived and executed by the Walt Disney studio to universal acclaim and astonishment.” (159, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

41b563y0qal-_sl500_aa300_I have a vague memory of watching Fantasia when I was much younger but it wasn’t really one that stuck in my head for very long. I re-watched it recently and found it fairly disjointed and as Errigo says below somewhat disappointing. “Even on IMAX screens, the exhibition scene of choice for the most recent of Disney’s several anniversary restorations, recordings, and releases of their prized 1940 animation landmark, Fantasia can be disappointing because it is still a remorselessly kitsch experience, however impressive and groundbreaking an achievement.” (159)

The music is incredible, there is no denying that, but there isn’t a narrative to tie the different segments together and I think the film suffers because of that. It was an experiment that may have worked when it was produced in 1940 but just couldn’t stand the test in time. As the different segments were all animated by different teams there isn’t even a single cohesive visual style that could hold the film together. And some of the animation is clearly still  at the time of production. Having said that there are some foreshadowing of animation that would go on to form some of Disney’s later films. The one segment that I particularly enjoyed was the one that focused on mythology as I could see aspects of design that would be honed at a later date to form the basis of Hercules (1997, Ron Clements & John Musker) which is actually one of my favourite Disney movies.zeus2

I found that the segments Errigo mentioned as having held up the best against the ravages of time (“Mickey Mouse, never more delightful than as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice desperately trying to halt the self-replicating brooms he has conjured up to do his chores, the dancing Chinese mushrooms, a darling chorus line of eyelash-batting pachyderms, the hippos in ballet tutus cavorting daintily and fleeing caped alligators […]”) are the ones that didn’t really make an impression on me. Especially the much beloved Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment with Mickey Mouse but then I have never really found Mikey Mouse a sympathetic character. There is of course the exception of the dancing hippos because those are amazing! fantasia

It’s not one that I would watch again – mainly because I found the lack of narrative created a fractured film. It would work as a series of videos that would be amusing to watch as stand alone shorts but put them together and for me it just all falls apart.

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Letter From An Unknown Woman

Director: Max Ophuls

1948

Letter From An Unknown WomanLetter from an Unknown Womanis an inexhaustibly rich film, one that has drawn myriad film lovers to try to unravel its themes, patterns, suggestions, and ironies. But no amount of close analysis can ever extinguish the rich, tearing emotion that this masterpiece elicits.” (224, Adrian Martin, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I think the word masterpiece gets thrown around far too often – to the point that it loses its meaning. And Letter from an Unknown Woman does not warrant the title of masterpiece as Martin claims.

I have discovered another genre, along with the dreary Western genre, that does absolutely nothing for me … and it’s Melodramas. I don’t see the point in melodramas and am glad that it is a genre that seems to have faded from popularity.

“Either the staging reveals the banal conditions of reality that underwrite these flights of fantasy, or the camera suggests – in subtle positionings and movements slightly detached from the story’s world – a knowing perspective that eludes the characters.” (224) I liked the concept of telling the story through the use of flashbacks. Ophuls actually spans a couple of decades very neatly. We only learn what we need to about the characters in order to move the narrative along without being bogged down with any unnecessary information. It is the only aspect of the film I appreciated.

As viewers we learn very little about Stefan and his character. We only ever see him through Lisa’s eyes so our opinion is automatically skewed by her infatuation with him. As such I was left with the feeling that his character was undefined and incomplete which is partly why I found the film as tedious as I did. While we learn more about Lisa, basically her whole life, thanks to the flashbacks bringing her letter to life, I did not connect with her at all. I did not find her plight romantic in the slightest. What began as a childhood crush developed into something on an unhealthy obsessions with Stefan. I was left with the impression of a stalker rather than any sort of romantic overtone which in turn made me uncomfortable. That seems to be a common occurrence when I watch a film belonging to the melodrama genre.

“By the time Ophuls reaches a Hollywood staple – the ghostlike apparition of young Lisa at last conjured in Stefan’s memory – the cliché is gloriously transcended, and tears overcome even those modern viewers who resist such old-fashioned “soaps.” (224) It’s safe to say I was not overcome with tears as Martin presumes viewers are, not even remotely. The only tears I was close to shedding were tears of boredom. Quite an impressive feat for a film less than 90 minutes long!

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Director: Robert Hamer

1949

Kind Hearts and Coronets Mazzini“It is sophisticated, deliciously sly, and resolved with another Ealing trademark, the smart sting in the tale.” (242, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I didn’t quite get the humor of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Consequently I didn’t laugh at all, not even once. it just didn’t really register with me and the only thing I took away from the film was the performance by Alec Guinness. I only ever really associate Guinness with Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) so it’s nice to be reminded he was more than just an iconic character.

