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Josh Reviews Waking Sleeping Beauty

August 21st, 2017
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Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2009 documentary film, masterminded by Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, that tells the story of Disney animation’s return to prominence in the late eighties and early nineties with the huge successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  This is an extraordinary documentary, created by two men who were right in the thick of Disney animation in those days.  As such, it is an incredible insider’s view of what went down, and it’s a remarkably honest, no-holds-barred telling of the story.  For anyone with any interest in Disney animation, this film is a must-see.

Back in the 1980’s, Disney animation was pretty much dead.  As the documentary opens, Disney’s over-budget production of The Black Cauldron (1985) is released to crickets and loses the studio a ton of money.  The animation department is moved into what is little more than an abandoned warehouse.  Former Disney animator Don Bluth’s new company (at which he employs many other former Disney animators) releases An American Tail in 1986 to great success, out-grossing Disney’s release that year of The Great Mouse Detective.

But gradually a series of events sets in motion important changes in the animation department and Disney over-all.  Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney resigns from the board and eventually steps into the role of chairman of the animation department.  Michael Eisner is hired as Disney chairman and Frank Wells is hired as President.  Mr. Eisner then hires Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of film production, and as such Mr. Katzenberg is directly involved in the production of all new animated features.  The film does not shy away from presenting the controversial moves made by Mr. Eisner and Mr. Katzenberg specifically, two powerful men who did not seem to mind throwing a few elbows.  But the film also highlights all that they did right, and the actions they took to help lift Disney out of the doldrums.

Across the board, Waking Sleeping Beauty is remarkably honest about the struggles and challenges faced by Disney animation during those years.  This isn’t a glossy, everyone was always happy retelling of these events.  (Considering this documentary was released by Disney, this is fairly astounding!)  Some of the film’s most fascinating bits concern the arguments, large and small, that went into the making of these movies, and the many interpersonal squabbles that erupted among these hard-working and talented men and women.

The film spends a lot of time exploring the production of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, two films that were both enormous successes and together represented a huge turning point for Disney animation.  The documentary emphasizes the contributions of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who wrote the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Baby Driver!

I have enormous love for all of writer/director Edgar Wright’s collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, from their fantastic TV show Spaced to their trilogy of films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.  Though actually, I have to admit that my absolute favorite Edgar Wright film is his criminally underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I adore with all my heart.  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since that 2010 release is a crime.  And so I was more than a little excited for his new film, Baby Driver.

The film does not disappoint.

The titular Baby Driver is played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars).  Baby is a young man who has found himself in the position of being a getaway driver for a cadre of criminals and reprobates.  He has tinnitus and is a great lover of music, so he is almost always listening to music on his ear buds as a way to drown out the ringing in his ears and, perhaps, to keep him safely isolated from the big bad world around him.  Baby’s float-through approach to his life is rattled when he meets and begins to fall in love with a young waitress named Debora (Lily James).  The two young lovebirds hatch a plan to leave town and the lives they hate, but Baby finds it harder than he expected to get out from under the thumb of the big bad men for whom he works.

Oh man did I love this movie!  Edgar Wright has concocted a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.

Mr. Wright has assembled an incredible ensemble of actors for his film, and he rewards his cast by giving each one of them a ton of fun stuff to do, allowing them each to create extraordinarily memorable characters in whatever amount of time they have on-screen.

Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the man-with-the-plan who comes up with all the criminal schemes and assembles the team.  It’s a great role for Mr. Spacey, who is terrific at playing loquacious characters with an edge of danger.  Mr. Spacey also allows us a tiny glimpse at the beating heart beneath the polished facade, which only emphasizes Doc’s dangerousness.  Jon Hamm plays Buddy, the confident, smooth-with-the-ladies man of action.  It’s fun (and sort of endearing) to see Mr. Hamm try to play scruffy-looking.  Mr. Hamm’s performance is fun in the first half but really comes alive in the second half when his character is pushed into some tight corners.  Eiza González plays … [continued]