The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXI – A Star Wars Story

Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.

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Bamboozled (2000) is a satirical look at race as it is portrayed on American television. Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and starring Damon Wayans, this pairing may make it difficult to find the tone of the movie. There are serious themes worthy of unpacking here, but the tone feels off. Sometimes it’s silly and almost clever and then the sledgehammer comes down along with heavy emotions. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) pitches a blackface minstrel variety show to the network as a joke, but they love the idea and run with it. The most effective moments, in my opinion, feature the actors in the show going through the conflicting process of donning the dehumanizing makeup. Despite a clever premise and what feels like great potential for scathing satire and serious conversation, the movie is a bit of a dud.
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That’s Not Funny (2014) is a documentary about comedy and taboo topics directed by Mike Celestino. It talks about what offends and why and why it may not even matter. It’s a dry examination that works mainly because it’s so straightforward. For people already entrenched in the comedy world, it doesn’t offer much new insight, but for the casual comic observer maybe there’s more value in it.
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Train to Busan (2016) is a Korean zombie movie directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. It’s more of a sleek action movie than a bleak horror thriller. It hits a lot of familiar zombie movie markers, but setting it on the KTX (a train I have taken many times) from Seoul to Busan gave it a dose of novelty. It’s not a great zombie flick, but it has some fun moments and for people who don’t like their horror too moody, scary, or bloody Train to Busan might be a decent alternative. Dong-seok Ma (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is easily the best part.
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Sausage Party (2016) is the story of food discovering the horrible truth about their destiny. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and written by Seth Rogen and company, this unrelentingly crass smorgasbord of Pixar and piety skewering satire boasts more creativity than it probably needed. There’s a lot of juvenile jokes, but also a satisfying adventure arc as well as a cute social commentary (spoiler alert: religions are just evolved permutations of old stories to find reason and hope in a horrifying universe and living in a world where Rick and Morty exist makes the satire here seem amateurish and trite). A bit obnoxious, but still funny and the animation is quite good. The Stephen Hawking character in the third act elevated the whole shebang for me.
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Off Limits (1988) is a buddy cop movie directed by Christopher Crowe. What sets this police investigation action thriller apart is that it’s set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines star as McGriff and Albaby, two loose cannon military cops trying to uncover who’s murdering all the prostitutes with mixed race kids. It’s a bit of a trashy premise and an underwhelming revelation in the finale, but the middle bits have enough suspense, tough-guy talk, and memorable standoffs that it feels good revisiting this mostly forgotten buddy flick. Co-starring Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Keith David, Scott Glenn, and David Alan Grier.
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True Lies (1994) is a classic action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron (Aliens). Although I had seen it on TV as a kid a few times, this was the first time I actually sat down to watch the whole thing. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her most fun roles), a bored wife who thinks he’s a computer salesman. After learning the truth of her husband’s identity and a truly provocative striptease, the couple both become mixed up in a terrorist plot (headed by Art Malik). While I personally prefer the more sincere Schwarzenegger action movies (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Commando) than the winking parodies, this is honestly a lot more fun than Last Action Hero. The action set pieces are fun (horse in the elevator?) the film never takes itself terribly seriously. Tom Arnold is obnoxious, but the presence of Tia Carrere makes up for that maybe.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a science fantasy adventure that takes place like 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ends a few minutes before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) begins. But if you’re not a giant Star Wars nerd then I guess you could you say this is a wartime espionage adventure set in outer space.
OK. Because this is Star Wars and, like many of you, the original trilogy was a very important part of my formative years, I feel I should be slightly more in depth. I realize my tastes are fairly predictable. I love the original trilogy (Empire Strikes Back still being one of my favorite space movies), intensely dislike the prequels, and upon re-watching The Force Awakens sober, I’m not a fan (it looks great, but some of the awkward humor and acting choices along with the cloying nostalgia and the disquieting sense of the messy, convoluted script being composed by a committee checking off boxes sucks a lot of the fun out for me). That said, I basically enjoyed Rogue One. There’s stuff I hated too. Who knows what I’ll think if I see it again.
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Things I liked:
1. The cinematography and abundance of real props, sets, locations, etc. all serve to make the world feel real and lived in and steeped in a detailed and immense intergalactic history. The costumes and most of the puppets also look great (the squid guys are looking sillier and sillier though). This movie genuinely feels like an expansion of a familiar fictional universe.
2. It is different enough in tone and execution to make up for my qualms with Force Awakens being too similar. Even if not all of those choices work.
3. I liked the robot and the two Chinese guys. K-S20 (Alan Tudyk) gets the best lines and Chirrut Îmwe  (martial arts master, Donnie Yen, basically playing space Zatoichi) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have a nice friendship (just about the only interesting relationship in the movie) and are kinda cool. Wish they had had more to do.
The story is reminiscent of WWII commando adventures. This ain’t exactly The Devil’s Brigade or Guns of Navarone, but it seems to come from that tradition. It’s just got great space battles too…which maybe makes up for a lot of the characters being rather tepid by comparison. Which brings me to my next segment.
Things I didn’t like:
1. The two main characters, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), look good but are rather flat in the personality department. This really killed the intended impact of the finale for me. The central figures should not be an emotional vacuum in a movie like this. The rest of the characters are sadly forgettable.
2. Some of the fan service nods to the other films are handled well, but there’s still a lot of awkward inclusions.
3. Possible spoiler: there are a couple characters from the original 1977 movie that make appearances, but due to old age or death they are performed by CG versions of the actors (or touched up original footage in the case of a few pilots). In each instance it is strikingly disorienting. The CG humans are finely rendered (we’ve come a long way since The Scorpion King), but their inclusion is dumfoundingly distracting and unnecessary. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory, and it feels super weird. It does, however, make me want to watch The Congress again.
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Darth Vader’s in it too and they make him scary again. It’s a big improvement over the whiny, pathetic prequel Anakins and his descendant, Kylo Ren. I just couldn’t remove the image from my head of an 85 year old James Earl Jones reading lines into a microphone in a gray, squishy room. But I’m weird and this is just how my brain works.
All things considered, Rogue One, while not stellar, is a ballsy Star Wars movie in a lot of ways. I like some of the freshness that Gareth Edwards was allowed to bring to it and admire some of the risks Disney took (not all). There’s a lot that just doesn’t work in this movie and it’s pretty emotionally dead, but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably enjoy it even with its imperfections. There’s a reason people hold this series to a high personal standard. Like them. Hate them. At this point, they are intrinsically designed to be over-analyzed and talked about forever. It’s annoying, but who doesn’t like to indulge just a little bit?
Also stars Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Jimmy Smits.
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Swiss Army Man (2016) is a bromantic comedy about a hopeless misfit (Paul Dano) and a farting corpse with a penis that points north (Daniel Radcliffe). It was written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Although savagely surreal and whimsical, the movie creates a weirdly touching relationship between the two characters. The curiosity and innocence of the corpse causes Hank (Dano) to relive a lot of experiences and emotions and see much of his own life from a new perspective. As a surreal adventure comedy it works and as a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the nature of identity, it also somehow works. Check this one out.
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Arrival (2016) is a minimalist science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Amy Adams stars as the American linguist who figures out how to communicate with the enigmatic alien squid monsters. If you want a movie about boring old diplomacy then this is it. The central theme of the story is that communication takes time but it is time that must be given if the quest for understanding is a pure one. It also examines how language structures understanding of the physical world (and potentially our understanding of time itself). Gorgeously shot and thoughtfully acted. A highly recommended film. Also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
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A History of Violence (2005) is a modern noir directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers). Viggo Mortensen (Return of the King) stars as a small town guy who becomes a local hero after he stops some bad dudes. This act, however, unleashes nothing but trouble for him and his family as aspects of his past are questioned and unearthed and more mob guys show up and begin harassing his family. Like all Cronenberg films, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The lead performances are quite good (Maria Bello is a standout as Mortensen’s wife). It’s a small, tightly told story with suspense and a few turns that genuinely surprised me. Also stars Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Stephen McHattie.
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True Romance (1993) is a crime drama about a comic store geek (Christian Slater) who marries a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and steals her pimp’s (Gary Oldman) cocaine. Written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), this star packed thriller crackles with exciting dialogue, unpredictable encounters, and stylish directorial flourishes. It’s violent, funny, flashy, unapologetic, and damn good fun. I feel dumb for having not seen this one before. Don’t make my mistake! Co-starring Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, David Rapaport, and Samuel L. Jackson.
So what did you see recently?
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Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIX – The Reckoning