“All eight of the clearly inbred, dotty D’Ascoynes – including the hatchet-faced suffrage the Lady Agatha who is shot down in a balloon, the bluff general condemned to short-lived enjoyment of an explosive pot of caviar, and the insane admiral who does Mazzini’s job for him by going down with his ship – are famously played by Ealing’s man of a thousand faces, unrecognizable from one film to the next (and in this case from one scene to the next), the delightful Alec Guinness.” (242) He really is masterful, creating 8 very separate and distinct characters, not all of which are male either! Each one is full of idiosyncrasies making the most of the perceived (and oft evidenced) eccentricity of the English gentry.Kind Hearts and Coronets Alec Guinness

It’s one of those films whose name I have always known but never seen, and a film spoken about in almost reverential terms. And as usual when it comes to me and classics (be they films, novels or music) I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. It was okay but I didn’t find it funny (to the point that had I not known it was a comedy I wouldn’t have guessed it was that genre). Even though the narrative follows the exploits of a character who is, when it comes down to it, a serial killer the film is a light-hearted one. Maybe the humor just hasn’t translated through the years very well.

The lead, and very much the central character, who holds the entire film together played by Dennis Price, was someone I found wholly forgettable rather unfortunately. He just did not stand out at all and I found him fading into the background on a number of occasions even when there were few characters in the scene.

And although this film reminded me just how remarkable an actor Alec Guinness truly was – one who is so much more than a wise Jedi Master – he will forever be Obi Wan Kenobi to me. You just can’t remove the impact that character had on me when I was younger. Kind Hearts and Coronets is not a film I will be watching again.

Whisky Galore!

Director: Alexander MacKendrick

1949

I just watched the strangest little film, Whisky Galore! The premise is an extremely simple one – a tiny island situated in the Outer Hebrides  runs out of whisky during World War II sending the locals into a spate of depression. This depression is unexpectedly lifted when a cargo ship en route to America, the SS Cabinet Minister, is ship wrecked. It’s cargo? Thousands of bottle of whisky of course! “The story, immortalized by writer Compton MacKenzie, was inspired by the true ‘disappearance’ of 50,000 cases of whisky after a cargo ship was wrecked off the Isle of Eriskay” (243, Angel Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The remainder of the film revolves around the locals doing everything within their power to liberate the shipment. A task somewhat impeded by the rule-abiding tee-total commander of the Home Guard, resulting in an amusing film.

Whisky Galore! is more dated than some of the other Ealing comedies, though the quaint charm is countered by the film’s hectic hilarity, the affectionate and astute social observation, the authenticity of Hebridean life, and the delightful performances.” (243) What makes this film enjoyable is the fact that no matter what the locals remain one step ahead of Captain Waggett at every turn with some really ingenious hiding places for their illicit plunder.

“Along with Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets (both also 1949), Whisky Galore! was in the first vintage of celebrated postwar comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios under producer Sir Michael Balcon. Universally admired, the film was key in establishing the distinctive, self-deprecating, and understated satiric tone of those following as well as the theme of defiant little people triumphing over those more powerful.” (243) Whisky Galore! really highlights the power working as a community has over a single entity. Waggett is hindered at every opportunity by the very skills and exercises put in place by the Home Guard in the event of invasion. Equally the soldier on the island aides with the deception – an action enhanced by his interest in marrying one of the postmasters’ daughters.

The locals are everything you expect of an island dwelling in the Outer Hebrides with an adherence to religion you rarely find these days. They actually obey the Sabbath, resulting in their pillaging being postponed for an entire day. And then there is George’s mother – the archetypal Scottish matriarch. She is determinedly still running George’s life with an iron fist despite him being a grown man, even sending him to his room the morning of the Sabbath. Strict would be an understatement when describing her character.

And after all the escapes of requisitioning hundreds of bottles of whisky, which managed to tide them over until the rations returned on a regular basis, the price of the drink rose until no one could afford it and the island was in the same situation it had been at the beginning of the film.

I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyment I got out of Whisky Galore! as I really had no expectations going into the film. It has a much drier and less obvious humor to it but I still found myself chuckling in a number of places. Whisky Galore!

The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

1948

I first watched The Bicycle Thieves while at University during my module on Film History. It certainly made more sense to me 8 years ago when watched under those circumstances. But then I guess back then we were looking at the film through the context of it being an example of the Italian Neorealism movement rather than as a simple viewing experience.  Like Jonathan Rosenbaum says “this masterpiece […] is one of the key works of Italian Neorealism.” (227, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) and that was how I was initially introduced to The Bicycle Thieves.

The Bicycle ThiefRe-watching the film now I found it rather difficult to remain engaged. It’s a very loose narrative for a feature film – one that would possibly be more suited to a short film. And I found the ending entirely unsatisfying – after all that he doesn’t even find the blasted bicycle!

Either the subtitles weren’t consistent or it takes a lot of words to form a sentence in Italian. The good thing about watching foreign films as I have said before is that is does require my full concentration, even more so with an Italian film over say a French or German film. As befitting the Italian culture there is a lot of noise and gesticulating. A lot the time the background noise was just that – noise – I didn’t gain any additional understanding in terms of the narrative.

