The Wizard of Oz


We're off to see the Wizard!

We’re off to see the Wizard!

(1939) Musical (MGM) Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walsh, Clara Blandick, The Singer Midgets, Dorothy Barrett, Amelia Batchelor, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie. Directed by Victor Fleming

Most movies are a product of their times. Most people can without knowing when the film was made have a pretty good idea of approximately when it was filmed just by looking at the costumes and hairstyles, listening to the dialogue and so on. Some movies though, transcend the times and become classics. These movies will be around much longer than you and I will; long after we’ve shuffled this mortal coil, audiences will still be enjoying them.

The Wizard of Oz is one such classic. Even though few of us were around when it was released back in 1939 most of us have childhood memories revolving around the movie thanks to its annual appearance on broadcast TV in the 60s through the 90s and of course it’s availability now on home video. Even today when I watch the movie I still feel the same wonder I did when I first saw it on television as a young boy.

Need I tell you the plot? Everyone knows that young Dorothy Gale (Garland) and her beloved dog Toto are transported from dull and sepia-toned Kansas by a twister (or tornado if you prefer) to the colorful and magical land of Oz. Her arrival accidentally ends the life of the Wicked Witch of the East, whose magical ruby slippers are placed on Dorothy’s feet by Glinda (Burke) the Good Witch of the North which protects her from the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton).

Getting Dorothy home won’t be easy so Glinda sends her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City where Oz (Morgan), the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz could help her. Along the way she meets up with the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who become fast friends with Dorothy. The Wizard sends them on a quest to fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch to prove their worth but how will these friends, who need brains (the Scarecrow), a heart (the Tin Man) and courage (the Lion) be able to help Dorothy – who just wants to go home – against a powerful and evil sorceress?

Along with Gone With the Wind this may be the most beloved film ever made. It is Da Queen’s all-time favorite so it gets a regular viewing in our household. We even went and saw it on the big screen a couple of years ago to mark its 70th anniversary. I will say that if ever a revival house shows it or if it makes an appearance for a special event at your local cinema, you should by all means try and see it on the big screen – it makes a huge difference.

Even if the only place you ever see it is on your TV or computer screen it is well worth a look. It is a thing of brilliance, from the contrast of the drum and sepia-toned Kansas sequences (which includes the “Over the Rainbow” musical number, perhaps the best ever set to film) with the colorful and whimsical Oz sequences. For most of the actors who would appear in the movie, it would be a career-defining moment.

A lot of the films from this era are extremely dated and don’t hold up to modern standards but this isn’t one of those. Although the special effects are primitive by our standards there is still a magic here that goes beyond CGI. Part of it is simply that part of your inner child who loves to play “make believe” that this movie speaks to but part of it is simply that great care was taken to make this fun and lovely to look at from every angle. Sure, the art deco Emerald City looks like Miami’s South Beach on crack but that’s half the joy.

Garland was never better than she was here, a performance of lovely simplicity that made her utterly believable. When she sings “Over the Rainbow” it is with such yearning that your heart almost breaks – and empathizes. Haven’t we all wanted to go over the rainbow in our darkest moments?

Lahr, one of the most popular comedians of the era, nearly steals the show as the Cowardly Lion. He’s kind of like the soldier from Brooklyn who lightened up the wartime flicks that would come in the intervening years, and his delivery of the Lion’s lines (say that real fast if you dare) is iconic to the point that most of us often do our own impressions of it (go ahead and deny it if you can). Overall it is a tribute to friendship and loyalty that resonates with all of us – who hasn’t wanted friends like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man at our backs?

This is the kind of movie that transcends movies. It is what brings families together to watch something so pure that we can all enjoy it without thought of politics, race, religion or just about anything. It’s appeal is so universal that it goes beyond boundaries and lines – it is as popular elsewhere in the world as it is here in America. One cannot hear “We’re off to see the wizard!” without thinking they’re embarking on an adventure of their own.

In short, this is a movie you don’t just like, you come to love it. It’s not a movie you watch or even experience, it becomes part of you. It is why people fall in love with the movies to begin with. My highest rating is 10 out of 10, but this is one of few movies that is above such inane things as ratings. It’s just something special you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic and a great means of family bonding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I don’t know. You don’t like classic movies maybe?

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes that might frighten the very young and very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garland wore a corset across her torso so she would appear younger and flat-chested.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2005 release Collector’s edition (the one in the green case, not the yellow) has a wealth of extras, including Angela Lansbury reading an abridged version of the book complete with original illustrations; an 11-minute featurette on the restoration process and several documentaries on the making of the movie and it’s enduring legacy. There are five silent era versions of the book as well as an animated short from 1933 There’s a 28 minute feature on the life of L. Frank Baum, author of the beloved book that started it all and there are some stills and promotional materials (including a souvenir program from the Hollywood premiere in 1939). Believe it or not, the 2009 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray has all that and even more – a 52-page hardcover book about the making and marketing of The Wizard of Oz, a wrist watch, a sing-along track, a 1992 made-for-TV movie called The Dreamer of Oz starring the late John Ritter as Baum, a radio broadcast in which Garland reprised her role as Dorothy Gale and on its own double-sided disc a six hour documentary on the history of MGM. It’s pricey but worth the added expense for the Oz junkie in your family.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $2.8M production budget; in 1939 dollars that’s a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 11/10

NEXT: Oz the Great and Powerful

Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


Miracle on 34th Street
What could be more Christmas-y than a hug by a little girl for Santa Claus?

