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Tag Archives: Disney

Weekly Mishmash: May 2-8

Enchanted (2007). Disney’s self-mocking princess story was pretty much what I expected — entertaining and clever in spots, but too toothless to be truly effective satire. Amy Adams is perfectly cast as Giselle, a princess from a mythical animated kingdom who is banished by her jealous queen (Susan Sarandon) to the unforgivable streets of a live action New York City. Adams’ guileless performance, seemingly influenced by Snow White, is delightful and totally spot-on. I also enjoyed the meticulously crafted animated segments early on, but as the movie progressed the letdowns accumulated. For one, I thought there were too many characters. Having Giselle meet cute with McDreamy widower Patrick Dempsey was the first of many pat and predictable twists to come. By the arrival of a chaotic climax underscored with a friggin’ Carrie Underwood tune, I tuned out. Final verdict: too Disney, too Rom Com, too mainstream. The film would have been so much more effective had it stuck with a simple “princess in another world” theme.
poster_houseacrossThe House Across the Bay (1940). Turner Classic Movies recently did a night full of films starring the impenetrable George Raft, including this San Francisco-set drama co-starring Joan Bennett. Raft plays a gangster (of course) who falls for and marries nightclub singer Bennett. He is shipped to Alcatraz and Bennett plays the faithful wife until Walter Pidgeon enters the picture. Decent stuff, nothing spectacular. This was an independent production by Bennett’s then-husband Walter Wanger, a fact that becomes evident once the impeccably lit, made up and gowned Bennett walks into the camera frame (the lady even looks elegant while serenading a chihuahua!). The film unravels somewhat predictably until the always watchable Gladys George comes in as a peppery prison wife.
Tokyo Sonata (2008). Interesting at times, mostly preposterous Japanese family drama about a man who deals with his sudden unemployment by pretending he was never laid off. To keep up appearances with his unsuspecting family, he spends his days at a downtown Tokyo park amongst the homeless and other men in the same situation. This has some effective scenes (mostly involving the family’s youngest son and his fascination with a pretty piano teacher), but as it slowly moves along it becomes progressively more strange. I know the Japanese are well known for emotional restraint and preserving honor amongst blood relatives, but this movie takes that concept to such extremes I almost wonder if it’s supposed to be a parody.
The Unknown Woman (2006). Fun, over-the-top foreign suspenser about a Ukranian woman (Xenia Rappoport) who moves to Italy to escape her sordid past as a prostitute. She worms her way into the lives of an affluent family by becoming the nanny to a young girl with whom she has vague ties, a setup that starts working in her favor until her nasty-ass pimp shows up. This movie was so overproduced and unsubtle (in an entertaining way) that it’s hard to believe it comes from the same guy who directed Cinema Paradiso. It plays like a Euro-centric spin on all those Brian De Palma guilty pleasure thrillers from the ’80s, complete with overly dramatic acting, camerawork and score (from Ennio Morricone, of all people). Recommended if you like that sort of thing.

Book Review: Designing Disney

hench_bookReading John Hench’s Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show reminded me a bit of my trip to Las Vegas last December. Although we usually think of Imagineering in terms of Disney theme parks, the core ideas of the job apply to most anywhere people gather to relax and have fun. In that respect, Vegas must be the biggest example of Imagineering on Earth. While exploring the various casinos, I was very aware of how everything was designed in a way to create a world away from the world, preferably to get patrons plopped down at the slots. While some casinos treat this idea as an afterthought, the immersive themeing of places like New York New York or Paris, Las Vegas (where even the men’s bathrooms have a quaint “Paris in 1900” aura) never failed to impress. It made me wish that everything in my life was Imagineered.

Which brings me to this book! Amongst Disney Imagineers, John Hench had the most durability (having served at Disney for an astonishing 65 years) and was the one whose ambition and scope most resembled Walt Disney’s own. He’s the one responsible for conceptualizing much of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland (original and 1967 remodel), the Enchanted Tiki Room and Main Street U.S.A. Beautiful achievements all, and all the more impressive when one realizes the work encompasses architecture, signage, interior design, costumes and even the floors below guests’ feet. The proof of this is displayed throughout the book in fabulous renderings that called to mind the work of Syd Mead. Check out the costume designs below — wonderful!