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys. If you have different opinions please share.

Meh:

I remember watching the Disney Jungle Book (1967) as well as the Sabu Jungle Book (1942) and reading the original Rudyard Kipling stories many times as a kid. As far as Jon Favreau as a director goes I can say I enjoyed Elf. Everyone is talking about the amazing visuals in the Disney reboot of The Jungle Book (2016) and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure how special effects alone still manage to be a box office draw when every mainstream big budget movie looks exactly the same. It’s not a bad film (and yes, the special effects are impressive), but I found it just sort of tedious and uninspiring. Disappointingly, I think Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (voicing Baloo and King Louis respectively) were dreadfully miscast and distractingly out of place. Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and Idris Elba (Shere Khan) were fine. If you saw a trailer you’ve already seen the entirety of Scarlett Johansson’s scene as Kaa. The songs feel forced and out of place and visually I was a bit bored with the hour and a half spectacle, but it’s passable and light for kids. If I want to watch a young Indian boy in a dazzling CGI environment battle a tiger I’ll re-watch Life of Pi.

As a big fan of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele I was eagerly looking forward to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s big screen debut in Keanu (2016). It’s not a bad film, but it just falls so short of the madcap surreal energy and comedy of absurd escalation that their show was famous for. I realize that maybe that’s not what they were trying to achieve here. And that’s fine. The problem here is that there’s really only one joke and it doesn’t escalate enough. The plot: two suburban squares have to play gangster to get their cat back. There are a couple scenes that are funny, but overall it’s sort of a by-the-numbers liar-revealed Hollywood comedy plot with not much surprise or innovation. Watching Key and Peele in this movie is like looking at a parakeet with clipped wings sit in cage that is too small.

