Tag Archives: Walt Disney Pictures

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

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The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).


Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Endgame had the ending I was hoping for, but maybe not necessarily the right ending for the movie. And it’s only got one. If Endgame has any singular successes, it might be in its lack of false endings. It does a lot of establishing work, sometimes new to the film, sometimes refreshing it from previous Marvel movies. Endgame is the twenty-second “Marvel Cinematic Universe” movie; you probably can get away with watching thirteen of them and getting the story. And maybe not all the ones you’d expect. And not always for the best narrative reasons, not given where it takes some of its characters.

The film opens catching up with Jeremy Renner. Even before the company logo. He missed the last outing because of something in another one of the movies. Not one of the Avengers movies either. Anyway. Renner, despite being really effective in the first scene, is a red herring. He’s there immediately for texture and structurally for when he comes back later on. Because first things first, after all. Given the way the previous movie (Infinity War) ends, there’s some anticipation. There’s some big action in the prologue too, some big team-ups, some nice moments. But it’s really an epilogue to the previous film. In fact, there’s even a cliffhanger moment they could’ve used to split them. Only no, because then the movie jumps ahead an arbitrary amount of time. Arbitrary in how it effects the narrative, but so specific you’ve got to think there’s some reason. Maybe for the twenty-third Marvel movie. Or the thirty-third.

The movie uses the jump ahead to allow for a new ground situation. Sometimes it’s drastic, sometimes it’s not. Even when it’s a theoretically big change, it doesn’t necessarily do much to change how the character functions in the film. Maybe it gives them some angst or whatever, but everyone’s got angst after the last movie. It only affects behaviors in a few. The rest… well, they’re a little thin. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an amazing job writing good scenes for the actors, but not good subplots for most of them. There are some disconnects between script and direction here, particularly with Chris Hemsworth. Markus and McFeely’s script gives him a lot of possibility and directors Russo have zero interest in pursuing it. Shame thing goes for Mark Ruffalo. He gets more to do than ever before, but never any good scenes to himself. Renner and Scarlett Johansson end up somewhere in between. They’ve got material, they get time for it… it still comes off a little too perfunctory.

In theory, Endgame’s two leads are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Downey gets the most to do in the film and it’s a fantastic performance. It’s his movie, as much as it can be any actor’s movie. Meanwhile, the script doesn’t give Evans quite enough to do, even though it frequently has him around things to do. Markus and McFeely actually don’t give Evans an arc for the film. Him, first tier guest stars Brie Larson and Don Cheadle, Ruffalo, no actual character arcs. It’d be disappointing if it weren’t a movie about a bunch of superheroes time traveling to save the world.

The time travel goes back into the other movies, but doesn’t get too nostalgic about them. It’s nice Endgame can get traction out of the three locations, as they’re locations because of narrative detail not dramatic potential. There are a couple good action sequences in one of them, some wasted material for Hemsworth, some wasteful material Downey makes into gold, some old footage reused then CGI’ed to get another “name” guest star in the end credits, a major plot development for third act repercussion, and a too flat melodramatic moment. And a bunch of good acting, good directing, excellent CGI, and whatever else.

Endgame couldn’t get better, technically speaking. Everything directors Russo need to do, every shot, it all works. There’s a lot to keep moving. It gets kind of monotonous after a while, as the film’s ambitions are all about getting its story told, getting all its connections made, all its references echoed, all its characters in the right place for when the actors’ contracts run out. There’s no time to make wide filmmaking swings, but directors Russo don’t even seem interested in trying. They’re more than happy to leverage an old movie beat to get the job done.

Especially if it’s at Hemsworth’s expense. Especially Hemsworth’s.

There aren’t any bad performances. Downey’s the ace. Then Evans or Paul Rudd. Rudd’s better than anyone but Downey when he’s getting introduced; he’s momentarily the lead then he’s background. He ends up with even less to do than Renner. But Evans is in the whole movie. Ruffalo’s fine. There’s nothing for him to do. Hemsworth seems more than capable so it’s weird how little he gets to do. He’s fine. Johansson’d be better if she didn’t end up losing her arc once Renner’s back. There’s a moment where it seems like she’s going to give a really good performance. Instead, she’s fine. Good in comparison to others, when adjusting for all the film’s factors. Cheadle’s good with his stuff, which is mostly background noise. Karen Gillan gets a big arc, at least in terms of narrative importance, but loses it. She’s okay.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back for a bit. She’s good. It’s not a lot. But she and Downey get their magic going as needed.

Bradley Cooper’s great as the CGI raccoon’s voice.

As for Josh Brolin, whose villain was the whole show in the previous Infinity War? The CGI, motion-captured mean blue giant thing still works and Brolin’s fine, but… he’s got a thin part this time out. Technically lots to do, all of it really thin.

Endgame succeeds in being a well-acted, well-made, and well-written (enough) conclusion to the “world-building” done by the previous twenty-one movies. It just might have been nice if it tried to do anything else. Anything at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), and Josh Brolin (Thanos).


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Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

Captain Marvel is difficult to encapsulate. Its successes are many, some of its achievements truly singular (the CG-de-aging of Sam Jackson, combined with Jackson’s “youthful” performance, is spectacular), and there’s always something else. Even when you get past all the major things—first female Marvel superhero movie, franchise prequel, “period piece,” inverted character arcs, big plot twists—there’s something else you can find in the plotting or how directors Boden and Fleck stick with a joke. If they make a joke work, they don’t let up on it. Ever. They turn it into character development. Even when it ought to be absurd, they make it work.

