Friday, July 30, 2010

Next Thursday: The John Huston Blogathon!

On Thursday, August 5, the John Huston blogathon will officially begin. And, wouldn't you know it, guess who is planning on overseeing the ceremony?

You guessed it... John Huston HIMSELF! In this video, Huston expresses delight over our decision to celebrate his 104th birthday.

(just for laughs)

But in all seriousness, if you haven't done so already, would you mind putting one of the two available banners into your sidebars to promote the event?

As it stands, you can use either the banner I myself created:

Or you can always use Ivan J. Shreve Jr.'s banner, which is a nice fit for small sidebars:

And although it is not required, I would also very much appreciate any blog posts created to remind others around the blogosphere about the event. I'm sure there are still one or two Huston cinephiles out there who haven't yet gotten word of this ceremony.

By the way, I should probably explain how the blogathon is going to work. Each day I'll be posting a new Contributions page, so that you can post links to your blogathon pieces. Since I know Blogger has been eating up comments lately, however, if you'd like you can always shoot me your link via an email.

Don't forget about the mission of the blogathon, either: was Huston an auteur, or just a great studio director? YOU decide!

Right now I'm scrambling to watch as many Huston films as possible before the big week begins. To my utter joy I found out that Freud (1962), for which Huston basically had to beat the living nonsense out of Montgomery Clift just to get some kind of performance, is available in 14 parts on YouTube. Since the film is not available on DVD this is something of a life-saver--though YouTube is of course not a quality place for watching films (as I discovered when I had to write about Kubrick's Fear and Desire back in February for the Film Preservation blogathon). So, Freud is available online--but don't tell the YouTube administrators! Shhhh...

Again, ladies and gentleman--only one more week!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An American Tail (1986)

An American Tail is Don Bluth's masterpiece. It was the greatest piece of work to come out of the most rebellious animation filmmaking career in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and seen today, it has lost none of its power to make you marvel, make you laugh, and make you weep. Yes, it is a manipulative film, and yes, it enswarms us in an environment that seems almost unspeakably hopeless before it finally climaxes in an ending that is warm and uplifting. But when a lost, young little mouse peers down into a gutter, hears a familiar tune of violin music and happily squeals, "I'm coming, Papa!" in hopes that he will be reunited with his parents, I dare anyone watching not to smile.

For Bluth, the film came at a time when artistic integrity was at its highest, but a box office hit was badly needed. Most people are already familiar with the story: Bluth and his colleague, Gary Goldman, were former animators from Disney, where they had been working for veteran director Wolfgang Reitherman on Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (both 1977). All three were considerable films, but they were also sorely lacking in the classical styles of animation and narrative storytelling of Disney's golden age. Bluth and Goldman were particularly dissatisfied with Reitherman's habit of cutting corners and recycling sequences from earlier films—as when sequences from The Jungle Book were pulled for The Aristocats, and sequences from the latter were thus pulled for Robin Hood. This was the sort of generic style that dominated the studio in the 1970's; some of the movies were good, but the days of strictly professional animation were over. Bluth and Goldman had, essentially, watched Disney crumble before their eyes.

By the 1980's, Bluth and Goldman had had enough: midway through the production of The Fox and the Hound (1981), they packed their bags, walked out on the studio, and took several animators with them. And even though The Fox and the Hound turned out to be an impressive film, nobody was prepared when Bluth and Goldman joined forces with United Artists and Aurora Productions and brought forth The Secret of Nimh (1982). With its dark storyline, wretched villains and illuminating images, The Secret of Nimh was truly a classical motion picture. What it did not do was connect with audiences.

Teaming up with Steven Spielberg and David Kirschner (who had previously worked for Jim Henson), Bluth sought to change all that. Kirschner had been developing a story about a Jewish family of mice immigrating to America, and Spielberg brought to the story memories of his own ancestors and their escape from tsarist Russia during the pre-Bolshevik years. The hero, named after Spielberg's own great-grandfather, would be called Fievel.

