Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Thief and the Cobbler (Richard Williams, 1993)

(In tribute to Richard Williams, 1933 - 2019)

(The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut Mark 4 can be streamed or downloaded on this site)


there was an animator, Richard Williams, who built a name out of fashioning animated shorts. 

In 1964 Williams illustrated short stories about the mythical comic figure of Nasrudin which, in 1968, he turned into a film project. When support fell apart (in 1973), he took characters and stories he worked on--particularly his favorite, a thief--and repurposed them into a new production he would end up calling The Thief and the Cobbler

Williams and his people continued developing the film on and off for some twenty years, using money earned from commercials, television specials, and film credit assignments. He would describe Thief as a "100 minute Panavision animated epic feature with a hand-drawn cast of thousands" that is "not following the Disney route...It has no sentiment and the two main characters (the thief and cobbler) don't speak. It's like a silent movie with a lot of sound." He adds "the idea is to make the best animated film that has ever been made." It was his child, his dream project that he hoped--somehow, someday--to complete; the film's legend grew accordingly.

Steven Spielberg saw footage of Thief, hired Williams as animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Rabbit turned out to be an award-winning monster hit, and Williams' golden opportunity; when Warner Brothers offered $25 million to help finish Thief, Williams accepted--but the film had to be finished by 1991.

Williams and his crew labored mightily, sometimes up to sixty hours a week, the filmmaker often firing animators right and left (harsh, but to be fair no one worked harder than Williams; said animator Roger Visard: "He was the first person in the morning and the last one out at night"). When the deadline came and went Williams was forced to present what he had: a workprint with 85 minutes of footage, with pencil tests and storyboards to cover over gaps in the story. He needed six more months to draw the remaining fifteen minutes, he claimed, and the film would be complete.

Warner backed out of their deal. Disney was about to open Aladdin--which, viewed closely, included characters and animated sequences that resembled those in Thief (some of its animators were people Williams had fired) and the idea of competing directly against the mighty Mouse felt like a losing proposition (different scenario if Williams had finished on time, and Warner was able to pre-emptively release the film). In 1992, Williams' dream project of some twenty-four years was taken from him by a completion bond company, which cut footage out and put in (cheap-looking) animation involving musical numbers (because, y'know, Disney). The result was released as The Princess and the Cobbler, and promptly failed at the box-office ($669,276 in receipts against a $28 million budget). 

Miramax Films--a company notorious for buying up and mutilating independent pictures before releasing them in the American market--bought Thief from the bond company, mutilated it some more, added celebrity voices to the silent thief and cobbler, released the film as Arabian Knight...which also did poorly with the critics and not much better at the box office. 

And so matters remained.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Moonrise (Frank Borzage, 1948)


The film starts out a fevered dream: warped feet walking across the screen, steps rippling outward like a malignancy; camera shifts and we realize we're looking at the water reflection of three men crossing a concrete floor. Your eyes focus on the leading man's hands: they hang limp from heavily resigned arms. Why?   

Things--as they do in noir--happen faster than our ability to comprehend them: the feet walk past others gathered in what looks to be a standing crowd, mount a wooden scaffold; the camera turns aside to gaze at the scaffold's shadow (catching a glimpse along the way of the viewers--it is a crowd, all holding up umbrellas, a single grim expression on every face) in time to see a man--the same man whose hands caught our attention--being fitted with hood and noose round his neck; another man pushes a lever and

Cut to the man's shadow swinging from its rope and a baby shrieking. The camera moves in on the baby's face, eyes averted, reflecting the camera's reluctance to watch the horror; the camera pulls back and we realize it's not the man but a doll, swinging over the baby's crib. 

The opening hits like a blow to the gut (A tug to the throat?) but what lingers is the mocking cruelty of that doll. Who does that to a child? What does that do to the child?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Eerie (Mikhail Red, 2018)

Nun other

At its best Mikhail Red's Eerie is exactly that: eerie. The son of pioneering indie filmmaker Raymond Red has I'd say inherited his father's eye for editing composition lighting, fashioning films that are (whatever else you might say about them) strikingly visual, with accompanying social commentary. 

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Lookout (Afi Africa, 2018)

Out of Africa

Afi Africa's The Lookout first appeared in last year's Cinemalaya Festival, to less than stellar notices. You can hardly blame the skeptics: the script features largely unsympathetic characters, a complex plot told nonlinear fashion, a generous (or--depending on how you feel about such things--excessive) dose of languorously lingered-upon sex.

The film is flawed to put it mildly; the question one might ask instead is: anything here worth noting? Anything that might have been done different, maybe lessons that could be learned for next time?

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

Shoot the moon

For the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, a re-release oTodd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 documentary in several theaters (plus Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu) including spectacular never-before-seen 65 mm color footage of the launch, capsule recovery, and aftermath (mainly activities aboard the USS Hornet).

Miller tells the story direct cinema style: no narration or interviews staged for the film, only what's available from archives--most notably Walter Cronkite's voice as the nation's official storyteller, explaining events onscreen.

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

Got to get away

Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to his terrific (at least for the first three-fourths) Hereditary, improves on the earlier work this much: instead of situating his narrative in relatively familiar Utah he moves his story to an exotic faraway land (well Sweden) where the notion of a possibly malevolent conspiracy can be more easily swallowed. Yes xenophobia, though arguably much of horror literature and film sprouts out of fear of the Other.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is having a bad day to put it mildly: her anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is thinking of leaving her but doesn't have the courage to let her know; her bipolar sister is thinking suicidal/homicidal thoughts; Dani herself (if we're to believe her boyfriend and his friends) seems too wound up to enjoy much of life, clings to Christian too tightly to allow him to breathe much less enjoy his life.

Enter Christian's classmate Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) who proposes a trip to his home community in the province of Halsingland (Sweden) for the midsummer--a special celebration that happens only once every ninety years. Dani learns about the outing and wants to come along; Christian reluctantly (and to his friends' dismay) agrees. 

Do we know where all this is going? You bet.