Monday, November 28, 2016

Four Disney Movies to See After "Moana" (and why you probably never saw them in the theater)

I have to make a confession here, and hope I can humbly beg your pardon:  I still haven't seen Moana in a theater yet.  
Don't worry, I have an airtight alibi:  I have a Disney Cruise coming up in February, and hoped that I was just in time to plan ahead and hold off seeing the newest Disney animated in time for the experience of seeing it three months later in the onboard theater.  Whether I should hold off on "Rogue One: a Star Wars Story" as well, in December?--Ohh, temptation.
So even if I can't yet discuss the movie in detail as other lucky folks might, I do know one indisputable fact from experience:  It is almost IMPOSSIBLE for directors John Musker & Ron Clements to make a bad Disney animated movie.  They're considered the "architects" of the Great 90's Disney Renaissance--those holy words that conjure up our great childhood decade of When Disney Animateds Were Good--just for their work straight out of the gate on "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin".  

"Ron & John" seem to possess an instinctive genius for understanding the "neato story" aspect of a great Disney movie that sticks in the memory, and push the right buttons like concert pianists.  A lot of Disney fans sing praises that the Great Classics of 90's Disney were Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise's "Beauty & the Beast" and Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff's "The Lion King", but I offer an alternate theory:  The zeitgeist manias for Beauty & Lion both occurred one delayed-reaction year after the surprise of grownups discovering that it was "okay" to like Mermaid and Aladdin, respectively, something you just didn't go around admitting at the time.  
After the entire 80's, when Disney was considered at death's door, and "animation" was considered only fit for corporate kiddie marketing of the Chipmunks and Care Bears, no grownup literally wanted to be SEEN going to a Disney movie by themselves, and some worried they might even be accused as some kind of weird pedophile.  Go back and look at the 1992 press reviews for "Aladdin", and see critics virtually reassure grownup audiences that no one would think badly of you, so long as you were going to laugh at Robin Williams' jokes.  The movement to give Beauty & the Beast a Best Picture Oscar nomination (born of early buzz-desperation and a big-event screening at the NYC Film Festival) was not so much a search for awards, as a search for public validation that it was okay to have liked Ariel & Sebastian a year before.
(I'm in the minority of just not finding Beauty and Lion particularly very good movies, and just a tad short on charm.)

If this November's "Moana" is getting good reviews for its strong story and characters, well, it's all in a year's work for these two.
If you don't believe me--and need a few disk rental suggestions to keep from going back to see the movie again--look back at four of the directors' earlier titles that, for one unfair reason or another, DIDN'T quite become as iconic Disney staples:

  • The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

If everyone expected Ron Miller's post-Walt studio to finally roll over and die of Terminal Outdatedness, it would have been in 1985.  "The Black Cauldron", produced during the studio's big shakeup between Old and New, was supposed to be the new bold revolution for the studio, but was a creaking, unholy mess that became the studio's biggest crushing money-loser--To add 80's insult to injury, the corporate-marketing "Care Bears Movie" had made more box office than Disney had that year.  The studio was embarking on a new strategy of putting out one new movie a year, instead of every five or seven, and the next year bounced back with a hyperactive, unexpected surprise.
Musker & Clements were the new young co-directors brought in to help flesh out old-Disney directors Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener, and you could see a catalyst change right away:  To the untrained eye, it LOOKED like a late-70's/early 80's Old Disney movie, fresh off of "The Rescuers" and "Fox & the Hound", with cute animal critters and a basic confusion about where to put songs in because, well, they "had" to...But there was a new fast-moving energy and humor to the story, chases were more exciting, gags were funnier, and the plot even now seemed to have some actual story structure.  Most of the humor came from the titular hero, Basil of Baker Street--the mouse who lives in Sherlock Holmes' apartment--as a manic lunatic of Holmes-like inspirations and impulses, as he chases rodent-London's worst villain (voiced by Vincent Price, clearly having just as much fun as Barrie Ingham's hero).

Why you probably didn't see it:  Well, few did.  It took a lot of word of mouth to persuade parents back to a theater after Cauldron.  But the diehard hopeful enough to go back got the surprise message: Prepare, ye unsuspecting 80's folks, 90's Disney is coming.  (Only it's not coming just yet, there's still '88's old-school "Oliver & Company" to slog through first, before the good stuff.)

  • Hercules (1997)

