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Living the Dream, 30 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

For those interested in the history of animation, one of the most riveting chapters was the decline in popularity and success of hand-drawn animation coincided with the rising tide of computer-generated animated films helped with heavy box office receipts, critical acclaim, and earning notable accolades that was once bestowed on the former a decade earlier. The most major and renowned western animation studio to be affected by this turn of events was Walt Disney Feature Animation.

The documentary plays on one of the Disney trends of opening the film with a storybook to help convey the idealized and magical dream of becoming an animator for the Walt Disney Studios. Unfortunately, it reveals to be the opposite. For a movie with a runtime of 40 minutes, the film covers approximately twenty years of Disney feature animation history in a brisk and understandable pace with such events as the relocation of the animation division to Glendale, California, the new leadership team of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the late Frank Wells, and the revitalization of theatrical Disney animated films during the early 1990s.

Suddenly, the dream goes dark with Katzenberg's brutal departure followed by an exodus of animators to DreamWorks Animation succeeded by the expansion of direct-to-video sequels and the influx of corporate executives into the animation division that stifled creativity, declined employee morale, and tarnished the Disney brand. The animators who remain allegiant to Disney themselves get expensive.

The interviewees are refreshingly not well-known names outside of lead animator Andreas Deja. They are just animators who were employed or recently laid off from Walt Disney Feature Animation. Because of this, it is easier to relate with their experience of working for a company where your work is rewarded, where you work overtime to finish certain tasks, and worry about staying employed in a fragile job market where layoffs and corporate cutbacks are on the horizon.

The sketchbook drawings that detail the events were simplistic at best. However, there is much left to be desired that was touched on, but not discussed in depth such as what notable factors helped make computer-animated films more popular and successful than the traditionally animated ones. How would the animators have confronted issues in their department if they had the upper hand instead of the corporate executives?

It would have been nice if it waited a few more years to see how the cards unfold, and hear the other side of the story from the former animation studio chiefs such as Peter Schneider, Thomas Schumacher, and David Stainton. Nevertheless, by the time the film was being filmed, the writing was on the wall that computer animated films would maintain its place in the theaters while new hand-drawn animation media would fade to television and direct-to-video films.

Directed by Dan Lund (himself a visual effects animator), this is a noble and insightful look at the rise and decline of the Disney feature animation studios though it falls somewhat short in its coverage. If you are interested in viewing the film, you can purchase the film online for less than two dollars.

Blue gardenia, now I'm alone with you..., 26 November 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Based on a short story written by Vera Caspary (who also wrote "Laura", which was adapted into a highly acclaimed film noir by Otto Preminger), this film-noir flavored melodrama tells the story of Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), who works as a switchboard operator, lives in a Los Angeles apartment with her roommates, Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell). On her birthday, after her friends have gone out, Norah celebrates herself with a candlelight dinner beside the picture of his beloved fiancée, a soldier serving in the Korean War. She finally reads the awaited letter only to discover he is engaged with a Japanese nurse. Emotionally distraught, Norah accepts a blind date with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) over the phone at the Blue Gardenia restaurant. There, Norah consumes six strong Polynesian Pearl Divers cocktails becoming terribly drunk when she arrives at Harry's studio apartment. After Harry attempts to sedate her with coffee, he makes a sexual advance on her, and is knocked unconscious when Norah strikes him with a fire iron in self-defense and flees.

The next morning, she suffers a blackout, as well as discovers Harry is dead. Naming the murder case "The Blue Gardenia Murderess" by newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), Norah tries to remember the details of her ill-fated night, and must team up with newspaper man to help solve the mystery.

The cast is remarkably well in their parts. Anne Baxter puts on a convincing emotionally afflicted and vulnerable performance, and holds my attention throughout the picture. Raymond Burr (well-known for playing Perry Mason) with his size, height, and strength, leads to the fact that he is physically powerful over the women he attempts to womanize. Playing the hard-boiled detective character, Richard Conte adds a bit of romance to the gloomy story. Relegated into supporting stock character territory, Ann Sothern almost overcomes it with snappy wisecracks, and being a more straightforward, matured woman opposite to Jeff Donnell's Sally Ellis who loves pulp fiction and quite quirky. Although for a cameo, Nat King Cole sings the haunting title song with his absorbing soft baritone voice.

