I love The Criterion Collection. In case you’re not familiar with them, Criterion curates, restores, and releases films for the home video market. Throughout the year, they release important and noteworthy classic and contemporary films on the latest medium (currently Blu-ray and DVD). Working with filmmakers and film scholars, the brilliant folks at Criterion make definitive editions of films with meticulous digital transfers along with fascinating commentary tracks and relevant supplemental features. They work hard to “ensure that each film is presented as its maker would want it seen and published in an edition that will deepen the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the art of cinema” (from the Criterion website FAQ).
(On a side note, Criterion often hosts filmmakers in their New York City headquarters and they let them pick a few films out of their closet. Pictures and videos are recurrently posted on Criterion’s Instagram feed and YouTube channel. A trip to the Criterion closet is definitely a dream of mine. Here are a couple of examples.)
As far as streaming services go, Criterion recently collaborated with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on the now defunct FilmStruck subscription service. FilmStruck was movie heaven for fans (like me) of classic, international, and art cinema. The loss of FilmStruck was really a devastating blow, both for the teams at TCM and Criterion who worked so hard to make the service great and for the subscribers who loved the service. However, happy days are here again because Criterion has just announced that April 8 will be the official launch of their new, exclusive Criterion Channel streaming service.
The service costs $9.99 a month or $89.99 a year. They are offering special incentives to “Charter Subscribers” (aka subscribers who join before the April 8 launch date). Signing up now will give Charter Subscribers an extended 30-day trial (which will start April 8). Charter Subscribers also get “concierge customer service from the Criterion Collection, a dedicated e-mail address to write to, as well as a holiday gift certificate for use on the Criterion Collection website” (which probably is pretty cool).
As an added bonus, Charter Subscribers will get access to a “Movie of the Week” that can be watched exclusively online (access via apps and other platforms will happen on April 8). This week’s movie is the gangster drama Mikey and Nicky (1976) starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes and written and directed by Elaine May. The Criterion Collection version of the film was just released on January 22, 2019. I’m a Charter Subscriber (I signed up the second I saw the tweet from Criterion) so I’ll be checking out these Criterion “Movie of the Week” titles from now until launch and will include reviews and commentary on the blog and podcast starting next week.
Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is celebrating its 60th anniversary today.
I have always been a fan of the film’s distinctive look, which is primarily attributed to production designer and artist extraordinaire Eyvind Earle.
The folks at D23, the official Disney fan club, have been posting some cool Sleeping Beauty articles over the past few days to commemorate the film’s 60th anniversary. One of the articles describes Earle’s approach to the film’s unique design:
“Determined to make this new film a Disney animated feature like no other, Walt assigned stylist Eyvind Earle as production designer. Creating a stylized approach that was a radical departure from previous Disney animated features, Earle combined Gothic French, Italian, and pre-Renaissance influences with his own abstract style of realism to create the formalized elegance and stylish design seen in Sleeping Beauty. To create the sumptuously stylized panoramas for this widescreen spectacle, Earle painted dozens of backgrounds in his distinctive style, some of them 15 feet long. Animation artist Tom Oreb skillfully incorporated the strong horizontal and vertical planes of the backgrounds into the character design, so that they had the Earle flair.”
Also stated in the D23 article is the painstaking work that was required to create the film. “Sequence director Eric Larson recalled the conscious effort to strive for Sleeping Beauty perfection. ‘Walt told me after one story meeting that he didn’t care how long it took, but to do it right,’ he said. Walt challenged the more than 300 Sleeping Beauty artists and technicians to make each frame an independent work of art. Because of the intricate stylization of the characters, the assistant animators had to work carefully with exacting specifications, even down to the exact thickness of the pencil lines. In the case of the carefully designed Briar Rose, it took one full day to create one cleaned-up animation drawing. For the jewel-like colors selected by Eyvind Earle, the Disney Paint Lab developed new hues using additives that gave the pigments a glow on the screen unseen in any animated film that had come before.”
