Monthly Archives: July 2013

Rats and Cats in Paris

Minimalist 'Ratatouille' poster.

Minimalist ‘Ratatouille’ poster.

Paris may well be the most photogenic city in the world. The only time I ever thought it looked ugly was in Woody Allen’s idiotic fantasy, “Midnight in Paris.” I don’t know how he did it — maybe with yellow filters — but in that picture, Paris looked like it had jaundice. Paris is also a great setting for cartoons. Here are examples from three cartoons that make effective use of the City of Lights. The first one features rats; the second two feature cats. In all three, Paris is as much a character as are the cats and rats who inhabit it.

Ratatouille

First, here are two clips from “Ratatouille” (Pixar, 2007). The first one is, alas, not high quality audio or high definition video, but I hope it’ll give you a vague idea of how great the sequence looks and sounds on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s one of the best examples of great underscoring in the history of the movies. Michael Giacchino’s score was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Dario Marionelli’s fine score to “Atonement.” I’ll go out on a limb and say that Giacchino’s score for “Ratatouille” is my favorite movie score of all time. Giacchino’s score for “Up” won the Oscar for Best Original Score two years later; his speech was as almost as wonderful as his music. This is what he said:

Thank you, guys. When I was . . . I was nine and I asked my dad, “Can I have your movie camera? That old, wind-up 8mm camera that was in your drawer?” And he goes, “Sure, take it.” And I took it and I started making movies with it and I started being as creative as I could, and never once in my life did my parents ever say, “What you’re doing is a waste of time.” Never. And I grew up, I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all through my life who always told me what you’re doing is not a waste of time. So that was normal to me that it was okay to do that. I know there are kids out there that don’t have that support system, so if you’re out there and you’re listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it; it’s not a waste of time. Do it. Okay? Thank you. Thank you.

And this is Peter O’Toole as the formidable food critic, Anton Ego. O’Toole brings to bear everything he has learnt about acting over the past fifty odd years. It comes at the end of a gorgeous, but extremely tiresome, obstacle-course cartoon: you know it’ll all work out, but they keep piling on the difficulties till (if you’re anything like me) you can’t stand it. In the movie theatre, the excessive plotting drove me very nearly mad. The animation is spectacular, but I was on the verge of leaving throughout nearly the entire second half of the picture. A friend had insisted, however, that the ending was the best part and made me promise to stay till the end: “There’s a Proust moment in it that you’ll love.” “What do you mean by ‘Proust moment’?” “I won’t tell you: you’ll know when you see it.” He was absolutely right — and it was a thrill. In the last reel, several amazing moments happen, one after another, and they culminate in this beautiful oration. In the years since “Ratatouille” was released, Peter O’Toole has been in a half dozen more pictures, but I can’t imagine a better swan song for an artist of his intelligence, sophistication and wit. O’Toole has spent much of his career elevating second- and third-rate material; it’s marvellous to hear him handle first class stuff, as he does here.

Do yourself a favor: spring for the DVD and a good sound system and hear it properly. It makes a difference — a big one.

Gay Purr-ee

A dreadful, dreadful cartoon, but Harold Arlen wrote one or two good tunes for his old friend Judy Garland to sing in it. E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg did the lyrics. The score, as a whole, is a negligible affair, but I rather like this one song: “Paris is a Lonely Town.” Nice palette in this sequence, too. But nearly everything else in the picture is revolting, especially every second in which the vile, unfunny Red Buttons is involved.

Une Vie de Chat (A Cat in Paris)

'A Cat in Paris': Original French poster.

‘A Cat in Paris’: Original French poster.

Wow! Take a look at this clip from “A Cat in Paris” (Folimage, 2010). I prefer unapologetically two-dimensional hand-drawn animation to its computer-animated three-dimensional younger brother. Hand-drawn animation is lighter on its feet and more playful; it’s further removed from reality than computer-animated cartoons, yet it seems more human. I find it has more personality than computer-animation. Computer animators do wonderful things with blades of grass and individual hairs, with tidal waves and all sorts of complex crowd scenes that seem beyond the 2-D animators’ ability to convey. But I have yet to see a computer-animated human that I found pleasant to look at. Computer-animation does fur a lot better than it does skin. Humans in computer-animated features always give me the willies.

The shot at sunrise reminds me of de Chirico, but without the dread and terror.

Here’s a clip of the heroic cat burglar, Nico, and his kittycat assistant, Dino, as they make their nightly rounds. This is very hard not to like.

That’s Billie Holiday who sings the beautiful Ralph Rainger tune, “I Wished on the Moon.” Dorothy Parker wrote the lyrics. I’d like the cartoon a whole lot more if they used more of this style of music and less of Serge Besset’s Philip Glass Meets Benny Herrmann score.

Hello, kitty.

Hello, kitty.