Establishing the noir atmosphere, the picture is helped by some intriguing touches by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Examples of this is the ominous rain drops on the apartment window at the time of the murder, the breaking of the mirror glass when Norah strikes Harry, and the fog firmly establish the characters' troubled state of mind. Other examples are full close-up shots in times of accusation and figures emerging from the mysterious dark at the wrong time help create suspension. This is without mention the use of low-key neon lights, deep focus photography, and deep shadows especially in the scene with Mayo invites Norah over to his newspaper office.

However, it falls short with the story and its styles. The film starts out light-hearted and promising, though it falls into a weak ending with an arbitrary plot twist you may not see coming. The movie ends too quick with it, and doesn't develop it any further than a personal confession leaving the ending contrived and slightly rushed. In addition to this, the story of an unconscious bystander who is framed in a murder has become quite clichéd since the film's initial release, and this picture follows the usual by-the-number plot points.

The theme of newspaper sensationalism, which this movie is critiquing, is explored quite well within the time frame of the movie and director Fritz Lang followed upon on it in "While the City Sleeps" and "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" (both released three years later) making this film an installment of a "newspaper noir" trilogy. Given this film is set in the 1950s, there's a bit of a McCarthyism aspect in this film with Norah serving as the suspected Communist with the police on their trail by the day definitely creates a sense of a paranoia, melancholy atmosphere.

In the end, this is an enjoyable solid murder mystery with well-rounded performances to boot along with Lang's direction and Musuraca's cinematography making up for a slightly flawed script.

7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Finding the Groove: From "Kingdom of the Sun" to "The Emperor's New Groove", 19 September 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In 1997, Grammy Award-winning singer Sting was asked by the Walt Disney Company to compose the songs for their upcoming feature film, "Kingdom of the Sun". He agreed on one condition that his filmmaker wife, Trudie Styler, was given unlimited access to producing a documentary on the making of the film. Disney agreed, and Sting signed on to the project with collaborator David Hartley at his side. However, Sting complained he didn't have much to work with since there wasn't a finalized storyline given to him which sets the problem of the documentary as he and the filmmakers went through the "sweatbox", which refers to the early days of Disney animation when there was no air conditioning, causing the animators to sweat while their rough work was being critiqued. And this is what Trudie Styler and co-director John-Paul Davidson unpredictably set out to capture through the extensive process.

The storyline of "Kingdom of the Sun" is about a young, selfish Incan emperor named Kuzco (to be voiced by David Spade) who has grown bored of his palace life, and finds a twin in a humble peasant farmer named Pacha (to be voiced by Owen Wilson). The two switch places, though the emperor's adviser Yzma (to be voiced by Eartha Kitt) notices no "mark of the sun" on Pacha. She blackmails the impostor emperor, and has Kuzco transformed to a non-talking llama that later teams up with a female llama herder. Because of this, she can finally use Supai, the demon of darkness, to engulf the empire in eternal darkness giving her eternal youth not given by the sun.

The initial director for this project was Roger Allers, coming off his success of "The Lion King", who eagerly shows his passion in this project. He was later joined by Mark Dindal, the director of the underrated "Cats Don't Dance", and Randy Fullmer serving as the producer. The first forty minutes greatly documents the work on "Kingdom" with never-before-seen animation footage of Yzma from lead animator Andreas Deja topped with trips to South America studying llamas and local scenery which recalls memories of "Saludos Amigos" and well-drawn storyboard sketches.

Another highlight was the songs Sting and Hartley had managed to compose. One was the show-stopping villain tune "Snuff Out the Light" which explains Yzma's lust for eternal youth. Kitt's vocals easily flows the mood of the song, and is successfully backed with a haunting chorus with lyrical images of demonic beasts and themes of light and darkness are greatly contrasted. The love song, "One Day She'll Love Me", was to be used for a subplot between "Emperor" Pacha and Kuzco's betrothal Nina (to be voiced by Carla Gugino) who notices a change in the new emperor that effectively attracts her. The vocals of Sting and Shawn Colvin stir up intensive chemistry, and the theme makes for an exquisite throwback to "Aladdin" with a peasant protagonist pretending to be of royalty. Other songs were the groovy "Walk the Llama Llama" and a song for Harvey Feirstein's talking talisman named Hucua inspired by "Why Can't the English" from "My Fair Lady" supposedly titled "Why Can't a Human Be More Like a Rock".

