Friday, September 4, 2015

#1,845. Starstruck (1982)

Directed By: Gillian Armstrong

Starring: Jo Kennedy, Ross O'Donovan, Margo Lee

Tag line: "Australia's favourite musical comedy"

Trivia: The fireworks sequence seen during the film's big finale was shot by cinematographer Geoff Burton on New Year's Eve 1980

Jackie Mullins (Jo Kennedy) dreams of becoming a pop star, and with the help of her 14-year-old cousin/manager Angus (Ross O’Donovan), she manages to hook up with a semi-professional band, the leader of which, a guitarist named Rob (Ned Lauder), falls head over heels in love with her. But when superstardom doesn’t come fast enough, Jackie and Angus, who live with their quirky yet loving family above a pub owned and operated by Jackie’s Mom (Margo Lee) and their grandmother (Pat Evison), put together a PR stunt they hope will get them noticed (without a safety net, Jackie walks a tight-rope strung several stories above a public street!). Sure enough, they capture the attention of Terry Lambert (John O’May), the host of a popular television program that’s sponsoring a New Year’s Eve musical contest at the Sydney Opera House, with a top prize of $25,000 for the winning act. With the bank threatening to foreclose on their family’s pub, Jackie and Angus are willing to do whatever it takes to win that money, even if it means crashing the contest and landing in jail.

Directed by Gillian Armstrong, Starstruck is a 1982 Australian film with amusing characters and a whole lot of heart. But it’s the movie’s high-energy musical numbers that truly stand out. The first time we hear Jackie sing is at the Lizard Lounge, a local Sydney teen hangout, where she takes the stage in a kangaroo costume, then knocks the audience dead with her rendition of “Temper Temper”, one of several original tunes performed throughout the movie. With a style reminiscent of an ‘80s music video, this sequence is certainly dynamic, but is merely a warm-up for the film’s best number, “Body and Soul”, a spirited song and dance routine set inside the family’s pub (“Body and Soul” was also a hit in Australia, rising as high as #5 on the pop charts in May of 1982). Even Ross O’Donovan gets in on the act, joining Jackie’s bandmates for “I Want to Live in a House”, an eccentric, chaotic sequence that owes more than a little to The Beatles’ 1964 film, A Hard Day’s Night.

Starstruck isn’t without its problems; Jo Kennedy, in her screen debut, is a much better singer than she is an actress, and a few minor subplots aren’t given the attention they deserve (a possibly scandalous love affair between Jackie’s mom and Angus’ estranged father, played by Dennis Miller, goes absolutely nowhere). But with its ‘80s sensibilities and lively musical numbers, Starstruck has charisma to spare, and is a guaranteed good time for all.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

#1,844. The Tracker (2002)

Directed By: Rolf de Heer

Starring: David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau

Tag line: "All men choose the path they walk"

Trivia: The music for this film is performed by Archie Roach, a popular aboriginal country musician

Since his screen debut in 1971’s Walkabout, David Gulpilil has become one of the most recognizable actors in Australian cinema. Having played supporting roles in such films as Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Proposition (he even had a brief appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, as “The Aborigine”), 2002’s The Tracker, an unforgettable, sometimes shocking expose of racism in early 20th century Australia, finally allowed the actor to take center stage, delivering what is arguably the strongest performance of his career.

Australia, 1922. A mounted policeman (Gary Sweet, billed as “The Fanatic”), a rookie officer (Damon Gameau, aka “The Follower”), and an aging gunman (“The Veteran”, portrayed by Grant Page) are searching for an Aborigine (Noel Wilton) accused of murdering a white woman. Seeing as the fugitive is hiding somewhere in the Australian Outback, the three bring along a professional tracker (Gulpilil), an Aborigine who’s familiar with the terrain, to help find him. Despite the abuse heaped upon him by “The Fanatic” (whose hatred of blacks occasionally leads to violence), the Tracker continues to guide them deeper into the Outback, assuring the trio that, with each step they take, they’re getting closer to finding the man they seek. But is the Tracker leading them in the right direction, or does he have an agenda of his own?

