Fay will soon become desperate because of her lack of dates! (Lovelorn 17, 1951). Drama at the Blue Blazer Ball! “She hasn’t stopped yapping for a minute! Better dump her—FAST!”
It is slightly unfair for me to review this film, since I am definitely not a member of (what I perceived to be) its intended audience. Not by age, not by gender, not by genre preference. Then why, you may reasonably ask, did I bother to see Frozen at all? Well…I thought it might be more “general-audience” oriented, given that it was co-directed and co-written by Jennifer Lee, one of the scripters of Wreck-It-Ralph (which I liked quite a bit). (Also, nothing else available appealed to me) But nooooo…this is a “Disney Princess” movie with little humour (aside from comic relief) and far too many songs. I cannot imagine it would appeal to anyone outside of a narrow demographic (‘tween girls?)—although, based on the film’s spectacular box-office success, it appears that demographic is huge. It’s not witty enough to please older teens or adults, and it’s too melodramatic (and, at times, a bit too intense) and not slapstick-funny enough for younger children.
First, allow me to point out the things I liked about Frozen. The character design is mostly fine, although the stylisation of the two female protagonists is slightly excessive. Seriously, look at the shape of their skulls, the slope of their foreheads, and the size of their eyes! These young women are freaks. Cute freaks, but freaks. And the trolls are ridiculous, both in design and execution. But everyone else is OK or better. The animation is also mostly excellent, especially the character animation: Anna in particular moves and behaves in a way that greatly heightens audience identification with her as a “real” person. She’s not just a cartoon going through the motions required by the narrative: her gestures, facial expressions, body language, and so forth are superb at times. The production design, special effects and action animation are satisfactory or better throughout. Frozen looks good, overall, no complaints there. The voice work is adequate, with no egregious examples of star-stunt casting (sorry Josh Gad, but you’re not enough of a “name” to qualify for that category).
Also, in general terms, the script isn’t horrible. It’s not the sort of film I would necessarily want to watch, but there are a number of nice twists and turns in the plot. One of the basic premises is a little weak, though: the viewer has to accept that Anna and her older sister Elsa are irreconcilably separated by their parents “for their own good,” and this estrangement continues for years. Seems a little harsh, don’t you think? I have a few issues with the geographical logistics of the movie as well, and there are a few extraneous sections I’d have edited out if I’d been the boss, but…let’s not nitpick. The screenplay is alright.
And although Frozen isn’t a comedy film by any means, the comic relief isn’t bad. The moronic trolls are a flawed concept (possibly pandering to the merchandising mavens who want to sell “cute” dolls)—most people seem to agree they don’t add much to the film, but at least they only have one major scene, bad as it is—and the Duke of Weselton is a minor and predictable comic-villain, but sentient snowman Olaf (who doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie) and profit-minded shopkeeper Oaken (a hilarious single scene) are amusing enough. But overall this is a melodrama, not a comedy, and parents taking young children to view it might be disappointed in the relatively age-elevated level of dramatic discourse (on the other hand, The Lion King did fairly well with family tragedy and such, but that had talking animals, not more or less grown-up human beings, as protagonists).
Objectively, I can’t say Frozen is a bad film, even if it’s not my cuppa tea. What I can say, without fear or favour, is…there are too damn many songs in this movie. I grew up on Disney movies, and I realise Disney animated features—starting with Snow White—are known for their musical numbers. Who doesn’t remember “Whistle While You Work,” “Heigh-Ho,” Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Bare Necessities,” “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and numerous songs from more recent (the last 3 decades, when I haven’t been watching) Disney pictures. No argument there.
Frozen doesn’t have any break-out tunes, although “For the First Time in Forever” gets a big push, but the bland and forgettable quality of the songs is almost irrelevant to my complaints. It’s the use and placement of the songs which provoked my ire. The film begins with a musical number that—while visually satisfactory—has no particular bearing on the narrative (a young Kristoff helps harvest ice, yeah that’s exciting). And yet this isn’t the most annoying example of a bad decision, because the sequence is self-contained and serves as a sort of “music video” (albeit a pointless one, in terms of its relation to the plot, and it also means the film begins very slowly).