The renderings are really what makes this book special. Unfortunately the great imagery is offset with lousy, unprofessional looking fonts. Hench’s text itself (co-authored with Peggy Van Pelt) is rather rudimentary and textbook-like; I would picture the ideal audience for this book as young would-be Imagineers in their teens. Despite those disappointments, there are a lot of great anecdotes in here. I was especially fascinated with how Hench and his fellow Imagineers explored color possibilities for a hotel exterior in Disneyland Paris by factoring in the area’s climate and lack of sunlight at various times of the day. Tiny details like that are something that an ordinary theme park guest would never consider, but added together they complete the immersive experience. All in a day’s work for Mr. Hench.

hench_costumes

Related: Justin Jorgensen’s memories of working with Hench.

Weekly Mishmash: April 11-17

Cradle Will Rock (1999). Tim Robbins’ chaotic yet timely film chronicles the staging of the most notorious play produced by the WPA in the 1930s, Marc Blitzstein’s union-friendly musical Cradle Will Rock. We saw this in the theater when it was originally released and it still holds up. It’s interesting to revisit it during this quasi-Depression time and note how familiar the anti-socialist hysteria portrayed here is. I don’t think this is a perfect film; it’s too wide-ranging in scope and Robbins succumbs all too often to the “keep the camera moving” bug that also afflicted Stephen Fry when he did Bright Young Things. Some scenes are excellently staged and acted, while others are done in an offhand, parodic manner which makes me wonder how historically accurate everything is. Among the huge cast, the only true villains are Bill Murray’s cracked vaudevillian and the uppity case worker played by Joan Cusack. Generally I liked the cast, except perhaps Susan Sarandon hamming it up as a flamboyant Italian diplomat. My favorite was Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan, the headstrong manager of the WPA’s theatre division. She completely rocks, and has a beautiful speaking voice to boot (I kept thinking she’d be so much better than Oprah at narrating the nature documentary series Life).
Hollywood and Vine (1945). Another offering in our “cheapie public domain comedies of yore” series! Hollywood and Vine was another cruddy yet genial and fast-paced production from P.R.C. In it, aspiring actress Wanda McKay meets screenwriter James Ellison on her way to Hollywood. She brushes the amorous gent off, but eventually relents when the two end up rooming in the same apartment complex. The pair also become parents to a talented mutt (Daisy, best known as the family pup from the Blondie movies) who becomes a canine movie star. Yep, this movie doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the best celebrity cameo they could come up with was the fake Russian prince who ran Hollywood eatery Romanoff’s. McKay and Ellison are both unbelievably bland actors with zero screen presence, but at least we have the reliable Franklin Pangborn on hand as a soda jerk. Typical of this film’s flights of fancy is the scene where Ellison persuades McKay’s character from dismissive to “I’m giving it all up to marry you and have lotsa babies” in thirty seconds flat.
poster_winnethepoohThe Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). I know I must have seen this movie when it originally came out, but even so this compilation of the first three Disney Winnie the Pooh shorts is so awash in lyrical, pastel-colored charm that one can’t help but feel a nostalgic pang with it. These films date from 1966-74, the last gasp of classic old guard Disney animation. The stories are silly, leisurely paced and Disneyfied to a fault, but I love the way they incorporated the A. A. Milne book itself into the action, such as when a rush of water washes the words off the page. This DVD included a bonus Pooh short from 1983, which was as plodding and charmless as the trio in this film were magical. It just goes to prove that when they had it, they really had it.
Michael Clayton (2007). I had to chuckle when I read the Netflix reviews on this complaining that it was too talky and boring. Fact is, this was an excellent legal thriller with an absorbing story played by a cast at the top of their game (including Tilda Swinton, somewhat Jodie Fosterish as a dangerously ambitious careerist). The hard to please Christopher actually ranks this and Departures as the two best movies we’ve seen this year.
game_wordjongWord Jong Party. We’re not huge gamers around here, unless you count the pre-Facebook edition of Scrabble. We do, however, enjoy some of the less threatening stuff on the Wii — such as the farming sim Harvest Moon: Tree Of Tranquility. In that game, the most harmful thing you can do is piss somebody off by gifting them with a stinky hunk of algae fished out of the ocean. Lately we’ve been enjoying Word Jong Party, which is basically maj-jongg played with lettered tiles. You advance through the game by making words, the longer the better. Completely harmless and fun, and a bit easy for us Scrabble vets, but the graphics are cute and each day brings a brand new puzzle to enjoy.