Director Rolf de Heer (who also penned the screenplay) makes some interesting stylistic choices throughout The Tracker, starting with the music; all of the songs, which were written by De Heer himself and performed by vocalist Archie Roach, work in unison with the story, and sometimes provide insight into what the characters are thinking. In one of the movie’s most devastating scenes, the Tracker and his party happen upon a gathering of Aborigines, one of whom is wearing a policeman’s jacket. In an effort to find out how they acquired this coat, “The Fanatic” and “The Follower” put the Aborigines (a few of whom are women) in irons and question them, holding guns to their heads as they do so. Then, suddenly, shots ring out, and when the smoke clears, all of the Aborigines are dead. As this sequence plays out, the Tracker is off to the side, looking on in horror, and a song titled “My People” fills the soundtrack, cluing us in on the character’s inner conflict as the views the carnage. In addition to the music, de Heer stops short of showing the film’s more violent moments, cutting instead to a series of paintings, rendered by artist Peter Coad, which depict the gruesome outcomes of each bloody encounter (these paintings were designed to look as if they were made by an Aborigine tribe, compiling a visual record of what occurred during this ill-fated quest).

While the entire cast is superb (Gary Sweet is especially effective as “The Fanatic”, easily one of the most deplorable characters I’ve experienced in quite a while), it’s Gulpilil who gives the film’s most poignant performance, playing a man torn between duty and his heritage, and trying his best to balance the two. For his work in The Tracker, The Film Critics Association of Australia named Gulpilil the year’s Best Actor, as did the Australian Film Institute. In fact, Gulpilil racked up four major awards for his turn in The Tracker.

And if you ask me, he should have won a few more.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

#1,843. Paperman (2012)

Directed By: John Kahrs

Starring: Jack Goldenberg, John Kahrs, Jeff Turley

Trivia: This movie was the first Disney animated short film to win the Best Animated Short Academy Award in 43 years

Rounding out my coverage of the new home video release Walt Disney’s Short Films Collection is 2012’s Paperman, a movie about an office worker who lets the girl of his dreams slip away, only to be given a second chance to make her acquaintance.

While standing on a platform waiting for the train, a man spots a pretty young woman in red lipstick, but soon after the two make eye contact, she hops on the next train and seemingly speeds out of his life forever. Sitting at his desk later that morning, the man can’t get the girl out of his head. To his surprise, he sees her entering an office in the building directly across from his. Desperate to get her attention, he tosses a series of paper airplanes out the window, all of which fail to hit the mark. Ignoring the stern gazes that his boss is shooting his way, the man rushes out of his office and onto the street, where he hopes to find the girl. It’s at this moment that fate, with a little help from Mother Nature, takes over…

Presented mostly in black-and-white (the girl’s red lipstick is the only color in the film), Paperman is a gorgeously animated romantic comedy, borrowing its style from Disney’s then-recent release, Tangled, which combined computer graphics with hand-drawn animation. In addition, the movie, much like The Little Matchgirl, relies more on music and images than it does dialogue to relate its tale of young love (the score, composed by Christophe Beck, is surprisingly catchy). As for the characters, you can’t help but root for them (the man consistently puts his job at risk for the sake of love, and we hope he’s not doing it all in vain).

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2013, Paperman is a grand mix of style, story, and characters, as well as a reminder of just how wondrous the films produced by the House of Mouse can be.