An American Tail is set in 1885, in Shostka, Russia. Under the house of the human Moskewicz family live the Mouskewizes, headed by Papa (Nehemiah Persoff), Mama (Erica Yohn), Tanya (Amy Green) and Fievel (an exceptional Phillip Glasser). Played over the opening titles, which are abound with giant snowflakes swirling through the air on a cool winter's night, is James Horner's enchanting musical score, melancholy in its description of a failing Motherland and yet triumphant in its signaling of America—the new world. On this Hanukkah evening, Papa's gift to Fievel is an oversized blue hat. It seems too big, but Papa is insistent that it be passed down: "It belonged to me, my father, and now it belongs to you."

There is an anti-Semitic raid on the village by the cossacks. Houses are burned down, cats are unleashed, and Fievel, disobeying his parents, rushes out into the open to save the day. Just barely surviving a "crash" between two cats steaming towards each other like trains, Fievel returns home in one piece—only to find his home in pieces. As he and his family set sail from Hamburg to America the very next day, he is in awe of everything: the ocean, the ship, the city, even the pigeons. Onboard, he accidentally knocks an apple core into a barrel of water and is awed by a pack of herring nestled safely at the bottom. Such sights are casual to the rest of the Mousekewizes, but to the eyes of a young mouse they are nothing short of extraordinary.

For Papa, who was orphaned by cats as a child, the voyage will be a relief because, he assures everybody, no cats reside in Gilded Age America. Their destination sounds like paradise, indeed, but those feelings quickly subside later that night, when Fievel, riding a bar of soap up to the ship's flooded deck, is accidentally swept away by streams of water. Before Papa can grab a hold of his hand, Fievel is carried off the ship by waves of Poseidon and is deposited into the middle of the ocean. In the first of many shots that will evoke past images from Bluth and Goldman's work on The Rescuers, we see Fievel traveling along the shores to America inside an empty bottle.

This is only the beginning of Fievel's truly remarkable odyssey in the land of opportunity. He first meets Henri (an unrecognizable Christopher Plummer), a pigeon who is in the process of helping build the Statue of Liberty and, although French, is something of a nationalist. When Fievel is certain that he's never going to find his parents, Henri pipes up: "Je m'excuse, pardon, but did you say... never? So young, and you have lost hope! Ah, this is America—the place to find hope!" Not nearly as nice is the film's villain, Warren T. Rat (John Finnegan), a scheming cat in disguise who leads the Mott Street Maulers gang of sewer cats; he claims that he knows where Fievel's family is, but then drops him off for hard labor at a Dickensian workhouse.

Kinder friends are found in Tony Tomponi (Pat Musick), who escapes with Fievel from the workhouse, nicknames him "Fillie" and, basically, assumes the role of Fievel's fearless chaperon. Bridget (Cathianne Blore) holds political rallies against the cats, falls in love with Tony and offers Fievel a room for the night, resulting in the film's now-famous "Somewhere Out There" sequence. Gussie Mausheimer (a hilarious Madeleine Kahn) is the richest mouse in town and insists that her wealth equips her with power and knowledge ("Money's not everything. I know because I have money and everything"), but it is only through Fievel's advice that she hatches the plan to release a "giant mouse of Minsk" onto the Mott Street Maulers. Honest John (Neil Ross) is modeled off of Boss Tweed and yet for some reason shares the same name as one of the Pinocchio villains.

