Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Best Disney Film You've Never Seen

I’m loving my Blu-ray player and, inspired by the fact that a number of film critics I like have named Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as one of the best releases of the past year, have been watching this fifty year old cartoon in ten minute bursts since the Netflix copy arrived on Monday. It’s twee and sentimental, but also happens to be visually astonishing. The backgrounds in particular are feats of the imagination that amaze; the wicked queen’s (if indeed she is a queen - I haven’t really been following the story) lair has the detail of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while also reminding me of the production style Tim Burton used more recently in ‘Sweeney Todd’; and the character images are elegant and evocative - a comedy fat king, an embosoming fairy or three, a jutting-chinned handsome prince. Beyond that, the way the Blu-ray makes the film look is almost too good; I like a bit of grain in my old film transfers rather than feeling like I’m watching a robot painting in ‘THX 1138′, but I suppose that’s churlish when faced with the upgraded image available on the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ blu-ray.

Having said that, I’m not writing here to encourage you to watch a Disney fairytale cartoon with Freudian resonance, engaging as that may be. It’s the short film special feature included on the disc that blew me away. ‘Grand Canyon’, a 25 minute live action film putting incredible photography - much of it aerial - of the canyon to the music of Ferde GrofĂ©. I remember seeing such nature documentaries when I was a kid, as the ‘B’ film before movies like ‘The Dark Crystal’; I remember being bored, the anticipation of the main event making patience impossible. I’m guessing that ‘Grand Canyon’ might have been one of the film I couldn’t wait to end; and like many things I wasted as a child, having watched it again the other night, I wish I hadn’t.

Disney’s ‘Grand Canyon’, directed by James Algar is, quite simply, my film of the week; maybe the month; maybe the year. The images evoke the stargate sequence of ‘2001′, making it one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen; the fact that the images are timeless - the Grand Canyon was here before any of us, and will still be here after we’ve gone (if indeed we ever do leave here - but we’ll get to the theology of the afterlife in a future episode ;-)) makes it one of the most disturbing. The lack of tricks available to film-makers in 1958 compared with today makes it a far more naturalistic short than might be made with a computer or IMAX; all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like a live action ‘Fantasia’; and I’d guess that your feelings about ‘Fantasia’ will largely shape your response about ‘Grand Canyon’.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance Festival 2: Mary and Max

One of the surprises of this year’s festival is that the opening night film is a stop-motion animation about the penpal relationship between a lonely Australian girl and a profoundly overweight man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York. If ‘Mary and Max’ had been a live action drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, featuring elegant images of the Manhattan skyline looking like you’ve never seen it before, intercut with a knowing reflection on human isolation and the things that can heal it, this would appear to be the perfect choice for the world’s best known independent film festival. The fact that it’s made of plasticine instead of live action makes it so much more interesting than so many other independent dramas; it was good to see it as the opening night film.

‘Mary and Max’ is sensitive to Asperger’s syndrome and other special needs without being cloying; it’s honest about depression; it’s extremely funny in places without falling into the slapstick trap; the narration from Barry Humphries is perfectly balanced between sweet and harsh (and Hoffman/Collette both articulate what these characters might actually be like the real world); and, most of all, the animation - which took 57 weeks of days that each produced no more than a few seconds screen time is magnificent. Tonally think ‘Wallace and Gromit’ meets ‘Rain Man’ - with the emphasis on the rain. Director Adam Elliott has made an exhilarating film that genuinely deserves a huge audience when it’s released.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sundance Festival 1: Korean documentary 'Old Partner'/Irish short '6 Farms'

My first night at Sundance and it’s freezing. Only on the outside. Am surrounded by people queuing up in front of volunteers with plastic badges hanging from chains round their necks. Some are wearing snazzy warm festival-branded fleeces. They all seem lovely. Film festivals, at times, can be little more than cattle markets or schmooze-zones, and I’m sure Sundance has its share of that - but tonight the audience seemed all about the movie. A Korean documentary about an elderly couple and their ox - I’m not kidding - called ‘Old Partner’ constituted my introductory screening, and I guess all I can say is that it’s as good a film about an elderly couple and their ox could expect to be. Delicate and harsh in the same sentence - as gorgeous images of nature compete with the reality that the husband and the dying ox are both winding down their lives, and neither of them is happy about it. ‘Old Partner’ was followed by a marvelous Irish short by Tony Donoghue, ‘6 Farms’ - a fantastic time lapse still photography piece about Tipperary agricultural traditions. It was like Aardman’s ‘Creature Comforts’ with more literal images. The photographic technique is so complex that this almost certainly is one of the longest short film shoots in history.

Tomorrow I’ve a revisionist Western (is there any other kind these days?), a stop-motion animated film about a penpal relationship between an 8 year old girl and a middle aged obese man with Aspergers, and a boxing documentary about Muhammad Ali that isn’t ‘When we were Kings’. Reports will appear here if the frostbite on my fingers thaws.