Category Archives: Highly Recommended

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966, Ben Washam and Chuck Jones)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has three rather distinct things going on throughout the twenty-six minute television special. It also some some indistinct things going on–the Whoville songs, while charming, are nowhere near as impressive as the big things.

First, but not foremost, is Washam and Jones’s direction. Although Grinch is a Dr. Seuss adaptation, as a cartoon, its possibilites are different. Jones and Washam make the Grinch (and Max, his dog) into familiar cartoon roles. The Grinch is the bad guy, Max is the reluctant accomplice. It’s familiar because the dog can’t talk, while the Grinch does. Though not to poor Max so much as at him.

And when the Grinch does talk, it’s Boris Karloff’s voice, which is the second distinct thing going on. Boris Karloff narrates The Grinch–reading the source book. When the Grinch speaks, it’s Karloff’s voice… just filtered a little. The effectiveness of the filtering is a tad questionable, but more because of the additional noise the filter adds. Karloff’s familiar but not exactly the same voice for the Grinch’s dialogue? It works. It just sounds too distant.

Karloff’s narration is always good, frequently awesome. For example, the times he has to list various silly-named Christmas items are delightful, as Karloff approaches each new and absurd word with the jovial–but still reserved–calm; it’s awesome. It’s great narration. It defines Grinch.

At least for the first half or so.

Because then in comes the third distinct thing. Thurl Ravenscroft, uncredited singer of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. When the Grinch is stealing Christmas, sure, there’s some narration from Karloff, but it’s all about Ravenscroft’s voice. There are some great lyrics too–the song is set aside from the narration and is more a musing on the poor character of the Grinch. It’s awesome.

The Karloff narration and, eventually, Ravenscroft’s singing never bump into each other. Throughout, the animation works with the narration–expression is important in Grinch, as the amount the Grinch can contort depends on how long it takes Karloff to get through a particular line. And it can seem like Karloff is dragging it out to encourage contortion. And a contorted Grinch is not a pretty sight.

Similarly, when Ravenscroft gets back to the chorus in each of the Mean One segments–there are at least three–it defines the moment, not the animation. Lovell Norman and John O. Young cut most every sequence just right. There are a couple long moments during the Whoville songs, but Jones and Washam have the charm baseline high enough to allow indulgences. And even enjoy them. The finale’s tensions work because Jones and Washam don’t rush things, because they do slow down the pace. They let the finale rhyme with the opening, back to relying on Karloff.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is fantastic. Jones and Washam pace it out just right for the narration and song. Except without Karloff or Ravenscroft, there’d be nothing to pace. Good thing everything works so well together. Or, so well, alongside each other.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Washam and Chuck Jones; teleplay by Irv Spector, Bob Ogle, and Dr. Seuss, based on the book by Seuss; animated by Ken Harris, Tom Ray, Phil Roman, Richard Thompson, and Don Towsley; edited by Lovell Norman and John O. Young; music by Eugene Poddany; production designer, Maurice Noble; produced by Jones and Seuss; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Narrated by Boris Karloff.


RELATED

Advertisements

The Cosmopolitans (2014, Whit Stillman)

The Cosmopolitans opens with some visual sarcasm, but it quickly moves to verbal. Writer-director Stillman is somewhat merciless, introducing characters just to comment on the absurd pretentiousness of the principals. Of course, Stillman doesn’t let the observers off easy either. It just takes longer for them to become clear; maybe the American leads are just too obvious.

Cosmopolitans is a series pilot (which, tragically, did not get picked up) and Stillman does spend time establishing his characters. But he doesn’t have much of an epical structure–they meet, they talk, they go to a party–and Stillman’s got no urgency with divulging. More information doesn’t necessarily make the characters more entertaining or more affecting.

The three leads–presumably–are Adam Brody, Jordan Rountree, and Carrie MacLemore. They’re Americans in Paris. Brody and Rountree have claimed Parisian status and probably need to be treated for intense Francophilia. Rountree’s lovesick, Brody’s affably brooding. Meanwhile, MacLemore is in Paris for a guy who abandons her for his writing. Because Frenchman.

Brody and Rountree take themselves way too seriously, while MacLemore has a somewhat better sense of her situation.

Adriano Giannini plays Brody and Rountree’s older, Italian friend who spends most of his time making fun of the Americans. He’s gentle about it, as opposed to Chloë Sevigny, who’s brutal about it. Luckily, Brody and Rountree are so pretentious, they can’t identify the digs as digs. Lots of funny barbs. Lots.

Freddy Åsblom has the showy part of Brody and Rountree’s rich, native friend. He pokes fun at them without Sevigny’s loathing or Giannini’s bewilderment. He ends up with some of the funniest moments.

Of course, eventually it’s Giannini and Sevigny who get revealed–either to another character or just to the viewer (but only because Brody and Rountree are oblivious). Stillman spares no one. He maintains a light tone, affable characters, and an adoration of Paris throughout. The Cosmopolitans might mock its leads’ Francophilia, but the pilot is delightfully drenched in it.