Tiger, however, is the most interesting character who crosses paths with Fievel. As voiced by Dom DeLuise, the character is obviously an animated variation on Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, but no matter—the character is effective. He and Fievel meet after Fievel is captured by the Mott Street Maulers and thrown in jail; Tiger, it turns out, is the most gentle member of the gang and actually shares much in common with this little mouse. It's a sweet moment when Tiger sobs over losing his own family members ("eight brothers... ten... sisters... three fathers!"), and Fievel reassures him, "Don't worry! You'll find them!" And for some reason I can't help but think of Brando's orange-peel scene in The Godfather when Tiger enthusiastically declares, "I like mice!" and Fievel, unsure of what to make of this, bursts into tears (as Tiger explains, he's not fond of red meat—he eats broccoli). DeLuise had also worked with Bluth on The Secret of Nimh as the voice of Jeremy the crow and would work on several of Bluth's later pictures, but his performance as Tiger remains my favorite.

As per Bluth's commitments as a student of classical animation, the animation in An American Tail is fully detailed—he does not cut corners. Characters have shadows that stretch far and wide. Special notice is also taken of Fievel's young age and, therefore, his difficulty adjusting to a life of running around and maintaining control; we often see him struggling to keep his pants from falling down, not for comedic reasons, but because it maintains a sense of realism. If we were to assume that young mice could walk and talk much as the youth of humankind does, then why would they be any more in control of such simple tasks as fitting into a set of oversized clothes? The key here is that Bluth knows this, and in order to allow younger audiences to empathize more with Fievel is it absolutely necessary to give him such human qualities. And, yes, it makes for more fascinating animation.

There is some of Spielberg in the movie, too, if you know where to look. The behemoth moon that rises above Fievel during the "Somewhere Out There" sequence is one of the telltale signs, as is the Spielbergian shooting star (which previously makes an appearance in both Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The theme of a child on an odyssey to find his parents is one Spielberg would use a year later in Empire of the Sun (1987). Also, Fievel has the typical brattiness displayed by most of the child characters in Spielberg's films of the 1980's (including those he executive-produced). For example, when other mice in the streets are fleeing from a supposed cat threat, Fievel stands his ground because, as he proudly reminds everyone, there aren't any cats in America—he is then swallowed alive by the first cat he sees. Another scene, in which Fievel looks miserably into the window of a school where mice children are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, is inspired by one of the memories of Spielberg's great-grandfather, who, being Jewish, was not allowed to go to school. Had Spielberg not tampered with the final cut of The Land Before Time (1988), he and Bluth probably would have made a great team in the decades that followed.

Bluth (1937- ) is recognized as one of the finest animators working today. With The Secret of Nimh, An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), his ability to deliver one magnificent film after another soared throughout the 1980's. I've struggled more with his 1990's output, although I remain a staunch defender of the underrated A Troll in Central Park (1994) and have even greater affection for Titan A.E. (2000), which I considered a return to strong form. Bluth hasn't made a movie since then, although there is talk that he is planning a film adaptation of his Dragon's Lair video games. He should do whatever he is most comfortable with. He's earned it.

Much has been said about how the film might have been too "depressing" for children. I don't think it's a depressing film so much as I think it just happens to be a little more raw than most children's films are; it does play with our emotions, as when Fievel somehow passes his family members in select scenes without seeing them, but the technique works, as it finally leaves us pining for Fievel to find his family. So dangerous is his adventure that at one point, towards the end, Fievel is washed down into a bleak Orphan's Alley, where poverty-stricken mice laugh at him, call him "trash" and even try to persuade him into believing that his family does not care about him. And that's when Fievel explodes: "You're RIGHT! They don't care! And if they did, they would have found me! Well, if they don't care, I don't care! I don't care if I never see them again!" Though we can hardly blame Fievel's parents for losing faith so soon, we certainly can't blame Fievel for being angry, too. It is a painful moment when he regards the dampness and ugliness of the Orphan's Alley, and is ready to give up. "This is my home now," he says.

An American Tail is not an easy, relaxing entertainment. It is something braver, and better. Both times when I've watched this film, I've found myself welling up when Fievel and Papa, reunited, jump into each other's arms in the closing scenes. It's a joyous moment, and the film warrants it for a very, very good reason: Fievel does find his family. He has made new friends, he has defeated the cats, and he has worked harder than anyone else to achieve his goal. Most importantly, in the process, he has grown up. "My son," says Papa, "now, you are a mouse." It is the most fitting final words of wisdom in a film that earns its tears.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two More Weeks Until the Johh Huston Blogathon!