In 1994, "The Lion King" had become so (inexplicably) unstoppable, everyone assumed the blessed 90's Disney Renaissance would last forever.  That's why most audiences had such problem coming to grips with nagging, forbidden, heretical thoughts that 1995's "Pocahontas" and 1996's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" just might not have been very good movies, if not, in fact, insufferably melodramatic, manipulative and corny.  Hunchback, in particular, had laid so heavily and over-earnestly on the now creaking conventions of the Disney Villain and the Broadway-Style Musical Number, it was clear that the camel was becoming dangerously overladen and someone might be along the next year with a piece of straw.
A fast-moving, "Aladdin-style" pop-culture-reffing Looney Tunes spin on Greek mythology should have been the antidote, but at the time, backfired with grumbling audiences spectacularly.  All the blame for Everything You Happened to Hate About 90's Disney (or ABC, the Parks, you name it) was put on the head of CEO Michael Eisner; '97 audiences found the "contemporary" gags forced, sitcom and desperate, and the implied message that Disney was making, quote, "boring" Greek mythology more palatable by gagging it up seemed like it had Eisner's tasteless corporate style written all over it.
Ron & John reportedly weren't happy with the intended Helzapoppin-burlesque style--every time they tried to pitch their dream project, then-studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg would stick them on the house project to keep them busy--but...they made lemonade with their lemons:  Even if not every gag lands, there's still as much energy in a musical number like "Zero to Hero" (with the narrating Muses depicted as a gospel-Motown group, straight out of songwriter Alan Menken's days on "Little Shop of Horrors") as there was in any of Aladdin's high-energy numbers, and the result still looks like the work of someone who knows what a good 90's Disney movie should look like, even when it might not be.  
Why you probably didn't see it:  Suffice to say, whatever 90's audiences were picturing "Disney Greek mythology" to look like at the time (probably picturing the Pastorale scene from Fantasia), it sure wasn't this.  The idea of getting British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to design the wild angular style confused audiences, James Woods' movie-stealing Disney-villain turn playing Zeus's scheming brother Hades as a motormouthed Hollywood agent came off more overbearing than funny, and everything that should have gone over in the room at the time didn't.  Despite its rescued reputation on video--and a Disney Afternoon TV-cartoon spinoff--it passed Black Cauldron's record as biggest studio money-loser in theaters, and nearly brought the 90's Renaissance to a crashing halt, if '98's "Mulan" hadn't shown up the next year.

  • Treasure Planet (2002)

Traditional 2-D animation had a problem from '00-'03--Everyone was trying to kill it, so that they could figure out the reasons why it was "dying".  Audiences' grumbles with Michael Eisner had become a full-on mutiny, after Roy Disney had started the "Save Disney" movement at the studio to kick the CEO out.  Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks Animation noticed that women were the biggest fans of the princess-bashing anti-Disney gags in '01's "Shrek", and knew how to play the grudges against his old boss to stir up the rabble. '98's "The Rugrats Movie" for Paramount had started a "Cable Bubble", for every corporate studio to leap on hoping that there was a feature-film for cult cable toons like Hey Arnold or the Powerpuff Girls, and tried to explain why it was popping.
Worst of all, among all the industry's voodoo-analyses, was trying to figure out why three high-profile sci-fi-action animateds in '00 and '01--Don Bluth's confused "Titan AE", the technically ambitious but clueless "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within", and Disney's own unlikable and bewildering "Atlantis: the Lost Empire"--had all tanked at the box office.  Well, there ya go, analysts rolled their chicken bones and divined, it clearly shows that audiences hated space action!

Disney actually had fairly high hopes for theirs:  One of the last projects from the legendary "Jam session", where animators first pitched story ideas for Aladdin and Mermaid, was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", updated to a sci-fi galaxy of alien pirates, Royal Navy space-sailships and 19th-cty. interplanetary seaports.
As crazy as the idea sounds, it's still a wildly visual and spirit-faithful adaptation of the original book:  While other directors at Disney worked on "girl power!" princesses, Musker & Clements' strength was creating memorable male heroes for the boys, and the book's Jim Hawkins is updated into a moody, thrill-seeking teen who finds his missing "father figure" in the sympathetic but menacing cyborg Silver, both played in perfect book style without an ounce of irony.  

(Updating mad castaway Ben Gunn to circuit-scrambled comedy-relief robot B.E.N., voiced by Martin Short, was a bit less successful, but by that point in the story, you just go with the book's spirit.)  Even the famous "Pieces of eight" parrot is updated into a cute alien shapeshifting blob who has clearly studied with Aladdin's monkey Abu, in how to steal comedy-relief scenes with pantomime.

Why you probably didn't see it:  Hoo-boy...Was there a marketing problem this movie WASN'T saddled with when it came out in theaters?  The main reason you probably didn't see it was Lilo & Stitch--The SaveDisney movement needed a "messiah", and Disney didn't quite expect a crazy little Hawaiian girl and slobbery alien vandal to catch on quite as well as they had.  The studio didn't know how to market their tropical summer surfing picture, and expected it would be long gone from theaters in time for the Big November Epic...But when word of mouth was still going strong after the summer, most fans were barely aware Disney even had one more movie opening that year.  Eisner quickly bought the "Audiences hate action!" theory, tried to beef up the humor, and recut Treasure's action trailers and ads as a wacky comedy of pratfalls and farty-noises.
The other problem was that maybe it wasn't a good idea for the studio to release the movie within two weeks of both a 007 movie and the second Harry Potter.  Throw in the fact that "The Santa Clause 2" was doing a little stronger than expected, and Planet now had three crushing contenders for its opening weekend.  It crushed, opened fourth, and Eisner was mortified that a 90's Disney movie, gasp, didn't open at #1.  To save face, he pulled it out of wide release in time for the stockholders' meeting, thus depriving it of that sweet Christmas-vacation business most studio family films now count on.  Disgruntled fans, waving Lilo & Stitch on their banner, and hoping that director Chris Sanders would be put in as new CEO to make "more weird movies!", shouted that Planet "deserved what it got"...Nasty old normal Disney movie!  STAY down!

