laS TaFtersE asoN

I hope you like shapes, paper, and things not making any sense.

After Last Season might just be it. I have searched long and hard. I have subjected myself to much crap. I’ve seen so many wonderfully bad movies, but holy hell, what the garbage is this movie? After Last Season (2009) might just be the worst movie ever made. The sheer volume of cinematic incompetence that is schlopped on top of its own rampant incoherence is indescribable. Let me describe…

I like bad movies. I do. This is definitely bad. Hard to use a word like “like” for it. Normally I would begin a review of a film of this ilk by explaining the plot and characters, etc. and then endeavor to elaborate on the minutiae of why it was so terrible. I am indeed crestfallen that I don’t think I could ever hope to understand the plot or the characters’ relation to it or themselves much less explain it to After Last Season virgins. It truly is hopelessly disorienting and, unlike classic baddies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, etc., this film is almost beyond categorizing into a genre. I think it is supposed to be some sort of science fiction thing, but I found myself in a constant state of befuddlement during the movie. I kept puzzling over what it was all supposed to be; what it might be trying to do or say; what the point was; why it was made; and why oh why is there so much negative head room?

As near as I can tell there are some medical students (one of whom I discovered about 3 minutes before the end credits was named Sarah) and there is also a series of inexplicable freak stabbings…also something about Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and a bizarre psychology test. Any attempts on my part to connect any of these ideas are all wild shots in the dark from this point on.

Almost every scene in the movie for the first 30 minutes or so introduces new random characters we will probably never see again. Everyone communicates in banal pleasantries and innocuous small-talk. It’s not a conscious satirical decision like in Schizopolis. The dialogue is actually just that tepid and monotonous with no discernible explanation beyond ineptitude at the script level. Lines like “What a great radio clock. Where did you get it?” and “No, I have something Wednesday night. How is Tuesday?” are a hallmark of this strange movie. So much of the “action” (I suppose the stuff involving people barely qualifies) is mindlessly interrupted by random and ineffectual “art shots” of the corners of windows, desks, dressers, etc. Another thing that disturbed me and made the overall atmosphere unnerving is that everything is blank. Rooms are largely empty aside from oddly—and rather sloppily—placed chairs and desks. There is no need to have that many boxes and paper shredders crazily festooning the middle of any room. This movie is a feng shui nightmare.

I digress. The story, the story. Well, we follow a “character” named “Sarah” who is a “med student.” Sometimes she is outside, but most of the time she is inside. She puts a science-y thing on her temple so she can share thoughts with her new boss(?). After several unsettlingly tedious sequences involving crudely rendered CG shapes we leave what I dubbed “Questworld” only to reveal that the last 4o minutes of the middle of the movie was a dream from the new boss character’s head…for no apparent reason! In the mind exchange scenes Sarah “discovers” she is predicting the stabbings and knows the identity of the stabber (the stabbing stuff feels so alien and far away that we keep forgetting about it), but none of that even matters because it was all just a dream by another character.

The dream featured an invisible stabber that completely botches the element of surprise by carefully moving the oddly placed furniture around in order to announce his spookiness. When boss man wakes up he starts a different experiment with Sarah and then the stabber returns but for realz. Now the stabber is visible, but some new invisible guy throws a chair at him and saves Sarah and the boss dude. There is far more to the plot, but in a way there’s actually less. It makes far less sense than what I’ve described.

It’s more of a series of hyper-boring red herrings than it is a movie. One of my favorite things is when “characters” will go to investigate something. We see them deciding to investigate, they leave the room, and then they will re-enter the room and say that investigated the thing. This movie out and out refuses to portray action! A film like this needs a freaking Greek chorus!