Most of the subsequent songs appear in “musical comedy/drama style”: that is, they suddenly erupt in the middle of a dramatic (or comedy) scene. In theory, I’m not averse to this particular formal technique, but for some reason the transitions from dialogue to song in Frozen irritate me unduly. “Talk talk talk BOOM sing sing sing!” Excuse me, who died and made this movie Les Miserables? No, I’m just joking, Frozen isn’t that bad. But I really didn’t care for the plethora of songs and the way most of them simply freeze (see what I did there?) the progression of the narrative. It’s as if the filmmakers had a format clock which required them to insert a musical number every 8 minutes, no matter what was going on in the plot.
Frankly, if most of the songs had been removed, I might have liked Frozen more than I did, in spite of its inherent unsuitability for my personal generation and gender demographic. I will also admit I found the film—song-surfeit aside—well-made and moderately interesting. And, if you’d ask marketing, I wasn’t even supposed to see this movie! So perhaps it’s better than I expected…
[Just noticed I didn’t include any sort of plot synopsis. Well, that’s what IMDB is for, I guess.]
Just for Laughs and Smooching! And there weren’t that many laughs, either! So, yeah, it was mostly for the smooching! (Secret Story Romances, 1953). Read the whole tragic story on the Stupid Comics page.
In the not-too distant future, people have silly names and live in Panem, a made-up country that squats on what used to be the United States. The oppressive government of Panem starves and exploits its people, keeping them pacified by televising the gladiatorial “Hunger Games” (you’d think they would choose a less inflammatory name, something like the “Beneficient Government Loves You Games” or the “Things Will Get Better, We Promise, So Please Don’t Revolt Games”). In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta take advantage of the public nature of the contest to rig the outcome and are named “co-winners.”
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up where its predecessor left off…And, yes, this is another “episode” of a film series, a particular bête noire of mine. Certainly HG #1 had its share of loose ends, but at least it had a beginning and something akin to a conclusion. Catching Fire is a typical “middle movie,” neither bothering to set up the premise (because everyone’s already seen the first movie) nor resolving anything (because more films in the series are on the way) [The last films in a series at least give us a measure of narrative closure.] But I shan’t complain about this facet of the movie too much, since it’s a given in such cases and I was fully aware of it when I handed over my cash for the cinema ticket.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is split into several parts of varying effectiveness. The first, and longest, section of the film is a political thriller/romance. Katniss prefers hunky hometown boy Gale, but has to maintain the pretense of loving petite Peeta, for public relations purposes. Sent on a tour of Panem to pacify the plebs, the couple instead subverts ruthless dictator Snow’s regime and angries up the unwashed TV-watching masses. Snow and new games-master Plutarch Heavensbee (wasn’t he the high school principal in the “Archie” comic books?) can’t just eradicate these meddling kids, so they cook up a new and improved (and deadly) season of the “Hunger Games” and hope Katniss and Peeta (or, as I like to call them, a la “Brangelina,” KatPee) lose big-time. Rising to the challenge, KatPee announces their engagement. Take that, Snow! Your move, Mr. Dictator!
This part of Catching Fire is actually relatively interesting, although the whole “the peasants are revolting: let’s pacify them, no, let’s violently suppress them” aspect is handled sloppily. The film focuses almost entirely on Katniss and Peeta and this insularity makes it difficult to ascertain what’s really going on throughout the rest of the country, and thus the existence of an incipient rebellion comes as a surprise. Additionally, it’s hard to accept Snow’s reluctance to simply have Katniss and Peeta whacked by his brutal Imperial Stormtroopers (seriously, that’s what their costumes look like): he’s got to concoct (or have Heavensbee concoct) a convoluted, elaborate and expensive spectacle so their deaths will seem like an accident.
Still, if this had been the general tenor and plotline of the whole film, Catching Fire might have been a decent thriller about growing resistance to a totalitarian government. But no, this film is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and that means we have to have “Hunger Games.” The actual contest occupies only a small part of the running time, and is much less coherent than the Hunger Games in the first picture (at least the rules were clearer in that one). Instead, Catching Fire throws in some pageantry, intrigue, training sequences, and mixes it up by mandating “alliances” between teams representing the Districts, each one charmingly stereotyped and/or eccentric. Oh, and there are killer baboons and acid-fog. Let the Games begin!
