Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950) movie poster

director Henry Koster
viewed: 12/31/2011

I hadn’t watched a movie on VHS in so long….  I actually had to figure out how to re-hook up my VCR.  And it took some work.

With my kids back from Australia, I wanted to find a good movie for our New Year’s Eve movie night.  I wanted a classic and the movie that I’d ordered from Netflix had not yet come in, so I trundled down to the now nearly anachronistic “Ye Olde Video Shoppe” and browsed to see what they had to offer.  Harvey was actually one of the top ones that I was looking for.   I had an odd feeling for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which has the New Year’s Eve thing going for it.  Oddly, I recall seeing that film a number of times as I was growing up.  But the pickins was slim but ultimately I found Harvey on VHS.

In the end, Felix had a bit of a migraine so it was just Clara and I that watched it.  Great fun, I must say.

Though as a kid I watched The Poseidon Adventure many times, I had never seen Harvey (not that these films have anything in common, mind you).  Not until a friend enlightened me some 20 or so years ago and I was brought in to the wonder and enjoyment of this classic film.

I have always loved Jimmy Stewart, ever since I recall being first introduced to him via cinema.  Harvey was one of his personal favorite roles and it’s doubtlessly one of his best.  Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play by Mary Chase, Harvey is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a man without a care in the world whose best friend is a 6 foot something invisible rabbit.

Of course, everybody thinks he’s crazy.  Especially his older sister Veta (played by the amazing and Academy Award winning Josephine Hull) and his niece, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), both of whom are trying to re-connect in the town’s society and find Myrtle Mae a man.  Embarrassments lead Veta to finally try to have Elwood committed.  Nearly slapstick insanity ensues when Veta gets committed instead.

The whole film plays off of Elwood’s sublime charm, ease, and happiness.  He’s unflappable, blissed-out almost, a model of kindness, gentility.  He’s also a drunk.

Interestingly, the film treats his alcoholism blithely.  He’s never shown to be “drunk”, per se, though he is constantly ordering two martinis, one for him and one for Harvey.  If alcoholism is potentially a cheerful state of being in the film, psychiatry is anything but.  The story is a paean to the mystical, magical world of fantasy to which we all can belong in strict converse to the “reality” that drugs and forced cold baths bring about.  Ultimately, it’s a cab driver who notes how he meets all kinds of wonderful folk on the way to the sanitarium but they always come out as gruff realists, unfriendly and unkind.  This is what ends up saving Elwood.

Surely, psychiatry around 1950 featured probably as many curses as cures, but let’s face it, who’s ever met a perpetually cheery, benign, open, gentlemanly drunk?

In the end, it’s revealed that Harvey is a “pooka”, a Celtic fairy spirit that takes animal form quite often and thanks to a few little effects, it’s made clear that he does exist.  So there is a magical world, after all.  Harvey is a big invisible rabbit, not a pink elephant.  And the kindness and gentility of Edwood P. Dowd is more of a testament to how people would be well-suited to slowing down, showing one another courtesy and interest, and knock back a few martinis while you’re at it.

Clara enjoyed the film quite a bit.  As did I.  And it is indeed one of the best Jimmy Stewart films there is.  And there are a lot.

Mouse Hunt

Mouse Hunt (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 12/19/08

I see so few films on VHS anymore, and it’s really a factor of letter-boxing vs. non-letter-boxing (call me a snob, rightly or wrongly).  But in trying to come up with some films that might cater to my kids’ particular interests, I recalled this film about a mouse outwitting humans as a potentially fun flick for my son who has a particular appreciation for the world of rodentia, especially when the rodents are the clever and winning ones.

I hadn’t actually seen this film, more than perhaps pieces of it on cable or something at most.  I mean, 11 years ago I did not have kids and already had a rather low tolerance for Nathan Lane, which has only gotten lower and lower.  Though I don’t have a lot of experience with him, Lee Evans I at least found amusing.  And then the inimitiable Christopher Walken shows up as an exterminator (can’t discount Christopher Walken).  And the whole thing was directed by a then less experienced Gore Verbinski who would later go on to film the American remake of The Ring (2002) and the entire Pirates of the Caribbean series, not that that something of significant cinematic note.