  • The Princess & the Frog (2009)

Okay, this one you probably remember.  But I'm still betting you didn't see it.
If Eisner hadn't been kicked out in time--after a lot of studio in-fighting, staff firings and a disastrous fight-picking with Pixar--there wouldn't likely have BEEN a Disney for Bob Iger and John Lasseter to rescue at the end of the 00's.  Eisner had been so publicly cowed by audiences jumping on Katzenberg's anti-princess bandwagon in '03's "Shrek 2", he felt he had to personally offer the studio's head as apology for all those terrible princesses chauvinistically marrying princes, and corrupting our daughters' dreams.  2007's "Enchanted" was originally going to be a lot less gentle of a spoof on Disney princesses, and a much angrier, or at least more passively-hostile one, and the "Rapunzel" story in the works was going to be rewritten for two transported teens who hate fairytales, but then a miracle happened:  The Stinky Guy was at last ousted, more Disney-friendly heads were put in charge of the studio and animation division, and all of a sudden, it was okay to like princesses, fairytales, and happy musical numbers again.  Oops.
Musker & Clements had been one of the "director firings" after they couldn't adjust their latest project to the all-CGI that Eisner declared all new studio projects would be, but one of Lasseter's first announcments at the studio was that the Mermaid directors would be invited back to do one more old-school traditional 2-D animated princess musical...Nyeahh.  Fans were excited--We were about to see seven troubled studio years finally buried on hallowed ground.
Now, I said it was "almost impossible" for M&C to make a bad movie.  Have to admit, this is the "almost":  There are good ideas here, two of them, in fact, and they seem to pass by on separate trains and never meet.  One was the idea to adapt E.D. Baker's fairytale spoof "The Frog Princess", where the princess's kiss on the enchanted frog backfires, and the two hop through the swamp to find the cure.  But Baker's book was set in a generic fairytale castle, and the studio's idea was to update it to 1920's New Orleans, with jazz, gumbo, and a heroine who dreams of opening her own restaurant.  See, that's the idea, she wants to be a successful career woman and NOT marry a prince, since the prince is a comically irresponsible ladies-charmer from a bankrupt country, while the heroine's buffoonish spoiled-Southern-belle best friend throws herself at any prince she can find...Have we got the message yet?  Have we reminded you yet in this scene that our heroine wants to open her own business all by herself?  Have we got our crash helmet on, to protect us from falling bricks, or do we need to get out the Crayola crayons?  
Even though the "story" is a bit of an improvised shambles, with a rush of storyboards and supporting characters that don't go anywhere, Musker & Clements clearly went into this project in love with the setting, and if you have a choice of watching the Not-A-Princess Movie and the New Orleans Movie fight it out, the New Orleans movie is more rich and visual fun to root for.

Why you probably didn't see it:  You mean, BESIDES the fact they put it in theaters a week before "Avatar"?  (Nobody has yet been able to explain why movies that open in the second week in December suffer calamitous fates, but I'll wait a few weeks to see who's this year's victim, before explaining it.  Don't worry, there's a reason.)
The same voodoo-analysts (no relation to this movie's voodoo-doctor villain) came up with every imaginable crackpot theory--Racist audiences weren't ready for a black heroine?  Nobody liked musicals after all?  Boys didn't want to see a princess movie?  Nice tries, but the popular favorite was the traditional old "Told ya 2-D animation was dead!" from way back in 2003--Just hard to let go of a classic, especially for those hoping that Disney was ready to "stumble" under new management.  2010's "Tangled" quickly dispatched those ideas for good the next year.  (Although the fact that Tangled had been all-CGI still took the credit.)

Now, I know what some are saying right now:  "What?  How dare you say Hercules wasn't a hit!"  "Princess & the Frog?  My daughter loves Tiana at Disneyland!"
Well, see, that's the thing:  Audiences change.  Trends die out.  Cooler heads prevail.  We all find something else to be angry about, and forget why we were all so mad at the last thing.
Disney head Bob Iger deliberately thumbed his nose at all the "Told ya!" industry dogpiling on Princess & the Frog's box-office by immediately declaring that the heroine, Tiana, would now OFFICIALLY be a part of all licensed Disney princess marketing from now on, so there, haters, neener.  As a result, it worked--Like the movie or hate it, it's now probably the second-most visible 00's-10's movie to be seen at the Disney Parks behind "Frozen", and certainly one that sticks in the memory of new young fans.  Some, raised on a generation of DVD and Blu-ray, already aren't even aware that anyone had ever said bad things about Hercules or Treasure Planet.
That's what home theater is for, after all, for a movie to Outlive History, and give someone else a chance to see it.  Not to mention, making it a lot easier if you did happen to miss it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving Memory: When Friday Wasn't Black

