Category Archives: Cinema

📽️ Disney Time – Fun and Fancy Free

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 9/57Title: Fun and Fancy Free
Year: 1947

This may be one of the longer feeling 73 minutes that I have had for a while. No this isn’t an exaggeration, this is the ninth film in the Disney canon: Fun and Fancy Free. Continuing the trend of package films, Fun and Fancy Free consists of two shorts with a framing narrative. What makes these interesting, historically speaking that is, is that both of these would have likely been feature length films in their own right… until the U.S. government came on board and directed a lot of Disney’s personnel to start making propaganda.

Now, I’m not sure if this is the weakness of the stories themselves or how they were cannibalised to make these shorts, but both of these feel as if they could have been unmitigated disasters had the U.S. government not intervened. Then again, if these had been full length films the second short would not have had that bloody awful framing narrative of a grown man holding a cake party for a small neighbour girl whilst showing off his ventriloquist dolls. Honestly, it all felt a little bit ‘local neighbourhood child molester’ to me.

It’s also interesting that it was Disney himself that felt these stories weren’t worth saving for a larger feature (unlike Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, which were already in pre-production) – so rather than waste the work they made Fun and Fancy Free. However, in the end, this whole film feels like that – an utter waste that is now making me feel a bit uncertain about Melody Time (one of the few Disney films I am yet to see).

I think it’s going to take a lot for there to be a worse Disney film that this one. Not only did it commit the cardinal sin of boring me, but the whole ‘showing your love with a slap’ shtick in the first story is extremely questionable. Like – for a family friendly film, is that the right message to be sending to small children? To slap their crush in the face? Ugh I just want the next film to be Cinderella.

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XL Popcorn – The Spider’s Stratagem

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 728/1007Title: Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Year: 1970
Country: Italy

Between all the Disney films I’ve been watching in between the 1001 movies, it’s getting a bit difficult to remember the last time I did a foreign language film for this particular challenge. Turns out it was only two films ago… and prior to that it was three films in a row of non-English excellence – so I really shouldn’t have worried.

Going into The Spider’s Stratagem I had absolutely no idea what I was about to watch; other than it being by Bernardo Bertolucci. He has four films on the 1001 list and, somehow, this is the first of them that I have gotten around to seeing. Probably doesn’t help that, due to a lot of what came out recently, I am really uncertain about watching his most famous film: Last Tango In Paris. 

After seeing this film, however, I am keen to see what else he can do. In a nutshell, this tells the story of a Athos – man journeying to a rural Italian town where his father is worshipped as a martyr of the anti-fascism movement. He’s there to uncover the identity of the person who killed his father, having received a tip-off from his father’s acknowledged mistress, only to become trapped in the same conspiracy that resulted in the death of his father.

At no point in the duration of The Spider’s Stratagem do you feel that Athos is anything close to safe. The people who killed his father clearly don’t want the truth to come out, which results in him being locked in a stable, punched in the face and then having some weird interactions with a local boy who holds his rabbit up by the ears. Even the woman who is meant to be his ally starts to act incredibly oddly as he tries to leave.

This is a town where his martyred father is so revered that the truth threatens to undermine their whole identity and so, by the end he has to choose whether to reveal what he’s learned or to allow the mystery to continue (think Lisa Simpson’s final choice in the episode ‘Lisa the Iconoclast). It’s a poignant ending, made all the more interesting by his physical inability to move away due to the poor condition of the railway line.

It’s nice to get around to seeing a film on the list that is one of the ‘hidden gems’ and have it live up to that designation. The whole setting of this town felt very much like a 1970’s Italian version of Twin Peaks – but without the backwards talking girl and the flaming playing cards. With that in mind, what wasn’t there to like.

📽️ Disney Time – Make Mine Music

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 8/57Title: Make Mine Music
Year: 1946

When I started girding my loins for the package films after my viewing of Bambi – it appears to be very likely that Make Mine Music is the film that I had in the back of my mind. I originally saw this about 10 years ago when I decided to plug some holes in my Disney watching and my opinion then is the same as it is now – this is so incredibly uneven.