Verbinski does show his ability to shoot action and comedy, at a comprehensible and entertaining level.  And Lane and Evans do their level best as two brothers, on the down and out for varying reasons, who inherit their father’s string factory and mouse-inhabited house, who end up trying to kill the world’s smartest rodent in a somewhat classically Warner Brothers cartoon fashion.

It is what it is.  And while it’s hardly particularly interesting, it does manage to accomplish what it sets out to: it entertains on the level it is attempting.  And believe me, there are many films that fail to deliver on this.

One of my measuring sticks for these films is not just whether I liked it or not, not even the varying levels of that assessment, but it’s also what Felix and Clara thought of it.  And while Victoria, the least discerning of our regular child viewing group (or perhaps not least discerning but rather least tolerant of viewers, walked out when things got a little too scary, also she prefers “cartoons”), my kids did enjoy it on the whole.

Hey.  It’s fucking Mouse Hunt.  What are you expecting?  It’s the first film I’ve seen on VHS all year and doubtlessly the last.

Slither

Slither (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Howard Zieff
viewed: 01/19/07

A strange, off-beat comedy loaned and recommended to me by a friend, Slither (1973) leans more to the odd and subtle than the broad side of comedy.  James Caan, in a subdued role as a small time crook just out of prison, is more light and amusing, hardly the tough that he often is known for playing.  It also features a surprising, wacky, and sexy Sally Kellerman and the decidedly nutty Peter Boyle playing an embezzler who hides out as an RV enthusiast (or “Rec Vee” as they refer to it in the film).

The film maintains an entertaining air, hard to guess where it’s going ultimately, a little hard to pin down the tone.  Really, it’s comedy, just a twist on a semi-caper-ish theme.  It has some surprises, some nice moments, some good lines.

Not available on DVD, and not directed by a too-notable filmmaker, I guess this is a bit of a lost cult film.  It’s not entirely Earth-shatteringly good, just decent and surprising and fine.  I liked the ending, the ultimate twist and the final shot.  It all fits together and underscores its character and humor.

Also, I liked the shots of Pismo Beach circa 1973.  Quite different.  Don’t know 100% that that is where it actually shot.  If so, it was kind of neat.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 03/04/06 Found with some looking in an old box of videos was a copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that I had found many years ago for $5 or something — an old video store copy sent for the glue factory. I have had a fondness for the film, as well as other Tim Burton works (mostly his earlier stuff). These were back in the days when I actually bought videos. I don’t do that anymore really. Very rarely, anyways. But I had been teasing my son that he danced like Pee-Wee Herman and I felt maybe it was about time to show him what that jibe meant.

The film still holds up for what it is. There is an incredibly low-budget quality to it that sort of redeems its “plot”. I mean, there is the plot that Pee-Wee’s bicycle is stolen and he has to find bike. This, of course, takes him on a road trip to the Alamo. I think it’s probably most fun to work with this film in genre, like that of the road movie.

This time, many years since I had last seen it, I was really struck by the sexual identity of Pee-Wee. I mean, I am assuming that most readers are familiar with the sexual indiscretions of Paul Ruebens, the real-life counterpart and his ultimate fall from fame to infamy that he took. Maybe that adds a layer of sexualization or intensifies that mode of viewing in this film, at least nowadays.

Pee-Wee reads as largely asexual. Dottie, his bike store friend, a cute young girl played by Elizabeth Daily (who I have always had a fond spot for), actively seeks a date with Pee-Wee. On more than one occasion he tells her that he is a “rebel” and a “loner” in a mock-serious way that ultimately gets him out of the situation. Another time, he fakes phone-static to pretend he can’t hear her asking him out. In the end, when he acquiesces to a date with her, they are both on their own bicycles, in a very platonic pose.

His appearance, as the classic 98 lbs. weakling is also heavily patted with make-up, both foundation and lipstick. While not feminized, per se, there is an effeminate quality to him.