This part of the film not only feels artificial and forced, the conclusion is incomprehensible and there is little of the interpersonal drama that developed over the course of the combat contest in the original picture. There are also some frustratingly annoying bits, such as the ugly facial and hand blisters caused by the acid-fog, which wash off with water. Right, we can’t have our lovely star going through the last 15 minutes of the movie with unattractive lumps on her cheek, can we?
As mentioned above, the Panem government’s repression is carried out by armour-clad stormtroopers, and there are several scenes which contain blatant Nazi imagery—particularly reminiscent of Triumph of the Will's documentation of the Nuremberg rallies. But while it's obvious that the Panem Government = bad, the whole socio-political system—which (apparently) is described in detail in the novels—is too vague and illusory in the film versions. We catch a glimpse of some unrest on a non-public TV feed, and we see some senseless violence in a Stormtrooper raid (led by a Clint Eastwood-voiced military villain), but when the revolt finally breaks out, we're told that District 12 has been razed and this comes as a big surprise. What, when did things get that bad? I thought everyone was too hungry and downtrodden to fight back (and I guess you have to give the people both bread and circuses to pacify them, merely broadcasting the Hunger Games won’t do it).
The script is flawed, and not only because it suffers from “middle movie syndrome” (although that’s a major problem, I mean, it’s a film that resolves nothing and simply serves as a set-up for the sequels)—it has a tendency to talk about things rather than show them, there are numerous loose ends and logical issues, and the climax (really, the whole “games” part, but especially the end) is flat.
But there are a number of positive aspects to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The performances are satisfactory, the production values are glossy, the special effects are (mostly) believable (I wasn’t crazy about the CGI baboons, but…meh…they’re adequate). Despite it’s length (almost 2.5 hours), the picture is paced well.
I was moderately entertained but not…fulfilled by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Perhaps the sequels will quench my thirst for closure!
"Your sister’s too CHOOSY!” (Or, possibly, it’s that unflattering hairstyle) Lovelorn Comics # 16 (1951).
"Harder! I deserve it!" Assume the position!
Perfectly innocent in context, I suppose. From Venus Comics #2 (1948). Found at http://timely-atlas-comics.blogspot.com/
Whenever pickings get slim in cinemas, one of my go-to substitutes is vintage British comedy cinema, the more vintage-y the better. Over the Garden Wall (1950) was a production of Mancunian Films, the Manchester-based company which brought us Frank Randle, among others (including, originally, George Formby). And, in the grand tradition of Old Mother Riley (one of my guilty pleasures), it stars Norman Evans in drag!
Female impersonation in public performance is hardly a new phenomenon. Over the years, societal taboos (and, probably, simple expediency) meant that “women” on stage (and in films, in some cases—the practice of oyama was prevalent in the early years of motion pictures in Japan) were played by men. In the UK, the holiday tradition of pantomime showcases cross-dressing in both directions: the “pantomime dame” (played by a male) and the “principal boy” (played by an attractive female). Pantomime dames could be played in a masculine or feminine fashion, but in either case—in the narrative context of the show—the character was intended to be perceived as female.
This is distinct from films or plays where the plot requires a man to dress as a woman (or vice versa), e.g., Charley’s Aunt or Mrs. Doubtfire. In those situations, the audience is complicit in the masquerade and much of the humour results from the incongruity of a man trying to behave/look like a woman (or vice versa). In contrast, the Old Mother Riley films and Over the Garden Wall contain literally no suggestion that the leading female character is played by a man (well, aside from the credits, and the audience’s prior knowledge): I’ve often contended (but have never been able to test my contention) that someone unfamiliar with Arthur Lucan’s Mother Riley would be unable to identify him as a man in drag. Someday I’ll perform that experiment under controlled conditions, and we’ll see…
Norman Evans was a variety performer (and, not coincidentally, a well-known pantomime dame) whose fame rests chiefly on his female character “Fanny Fairbottom” (sometimes Faircloth), a garrulous housewife given to monologues “over the garden wall” to her unseen neighbours. Evans had appeared in several previous Mancunian movies, including 1944’s Demobbed in which he played his Fanny character, already popular on the stage and on radio. However, in this film Evans was introduced “as himself” playing his stage role, rather than being cast as a character in the fictional narrative. Evans later starred in Mancunian’s Honeymoon Hotel (1946), but not in drag. In 1950 studio head John E. Blakeley teamed Evans with another popular comedian, Jimmy James, for Over the Garden Wall, a situation comedy starring Evans as “Fanny Lawton” and James as her husband Joe.
