Cat’s Don’t Dance (1997, Directed by Mark Dindal) English 7

Voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Ashley Peldon, Don Knotts, John Rhys-Davies, Betty Lou Gerson, Hal Holbrook, George Kennedy, Kathy Najimi, René Auberjonois

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(7-Very Good Film)

Smart. Creative. Lively.

Warner Bros. has a great history of animation, but by the time this film came out, Disney had a monopoly on the animated film industry; in America, I mean. As a result, Cats Don’t Dance, a film that has much more in common with those classic Looney Tunes shorts than it does with the massive hit movies Disney was rolling out, suffered at the box office and not many people have seen it. That’s a shame because it’s a quality picture; lots of ideas, talented voice cast, and a handful of nice songs written by Randy Newman. It follows Danny, a cat from small-town Indiana, who moves out to Hollywood during its golden age (1930s) to follow his dream of starring in movies. Once there, however, he finds that animals are only ever given menial roles (no doubt inspired by the black experience in Hollywood), and that stars aren’t like the characters they portray on screen (there’s a fantastic Shirley Temple inspired villain named Darla Dimple). Sharp comedy and lively animation to go along with a good premise, even if they missed a chance at making a truly special satire.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(719)

 

Road to Hong Kong (1962, Directed by Norman Panama) English 7

Starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Joan Collins, Peter Sellers, Dorothy Lamour, Dean Martin, Robert Morley

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(7-Very Good Film)

Fun. Witty. Free-wheeling.

Zaniness, gags, and meta humor abound as Hope and Crosby (both long in the tooth) get roped into a world domination plot that brings them to Hong Kong. The last in the Road to… series maintains all of the humor and fun of the previous movies. Bob Hope has at least a dozen clever one-liners, the songs are catchy, and I really enjoy the exotic locales. Naturally there’s plenty here in terms of cultural representations that is outdated. (Whites playing Asians or Indians mainly.) Peter Sellers is hilarious though as a shady Indian doctor.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(718)

Yesterday (2019, Directed by Danny Boyle) English 6

Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry, Kate McKinnon, Lamorne Morris, Sophia Di Martino

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(6-Good Film)

Pleasant. Lightweight. Likable.

What if you were to wake up one day and find that The Beatles never existed? You can still remember all of their songs, the lyrics (just about), the artistry, but no one else can. It’s a fun thought. I’m not a musician, obviously, but I’ve actually contemplated something like this in more personal terms. What if Blade Runner never happened? Could I recreate it? Would it mean as much premiering more than thirty-five years after its reality? In any case, this is the premise of Oscar-winning director, Danny Boyle’s new project, Yesterday. Written by the master of light comedies, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill), Yesterday stars Himesh Patel as a floundering musician, Jack Malik, living with his parents in the small English town of Lowestoft. He’s supported by his group of friends, chiefly, Ellie (James), a girl he’s known almost all his life, and his parents try, though naturally, they’d prefer he’d focus on a more sensible profession. He used to be a teacher and after another one of his musical performances is met with indifference, he decides to give it all up to return to teaching. Ellie does her best to convince him to stick with it. There’s not much of an explanation for why the premise kicks in (which I’m fine with, explanations are boring), besides a brief blackout that results in Jack getting hit while riding his bike home one evening. Waking up in the hospital, Jack slowly discovers that no one understands his Beatles’ references. This leads to a major revelation for Jack and, despite some guilt and apprehension, he rides the success of duplicating The Beatles’ work all the way to the top of the music world. Unfortunately, he loses Ellie on the way.

   I’m torn on how important of a role knowledge of The Beatles plays in enjoyment of Yesterday. There are countless references, so certainly much of the humor is dependent on being in on the joke. I have only a vague knowledge of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and I think I got the film okay. More important is how much you like the music. I like their music without loving it, and I would say at least 1/3 of this film is Beatles music; played and performed well to the credit of the filmmakers and Patel.

I was surprised at how the film glosses over most of the negative aspects of music stardom. There’s not much beyond light hints at the compromises artists sometimes make or the seamier aspects of being a rockstar. Jack doesn’t fall into drugs or sleeping with the hordes of predatory fans. Maybe that’s for the best. We’ve seen that story so many times before; really just last year, with another incarnation of A Star is Born. On the other hand, we get all of the Beatles music without experiencing any of the pain or struggle that goes into making great music. Jack is the same person at the end of this film as he is in the beginning. This is a fairy tale and that’s fine, but it’s awfully small for such a big concept. Consider the journey involved and the wisdom of a similarly high-concept comedy in Groundhog Day. That film took its concept to some really far out places, still managed to be funny, romantic, unpretentious, and seemingly light. It didn’t settle for pleasant which I feel Yesterday does. Bottom line though is there are worse things to be than pleasant, and Yesterday is a skillfully made romantic fantasy with terrific leads.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(714)

Anastasia (1997, Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman) English 8

Voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammar, Hank Azaria, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Kirsten Dunst

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Engaging. Stirring. Attractive.

