Feb 262020
 

chuck-jonesThis is different from my normal Director’s Lists as Jones is not known for features, but for animated shorts. But then he’s also the greatest director of shorts, and arguably of animations of any length, so definitely a man who needs to be included.

A majority of his career was spent at Warner Bros., working on Loony Tunes/Merrie Melodies. He created Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, as well as Pepé Le Pew, but his greatest achievements were with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, shifting Bugs and wildly changing Daffy away from their chaotic, loony origins. Jones also focused on the music, using it not just for background or emphasis, but using it as the story, and no one did it better. Some of the praise must go to writer Michael Maltese, with whom he often collaborated.

My list is almost all Warner Bros. cartoons (it would be completely so if I didn’t cheat and include one work that didn’t have a theatrical release), but then Jones himself said his best work was for Warners. This list can also be used as a Best of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, as my top 10 of those would be the Jones films below with the addition of one Robert McKimson (Hillbilly Hare) to replace the non-WB film, though in a numerically higher slot.

As always, a few Honorable Mentions: Firstly, For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), as I needed one Pepé Le Pew film, and this one won an Academy Award; then one for The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), an all out Daffy extravaganza; and finally High Note (1960), a musical short where the notes on a sheet of music come alive, and one gets drunk.

And as there are so many films (and as Jones created more masterpieces than any other director of any kind), I’m making this a list of 10 instead of my normal 8.

#10 – Hair-Raising Hare (1946) — “Monster’s are such interesting people.” With a castle, “Peter Lorre,” and Gossamer, this is a must for every Halloween.

#9 – Long-Haired Hare (1949) — The first of three opera-related films on this list, with Bugs declaring war on an unpleasant opera singer. The long-note prank is an all-time classic. And yeah, we get an America v Europe metaphor here.

#8 – Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) — A parody of Buck Rogers, with Daffy fighting Marvin the Martian. My favorite use of Porky as Daffy’s smarter sidekick. This is a masterwork based on set design alone.

#7 – The Hunting Trilogy (1951-1953) [Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (1953)] — “Pronoun trouble.” Is it duck season or rabbit season? This is the iconic Bugs v Daffy conflict, and while Bugs mostly wins, the films belong to Daffy and his reactions. A bit of a cheat, but if I take one of them, I want them all.

#6 – Rabbit of Seville (1950) — The second opera cartoon on this list, with Elmer chasing Bugs onto a stage. It’s non-stop physical comedy combined with some great musical gags. How many kids’ interest in classical music started here?

#5 – Feed the Kitty (1952) — How do you get so much emotion into a 7 min animation? The kitten is adorable, and the dog is relatable. This was Eugie’s favorite cartoon.

#4 – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) — My second cheat on this list as this is a TV special. It’s also the only version of this story you need to watch. The lines are great, the songs memorable, and Boris Karloff owns it.

#3 – Duck Amuck (1953) — One brilliant joke after another, while also giving us top notch character work, and, if you want it, enough philosophical ponderings to fill a college class. What is reality anyway?

#2 – One Froggy Evening (1955) — A musical animation (though only with a little opera this time) that’s a parable on greed told through a singing and dancing frog. This may be the cruelest of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies.

#1 – What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) — My choice for the pinnacle of animation, it has Elmer hunting Bugs, in full Wagnerian opera-mode, and Wagner has never been better. I can’t choose what works best: the opera(s) parody, the wild gags, or Elmer’s sadness when he finally gets what he’s always wanted. This is perfection.

Feb 182020
 
three reels

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is no longer with the Joker, which means everyone who hates her feels free to try and kill her. Top of this long list is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask, a rising crime lord, though he’s even more concerned with picking up a MacGuffin diamond, which has ended up in the stomach of a MacGuffin teen, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Harley wants the diamond, and thus the kid, to get everyone off of her back. Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) wants both to make a case against Sionis. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), also known as Black Canary, doesn’t particularly want either, but would prefer if Cain wasn’t killed, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on a revenge quest and just crosses paths with the others. Eventually, these four women will have to team up, though not for a long time.

Margot Robbie is spectacular as Harley Quinn. She was before in Suicide Squad and she is now. She’s funny, sympathetic, and exciting. Get her on screen, and even bits that are scripted dryly become a lot of fun, which is handy as the script could use some punching up. But who cares as long as you’ve got Harley. Ewan McGregor is a hell of a lot of fun as Roman, mixing effete and nerdy and psychotic into a nice ball that is an excellent foil for Harley. Yes, like Robbie, he isn’t given the greatest lines, or the best things to do, but he elevates what he has. Harley v Roman is top flight entertainment, and with solid fight choreography, some nice tunes, and themes worth the time, Birds of Prey is headed toward being topflight entertainment.

