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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Movie of the Day: Mom’s Night Out (2014)

MomsNightOut

There are no laughs in Moms’ Night Out.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  Maybe there’s a smile, but that’s not exactly high praise.  When you can say that about a comedy, it pretty much empties out the entire picture.  Here’s a movie in which the only comic highpoint is a shout-out to Pinterest – it does them no favors.

The directors here are The Erwin Brothers whose apparent goal is to bring the kind of Hangover-style antics to a Christian-based audience without all the immoral filth. It’s a nice gesture, but in restraining the comedy their movie comes off like a limp sitcom pilot – the kind that doesn’t get picked up. With this, and last year’s anti-abortion misfire October Baby, it is clear that the Erwin Brothers need to work on the filmmaking before they try to send a message.  This time they’ve made a low-impact comedy so generic that it might as well have come stamped with a barcode.

The story deals with three mothers whose mental states have reached a boiling point. Primary is Allyson (Sarah Drew from “Grey’s Anatomy”) a frustrated ball of neurosis who is surrounded by three kids that are driving her insane. It is clear that she needs some time to herself, but her moods are so animated and manic that a reasonable person might suggest a Zoloft.  The movie, however, suggests that all of her problems can be solved by a dose of Vitamin Jesus.

At her side is her loving, but immature husband Sean (Sean Astin) a well-meaning Joe whose obsession with video games is not helping his wife’s mental state.  Much more grounded in the adult work are Allyson’s two BFF’s. There’s Izzy (Andrea Logan White), her childhood friend whose husband Marco (Robert Amaya) is a wimp with a pathological fear of luchadores, bikers and his own children (that’s suppose to be funny). And there’s Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a good-hearted, pressed-and-polished pastor’s wife who is dealing with a budding teenage daughter who comes home with a revealing denim skirt that would embarrass Miley Cyrus.

The connective tissue of these women is that they’re being driven mad by their off-spring and by the grown children that they call husbands. They decide that they need a night off from Mommy-hood, which sounds reasonable except that the husbands promptly lose the children, leading to a long series of boring slapstick scenes that climax in an arrest at which time we get some come-to-Jesus emotional pep talk about how wonderful it is to be parent. The mother’s night out is simply one of those Murphy’s Law situations that starts with a snafu over dinner reservations and ends with a police car chase down the interstate. It steals and pillages every Bad Night Out movie from The Blues Brothers to The Hangover to After Hours to Adventures in Babysitting to Date Night. Yet, this movie is a whimper in the company of those films. It tries nothing new and goes no place fast.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy were based on well-written characters. All of the characters are written as caricatures. The women are shrewish nags who are never seen relating to their children – they’re more of an annoyance. The men are seen as irresponsible over-grown children who can’t take care of their off-spring for one night without a child being abandoned at a tattoo parlor. The message: mother’s stay home because your men are incompetent.

Even at a technical level, this movie flops over and dies. The cutesy-poo musical score twists and winds around the comic dialogue like a feux laugh-track before an emotional moment in which the emo-music twists even harder. We’re led by the ears to how we’re supposed to feel.

And yet, even that isn’t the worst thing about this movie. It was filmed last year in Birmingham, Alabama – my home – but it is only a backdrop. We see fly-overs that include glimpses of Vulcan, the Harbert Building, City Federal, Birmingham Southern College and various sites downtown. The car chase take place on 2nd Avenue South. Yet, no one ever mentions Birmingham or any of its landmarks. The city isn’t celebrated at all, nor is it ever mentioned by name. It might as well take place in generic town anywhere in the world. You might hope for some kind of loving tribute that does for Birmingham what Ferris Beuller’s Day Off did for Chicago. That movie, which is also about three friends who take some time off, was first and foremost about characters. It loved its characters, its dialogue and its city. Moms’ Night Out is a pitiful shadow of an idea. John Hughes, where are you when we need you?

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #3: The Lost Arcade (2016)

Lost Arcade

It is sort of amusing when someone becomes poetic about a passion that you yourself do not happen to share.  Their mind goes to a particular place and they try to explain in carefully chosen words just how this particular activity weathers the storms of their very soul.  I know that I am guilty of this when I talk about movies.  In the opening of Kurt Vincent’s documentary The Lost Arcade, a kid tries to explain to us how a particular video arcade has brought joy to his life.  “Last night,” he says, “I dreamt I went to Chinatown Fair again” and we follow him on a dreamlike trek to get to his destination.