Hey, kids! The summer has been going by so fast that I had almost forgotten, but I just realized that the John Huston Blogathon is only two weeks away! Remember, it begins on August 5 and ends on August 12. It's going to be one whole week of sheer Hustonian madness.

For those of you planning on contributing, would you mind putting this banner into your sidebars in order to express awareness for any more curious bloggers? I would very much appreciate it:

Also, if the above banner is too big, Ivan J. Shreve Jr. has provided a banner of his own that is relatively smaller:

So far, Kevin J. Olson, Carson Lund, Drew McIntosh, Sam Juliano, Alexander Coleman, Ryan Kelly, Chris Z. (writing all the way from Greece!), Judy of Movie Classics, Stacia of She Blogged By Night, Tom Hyland, Bryce Wilson, Tom of Motion Picture Gems and Adam of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Film have all expressed interest in contributing. Don't worry; there's still time to join in if you haven't already.

One thing to keep in mind for those planning on contributing: this would be the appropriate time to start watching the Huston film(s) you're going to be writing about. Myself, I don't know how many films I'm going to write about---maybe three or four. Some of them will be Huston titles that are already well-recognized, and maybe one or two will be on titles not as well known.

Yesterday I received Huston's 1980 autobiography, An Open Book, in the mail. I started reading it late last night, and am already quite caught up in it. You've never really gotten a grasp of who Huston was until you've read his thoughts about his own films, as well as the film industry. So far, my favorite chapter in the book focuses on his rage during the McCarthy Era--his description of the evil that went on during that time is so delightfully cynical, and he even disses some of his filmmaking colleagues. More on that come blogathon time.

Another book that has helped me understand Huston a little better is Lesley Brill's John Huston's Filmmaking, which goes to great pains in essaying about a dozen Huston films in a fascinating (and, in my opinion, successful) attempt to justify Huston's often-dubious stance as an auteur.

That reminds me--this is going to be the prime focus of the blogathon's mission. Was Huston an auteur? Or just a studio director who left us with some great films? When the blogathon begins, it will be interesting to see what kind of discussions this controversy will spark.

TCM will also be airing Key Largo (1948) on July 24, for anyone interested.

As always, I'm so grateful for the support of everybody in the blogosphere. Like I said back in June, I've never headed a blogathon before, but I think that we are all going to make this one unforgettable.

Thank you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Icebox Movies Turns A Year Old

"Farewell, the pleasures of the flesh! What I don't understand is how we're going to stay alive this winter."

The above is a quote by Ralph Richardson from Doctor Zhivago (1965), and I like the quote so much, it's been my signature on IMDB for almost two years now. I guess the reason why I like the quote so much is because it embodies cold temperatures. Not many movie quotes embody cold temperatures, do they? No. Certainly not very many quotes from a movie as cool as this one. Or from the hand of somebody as cool as cool as David Lean.

Fact is, it's one of my favorite movies despite the fact that it's not Lean's masterpiece (that's either Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai... maybe even Great Expectations, if you want to be adventurous).

I'd say Zhivago is more like Lean's "great flawed film". It kind of goes to what Truffaut once said: every great director has a masterpiece, and yet it's the great flawed films that arouse the emotions more often. And Zhivago may not be a perfect movie, but geez: it's got OMAR SHARIF! A guy with a mustache is the hero, for once. And he goes to bed with Julie Christie AND Geraldine Chaplin (who, of course, are both fantastic as well).

And damn it: SNOW AND ICE! How many *legendary* movies have snow in them? Well, there's Lost Horizon, The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, Fargo, The Thing... uhh, anything else? No.