The Thanksgiving holiday brings back so many memories every year, I can still feel a "Thanksgiving morning" when I get up first thing on Thursday  Even if I'd spent the entire Mon-Wed. forgetting to look at the calendar, even when it's only me in the apartment expected to do my own sage-and-thyme cooking, and not stressfully throwing myself out of the kitchen and telling me to stay out until the turkey's in the oven, unless I wanted to help peel potatoes.  I still feel the gray nip of probably-going-to-snow in the air--gray skies were the Color of Thanksgiving, to go with all the harvest-browns--and want to rush to the TV to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade plug all the NYC family Broadway shows on the street before the parade started.  As we used to joke, we'd "Start preparing the turkey when the parade officially got going, and baste it every time an NBC soap star appears on a float lip-synching 'Winter Wonderland'".  
More to the point, Thursday and Friday were important days for TV, if you didn't have that personal alma-mater college-football Bowl game to watch:  One is that networks knew the kids would be home from school that day, and any that didn't have football would be using the time wisely, with bonus Saturday-morning cartoons and Hanna-Barbera's Kenner Classic Tales (with plenty of commercials for Kenner Toys).  And the second, tying in with the first, was that the local area stations that owned movies wanted to give their employees the weekend off, and would line up big three-hour blocks of all their family and first early holiday movies to fill time all afternoon, while you snacked on the chips-and-dips and carrot sticks that were being left out for company.  One of our Boston stations still owned George Pal's 1962 "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm", which was three hours of family-demographic enough to end up on my all-time favorite lists, as well as a rotated holiday movie.
Ask some people to name "Thanksgiving movie", and on generational knee-jerk reaction, they'll say "Planes, Trains & Automobiles", because you're, like, supposed to watch it.  Depending on how far back in the generations you go, however, some will remember the days when TV networks actually showed a movie in the evening (preferably a three-hour one, also to give their employees the night off)--And you can probably judge how old, if they say either "Home Alone", "E.T." or "The Sound of Music".  Me, I go even farther back, and if I'm not using my ancient VCR to watch my last tape copy of Pal's Grimm, my conditioned reflexes expect a network or local station to be showing three hours of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".  It seems heresy to watch it any other day of the year.

The Friday after Thanksgiving was also a very important holiday--We called it "The Friday After Thanksgiving".  It didn't HAVE a name, because it wasn't supposed to.
It didn't exist for any reason except that most businesses thought it was cheaper not to open again just for Friday, and turn a three-day weekend into a four-day one.  That meant you didn't have to do anything, except sleep late, lounge in pajamas, snack on cold turkey, cranberry and stuffing for breakfast, while Mom tried to be domestic and boil the turkey skeleton and thigh leftovers hoping that Soup would come out, like in the old days of low-tech homemakers before her.  (Uh, that's not how you make soup, Mom, we'd say, but no one would listen.)  
The original day after Thanksgiving--what do we call it, "White Friday"?--still had an important purpose in holiday commerce, however:  In those days, it was considered tasteful to hold off on Christmas marketing until Thanksgiving, so, as every kid knew, White Friday was the official Starting-Pistol of the great Getting Excited About Christmas dash...Annnd, they're off!  No early jump-starts, contenders, or you'll be disqualified!
Local stations continued to want to give their employees the day off, but with fewer Thanksgiving football bowl games to air, that meant movies...The Christmas movies, this time, now that it was allowed.  You might find a station showing "Miracle on 34th St." (while we were still in a Macy's mood), but most started getting the cheap public-domain classics ready, while they dug the more "hardcore" Christmas movies out of the back for later in December--By the end of White Friday, you knew at least one station would start the ritual monthly showings (plural) of "It's a Wonderful Life", and one might be brave enough to start showing the Alastair Sim "Scrooge" early.  And if you lived in the broadcast area of the NYC stations, White Friday was annual Laurel & Hardy "March of the Wooden Soldiers" day.

Shopping?  Oh sure, White Friday was for shopping, all right.  You just didn't camp out at midnight or search the Internet for sales flyers about what big-ticket purchase you'd been holding off all year for, though.
You went to the mall because, by three or four o'clock, a day and a half of cabin fever had set in, and you didn't want to enjoy Christmas starting-pistol preparations from a distance.  The Christmas lights would just be starting to be put up at the mall, and the holiday Muzak, of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" and Darlene Love's "Christmas, Baby, Please Come Home", would finally be allowed to be played over the loudspeakers.  If you lived within range of the Big City (Rochester NY, for me, before we moved to within a commuter ride of Boston), the family urge might be to look at the big department stores, and maybe end up with taking the whole family to a movie (theaters weren't conveniently at the malls back then) or the Christmas show at the science-museum Planetarium that wondered whether the Star of Bethlehem was really a 4 BC comet.
Point was, shopping was to put us in the mood for Christmas shopping--and hope to brainstorm present ideas we hadn't thought of yet--and was still recreational.  It wasn't something you trained to knock yourself and/or others out for.  When you got to the mall or parking lot and discovered every other person in a twenty-mile radius had the EXACT SAME White Friday holiday-sentiment urges as you did on the exact same afternoon, that's when it might suddenly hit you what a stupid idea it was, and that's one thing that's the same today as it was then.  Believe me, that didn't change.

