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Viewing Diary 2016 #2

High Tide (1987), directed by Gillian Armstrong

Riveting maternal melodrama in the tradition of Mamoulian’s Applause or Sirk’s All I Desire. Judy Davis, stifling laughter, stifling sobs, plays a mess of a woman hanging from showbiz’s bottom rung. When she falls off, her car broken down, she’s stranded in a podunk coastal town. The slinking, bobbing camera surveys her inner and outer lives as she builds a relationship with a teenage girl, neither one initially aware that they’re mother and daughter. Establishing shots, mindful of lines and angles, gorgeously frame a shabby landscape of eateries, auto shops, and trailer parks. The grit of the town gets under High Tide’s fingernails. Emotions rise, as do ecstatic crane shots; the climax delivers a wallop. The plot wends around the vagaries of love.

The Lion King (1994), directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Haven’t seen this since early childhood! It’s structured like a savanna Bambi, with the trauma of a parent’s death bisecting its coming-of-age story. But the emphatic vastness of The Lion King’s canvas makes its forebear look like a modest romp through the forest. Propulsive set pieces through gorges and caverns alternate with gaudy musical extravaganzas. In the rough Hamlet xerox of a plot, the “circle of life” finds its nexus in Simba’s royal birthright. Absent is any of the moral uncertainty that afflicted the Prince of Denmark; instead, Claudius is rewritten as a feline Hitler whose overthrow literally restores leaves to dying trees. Simba’s lingering guilt over his dead father? Exorcized by his submission to destiny. This onus on Simba to reclaim the throne frustrates me, and the story feels as if any ruffles have been smoothed out to yield an epic that’s beautiful but dull. (Even five jokey sidekicks can’t fix that.) I love the depiction of animal movement, though, especially during “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Joy Street (1995), directed by Suzan Pitt

Wordless cartoon sloshing around a woman’s psyche while she’s in the throes of depression. Contrasts motion with stasis; sets muted grays and browns against deliriously heightened yellows. The loose story’s a nocturnal fantasy of a figurine coming to life, then taking its owner on an odyssey through nested metaphors. Instead of dialogue, eloquent sound effects and a jazz score modulate the mood. Given the subject matter and Pitt’s refusal to indulge in cliché, its 24 minutes make for a rough watch, but they culminate in a flood of catharsis.

Aladdin (1992), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Screwball romance divided along class lines; rapid-fire shtick as corny as anything on vaudeville; show tunes à la Cole Porter; and scimitar-wielding Arab caricatures so broad the Fleischer Brothers would balk: this is Depression-era entertainment reconfigured for the 1990s. A dash of postmodernism, maybe, and a sprinkle of riot grrrl, but the foundation is sturdy, old-fashioned, aggressively ingratiating itself to the audience. The showmanship is especially evident when the film bends toward magical fantasy, whether under the earth or into the sky. Every act of sorcery is animated with bountiful imagination, lit up in the blues and golds of a desert night. (I’m curious whether Jafar’s climactic exertions of power were meant to be tinged with eroticism, or if that’s just me. His transformation into a phallic cobra, all that bondage… and hardly anybody wears a shirt in this movie. Sex and spectacle in the exotic east: very Cecil B. DeMille!)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams

What can you say about a movie that was discussed to death months in advance of its release date? How about this: it’s an unwieldy new piece designed to fit into a preexisting whole. For roughly the first third of its run time, it’s a nifty space chase carried by fresh faces. As soon as they run into Han Solo, though, the plot starts acting as if it has obligations to meet. Like it’s your mom and she’s dragging you along to IKEA and the fabric store but letting you play with your action figures in the car. We zip from this planet to that planet, checking in with the villains every half-hour or so; sometimes there’s a pause to crack jokes or gape at funky alien designs. The Force Awakens is a very acceptable solution to a set of very tight storytelling constraints. Whether that makes it a good movie depends on whether you regard those restraints as intrinsically positive.

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