So, if you're anything like me, you've gone out, bought and obsessed over the new Zhivago 45th Anniversary DVD. If not? Then... sheesh! You suck.

Nah, I kid. But I digress. This post isn't supposed to be all about Zhivago...

A year ago today, I started this site. Icebox Movies began life as "Icebox Reels", and the above picture (from Zhivago--what else?) served as the initial banner for the main page. Eventually I ditched the title "Icebox Reels" because I wanted to distance it from James Berardinelli's ReelViews--a site that I think is just abysmal.

I created a site because Ryan Kelly and Rob Humanick had already started sites of their own. I basically met them on IMDB (we would generally discuss with some cinephiles on the 2001: A Space Odyssey boards each and every month), and over there we'd get into all kinds of discussions on Kubrick, the Oscars and various other subjects... until Ryan and Rob drifted off. Ryan told me he had started his own Blogger site. I was happy to drop by his and Rob's sites occasionally, but thought, "I'll be damned if I'm gonna create one of these myself".

You see, I thought I was done with online film critiquing. I have been posting movie reviews on the Web ever since I was 13 years old: ever since that one day in Spring 2004, when I was sitting in the middle of my seventh grade Geography class and posted a brief little review of Minority Report on Yahoo Movies. On Yahoo, I had created for myself the username, "icebox482000". I had wanted to go by "icebox" (remember, I love cold temperatures), because, you know, names like "ice cube" and "ice T" and "ice cold" were already made famous by... rappers. Even "Ice Pack" was used for a Batman Beyond cartoon villain or something. But nobody had taken "icebox" yet...

Or had they? Occasionally people have asked me, "Icebox... as in Little Giants?" And I would have no idea what the hell they were talking about. You see, I *have* seen Little Giants before--but I saw it such an awfully long time ago when I was under the age of ten, so I don't really have any memories of it... I vaguely recall a scene where Rick Moranis is berating Ed O'Neil for "hurting the feelings" of his children, and of course the scene where the Karate Kid from Seinfeld is growling at his reflection in the mirror. But I definitely did NOT remember that Shawna Waldron's character was nicknamed "Ice Box", even though I did just barely remember the character herself (off-topic, but apparently Shawna Waldron has grown up to be, like, super-hot or something? Check this out).

So, no. I did not get my username or my website from Little Giants.

Let me just get something out of my system, though: Yahoo Movies is a horrid place for movie-reviewing. I quickly figured out the hard way that you can't edit your reviews over there; once you've finished a movie review, that's it. It's there forever. You can't delete it or anything. I remember having to write THREE reviews of Peter Weir's Witness (1985) because I was always embarrassed with my first review, and kept wanting to revise it. My first review, as you can tell, is written by a timid 13-year old just trying to write a capsule review in the best way he can think of. My second review was an attempt to try to write a longer review, with a more objective opinion. My third review was written when I tried to form a more concrete opinion on the film.

Do you realize what I had to do in order to write three different reviews of the same movie? I had to create different accounts with fake email addresses!

Not only are they terrible reviews, but Yahoo at some point changed the dates on which I wrote them. So now my 2004 reviews claim that I wrote them in 2006. And my old review of The Color Purple, which was written when I was fifteen years old (with the same irritating, fanboyish, Ebert-wannabe prose I used back then) makes it look as though I wrote that review in 2008! What's that all about? Oh, and here's my review of Stone's JFK, written at the same time. You can probably tell because back then, I was a rabid conspiracy theorist who looked at the film with blind faith. It's still a great film, of course, but I don't look at it with such gullibility anymore.

I think around the same time I wrote a review of Return of the Jedi, and for weird reasons, that review had since been snagged on Blogger; another person has published it on their site! Well, I didn't know I was such a celebrity, especially over such a terribly-written review, but thanks for recognizing me... whoever you are.

Done rambling about this subject. My point is, hey! Yahoo Movies! Fuck you.