So, you're probably asking yourselves--come on, start asking:  What caused the change?  When did the glorious holiday-tinged sloth and family time-off of White Friday turn moldy, and mildew into the predatory, kill-or-be-killed competition for the sake of sales figures once it turned Black?  And how did a name that was humorously given by news media, to explain the problems of stores and malls that had to deal with a mass-sentiment perfect storm of holiday urges, become ACCEPTED, and have its name now hailed as the center of American trade?  When did we think that Black Friday wasn't enough, that it should be a "week" instead, that it be lobbied to be declared a "national holiday" to help stores or employees, or that Saturday and Monday deserved their own names as well?  The historical cutoff point might be found in the Cabbage Patch.
In the 80's, Amazon didn't exist.  There was no "online" to order things--which is why you were deluged in paper snail-mail catalogues all month--and if you wanted to find the hot toy that season, you had to go to Toys R Us, because Target wasn't a wide chain back then, either.  And the big news story in November 1983 was that the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which had first started as prestige dolls from a small independent maker, were going national, causing parents to storm malls, empty shelves as if they were Wonka Bars, and do incredibly cynical media-happy stunts (like buying three or four, and hoping to auction one off for $1000), trying to find them.  That itself wasn't such a big deal, except that we'd had TWO similar manias the year before in 1982, with parents trying to find ColecoVision videogame consoles, and those with older or no kids trying to find a remaining copy of that new "Trivial Pursuit" game that a couple of smart guys in Canada had just thought up and were sending to us southerners.
But it was the Cabbage Patchers that stuck in our cultural heads.   Even when we similarly stampeded each other trying to find a Tickle-Me Elmo doll in the early 90's, the news talked of a "Cabbage Patch craze", and we knew in exact detail what they meant.  It was such a media-friendly story, because the obnoxious cuteness of the dolls was symbolic, you see, of frustrated parents having to spend money on their worthless children every year...Making the act of cynically fighting your friends and neighbors either a self-deprecating display of how much better a parent you were, or how cynically you were willing to knock yourself out once a year in December.  Eh, the holiday's for the kids anyway.

And that was the problem:  It was a neato story, but it didn't happen every year. It would be nice if a hurricane or earthquake happened once a year that we could put on our calendar, so we could all have fun preparing for it, and the news stations could have fun building up for the disaster coverage...But they're forces of nature, so they don't.  They just happen, unless they don't happen.
And when they didn't happen to happen in '85, or '86, news media tried to MAKE them happen.  It's now a tradition to say, not what will be the hot-selling toy or Christmas item, but, quote, what will be the next Christmas "craze".  What new item will we fight each other for, that store chains can count on to make up for any losses they might have incurred the other eleven months of the year?  
Usually, its what $200+ high-tech item, like the latest smartphone, will be groomed to be the next "craze", as a ColecoVision was more expensive than a Tickle-Me Elmo, and you don't have to be a greedy, cynical parent to buy one, you could be a Millennial 18-24, too.

So, with the jollity every year, we come to Black Friday.  A day devoted to treating the entire national consumer like deranged, greedy, cynical idiots like ravers at a rock concert.  Because idiots are easier to predict, and thus easier to manage, than intelligent, tasteful customers, that might do anything unpredictable.
When you see "Doorbuster Sales!" at Target, Wal-Mart, Sears and Best Buy (well, some Best Buys now close over the holiday weekend to give their employees a break), ask yourself:  What "doors" are we expected, even encouraged to "bust", and why?  A Doorbuster Sale is not asking us to be polite in our shopping, because polite shopping to them means we're probably not buying anything--Instead, they are literally asking that we create another 80's Frenzy-Stampede craze out of thin air, even if we or they don't know what we're crazing for, and risk fights, injuries and possible vandalism, to help out the chain stores annual holiday-quarter and year-end sales projections.  What thirty-three years ago we shook our heads at as greed, tragedy and self-serving dark-side, we now chuckle at as tradition, and hope such mindless turning-against-each-other-like-jackals will happen again, because we've been told it's such a rich evocative part of the HOLIDAY.

For those who want to start a new holiday tradition, here's my Thanksgiving present, from the Movie Activist to you:
This year, take the day off and celebrate old-fashioned White Friday, like your parents did.  Do nothing--you don't have any reason not to, after all--and savor an extra day off from the Thursday that you were probably too busy working in the kitchen, or driving to visit other friends' or relatives' kitchens, to enjoy.  Go look at the Christmas lights if you have the urge, and browse for the sake of browsing, not bargains, but if the parking lots are too crowded, don't worry, they'll thin out by Cyber Monday or Spent-Out Tuesday.  (Now that they all have christened names.)
Of course, the old tradition, of sitting home and watching TV try to fill time with holiday filler, isn't around anymore, now that stations have no more obligation to create local programming besides news.  Fortunately most of us probably have at least one of our favorite Christmas movies or iconic specials on disk...That's what they're for, after all.
So, for those of you who DIDN'T grow up within broadcast range of WPIX-11 NYC as a kid, a chance to enjoy an old-fashioned local-station public-domain White Friday the way we remembered it in the days before 1983:  Laurel & Hardy in "March of the Wooden Soldiers"  (And yes, badly colorized, as every cheap public-domain B/W movie on local channels was in 1982.)