Peculiar lack of coherence, pacing, momentum, character, and general interest aside, the most glaring misstep this movie makes is technical. Almost every aspect of technical design imaginable and then some is screwed up. I swear, they invented new jobs so there would be more to botch. I honestly thought this movie to be a huge put-on for the longest time…and it still might be. This movie makes more technical mistakes than Ben & Arthur. Fake wallpaper crudely stapled together will just end; lighting equipment will be visible in the background, reflections, and in shadows (and lights are obviously and tragically unnaturally placed directly in front of all “action” thus creating bizarre hard shadows for everyone and everything); sound and sound effects are horrifically amateurish; the mind-numbingly dull and childish soundtrack will sporadically cut in and out and occasionally be replaced with a confusing sort of ambient noise I can only describe as dishwasher traffic; the inept framing for every scene will nauseate you to the point of physical illness; and I could go on. Perhaps the most baffling of all is the incessant use of paper. Walls, doors, books, windows, desks, etc. will all be covered with white paper. I sincerely hope it is not because they felt that whatever was behind the paper looked phoney. How ironic would that be? Weirder and weirder, on the exterior of a house three blank sheets of paper are taped and it is never addressed. You might almost miss it. The first scene even starts out with a paper MRI machine. The whole movie looks like it was filmed in an old gutted office building. And yet somehow it was filmed on film. Not digital. 35 mm. No joke.

The strange, atrociously lit, sterile environments might have reminded one of a hospital (or at least Poland under communist rule) except they are all just so unnatural looking. It’s just ugly and unappealing to look at. All the purposeless science and wooden awkward dialogue and performances would have been tolerable had the film looked like something that wasn’t filmed by a mental patient with an unhealthy obsession with the ceiling. Nothing makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with being enigmatic. Heck, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky make a living off doing just that, but you still need some semblance of theme or thrust. Clarity does not equal bad movie. Clarity can be a good thing.

Maddeningly of all is that I have failed in conveying what this movie is truly like. It’s more than a poor camcorder recording of a Z-grade VBS skit from 100 feet away. It’s so much worse and all my ramblings don’t add up to much when it comes right down to it. You know what that means? It means that in order to fully understand my brain owies you’re simply going to have to experience After Last Season for yourself. I guarantee you that you will forget every scene as soon as it ends, but you will most assuredly never shake off the feeling that you saw this film. I laughed quite a bit watching this and cannot report that it was wholly unenjoyable. See my review for The Abduction of Zack Butterfield too. I just don’t know if I will be revisiting this one.

After Last Season was written, directed, produced, and shot by Mark Region. He certainly had a vision. And thank God no one shares it. Apparently it took 5 years and $5 million dollars to make. Seriously though, what actor would show up to shoot a film like this, see a paper MRI, and then stick around? But visit the website HERE. Explore this.

I sure hoped they recycled all that paper.

What Hump?

charles laughton

Old Chuck in David Lean’s excellent film “Hobson’s Choice” (1954).

Charles Laughton was one of the greatest screen actors of all time (as well as being a renowned stage performer and acting teacher) and even now it is difficult to shake much of his greatness after stepping away from one of his films. Creating such memorable characters as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Henry VIII in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), Marmaduke Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), the notorious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Agatha Christie’s determined barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (and Rumpole-esque) in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Sempronius Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Laughton established himself as a very versatile and respected performer.

Laughton's solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing "Night of the Hunter" (1955).

Laughton’s solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing “Night of the Hunter” (1955).

Despite being a closted homosexual (although perhaps not so closeted if you saw him in Jamaica Inn), he was married to actress Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Inspector General). He discovered actors like Maureen O’Hara, trained actors like Albert Finney, directed the great Night of the Hunter (1955), and was a much sought after actor himself in his day. Classically trained and very professional, the British thespian also demonstrated a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor with quips like, “I have a face that would stop a sundial.” How fitting he play the infamous hunchback, Quasimodo.

Nice composite matte shot.

Nice composite matte shot of the cathedral’s interior.

My first introduction to Mr. Laughton came at about age five when I saw German director William Dieterle’s (The Devil and Daniel Webster) interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). With Charles Laughton as the legendary hunchback, Quasimodo, this movie quickly became one of my favorites when I was a kid. All little boys love monsters, horror, and deformity and I most certainly was no exception. Although Laughton’s face and body were caked in prosthetics and makeup he still delivered a fine and heartfelt performance.

hunchback 4

With Maureen O’Hara as the bewitching gypsy, Esmeralda.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts a pretty fine cast that included other great or iconic performers such as leading lady, Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda; ubiquitous character actor, Thomas Mitchell (High Noon), as king of thieves, Clopin; Edmund O’Brien (The Killers), as Gringoire; sinister menace, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Rope), as the evil Frollo; and old character actor, Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind), as King Louis XI.