I Like It:

Possibly the most anodyne entry on this list is The Peanuts Movie (2015). I was in love with the animation that managed to be state of the art and finely textured while maintaining the vintage lo-fi style of the old cartoons and simple comic strip that preceded it. All the hallmarks of Charles Schultz are on display in this gentle little film. It has a pleasant sense of humor and a quiet feel-good optimism that plays off Charlie Brown’s insecurities and social shortcomings. If you know the characters, they are pretty much themselves (Linus is a bit less sage here and I would have liked a bit more Schroeder, but we can’t have it all). My only real complaint is that, like Star Wars and Jurassic World, it seems like it is trying too hard to hit all the familiar nostalgic marks without developing much new. Like the old TV specials, the stuff with Snoopy is gold.

Up in Smoke (1978) was the screen debut of the stoner comedy team of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The film itself is a bit of an amateurish hit-and-miss episodic road comedy. It means well, but not all of the jokes land like they should. A handful of funny moments, a mean sheriff (Stacy Keach) in pursuit, and the relationship between the two stars make it a warm little adventure. As perhaps the first stoner comedy, it’s more iconic than it is a masterpiece. Still worth a look.

I appreciated the character design and the social commentary better than the actual mystery in the animated Disney police procedural, Zootopia (2016). Voice cast was fine. Story was fine. Jokes were good. As a movie goer, I was perhaps most impressed with the world it created (Tundra Town, Rainforest District, etc.) and the ways that the city accommodated animals of wildly different sizes and shapes. Everything was fine, but I just really enjoyed the world they occupied and some of the character designs were wonderful. Additionally, the commentary on racism and prejudice was a refreshingly specific and important lesson that was handled well.

Guilty Pleasures:

This next schlock flick would be a great double feature with They Live. The Stuff (1985) is a delightfully cheesy horror comedy parable about consumerism and consumers not really knowing what’s in their food. When a mysterious viscous alien entity bubbles up from the ground it tastes simply too good to not be quickly packaged and sold in stores everywhere. The addictive substance is a living parasite that needs addicted host bodies to keep consuming it until it takes over. It’s a grim but refreshingly unusual sci-fi story with some gross special effects and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as a weirdly racist army general. It’s more campy and gross than it is scary, but that’s sort of as advertised. You can’t get enough of The Stuff.

I don’t get most superhero movies. I also have not been a fan of Ryan Reynolds (The Voices). I’ll admit it straightaway. That said, Deadpool (2016) was pretty fun, and, although not nearly as clever and edgy as it pretends to be, I still liked it better than pretty much all of the other Marvel movies I’ve seen. It pokes fun at obnoxious Marvel cliches (as well as its own one-note schtick) and has a charismatic wacky cynicism. I don’t remember the action much (I liked the fight between Colossus and Angel Dust because it had some interesting character moments alongside the punching), but I remember the snark and the snark was fun (Deadpool spelling out his nemesis’s hated name in henchman corpses was funny). Basically, if you thought Darkman needed more pop culture references and fourth wall breaking winks, this crass revenge flick is for you. More Morena Baccarin, please. All this said, I really want this to be an anomaly. We don’t need fifty more cynical, winky, ultra violent superhero movies. It works because it’s a novelty.

After all these years I finally got around to see the cult Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985). Honestly, I loved From Beyond (also directed by Stuart Gordon) a lot more and The Frighteners still contains my favorite Jeffrey Combs performance, but I get why this became a subversive hit. It slowly builds to being a zombie movie and then goes all out schlocky berserk in the final act. It’s silly, slimy sci-fi 80s mayhem. A lot of fun.

Rocking Harder:

After my disappointment with Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and modest feelings toward Inside Out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Finding Dory (2016). Taking notes from Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 in that much of the film is a convoluted prison break plot with multiple characters in different locations trying to rescue each other, Finding Dory is also a bit more fast and loose about its water-bound characters moving with ease from impossible situation to the next than its predecessor (Nemo’s hangup was in one small fish tank while the sequel moves through several tanks, pipes, buckets, etc.). The movie’s focus is all on Dory’s search for her parents and her past and, in addition to being a fast, funny adventure full of fun characters (Hank the octopus is a nice addition) and harrowing situations with innovative solutions, the fact that the main protagonist suffers from a difficult mental disorder (short term memory loss) and is able to overcome her countless obstacles through her perseverance and abundant cheerfulness should bring hope to sufferers of all kinds of problems. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyable and deeply moving (Ellen Degeneres shines in her role), and I applaud the writers’ ingenuity in figuring out ways to move characters that essentially need to be in the water at all times. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it deals with very human emotions and problems in ways that are respectful and hopeful.

Two young boys trying to run away from home stumble upon a police squad car and hit the road in Cop Car (2015). To make it more interesting, the cop car belongs to a murderer and bad sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. It’s a tight, small movie with just enough moving parts to keep the suspense building. I don’t want to spoil too much so I recommend just checking this one out.

Last list I watched The Lobster and I didn’t get it. So I gave director Yorgos Lanthimos  another try with his earlier film, Dogtooth (2009). It’s a dark and disturbing surreal tale of three teenage siblings (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Christos Passalis) being sequestered in their home by their controlling father (Christos Stergioglou) for reasons that are never explicit. A weird system of rewards and punishments is placed upon them. Weird sexual experimentation, gender favoritism, and sudden bouts of savage cruelty remind us just how innocent our protagonists are and how demented their parents must be. It is a quietly troubling film that has stuck with me. Watch it if you dare.