You'll have to provide your own cold turkey, leftover pretzels, thin homemade turkey-peas-and-water soup and 5 lb. holiday tin of cheese-caramel popcorn.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thunder-"Struck"? Or Just Aww-"Struck"?

A brief shoutout this week to the newest struggling major-player in the Streaming Subscription-verse--
Filmstruck, a new service that debuted on Oct. 19, finally made its peace toward being a professional service this past week, by officially cutting their old exclusive ties with HuluPlus.  It's now a new monthly subscription-streaming film service on its own, picked up by the doctor and slapped on its hinder, and ready to be cord-cutting viewers' latest monthly a la carte television substitute.
(The mission statement by co-partner Criterion:   FilmStruck launches October 19,

I'm not paid to promote it, in fact, I'm still the grudging skeptic who thinks it's not quite what it's cracking itself up to be yet, until all the kinks are ironed out...BUT, knowing where it comes from, I'm still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, and push that doubt on others.  The service is still a desktop/tablet service, although in their rush to bring the service, better apps for the living room are still in development--We're promised AppleTV in December, and Roku boxes, Chromecast and X-Box/Playstation game-console streaming apps "early in '17".

For all of a lot of misleadingly gratuitously-snooty "mission" press about "Bringing independent films to the public" (we're already drowning up to our online eyeballs in "independent films", thank you, and not good ones, now that the studios have taken the mainstream films away from Netflix and Amazon Prime), we're getting this for a much more simple and realistic reason:
Criterion and HuluPlus used to have a partnership, back when Hulu Non-Plussed was still a struggling, mostly public-domain streaming service, and was grateful for some actual exclusive deal (in addition to a short-lived deal for Miramax films) that would give them some competition with the Instant Netflix titan.  Well, that was then--Hulu is now its own corporate giant, has since folded its modest old free-with-ads desktop roots to become a nation's Network-Rerun Binge-Addiction on Roku's and smart-TV's, and partnerships are a little more of a serious negotation.
Turner Classic Movies tried to branch out its own streaming service, but like most private channel-streaming, eg. HBO or Disney Channel, never got past a few desktop/streaming apps, and still required a premium-cable subscription to the network...Which was becoming more of a defeated purpose now that viewers were using streaming as an excuse to drop their cable services.  The new mission was to partner the two streaming orphans to create a TCM and Criterion service, although the "and" is still a bit forthcoming in the works.

Current new subscribers are offered a choice between monthly streaming the "Filmstruck Collection" at $6.99/mo., or an upgraded "The Criterion Channel", including Criterion's collection of rare classics and Janus foreign films, for $10.99/mo.  
At the moment, I don't quite know what the difference between the two is, as TCM won't be involving itself for another few months (until it can fold its own service)--And apart from a few rare inexplicably random films that used to play Hulu's otherwise-empty Movie page, and might or might not show up on Criterion's label next year (Mad Max?  Shakespeare in Love?  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever?) much of Filmstruck's catalog as we speak seems to be just a more limited selection of what's already on the Criterion Channel page.  If that's what you get for your ten bucks, well, that's as much as most already pay monthly for Netflix, and I can GUARANTEE you'll find more actual vintage movies.
Those with a shelf of Blu-rays already know the Criterion name, and buying a Criterion disk to some fans was like buying a rare wine bottle at auction, whether you'd ever drunk that vintage or not.  Those who don't know, oh, come out from hiding under the bed, it's not all Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow grim-reapers playing chess.  (Although they do have a bad habit of forcing "The Seventh Seal" down our throats.)  Criterion's mission is to create a sort of "in-home film school", with all the titles your professor might make you write end-of-term essays upon, and takes a wide intuitive sweep of what films meet that bit of history--We get almost the entire filmographies of Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa available, right next to David Cronenberg's "Scanners" and "The Brood", the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, "Time Bandits", "Gimme Shelter", and even the Beatles running through the train station in "A Hard Day's Night".  If it's classic--and more accurately, if it's had an arthouse restoration in the last twenty years--it's probably on Criterion disk.  