In one scene, he disguises himself as a woman, with the escaped convict posing as his husband. Pulled over by a police officer, Pee-Wee is ogled and admired as a female. Upon returning to the car, Pee-Wee leans in flirtatiously with the convict, gleefully playing in his “role”.

I don’t know enough about the character or the man to posit exactly what is being intended, though I reckon it’s more playfully ambiguous that clearly codified.

As a film, I still enjoy it, though it’s in many ways a series of gags strung together over a thin plot. Lots of the gags are still funny. The dance sequence is pretty classic. I found myself recalling and waiting for certain moments to unfold as I remembered them and enjoying the punchlines when they came. It’s still pretty fun.

“Tequila!”

A Bug’s Life

A Bug's Life (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
viewed: 06/27/05

I know I said that I hate this format, but at the moment, the VCR in the living room works while the DVD player is on the fritz.

I am enjoying the experience of getting to watch films with my soon-to-be 4 year old son. I get to introduce him to stuff, but he’s still so young that he finds films even as seemingly kid-friendly as A Bug’s Life to be intense and scary, and in some cases, hard to follow.

Watching stuff with a child really makes one reconsider the material through different eyes,…or at least that is how parents/guardians ought to think. So often people let kids watch stuff that is way over their heads or so incredibly inappropriate, it’s downright scary. My wife and I are careful about what we allow my son to watch and try to talk to him through the process to make sure that he is understanding and supported.

It surprised me how this film was a bit “adult” for him, how scary the villan Hopper is, and how adult some of the humor is.

Still, I think that Pixar is the cream of the crop of feature digital animation filmmaking. Greg designs, fun characters, good storytelling abound. They are very conventional, like they follow traditional narrative forms and largely mainstream ideologies. They do well the sort of filmmaking that Disney used to do well. I’d seen this moving in the theater when it first came out and I liked it this time around too.

I think Felix enjoyed it. But he was cuddled up with his blanket when the villain arrived onscreen.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. George Roy Hill
viewed: 06/14/05

Watching a film on an old VHS tape might be the second worse way to watch a movie. Regular TV broadcasts of movies, edited for language, violence, nudity, and time elements hack movies to bits and roll them in advertising, which is even worse than VHS.

The worst thing about VHS is the poor quality of the image, which degrades seemingly over time to a point that it just looks like the movie was shot horribly. And the cropping of the image to meet the full-screen television aspect ration feels like you are close up to the image and missing most of the composition as well.

I mean, it was a breakthrough in its day, allowing access to older films that previously one could only see in screenings or revivals. And you do get to “see the film” so to speak. But really, this is no way to see a film. I usually avoid it like the plague.

The poor viewing of the film makes it hard to really estimate the qualities of the visual aspect and keys one in to focus on the story and characters, performances, etc. And in that sense, I feel like I have now seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a cinema classic that I had never managed to see before. Still, it feels a bit cheapened.

The film was a smash hit in 1969, putting Robert Redford on the map and reaffirming Paul Newman’s stature at the time. They both bring a genuine charm in their rapport, though ultimately they also are essentially two-bit criminals and not entirely likeable.

There is a Pop quality to the movie, with the Burt Bacharach pop music (especially the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” sequence, which just seems like a very surreal moment and out of step and context with the rest of the film). As well, the light air that the film takes in tone, is an interesting contrast with the serious quality of the Western as a genre. It’s very strange.

But it’s plenty entertaining, with a few flashes of classic scenes and some good character actors in smaller roles.

The character of Etta, played by Katharine Ross, is particularly odd, too. Being the somewhat shared girlfriend of both title characters, she also tosses out painful lines about joining them on their foray into Bolivia because she, at age 26, isn’t good for anything being a single woman. She says that she’ll darn their socks and cook for them, she might as well go along. It’s hard to know if this was a comment on the period, 1895-1905, or weird sexism of the late Sixties. I assume perhaps the former, since she later participates in the robberies and teaches the gringos Spanish to help with their lives of crime.