Ed and Tom.

Ed and Tom discuss what it’s like to be whipped on the pillary.

With an impressive budget, hundreds of extras, grand scale, and wonderful performances, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a spectacular spectacle to behold. Most of you already know the story.

The face.

The face.

Quasimodo is a mysterious, deaf, and deformed bell-ringer for Notre Dame Cathedral. When his pious but tormented master, Frollo, is tempted by the unlawful arrival of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, he will stop at nothing to have her for himself or destroy her as a minion of Satan. He sends Quasimodo after her, but when the poor hunchback gets caught and blamed for the crime of attempted kidnapping he suffers great public humiliation and torture.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Esmeralda is the only person (besides the good archdeacon played by William Hampden) who shows Quasimodo any kindness and so the hunchback falls in love with her too. The penniless poet, Gringoire, whose life is also saved by Esmeralda also falls in love with her, but Esmeralda’s true feelings lie with the vapid ignoramus and playboy captain of the guard, Phoebus. All four men have fallen under her spell, but they all love her differently and show it in different ways. Some are endearing and noble, some conniving and selfish, and some are heartbreaking to watch.

I love the king---seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

I love the king—seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

Amidst the torrid and twisted romances, the film also boasts lots of back-story into the conflicting politics and ideologies of the day. The gypsies are unwanted and outlawed immigrants, the thieves seem to run the streets, the French people are largely bigoted and uneducated, it’s the dawning of the printing press and an age of enlightenment, the King seems to be losing influence, and Frollo seems to be attempting to usurp power and get away with murder and torture while his brother, the archdeacon, watches on—conflicted about betraying his own brother. All the while the lives of little people are continuously stirring the pot until the rousing climax in which the great Cathedral of Notre Dame is stormed and Quasimodo must defend Esmeralda and the right to sanctuary. Ah, Victor Hugo.

Did we mention all the extras.

Did we mention all the extras?

As much as I enjoy Disney’s Hunchback (1996) as well as the great silent Lon Chaney, Sr. Hunchback (1923), I still regard the Charles Laughton version to be the finest. All three films tell the story a little bit differently and they each bring something new to the classic tale, but I feel that the 1939 incarnation reveals the most about the complex innerworkings of 1400s Parisian society and politics. It also presents a very clear picture of hypocrisy, mental and emotional anguish (as depicted by the conflict between human desires and the demands of the church and religious fanaticism), prejudice, and social injustice. The finale features them all at war on the steps of Notre Dame. Clopin and the thieves storm the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda from the Nobles who seek to remove sanctuary. The craftsmen and priests attempt to defend it. Frollo sneaks in to kill her. Gringoire prints a petition for the King to sign to save her. And ignorant Quasimodo sits at the top of the battle fighting everyone. It’s all pretty exciting.

The anguish!

The anguish!

Victor Hugo’s original novel is bleak. Severely bleak and depressing, yet elegant, beautiful, and even humorous. Les Miserables much? It’s a wonder anyone would try to adapt this into a movie for mass consumption—especially Disney (and I give them a lot of credit for the complexity they give Frollo in the animated film). While Dieterle’s version is not nearly as emotionally devastating as the book, it retains a very strong note of sadness that echoes within your very soul. It fakes you out. It shows you the happy ending you want, but then they insert that subtle dagger. This movie such an eloquent, bittersweet final shot. For me, the ending is right up there with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Being There.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

For all its spectacle and pageantry, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains a strikingly human drama and is quite intimate at times. The characters are very complex and the story is allowed to be equally complex. Mr. Hugo would be proud. It’s also one of those rare movies that work wonderfully well both in its original black and white and the colorized version. For anyone interested in seeing a great classic movie or another great Charles Laughton role, I hesitate not to place a sterling recommendation upon The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 17, 2009.

Babbitt and Catstello Meet Tweety Bird

If there is one thing that defines the Warner Bros. studio it is their “Looney Tunes” cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These decades produced some of the most memorable cartoons in history along with some of the most iconic and edgy cartoon characters ever to be transmogrified into accordions via a falling anvil. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil, Wile E. Coyote, Rocky the Gangster, Hippety Hopper, Sam Sheepdog, Witch Hazel, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety, and all the rest have become such a part of our culture it’s difficult to imagine America without them.