As for Disney’s Short Films Collection, I recommend you buy it immediately; from start to finish, it’s magnificent.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

#1,842. How to Hook Up Your Home Theater (2007)

Directed By: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers

Starring: Corey Burton, Bill Farmer

Line from this film: "Selecting the proper television is of utmost importance, and there are many models from which to choose"

Trivia: This movie was released with the Disney film National Treasure: Book of Secrets on December 21, 2007

This 2007 short harkens back to the 1940’s, when Goofy (one of Walt Disney’s most beloved animated characters) appeared in a series of “How To” films, from 1942’s How to Play Baseball (my personal favorite) to How to Ride a Horse in 1950. In most, Goofy would do his best (and often fail) to master the subject at hand, while a narrator, ignoring the on-screen anarchy, offered sound advice on each topic. Intended as a humorous spin on the documentary shorts of the day, when movies tried to teach us everything from proper etiquette to how to find a job, the Goofy “How-to” series was popular with audiences, and 2007’s How to Hook Up Your Home Theater recaptures the magic of those older cartoons while, at the same time, updating the subject matter for the modern viewer.

Narrated by Corey Burton (trying to sound like John McLeish, the voice behind many of the classic “How To” shorts), How to Hook Up Your Home Theater has our hero first purchasing, then attempting to set up a brand new home theater, which he hopes to finish before the big football game. While occasionally overwhelmed by the project (especially when it comes to mapping out the surround sound), Goofy somehow gets the job done (though, to be honest, the resulting system doesn’t look anything like it did in the brochure).

Seeing as he had trouble learning our national pastime, it’s no surprise that Goofy is in way over his head in How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, starting with picking out the proper television (ignoring the narrator’s advice that “A conservatively-sized unit is the most prudent selection”, Goofy is drawn to a behemoth model that most likely won’t even fit in his front room). The hook-up itself doesn’t go any better (Goofy has to cut a hole in the wall to plug the necessary wires into the back of the TV), and things get downright ugly when he reaches for the remote, only to find he now has about a dozen to choose from, with no idea which one turns the damn television on! Still, despite his hardships, Goofy does manage to see the big game, though the promise that his new system will “put him in the middle of the action” is more accurate than he imagined.

Whether viewed as an homage to the studio’s early days or a straight-up comedy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater is an absolute hoot.

Monday, August 31, 2015

#1,841. Feast (2014)

Directed By: Patrick Osborne

Starring: Tommy Snider, Katie Lowes, Ben Bledsoe

Trivia: This movie won both an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 87th Academy Awards, and the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject at the 42nd Annie Awards

The 2014 Disney short Feast tells the story of a dog who eats anything he wants, only to discover there’s more to life than food.

From the time he was a puppy, Winston was given all sorts of treats by his owner, James (voiced by Katie Lowes). From pizza to nachos, burgers to French fries, Winston had it all… and loved it all. Then, when James meets Kirby (Katie Lowes), a waitress at a health food restaurant, poor Winston’s menu options start to change. All at once, the cookies and fast food are gone, replaced by veggies and other less-tasty morsels. When James and Kirby split, things go back to the way they were, and Winston, who gorges himself on ice cream and cakes, is happy again. But James is not, which forces Winston to make some tough decisions.

That’s the basic premise of Feast, but like Winston, we don’t realize what’s going on until the movie is half over. That’s because the first part of Feast is told exclusively from Winston’s point of view, with James and the other characters pushed to the background. Throughout these scenes, there are hints as to what’s happening in the outside world; early on, James is obviously living in a college dorm, so Winston benefits from the steady stream of junk food that typically goes hand-in-hand with that lifestyle. When the pup is first given veggies, he spits them out, and later, as he stares at the unappetizing contents of his bowl, we spot James and Kirby dancing happily in the next room. When Kirby walks out on James (again, we see this only in the background), Winston’s now-despondent owner returns to his unhealthy routine. It isn’t until Winston finds a stray sprig of parsley lying around that James finally enters the forefront (while Winston can’t stand the parsley, James gazes at it longingly, a reminder of the love he’s lost).

