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Stormy Weather

Posted : 1 year ago on 20 August 2016 10:13 (A review of Stormy Weather)

Even by the already lax standards of a musical, the narrative of Stormy Weather is a wispy thing. A mere formality to string together a series of revue numbers from an all-black group of entertainers. Don’t come around here if you want typical dramatic stakes like character arcs, emotional development, or plot twists, but this normally serious hindrance wilts in the sheer power of the ensemble of strong performers here.


I am certain that Stormy Weather would only improve in estimation if the narrative wraparound, telling the love story of Bill Williamson and Selina Rogers, was jettisoned in favor of just going straight ahead as a filmed musical revue. Luckily, someone in production noticed this, and the amount of time between musical numbers is severely limited to just a few moments of talking before we’re watching Lena Horne sing, Bill Robinson dance, or any number of specialty acts strut their stuff.


Thunderstruck is the best descriptor I can find for the moments in which the performers are allowed to shine. Bill Robinson does a tap dance across a series of tribal drums, keeping the rhythm going all by himself in a few spots, and it’s audacious and exuberant in how controlled and energetic he is in his tremendous gifts. It’s painful to go back and watch him play second fiddle to Shirley Temple after seeing what happens when he’s in complete control of a dance number.


The first time I watched Stormy Weather, right after taking in Cabin in the Sky, I was annoyed by this film’s lack of a strong narrative structure, that this story was generic to the point of anemic. On a second viewing, and after having taken in several revue films, I appreciate it much more. Who needs a story when you’ve got the lovely fantasy world of this film to escape in? I don’t, especially if it means stringing together dynamite sequences involving Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra, and Fats Waller.


Even better is how Stormy Weather seems to track the evolution of black entertainment. From the bluesy earlier days to the more lavish spectacles as the film wraps up, Stormy Weather is a glorious piece of spectacle. A collage of song-and-dance-and-comedy would be a better sound bite for it, but that doesn’t mean Stormy Weather is without the prevailing attitudes of the time. There are a few moments that walk right up to the edge of minstrel show, and these moments, while few, do occasionally provide a cringe in-between all of the joy emanating from the screen.  


But it’s hard to hold any faults against in the film in the face of moments as strong as Ada Brown belting out a number in a juke joint. The Nicholas Brothers perform one of the greatest dance sequences in the history of the medium with “Jumping Jive.” It’s athletic and seemingly inhuman how they consistently jump, leap, tumble, and skip over and under each other and then smoothly transition back in anarchic, jubilant dancing. Fats Waller pounds out “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the piano, and you wonder how they snuck this one past the censors with its naughty lyrics.


While Cab Calloway gets several appearances, and his zoot suit and scat singing is yet another moment of pure adrenaline performing. If there’s one thing Stormy Weather is no lacking for, it’s high-energy performances as it packs in 20 moments like this in a mere 78 minutes. Katharine Dunham and her dance troupe make an appearance, and they perform a beautiful, melancholic dance set to the title tune. This leads me to praising, as if it hasn’t been enough, Lena Horne’s rendition of the title song. Wearing a glamorous dress, filled with heartache and a gentle quiver in her voice, she leans against a wall and belts it out with the impression that her entire life depends upon this one moment. Throughout Horne is a earthy, charming, graceful, and sexy presence.


Added to the National Film Registry in 2001, Stormy Weather is an important film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the historical importance, being one of only two major studio releases during the era comprised of an entirely black cast. Another is how it allows them to star as movers and shakers entirely throughout their world, with the businesses and theatrical troupes, orchestras, dance companies and army troops all being owned and populated by black people. Yet another reason is how every single one of these performers brought their best to the film, and all you’ll want to know is where so many of them were hidden during the era. This is why Stormy Weather endures, and why it remains a vital and essential film from the studio era.

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The Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile

Posted : 1 year ago on 19 August 2016 03:04 (A review of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy in the Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile)

The narrative stakes in these Raggedy Ann and Andy specials are just bizarre. Strange things in which they are impossibly low, but lacking in a certain sparkle of interest that you begin to pay closer attention to the fact that none of it makes sense. And that’s taking into account that you’ve agreed to watch a cartoon about two sentient rag dolls with a rag doll dog that does extreme sports.