Beautiful photography from Antoine Monod, subtle, sharp editing from Sophie Corra, a great soundtrack–it’s a technical marvel. Stillman’s composition and direction are fantastic.

MacLemore gives the best performance of the leads. Brody and Rountree are a tad shallow, MacLemore has actual backstory and some sense. It’s a better part. Giannini and Sevigny are great; Sevigny’s deliveries are awesome. And Åsblom is quite good. His role is a little more difficult than it seems at first blush.

Again, it’s tragic The Cosmopolitans didn’t go to series; what Stillman and cast and crew did get done is wonderful stuff.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, Antoine Monod; edited by Sophie Corra; produced by Alex Corven Caronia; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Carrie MacLemore (Aubrey), Adam Brody (Jimmy), Jordan Rountree (Hal), Adriano Giannini (Sandro), Freddy Åsblom (Fritz), and Chloë Sevigny (Vicky).


RELATED

Lemonade (2016, Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jonas Åkerlund)

A music video is not a short musical. Lemonade, identifying itself as a visual album, is not a music video (or a string of them) and it is not a musical. It borrows something from all of those mediums, with directors Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund instinctively understanding how to mix and match. Lemonade is a performance, but not a film performance. It is a spectacle, but never a garish one. It’s an event, meant to be experienced as one, meant to be shared as one; it initially aired on HBO. There’s just so much going on at once with it.

Lemonade runs just under an hour. Knowles narrates, the narration adapted from Warsan Shire’s poems. The narration explains, the songs explore. But there’s the other, visual layer. It’s not just a music video because there’s cohesion between the numbers (in some ways, Lemonade might be be described as a musical video essay). Knowles is working towards something beyond the “narrative,” which involves a woman discovering and reacting to her husband’s infidelity.

It’s not the story of her self-discovery; she’s already self-discovered. It’s about her rage and joy and sadness and thoughtfulness and compassion. Lemonade is all about compassion, it’s all about understanding. It’s about Knowles’s “protagonist” ruminating, through the songs, through the visuals, questions of her very existence. Except it’s not subtextual questioning. Lemonade isn’t about being a superstar and questioning that existence, it’s about Knowles exploring the questions of being an African-American woman in the United States. Lemonade takes itself very seriously, as it well should.

The directors employ multiple aspect ratios to fantastic effect. They’re guiding the viewers, presenting each song, each visual sequence, for the viewer’s intelligent consumption. It’s impossible to imagine not paying attention to Lemonade. But Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund know how to keep it inviting. Editor Bill Yukich does peerless work here–every cut is outstanding, whether it’s between aspect ratio, shots of the same sequence, shots from different sequences. It’s beyond graceful.

To put it in terms of film jargon, Lemonade is a little like if you made a musical version of a twenty-first century Terrence Malick movie, only employing mostly tone and narration devices from Badlands. The filmmaking has to hit a consistent level of precision in order for its sincerity to work. And the sincerity is the goal, which just makes the filmmaking more ambitious.

To be hyperbolic (but accurate), you don’t watch Lemonade as much as experience it. It captivates visually and narratively. Only the narrative turns out to be a lot different than what the first act implies. Though act isn’t the correct term, because Lemonade sort of creates itself as it goes along.

It’s very difficult to explain; you’d just have to see it. And you should.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jonas Åkerlund; adapted by Warshan Shire; directors of photography, Khalik Allah, Par Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Rimmasch and Malik Hassan Sayeed; edited by Bill Yukich; production designers, Jason Hougaard and Jc Molina; produced by Keenan Flynn and Jonathan Lia; aired by Home Box Office.


RELATED

Welcome to Eltingville (2002, Chuck Sheetz)

“Welcome to Eltingville.” You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. You must be cautious. I suppose the first thing to say about “Eltingville” is it has a very, very limited audience. It’s a spoof of fan culture from the inside. It’s knowingly spoofing the absurd.

It’s not just spoofing the idea of obnoxious fan culture, it’s spoofing the idea of spoofing that culture. Writer Evan Dorkin (the pilot is based on his long-running comic book series) has to limbo through all the references and who gets to say them. It’s a really sharp, really tight script. The time flies by, but “Eltingville” still has time to make distinct impressions.

Excellent voice acting from Jason Harris and Troy Metcalf in the leads. In the supporting parts, Corey Brill and Larc Spies aren’t anywhere near as impression. It’s partially because of Dorkin’s script, partially because Brill has nothing to do and a lot because Spies isn’t giving a performance, he’s doing an accent. But they’re fine enough. They’re still funny when they need to be funny.

“Eltingville” is an awesome twenty minutes. Though I can see why it didn’t get picked up to series. There’s just too small an audience for a show.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Chuck Sheetz; written by Evan Dorkin; music by Denis M. Hannigan; aired by Adult Swim.

Starring Jason Harris (Bill Dickey), Troy Metcalf (Josh Levy), Larc Spies (Pete DiNunzio), Corey Brill (Jerry Stokes) and Tara Sands (Jane Dickey).


RELATED