Like Winston, we suddenly notice James, and realize that he’s suffering. It’s here that the film takes a sharp turn, transforming from a humorous short into a story with heart. While the opening few sequences of Feast will give you something to laugh about, the second half is sure to bring a tear to your eye.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

#1,840. The Little Matchgirl (2006)

Directed By: Roger Allers

Trivia: This film made its debut at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France on 5 June 2006

Disney’s retelling of the classic story by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Matchgirl concerns a young Russian girl trying to peddle her wares (in this case, a handful of match sticks) to Christmas shoppers on a busy, snow-covered street. When night falls, the little girl (who wasn’t able to sell any of her matches) makes her way to a back alley, where she rests, shivering in the snow. To keep warm, she decides to strike some of her matches, and when she does so, she sees images of the idyllic life she so desires (a warm fire, a fully-decorated Christmas tree, and her beloved grandmother giving her a loving hug) dancing in the flames. By the end of the film, the little girl has used up all her matches, but does get to experience the good life which, moments earlier, had filled her dreams.

Visually, The Little Matchgirl is quite stunning, opening with darker hues to establish the cold, cruel world that passes its title character by, then utilizing warmer colors when she fantasizes about her old home, and the grandmother who obviously loved her. Yet what truly impressed me about this short was its musical score, which consisted of a piece written by Aleksandr Borodin, the 19th century Russian composer, titled "String Quartet #2 in D Major: 3rd Movement: Notturno". Performed by The Emerson String Quartet, this somber, elegant tune proved the perfect match for the material, and was every bit as beautiful as the images parading before our eyes.

Like Lorenzo and a few of the others movies in The Disney Short films Collection, The Little Matchgirl contains no dialogue, but with its delightful story and superb score, it still manages to speak volumes.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

#1,839. Get a Horse! (2013)

Directed By: Lauren MacMullan

Starring: Walt Disney, Marcellite Garner, Russi Taylor

Line form this film: "Where are we... Poughkeepsie?"

Trivia: This movie features archival recordings of Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey Mouse

Inspired by early Mickey Mouse cartoons and featuring one of the most original ideas I’ve ever seen in a short film, 2014’s Get a Horse! is nothing short of amazing.

We open with a small, black and white 4x3 screen. After spotting them from his front yard, Mickey Mouse (looking like he did in the ‘30s) hitches a ride with some of his friends on a passing horse-drawn wagon. Before long, they pick up a few more passengers, including Clarabelle Cow and Minnie Mouse, and as the group slowly makes its way down the road, the impatient Peg-Leg Pete pulls up behind them in a motor car and starts blasting his horn, insisting they move over so he can pass. It‘s then that Pete lays eyes on Minnie Mouse, who he’s instantly smitten with. Mickey does what he can to keep Minnie safe, but Pete is too fast for him, and snatches Minnie from the wagon before anyone else can grab her. Then, to make his getaway, Pete slams into the back of the wagon, shattering it into a dozen pieces. The impact sends its occupants flying off in every direction, but Mickey and his pal Horace Horsecollar don't immediately hit the ground; instead, they’re tossed into the movie screen, which is projecting their adventures to a paying audience. Suddenly, Pete gets an idea of how he can get rid of Mickey Mouse once and for all. It’s at this point Get a Horse! really gets interesting, with Mickey and Horace (now in color) entering the world of today, where they find a few modern devices that, hopefully, will help them break back into the movie and save Minnie before Pete rides off with her.

Combining standard animation with computer graphics, Get a Horse! is an homage to Disney’s past accomplishments, as well as a clear indication that the studio’s current crop of animators are as creative as their predecessors. In a superb twist, archival recordings of the old voice actors, who worked for Disney in the 1930’s, are used for the characters in this film, with Walt Disney himself providing the voice of Mickey Mouse (only the word “red”, which Mickey says after he breaks through the screen and spots his red pants, had to be dubbed by a different actor). This, along with the classic animation style featured in the opening sequence, helped recreate the look and feel of an old-time Mickey Mouse short. Then, when the fourth wall (or in this case, the movie screen) is torn down, Mickey and his pals magically transform into CGI characters (in color, no less). From there on, Get a Horse! gives us both styles (hand-drawn and CGI), resulting in moments of anarchy that will have you laughing out loud.

I haven’t yet seen all of the movies that make up The Walt Disney Short Films Collection, but of the ones I’ve checked out thus far, Get a Horse! is, without question my favorite.