Frankly, I’d rather spend thirty minutes watching Raggedy Arthur skateboard across the time warped village while interacting with the emotionally hysteric pumpkin of the title. At least the pumpkin has a personality more interesting and prone to dramatic overreactions that put the anemic characteristics of the leads in a harsher light. Look, the pumpkin crying seeds and acting like his fate is worse than death amused me. That’s really all I ask for in these things.


So The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile is a step up from The Great Santa Claus Caper, but only a minor one. There’s still the problem of the narrative just not being terribly interesting enough to handle a full thirty minutes (ok, so it’s actually about twenty-two when you remove the commercials). The rag doll siblings notice an unhappy little boy who lives with his cold spinster aunt, so they decide that he needs a pumpkin to restore the spirit of the Halloween season. I don’t get it either, but we get a melodramatic pumpkin riding across town on a skateboard to the complete bewilderment of the townspeople.


If The Great Santa Claus Caper looked more Chuck Jones than Johnny Gruelle, then The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile jettisons the final vestiges of Gruelle’s work for more of Jones. Aunt Agatha looks like any of the older granny characters in a Tweety Bird cartoon, and the pumpkin is all Jones’ trademark angularity and rubbery movements. And I would be lying if I said Jones didn’t manage to wring the slightest bit of empathy for me during the emotional uplift ending. It was minor, but it was there. Or I’m just a big softie at heart, either way it worked.

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The Great Santa Claus Caper

Posted : 1 year ago on 19 August 2016 02:28 (A review of Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper)

It’s a bit hard to review this mess as there’s not much there to speak about. The plot makes zero sense, even going by the wide margins of which we accommodate Christmas specials tied to merchandised characters, and the whole thing consists of only a handful of scenes with little in the way of wit or creativity that sparkles in the best of Chuck Jones’ work.


Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper begins with a breaking of the fourth-wall by a Wil E. Coyote dollar store knockoff, Comet the reindeer overhearing his ramblings, and deciding that the best backup for this mission are a pair of rag doll siblings. It’s idiotic and muddled from the outset, with nothing truly at risk here. Jones did better work tackling the behemoth of Christmas and its emotional meanings years earlier, and subsequent dips into the same well turned up increasingly drier.


At least the gentleness and quietness of Johnny Gruelle’s work was translated for this, but that also means that there’s nothing much to keep your interest. Our big bad wolf wants encase Christmas presents in thick plastic, turn around and force kids to buy the solvent for it, and make them buy their Christmas presents. Comet is horrified, scoops up the rag doll duo plus their rag doll pooch, and jets them back to the North Pole where they talk the big bad wolf into being good? Then have a Peter Pan stage show moment where they ask the children watching to scream along with them? Look, it’s weird and obtuse.


Some of my aversion to this could be that I never “got” the appeal of Raggedy Ann and Andy. There’s just not much dramatic potential there with these characters. They’re so impassive and nondescript that Jones has to inject some borrowed lunacy from his more famous creations to liven things up, and that only goes so far. The Great Santa Claus Caper is justifiably forgotten and regulated to a mere curiosity in the collected works of Chuck Jones.

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Posted : 1 year ago on 14 August 2016 03:30 (A review of Lilting)

Lilting is best in the quiet moments, of which there are many, where we patiently observe character interactions and how they’re processing their grief. It’s delicate and quiet, carefully choosing what needs to be communicated aloud and what shall remain subterranean. At times, this choice makes the film feel standoffish; removing us from a few of the uglier instances of human emotion, but it mostly lays bare the disorientating nature of loss and rebalancing your life in the aftermath.


The major problem with Lilting is a great premise that feels far too one sided, and inevitably spins its wheels a bit towards the end, but there’s enough quietly devastating scenes and strong acting to bandage over these problems. Ben Whishaw is one of our finest actors currently working, full of subtle facial work, and a deep vulnerability, which can give the impression of an emotional brittleness when used effectively. Lilting doesn’t give him enough to do, forcing his character to the sidelines too often, essentially making his grief a brief sketch despite an equally crippling sense of loss and isolation.