The destination is Chinatown Fair, currently purported to be the last video game arcade in Manhattan.  Centered in the heart of Chinatown, for 30 years it was the hub of community of all races, creeds and diverse backgrounds coming together to (the movie says) challenge one another in friendly competition.  Begun in the mid-80s by a Pakistani immigrant named Sam Palmer it achieved a tiny nugget of worldwide fame with its dancing chicken that appeared on Letterman and when it turned up in the 1984 Robert DeNiro/Meryl Streep romance Falling in Love.  In the years before home video game systems dominated the market, video arcades dotted the landscape, particularly in New York – there were at least four in Times Square.  Yet, even with the landscape saturated, Chinatown Fair became maintained a loyal fanbase that came through night after night after night even if the non-Chinese patrons found themselves hassled by the local gangs.

Then it happened, time marched on and the video game market moved into America’s living room thanks to Nintendo.  Video arcades closed down one by one until only Chinatown Fair remained.  Eventually Sam was forced to close his doors when the video game companies announced that they would no longer be making large video game cabinet models.  The closing of Chinatown Fair was bittersweet.

The Lost Arcade isn’t really about video games; it’s about the community that it spawned.  It’s more about the people whose deep love for a place like Chinatown Fair made it the place to be for those who couldn’t really afford to go anywhere else.  The outer framework of the film is the story of what happened to Chinatown Fair but we become more interested in those people.  One homeless guy, Akuma Kokura spent so much time there that Sam eventually gave him a job.  At that moment, he was living off the quarters that he found under the machine.  For him, it was a safe haven, the only place in the world that made sense.

What is interesting about The Lost Arcade is the way in which it evolves.  Sam closes Chinatown Fair and his young employee Henry opens his own business Next Level, that isn’t a carbon copy but a more modern place that resembles a public LAN party.  Then Chinatown Fair is reborn by a proprietor named Lonnie who is well-meaning but turns the old arcade into a low-rent Chuck E. Cheese – the broken look on Akuma’s face when he sees the redesign is both funny and sad.  And from there the story keeps going.  The filmmakers set out to develop a story about the closing of a famous video arcade but they found that the story kept going and keeps going.  At points you think that the story is ending but then a new development pops up.  It’s like a news story with consent updates and that makes it kind of thrilling.

The Lost Arcade is not the most profound or important documentary you’ll ever see.  It perhaps sees Chinatown Fair with rose-colored glasses.  It’s hard to believe that the place was always so friendly and nice especially in New York – after 30 years there wasn’t one fight in the place?  Plus there is a surprisingly lack of female patrons in the old archival footage.  Why did they stay away?  Did they feel threatened?  There’s a brief interview with a young woman after Lonnie takes over but it feels a bit glossed over.  It also avoids the outer world invasion by the technological advancements.  We’re told a bit about how Capcom created problems for the video arcade business by announcing that it’s “Street Fighter IV” would not be released in a cabinet model, but what is the executive decision?  What was going on behind the scenes that made decisions like that?  Were they aware that they were killing a homespun industry?

Even still this is an interesting curio about the ways in which popular culture builds community especially among those who have nowhere else to go.  It seems silly that a kid would wax poetic about a video arcade that made up the better arenas of his dreams, but this is a movie about passion.  It illustrates why a place like Chinatown Fair meant so much to so many people.  It bred a passion for video games but also for community, for being part of something, somewhere that gave their lives meaning, if only for a short time.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Spring Breakers (2013)

SpringBreakers

If it were a better movie, Spring Breakers might have been the perfect opportunity to break down the luster and bluster of spring break in Florida, an annual tradition that (according to this movie) resembles the last days of Caligula, with copious amounts of booze, drugs, sex and anything else that Mom and Dad (or even the law) wouldn’t approve of.

That image is captured in the film’s first 10 minutes, a slow motion, non-stop, anything-goes orgy on the beach.  There are naked bodies, beer-bongs, cocaine and an alarming tally of bare breasts. The close-ups reveal that many of these girls are hardly in their 20s, so the image is a little striking, not to mention unsettling.  If the movie had been able to break apart the luster of these images and show the real-life consequences then the point of this story might have been clearer.  What we have is all frosting and no cake.

