Why Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week’ is still fresh 98 years on

On Wednesday 1st September 1920, a significant piece of cinematic history was made. It may not have seemed it at the time, but when ‘One Week’ hit cinemas, the world got its first glimpse of Buster Keaton in a leading role.

Indeed, it wasn’t simply his first starring role. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the two-reeler as well (with Eddie Cline). Gone was the youthful and playful Keaton viewers had made note of in the earlier Arbuckle comedies, where he was only ever a supporting role. The world was seeing for the first time The Great Stone Face taking centre stage. Deadpan, stoic and always hilarious.

The two-reel film centres around a newly-married couple attempting to setup home over the course of a week. This allowed Keaton and Cline to split the story into seven short segments, with the starts of each marked by the turn of a day calendar.

The feeling one gets when watching is that Keaton had been biding his time with Arbuckle, waiting to star in a film so he could really go to town with his abilities as a physical performer. His abilities are nothing short of acrobatic.

The falling wall gag makes an appearance, less than a year after Arbuckle had done it in ‘Back Stage’ but quite a while before it made a reappearance more famously in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It’s one of those gasp-out-loud moments in cinema where you know that if something went wrong, he’d be in real trouble.

At one point the entire house is revolving 360 degrees, while a separate shot inside the house had the camera revolving on a turntable as a storm takes hold of the house and its inhabitants. This is Keaton innovating as a filmmaker with the team around him, elevating the film from a simple set of stunts to something more full of ambition, hinting at what cinephiles would enjoy over the next two decades.

A further use of his interest in the mechanical stunt props includes an entire side of the house rotating around a central pivot, with Keaton and Sybil Seely (The Bride) effectively swapping positions between the top and bottom of the house. It’s another gasp-inducing moment, again with little room for error. Keaton’s love for the mechanical stunt grew from his background in vaudeville performance, and viewers would continue to see more of the same in his next short ‘Convict 13’ with an elasticated hanging rope.

I still don’t get how they did all of the stunts, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the film.

‘One Week’ serves as a brilliant starting point for those wanting to get into Keaton’s shorts and feels as fresh today as it must have done in 1920.

So why is it so significant? Well, it was the start of one of the most prolific decades of any one film creator in the history of cinema. It’s incredible to conceive just how much he achieved in what would prove to be the heyday for silent film: 12 feature films and 19 two-reel shorts, all written by, starring and directed by Keaton (albeit some with a co-directing or co-writing credit). It’s similar to the output of The Beatles between 1962 and 1970; prolific and world class. Keaton’s career may have taken a turn for the worse from the start of the 1930s, but by that point his legacy had been realised.

As Orson Welles put it, Buster Keaton was “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema… a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed.” It’s hard to think of higher praise.

Advertisements

The story behind Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns was released in 2002, hot on the heels of the globally-acclaimed Spirited Away. Hiroyuki Morita’s feature debut was destined to be one of Studio Ghibli’s less-acclaimed releases, but still holds a place in the heart of its many fans. So how did it come about and how does it hold up 16 years after its original release?

The journey to ‘The Cat Returns’ began some fourteen years earlier, when Aoi Hiiragi released her manga ‘Mimi o Sumaseba’. Serialised in the magazine Ribon between August and November 1989, this short release was a huge hit and caught the imagination of a young Yoshifumi Kondô, who at the time had just finished as supervising animator on Studio Ghibli’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

Soon the studio had acquired the rights to produce a feature film based on the manga, and Kondô was being lined up to make his directorial debut.

In 1995, the film was released. Known in English-speaking countries as ‘Whisper of the Heart’, it hit the big screens in Japan to unanimous acclaim. It was also the highest-grossing film in its native country in 1995. [1]

Equally beautiful and mesmerising, the film focuses on Shizuku, a 14-year-old girl living in Tokyo with a head full of ideas.

Early in the film, Shizuku becomes intrigued by a chance meeting with a stray cat on a train. This cat, Muta, leads her to a mysterious antiques shop. Inside the shop is a curious statue of a cat called The Baron. Inspired, Shizuku spends a significant time in the film attempting to write a novel inspired by these elements.

Four years later, Studio Ghibli received a request from a theme park to create a 20-minute animated short. Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, two of the founders of the company, explored a concept based around these key elements of the girl’s story, enlisting Aoi Hiiragi to write the plot to a spiritual successor to her smash hit.

Her starting point was to assume that her lead character Shizuka was writing the story herself, a period after the end of ‘Whisper of the Heart’. Though the theme park project was cancelled, this story later materialised in the form of a manga. That manga was the basis of a feature length film called ‘The Cat Returns’.

Miyazaki and Suzuki may have been showing faith in other directors, but it was with restrictions. ‘The Cat Returns’ was ostensibly intended as a testing ground for new director Hiroyuki Morita, who had been an animator on several Ghibli features, and was slated for a direct-to-video release. The strength of Morita’s storyboards led to a change of direction and the film was instead destined to be released in cinemas.