I’d have easily traded all of the scenes with Peter Bowles for more scenes depicting Whishaw’s character and the dead lover at the heart of the film (Andrew Leung). Bowles’ salty romantic interest for Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), the mother of the deceased and central focus of the film, feel tonally contrasted from the rest of the piece, and proves more of a distraction than anything else. Leung’s character becomes a cipher with the truth of his personality presence entirely unknown, as there is no “there” to his character. It becomes hard to invest in the struggle and dynamic between the mother and her son’s lover if the person they’re fighting about and trying to heal over is but the faintest impression.


None of this makes Lilting a bad movie, on the contrary it’s so close to greatness that these fumbles strangely make you root for it more, as everything else works like gangbusters. Whishaw and the company of actors sell the improbability of some of the script with panache, and Cheng Pei Pei matches him with a combination of stubbornness and an ache that rests in her soul from a hard life in a foreign land. In their all too brief scenes together, Whishaw and Leung create a believably lived in romance, full of jokes, supportive glances, and exasperated fights.


The glacial pace actually doesn’t bother me, as I found it to be appropriate to the material. Processing grief and finding a new normal is not a quick process for anyone, and especially not for a mother and partner of several years. No gauche sarcasm to be found here, just an appealing heart-on-sleeve openness that is quite fetching in its vulnerability and sincerity, two qualities that are sorely lacking in modern cinematic language. Watching Whishaw in just about anything is worth the price of admission alone, and Lilting is best when it points the camera at him and just lingers as quicksilver thoughts flash across his fine features and large eyes.   

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Mowgli's Brothers

Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 03:00 (A review of Mowgli's Brothers)

For his final dip into Kipling’s work, Jones decided to tackle the biggest character, and the first story, in The Jungle Book, Mowgli. Nothing against Disney’s film version, but Jones’ television specials are the clearly superior versions. There’s no need to describe the story, as you’re already familiar with it from any of the numerous incarnations of the tale, but Jones’ version sticks closest to the text, restoring characters and relationships to their rightful places after Disney’s mutations of them.


Jones’ love for the source material bristles throughout his three Kipling shorts. Perhaps it’s how pliable they were to the animated form, allowing Jones to explore and expand what a children’s cartoon could look and feel like. It’s certainly true that Mowgli’s Brothers displays an artistic maturity that several other cartoons of its type don’t.


This version enchants me from the opening credits straight through, where Shere Khan is made up of black triangles stalking across a hot pink background, to the end, where Mowgli tries to return to the man village. If the backgrounds in The White Seal were abstract, then the ones here are the vaguest of impressions. An angular jungle of jagged shapes and rounded figures that looks more like the impressions and imaginings of a bright child than a typical cartoon.


June Foray and Roddy McDowell return to vocal duties, and Foray is particularly warm and maternal here. McDowell gets the bulk of the work here, and he gives a full array of vocal styles to the various characters and a clipped, posh accent for his moments of narration. Much like Welles in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, McDowell wraps his delicious vocal intonations around Kipling’s text with aplomb.


The poetry of Kipling is brought to life by Jones in Mowgli’s Brothers, both in the narration and in the experimentation of the piece. Taken individually, any of the adaptations are beautifully crafted wonders, but taken all together they’re something even greater. Each with a unique look and tone, each possessing individual strengths, they form an array of colors and sounds that push the boundaries of what American animation can be and look like. But how many people still watch them? I feel as if they’re criminally underrated and overdue for a reappraisal and place of prominence in Jones’ work.

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The White Seal

Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 02:30 (A review of The White Seal)

A few months after Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Chuck Jones once again returned to the world of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book with this version of “The White Seal.” Two-thirds of his Kipling trilogy consists of the more obscure tales from that classic tome, and that’s partially why I appreciate them so much. There’s also the simple fact that The White Seal is just a beautifully animated, completely engaging work.