The central story focuses on four college girls: Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine).  It is apparent from the start that these are not nice girls.  Their activities suggest an unfiltered hedonism that travels at the speed of a runaway roller coaster (which might be attributed to the fact we never see any parents).  The girl’s central activities seem to consist of drinking, drugs and minor flirtations with lesbianism.  Armed with these skills, they decide that they want to spend their spring break in Florida so that (they say) they can discover themselves.  We know better.

We don’t get to know these girls very well aside from their appetites.  The closest is Faith, who spends her afternoon in a circle of a Christian Youth group where her eyes let us know that she’d rather be somewhere else.  She’s essentially a good girl with the wrong friends.  That’s why she’s alarmed when her friends become so desperate for vacation money that they decide to stick up a fast food joint.

What happens on vacation isn’t launched by that sporadic act of felony (actually, it is hardly mentioned), nor is it followed up on.  The girls party like everyone else and only pay for their crime then they find themselves locked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They are bailed out by a scuzz-ball calling himself Alien (James Franco, playing the flip-side of The Wizard of Oz).  He’s one of those gangster-types with corn-rows, gold teeth, a tricked-out car and a house-full of automatic weapons.  Physically, he’s about 25, but mentally he seems about 14. He occupies a lifestyle, not a life.  He takes the girls in, makes them his partners in crime and then his lovers, in that order.

These girls, and Alien, hardly have lives that are explored, save for what we know about Faith.  The best performance belongs to Selena Gomez.  Faith wades in a sea of posers and Gomez plays her with a degree of intelligence and caution (she’s a long way from Waverly Place).  We are caught off-guard by her vulnerability.  Her face is loaded with baby-fat but her perfect body has moved into a state of uncomfortable maturity, especially in this environment.  She participates up to a point, figuratively holding her hand to the flame until she can hold it there no longer.The movie looks great.  Even when it doesn’t work, it still has a visual fire.  Korine wants his images to linger.  He lingers over naked bodies and drugs and guns and despicable behavior in a way that allows us to understand their allure.  He has moments that are beautifully photographed, most notably a crime-spree montage backed by Britney Spears’ “Everytime.”

Korine is a good filmmaker.  He is good with his images.  The problem here is that he is more interested in images than characters.  The girls in this movie do awful things, but there are no consequences.  There is a message that seems to be aching to break out of Spring Breakers but it never does.  The pieces are present, bad decisions are made, but the movie fails to act on them.  For all of the movie’s critical raves from The Venice Film Festival, what has been brought to the screen is, essentially, style over substance; a good looking movie with a point still waiting to be made.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #2: Other People (2016)

Other People

Other People opens with a scene that I won’t soon forget.  A family, at the worst moment in their lives gathers around the bed of the family matriarch who has just passed on after a long and lingering battle with cancer.  In the midst of their sorrow the dearly departed gets a message on the answering machine from a well-wisher who not only wishes her a speedy recovery but is in the middle of ordering breakfast at McDonald’s.  This is that kind of movie.

There’s a special kind of writer who can mix serious melodrama with comedy like that and here it is an extremely talented first-time writer-director named Chris Kelly.  Watching the film it should surprise no one that he cut his teeth writing for Saturday Night Live.  Yet, what comes from this film is a surprisingly human story that could only have come from experience.

Other People opens with that bittersweet scene but then reverses back a year to tell the story of how the Mulcahy family came to be in that situation.  This is a movie about people at the worst moment in their lives and how they resolve their affairs before the inevitable falls on them.  The central focus is on David (Jesse Plemons) a struggling comedy writer who has just come back home to Sacramento to care for his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) who is dying of cancer.

This is the worst year of David’s life, not only is he about to lose his mother, but his career is going nowhere and he’s still reeling from the breakup with his boyfriend of five years.  Added to that is the fact that he has to face his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) who has never been able to deal with his son’s sexual orientation in any realistic way.  Returning to his hometown is to return to a gallery of misunderstanding relatives and the reality that his problems still await him when he gets back to New York.  Meanwhile, he takes the reins in trying to deal with a mother whose condition is getting progressively worse.

This sounds like unbearably depressing material and, in some respects it is.  But Other People is not about gloom and doom.  It’s about the funnier side of life that intrudes when the dark clouds threaten to consume what should be a much happier existence.  David is dealing with the inevitability of losing his mother.  Yet, it’s not a one-perspective scenario.  It also deals with what a family who must do in order to make peace with themselves before they lose one of their own.  When someone is dying of an aggressive cancer, what is the agenda?  What do you say?  How do you act?  How does one settle their affairs?