Morita was at the top of the team, leading everyone working on the production. In an interview at the time, Miyazaki was excited about the new generation of animators. “If they see Ghibli as a brand, the production team won’t be able to bear the pressure,” he said. “But at the same time, if they don’t try to overcome the pressure they won’t succeed.”

Whilst this film is seen as a success, his position as a successor to the founding members of Ghibli eventually did not come to fruition. He worked as a key animator on later film ‘Tales From Earthsea’, which was directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, but that is where the buck stops. Indeed, he has not been involved with any animation projects since 2011.

This lack of output is a real shame, because ‘The Cat Returns’ is a real triumph. It never feels like a lacklustre release that you’d typically expect of a direct-to-video film and it’s clear that the choice to take it to theatres was the correct one.

An interview with Morita from the time of release shows what he was trying to achieve with the lead character Haru. His reading of her is that she is natural, spontaneous and uncalculating. He was clearly passionate about the character and the project, and it was an honour for him to be the third director other than Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to direct a feature for Ghibli.

Coming immediately after Spirited Away and therefore garnering much more focus than the studio would have expected when the project started, it does enough to hold its own against what has become regarded as Miyazaki’s magnum opus. The magical elements are muted – a talking cat is a surprise to Haru initially but she comes around to the idea very quickly. It deals with the character’s concerns whimsically rather than with a suggestion of any danger, making it a more child-friendly entry point to the gamut. Perhaps more so than the more recognised Ghibli releases, it feels rooted in the real world – no easy achievement for a film about a girl kidnapped and turned into a cat by The Cat King.

If you’re reading this then chances are you’re from an English-speaking country. If that’s the case then it’s likely you watched the English dub of the film. I usually prefer the original audio, but opted for English on this occasion. I admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Anne Hathaway portrays the lead role of Haru, yelping and screaming her way through the film in the same way original actress Chizuru Ikewaki had. It feels fun and fitting. Cary Elwes provides a traditional aristocratic British voice for The Baron. He has stated it was a combination of David Niven and Alec Guinness, which gives him real dignity and poise. Both are spot on in their leading roles, with both relied heavily on their original Japanese counterparts to give a real sense of energy.

Clearly, as with most animated films translated to a second language, there is an issue with matching the beats to the original acting. It doesn’t always work. It’s similar to ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and replaces emotional delivery with technical accuracy. Peter Boyle’s Mutu is arguably the biggest culprit of this, with a mismatch to the character that feels significantly out of place. Conversely, Andy Richter is wonderful as the king’s assistant Natoru, despite this role originally being portrayed by female voice actor Mari Hamada. Most bizarrely, The Cat King actually looks like Tim Curry, despite his involvement coming long after the animation had finished.

‘The Cat Returns’ will never be considered as one of the greats of the Studio Ghibli features. But it’s in great company and certainly holds its own as a fitting side-story to a better original. It offers more of an appeal to children and could be a good entry point for parents wanting a safe start to their child’s anime interest. To see it restored in wonderful high-definition means there’s never been a better way to enjoy it.

[1] http://www.eiren.org/toukei/1995.html

The Problem With Zavvi’s UK Disney Steelbooks

There is a huge problem brewing with Zavvi’s steelbook range in the UK.

When Zavvi initially launched them in 2014, there was much excitement from the steelbook community and Disney fans alike. Marrying two strong groups of collectors together was a financial goldmine for Zavvi and Disney. At £20 a pop and with each item having a limited run of around 4000, the revenue on the entire collection was considerable. £80,000 per release, over fifty releases… That’s potentially over £4m of revenue by the time the series was over.

Out rolled the big hitters. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King from their 1990s renaissance period. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella from their classic princesses era. New releases for Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Wreck It Ralph sold out quickly as pre-orders.

They’d suckered everyone in and could hope for a continued interest as more were released. Or could they?

Suddenly they were into the realms of the unknown. Sure, Tangled will sell well, but what about the less popular releases? The Sword in the Stone? Brother Bear? What about Oliver & Co or Saludos Amigos?

They started on this path, but clearly something in the numbers gave them cold feet and by the time Treasure Planet was launched in February 2016, they decided no further vault releases would see the light of day. Instead, all that has been issued since then is the new release item Zootopia and a pre-order for Moana, due for release in April 2017.

To make matters worse, Zavvi have now taken to reissuing all the Disney films already available as standard steelbooks, but this time as lenticular steelbooks, which indicates that they aren’t planning any further standard versions. For those collecting the set and with 35 Disney steelbooks in their possession, that’s something of a kick in the teeth.

WHAT’S LEFT TO RELEASE?

The following Disney vault films are yet to see the light of day as steelbooks, though some aren’t even available as Blu-rays yet.