Around summer 2005, when I was getting fed up with Yahoo and wanted to go to venture out to other environments and actually have conversations about movies with other people, I started up a Xanga site. Again, my username was "icebox482000". I enjoyed this site for a good while, and through it I got to meet new people who were impressed with my (growing) film knowledge. It was through these people that I got into the works of Bergman, Kurosawa and every other foreign filmmaker that young teenagers always first start out with.

But by late 2006, I was getting tired of the site, which basically consisted of me writing three to four capsules reviews of the movies I was watching each week. If you're anything like me, you've realized that capsule reviews get boring to write after some time--and I wasn't using the site to my advantage as a way to write longer reviews. I had also started a Myspace site, but that got me nowhere interesting. Both sites have since been shut down. Had I not constantly kept getting emails from Xanga and Myspace asking, "Are you keeping your site?", I probably would have kept them alive for all of you to see...

Four years later, I was at Blogger. Last July, I had officially graduated high school but was stuck at a grueling summer job at Six Flags, and was totally not looking forward to a whole year of community college. All of my close friends were going over to universities. Literally none of them stayed behind, like me. But I observed how Internet friends like Ryan and Rob were creating sites on Blogger. I decided to follow their example.

Not all of my essays published on this site have endured. My first publication here was a review of Spielberg's Always (1989). A splendid film, but my review was amateurish. I've deleted it.

My second publication was a review of Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), which I wrote during the excited wait for The Hurt Locker. But after seeing The Hurt Locker, my opinions on Bigelow's filmmaking became somewhat blurred and confused, and rather contradicted the stuff I had written in my K-19 review. I was also no longer proud of my K-19 review because I had written it hastily after midnight, and was not as focused as I should have been. Again, this review has been deleted.

I'd have to say that the first great thing that happened to me on Blogger was getting the chance to participate in Tony Dayoub's Brian De Palma blogathon back in September. Man, did my piece on Redacted cause an uproar! Even though I said some things during the discussion on that particular film that I regret saying (and I later wrote a revised piece on the film here, on this site, that corrected some of those invalid points I made in my original essay), I'm still happy to have participated in the blogathon. It more or less got my site noticed, and allowed me to discover the amazing sites of everyone else.

Before the year was out, I got to meet one of my filmmaking idols. I have to hand it to David Lynch: without him, I would have still been a clueless 18-year old who didn't really understand the difference between celluloid and digital photography. But although we are indeed headed for a digital revolution, Lynch reminded me that "cinema will never die". You can view my entire conversation with him here (and you can read my blog piece detailing my trip up to Iowa to meet Lynch here).

In case you were wondering, some of the other stuff on this site has been deleted. Such as my Saving Private Ryan essay from back in December. The film, in my opinion, is a masterwork, and I tried to do as much justice to it as possible. But the main focus of the essay was never achieved: I wanted to disprove Jonathan Rosenbaum's claim that SPR was "inspired by every war movie Spielberg has ever seen", including Samuel Fuller's war movies--I ultimately did not do good on proving Rosenbaum wrong because I had never even seen Fuller's war movies. Since then, I have, and I intend to re-review SPR again. But if you've noticed, there are no longer any pieces about Spielberg films on this site (unless you count my Top 50 of the decade).

And remember my ill-fated Presidential series? That's not here anymore, either. Basically, I wanted to write something about each and every President from the 20th century. I was able to get past the first three presidents, and then got bored and aborted the whole thing. Even writing about the great Woodrow Wilson (screw you, he may have been a racist, but... LEAGUE OF NATIONS, BITCHES!) could not sustain my interest in the rest of the project.

Also, remember, everybody: the John Huston blogathon officially begins here on August 5th! It's only less than a month away, so be sure to at least start THINKING about what to write!

Oh, and one more thing...

"This mask belongs to the PEOPLE!"

Huh. Well... that was surely the lamest ending ever to a one-year anniversary post. Guess it'll have to suffice.