The answers to those questions are put to Joanne, played in a beautiful performance by Molly Shannon who not only plays out the physical torment of someone dying of cancer but also the trials of someone that everyone sees as a victim.  Persistently she is pelted with advice and messages of good feeling that are, more or less, irrelevant.  This is happening, she knows it, but she’s not partial to greeting card advice.  Her face is often a mask of dealing with the inevitable but also quiet pleas that seem to say “get me away from these thoughtless morons.”

The comedy of that opening scene is kind of the tapestry for the rest of the film.  The comedy and the drama are kept in their distinctive places so they don’t step on each other.  Often the comic moments arrive just at the moment when the drama becomes too much to bear.  This is a story about the comedy and tragedy of life and how they are intertwined.  But it is also a very human story.

The performances of not here are the aforementioned Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons who has made a name for himself in supporting roles.  He has a look that could seed his career with mean tough guy roles, but here he plays a man with a broken heart and a life that is pulling him in all directions.  He has a moment of breakdown in a grocery store that is so well played that you want to applaud it for not going over the top.

Above all this is a bitter sweet comedy, a good one.  It’s the story of dealing with grief and the inevitability of aggressive cancer and the agenda that is due, both mentally and physically, that must be dealt with before it claims its intended.  Yet, around that are the humorous and ironic bits of comedy that keep such a situation from being an overbearing slog.  Comedy is the great boomerang of our lives and Chris Kelly captures that in a sad and funny way that is painfully sad and achingly funny at the same time.

 
 

Sidewalk Film Festival Retrospective #1: Little Men (2016)

LittleMen

Attending The Sidewalk Film Festival this year was not only the chance to attend a spectacular event, but it was also a chance to catch up on great films away from the multiplex tentpole movies that are souring the American market.  For two days I was able to enjoy a great many documentaries and independents of all shapes and sizes.  I saw 8 films over the weekend and over the next couple of days I will be reviewing all of them starting today with Ira Sachs Little Men.
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With is first two films, director Ira Sachs is building a nicely formed tapestry of how real estate can have an impact on personal relationships.  Two years ago he made Love is Strange a beautifully emotional drama about the strains on Ben and George, a couple whose 40 year relationship is strained when George loses his job and they are forced to look for cheaper housing.  Thankfully Sachs follow-up, Little Men, doesn’t feel like a watered-down retread.  He and his co-screenwriter Maurico Zacharias do a beautiful job of sidestepping the trappings of a story in order to simply observe human beings and how they relate to one another in a difficult situation.

Taking place not only in Brooklyn but very much of Brooklyn, Little Men looks into the lives of two families who occupy the same building on the same block.  The Jardine family is headed by Brian (Greg Kinnear) a struggling actor who has just inherited the building from his father.  His career is propped up by a much more stable career held by his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist.  In the same building is Lenore (Paulina Garcia) a Chilean dressmaker and longtime friend of Brian’s father who runs a decade’s-old dress shop that was apparently given a discount on the rent by the old man.  Yet, now that the old man is gone a new contract comes up meaning that leniency on the rent is a thing of the past.  Brian tries very hard (in a great scene) to explain this difficult situation to Lenore with a good bit of gentle reality.  Her reaction is not helpful.

This is the template for the story but not the heart.  The center of the film focuses on Brian and Kathy’s teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz) who is an artist with designs on getting into LaGuardia High School of Music & Art.  Moving into his grandfather’s old building he quickly makes friends with Antonio (Michael Barbieri) an outspoken extrovert who wants to be an actor and also has designs on going to LaGuardia High School.  Their friendship is based on their common aspirations but their personalities.

The boys find themselves and their friendship stuck in the middle of a battle between their mutual parents.  Brian had perhaps assumed that Lenore would understand that she had been given a break in her rent from his old man so many years but finds that she is far more resistance.  Kathy tries too to reason with her but something is keeping her resolute about not changing anything.  It is never spoken aloud but something in the class structure is keeping this situation from finding a resolution.  Lenore seems to resent the Jardines from taking over the building and upending a situation that she has maintained for years.  Brian had assumed that she would understand and Kathy tries to work it out on an emotional ground.  He’s a man who has been privileged all his life but now finds himself in a situation that he can’t work out.  His career is stumbling and he’s embarrassed that his wife is their support.

