Monday, November 21, 2016

Classics: A Review of Anastasia By Lauren Ennis

Animated film buffs often consider the 1990’s Disney’s  renaissance, as over the course of that decade the studio effectively regained its former domination of animated film making. Despite the studio’s unquestionable success, however, other studios continued to produce quality films that rivaled even the most highly praised work of their famous counterpart. Such is the case with the 1997 musical adventure Anastasia, which takes the well-worn princess formula and adds a dark sensibility and historical twist to create a wholly unique work that is truly in a category of its own. Using the tumult and tragedy of the Russian Revolution as a springboard, the film weaves a twentieth century fairy-tale that truly has something for the whole family.
One princess you won't find waiting around for a prince

The story begins in 1916 St. Petersburg, as Czar Nicholas II holds a tricentennial ball at the Catherine Palace. Suddenly, the ball is interrupted by the appearance of the recently banished former imperial advisor Rasputin. In an act of vengeance, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) uses black magic to place a curse upon the entire Romanov dynasty, which ultimately culminates in the start of the Russian Revolution and the siege of the palace by communist forces. With the help of a servant boy the Czar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst), manages to escape, and she and her grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie, are the only surviving members of the immediate royal family. After the physical and emotional trauma of the siege Anastasia suffers from amnesia and spends the remainder of her childhood in an orphanage under the name Anya without any knowledge of her true identity. Ten years pass and Russia has fallen under communist rule and become the USSR, but hopeful rumors of the princess’ survival persist and the Dowager Empress (Angela Lansbury) offers a ten million ruble reward for information leading to her reunion with Anastasia. Capitalizing on the rumor, con-man Dmitri (John Cusack) and his partner Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) concoct a scheme to train a convincing look-alike to pass as Anastasia and split the reward money three ways. Just as the pair give up on their auditions for a potential ‘Anastasia’, however, they encounter Anya (Meg Ryan) and convince her that she really is the missing princess, all while remaining unaware of her true identity. The trio then embark upon a journey to Paris to meet the Dowager Empress, with the vengeful ghost of Rasputin following behind in close pursuit.

While marketed as a typical animated princess tale, Anastasia is a far darker and more complex take on the traditional formula. The most obvious example is the inclusion of a rotting corpse as the villain, which would have been deemed too graphic for most children’s films. More significantly, the film’s premise also diverges greatly from tradition in that it is derived from the real life incident in which a former mental patient was semi-successfully presented as the real Anastasia. This historical context gives the story just enough grounding in reality to set it apart from its ‘far away land’ counterparts, and the real life upheaval that engulfed Russia during the revolution provides a distinctly gritty backdrop for the film’s fictional proceedings., Although the film largely abandons history in favor of fantasy beyond that initial premise, the depiction of its heroine’s attempts to cope with the all too real displacement and loss faced by people across revolutionary Russia, is far more resonant in any era than the problems explored in most family entertainment.
And that is how you throw a party

Beyond its historical setting, the depth with which the film imbues its characters outshines even many of Disney’s most beloved classics. For example, while most princess films focus upon a heroine struggling to find love Anastasia’s journey refreshingly focuses upon her efforts to find herself, and her eventual romance is just one step in her larger quest for self-discovery. Similarly, the film’s protagonists are flawed characters with Dmitri and Vladimir eking out a living by deceiving others, Anya exhibiting an immature haughtiness, and Empress Marie becoming jaded after years of loss and disappointment. Yet it these same flaws that make the characters entirely human and make their eventual growth over the course of their adventures so rewarding. Through its emphasis upon its cast of lovable misfits, the film contains the heart to rise above its vast historical inaccuracies and fairy-tale trappings. As a result, while the film may have been designed to profit off of the popularity of fairy-tales, the story is at its heart one of average people trying to make the best of a world turned upside down by the sweep of history, which owes as much to such historical epics as Doctor Zhivago as to traditional fairy-tales such as Snow White.