The common ingredients for a successful Disney animated feature were there until it takes a turn for the worst with the poorly received test screenings supervised by the animation studio chiefs Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider whom complain about the uninvolving storyline and the heavy seriousness of "Kingdom". One of my favorite scenes following this was the Disney "Brain Trust" meetings where directors Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, Rob Clements, and John Musker and Disney/Pixar story artist/director Joe Ranft advise Allers on how to improve "Kingdom". It was amazing to see these talented people captured on film all together in one room.

Unfortunately, Allers relinquishes the director's chair unable to finish his animated epic in time for its scheduled summer 2000 release date, and Dindal and Fullmer are left to pick up the pieces of the puzzle. Even though we know the end result midway through the picture, it's still amazing how the retitled film known as "The Emperor's New Groove" proved to have a chaotic production history as well in its break-neck struggle to finish production. Even as with "Kingdom", Schumacher and Schneider are the condescending voice of criticism urging for a tighter storyline and more well-developed relationships with the characters. Even though they are only doing their jobs, this aspect is one of the reasons Disney won't release the documentary in public. It was also delightful how the animators showcase their craft of animating these characters serving as a treat for animation fans and those already knowledgeable about the business.

By December 2000, "The Emperor's New Groove" received positive critical analysis, and had modest box office business. Towards the end of the documentary, one can't help but feel what Roger Allers's vision would have turned out had been completed in spite of its flaws. The lasting effect the documentary had that felt very prophetic was when Schumacher stated he hoped the unused story ideas of "Kingdom of the Sun" will have "their fair time in court". Amazingly, ten years later, Disney's "Tangled" recycled the evil scheme of obtaining eternal youth for the villain Mother Gothel, and Rapunzel's kingdom is symbolized as the sun.

Above and beyond, "The Sweatbox" is an engaging inside look at how a film goes through the torturous process of development hell. Although it's highly unlikely "Sweatbox" will see the light of day in terms of home video, Styler and Davidson's work is a worthy addition to Hollywood's catalog of film production documentaries.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Decent time capsule of the Red Scare, 7 September 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The film tells of a widowed librarian named Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), who has an affinity for children, who served at the town's public library for the quarter of a century. The politicians of the city council learn (one played skillfully by Brian Keith) of a book titled "The Communist Dream", and order Ms. Hull to remove it from circulation. She refuses to oblige to the council, and when the council dig up revealing details that she had been the former sponsor of Communist fronts in the United States, she is labeled as a Communist and dismissed from her position.

Her removal takes a toll of her friend, Freddie (Kevin Coughlin), whose story is told in the film's sub-plot. Freddie is a devoted bookworm to the exception of his narrow-minded, blue-collared father played by Joe Mantell whom believes he should play outside with his friends.

The premise of "Storm Center" is interesting, and the picture is well-directed by Daniel Taradash who was also the film's screenwriter alongside writer Erick Moll. They skillfully tackle the themes of subversion, censorship, social paranoia, and social conformity. During her talk with the politicians, she asks an question questioning where the communists would allow books on democracy to remain in their libraries? In the film's climax, we see various classic novels and a book titled "The Life of Jesus" being burned, which makes us question whether those books should be removed from circulation.

Their premise falls short with its cardboard characters such as Freddie's father and when the film's second half falls into unintentional camp and over-the-top melodrama. In the film, after the town's community shuns Ms. Hull (and when members fear standing up for her will label them as communists), Freddie, who loved Ms. Hull for most of his life, turns against her, is pushed over the edge, and does the unthinkable. The nucleus of "Storm Center" revolves around their relationship, but the writers overdramatize their break-up, and I find myself longing for a resolution at the end.

Surprisingly, the movie is still relevant today with its themes, and is a solid B-film. Instead of "The Communist Dream" being ordered to remove, would the politicians prevent the circulation of "Tommy and his Two Fathers"? Betty Davis's performance is well-mannered yet effective, and so is the rest of the cast. The musical score composed by George Duning, while not too memorable, is subtle. The movie deserves a decent home video release, and much like Ms. Hull said before the council about the banning of Hitler's "Mein Krampt", the available the movie is, the sooner we can learn from it, and use it to combat the problems detailed within the film.