This is probably the most disjointed of the package films that Disney released to this point with there being 10 short segments, each linked to a different sort of music or musical performance. The benefit of this should be that, upon watching a poorer segment, there is always another segment coming up soon. However, at least for me, Make Mine Music really back ended the quality.

For me there are three segments that have really stood the test of time and are worth watching to this day – and these are the final three. First is ‘After You’re Gone’, which is a short jazz interlude in a Fantasia style. Then there is ‘Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet’, a sweet love story of two hats as sung by the Andrew Sisters.

This leaves us with the final, and by far the best, segment of the film – ‘Willie the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met’. It’s a bizarre story of a whale that can sing opera and dreams of stardom, the whole thing being sung by one opera singer who, through the magic of technology, sings part of it in three-part harmony with himself. This is probably the most famous of the segments, and rightly so – it’s a great short film in its own right.

Now let’s not forget the context that Make Mine Music was released in. The majority of the work was done during World War Two where most of the animators were either producing propaganda for the government or were actually off fighting. Disney also were starting to get into a more financially stable position, but it wasn’t quite at the point where they could get back to producing regular feature films.

So, with limited resources (in terms of headcount and finances) Make Mine Music was the film that they could make to tide over the feature film division. Plus, like with The Three Caballeros this actually turned a major profit – so Disney were just adapting with the times in order to stay in business, even if it hasn’t aged too well.

XL Popcorn – The Paleface

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 727/1007Title: The Paleface
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Year: 1948
Country: USA

The last time I watched a film by Norman Z. McLeod, I prayed for the pain to end as quickly as possible. However, that film boasted a toddler as it’s second billed star (and starred W.C. Fields who I just do not find funny) whereas The Paleface has both Jane Russell and Bob Hope in leading roles – so at least I could be promised some quality performances.

So, why watch this film now? Well, after two years the wounds caused by It’s A Gift have healed somewhat. Also, after a particularly sleepless night, The Paleface felt like the perfect film to watch without having to pay a massive degree of attention. After all, this is a comedy western with Bob Hope – it was never going to be taxing.

The problem is that this film was also inconsistent. After an incredibly strong start everything just seemed to sag around the middle before completely fizzling out at the end. This might just be me though, as this coincided with the shift in screen time percentage – with Jane Russell’s involvement diminishing somewhat towards the end. Also, the humour just got sillier and more slapstick as time went on; something that doesn’t always work for me.

This isn’t to say that The Paleface doesn’t have its good parts. I can’t fault either of the two leads considering the stuff they were given. Similarly, the scene where Bob Hope’s dentist character was introduced is excellent – and helps to realise everyone’s fear of being under the care of an amateur dentist.

It doesn’t really help that the overall conceit of the film feels remarkably racist and sexist. Also, why did Jane Russell’s character have to be Calamity Jane?  I mean, this is a real person who happened to also be a gun-slinging bad-ass… and this is what they do with her character? I’m obviously thinking too much about a film that doesn’t need to thought too much about. It’s fun enough.

📽️ Disney Time – The Three Caballeros

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 7/57Title: The Three Caballeros
Year: 1944

So here we are with the second, and most acclaimed, of the six Disney package movies of the 1940s: The Three Caballeros. Since Saludos Amigos had done fairly well in the box office, Disney (and the U.S. government) created this film as part of the continued ‘Good Neighbours’ policy to ingratiate themselves with their neighbours to the south. Much like the film that preceded it, The Three Caballeros would do well enough to keep Disney going through World War Two, which found them minus a lot of their animators who had gone away to fight.

The general consensus is that whilst The Three Caballeros doesn’t measure up to the previous narrative-based entries in the canon, is a significantly better film than Saludos Amigos. There are a number of reasons for this, but for me the big difference is that they use a proper animated framing narrative.