Just to go off on a nostalgic side note:  When I was in college, movie study WASN'T in the home.  If you (like me) took a semester of film at NYU or Boston's Emerson College, it was like signing on to some mad-monk discipline, and because you were mad and monkish enough to do it--They didn't give you a syllabus of DVD's, or even VHS tapes, to look up at the college library, for the simple reason that they couldn't back then.  It was the early 80's, and if you had to watch a film for that week's lesson, you sat in an audience every Tuesday and Friday and watched it in a theater.  Fortunately, the college had its own private screening-room theater to watch it in...That was the cool part.  (Oh, you chose a Friday-afternoon class, if you could help it.)
Remember when you were in sixth grade, and the substitute teacher just turned out the lights and put on a video instead?  That wasn't a class, that was a reprieve period that you sighed relief that you got to blow off.  To go to a film class, you sat in the private campus screening room with your classmates (the newer big spiffy universities would have their own big stadium-seated theater, but small enough to be private; the one we had at Emerson was an old Boston-antique room on the third floor fitted for old wooden theater-seats), and watched a big movie screen on the wall, where film would be projected.  Yeah, watching movies for our credits, we thought, we're doing something right--And some of us had actually taken the major or minor not to be lazy about it.  We knew we'd be there to watch the WHOLE movie, no switching the channel or bathroom breaks, because it was a movie...And as such, we were all conscious we'd have to watch Dr. Strangelove or Mean Streets or La Strada knowing we smart cool people would asked to analyze it later for what the professor would insist we learn from it.  Ohh, sure, sure, we'll be analyzing it, but right now, we're having fun being a room full of Smart Movie People, with no disrespectful cellphone idiots who don't understand the true faith.  It became a sort of collective attempt to see who could foster a better hive-mind sense of Movie Smartness.
I haven't been back to film college since then, so I don't know if the technology is still there since the DVD and video projector, but it installed in me the last great generation of  the Cool Audience:  If you're going to watch an old movie right, watch it in the dark holy padded-seat temple with thirty or forty other people who are there to improve themselves with it.

Of course, that was then.  Like the Millennials say, we had to.
Nowadays, Film Study has pretty much become a correspondence-course:  You take your disk home and watch it, and write your essay later.
If that's the field we play on now--and if streaming makes the school syllabus as available in the home as Blu-ray disk does (not a replacement, just a free sample!)--it doesn't make it any less of an in-home course.  I know I'm probably losing a few people here by saying "Try an in-home study course in the classics!" by making it sound like online Phoenix University, but it's really a lot more fun than that.  It's still movies, after all.  You're still in one big, big campus screening-room theater, just that you can't see the other people in the audience.
If you see a classic-movie press photo for Filmstruck's Criterion movies, there's a 2 out of 3 chance it'll be from either A Hard Day's Night or The Seven Samurai...Well, there's a reason for that:
Some classics aren't just classics, they're also GOOD--And they'll leave you a lot more energized in your seat than trying to punish yourself binging the third season of Daredevil.  If you've ever met a foreign-movie buff who tried to get you to watch Da Classics, he's probably tried to sell you on at least one Kurosawa film to start off with.  You have only one viewing of Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood (the Shakespeare one) or The Hidden Fortress (yes, "the Star Wars one") to convince yourself that other countries with other cultures and histories knew how to make "real" genre movies--yes, with action, not just standing around to make arcane visual symbolism--fifty or sixty years ago, the same as we did in commercial Hollywood...Just that they were there, and you were here, and you probably didn't find out, is all.
And we already mentioned a few months ago, even a Silent or two, courtesy of Chaplin, Lloyd or Fritz Lang won't hurt either.

Cutting the Cable Cord can be a handful of monthly streaming subscriptions, and even if having only two or three (and being able to drop the services you don't watch) can be too many, at least you get some actual CHOICE for your "New online revolution of choices".  You can watch a film people before you have heard of, or you can chat online about how a season binge of Stranger Things is the coolest thing on Netflix right now, just because it's the only thing you can find on Netflix right now...Your call.
Education begins with curiosity.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Election Edition: I'm the Movie Activist, and I....oh, YOU know.

Just taking a break from Movie Activism to encourage the rest of the activists out there:

Get out and vote.  
Nobody--I repeat, NOBODY--will give rattus tucchus uno if you try to show off your Righteous Anger With the System by saying "I don't like either of them, I'm staying home, so there!"  That's like protesting the Atlantic Ocean by refusing to drink a glass of water.  
Seriously, grab a twelve-foot Olympic vaulting pole and get over yourself:  If you're going to be a smug self-righteous jerk, at least be a jerk and do something that will have some actual effect.
(Like the days of folksy, outhouse-nutty ol' Ross Perot, many people right now are making big shows of singing the praises of Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party's Jill Stein without really having a clear idea of their respective political platforms, just to express their own tantrum at having to choose between Clinton and Trump.  Regardless of their relative chances, voting Third-Party without knowing the platforms, for no other reason than to thumb rebel-patriot noses back at the established Two-Party candidates, is a bit like the high-school girl who dates the class nerd just to get back at her boyfriend:  It doesn't improve the relationship, it gives the wrong guy a lot of false attention she'll regret later, and it's just not worth the date itself simply to prove some point.)

There's a reason it was called a Secret Ballot when it was written into our system, and why they put dividers and curtains up at polling stations:  
Nobody is going to think badly of you whoever you vote for, because nobody is going to KNOW who you voted for.  Nobody can tell you before you do, nobody's in there with you while you do, and nobody cares after you do.  Trump aside, you're not staking your immortal soul for now and all time on a stand for Good vs. Evil, or Patriarchy vs. Feminism, or Team Iron Man vs. Team Cap, you're just participating in a democratic political rotation that takes place every four years.  
And we've had Family Guy on TV for seventeen years and survived, you'll live through four.