 

(1947) Family (20th Century Fox) Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Phillip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Harry Antrim, Thelma Ritter, Mae Marsh, William Forrest. Directed by George Seaton

 

Here in the United States, it is a sign of growing up when a child sets aside their belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps in several senses it is more of a sign that they are setting aside their imagination as well.

Kris Kringle (Gwenn) is appalled to see the man who is scheduled to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is drunk as a skunk. He reports his outrage to Doris Walker (O’Hara), the event director. She persuades him to accept the role himself and he does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa in the chain’s flagship store on 34th street in Manhattan.

Although he is told to direct shoppers to Macy’s merchandise, he tells one (Ritter) that the fire engine her son wants that Macy’s doesn’t carry can be found at Gimbels, Macy’s archrivals. She is so impressed that she tells toy department manager Julian Shellhammer (Tonge) that she will be a Macy’s customer for life.

Doris, a divorcee, leaves her daughter with her neighbor Fred Gailey (Payne), a lawyer. He takes Susan (Wood), six years old and having been brought up in a practical manner by her mother to believe that there is no  Santa Claus, to see Kris Kringle at the store. When Doris discovers this, she urges Kris to tell Susan that he’s not really Santa. Instead, he tells her that he’s the genuine article.

Doris is concerned that he is delusional and might harm someone so she decides to fire Kringle but store owner R.H. Macy (Antrim) is delighted by the positive publicity and goodwill that he has generated for Macy’s and promises both Shellhammer and Doris generous bonuses if he stays. To alleviate Doris’ concerns, he has Kringle undergo an evaluation with company psychologist Granville Sawyer (Hall) which Kringle passes but not without antagonizing Sawyer.

Kris discovers that Sawyer has convinced store employee Alfred that he is mentally ill just because Alfred is kind-hearted and generous, and raps Sawyer on the head with the handle of an umbrella. Sawyer exaggerates his injury and Kringle is confined in the Bellevue Mental Hospital. Tricked into co-operating and believing that Doris is part of the deception, Kringle deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent confinement. Fred however urges Kris not to give up and takes on his case as his lawyer, arranging a formal competency hearing in the court of Judge Henry X. Harper (Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court.

Ordered by Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred to drop the case quietly and not seek publicity. Instead, Fred thanks the horrified Sawyer for the idea and bumps up the hearing into a full-blown trial placing Judge Harper in an awkward position – having to try the existence of Santa Claus.

Along with It’s a Wonderful Life this might be the most beloved Christmas film in history. Gwenn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, one of two that the movie won (the other was for Best Original Screenplay). That it was released in the summertime is perhaps one of the most boneheaded moves in studio history – the publicity of the film wound up hiding it’s Christmas setting for fear that audiences wouldn’t see a Christmas film in the heat of summer, a fear that proved to be sadly well-founded.

Still, it remains the standard of Christmas movies, both a sly commentary on the commercialization of the holiday (an issue that has sadly only gotten worse in the 70 years since the movie was made) and also on the faith and imagination of children that we tend to lose as adults.

Wood, in one of her first feature film appearances is self-assured and definitely doesn’t have that forced quality that many of the child actors of the time had. You never get a sense she is reading lines so much as inhabiting the role. O’Hara, who initially didn’t want to do the film until she read the script (she had moved back to Ireland) gives one of the defining performances of her career.

The movie definitely is a product of its time, although as such it has more charm than you can imagine. The opening scenes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade were actually filmed at the 1946 Parade (and yes, Gwenn did play Santa in that parade), which gives you an idea of what it was like back then. That kind of realism was unusual for films of the era.

While It’s a Wonderful Life had a much more heartland frame of mind, Miracle on 34th Street has the East Coast sophistication of its era to distinguish it. Both movies are heartwarming and both perfectly synthesize the spirit of the season and both have the uplifting quality that was present in Frank Capra’s films which It’s a Wonderful Life actually was – Miracle on 34th Street was not but very well could have been.  Those who love Christmas movies in all likelihood do so largely because of this movie. It’s a classic that may be dated at times but never gets old.

WHY RENT THIS: A Christmas classic, a perennial that bears watching again and again. Gwenn’s performance is one of the best Santa depictions ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Exceedingly dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfect viewing for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house depicted at the end of the film still exists, and is located at 24 Derby Road, Port Washington, New York. Other than the addition of window near the roofline, it looks nearly exactly the same as it did in 1947. The Macy’s Christmas display shown in the film is on display every Christmas at the Marshall and Ilsley Bank headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an AMC television special about the movie, as well as newsreel footage of Gwenn accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1948. In addition, the special DVD edition includes both the colorized and original black and white versions of the film, in addition to a one-hour television version from 1955. Do note that the Blu-Ray version does not include the latter two features although the box packaging claims that it has the colorized version – only the original black and white version is present here. Expect a deluxe Blu-Ray version of the film classic somewhere down the road.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Charlotte’s Web (2006)


Charlotte's Web

Some loves were just never meant to be.