Made outside the mainstream British film industry (although prior to 1947, shot in London rather than Manchester, while still aimed chiefly at regional audiences in the North), the Mancunian productions were at first rather threadbare but gradually gained at least a modicum of professional veneer. Blakeley was not an inventive director, even eschewing camera movement, closeups, and many other attributes of the most basic “zero degree” film style of the era. It’s possible he felt a master shot was the best way to showcase his comic actors, who were more familiar with working on the stage and who might lose spontaneity if required to do multiple takes to get “coverage” (closeups and multiple camera angles). In Over the Garden Wall, there are several sequences in the first half of the picture where bizarre, jarring closeups are suddenly inserted into a scene, for no apparent reason; later, two brief closeups appear during a musical sequence which are actually…conventional. Except—in a Blakeley movie—the conventional is so rare that it becomes unconventional.
By “conventional,” I mean conventional film style, rather than the narrative content of Mancunian’s films. The studio’s comedian-centered productions are usually a mix of comedy scenes (many of them adaptations of the various stars’ famous stage routines) and an awkward romantic sub-plot featuring relative unknowns. This is hardly unique to Mancunian: stage and screen comedies from the 1920s through the 1950s often display this dichotomy. If the star comedian was somewhat presentable as a leading man (think Bob Hope or George Formby), he would be given a love interest, but when this wasn’t believable (in the case of Frank Randle or Old Mother Riley, for instance), then a pair of “juvenile” lovers would be trotted out to fill the requirement.
Over the Garden Wall is no exception: the first half of the movie is comic hijinks featuring Fanny, Joe, and their boarders Dan (Dan Young) and Alec (Alec Pleon); then Fanny’s daughter Mary and her Yank husband Tony return from the USA for a visit, and Mary runs into former flame Ken Smith. The rest of the film alternates between comic sequences and Ken’s dogged pursuit of Mary (deflected at the very end, when Ken’s secretary Val announces he “has to marry her,” because…well, you can guess…because apparently you couldn’t say the words “pregnant out of wedlock” in a British film in 1950).
[As an aside, the role of “Val” is played by Agnes Bernelle, whom I’d assumed was another one of Mancunian’s minor players—their casts consisted chiefly of comedians and non-entities—but who turns out to have been a very interesting and accomplished actress and singer. Bernelle isn’t quite as conventionally attractive as Sonya O’Shea, who plays “Mary,” but she is certainly interesting and has a slightly more nuanced role than one might expect.]
Norman Evans is completely believable as “Fanny,” never once by word or gesture suggesting the character is being played by a man. Fanny is combative—although not as feisty as Mother Riley—but also displays a domestic side, doting on her house and daughter (although not so much on her boozing, argumentative husband). Oddly enough (at least to my contemporary sensibilities), the working-class Lawtons (both Joe and Fanny are factory workers) have a servant (a maid/cook): this was a familiar phenomenon in both Hollywood and UK popular culture of the Thirties and Forties, but it still feels a little odd.
Evans runs through his most famous routines, appears in a number of “new” domestic sequences (some of which appear to have been largely ad-libbed), and has a few minor bits of “advancing the plot” footage. He’s the star but Jimmy James gets a fair amount of solo footage (or at least scenes without Evans, since he’s teamed with Dan Young and/or Alec Pleon in several skits), and of course there is the aforementioned “dramatic” sub-plot (a love quadrangle?) featuring conflicted Mary, clueless Tony, predatory Ken and social-climbing Val.