Saludos Amigos
Disney Classic #6
Originally released on August 24, 1942
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Three Caballeros
Disney Classic #7
Originally released on December 21, 1944
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Make Mine Music
Disney Classic #8
Originally released on April 20, 1946
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Fun and Fancy Free
Disney Classic #9
Originally released on September 27, 1947
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Melody Time
Disney Classic #10
Originally released on May 27, 1948
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Disney Classic #11
Originally released on October 5, 1949
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #22
Originally released on March 11, 1977
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Black Cauldron
Disney Classic #25
Originally released on July 24, 1985
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Great Mouse Detective
Disney Classic #26
Originally release on July 2, 1986
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Oliver & Company
Disney Classic #27
Originally released on November 18, 1988
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Rescuers Down Under
Disney Classic #29
Originally released on November 16, 1990
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Dinosaur
Disney Classic #38
Originally relased on May 19, 2000
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Disney Classic #41
June 15, 2001
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Lilo & Stitch
Disney Classic #42
Originally relased on June 21, 2002
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Home on the Range
Disney Classic #45
Originally relased on April 2, 2004
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Chicken Little
Disney Classic #46
Originally relased on November 4, 2005
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Meet the Robinsons
Disney Classic #47
Originally relased on March 30, 2007
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Bolt
Disney Classic #48
Originally relased on November 28, 2008
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #51
Originally released on July 15, 2011
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK, but is available in the US

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Well, without the numbers to help guide us, it’s difficult to speculate on making a business decision that should be focused on a financial gain. No business runs for long on a loss, so we can’t expect them to issue something that loses money.

However, there should be a compromise. Those invested in the majority of the items so far are more than likely to want to complete their collection, so they’d need to estimate how many people make up that pot.

There are groups of films there that can be treated slightly differently. Classics #6-#11 (Saludos Amigos, The Three Cabaleros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) are obviously niche items, but someone interested in one of them would surely want to pick all of them up. One solution on that front is to group them all together as one or two boxsets, which helps people complete the series whilst reducing their risk on people buying just one or two of them and leaving the rest. Indeed, the total running time of the six films is around 6.5 hours, so they could be done over two discs.

Some of them are popular enough for a standalone release. Bolt, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Oliver & Co. and The Rescuers would fall into that category.  Limiting the releases to 1,000 copies and making that explicit on the item description would tempt in some sales to collectors – anything extremely limited with a Disney logo on it is bound to ignite interest.

It doesn’t help matters when the faithful shoppers are getting bombarded with pre-order emails for steelbooks of the likes of Street Fighter, Flight of the Navigator and Short Circuit.

Perhaps the best solution is to launch the remainder as a subscription service, with one released every month over a two-year period.  This could be modelled on their ZBOX series, and they could throw in other items to sweeten the deal. It may not be perfect but how else will they ensure people stick around for the release of Dinosaur?

Why AMC allowing mobile phone usage is short-sighted 

The news of the AMC chain of multiplex cinemas in USA announcing plans to allow cinema-goers to text during films is probably the worst film-related news I’ve heard in a long time. AMC chief executive Adam Aron has shown himself to be completely out-of-touch with the paying cinema-goers to a level that is beyond my comprehension.

There are still many great reasons to go to the cinema. Watching the latest films on the best available format is an experience that continues to be unrivalled in the home cinema market. No matter how much you spend on your setup at home, you can’t replicate sitting down and watching at a huge 4K huge screening with Dolby surround sound in a perfectly dark cinema. Being transported into a different world with no distractions for a couple of hours is the whole point of going to the cinema.

Whilst it is an almost perfect experience for me, there are a number of things that have crept in in recent times that have marred my experience as a cinema-goer. The primary things I get infuriated about going to the cinema are as follows:

· People talking

· People eating overly-pungent or crunchy food

· People using their mobile phones

· The cinema management and employees doing nothing to prevent any of the above

I think most or all of the above issues are annoyances shared with all other cinephiles around the world. They are also wholly avoidable by having strict policies at the cinema.
The generalisation from Aron that he wants to allow texting to encourage millennials is a short-sighted statement that indicates he hasn’t actually been to the cinema recently. A 50-year-old man who has just left his office is just as likely to text as a 16-year-old out with their friends.

One generalisation I will make is that the kinds of people who text during films are the kinds of people who will also be happy to talk through films. Neither group really care about the film they’re supposed to be watching, they’re just going through the motions. Let’s face it, if you’re on your phone, you aren’t watching a film.

If Aron is happy to drive away a large amount of AMC’s market share with this tactic then that’s fine, as long as other cinemas don’t follow suit. Unfortunately, for cinema purists seeing this kind of attitude just encourages us to stay away.

The only solution is to have a blanket ban on texting and phone use during films. If anyone uses their phone, they should be ejected with no second chances. Doing this and guaranteeing the purity of a trip to the cinema will protect the current revenue in cinemas. If tickets are being charged at £8 or more for a standard ticket then a trip to the cinema is a luxury night out and this should be reflected on the experience.

Guaranteeing a good and hassle free experience will encourage the current customers to go back again after the slow decline due to this very issue.

Allowing mobile phone usage will just be another nail in the coffin for cinemas.