“The Bicycle Thief contains what is possibly the greatest depiction of a relationship between a father and son in the history of cinema, full of subtle fluctuations and evolving gradations between the two characters in terms o respect and trust, and it’s an awesome heartbreaker.” (227) The relationship between the father and his son is definitely the most interesting aspect to the film. Watching the fluctuations between them is intriguing and what really held my attention. The young son, Bruno, is such a solemn little character with an extremely expressive face. Enzo Staiola gives a noteworthy performance for such a young actor.

While for the most part I agree with Rosenbaum’s review I don’t think it is a heartbreaking film but then that could be due to the fact that I was somewhat disengaged when watching the film.  was pleasurable to watch and it was certainly informative when looking at Italian Neorealism while doing my degree but ultimately the narrative left me frustrated; I’m therefore not likely to watch it again.

 

Brief Encounter

Director: David Lean

1945

I didn’t find Brief Encounter a particularly sad film, as opposed to how Klein describes the film. “She and Howard are superlative in this saddest of stories, their every movement steeped in meaning and the sterling dialogue laced with deep emotion.” (209, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) It’s quite a subtle film – everything is quite sedate and understated. Although Laura (Celia Johnson) embarks on an affair with the handsome doctor, Alec (Trevor Howard) it’s a very controlled story. There is none of the sordidness you get with modern films when an affair is featured.

Brief Encounter Refreshment Room“[…] he exploited all the cinematic tools at his disposal; the lighting, for example, approaches the severe look of Lean’s subsequent Dickens adaptations, making the symbolic most of the dark, smoky station.” (209) The film is very atmospheric, especially when situated in the train station and I love the big station clock. I enjoyed the way almost the entirety of the narrative is delivered through Laura’s flashback. She’s very frank about the whole thing even though in reality she isn’t actually telling Fred anything. I found the lack of social commentary surprising. Although ultimately Laura ends the affair there isn’t any sense f their actions being condemned. They even walk along arm in arm discussing their other halves and nobody bats an eye. I guess I had just assumed that because the film was made in the mid 1940s it would take a more conservative approach towards the matter.

“[…] most importantly, Lean includes frequent close-ups of Johnson’s eyes, which tell a better story than most scripts.” (209) Celia Johnson has extremely expressive eyes and the emotional weight of the film comes across from her so strongly. She really is the very center of the entire film both narratively and emotionally. She drives the film and indeed much of the dialogue is Laura on her own, as so much is her telling the story through her internal confession to her unwitting husband.

Brief Encounter Celia Johnson Trevor HowardWithout a doubt my favorite scene is the final one but that’s more to do with already knowing the dialogue thanks to it being in my all time favorite film, The History Boys (2006, Nicholas Hytner) which everyone should watch by the way!

Brief Encounter as befits the name covers a fairly short amount of time – a few weeks of stolen moments; theirs was most definitely a short-lived affair and one that was more emotional than physical with only a few furtive kisses exchanged between the unlucky pair. It was more interesting than I thought it would be but by no means do I think it’s “[…] one of the most effective tearjerkers in cinema history” as Klein states. I’ve seen much sadder romance films, like The Notebook (2004, Nick Cassavetes) but then I wonder if it’s a generational thing that I find more modern films affect me more emotionally.

Pinocchio

Director: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen

1940

I have to say my Pinocchio is not up there with my favourite Disney films though I can see the appeal. I think my view has been marred somewhat by the very tongue in cheek version of Pinocchio in the Shrek films.

I think what makes Disney films in particular so popular, and continuously popular over long periods of time, is not just the wonderful music and breathtaking animation but also the fact that they contain important life lessons. As I said in a previous post Dumbo teaches us that anyone can overcome adversity if they try hard enough, Pinocchio offers similar advice – “Guided (but not always led by his insect ‘conscience’ Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio must learn not just responsibility but also courage and love during his innocently roguish quest for life.” (Joshua Klein, 163, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) With Pinocchio we learn about right and wrong and the consequences that go along with our actions.

The animation is outstanding – especially when you realize it is only Disney’s second feature film – and really showcases what can be achieved. The only limit is your imagination! I find the sequence with the clocks particularly clever and beautiful. I still to this day say “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I make tonight” … something I have carried with me throughout my childhood … every time I see the first star of the night.

Geppetto is a wonderfully charming grandfatherly figure. The toy maker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968, Ken Hughes) reminds me of Geppetto – he’s the human version if you like. By drawing the Blue Fairy in a softer way the animators create an etherial, other-worldly quality about her – exactly what a fairy needs. Pleasure Island is just downright creepy and yet an excellent visualization of what certain lifestyles will do to you.

Pinocchio (as well as all Disney films really) teaches us that it’s okay to dream and that even the biggest dreams can come true. However dreams won’t just be handed to us – there are conditions and we have to work for them but they are always ultimately worth it. Pinocchio may give into temptation but when it really comes down to it he shows real courage when he goes to the rescue of Geppetto without any thought to his own safety.

Certain elements of Pinocchio have actually transcended the film like a nose growing when you tell a lie. You know a film is a success when elements of it can survive on their own out of context.