As a bird-lover I have always had a soft spot for Donald Duck, so by having these short films be tied together by his birthday (which is on Friday the 13th, naturally) suddenly it feels more like you are watching a whole movie rather than some disparate parts. The connections aren’t super strong, but Donald and the other two caballeros have enough chemistry to carry it through.

The other thing that helped to make The Three Caballeros an important film is that it was the first feature film to contain scenes where animated characters interacted with real-life actors. It’s a pity that, for this, the animation becomes somewhat grainy – but considering the length of time that they had to pull this off for (with animated characters needing to go in front of or behind the actors depending on the scene), these sections are true technical achievements.

I might be biased, because this sequence featured on one of my cherished Sing Along Songs VHS tapes as a child, but the ‘Three Caballeros’ song in the middle of the film just oozes with the Disney magic that we know and love. Watching it as an adult in the age we live in, it’s sad to know that the characters of Panchito and JosĂ© wouldn’t dare be introduced now because of their signature pistols and cigar respectively.

Sure, this film was done with interesting intentions – but in many ways it is still a rather loving look at America’s neighbours to the south. Panchito and JosĂ© are stereotypes, but then again it’s worth remembering that Donald Duck is being used to represent the U.S.A. (make of that what you will). It even still works as a promotional tool, with Panchito’s tour of Mexico City making me think how nice a holiday to that next of the woods could be.

In the end, it’s not the Disney that we know now – but it is such an important part of their history that it’s worth watching. Even if just for the ‘Three Caballeros’ and the ‘Cold-Blooded Penguin’ segments.

This film sees the end to Disney’s films depicting Central and South America until The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000. They wouldn’t be out of the game of producing propaganda for a good long time, which is how we end up with Make Mine Music as the next film in the canon. More on that next time.

📽️ Disney Time – Saludos Amigos

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 6/57Title: Saludos Amigos
Year: 1942

On August 9th 1942, Bambi had its world premiere in London. 15 days later saw the world premiere of Saludos Amigos in Rio de Janiero. There’s no real point that I want to make here, other than just how incredibly different these two films from the same studio are despite being premiered less than three weeks apart.

In this journey through the Disney Animated Canon one thing I have been consistently wowed about is how three of the first five films were box office misses. This, combined with the unionisation of the Disney animators, meant that Disney Studios were very much in need of a cash injection. Enter the U.S. State Department – who stepped in with money to make films to promote the USA to South America, where many governments were sympathetic to the Nazi Party.

So in essence, Saludos Amigos is a propaganda(-lite) film. It is also the shortest film in the Disney Animated Canon at just over 40 minutes. This is the first of the six package films that Disney would make between 1942 and 1949 – meaning films composed of smaller films grouped together.

With Saludos Amigos we have four animated shorts and some live-action documentary footage, the latter depicting the trip that the Disney animators made to South America in order to gather material for the film. Each country on the trip got their own short (in order: Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil), two of which had Donald Duck in a starring role.

On the whole, Saludos Amigos is fine for what it is – but it’s a real come down after what Disney had produced as their five previous pictures. Thing is, films like these and propaganda shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face is what kept Disney afloat until the war ended and the European markets were once again open for business. It’s easy to judge this as being sub-par for their standard, which is why some historical context (like that provided by watching these films in order) is so important.

Despite being so short and having no narrative structure, Saludos Amigos was so popular that it spawned a pseudo-sequel with The Three Caballeros – which I will be watching next. The gap probably won’t be as short as that between this and Bambi, but I do think this list may be one of the quickest I’ll ever complete for this bucket list blog.

📽️ Disney Time – Bambi

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 5/57Title: Bambi
Year: 1942

Last time I may have said that Dumbo may be the darkest that Disney ever go. Saying this before Bambi was a bit of a bold claim to make. Not only is this the film where Disney killed Bambi’s mother. Oh no this is the film where:

  • Bambi has to battle another male deer to stop his girlfriend being raped
  • we witness a quail get into such a state of fear that she flies away screaming only to be shot to death
  • someone is almost mauled to death by hunter’s dogs
  • and (oh yeah) everyone loses their home in a human-made forest fire.