Of course it never gets there. This is a DC film; what did you expect? They had an easy win here, but they just couldn’t bring it home. The problem, as an astute reader would have deduced from the previous paragraph, is that sometimes, Harley Quinn and Roman Sionis aren’t on screen. Most of Roman’s dirty deeds are performed by his henchman Zsasz, who is so generic I didn’t include him in my synopsis. He’s as memorable as Henchman #16, yet he get more screen time than Roman. On the other side we have The Birds of Prey, who for 80% of the film are not with Harley, so have to carry their own scenes, and they don’t. They are a void. Black Canary has some charisma though not much personality, which puts her way out front. Huntress is a non-entity, an empty spot where a character should be. And Montoya is a sad ‘80s cop stereotype. Yeah, they realized that and hung a lampshade on it, but pointing out that she’s a rotten character does not make her less of a rotten character. And her scenes take up so much time. The kid is a nothing as well, but she is a walking MacGuffin, so I can let her off the hook. If this was all they were going to do with the three Birds of Prey, why put them in the movie? Harley could have held up her end just fine.

Part of the reason the three are so bland is that they are in a movie with Harley. Most any character is going to look dull next to her, so you need to turn things up, and they didn’t. Sure, the theme here is abused—and therefore damaged—women taking control (not that they do much with that besides saying “Rah! Rah!”), but that doesn’t mean they have to reflect real-world people. Harley isn’t real. She’s amped-up reality, representing someone with trauma, not replicating one. So do that with the others. Montoya is driven to prove herself and is an alcoholic. Fine; raise that to Harley levels so that she’s a drunken master with bottle tossing skills. For Huntress, lets see some wild, cruel, over-the-top, revenge. And for Black Canary… OK, she’s pretty much mentally stable, so who knows. But they needed something. Anything.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn has a so-so script, a clichéd plot, and workman-like direction. There’s nothing special except for Robbie and McGregor. They’re left carrying the entire movie, even the parts that are over-sized anchors, and they do a good job of it. Imagine if they’d gotten some help.

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Feb 152020
 

LeslieHowardHoward was a major star of early film, and a gifted actor, playing romantics, egotists, detectives, scholars, and even a swashbuckler, but he is primarily remembered for his gruesome role as the effete Ashley in Gone With the Wind. His legacy deserves better. Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with him. He was handsome, with a fine clear British accent, but he didn’t fit into the newly developing molds.

He started acting as therapy after he was discharged from the military during WWI. And so his career was framed by the great wars as he died when his plane was shot down by the Germans in WWII.

I’ll give a mention, if not clearly honorable, to Of Human Bondage (1934). It has multiple flaws and Howard is just so-so, but it has a memorable performance by Bette Davis that showed the world that she was an expert at portraying cruelty. An honorable mention to Captured! (1933), a prisoner of war film that slips in melodrama and Film Noir.

The first of two dishonorable mentions goes to Romeo and Juliet (1936), where thirty-four-year-old Howard, thirty-four-year-old Norma Shearer, and fifty-four-year-old John Barrymore prance around pretending to be teenagers. And a larger one goes to Gone With the Wind (1939), a racist and ridiculous melodrama (My critique). To his credit, Howard knew the film was garbage. “I look like that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire, a fine thing at my age.” But the money was good and he had use for it, which I’ll get to below.

His top 8 films:

#8 – Devotion (1931) — The first of two on this list that, upon reading the description, I’d assume to be wild, farcical, romantic comedies, but are played as light romances with only the occasional bit of humor. In this one, a pretty rich girl (Ann Harding) falls at first sight for a barrister (Howard), so puts on an old-lady disguise and gets a job as his son’s nanny.

#7 – ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941) — Howard hated working on Gone With the Wind as well as his performance, but he had a good use for his salary. He financed and directed this updating of The Scarlet Pimpernel, swapping the French revolution for Nazi Germany.

#6 – Reserved for Ladies (1932) — This one seems completely forgotten, which is a shame as it is a good deal of fun. A head waiter for the rich and famous (Howard) falls for a high society girl and pursues her. His friendship with a king makes everyone believe he’s royalty. The film’s failing is it doesn’t know if it wants to be a romantic comedy or straight romance, but it is light, good-natured fun. Elizabeth Allen as the love interest is charming and I wished she’d been used better in her career.

#5 – 49th Parallel (1941) — This was the second film made by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, later known as The Archers. It’s a brilliant propaganda piece meant to influence the American public. It follows the survivors of a U-boat in Canada as they work their way toward the safety of the neutral USA. It strangely both humanized the enemy, while showing them as an evil that had to be stopped. Howard is one of multiple stars playing those they run into along the way.

#4 – The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) — It’s a bit slow and stiff, and I barely call it a Swashbuckler, but it’s powerful and memorable, and led to a stream of hero-disguised-as-fop films.

#3 – It’s Love I’m After (1937) — An unfairly forgotten farce, with Howard as a ham actor in a tempestuous relationship with Bette Davis’s equally over-the-top actress; it was their third collaboration. Both are naturals at playing hams. Olivia de Havilland, looking like a teenager, plays a girl obsessed by Howard’s Basil Underwood. [Also on the Olivia de Havilland list]

#2 – Pygmalion (1938) — Howard’s finest performance, he is perfect as the arrogant, elitist, controlling, yet occasionally charming Higgins. No one has come close. Wendy Hiller is also at her best as Eliza.

#1 – The Petrified Forest (1936) — Thematically, a mix of philosophy, crime, and personal searching. Howard’s a wandering poet who ends up in a last-chance diner, with locals, rich folks, and criminals. He was a star and wouldn’t take the part unless a little-known Humphrey Bogart was also cast, giving Bogart his shot. [Also on the Humphrey Bogart list]