It’s a weird mixture of things, this film.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 12/23/02

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t watched a single film on VHS all year until I borrowed this video from my nephew. The moment that the movie started, I remembered why I have switched over to DVD so permanently. This video was an old one, so it suffered from quality and degradation issues, but significantly, its pan-and-scan format cheapened the look of it considerably, which I think hurts the film quite a lot. So much of this film was trimmed down (as the pan and scan principles do trim), it looked more like an old Johnny Quest episode than as if it had ever been a theatrically released film.

Also rather startlingly, I realized that I had last seen this film twenty-four years ago (Good God!), at the age of nine, upon its initial theatrical run. Certain aspects of this film had struck me at that time and had stayed with me over the years. As through my university days, I began to take a more coherent interest in the films of Ralph Bakshi, I had been tempted to see it again, but had never gotten around to it. It was only after reminiscing about it with my sister, right after having just seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theater, that she told me that they had a copy of this film on video at home.

Bakshi had made this film, which comprises the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, as the first of a planned two-film series, the latter of which was never made. At a 132 minute running-time (and actually, the video copy that I had may have been even more truncated than that), compared with Jackson’s two film interpretation of the same material that adds up to something like 360 minutes or something, the film manages to hit most of the major plot points with reasonable success. Still, it’s quite a bit more like a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

The most interesting aspects of the film are some of the differing techniques that Bakshi employs to tell the story, some of which are quite effective in some ways. Bakshi relies heavily on rotoscoping for motion and design of all of the taller characters. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it was initially developed in the Fleischer studio (home of Betty Boop, etc.). Rotoscoping traces the live action film movements of actors, animating by virtual “tracing,” but enhancing to whatever extent (a modern rotoscoping method was used for Richard Linklater’s Waking Life film).

Bakshi employs different levels of animation on top of essentially rotoscoped images for different effects. It would be good to get a sense of the actual techniques used to create these effects, but I will have to guess at them. It seems that some characters are more traditionally rotoscoped, gaining their movements from the original film footage, but being more traditionally cel animated over the top of that. At other points, some of the rotoscoping seems to show more of the footage through the “animation,” possibly to the degree of almost simply tinting the film which seems like it was shot in high contrast. The orcs and the night wraiths are extremely creepy in their rendering this way. I had remembered finding them scary as a child, and the mental image of them had stuck with me over time.

There seem to be many degrees to which Bakshi utilizes the rotoscoping technique, though it was hard for me to pick out any real rhyme or reason to it. At one scene in a tavern, the actual people’s faces show through the animation/tinting quite strikingly. The opening sequence actually seems as though it is merely shot in silhouette, not animated at all. It seems that the high contrast footage may also have been shot to create the look of old silent film footage, moving a little more jerkily and with a reduced details.

These character renderings play out against a variety of backgrounds. In much of the film, the backgrounds are fully-rendered naturalistic fantasy landscapes. But at times of high drama and also significantly when the perspective changes when Frodo puts on the ring, the backgrounds become downright abstract. Sometimes it seemed like these abstractions were derived from photographic images, but others it seemed purely non-representational.

I have to say that the effect of some of these techniques is still quite spooky. Rotoscoping retains an “echo” of sorts from the naturalistic movement recorded by the traditional filming process, but the process of animating over it mutates it. This ghost-like effect seems apparent in all rotoscoped animation to some degree. By intensifying the contrasts in many of the applications of rotoscoping that Bakshi employs and by using the images to create a dissonant sensation (these are the scary, evil creatures often), the images are disorienting and unnerving. I would easily place this as the film’s greatest strength.

The overall execution of the film suffers from other weaknesses. The “acting” in it isn’t atrocious, but the film’s overall effect is not strong. I do think that it suffered considerably from being a poor and old video copy that also may have been trimmed from its initial theatrical release. And though some of the varying rotoscoping is strong and interesting, some of the traditional cel animation looks cheaper and more poorly executed. And at some points, I wondered whether some of the variances in technique were tied to production’s financial limitations, which I know plagued the film. Were all the decisions purely aesthetic, or were they monetary?

As a student of animation, or an aficionado, or what have you, the film certainly has merit.