But most of all there’s lead Brie Larson, who gets some big moments in the film—sometimes through the grandiose handling, direction-wise, but also sometimes in her performance. Marvel is a fast movie—once Larson crash-lands on Earth, the present action is around a day. And Larson’s got a lot to do in those twenty-four hours. The film doesn’t start on Earth, it starts off on a highly advanced alien planet, where Larson is living and working for Jude Law in a kind of space special forces unit. Larson’s from somewhere else (Earth) but doesn’t remember it (Earth). Larson’s aliens are warring with a different species of alien; this other alien species can shape-shift, which is a problem because they invade planets and take them over and they’ve just followed Larson to Earth.

Where she fairly quickly realizes she’s from Earth, sending on her a quest to find herself, with sidekick Jackson in tow. Jackson’s simultaneously the comic relief and the audience’s view into the action, but only for tying in the latter (sorry, earlier) Marvel movies. Who knows what he actually looked like when acting the scenes, but Jackson’s performance is awesome. He does great with the “aliens are real” thing, he does great as the sidekick. He and Larson are wonderful together, even though it’s mostly just for the smiles and laughs. Boden and Fleck take all the smiles they can get. Not every laugh, but definitely all the smiles. Captain Marvel, even with its harshness, is fun.

Often that fun comes from Larson’s wiseass lead, who might not remember anything about her life on Earth but still remembers how to be a good Earth movie wiseass. The wiseass stuff is never to deflect from the emotion either. It informs the character and performance; there’s no avoidance, not even when the film could get away with it thanks to the amnesia angle. Marvel takes the right parts of itself seriously.

Like the friendship between Larson and Lashana Lynch. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, which is fine as it’s an action-packed superhero movie with warring aliens and not a character drama, but Larson and Lynch quickly work up a great onscreen rapport. It’s not as fun as Larson’s interactions with Jackson, but it’s part of where the film finds its emotional sincerity. Captain Marvel never leverages the emotional sincerity; for example, when there’s danger, Boden and Fleck will defuse it (quickly) with a laugh instead. The defusing doesn’t get rid of the emotional sincerity either, though some of that emotional sincerity is the only way the filmmakers can get away with the plot twists. It helps Larson is, you know, a seemingly indestructible superhero.

Lynch has a daughter, Akira Akbar, who used to know Larson too. Lynch and Akbar come into the film in the middle, so it’s a surprise how much influence Akbar’s going to have on Larson’s character arc (and performance). Because until the big interstellar finale, there’s a lot of focus on Larson’s reaction to recent events. Often for laughs, sometimes for narrative, but her character is fairly static. Sure, she’s on a quest for information but she’s got no idea the relevance of that information. Just it has something to do with Annette Bening.

Bening is—for the most part—just the personification of this alien A.I. god when it communicates with Larson. Everyone sees something different when synced with the A.I. god. Larson sees a Bening avatar and eventually tracks down the real Bening. Bening is both clue and solution to Larson’s puzzle. Larson doesn’t have all the pieces or the box to guide her putting them together—and the puzzle’s fairly simple (again, it’s an action-packed superhero movie with space aliens) but Larson brings more than enough in the performance department. Pretty much everyone brings the necessary gravitas then takes it up a notch.

Marvel is always an effective film, in no small part thanks to its cast and the direction of that cast. Bening and Law are quite good (though Bening’s far better with even less “character” than Law), Lynch and Akbar are good, Ben Mendelsohn is awesome as the leader of the bad aliens (the shape-shifters). His performance—despite constant special effects and makeup—is understated, reserved. Even with the constant element of surprise—he’s a shape-shifter, after all—Mendelsohn’s performance is tight. Plus he gets some laughs, usually at Jackson’s expense.

Larson’s really good. Plot-wise, nothing Marvel throws at her slows her down. Larson’s able to find the sincerity in the broad dramatic strokes. Like the books, sincere performances… they do a lot. Larson’s particularly great with both Lynch and Akbar, implying a forgotten familiarity counter to her overt behaviors in a moment.

And the supporting cast of ragtag aliens and Men in Black (including a de-aged Clark Gregg in a fine shoe-in) is all effective. They don’t need to do much. Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn, Lynch… they’ve got it covered.

Technically, the film’s just as strong. The CG is all excellent, the photography (from Ben Davis) is good, ditto Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham’s editing. Andy Nicholson’s production design—of nineties Earth in particular—is good. Basically everything except Pinar Toprak’s score, which often feels too small for such a big film. It’s not bad music, sometimes it’s really effective, but it’s also yet another indistinct Marvel superhero movie score. It’s all about accompanying the action, not guiding it, which is a whole other discussion. Occasionally it’s really spot on, but mostly it’s just there.

Kind of like the nineties pop music. It sort of works—having grunge-y songs for the 1994-set act—but it seems like a big miss Boden and Fleck never explore, you know, what kind of music Larson would’ve liked when she was on Earth and not just whatever is time-period appropriate.

Doesn’t Marvel czar and Marvel producer Kevin Feige like music?

Anyway.

Captain Marvel. It sets out to do a lot of things and succeeds in all of them. The film puts the galaxy on Larson’s shoulders; she deadlifts with it. Boden and Fleck have a wonderful way of making it fun for the audience when they take a moment to check a requisite plot point box. They—Larson, Boden, and Fleck–and the hundred animators who made Samuel L. Jackson, well, Sam Jackson again—do something special with Captain Marvel.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, based on a story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet, and the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham; music by Pinar Toprak; production designer, Andy Nicholson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Brie Larson (Vers), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Akira Akbar (Monica Rambeau), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Gemma Chan (Minn-Erva), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan), and Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence).


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