The “Over the Garden Wall” skit appears well into the movie, and seems to have been a faithful reconstruction of Evans’ most famous comedy bit. Fanny climbs up to see over the brick wall that encloses the Lawton’s back yard, and carries on a one-sided conversation with one of her neighbours (who’s neither seen nor heard). This is amusing enough but doesn’t have the novelty it might once have had. For the socio-politically minded (as I am), Fanny’s monologue does include several food rationing references (although the war had ended, rationing continued in Great Britain until the early 1950s). [In another skit, Joe, Dan and Alec briefly mention “politics” but this goes nowhere; there are also the expected references to the wartime service of Tony (an American soldier) and Ken (who served in the RAF).]
Another of Evans’ noted bits appears towards the very end of Over the Garden Wall, during a dance at the factory. Fanny, dressed to the nines, appears with the orchestra (not the comedic “Smith Works Band” seen in an earlier sequence) and produces a tiny hand-puppet of a panda, then proceeds to perform a trumpet “duo” with the creature. This is an excellent scene and shows Evans’ versatility: whereas “Over the Garden Wall” was largely a character/dialogue-driven skit, the “Trumpet/Panda” act demonstrates the comedian’s manual dexterity and acting ability. The rapport between the (silent) puppet and Fanny is quite good and the whole scene is pleasant and effective.
In an earlier scene, Fanny substitutes for a missing dentist and extracts an aching tooth from husband Joe’s mouth. Apparently “inspired” by another of Evans’ famous variety-stage routines (although not a true recreation, since on stage Evans played both dentist and patient), this skit is mostly knockabout comedy but is more painful than humourous, and nothing particularly novel (the Three Stooges and others had done the same sort of thing before, and would do so afterwards). Another “staged” Fanny sequence is an alleged rehearsal by the amateur Smith Works Band, conducted by Joe, with interpolations by Dan (playing the violin) and Alec (in drag, but obvious drag, as a singer). Fanny, dressed in a band uniform, energetically plays the bass drum, and is part of the ensemble rather than the center of attention in this sequence.
As noted above, there are scenes in which Fanny, Joe, and others interact in situation-comedy style (although they’re still filmed in straight-on master shots, as if they were taking place on a stage). These include (my titles) “Queuing for the bathroom,” “Breakfast,” “Strife at the Factory,” “Joe Comes Home Drunk,” “Mary’s Welcome-Home Party,” “Joe, Alec, and Dan Do the Dishes,” “Joe and Fanny Get Ready for Bed,” “Joe and Dan Prepare for the Dance,” and so on. These nearly all contain some funny dialogue or slapstick, but vary in effectiveness overall. The film contains a bizarre running gag with Jimmy James’ partner Eli Woods (“Our Eli”), who pops in and out to proclaim (in a very thick accent) that he’s not “BARMY.” A range of accents can be heard in the film, from Lancastrian to upper-class and Received Pronunciation, but in general the dialogue is intelligible even to us Yanks, and there aren’t many culturally-specific references that non-British audiences would miss. Speaking of Yanks, John Wynn as “Tony Harrison” does his best to approximate an American accent, although this mostly consists of interjecting terms like “swell!” into his dialogue. He’s not horribly stereotyped and is—along with Mary—one of the few normal characters in the picture.
The production values of Over the Garden Wall are satisfactory, combining a number of sets with some actual location shooting. According to one source, instead of hiring extras for the big “company dance” sequence at the end, the producers made a announcement of a large social function to which the public was invited, and utilised the unpaid “guests” as background (this is reminiscent of some “candid” scenes in Holidays with Pay (1948), shot in Blackpool). The sets for the Lawton house were substantial and convincing for the most part, and were effectively combined with real exteriors. There are no glaring technical gaffes: Blakeley and his crew may not have been interested in making a “slick” movie with lots of different camera angles, but they were professional filmmakers who knew their craft.
Over the Garden Wall is valuable both as a historical document and—at the very least, intermittently—as a film comedy. It’s not dull and will probably elicit some smiles and a few laughs from anyone with even a passing interest in British popular culture.
Personal issues kept me out of cinemas for a month, and to break my fast, so to speak, I choose Thor: The Dark World. Not that there was much else to choose from in the new-release realm… I suppose I could have seen Gravity (that’s getting old, though) or Ender’s Game or Last Vegas, but…nah. I sort of liked the first Thor, so the sequel appeared to be a safe bet.