It Blowed Up Real Good

I want to have something different to share today, video-wise. How about Disney animator Ward Kimball’s very un-Disney 1968 short, Escalation?

Monday: Downtown Trudgery

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Our Los Angeles trip report continues.

  • Monday — We set aside an entire today to do an architectural walking tour of downtown. Lots of research online and through Charles Moore’s wonderful book Los Angeles: The City Observed taught me that there’s an overabundance of great buildings around here, from the public library to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. We wanted to see it all, and so we got an early start. Our first stop was the furthest away — the Eastern Columbia Building, tucked away several blocks to the south. I was a bit leery about walking that far on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, but it was totally worth it. This building is a total Art Deco vision in shades of periwinkle and teal. I would have loved to have seen the giant clock all lit up at night. We walked down Broadway towards breakfast, checking out the mixture of fellow walkers along the way. This area used to be a swanky destination; now it’s a mixture of the homeless, Hispanic shops and upscale condos. There’s also a lot of old theaters in various states of disrepair. We arrived at our next site, and breakfast at the famed Clifton’s Cafeteria. This eatery used to be a chain; the Broadway location is the last remaining one. I took a ton of pictures in this kitschy delight, starting with the delightful terrazzo tilework in front. The woodsy-themed dining room was a bit worn down, but totally charming. We got our trays, filled with run of the mill but tasty food, and settled down upstairs (I wonder if they have a lot of stair-related accidents there?). After finishing, we noticed a third floor, closed off to diners. Being the braver one of the two, Christopher decided to venture up there despite the floor being completely dark. We found a great little museum of Clifton’s memorabilia. An employee found us looking around. Instead of getting angry and kicking us out, he offered to turn the lights on for us! At least it gave us an opportunity to see things better. Bellies filled, we continued walking Northward towards the Little Tokyo district. There were a few independent bookstores I wanted to check out, but it was still early and they were closed. In Little Tokyo, there was a Japanese bookstore called Kunokuniya that looked intriguing. Luckily once we got there they were open for business. What a place! Shelves of manga, books on every kind of Japanese subject imaginable, and tons of beyond cute stationery, craft supplies and (my favorite) toys. We spent 80 bucks there. From here we walked towards City Hall and took more photos. This was the tallest building in L.A. when it was erected in 1928, and even today it impresses. Strangely, it never occurred to us that you could tour the building until a gentleman seeing us staring brought it up with Christopher. We got our passes and took a succession of elevators all the way to the top, where open balconies allow you to see the city vistas from all four sides. It was wonderful, and we had that whole top floor to ourselves! The building contains a lot of neat Deco-era details everywhere, making it the highlight of the day. Out of City Hall, we were getting ready to head back to the hotel when we suddenly remembered two other L.A. landmarks that still needed seeing — the Bradbury Building and Angels Flight. The Bradbury isn’t much to look at from the outside, but the interior central court is justifiably famous for its beauty. I’ve dug this building ever since seeing it in Blade Runner, and experiencing it for real was a genuine pleasure (as seen in the photo above). Angels Flight came next. Unfortunately, this famous hillside trolley is closed indefinitely — but that didn’t stop us from snapping a few pics of the bright red boxcar. By this time, it was mid-afternoon and our feet were getting tired. We went back to the hotel for a rest and change of clothes. Not for long however, since our next stop was Disney Concert Hall. This place was gorgeous, especially with a second floor garden winding around the back. I loved how the interior was such a complete design, right down to the custom font used on the lobby’s donor wall. We took the hour long audio tour, which was apparently popular since there were lots of other tourists wandering around the place carrying those unique audio wands that day. I took several shots of Gehry’s famous undulating walls on that perfectly sunny afternoon. Our final stop that day was the Los Angeles Public Library, thankfully located close to the Westin. This is another gorgeous Art Deco structure, although by this time we were too tired to fully appreciate it. The library happened to be hosting a show of drawings and sketches by the architect Richard Neutra, so we spent a good 45 minutes or so looking at that. Anyone in the area should check that out. Feet and backs aching, we trudged back to our hotel — tired but happy that we had such an eventful day.