The film’s combination of effective performances, breath-taking animation, and memorable songs successfully weave a spell that is nothing short of cinema magic. The character designs, while reminiscent of Disney are largely more realistic, lending the film a more mature touch before the first line of dialogue is even spoken. The settings cleverly incorporate the artistic styles of the era with the trio’s arrival in Paris particularly standing out for its use of modernist art and cameos by various historical figures. The fantasy ballroom sequence in which the decrepit Winter Palace is briefly restored to its pre-revolution glory is truly stunning and every bit as breathtaking as Beauty and the Beast’s more well-known ballroom scene. The songs are also consistently catchy with waltz “Once Upon a December” proving nothing short of haunting as it captures Anya’s desperate struggle to reclaim her past. The voice actors all lend apt performances with John Cusack and Meg Ryan each providing multifaceted turns and bringing plenty of spark to their animated pairing as Dmitri and Anya. Angela Lansbury brings a world-weariness and pathos to her role as the Dowager Empress that ensures her performance ranks on par with any live action role in her legendary career. Kelsey Grammer and Bernadette Peters lend apt comic performances in their supporting roles and imbue Vladimir and his ex-girlfriend turned Dowager Empress’ lady in waiting Sophie with plenty of charm. Christopher Lloyd is appropriately sinister, while his interactions with talking bat sidekick, Bartock (Hank Azaria), provide welcome comic relief for young viewers.
No fairy tale would be complete without a happy ending

Through its compelling story, hypnotizing score and dazzling visuals, Anastasia proves that animation isn’t just for kids. While its certainly no historical text, the layered characters and detailed animation brings the world of early twentieth century to Europe to vibrant life, and sheds a family friendly light on one of history’s most notorious mysteries. For a modern fairy tale, few films are as utterly enchanting as Anastasia.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Classics: A Tribute to Vivien Leigh By Lauren Ennis

November 5, 2016 marked what would have been the 103rd birthday of film icon Vivien Leigh. Best known for her Oscar-winning turn as the iron-willed Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh was a versatile actress whose career on the stage and screen spanned nearly thirty years. Her preference for theater acting led to her appearing in a surprisingly limited number of films, which in turn has caused her legacy amongst contemporary filmgoers to virtually begin and end with Gone with the Wind. While her performance as Scarlett is indeed one that would be the crowning achievement of any actor’s career, to limit her recognition to one role would be an injustice to both Leigh and her contribution to the performing arts. In honor of this truly stellar actress, this week I will be featuring three of Leigh’s most varied and accomplished film roles, which prove that she was an artist certainly worth giving a damn about.
If Winston Churchill's wrong I just don't wanna be right
That Hamilton Woman: Released in the midst of World War II, this historical epic is often noted for its reported status as a favorite film of both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; a status that was likely owed to Leigh’s captivating performance as the title heroine. The story follows the true tale of the meteoric rise and tragic fall of chorus girl, turned aristocrat, turned penniless prisoner Emma Hamilton. The story begins with an elderly, and now alcoholic, Emma reflecting upon her whirlwind life as she spends her final years in a debtor’s prison. The film then flashes back to her  beginnings as a struggling actress before revealing the by turns cruel and fortunate fate that eventually led to her becoming Lady Emma Hamilton, one of England’s most well-known and sought after socialites. In these early scenes Leigh successfully charts Emma’s development from vivacious and naïve girl to cynical and resilient woman, playing both extremes with a nuance and aplomb that ensures her character develops with engaging realism. As the story continues, the film evolves from a straight-forward biography to a historical romance and political allegory as Emma meets and shares a tragic love with naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. The scenes following the pair’s hesitant courtship and eventual passionate affair contain a particular sparkle due to the sizzling chemistry between newlyweds Leigh and Lawrence Olivier, who appear to be falling in love before the viewers’ eyes. Similarly, Leigh portrays Emma’s conflict between her impossible love for the unhappily married Nelson and her loveless, but secure, marriage to Lord Hamilton with a depth that ensures viewers will empathize with her heroine’s plight, even as Emma breaks one moral and social code after another. When Emma is finally forced to give Nelson up for the good of her country as England confronts the threat of Napoleon, Leigh successfully captures the self-sacrifice driving her without resorting to the maudlin histrionics so often found in war-time propaganda films. It is her natural approach that provides the film’s conclusion with the crucial subtlety that successfully keeps the film grounded within its own historical context, while recalling the all too present threat that audiences were facing from Nazi Germany. Through her by turns triumphant and tragic performance as one of history’s most notorious women Vivien Leigh ensured that audiences would remember, That Hamilton Woman.

