The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl

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Frozen (2013)


Olaf is looking to make some S'mores.

Olaf is looking to make some S’mores.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson, Maia Wilson, Edie McClurg, Robert Pine, Maurice LaMarche, Livvy Stubenrauch, Eva Bella, Spencer Ganus, Jesse Corti, Nicholas Guest,  Annaleigh Ashford. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

If climate change proponents are to be believed, the world is slowly heating up and eventually catastrophic consequences will come about as a result. Here is an animated movie that looks at a different kind of climate change.

Elsa (Menzel), the princess of Arundel who is heir to the throne, has a unique gift – power over snow and ice. When innocent play with her younger sister Anna (Bell) causes her to injure her, Elsa’s parents take the both of them to Pabbie (Hinds), the troll king. He heals Anna but tells Elsa that she must hide her powers. This causes Elsa to stay in her room for the most part, shutting out the world and Anna in particular whom she loves more than anyone. Anna for her part is mystified, her memory of the events gone. She wonders what she has done to drive her sister away so. The gates to the city are closed and stay that way.

Then comes the day that Elsa must be crowned Queen of Arundel for that time has come. Anna is absolutely over the moon, having become bored with the same halls, the same people. She wants music and laughter and life. She meets a handsome young Prince Hans (Fontana) and while there is a stuffy old Duke (Tudyk) who is endlessly irritated at the mispronunciation of his Duchy of Weselton, there is dancing and fun all around them.

Unfortunately, Elsa’s powers manifest themselves at an inopportune time and she flees to the North Mountain but not before putting all of Arundel into a deep freeze. Anna decides to chase after Elsa and bring her home, leaving Prince Hans in charge. Along the way Anna’s horse bolts, leading her to a trading post where she meets young Kristoff (Goff), who finds the winter more unfortunate than most because he delivers ice with his trusty reindeer Sven. The three of them team up to go to the ice castle Elsa has created for herself, assisted by the tenacious snowman Olaf (Gad) who was brought to life by Elsa’s spell.

However Elsa still hasn’t figured out a way to control her powers and Anna doesn’t yet realize that she has been betrayed by someone close to her. Will summer ever come again to Arundel or is that kingdom destined to be an eternal Winnipeg?

First off, this is one of the most spectacular animated features Disney has put out since Beauty and the Beast and maybe since The Little Mermaid. A kingdom of beautiful ice and snow with a traditional Disney rural kingdom setting makes this familiar and yet new all at once. The visuals are some of the best Disney has ever produced.

That said, they sadly set this beautiful film to a typical Disney story. While this was supposed to based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen it is so loosely based as to be unrecognizable. However I will admit that your little princess-wannabe is going to be in seventh heaven as there are not one but two princesses to ooh and ahh over (all right, one of them is technically a queen).

Oddly, the protagonist is pretty much like every other Disney princess ever – plucky, eager, chomping at the bit to find her prince and compassionate to boot. It is Elsa who is a far more interesting character and I think it’s telling that on a recent visit to EPCOT, the princess holding court at the Norway pavilion was not Anna but Elsa. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Idris Menzel is the voice of Elsa and if you didn’t fall for her talent in Wicked then you really don’t know what talent is. This girl has a voice that could restart a flat-lined heart and make a Republican fund the arts.

I also found Olaf to be a hoot. He’s one of those characters who isn’t very bright but has a heart the size of a small planet and the kind of simple faith that only a child would get. One can envy his world view a little bit as it lacks all the sophistication that we adults like to throw into the mix but at the same time probably is closer to what the world should be than we’ll ever get. I could hang with Olaf and hopefully Disney will realize that they have the kind of character who is going to sell a lot of merchandise and direct-to-DVD videos.

While I wish the story was a bit less rote and that the music was more memorable, nonetheless this is a pretty decent effort in a year when animated features really were uniformly bad with only one or two exceptions. While this doesn’t reach the standard of Disney classics, it is still good enough that if your kid wants to see it more than once you probably won’t mind getting the home video edition and watching it along with them – after having seen this in the theater several times of course.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully animated. Olaf is a keeper.