These Kipling adaptations feel different from much of Jones’ more popular work, as they’re more mature and slower paced, less reliant upon physical humor and filled with palpable moments of dread and tension. The first one in The White Seal comes from watching a young Kotec chased by a shark, but a vast majority of the tale is occupied by his venture to find a new home where they’ll be free of the humans.


Naturally, he encounters several underwater denizens, both friendly and cruel. None of these encounters are as cruel as the ones with mankind. A scene of Kotec staring in horror as the humans hunt down and kill many of his fellow seals shies away from showing the act itself, but through clever visual choices and Kotec’s expression we still get the intensity of the moment.


And I haven’t even begun to describe the look of the piece. The character animation is fluid and dynamic, with personalities evident in their movements. A scene where a young Kotec meets a whale is a small marvel, as bubbles distort his face as they float across the frame. What’s even more interesting is how Kotec goes from cute and cuddly, looking like the big eyed critter you’d find in any children’s cartoon to a more realistic representation, so too does the rest of the piece. Kotec ages before our eyes by repeatedly leaping out of the water, appearing larger and fuller with each joyous dive.


The backgrounds point towards Jones’ love of abstract, as Nova Scotia is all geometric patterns of white and blues, and ocean waves are green lines under the water. The island paradise that Kotec discovers is made up of large chunks of colors, with little detail work. These bright colors and simplistic shapes give The White Seal a buoyant feeling that is quite effective for the peace. Same can be said for Roddy McDowell’s airy vocal work as both Kotec and the narrator. A slight step-down in artistic achievement from Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal is still a wonderful work in Jones’ extensive output.

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Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 02:01 (A review of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi)

1975 ended the Cricket series, but it also launched the three Rudyard Kipling adaptations that Chuck Jones made between 1975 and 1976. These three specials are among the best of Jones’ work, capturing both the darkness of the original stories and providing a template for Jones’ artistry to go wild.


The first of these three specials, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, is twenty-five minutes of sheer excellence from top to bottom. The simplicity of backgrounds and shapes jettisoned here in favor of a more realistic animation style. I never knew traditionally animated cobras could be so frightening, but between the menace of Orson Welles and June Foray’s vocal intonations and their ominous, supple animation, that’s exactly what I thought in these moments.


Even better is the stylistic choices to display Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s swiftness, as his entire body transforms into elongated lines, stretching and shrinking back to its natural size. It’s a hypnotic effect, and put into great effect during the numerous scenes of tension and danger in which Rikki fights with the snakes antagonizing his adopted family. This body warping effect is also used in moments of mischief and discovery, used for more comedic effect in these moments, but working just as well.


Jones perfectly captures of feeling of Kipling’s work, bringing out both the charm and the danger lurking beneath the surface. Much of Welles’ narration is straight from the text, and Welles’ voice wraps around the lines beautifully. His origins in radio drama makes him a perfect voice actor for animation, and this only makes one wish he did more of it. Jones was smart to bring him in, just as he was smart enough to know when to play the story straight and when to get flashy in his artistic choices.


Introducing the villain, Nag the cobra, as an inky black blob undulating against the bright sun alerts us to the stakes that will unfold as the story progresses. We begin in simplistic, cutesy methods, with Rikki playing cute and sweet and getting more ferocious as we go along. Even better is the shock of colors (red, yellow, and white) that flash across the screen during Nag’s death scene with only the pattern of his hood remaining clearly visible. The tensest moment comes late in the story as Nagaina, the female cobra, threatens to strike against the human child that Rikki has befriended. No flashy animation tricks here, just still human characters, a patient cobra, and Foray’s disturbed voice work that sounds like her chords were sandpapered heavily before she walked into the recording booth.