(2006) Family (Paramount) Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), John Cleese (voice), Oprah Winfrey (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice), Robert Redford (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Reba McEntire (voice), Dominic Scott Kay (voice), Kevin Anderson, Sam Shepard, Gary Basaraba.  Directed by Gary Winick

The truth of the matter is that as much as I was looking forward to seeing this star-studded live action version of the E.B. White children’s novel, Da Queen had even more anticipation than I. There was, therefore, no question that we would be seeing it as soon as it was possible to see it in the theater, and eventually buying the DVD for it as well. Still, the cynic in me wondered; was it possible that the filmmakers could take a beloved novel and completely mess it up?

The plot is simple enough. Fern Arable (Fanning) saves a runt pig from being put down by her farmer dad (Anderson) and raises the pig, whom she calls Wilbur, herself. The two are inseparable, the pig even joining Fern at school. Eventually, the pig grows as baby pigs will, and Fern’s parents put their collective feet down. They send the pig across the road to Uncle Homer’s farm. Kind-hearted Homer Zuckerman (Basaraba) installs the pig in a large, comfortable barn and there Wilbur (Kay) meets the animals of the farm.

There’s unctuous Samuel the Sheep (Cleese), prissy Gussy the Goose (Winfrey), down-to-earth Golly the Goose (Cedric), wry Bitsy the Cow (Bates), neurotic Ike the Horse (Redford) and devious Templeton the Rat (Buscemi). However, Wilbur’s best friend of all is Charlotte A. Cavatica (Roberts), spider.

However, all is not idyllic in the barn. The other animals are aware of what happens to spring pigs on Zuckerman’s farm. They become summer bacon. Alarmed, Wilbur turns to his friends for help, and he finds it in the most unlikely of places – in the miraculous webs of Charlotte.

Most of my generation grew up reading the book and seeing the animated version of it, voiced by Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur) and Paul Lynde (Templeton). Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite books and I read it and re-read it regularly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people – a whole lot – that could say the same. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that most of us who love the book would not take too kindly to having it messed with unnecessarily.

Thankfully, director Winick doesn’t. In fact, if recollection serves me correctly (and Da Queen bears this one out), I think this new version is if anything even more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Winick also takes the movie out of the depression era that the book was set in and makes it a bit more timeless, setting it somewhere in the late 20th century, but cleverly doesn’t give too many clues as to when the story is taking place. Rather, he puts the action in a rural setting that is nearly archetypal, so perfect as to be almost too good to be true, and as a result we feel comfortable in this world.

The problems I have with the movie are three-fold. The first is that some of the voice actors – not all, just some – come off rather flat. My favorite moments from the movie tended to come during exclusive live action sequences, as when Fern confronts her father about Wilbur’s fate, or Henry Fussy’s (Julian O’Donnell) awkward courting of Fern. Considering how much this movie and the story relies on the animals, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Second is Charlotte herself. She’s CG, and quite frankly, they do a little too good a job with her. Strangely, they give her almost human eyes rather than the multi-faceted insect eyes that spiders actually have. Rather than humanizing her, it makes Charlotte seem kind of creepy if you ask me. There were times during the movie that I half-expected Charlotte to pounce on some poor unsuspecting critter and eat it alive. Sorry, spiders aren’t cute and cuddly creatures and quite frankly, they should have kept away from close-ups of Charlotte. I’m sure some of the younger kids might have been freaked out a little bit.

The most glaring problem I had with the movie, however, is Wilbur. Child actor Kay doesn’t have the emotional depth to really make Wilbur live, as Henry Gibson did thirty years ago. I know that Wilbur is supposed to be a child, but quite frankly he’s also supposed to be “some pig,” among other things and Kay never makes Wilbur seem anything more than whiny and out-of-sorts.

Still, the good outweighs the bad in the movie. The live actors do a tremendous job and make up for some of the surprising star flops. Shepard’s narration is spot-on; he’s the perfect guy for the job. Winick also captures the mood and the charm of the novel nicely, which is really what you’re looking for most. The animated version stands up even today as a timeless classic; I don’t know necessarily if this version will get the same sort of distinction, but something tells me it will not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and nearly perfect family fare at the right time of the year. Take a break from the big-budget CG animated features and check this out with your kids. It will give you, at the very least, a chance to revisit something beloved from your own childhood.

WHY RENT THIS: The live action version is more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Fanning is terrific in her role as Fern.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The child actor voicing Wilbur isn’t up to the task, sadly – but then many of the voice actors seem curiously flat. CG verion of Charlotte is creepy enough to freak out the smaller tykes.

FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family, although younger children might have problems with the realistic CG version of Charlotte.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, are a tribute to the name of the original book’s author E.B. White, whose initials stood for Elwyn Brooks.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a pair of music videos, as well as a featurette that focuses on what happened to the more than 40 piglets that played Wilbur after shooting wrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $144.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: African Cats