 

If you can get past Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) playing a Mexican and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) wearing a putty nose then you will enjoy Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Crime and corruption in a Mexican border town are the ingredients and playground for this classic. From the famous opening long take shot to the final bullets fired, Touch of Evil is a magnificent looking film and a pleasure to watch. Also features Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Love It:

Terrence Malick. Some people love him. Others find him slow and pretentious. From Days of Heaven to Tree of Life, his films all look breathtaking. The New World (2005) was Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontis. It is a slow movie, but one whose languid pace, for me, added to the richness of the environment and emotional weight to the almost wordless plot. The refreshing take on this historical narrative comes in the way the film depicts its characters as complex human beings bound by culture rather than a sanitized Hollywood romance. These are difficult situations that befall young Pocahontis (Q’orianka Kilcher), her father (August Schellenberg), the pirate John Smith (Colin Ferrell), and pious John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the solutions are not easy and may never come. The New World, like Malick’s best, is a profound and beautiful work that resonates well beyond the screen. Pocahontis is an exciting and curious and tragic figure and this film gives the legendary icon perhaps more respect than any other pop culture incarnation has. Strongly recommend.

Two men from 1991 (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Lukaszewicz) are supposed to be put into hibernation for three years as a test, but wars lead them not being awoken until 2044. The Polish sci-fi comedy Sexmission (1984),  directed by Juliusz Machulski, depicts a not-too-distant future where men are extinct and asexually producing women have taken over a technologically advanced subterranean colony. While the premise might seem like a childish slam against feminism (in part, it may be) it is in fact a more fascinating critique on Soviet rule. The fantastic set work and fun costumes look great and the story is legitimately interesting as straight science fiction. The social satire on the politics of Poland at that time keep it from feeling like just another high-concept comedy. This one was a fun find.

If you are not already a fan of Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) then this may not be the best place to start, but I really liked The Forbidden Room (2015) (co-directed and co-written by Evan Johnson). Like all Maddin movies, it looks like it’s about 100 years old and operates on a surreal sense of wacky logic. Stories within stories unfold in an elliptical and episodic manner making it difficult to find your grounding. One minute we’re in a submarine quickly losing oxygen and the next we are in a night club singing about a strange doctor’s obsession with butts. If you have the right sense of humor and don’t mind feeling occasionally lost then I definitely recommend this one. It’s unique, to be sure.

Francis Veber adapted his own play for film in the French comedy The Dinner Game (1998). Mr. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who enjoys the pastimes of the wealthy: in this case, finding the most oblivious dolts to take to a weekly dinner to showcase their oafishness and have a good laugh at the expense of these lowly peons. Although he believes he has found an idiotic champion in François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), Brochant has injured his back golfing and cannot go to the dinner. But getting rid of Pignon is more difficult than originally anticipated, especially once Brochant learns his wife is leaving him. Over the course of the evening, the good-intentioned Pignon creates, dissipates, and escalates innumerable predicaments and causes some needed reflection to be done on the part of his heartless host. Once the film gets going it is on a roll. The Dinner Game is an immensely pleasing comedy that took me by surprise.

The Peak:

Color me freaked out by Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch (2015). A family in the 1630s builds a homestead on the edge of a forest. The forest happens to contain a witch. Hence the title. What makes this such a good horror film is the raging sense of dread and discomfort you feel as the horrible events unfold. It’s a deeply unsettling slow-burn that haunts your soul rather than your basic jump-scare torture-porn splatter-fest. With the presence of the witch, the family dynamic is strained and the overwhelming paranoia and creeping sense that evil is getting closer all pay off chillingly. It made me uncomfortable and I think that’s what good horror is meant to do. Stellar acting (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw) and sumptuous cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) brings this minimalist period piece to terrifying life. Watch out for goats.

I’ve been coming around to zombie films. I still don’t like zombie storylines that play it all too straight. I still like a little bit of satire or whimsy in my undead carnage. Maybe I’m giving away too much by using the word “zombie” here. Pontypool (2008) (directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess) is a brilliant lo-fi horror thriller with enough cleverness and mounting unease to keep you glued to the screen despite the lack of onscreen action. Self-contained in a church basement broadcasting local radio, grouchy disc jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and the show’s producer (played by McHattie’s wife, Lisa Houle) gradually learn of a mysterious outbreak. The viewer watches the skepticism vanish and the horror set in on the faces of our insulated leads. How they learn about the virus, what the virus is, how it is spread, and how to counteract it are all part of what makes Pontypool unique and wonderful. Go watch it.

And finally, if only because any chance to mention animator Don Hertzfeldt should be seized, I submit a cheat. World of Tomorrow (2015) is a short film, but it was so good it must take the top slot. Hertzfeldt has impressed us all before with his uncanny ability to marry crude simplistic illustrations (Rejected) with immense richness of thought and personal creativity, combining bleak and absurd humor with existential postulation (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) in ways few filmmakers are capable of doing. World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily. Toddler Emily (Winona Mae) is visited by her adult self from the future (Julia Pott)—or rather, what is the latest in a series of genetically cloned copies of herself in the future’s attempts at attaining immortality. Adult Emily has summoned the girl to find a memory, but the implications of little Emily’s future, while death is technically staved off for the moment, is not a cheerful one. It is a cold, clinical, and lonely future full of more questions than answers and riddled with many of the same social inequalities of toddler Emily’s time—albeit manifested in uniquely horrifying ways. This short explores the nature of self, the nature of life, the nature of death, and the nature of progress. World of Tomorrow is overflowing with brilliant ideas treated as nonessential throwaway gags and, in addition to being exceedingly clever, is also wonderfully funny. I highly recommend this one.