Unfortunately for me, Thor: The Dark World turned out to be largely a jumbled special effects showreel, with little or no plot and characterisation. It’s noisy and spectacular and there are a few clever bits—particularly in the climactic sequence—but the human drama (and comedy) present in the first film is mostly absent.
At the end of the previous film, Thor returned to Asgard, leaving his lady-love, scientist (snicker) Jane Foster on Earth. Even when he returned to our planet in The Avengers, he was “too busy” to get in touch with her (not even a text? That’s cold, bro). In his defense, Thor and his battle buds have also been fighting some evil army—including a big stone warrior who isn’t a match for Thor’s mighty hammer—on some planet somewhere out there in space or another dimension (excuse me, realm). Still, couldn’t he have at least called? Sent flowers?
Anyway, through a sequence of events as contrived as it is confusing, Jane stumbles into a dimensional portal and swallows a bunch of Aether, a magical weapon used eons before by Dark Elf (snicker) Malekith. So now Thor finally brings Aether-infused Jane to Asgard, but this also attracts Malekith and his henchmen. Meanwhile (are you still with me?), the “Convergence” is about to happen, which means portals randomly open up between various “realms,” and yadda yadda, end of the world as we know it, Malekith wants the Aether, Thor fights him, and so on and so forth.
To be fair, Thor: The Dark World inserts a few nice bits in between its noisy special effects battles. Loki’s participation in the narrative is clever and there is the occasional witty and/or dramatic line or two, but a lot of these are lost in the convoluted plot, “Marvel Universe” babble, and endless CGI shots. Still, the final, multi-realm battle between Thor and Malekith, as they stumble through portals into different worlds, is amusing in a Sherlock Jr. sort of way (and Buster Keaton didn’t even have CGI): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNplzdx5OM
(This is somewhat offset by the ineffably silly sight of Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings using a futuristic Etch-A-Sketch to “erase” marauding Dark Elves attacking London).
Perhaps it is I who needs an attitude adjustment, but frankly I’m rather fed up with the much vaunted interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe movies. So, we’re supposed to watch 18 films over a 10 year period and read hundreds of comic books so we can “get” all of the esoteric references to the “Nine Realms” and the “Infinity Stones” and ouch my brain hurts… I suppose it could be argued that if I wasn’t interested in this stuff I shouldn’t be watching the Marvel films. And in fact I do like meta-references and homages and such in cinema—I just don’t like movies that feel like episodes. If you watch a Basil Rathbone “Sherlock Holmes” film, you recognise the characters and place the events in a general continuity, but you aren’t mentally calculating “this is the 4th Sherlock Holmes film of a 7-film arc, and this will mean that in film #5 and this refers to something that occurred in a post-credits sequence in film #2.”
Discussing the quality of performances in a movie in which the majority of characters are essentially computer-enhanced cartoons is a rather pointless exercise, but…here I go! Chris Hemsworth was better in Thor (2011): he’s humourless and might as well be a robot in this one, losing most of the personality that made the first movie relatively amusing. Oh sure, there’s “romance” here but (like everything else) it’s squeezed in as an afterthought. Natalie Portman has even less to do this time, which can also be said for everyone else in the cast, including Tom Hiddleston (still not bad, though) and Anthony Hopkins (again, fine in a reduced role). The major new character is Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, but he’s kitted up in so much makeup and costume that he might as well be played by Rob Schneider.
I don’t want to give the impression I significantly disliked Thor: The Dark World. As a spectacle, as a loud and busy 112 or so minutes of Stuff That Happens it’s not horrible or boring. Certainly not boring. But as far as being a good, self-contained story with dramatic and interesting content, or even as an “episode” that advances the overall Marvel Universe saga more than one or two inches towards its final goal, I can’t say the film impressed me overmuch. Not bad, not boring, but not epic.
"Nobody would be crazy enough to hire the likes of you!" Way to be a supportive husband, Tom. ("I Was a Slave to Love," My Past 11, 1950).
"Joan is changed into a log!" Could have been worse, I guess: she might have been changed into a newt. (Weird Comics 16, 1941).