We've got it easy in our country.  Our politicians aren't like Hollywood studio executives, in that we can vote them out of office as easily as we can put them in:  
No politician brags about being a "shark", or that they live by the laws of their own "jungle".  
No politician is so dismissive of domestic trade that he shrugs "Hey, if US customers won't buy our goods, just make all our industries to sell to China, they'll buy anything."  
Our politicians are not self-styled gangster-boss dictators who set themselves up in private dominions answerable to no one, free to use as much propaganda and cooked numbers as they can spin to convince the people of what they "should" think, and who gloat over their elite status far above us poor five-figure-salaried peasants, and their ability--their traditional pride and duty, in fact--to lie, cheat and hustle their rivals for personal marketplace gain as they kill-or-be-killed to keep their jobs.  Okay, Donald Trump, maybe, but that's because he has the same corporate business-CEO background as said studio execs, and doesn't know how our little "democracy" thing works...Where those in charge don't get to indulge themselves, and do have two-hundred-year-old higher political authority to answer their actions to.
And in politics as well as business, what you don't know can hurt you:  In the end, democracy gives everyone a voice, and either way, someone's going to get a rude awakening in their ear.  All it takes is for one person to speak up, and enough One Persons to be a People.
If we can stop one politician's dream of building a wall, we can stop a studio's dream of building one movie into an eight-film "Franchise".  If we can stop a war from killing innocent people overseas, we can stop the war Warner is waging to kill innocent Blu-ray disks. If we can change the problems in our country, we can change the problems in our movies and TV shows...How hard could it be?

But while we're here, in the interest of TV/movie/sitcom cliche's, I also put that cartoon at the top for a reason--
There are three widespread mainstream pop-culture annoyances that will make me froth at the mouth...Okay, FOUR, if you count people who spell "Santa Clause" like he was the title of a Tim Allen Disney comedy (it was a clause in a contract, people, rent it!):  
One are kids who still confuse "Loose/Lose" into adulthood, the second are people who put a comma in Shakespeare's "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"  (Hint:  Look up "wherefore" in Webster's.)  
And the third are would-be current-ref comics and hootsters who try to joke about quoting "...And I approve this message" from political ads in everyday conversation.  Nothing creeps up my spine like a much needed Cliche'-Buster.

Think we've got the "Ugliest presidential campaign in American history" right now with Trump v. Clinton?  Well, we'll probably make the top three in the next historical revision.
At the moment, the top prize is hotly debated between John Adams v. Thomas Jefferson, 1800, which basically caused the first US two-party political split when a debate over a central Federalist Constitution versus the earlier Democratic-Republican idea for states to mind their own businesses turned too personal and made the two lifelong friends mortal political enemies...And in the other corner, George HW Bush v. Michael Dukakis, 1988, when nervous Republicans, about to lose eight years of Ronald Reagan to the two-term rule, refused to give up their "Republican Camelot" without one ugly schoolyard fight, and were determined to grind the intellectual Democratic Massachusetts governor into paste under their heel.
That was the election that created more slang terms in our campaign culture than any other (quick, who said "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"?), most of them referring to aired attack ads, and all aimed by Republican strategist Lee Atwater towards "that little midget":  "Willie Horton".  "Revolving door".  "Boston harbor".  "Vacuum cleaner".  Bring back memories for some of those older folks out there?  For those who weren't there, ask your parents for definition.  I could explain them for the young folks, but the tastelessness and implied racism of some of them might be unsuitable for this blog.
And, okay, "Vacuum cleaner" wasn't one of theirs--That was the election we saw the rise of the Third-Party Attack Ad, which could be produced by private organizations, like a PAC support group or the Religious Right, and express a little more personally questionable anger than the candidate himself would want his committee to be associated with, but which the candidate could still stay above and say "Not mine, folks, don't look at me."  It started to become just a little too convenient an excuse, particularly when it was hard to determine whether those "crazy loose-cannons" had been acting on under-the-table orders or not.
The use of nameless drive-by attack ads with or without the sponsoring candidate's name, face or participation had reached such proportions in state and federal elections that by 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, designed to close loopholes in campaign funding, also created the Stand By Your Ad provision, which required the candidate to appear, onscreen, in any TV, radio or print ad produced by his own campaign committee, and say so.  (Internet is still exempt from the rule, and frequently exploited.)  The idea was not only to help identify the "real" attack ads from the "fake" ones, but also that no image-conscious candidate would want to be seen next to his own genuine schoolyard attack ad, and thus make fewer of them, or at least keep the tone a little more civil--And if they did personally "approve" (= authorize) their own attack ad against their opponent, that told you everything you needed to know.

Ever wondered?  That's why.
When a candidate in a political ad says "I approve this message", he is not--now, let's repeat that very slowly and clearly so everyone can understand it, he is NOT--trying to annoy you by chirping "I liked it!", nor is he some vain idiot saying "Dang, I'm good!...See how good it makes me look?"
He is complying with the election law and validating his own campaign comittee's ad with his legally-required disclaimer stamp of APPROVAL.  Get it?
Adam?  Jamie?  I'd call this cliche' "Busted".