Stuck in the middle are Jake and Antonio who find that their parents casually limiting their time together because of their situation.  They are the quiet sideline to their parent’s problems and what happens to their friendship is not handled in a big emotional scene, but a quiet life-goes-on scenario that you almost want to applaud.

This movie is special because it deals with characters on a human level.  Everyone is driven by history and by personality.  This is a very dialogue driven film and Sachs avoids the trappings of big dramatic scenes.  Instead the dialogue is woven together by quiet emotions, a lot of scenes of people going about their days lives and often just pondering.  That’s more powerful than a lot of bellowing.

The performances where are allowed to breathe.  There’s time to get to know each individual and so when the big resolutions come it feels more palatable.  I loved all of these people but especially Pauline Garcia as Lenore, who gives one of the best performances of the year.  Lenore is a woman of quiet, stubborn resolve that we sense has been fighting all her life.  She smokes cigarettes constantly with the smoke billowing from her mouth like a dragon and she smashes them out like she’s putting down punctuation.  Her anger at her impending eviction is rational and even reasonable; she’s fighting for her home.  Yet, despite her unyielding nature she’s not a villain.  Watch the film, listen to her talk about her history, listen to her carefully chosen words and ask what you would do in her situation.

Little Men is a beautifully written, beautifully acted film that might be thrown out as a “coming-of-age” movie.  It’s so much more than that.  Yes, the kids are 13, just as the age between childhood wonder and teenage cynicism, but the movie is much smarter about their situation and their friendship.  They are standing over the craggy cliffs of adulthood watching the grow-up pillars of their lives create a rift in their friendship but are unable to do anything about it.  Where Jake and Antonio’s friendship ends up leads to one of the most bittersweet ending that I can remember, an affirmation of the power of childhood friends and the realities of life that threaten to pull it apart.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Batman Returns (1992)

BatmanReturns

It can only be hoped that “Batman Returns” is not representative of the state of Tim Burton’s mind.  If it is, I’d like to recommend extensive therapy.  While it’s true that Batman has always been about the dark weathers of the human soul – particularly to the outsiders – Burton’s movie does little to explore them.  This is one of the most depressing movies he’s ever made.  It’s a nasty, nihilistic and uncompromisingly ugly little movie that wallows in misery and despair.

Consider the opening scene.  A deformed baby is born to a wealthy couple who keep him in a secure cage fit for The Tasmanian Devil.  Without a word, they put their little bundle in a basket and throw him in the river where he spends the bulk of his life living in the sewer.  This image is as depressing as it sounds, made worse by the fact that the parents never speak.  Perhaps a piece of dialogue might have helped us to understand their decision.  Heck, it might have helped if they seemed even the slightest bit bad about it.

The rest of the movie is pitched at that level, and isn’t made any better when the kid grows up and emerges from the sewers years later and becomes the pawn of a heartless industrialist Max Shreck who, despite his disgusting appearance, wants to make this penguin-like creature into the city’s mayor because Penguin has blackmailed him.  Shreck looks like a cross between David Bowie and Andrew Jackson and played by Christopher Walken as if he’s doing a bad impression of himself.  In all reality, he’s more or less extraneous to the plot.  The story could easily go on without him.

Shreck is guilty of all manner of corporate corruption and gives no second thought to murdering his nerdy secretary, Selina Kyle when she uncovers his evil schemes.  He pushes her out a window, she is licked back to life by cats, she goes home and makes herself a skin-tight cat suit and – VOILA! – Catwoman.  Actually, in the comic books, Selina Kyle earned her moniker because she makes her living as a cat burglar.  Weighing the former with the latter, the cat burglar holds more credibility.  Then again, there’s hardly anything in this movie that does.

The Penguin and Catwoman are supposed to be sympathetic.  One of the treasures of Batman lore is that his adversaries always have a method to their madness.  Their circumstances illicit our sympathies, yet somehow, this script misses the boat.  We are suppose to feel for the Penguin character who was thrown away and shunned by society, but Danny DeVito’s portrayal doesn’t help.  How can we feel sympathy for a rotten little man with bits of raw fish dribbling down his chin and blood pouring out of his nose?  He almost dares us to like him.  DeVito is one of the best comic talents but his performance is curtailed by what he’s required to do.

As Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer does give a serviceable performance, but there’s nothing beyond her posturing.  Around the edges of the story lies a potential strained relationship between her and Bruce Wayne.  The pieces are there and so is the sexual tension, but the script just won’t go there.  That’s the problem with the whole movie.  The characters seem halted, as if Burton doesn’t want to hold them back as characterizations without letting become people.

Batman himself never emerges as anything more than a functionary to this story.  He actually seems out of place here amid a cityscape that seems to be made up of rot and decay.  The script and the production design soak in their misery without ever giving us a rhyme or reason.  It is unclear what Burton really wanted from this script, or from his production design.  “Batman Returns” looks grim and gloomy, like a nightmare world where the sun never seems to come out

 
 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 8: Make Mine Music (1946)

Make Mine Music

What is best in life?  Art or commerce?  This is a question that plagues all who work in the mass arts and it is certainly something that seems to have plagued Mr. Walter Elias Disney.  It is admirable, if not a bit naïve, that in the beginning of his career his trajectory was his intent to push the artistic boundaries in an arena that others had written off as rather innocuous.  The problem was that he came to eventually realize that art just wasn’t in the budget.  Of his first five animated features, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, only two were box office hits.  Animated features in the 1930s and 40s were terribly expensive to make and Walt’s studio paid dearly for his adventurous spirit.  During the war years, Disney was forced to scale back, taking subsidies from the government to make good-will projects about Latin America to help stave off Nazi expansion.  After the war he would invest in compilation films – “package films” they were called – segmented anthology-style features that brought a persistent, if not explosively profitable, cash flow running into the studio.

In all of these package films you could feel Disney culling his instincts and his budget, yet there was a sense that he still wanted to make art.  The passion that he had in making Fantasia would stay with him for the rest of the decade despite its financial foundering.  It was a project that he wanted to be his legacy.  He was so enthusiastic about it that he wanted it to be an ongoing series.  When the film failed at the box office the series idea was scrapped but bits and pieces of that project were still lying around the studio.  Much of this made its way into the “package films” that would make up his output for the rest of the decade.

The idea of for a Fantasia sequel took a different turn.  Instead of following-up Fantasia, Walt would instead make it more current.  The project was initially called “Swing Street” which would be similar to Fantasia but it would be much more ingratiating to the audience, drawing them in with big names like Nelson Eddy, The Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore and using more appealing modern music rather than classical.  In at least one case, the composer Sergei Prokofiev actually came to Disney with his own composition for “Peter and the Wolf.”

The finished project was Make Mine Music, a sometimes odd sometimes fascinating collection of ten musical segments put together to resemble a concert complete with an opening title cards.  Lets look at the segments:

* The Martins and the Coys, which is noted on the title card as “A Rustic Ballad” is an odd way to start the program because it doesn’t feel like a Disney short so much as Disney trying to match the style of Tex Avery. Narrated by popular radio stars The King’s Men, it tells of an ancient feud by neighboring hillbilly families The Martins and The Coys who live on opposite hills from one another.  It is also the most controversial segment in that it has been removed from all existing prints because of the heavy use of comic gunplay.  While The Martins and the Coys isn’t bad (actually its quite good) it’s placement in this film is really odd.  It’s the first segment in a film that otherwise offers much more sophisticated fare.  It feels out of place here.  I’ve seen the segment separate from the film and I can tell you that it works just fine, actually better.

Make Mine Music has only been released on DVD only once in 2000 and on that disc (which I rented from Netflix) The Martins and the Coys segment has been removed.  The version of the short that I saw was on the video sharing site Dailymotion.  Having seen it I can kind of understand the controversy.  It is violent, even more-so probably than your average Looney Tunes short.  It is also very funny, but I was forced to deal with the fact that, again, it seems wildly out of place.

* Blue Bayou, which is noted on the title card as “A Tone Poem,” was originally intended for Fantasia but was apparently removed for time.  It was suppose to feature the music of Claude Debussy’s composition Clair de Lune from Suite bergamasque but was replaced by “Blue Bayou” sung by The Ken Darby Singers over beautiful animation featuring two egrets flying over the Everglades on a moonlit night.