The Disney Sidekick Countdown

Forget which movies were the best, which sidekicks were the best?

This list is limited to Disney cel-animated films from 1937 to 2009. I have not seen all of Home On the Range, A Goofy Movie, or Treasure Planet. Sorry. I’m also skipping shorter and more fractured/anthology films like Saludos Amigos, Fantasia, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Sorry again.

Also…spoilers.

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37. Gurgi from The Black Cauldron (1985). Gurgi is the Jar Jar Binks of Disney sidekicks. I was actually happy when he died at the end…but then he comes back to life so scratch that. There are other forgettable sidekicks: a clairvoyant pig, Hen Wen; an old bard, Fflewddur Fflam; some bosom-y witches; a goblin bad guy sidekick (evil Gurgi, I call him): and a grouchy fairy named Doli. . Doli is the most interesting character, but his negativity is almost too much for this already depressing adventure and he literally just disappears after awhile.

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36. Genie from Duckt Tales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990). Russ Taylor’s is the most obnoxious voice ever to come out of a magic lamp. The only reason it’s not worse than Gurgi is because I kind of like Merlock’s sidekick, Dijon (voiced by Richard Libertini).

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35. Terk and Tantor from Tarzan (1999). They all but completely ruin what could have been an actually very good adapation of the Burroughs novel. Rosie O’Donnell’s abrasive Brooklyn brogue does not belong to a gorilla in the African jungle and Wayne Knight’s nervous elephant hypochondriac is an odd character choice. The film is actually smart and mature and humorous enough on its own. They’re not worse than Gurgi (who only added to an already disappointing film) because they have one song that is pretty good.

 

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34. Jaq and Gusgus from Cinderella (1950). These guys and all the mice are pretty annoying and make Cinderella look more like a paranoid schizophrenic. Why are the mice in this universe the only animals that wear clothes? I do like the King and the Duke a lot though—their scenes are priceless.

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33. Dinky and Boomer from The Fox and the Hound (1981). Perhaps one of the more forgettable entries, this tale of unnatuaral friendships features a shabby comic relief duo: a high strung sparrow and a dopey woodpecker. Again, the owl (Big Mama) wasn’t bad.

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32. Ignacio Alonzo Julio Federico de Tito (and company) from Oliver & Company (1988). Billy Joel songs aside, there’s not much point or reason to watch this pet version of “Oliver Twist.” Tito (voiced by Cheech Marin) is the most memorable in the long list of doggy sidekicks, but they’re all too broad and largely forgettable.

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31. Little John and Hiss in Robin Hood (1973). Recycled Jungle Book animation aside, the villain is too stupid to be menacing and the heroes aren’t particularly engaging. Little John (Phil Harris) is sort of a boring counterpart to Robin Hood. Hiss (Terry-Thomas) is an occasionally interesting sycophant to the wicked Prince John—largely because he’s smarter than the Prince. The rooster narrator, for me, is the best character.

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30. Thumper from Bambi (1942). He’s not cute. He’s nauseating. He’s got one or two cute lines, I’ll give him that. And after puberty he’s kinda creepy and even less appealing. Flower, the gender confused skunk, is even worse. “Twitterpainted” is code for forest orgy. The owl wasn’t bad.

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29. Phil from Hercules (1997). The movie is a pop-culture onslaught set against a classic Greek myth backdrop so maybe I shouldn’t be mad that Danny DeVito is the Yoda-like satyr that trains Hercules. The problem is his voice is too recognizable and he’s even drawn to resemble Danny. It becomes more than a little distracting. Sorry, Danny, I love ya, but James Woods as Hades is the star of this flick. And Pegasus is a superior sidekick. Yeah, and Pain and Panic are kind of obnoxious too.

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28. Major Dr. David Q. Dawson from The Great Mouse Detective (1986). I don’t dislike this movie or the characters. In fact, there’s a lot of really cool things in it, but it suffers from the old Sherlock Holmes adaptation quirk of making Watson into a clumsy simpleton. Dawson’s not bad, just nothing special. Fidget, the crippled bat henchman of Ratigan is annoying, but interesting in his own little way.