REASONS TO STAY: Songs are nothing to write home about. A little bit rote.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of rude jokes and some semi-violent action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A cameo is made by Rapunzel and Eugene (Flynn) during the opening of the gates during the musical number “For the First Time in Forever.” They can be seen entering the screen from the left – Rapunzel has short hair and is wearing a purple and pink dress while Eugene is wearing a maroon vest and brown sash.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tangled

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Flypaper

Fantasia 2000


Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is a whale of a movie

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney) Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Penn Jilette, Teller, Quincy Jones, Leopold Stokowsky, Itzhak Perlman, James Levine, Ralph Grierson, Kathleen Battle, Wayne Allwine (voice), Tony Anselmo (voice), Russi Taylor (voice). Directed by Various

 

One of Hollywood’s major curses is that it regularly seeks to improve upon a revered original. All of us can name at least one ill-advised remake, an update that litters the bowels of the septic tank of celluloid failure.

Wisely, the animators at Disney taking on the concept of Fantasia 2000 realized that they didn’t have to improve on the original so much as measure up to it. The original 1940 Fantasia is as highbrow as animation gets; it was (and is today) to standard animation features as going to an art museum is to attending a wrestling match. The same comparison can be made for the new opus.

Returning only the beloved “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from the original (the one wherein Mickey Mouse enchants a broomstick to carry his water for him), Fantasia 2000 adds eight new sequences ranging from the simplistic geometric animation of the opening “Beethoven’s Fifth” sequence to the intricate storytelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The animation here holds up well to the original. Check out the self-satisfied smirks on the pink flamingos in Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals,” which asks the age-old question “What would happen if you gave a pink flamingo a yo-yo?” (it is also the most charming and shortest of the sequences here). Check also the looks of parental concern on the whales in the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” (by Respighi) sequence. This particular part is breathtaking in its imagination, having majestic humpback whales float in the air as serenely as they plow through the water, but the world of these whales is not necessarily what it seems; the sequence’s end is a delightful lesson in perspective.

Another favorite sequence is set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” done in the linear style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. It depicts a depression-era New York City in which a construction worker dreams of being a jazz drummer, an unemployed man dreams of getting a job, a henpecked man dreams of being able to let the child in him go free and a little girl dreams of more attention from her parents. In this idealized Big Apple, dreams come true amid the glitter of the lights of Broadway.

Another sure-to-be fave is Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (yes, the graduation theme for every high school ever) which stars Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant in loading up the Ark in preparation for the flood. Donald is separated from his beloved Daisy during the frenzied boarding; each believes the other left behind. While Donald puts out various fires in his capacity as assistant (the woodpeckers within are more dangerous than the storm without) Daisy pines at the railing of the mighty ark. They are reunited as the animals disembark in a particularly poignant moment. The movie closes with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which portrays an anime-style nymph battling a volcano-spawned firebird.

Each sequence is introduced by a celebrity host (Steve Martin, James Earl Jones and Penn and Teller are all particularly delightful). The animation here is superb; I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX when it was first released to theaters and it made quite the impression on me. The re-mastered “Sorcerer’s Appearance” works seamlessly with the other sequences.

This is probably a bit too long-winded for smaller kids, which is true of the original “Fantasia.” As a work of art, it’s magnificent. As entertainment, it requires patience and imagination, something for which the American movie-going public is not noted. Still, for the smart gals and fellers reading this, it is without-question a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the most gorgeous animation you’re likely to see. Intelligent and delightful melding of classical music and animation fit for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Children might find it tedious as it is a series of vignettes with almost no dialogue.

FAMILY MATTERS: Absolutely fit for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Officially released just after midnight December 31, 1999 making it the first movie to be released in the new millennium.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The original Fantasia is included in both the original 2000 DVD release and the 2010 Blu-Ray release. There are also a couple of animated shorts from the 1950s related to musical composition. In addition on the Blu-Ray edition there is a piece on a projected collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney that never came to fruition, although about six minutes of footage exists (shown here, along with the nearly hour long featurette concerning the piece). The Blu-Ray also has a couple of features on the new Disney Family Museum in the old army Presidio in San Francisco (well worth visiting if you are ever in the area – Da Queen and I did just that earlier this year).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.9M on an $80M production budget; like it’s predecessor, Fantasia 2000 failed to make back it’s production and marketing costs at the boxoffice.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Hugo