Classic characters aside, there were some equally memorable side characters that never made it into more than a few shorts. Pete Puma, the Dover Boys, Michigan J. Frog, Marc Anthony, the Dodo, Frisky, the Three Little Bops, the Scotsman, the forgetful wolf whose name escapes me, and countless others only ever had one or two shots to become a part of the illustrious Warner Bros. cartoon cannon. But they made it!

Often times Hollywood celebrities from the era made it into the act as well. From random gatherings in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), Hollywood Steps Out (1941) and Book Revue (1946) (directed by Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett respectively) to more subversive integrations like when a caveman with the voice and caricatured mannerisms of Jack Benny pursues Daffy Duck while verbally abusing his pet dinosaur in Chuck Jones’ Daffy and the Dinosaur (1939) or when Porky Pig horrifically morphs into Oliver Hardy in the finale of Clampett and Norm McCabe’s Timid Toreador (1940). That Porky Pig morph actually disturbed me as a child. Sometimes the Warner’s cartoons had fun playing with their own formulas such as when Robert McKimson made Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton into mice for The Honey-Mousers (1956). These cartoons also frequently took pot shots at Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939)…perhaps funniest in McKimson’s Hoppy-Go-Lucky (1952).

One of the funniest cartoons ever made (in my most humble opinion) is Robert Clampett’s A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). In this cartoon a pair of cats, modeled after the very funny Abbott and Costello comedy team, try and get a little baby bird. It just so happens that this particular cartoon is the first appearance of Tweety Bird. As with most “Looney Tunes” cartoons it’s all just a standard formula setup for imaginative violence. Cats try and get bird, bird hurts them. What makes this cartoon so hilarious is that Babbitt and Catstello are actually funnier than their real life human counterparts.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were very popular comic icons from the 40s, successfully conquering the stage, radio, film, and eventually television. Their infamous “Who’s on first!” bit still plays in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The constant theme was that Costello was almost a baby trapped in a man’s body and Abbott was the oft times far too harsh straight man. Where it makes more sense, despite their differences, why Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel would share beds (Hardy probably knows he’s a big loser and you can tell he really likes Laurel) I could never figure out why the mostly humorless Abbott would ever put up with Costello’s infantile shenanigans. This infant and grouch duo made nearly 40 films together including some comedy classics such as Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

With knowledge of the rules and dynamics for an Abbott and Costello routine and a firm grasp on the lawlessness and physics-lacking hyper-violent universe of “Looney Tunes” one can now sit back and enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties.

It opens with a lean Babbitt (voiced by Tedd Pierce) kicking around a rotund Catstello (voiced by the incomparable Mel Blanc). From the get-go you recognize the familiar voices and then you get an even bigger laugh when you see the cat forms of Abbott and Costello. Babbitt almost looks more like a wolf and his long, graceful build is more reminiscent to a Wile E. Coyote than a Sylvester the cat. Catstello has the weak, wrinkled brow and dim, pleading eyes, and exaggerated jowls and is about as hard to recognize as a cat as John Kricfalusi’s Stimpy. Yet the pointed ears and typical color patterns tells us that these hideous mutations are indeed of the feline persuasion. Babbitt is evidently accustomed to harassing Catstello into performing dangerous tasks and so today’s adventure should be no different. Catstello must climb a very high telephone pole and apprehend the baby bird. Several attempts lead to Catstello falling from great heights, being flattened, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. Babbitt all the while waits comfortably on terra firma and slaps Catstello around whenever he returns empty-handed.

It’s well drawn, has brilliant timing, there are puns and anvil gags, but the real big joke is just how exaggerated everything is. Babbitt is not just being impatient like Abbott. He’s being downright sociopathic and barbarically unreasonable. That Catstello takes it like an ashamed idiot puts the real Abbott and Costello in a whole new light. They aren’t friends with the occasional difference. These are two diametrically opposed individuals and their lives play out more like a shockingly abusive relationship than comedy. When Catstello gets crushed several feet into the earth by an anvil, a suddenly concerned Babbitt compassionately screams “Speak to me! Speak to me!” Following a childish whistle from the flattened feline, Babbitt scoldingly bellows “Why do you do these things?” as he pulls his broken friend off the anvil and slaps him across the face. It’s so unreasonable it’s comedy gold!