Filmmaker and animator Don Bluth started out at Disney, working on films like The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon, and Robin Hood. All fine films, but there’s no doubting that Disney Studios had lost much of its luster since its namesake and leader passed in 1966. They produced several animated pictures in the ’70s, but only one real hit and Bluth felt it was more than just a commercial slump. He felt the studio had lost its way, so he left. He started his own studio with a group of similarly disenchanted Disney animators. During their run, between the years 1982 (when their first film, Secret of NYMH, was released) and 2000 (when their last film, Titan A.E, came out), they were incredibly prolific. They made ten pictures in 18 years, only a few less than Disney (with its immense advantage in money, resources, and animators) during that time. Disney has, of course, bounced back, and Bluth’s studio faded with his, I assume, retirement, but one example of the kind of minor victories Bluth achieved over his former employer include a comparison between Secret of NYMH (1982) and The Black Cauldron (1985). The former, Bluth’s debut, made twice as much as it cost, while the latter, Disney’s foray into dark fantasy, made half of its production cost. I can’t claim that it was all triumphs for Bluth and his company. His production of Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park, both released in ’94, are among the worst films I’ve ever seen and certainly the worst animated, but there are also several memorable minor classics like A Land Before Time, An American Tail, and the aforementioned Secret of NYMH. One of his greatest accomplishments, however, is 1997’s Anastasia.

At the height of Disney Animation’s popularity, Disney’s renaissance, Bluth took them on at their own game. Anastasia is the best Disney princess movie not made by Disney. Not even Dreamworks Animation has attempted a princess movie and for more context, the first time Bluth tried it, the result was Thumbelina, which I’ve already told you is garbage. Thankfully, Anastasia is much, much better. It fictionalizes the fate of the Romanovs in the early parts of 20th century Russia. Cursed by Rasputin (voiced by Lloyd) wielding dark magic, the members of Russia’s royal family are killed, except for the mother of the Czar, the Dowager Empress, Marie (voiced by Lansbury) who escapes to France, and the Czar’s young daughter, Anastasia (voiced by Ryan) whose fate is unknown to the rest of the world. Many years later, Anastasia, now Anya, leaves the orphanage she grew up in, having amnesia and not remembering who she really is. Traveling to St. Petersburg for the first time, she meets Dimitri (voiced by Cusack), handsome con artist, and his partner, Vlad (voiced by Grammar). Dimitri and Vlad convince Anya to go with them to meet the Dowager Empress in Paris, and though they don’t know that Anya really is Anastasia, they believe she bears enough resemblance to fool the old lady into giving them a sizable reward. Along the way, several obstacles threaten their lives and Dimitri and Anya fall for one another. Plus plenty of singing and dancing.

The Disney princess formula is ingenious. Beautiful, likable princess. Always an outcast in some way or another. Animal companions. Imposing villain. Handsome love interest. Comedy. Tragedy. Music. Romance. Spectacular animation. Anastasia gets all of it just about right. Since I enjoy quibbling, I do feel that the music, while enjoyable, lacks complexity as far as the lyrics, and the film as a whole is light in laughs. What Anastasia offers, though, is a wonderful premise built around solid characters and Bluth’s typically stunning visuals. Apparently, Bluth objected to what he saw as Disney skimping and cutting corners to the detriment of the visuals, the animation, the art. Several animation historians have also commented on some of the company’s practices during that period. Bluth’s movies always look great. I question his storytelling ability (it often seems an afterthought) but not his art. In Anastasia, he finally matched his splendid animation with a story equally enchanting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(713)

John Henry (2000, Directed by Mark Henn) English 8

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Vibrant. Beautiful. Compelling.

Beautifully animated telling of the famous John Henry folktale wherein the newly freed black man attempts to build a better future for his wife and family out west. There, on the verge of their dream, Henry and many other black families face opposition leading to the folklore hero’s legendary battle with a steam-powered hammer. Man versus machine. The story is told in colorful, hand-drawn (with the pencil shadings left in) fashion mixed with excellent music from Sounds of Blackness. This is a wonderful adaptation of the myth and would be a perfect introduction to John Henry for any kid. It also represents, unfortunately, the earliest portrayal of black people in a Disney animated film as far as I can tell.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(702)

Centennial Summer (1946, Directed by Otto Preminger) English 6

Starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Dorothy Gish, Constance Bennett, Cornel Wilde

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(6-Good Film)

Well-crafted. Attractive. Light.

Set in the summer of 1876 in Philadelphia, the life of the Rogers’ clan is chronicled in this lightweight musical. With a particular focus on sisters, Julia (Jeanne Crain) and Edith (Linda Darnell), who vie for the same man, newcomer Frenchman, Philippe Lascalles (Cornel Wilde), Centennial Summer boasts a terrific cast. Aside from the leads, Walter Brennan, Constance Bennett, and Dorothy Gish star, and the talented Otto Preminger directs. Centennial Summer will suffer comparisons from anyone who’s seen the fantastic Meet Me in St. Louis. It’s a handsome, likable film without being as endearing as Vincente Minnelli’s classic which inspired it.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(692)

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956, Directed by Frank Tashlin) English 7

Starring Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O’Brien, Julie London, Juanita Moore, Henry Jones

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(7-Very Good Film)

Sparkling. Amusing. Memorable.

Jayne Mansfield plays Jerri Jordan, a dumb blonde with hidden depths, named by her gangster boyfriend Marty “Fats” Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) who wants her to be a star singer. He hires a washed-up talent agent, Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), to make it happen. Fats hires Tom solely on the down-on-his-luck agent’s reputation for not trying anything with the ladies he represents, but you can guess where the story goes from there. The pleasure’s in the style, the over-the-top characterizations, and most of all, the music. Little Richard, The Platters, Eddie Cochran, and Fats Domino all turn up over the course of the film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(685)