Another interesting item of note is that brilliant animator and artist Marc Davis was assigned to animate both the film’s protagonist (Princess Aurora/Briar Rose) and the antagonist (Maleficent).
The film was the first animated movie shot in Super Technirama 70 widescreen (and the second to filmed in widescreen after 1955’s Lady and the Tramp). It was also released in 6-channel stereophonic sound. Here’s a clip (and check out those amazing Eyvind Earle trees).
The great art of Sleeping Beauty lives on today. Princess Aurora even made a stylized appearance, along with all of the other princesses from Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, in last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. Here’s a tribute tweet today from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Here’s some great art by Walt Disney Animation Studios artist Lorelay Bove, too.
Speaking of D23, I am seeing Sleeping Beauty on the big screen next month as part of special D23 event and I can’t wait (more to come).
The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ musical Swing Time (1936) is this week’s film in my 2019 TCM Essentials movie watching project. Considered by many to be Astaire and Rogers’ finest picture (it was their sixth picture; they made 10 films together), it’s a total delight.
Directed by George Stevens with songs by the great songwriting team of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, this romantic musical comedy is as light and breezy as they come. Astaire plays Lucky, a gambler and dancer who is engaged to be married. When he gets cold feet and misses the wedding, his fiancé and her family give him a second chance to prove himself if he can earn $25,000 on his own. In the meantime, Lucky meets dance instructor Penny Carrol played by Ginger Rogers and I’m sure you can guess what happens next (hint: Lucky falls hard for Penny). The romance takes its twists and turns in between such great musical numbers as “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” “Mr. Bojangles” (with a problematic blackface scene), and the unforgettable “The Way You Look Tonight.”
In The Essentials book, author Jeremy Arnold writes, “Fred Astaire was more than an actor, dancer, and singer. He was a master of the medium who had great control over the visual presentation of his films. That’s the reason he and Ginger are consistently framed full-figure, head-to-toe, as they dance, and why there are never any reaction shots of audiences and rarely any cuts at all during their numbers. Astaire knew that keeping us firmly and emotionally involved in the performance itself would have the greatest effect. As he once said, ‘Either the camera will dance or I will dance.'”
Here’s an example of the camera work described above with Fred and Ginger’s “The Last Dance” sequence from the film.
I loved watching Swing Time again and it brought back a lot of happy memories of watching Fred and Ginger movies with my dear mother who introduced me to many of these classic films in the first place. As TCM’s Robert Osborn said about Swing Time, “It’s such a joyful movie and it just makes you feel good, and anytime you’re down in the dumps all you have to do is put this movie on and you’ll feel better.”
My score: 5 out of 5 stars
I watched Swing Time on TCM. It is also available on Apple iTunes.
TCM The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter by Jeremy Arnold is available at Amazon and other fine booksellers.
Directed by Lewis Milestone and based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, the film is one of the most famous and moving anti-war films ever made. Told from the perspective of the German experience in the war, the film gives a powerful message about war’s destruction and, more often than not, its futility.
In The Essentials book, author Jeremy Arnold states that the film’s battle scenes were “state-of-the-art for 1930.” Director Milestone used “tremendous movement, immediacy, and depth in every frame. Dramatic crane shots look astonishing for having been accomplished during a year in which most cameras were trapped in immobile, soundproof booths. Combined with the fluid camerawork are striking battlefield explosions, achieved by setting off dynamite remotely just before or after the actors ran by, with little room to spare.” Here’s an example.
Actor Lew Ayres, who was 20 years old when he made the film, leaves an indelible impression as Paul, a young soldier who enters the German World War I effort with youthful enthusiasm and who, after time in the trenches, learns of the true cost of the experience. Here’s a clip from the film where Paul returns during a leave to the place where he was recruited.
I found the film to be compelling, realistic, and tragic. It’s truly remarkable filmmaking about a truly devastating subject matter.
We are big fans of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). A cool poster and teaser trailer for its sequel film, Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019), just dropped today. Consider us officially excited.