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27. Mr. Pleakly from Lilo & Stitch (2002). It’s weird. Almost all the characters are really interesting but Mr. Pleakly might be the weakest. Not that he’s a bad character. He’s a functional plot device: keep Russian-sounding evil scientist alien from causing a ruckus while apprehending 626. He’s got some funny business, but not the most memorable character in the bunch sadly. ds v h l

26. Victor, Hugo, and Laverne from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Like Terk and Tantor for Tarzan, the wise-cracking gargoyles almost ruin this movie. Hunchback is intelligent, complex, dramatic and also humorous by itself. The addition of Quasimodo’s ambiguous hallucinations is unnecessary (and Jason Alexander’s voice is, again, a tad distracting). They do have some good lines and one decent song. Not terrible, but they greatly diminish the power of this very well done Disney-fied adaptation of Victor Hugo.

ds scat cat

25. Georges Hautecourt and Uncle Waldo and Scat Cat from The AristoCats (1970). It’s not a great movie and there really are no consistent sidekicks, but there’s some fairly interesting side characters nevertheless. Georges (voiced by the ubiquitous Charles Lane) is a senile attorney, but he’s barely in the movie. Uncle Waldo is a drunk goose who just escaped a restaurant. He’s fun, but only gets one scene (and that’s really all he needs). Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) is the only other sidekick worth mentioning (and there are others), largely because he leads the song “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.” Sorry, Roquefort.

ds meeko f p

24. MeekoFlit, and Percy from Pocahontis (1995). All silent, but all fun, funny, and engaging characters. A mischievous raccoon, a feisty hummingbird, and a prissy pug may not exactly fit into a true story about racism, genocide, and environmentalism, but I think they work because they don’t talk. If you already are past the rape of American history, some cute animals shouldn’t offend you.

ds archimedes

23. Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone (1963). Junius Matthews voices the grouchy owl sidekick to the wizard, Merlin. Something about the combination of how cranky but powerless and easily manipulated he is I find endearing. He does appear to have a sturdy sense of ethics, despite being ornery much of the time, which makes him more lovable.

ds rutt tuke

22. Rutt and Tuke from Brother Bear (2003). I don’t care about the movie, but c’mon! Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas doing their Bob & Doug McKenzie schtick again as cartoon Canadian moose decades after Strange Brew? That’s actually already funnier in concept than the actual Bob & Doug McKenzie.

ds ray

21. Ray from The Princess and the Frog (2009). Yes, more than the jazzy alligator. He’s dumb, but optimistic and I am actually deeply sad when he gets killed (that never happens in Disney! They wouldn’t even kill Gurgi right!). He’s a firefly who’s in love with a star and he’s devoted to his friends. The song he sings is also pretty sweet. I think Disney was finally thanking Jim Cummings for voicing thousands of bit parts over the years.

ds seven dwarfs

20. The Dwarfs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). There are seven of them and somehow they are all uniquely defined (if not all totally memorable). Dopey is an animated Harpo Marx and everyone remembers Grumpy for his sour-puss attitude, but he does have a heart when it matters. Sleepy’s my favorite.

ds vinny

18. Vincenzo “Vinny” Santorini from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). It’s a shame this movie wasn’t better. Cool steampunk gadgets and a multinational bunch of characters with big name voices and yet the only thing anyone remembers is Vinny. Don Novello puts his famous Father Guido Sarducci voice to good work as an Italian demolitions expert.

ds wilbur

17. Wilbur from The Rescuers Down Under (1990). We love Bernard and Bianca, but their mode of transportation is just as memorable. John Candy voices the painfully American albatross who finds himself in his own plot amidst the main action—trying to escape an army of adorable nurse mice and their menagerie of surgical torture devices.

ds tinkerbell

16.  Tinkerbell from Peter Pan (1953). Another silent sidekick, but Tinkerbell is different in that she doesn’t know her role in the story being told. She is feisty, jealous, petulant, and not afraid to negotiate with Captain Hook to get rid of Wendy. She makes mistakes but she tries to make them right. ds timothy

15. Timothy Q. Mouse from Dumbo (1941). I like Dumbo a lot. Timothy is a good example of how a good sidekick can help the main character—in this case, help the audience too, because the main character is mute. He’s imperfect himself, though he might never admit it, and applies his own confidence into helping his elephant friend.

ds evinrude

14. Evinrude from The Rescuers (1977). While this is kind of a weak movie—from the annoying girl to the revoltingly unappealing villains—it does have one or two decent things going for it. Evinrude is the oft-overlooked, longsuffering dragonfly who tries to help Bernard and Bianca (as long as he can survive being chased by killer bats or drinking the hillbilly moonshine). He’s silent, endearing and he knows his duty.

ds tigger

13. Tigger from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Paul Winchell voices Tigger: the bouncy, trouncy, infantile, hyperactive tiger of the Hundred Acre Wood. He’s fun and memorable and has a great introduction…which leads into one of the best songs (“Heffalumps and Woozles”).

ds cheshire cat

12. Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland (1951). He’s not exactly a sidekick and he’s not exactly consistently helpful. He’s more like a stoner buddy; laid back, happy, moving in almost slow-motion, in his own world, and willing to instigate disaster just to see what happens (with little regard for the consequences that might befall Alice). He’s the closest thing to a boon and a comfort anyone can find in this cock-eyed acid trip. He’s voiced by Sterling Holloway.

ds mushu

11. Mushu and Cri-kee from Mulan (1998). Mulan has several sidekicks, but the most memorable were Eddie Murphy as the incompetent dragon guardian, Mushu, desperate to find glory for himself, but ends up really trying to help Mulan, and Cri-kee, the little lucky bug who comes along for the ride. The two complement each other well and add some profoundly western sensibilities to this Chinese epic.

ds kronk

10. Kronk Pepikrankenitz from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). So technically the bad guy’s sidekick, the hapless lug, Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton), is just too good not mention. He speaks squirrel, his shoulder angels and demons are as dumb as he is, and he is a navigational genius. He’s genuinely a nice guy, he just maybe got mixed up with the wrong people.