In many ways this short is spookily prophetic of the serious rift that would eventually break up Abbott and Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy who stayed friends to the end, their friendship eventually did deteriorate and their comedy suffered.

Catstello is just as pathetic as Babbitt is unfeeling. Perhaps moreso. Mel Blanc’s explodingly shrill and obnoxious Costello screams are just hilarious. Simple lines like, “Look, Babbitt. Stilts. ♫.” become hysterical in Blanc’s unflattering impersonation. Ted Pierce does a pretty funny Abbott as well. These two ingredients make for the funniest cat duo ever to pursue a Tweety Bird. Sylvester teamed up with a lot of cats over the years, but not one single combo had the elasticity and barbarity of these schmoes. In addition to being crapped on my Babbitt, Catstello is also malevolently manhandled by Tweety Bird. The “this widdle piddy went to market” gag still cracks me up. It’s as much a sick game for Tweety who has no feeling for a would-be predator as it is chastising a small child to Babbitt and poor, dumb Catstello is stuck in the middle. It’s amazing Tweety Bird really took off as a result of this cartoon because he’s more of a plot device to set up evil gags directed at the plump cat (Tweety would largely be handled by director Friz Freleng in the future). Tweety does develop a strong character in this cartoon though and he’s more diabolical and I’d say funnier than he ever would be again. The same can be said of the two cats.

True they were a one hit wonder, but Frank Tashlin directed a pseudo-sequel called A Tale of Two Mice (1945) featuring two mouse versions of Abbott and Costello. The result was not nearly as funny. Clampett would assign another celebrity identity to a cat body in A Gruesome Twosome (1945) where a dopey-eyed cat and a Jimmy Durante styled cat fight over the affections of a female. Tweety Bird gets in the mix again and the Jimmy Durante cat is very funny, but it never reaches the wild and zany brilliance of A Tale of Two Kitties. Everything worked and I suppose it would be hard to top had they done more. Maybe they’re better off as one-shot wonders like Michigan J. Frog. They did manage to make a few cameos and even one more short, but it weren’t as good so we can skip it.

This cartoon is Bob Clampett at the top of his game. It’s zany, violent, screwy, and the characters are stretchy and boneless. It ranks up there alongside Wabbit Twouble (1941), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942), An Itch in Time (1943), Falling Hare (1943), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) for sheer baffling comic ludicrosity. Clampett might have been the only one who could have pulled off all the gags in this cartoon. The best “Looney Tunes” were anarchic and screwball and if you’ve ever seen Porky in Egypt (1937)* (yes, even more than Porky in Wackyland) you know Clampett could be wild and inventive. By taking two classic comedians and making them hyper-violent cartoon cats and pitting them against a seemingly innocent naked baby bird you can get one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

A Tale of Two Kitties makes me fall on the floor laughing (generational translation: rofl) every time I see it. And I have seen it a lot. One thing I almost forgot to mention was that this cartoon features some interesting wartime jokes and even a smarmy reference to the Hays Code that history buffs might enjoy. For the birth of Tweety Bird, some truly warped incarnations of classic comedians, or just for a good laugh watch or re-watch A Tale of Two Kitties. Lord knows it’s out there on the internet.

*Porky in Egypt starts as your typical period exploration into the realm of cultural insensitivity. Porky Pig is your standard milquetoast protagonist and he’s not particularly interesting. About halfway through the cartoon the sun punches Porky’s camel square in the face. The camel, named Humpty Bumpty, goes crazy from desert madness and whatever story was being carefully setup completely derails and becomes a nightmarish descent into insanity. It’s almost ironically titled Porky in Egypt because Porky does very little in the cartoon. It is hilarious and totally unpredictable and I can’t help but feel like the yak’s breakdown in the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman episode of “Ren and Stimpy” was somewhat modeled after it.

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/09/timingpacing-tale-of-two-kitties-1942.html

http://www.sidereel.com/The_Looney_Tunes_Show/season-13/episode-1

http://fan.tcm.com/_A-Tale-of-Two-Kitties-WB-1942-d-Robert-Clampett/photo/8790883/66470.html?createPassive=true

http://www.twynkle.com/movies/33474