“A Cat in Paris” is a lovely, modest cartoon. The whole is not, perhaps, quite as great as the sum of its parts, but it has more than enough wonderful parts to make it well worth seeing and owning. It’s entirely likeable and diverting. Next to the arresting angles and wonderful palette used throughout the cartoon, what I like most is the near absence of the sort of non-stop, frenetic action sequences that are the hallmark of all Pixar cartoons. It’s also shorter than the average Pixar feature. “A Cat in Paris” is only 62 minutes long; in my view, that is long enough for any cartoon. The hurlyburly of Pixar features wears me out; they rarely give you a moment to relax and catch your breath: they’re too busy astonishing you while they put their adorable, anthropomorphic critters through the torments of hell. On the other hand, “Ratatouille” has some of the most amazing images of Paris I’ve ever seen and it has that thrilling score, so I’ve learnt to put up with its whirligig plot.

Dino the Cat at Notre Dame.

Dino the Cat at Notre Dame.

The DVD and Blu-ray of “A Cat in Paris” offer both the original French and the English version. I think it sounds more charming in French, but the English version is also quite nice. Anjelica Huston is very witty as a baddie.

Awesome Awfulness

Original poster: 'Beauty and the Beast.' Barry Sullivan's character is called Beauty in the picture; she's the beast.

Original poster: ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In the picture, Barry Sullivan’s scarfaced character is called Beauty; Joan Crawford is the Beast.

Since I have, of late, kept things on a fairly high plane, today I’d like to roll about in the muck a little, just to keep things honest. A while ago, I posted “Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures” (Part I and Part II) and a piece called “Howlers,” about bad dialogue in high-minded trashy pictures; today, I thought I’d show some cruddy scenes from cruddy pictures. In fact, they’re all from terrible pictures that I can never get through in one sitting, but I like every one of these scenes for a variety of reasons.

The first four clips are overtly camp, which is a form of humor I don’t usually go for. Generally, I’m more likely to endure camp than to laugh at it. And even the sort of camp that does make me laugh — “The Fountainhead,” for instance — wears out its welcome in a big hurry. In small doses, however, I find certain kinds of camp very funny.

So let me start with the camp and get it out of the way. I like these scenes a lot, but believe me, I’m not proud of myself.

Queen Bee

You don’t need to know anything more than Joan Crawford is playing a bitch. Well, it’s the fifties and that’s all she played in that decade. All the evil that surrounds her is in reaction to the monkey-tricks she’s pulled on the other characters before the picture started. She’s plenty crazy when she comes sailing into this, her first scene — but she gets a whole lot crazier before the ninety-five minute picture is over. “Queen Bee” (Columbia, 1955) is written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, who wrote the far superior Crawford melodrama, “Mildred Pierce.” But that was ten years earlier, when they were both younger and had more sense.

“Now I’m ready for people”; “Hello to both of you” . . . God, isn’t that bad writing? Who talks like that? Not even Joan Crawford talks like that. In the scene immediately following this one, Fay Wray, who plays the demented Sue McKinnon, says to another character, “It pleasures me to see you.” In a later scene, Barry Sullivan also says “It pleasures me” about something he likes. Perhaps it’s a common Southern expression, but I’ve never heard it outside of this picture. It doesn’t put me in mind of Southern hospitality; it makes me think of blowjobs. The young woman is Lucy Marlow: Columbia Pictures expected big things from her . . . and didn’t get ’em.

Here’s another clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s shorter and, in its own way, funnier than the previous one. Is there anything more vulgar than Joan Crawford when she gets high-tone? “Mildred Pierce” worked for her because even as she climbed the social ladder, we never were expected to think she had class or sophistication — only that she could hold her bourbon. In “Queen Bee,” she’s supposed to be sophisticated, sexually alluring and mean as a rattlesnake bite . . . She does rattlesnake tolerably (though unimaginatively); the first two are far beyond her extremely limited powers of impersonation, but she slugs away at it with all her might and main. Result: camp.

Give that sound effects man an Oscar! Best too-loud slap ever.

In this one, Joan Crawford goes all Citizen Kane on the cups and dollies. The dialogue she has to work with is terrible, but she doesn’t do it any favors.

And one more clip from “Queen Bee.” It’s the best rotten dialogue in the whole picture. Just look at her act . . . she pivots twice in a single scene. Nobody in real life ever pivots: only bad actresses pivot (in auditions, they also kneel, but only if their knees crack on the descent — I don’t know why). Joan Crawford is not content to be merely a bad actress: she pivots twice. Is she acting or figure skating? It’s hard to figure . . . did she know how bad she was? Did she think what she was doing was good? Or merely marketable? Or was she intentionally camp? My instinct tells me the choices she made were a combination of ambition, selfishness, superstition, stupidity, hard work and bad taste. But whatever it was, it led to some hilarious performances.

“You’re like some fancy kind of disease!” Well, he didn’t say he hated her. That’s John Ireland, poor bastard.