ds 101

9. Sargeant Tibs and The Colonel from 101 Dalmations (1961). I like sidekicks that are useful and get involved in the action. Sgt. Tibs is a very minor sidekick in a film crammed with well over 100 characters. He’s a dedicated British soldier cat and does his job with seriousness, despite the blustering of his less competant superior, an old English sheepdog named the Colonel. These guys are just doing their job…for England and dogdom. The Captain (the horse) is also pretty good. They function like a well oiled machine, each knowing their roles and rank.

ds timon pumbaa

8. Timon, Pumbaa, and the Hyenas from The Lion King (1994). Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) are a carefree gay couple who, unable to have children, decide to adopt Simba the lion. Right? The meerkat and warthog duo are nicely drawn and very funny as a team and get to kick some butt too. The hyena trio (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) are just as good, if not better, as Scar’s henchman. Without Ed, however, they are nothing.

ds sebastian

7. Sebastian from The Little Mermaid (1989). Flounder is boring and annoying. Sorry. Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) is annoying, but it’s on purpose and funny and he redeems himself at the end. Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) is a good, level-headed crab who has to help Ariel fall in love with Eric, keep Scuttle and the others under control, be loyal to the King, and try to stay alive on land without losing his mind.

ds lumiere cogsworth

6. Lumiere and Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast (1991). These guys (voiced by Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers) are trying to make the Beast and the castle more appealing to Belle so she can fall in love, lift the curse, and they can all be human again. Although they are part of a bigger narrative, and contribute to it greatly, it is their own little relationship that is more interesting. These two royal servants (?) have been together for a long time and, even as household appliances, still can’t always get along. Their friendship is real and fun and it’s enjoyable to see its ups and downs.

ds genie

5. Genie from Aladdin (1992). So yeah, there’s a mess of sidekicks in this one too. Abu is cute and fun, Iago is funny and abrasive, Raja is boring as sin, and carpet is tacit, loyal, and awesome, but Robin Williams as the Genie kind of steals the show.  Genie shows up late into the film but his manic energy soon takes control (in a good way). This movie sort of started the craze of wild pop culture references running anachronicistically amok in children’s entertainment. He’s bound by certain genie rules, but he still would like to make friends with whoever he meets. It’s pretty much what Robin Williams would have been like if he were magic.

ds jiminy

4. Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940). He may seem stale and boring after some of the more contemporary entries, but he is sort of the archetype for all Disney sidekicks. Jiminy Cricket (Edward Cliff) is Pinocchio’s conscience…who keeps getting ignored. But like all good consciences, he never truly goes away and will follow Pinocchio anywhere. He’s loyal and dedicated even when it doesn’t serve his own best interests.

ds baloo bagheera

3. Baloo and Bagheera from The Jungle Book (1967). Like Lumiere and Cogsworth, they work because they are at odds with one another. Baloo (Phil Harris) is almost the main character, but I still qualify him as Mowgli’s sidekick. He and Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot) make for another special family unit team in the spirit of Timon and Pumbaa…but with more marked distinctions between them. This version of The Jungle Book is really about different parenting styles, and every animal in the jungle has a different idea about what’s best for the man-cub, but it’s mostly the pragmatic panther arguing with the insouciant bear. Mowgli needed Baloo for adventure and personal growth, but Bagheera knows what the boy needs to survive and succeed in life. It has to be Baloo who risks it all to fight the tiger at the end because he has to face the music that he was reckless with Mowgli. That they can disagree so much, find the resolutions they do, and be best of friends by the end—because they really did want the same things all along—is a testament to their enduring roles as great sidekicks.

ds fairies

2. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Voiced by Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy, these three good fairies are the bedrock of this movie. Princess Aurora is sort of simple, Prince Philip is slightly more interesting, but who is there really to root for against the wicked Maleficent? Three plump, bickering, middle-aged fairyfolk who give up their magic powers for 16 years to protect Aurora, that’s who. They each have strongly defined personalities, have funny and relatable dynamics between each other, and can kick butt when they need to…before quietly fading into the background to let the young lovers take the spotlight. Some say Prince Philip was the only Disney prince who ever did anything, but he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the fairies’ help. Merryweather is still one of my favorite characters.

ds jock trusty

1. Jock and Trusty from Lady and the Tramp (1955). I feel like these guys get forgotten. A senile bloodhound who has lost his smell and repeats himself (Trusty, voiced by Bill Baucom) and an aging, overly cautious and possessive Scottish terrier (Jock, voiced by Bill Thompson) might be an unlikely spot for number one, but hear me out. They’re old, conservative, and rusty at their old tricks, but they love their neighbor, Lady, and when they at last realize they’ve misjudged the reckless Tramp they spring into action. When the Tramp is taken by the pound (undoubtedly to be euthanized), Trusty insists they stop have to stop the wagon. Both our heroes are separated and down for the count, it’s up to the bit players to fix everything—even at the cost of their own safety. Through mud and rain, Trusty battles to remember his long lost sense of smell. When Jock finally tries to discourage Trusty and says “We both know you’ve lost your sense of smell,” there’s a look they exchange that speaks years of subtext. When the courageous but feeble old dogs finally do stop the wagon and save the Tramp, and we see the toll their selflessness has taken on them, it is incredibly moving. These characters, despite having very little screen time, are just very well realized and compelling in their simplicity and have deeply satisfying character arcs.