Blue Bayou was the first segment on the DVD version that I saw (The Martins and the Coys bit had been edited out).  Though putting my imagination to work, I tried to see it placed in the film as it was originally seen.  With that it seems oddly placed as this is a very somber and eloquent musical number dropped between two raucous pieces of animation, The Martins and the Coys and All the Cat’s Join In.  It might have made for a nice break between those two chaotic sequences but I found it a bit jarring.

* All The Cats Join In is just plain fun.  Noted on the title card as “A Jazz Interlude”, it is the first of two segments featuring Benny Goodman and his Quartet.  It beings by correcting the assumption that this will be about actual cats but instead about swingin’ cats.  The story is brought to life via a disembodied pencil that draws the actions as they happen – and often struggles to keep up.  We follow a group of bobbysoxers swept away by jazz music at a malt shop.  Often the kids are ahead of the undrawn world that is being created for them, their jalopy is driving down a street and the pencil must quickly draw a stoplight lest they break the law.

This was a new style for Disney because it features actual human beings drawn with pencil instead of being rotoscoped.  The fun here is that as the teenagers move through their ritual, the omniscient pencil is continually drawing the backgrounds.  It makes for some great fast animation and would signal a lot of animated techniques that were to come.  I think if I have a problem here it’s that the segment is only five minutes long.

* Without You, which is noted on the title card as “A Ballad in Blue” is a strange segment sung by 40s vocalist Andy Russell singing the title song over dreary images (dead trees, cloudy skies) that apparently deal with a recent “Dear, John” letter.  The effect is supposed to come from the fact that the mood is set by the setting because no characters appear on the screen.  It is oddly short at only 3 and a half minutes and although I admire the fact that it sets its tone without characters, I found it dreary and forgettable.

* Casey at the Bat, noted on the title card as “A Musical Recitation” is oddly placed since it’s not really a musical.  Narrated by comedian Jerry Colona it tells the familiar story of the Mudville slugger whose overconfidence brings “no joy.”  I love the slapstick animation here, but Disney would produce a much better (and longer) follow-up eight years later called “Casey Bats Again,” featuring the slugger facing fatherhood to a nonet of daughters who eventually form a girl’s baseball team to bring some joy back to the old man.  For whatever reason, that short was added as a bonus feature on the DVD edition of Melody Time but no on Make Mine Music where it would have been more appropriate yeah, that makes sense.

* Two Silhouettes, noted on the title card as “Ballade Ballet,” was probably a much better idea than it is an actual musical segment.  It features Russian ballet legends David Lichine and Tania Riabouchinskaya dancing a number in sillouette while Dinah Shore sings the title tune.

In his book “The Disney Films,” Leonard Maltin comments: “The sequence seems to have no purpose, no direction.  The very format of cupids and doilies spelled disaster for most viewers before the sequence was even under way.”  I would agree.  It seems pointless but I would also add that it tries to place the silhouetted figures into an animated world but blacks them out so the artistry of their dance cannot be seen or appreciated.  While it is interesting to see Disney trying to move away from rotoscoping, I found this one to be an art experiment that just didn’t work.

* Peter and the Wolf, noted on the title card as “A Fairy Tale With Music,” feels like a music lesson.  Sergei Prokofiev approached Disney about using his 1938 composition in the Fantasia follow-up even though Disney was already planning to use it anyway.  However, it was so important to Disney to bring this piece to life through animation that he held it over for Make Mine Music.  However, since Fantasia had frustrated so many moviegoers he decided to play it safe with “Peter and the Wolf” and employ Sterling Holloway to add narration that would make the story easier for Americans to follow.  And, it turns out, he was right.  Holloway introduces us to the way in which each instrument accompanies each character and that provides a nice backdrop.

The problem is that the animation is trying to match a musical composition that was made to be seen but not heard.  Prokofiev’s music was supposed to place the action in our minds but when placed in front of us as animation it feels clumsy and awkward.  It isn’t a story that translates well to a visual medium.

TRIVIA NOTE: The music provided for The Wolf was later used as the theme for the bully in A Christmas Story,

* After You’ve Gone (which has no subtitle) is actually a lot of fun despite its grim title.  This and the singing whale are actually my favorites.  The segment features the second contribution from Benny Goodman and his Quartet in a wonderfully animated sequence featuring anthropomorphized musical instruments dancing through a colorful musical background.  There isn’t really much to comment on here.  The animation is beautiful, it’s fast-paced, it’s wonderfully abstract and the music is fun.

* Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet, noted on the title card as “A Love Story,” is probably the segment I remember most from when I was a kid.  Of course, I never saw this movie so it would have appeared as filler before one of the live action Disney pictures on television.  It tells the heartbreaking story of two hats who meet and fall in love while on display in the window of a department store until Johnny’s world is broken when Alice is purchased one day by a customer for $23.94.  Lonely without his beloved Alice, Johnny is later purchased himself and makes it his mission to find her.  Where the story goes is a bit coincidental but what is surprising are the dark turns that Johnny’s journey takes.  And what is special about this segment is the way in which the Disney animators can give live and emotional weight to such a mundane inanimate object.  I love the journey of this short as it defies the limitations of it’s premise by having an object without hands or feet travel through the world on its single-minded mission.

* The What Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, which is noted on the title card as an “Opera Pathétique” is my favorite segment by a country mile.  It tells the bittersweet story of a jolly sperm whale named Willie who has a miraculous talent for singing opera.  Yet, a short-sighted impresario named Tetti-Tatti doesn’t believe that the whale has talent, but believes that the mammal has simply swallowed an opera singer and chases him with a harpoon.  What is special about this short are the visuals, especially a fantasy sequence in which the enormous Willie sings Paliacchi on the stage and rains tears on the orchestra through his blow hole (they’ve readied themselves by wearing raincoats).  Famous crooner Nelson Eddy provides all of the voices for this segment and gives an amazing performance.

*****

What I noticed about the placement of all of these segments are in an order in which the previous segment establishes the one that came before, at least in tone.  We’ll get something somber and melodramatic followed by something funny and light-hearted.  As I said, the only one that’s a bit jarring is “Blue Bayou” coming right after “The Martins and the Coys” and right before “All the Cats Join In.”  This was the only place where the effect feels a little off.

Make Mine Music is somewhat of an oddity in the Disney cannon because it garnered the most controversy.  In the years that followed, the All the Cats Join In segment was cut down due to some suggestive nudity when the girl is seen in silhouette as she takes a shower.  It would seem ridiculous that such a thing would be part of a Disney film, but in some ways I think it was suggestive of the times.  During the war years pin-ups and other sexualized images of women were commonplace, and for this segment Disney was inspired by that.  So does it belong here?  That’s up for debate, but it could be argued that back in the 1940s, animated movies were not expressly made for children.  Animated shorts with all manner of randy subject manner were coming out of the Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz studios because, at the time, cartoon shorts were shown in front of features that weren’t necessarily geared at children so it wouldn’t have been an issue to have brief nudity (and it is very brief).  It was only after the advent of television that cartoons became a child’s medium.  Altering the scene doesn’t change anything (I’ve seen both versions) but I’m generally opposed to editing content in most any form.  I don’t think this is a scene that parents really need to worry about.

The “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” segments were cut by British censors due to their depictions of characters arriving in Heaven, and especially the closing moment which features the gates of Heaven with a “Sold Out” sign attached.  While the nudity in “All the Cats Join In” has been cleverly edited by computers the Heaven sequences have been restored.

“The Martins and the Coys” segment however has been eliminated from all prints, especially the 2000 DVD release due to an excessive amount of comedic gunplay (and there is a lot of it).  I think this may have been a mistake.  If the studio was going to edit this scene out, perhaps it could have been added to the bonus materials with a warning and a brief explanation.  Hiding it always feels like censorship to me.

So, how does the movie work as a whole?  Well, for me, it works a little better than the two previous “package films,” Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros because there seems to be a much more solid purpose.  The segments are divided by title cards so we know what we’re getting, and it gives us a moment to decompress.  Plus, I think the fact that the segments are a little shorter gives me time to breathe.  My major complaint with The Three Caballeros was that the segments went on and on and on without a break.  Here, I can shift easily from one to the other.

It makes me a little sad that Make Mine Music is essentially the forgotten Disney film.  It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s got some great animation, but it gets lost among the other “package films” of this decade.  I think it’s far more original and fun than the others.  It’s a lost gem that is worth searching for.  And yet, it also takes me back to my original question: What is best in life, art or commerce?  I think in Make Mine Music you can feel both, you can feel Walt’s creative and artistic instincts fighting for space with his attempts to be current so as not to alienate the audience in the way that Fantasia did.  It is an odd mix but I think it works.4