Just how many tricks did you turn?!

Waterloo Bridge:
Adapted from a 1930 stage hit (which was first brought to the screen in 1931), this 1940 crowd pleaser puts the ‘tragic’ in tragic romance. The film chronicles the ill-fated love affair between an American soldier on leave in London and a British ballerina set against the backdrop of World War I. Leigh begins the film as a portrait of youthful idealism and portrays ambitious dancer Mayra with an effervescent charm that leaves little wonder as to why Robert Taylor’s Roy falls for her as quickly and passionately as he does. The chemistry between the two is nothing short of infectious and ensures that audiences will root for their whirlwind romance to succeed. Leigh is equally adept in her gritty portrayal of Mayra’s downward spiral after she first loses her job and later is misled into believing that Roy has been killed at the front. Her portrayal of Mayra’s determination to survive even in the face of devastating personal loss and degradation is nearly as inspiring as Scarlett O’Hara’s similar efforts to overcome war-time adversity, which in turn makes her ultimate plunge to rock bottom all the more heartbreaking. With one downcast glance of her despondent eyes as Mayra resorts to a life of prostitution Leigh captures the disillusionment and resignation of World War I’s ‘lost generation’. When Roy returns seeking to resume their relationship, Mayra is shaken to her core yet again as she struggles to grasp what may be her final chance at happiness, even as her past continues to haunt her. It is in this final section of the film that Leigh truly shines, as she merges both Mayra’s former vivaciousness and romantic idealism with her eventual world weariness and guilt as she attempts to resume her former life while continuing to struggle with the effects of life-altering trauma. While the film’s tragic conclusion may come as little surprise, Leigh’s devastating performance ensured that this reviewer remained completely transfixed until the final heartrending reel. For a journey into love’s joys and tragedies, join Vivien Leigh for a stroll along Waterloo Bridge.  
I don't think we're at Tara anymore, Toto...
A Streetcar Named Desire: While the first thing that comes to many a filmgoer’s mind at the mention of this film is Marlon Brando’s anguished cry of “Stella!”, the driving force behind this streetcar is Leigh’s performance as Stella’s tormented sister, Blanche. Fleeing scandal and poverty, displaced Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans for a temporary stay with her sister and her sister’s husband, Stanley. Still clinging to the genteel southern belle lifestyle of a bygone era, Blanche is mortified when she meets the cruel and vulgar Stanley and is expected to adapt to the volatile lifestyle that he and Stella enjoy. Leigh’s tortured performance is a fascinating glimpse into arrested development and the dark side of nostalgia as Blanche fervently struggles to hold onto the romantic ideals of her youth, even after those very misplaced notions have led her completely astray. Her wilting flower portrayal of Blanche is a perfect counterpoint to the sensuality and ‘live in the moment’ philosophy that define Stanley, and ensures that audiences will empathize with Blanche even after her sordid history is fully revealed. Similarly, her nuanced and subtle performance stands in brilliant contrast to Brando’s brash method acting and serves to highlight the ways in which Blanche’s struggles with one taboo social ill after another has forced her to lead a shadowed life. Even after the final reveal of her shocking behavior before reaching New Orleans, Leigh’s performance ensures that viewers won’t want to judge the tarnished belle too harshly. Interestingly, the role was in many ways art imitating life, as Leigh herself struggled with bipolar disorder and was known to engage in some of the same risky behaviors that Blanche misguidedly seeks salvation in. In this way, Leigh’s empathetic portrayal serves as both an artistic and social triumph as it not only brings a tormented character to vibrant life, but also provides viewers with insight into the all too real torments that those living with mental illness must face every day. For a tour of acting at its finest step onto A Streetcar Named Desire.