Sunday Drivers

I don’t think these next two clips count as camp — they’re just damned silly, and they both come from crummy mid-high-minded trashy pictures about, of all things, the picture business. Both of them involve public menaces behind the wheel of a car; both make unintentionally hilarious use of process shots; both are from glamorous pictures directed by Vincent Minnelli. The first is from “The Bad and the Beautiful” (Metro, 1952). Lana Turner is behind the wheel. She’s just been jilted by Kirk Douglas. Get this crazy broad off the road.

The second is from “Two Weeks in Another Town,” which was made ten years later, same director (Minnelli), same producer (John Houseman), same writer (Charles Schnee), same star (Douglas). This one’s about how Kirk takes over an Edward G. Robinson picture in Rome after Eddie has a heart attack. The trouble is Kirk is fresh out of the nut house, so the stress of the shoot gets him all bollocky, then his ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, shows up and pushes him over the edge. So he gets into his sporty little number and goes for a therapeutic little spin around the hills of Rome.

These last three clips are from the mid-sixties. They all have a specific atmosphere that appeals to me. It’s an atmosphere that comes from out-of-touch big studios trying to be hip, trying to appeal to the younger generation and failing completely. For instance, whenever a big studio like Metro wrote hippies into a story, they got it all wrong — in the same way that Noël Coward and Cole Porter, late in their careers, got it wrong when they tried to write parodies of the rock ‘n’ roll tunes that had, virtually overnight, turned them into dinosaurs: they didn’t know the idiom well enough to parody it, and they had too much scorn for it to make the parody agreeable. The studios were the same when it came to the presentation of youth culture in general and hippies in particular. They thought they were appealing to the Pepsi Generation by featuring young characters in their pictures, but then the fogey writers and directors made sure that their teenage and twenty-something characters were invariably selfish, foolish, posturing hypocrites.  And the writers never, ever got the current slang right — they simply were not hep to the jive, daddy-o.

Under the Yum Yum Tree

I don’t think this next clip qualifies as camp, either. It’s technically accomplished schlock. It doesn’t even fall under the cliché “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” because they didn’t make ’em like this back then, either. It’s the peculiarity of it that I find so entertaining . . . I like Jimmy Van Heusen’s tune and Sammy Cahn’s dopey lyric and the choreography that looks like an ad for FDS. I like James Darren’s faux-Sinatra voice. The rest of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (Columbia, 1963) is unspeakable garbage. But, oh, I do like the song. Five years ago, I attempted to show this number to my impressionable three year-old goddaughter when she and her mum were in town for a visit. Mum put a stop to it at once. She didn’t want her little girl polluted with such rubbish. Anyhow, my goddaughter will be eight on August 3 of this year, so I thought I’d drop the offending number into this post, that it may always be available to her, now that she has achieved the age of reason.

Frederick Brisson, the producer of “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” was married to Rosalind Russell from 1941 until his death in 1984. An unprepossessing man, he was widely known as “the Lizard of Roz.” How awful for him.

Made in Paris

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

And speakin’ of awful, howzabout this cherce nugget? It’s “Made in Paris” (Metro, 1966). Have you ever seen this picture? This is the sort of pop-schlock Metro put out in the mid-sixties — and it’s the sort of pop-schlock that almost put Metro out of business for keeps. In the sixties, Metro turned out a lot of this sort of squaresville peek-a-boo crap, then couldn’t understand why people stayed home. Until a few weeks ago, I never even heard of this one — though I seem to remember its photograph was on the side of a milk carton back in the late seventies. My sister-in-law Deirdre is a big Ann-Margret fan, so she almost certainly knows this picture . . . but does anyone else? Anyhow, the picture is awful — so idiotic, it makes the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies look like Preston Sturges by comparison. But this opening sequence has a lot of pizzazz. The streets, as you will see, are strictly Metro backlot — the very streets that Gene Kelly roller-skated on.

I like the fashions by Helen Rose. I like the score, too. I like the Crêpes Suzette. I do not like Chad Everett, but I do like what happens to him. Count Basie, man! Dig that. I love how he’s Metro’s idea of being hip. I’m always glad to see and hear Count Basie, but in 1966, when this picture was released, he was hardly catnip to the younger generation, which the studio clearly hoped he’d be. And take a look at the opening credits, which are a perfect example of mid-sixties Metro. The tune is by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who were definitely hot in 1966, but the hipster who sings it? Trini “Lemon Tree, Very Pretty” López! Notice, too, that the picture features a song by that master composer of pop tunes, Mr Red (“Good night and God bleth”) Skelton. Georgie Stoll, who scored this swingin’ picture, had been at MGM since 1937 . . . ! (Classicists may be amused or dismayed to see in the credits that the production company responsible for this prurient shit had the effrontery to name itself after the Muse of Music, Euterpe, who in ancient times was often called “the giver of delight.”)

Here’s an interesting fact: the last contract player at Metro was none other than Chad Everett. The studio that once boasted “More stars than there are in heaven,” ended up with a single actor under contract, and he was Chad Everett. Cue the last stanza of “The Hollow Men” . . .