I remember watching this several times as a child, and it still holds up. It’s one of Chuck Jones’ late-period masterpieces, and one of the best Jungle Book adaptations. As scary as it is enchanting, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a wonderful piece of work.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy

Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 01:23 (A review of Yankee Doodle Cricket)

Between 1975 and 1976, much of America’s pop culture ephemera was drunk upon the upcoming bicentennial. Don’t believe me? Well, then look no further than the third and final installment in the Cricket specials, Yankee Doodle Cricket. Purporting to tell the unknown truth about the American Revolution, this special finds Chester, Tucker, and Harry recast as Revolutionary players helping the cause along.


The special opens with Tucker in the library reading a book called Oddities in American History, and that about sums up this installment, an oddity. While A Very Merry Cricket lacked the sophistication and general overlooked nature of the first one, this one feel reasonably slept on. It’s hopelessly dated as a relic of the bicentennial fever striking the country.


There’s still plenty of chuckles to be found here, but the surrounding narrative is weak. Let’s focus on the jokes for a moment, a rattlesnake with a head cold asks Tucker to not tread on him, inspiring the infamous drawing and slogan. Or Harry giving his opinion to Thomas Jefferson about the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, a flurry of quotes from future Presidents can be heard as they’re discarded.  Yet Jones feels somehow disconnected from much the material here, with the bright spots shining brighter than the fussiness surrounding them.

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A Very Merry Cricket

Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 01:06 (A review of A Very Merry Cricket)

Picking up right where The Cricket in Times Square ends, A Very Merry Cricket reunites us with Tucker the Mouse and Harry the Cat on a story that’s part road trip and part lukewarm variation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. New York City, introduced through a nightmare hallucination of location zooms and disembodied voices, is filled with anxiety and anger about the Christmas season, and these two think Chester’s magical musical abilities are just the remedy the city needs.


Subtle in its emotional manipulations this is not, taking the same morale as The Grinch but delivering with chainsaw-through-Jell-O nuance. A Very Merry Cricket is far more fun when it’s plotting is shaggy, and we simply hangout with Harry and Tucker in their misadventures. Jones’ humor shines in some of these gags, and an alley cat character feels like a more regulated cousin of a Looney Tunes character.   


Luckily, most of the special is taken up by their road trip adventures, and the anti-commercialism of the holidays is regulated to the very beginning and the very end. Not quite as overlooked or even-handed as the prior installment, A Very Merry Cricket is still a highly enjoyable romp.

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The Cricket in Times Square

Posted : 1 year ago on 13 August 2016 12:47 (A review of The Cricket in Times Square)

Between 1973 and 1975, Chuck Jones produced three specials based upon The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. This first entry plays the story straight, complete with an ending that feels somehow rushed upon given the leisurely pace of the rest of the piece.


There’s a quietness and gentle spirit at work here, something you just don’t find any longer in children’s entertainment. The story is a simple urban fairy tale, a family’s newsstand in the subway near Times Square is having trouble generating business, and a cricket from the countryside accidentally gets transplanted there. The cricket befriends the young son of the family, along with a streetwise mouse and urbane cat, and the three critters plot to help the family’s fortunes. The cricket it revealed to have a wonderful gift for music, and this proves the key to changing the family’s financial woes.


That’s it, that’s the entirety of the story, no cynicism, no snark, just heartfelt lessons about how music can be a bridge between different people and helping others. The art is more sophisticated here than your typical Jones work up to this point, which human figures looking more realistic, and animals appearing more grounded than the elongated shapes and loose limbs of his more famous work. Jones also made the choice to hold back on showing the human character’s faces until late in the running time, using their wide-eyed wonder and expressions of joy primarily in the climax, which finds the cricket performing his final concert and all of Times Square pausing to take in the beauty of the music. It’s a wonderful bit of flourish in this urban fairy tale.


Shame then that right after this ebullient moment the story quickly winds down with the next scene being one in which the father takes the cricket on the train to Connecticut to release him back into the wild. This thread, of the cricket yearning to go back home, is introduced early, then quickly brushed aside in favor of Mel Blanc’s Tucker the Mouse cracking jokes alongside Les Tremayne’s haughty purrs. It’s not a fatal flaw, as everything that came before it is strong, but it’s just a weird bit of pacing. Still, of the three Cricket specials, this is the strongest and most satisfying.

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