The kicker for me in all this is that the marketing department saw Bambi and it’s damning indictment of hunting and thought: let’s advertise this as one of the greatest love stories ever told. I mean, I thought marketing Slumdog Millionaire as a feel-good film was a reach, but this really takes the cake.

I swear that, as a child, I didn’t take in any of this horribleness in other than Bambi’s mother dying. Guess that speaks to how little a child really can get when watching a cartoon other than the happy feeling of sitting down and watching a cartoon.

The grim realities aside, Bambi really was a steep left turn from the Disney films that came before. This is their first film where there is nothing remotely fantastical involved and, instead, everything is deeply rooted in reality (talking animals aside). We are also back to the more naturalistic animation with beautiful lush backgrounds after the cartoony and slightly rushed animation in Dumbo. It’s not quite as high as the standards we saw in Pinocchio – but this was made on nearly a third of the budget and had to lose 12 minutes in order to keep costs down.

If I sound like I am being unnecessarily harsh on Bambi that’s because the standard of the first five Disney films is so ridiculously high that I’m feeling the need to nitpick. This is an animated classic with scenes that pretty much anyone growing in the West will have as part of their pop culture canon. In making this film Disney enraged the hunters of America (because the mirror can be unwelcome) and introduced generations of children to the idea of hunted animals having proper feelings as well as being a PSA about the deadly nature of forest fires. It’s one of those essential films to see before you are 12… and then when you are an adult so you can appreciate the darkness.

Right, so this bring me to the end of the initial run of narrative Disney films before the break for six package films that were released over the course of the next decade. I’ve seen half of these already and whilst they didn’t initially wow me I’m going to keep an open mind and whiteknuckle it on my way to Cinderella.

XL Popcorn – The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 726/1007Title: Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Year: 1972
Country: Germany

After devouring two Fassbinder films so close to one another back when my wrist was busted, it’s been nearly two years before I watched my next one. It’s all part of the whole pacing thing I have to do to ensure that there is always something left to watch that I’m looking forward to. Guess that means it’ll be another two years before I see Fox and his Friends, which is a shame as The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was another 9/10 film for me.

Based on Fassbinder’s play of the same name – The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a four-act tale on sadomasochism and co-dependency masquerading as a lesbian love triangle between a fashion designer, her assistant and an aspiring model with the whole thing taking place in the bedroom of the titular Petra Von Kant.

The transition from a play to cinema can be difficult, but Fassbinder does it with ease. We get clues of it’s origins from the very dialogue-heavy scenes, the single set and the limited number of cast members – but that just adds to the claustrophobic nature of the relationships between the three women.

Carrying the film on her shoulders in the title role is Margit Carstensen who is absolutely outstanding. Being at the centre of the psychologically damaging triangle, she needs to be sadistic, co-dependent and abusive to her mother, daughter and best friend… yet you still have to like her and by the end of it your heart breaks for her. Now consider that she had to do this back in 1972, when homosexuality was nowhere near as accepted as it is now (it was decriminalized in West Germany just three years earlier in 1969).

Then you have Irm Hermann as the silent (and verbally abused) assistant Marlene (or is she another designer… it’s never made completely cleared, probably because it never really matters). Whilst the costumes and hair changes with every act to reflect the emotions, Marlene remains in the same black number with the same make up with the orders barked at her getting crueller and crueller. She is such an enigma in this film until the final scene where suddenly her place is revealed and it takes a while to let it sink in.

I’m not sure where this sits in my internal Fassbinder rankings next to Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun but what I do know is that his is a filmography that I will need to experience more fully once I am done with the 1001 list. At this rate, that likely to be in 5 years time… at which point I really will be cinematically rudderless.

XL Popcorn – Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars’ Plot

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 725/1007Title: Ivan Groznyy. Skaz vtoroy: Boyarskiy zagovor (Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars’ Plot)
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Year: 1958
Country: Soviet Union

Here it is, Part 2 of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films and I am really sad that he was unable to make the third and final planned film because of his death in 1948 and film censorship in the USSR.  It took 12 years before this second part was released as the Communist Party banned it from release in 1946 due to it being ‘anti-historical’… which I read as not being suitable for propaganda.

The film starts with a brief summary of the first part before launching into a sumptuous scene in the court of the Polish king where we are wowed by the art direction as they finish off the exposition. This is the only time we spend outside of Russia and one of the few scenes where Ivan himself isn’t present – and would have probably been all the more important if we had had the third and final film.

A lot of the pluses of the first film can be applied to this one, although we are seeing things like Ivan’s mean streak (or possible madness) and the hatred of his enemies being so much more magnified. However, one thing this can boast is some of the first colour scenes in Soviet film history – all of which take place during some incredibly frenzied dance sequences. The colour isn’t great, but I don’t think I was watching a properly re-mastered copy.

Music feels more important in this second part, in comparison to the first. Not only is there Prokofiev’s score, but also two scenes with musical performances at the heart. First there is the more sombre passion play which parallels with Ivan’s declaration to make good on his nickname ‘the Terrible’ – some of the lyrics being very much on the nose. The second song (part of the colour sequence) feels very much like a Bacchanalia celebration where the crazed performance feels somewhat threatening because of Ivan’s plotting.

So yes, whilst there wasn’t the third intended part and some liberties were taken with the history, the Ivan the Terrible films have been an excellent two-parter to get you interested in Russian history. Certainly worked on me, I’ve just subscribed to The Russian History Podcast.

📽️ Disney Time – Dumbo

List Item:  Watch The Disney Animated Canon
Progress: 4/57Title: Dumbo
Year: 1941

At just over an hour Dumbo is the shortest of the narratively driven Disney movies. Originally this tale about a cute, but shunned, circus elephant was meant to be one of the Disney Silly Symphonies – however they found that the story needed more time in order to be done proper justice. This, combined with the last two films flopping, meant a more rushed production and the short running time.

With all that in mind, it is a wonder that Dumbo is such a strong entry in the Disney animated canon. The shortcuts that they took in the animation means that this is the first distinctly ‘cartoony’ looking film in the canon – something that does end up becoming more of a standard. It also means that this is a really fast-paced story where nothing is wasted and, as a modern viewer, some obvious scenes are missing. For example, we don’t get a reunion scene where Dumbo sees his mum after she’s released from solitary confinement.

On that, the scene where Dumbo is cradled in his incarcerated mother’s trunk to the tune of ‘Baby Mine’ is the only part of a Disney movie that is guaranteed to make me cry every time. There are times where I only need to think of it and I get a bit misty eyed. Out of context the scene is bad enough, but watching it in context as the pinnacle of all the psychological torture that Dumbo goes through in the first weeks of his life just makes it incredibly hard to bear.

Re-watching this as someone turning thirty next year really made me wonder if this is the cruelest that Disney has ever been to one of their protagonists – a baby protagonist at that. Let’s not forget that if Dumbo couldn’t fly by the end of the film, everyone in the circus (except for Timothy the mouse, who might be the first true Disney hero) was content to watch him plummet to his death before an audience (which, as one of the clowns says, is fine because “elephants have no feelings”). This makes looking back at some of the contemporary reviews so weird – they refer to this as a incredibly heart-warming offering, when it’s actually one of the saddest (until the last few minutes).

You then also have the Pink Elephants sequence which, outside of the Fantasias, might rank as some of the trippiest and most psychedelic the Disney animated canon has ever been. It’s a brilliant sequence that is sadly cut out in some showings for being ‘too scary’ or because it shows the protagonist of a children’s movie hallucinating after a bit too much alcohol. I would love to know what they cut from this sequence for being too odd.

So that’s it for Dumbo and, seeing how the next film is Bambi, there really is not a lot of time for the tears to dry before they get a fresh coat. I need to cherish these early films as, very soon, it’s going to be the run of six Disney package films. I guess I’ll be going more into that when I watch them.