Disagree? Come at me, bro.

disney.wikia.com

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on October 17th, 2013.

A Very Bradbury October

Now I know most people don’t equate the Walt Disney studios with classic Halloween fun, but when Ray Bradbury and an evil carnival of damned souls are involved then it might just be the case that Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). Boy, that was a stretch. My pick for this week is the underrated, and oft times overlooked, piece of rare live-action Disney entertainment from the early 80s. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents) and based on the novel by science fiction author Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), Something Wicked This Way Comes is not exactly a classic, but sometimes the smaller films deserve a second chance to shine.

Halloween weather is a-comin'.

Halloween weather is a-comin’.

The film has all the rustic feel of a brisk autumn day during the early 1900s in a sleepy American town tucked away from civilization and ensconced in trees turning red and orange. I swear you can almost smell the pumpkins and feel the leaves crunching beneath your shoes.

The story begins when an old lightning rod salesman comes to town. Young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) recounts the coming-of-age tale to the audience. Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), is always eager for exploring danger, but Will is the more cautious type (like his father). Will’s father, Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), is the town’s old librarian and at times feels overwhelming regret and even feels he is too old for his beloved son. It is the relationship between Will and his father that really make this movie something special.

It's coming.

It’s coming.

One day a mysterious carnival arrives in town: Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. The tall, enigmatic, and poised Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the leader of the carnival and seems to grant the fondest wishes of all who are tempted by either his rides or his minions.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

When people start disappearing, Will and Jim venture out to sneak a peek under the carnival tents, choosing to investigate the matter under cover of darkness. After witnessing a sinister magic carousel, the duo discovers some clues as to the fate of the lost townsfolk. Soon the two intrepid boys find themselves fleeing from the forces of evil in the form of Mr. Dark, the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), green clouds, and even a terrifying tarantula attack. Mr. Dark feels the boys know too much and will stop at nothing to catch them. Soon the boys have only one place to turn to: Will’s father. Charles Halloway may be old, but he is still a good father and will stand up to the forces of evil for his son. Maybe you don’t have to be an action hero if you have a pure heart.

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

This children’s horror flick is a treat for all ages. At a time when movies like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) were already setting the standard for darker family fair, Disney ended up giving Bradbury much more control over the final product for Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film didn’t do well in its initial release and although not spectacular, it has wonderful atmosphere and some genuine scares and plenty of peril, but beneath all the spookiness, wonderful set design, and magical special effects there beats a real heart and soul.

Don't get ahead of me.

Don’t get ahead of me.

Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West, All The President’s Men, A Boy and His Dog, Magnolia) is pitch perfect as the aging father who aches with the sores of old age and the sorrows of all the things he didn’t do in life. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita, The Brothers Grimm, The Pirates of the Caribbean) is quite good as the chilling form of evil incarnate who gladly sets the price of people’s dreams. The kids are well cast too and Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) looks great as the phantasmic stately grim specter. The scenes in which Jason Robards stands his ground against the devilish Jonathan Pryce are fantastic and the finale is very satisfying too.

Merry-go-round time machine.

Merry-go-round time machine.

This gently pleasing family horror fantasy film is the perfect Halloween afternoon treat. I recommend it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 5, 2009

Lone Ranger Sucked: Beating Off a Dead Horse

lone ranger

So The Lone Ranger (2013) sucked and everybody knows it, but where did it go wrong? What was wrong with this throwback to spirited western serials? The good news: it’s kind of sort of better than Wild Wild West (1999).

Problem Number OnePirates of the Caribbean.

This movie is essentially Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Disney trying to make a fantasy cowboy movie that looks and sounds and feels like the The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Why is this bad?

piratesotc

Westerns are not exactly pirate movies. True, outlaws and greed for lost treasure can be crucial elements, but they’re not really the same. While the weird overuse of magic in the Pirates movies is mostly gone, it still relies heavily on physics-defying suspenseless mayhem. The Pirates movies had a lot of problems and most of those problems are not fixed here.

Problem Number two: True Grit, Django Unchained, and Rango.

true grit

1.) Three far superior and very popular western movies have already done it all better. True Grit (2010) was a great straight western. It had a simple story (catch the bad guy who killed the little girl’s dad) and it had great characters that were larger than life, but still very relateable. Add some smart and cynical Coen Brothers sensibilities and you got a great movie.

django-unchained-blue-suit-whip-jamie-foxx

2.) Tarantino already cornered the market on stylized western cartoon violence (but with much more gore). Django Unchained (2012) already answered the call for a bold retooling of classic motifs and managed to be much smarter, more socially significant, and wantonly cathartic. It presented truly sick and evil villains and punished them in satisfying ways. Again, the cast was fantastic.

hidalgo

Django Unchained is about racism and slavery and the vengeful splatter-violence is a righteous re-writing of history and integral to the story. The Lone Ranger is a fun cowboy movie that tacks on the genocide bit to transparently avoid being labeled another white-washed fun cowboy movie that forgets the tragedy of First Nations. Hidalgo did a better job of talking about the injustices done to the Native Americans in just a few short flashbacks. And that movie takes place in Arabia!

rango

3.) True Grit and Django Unchained managed to be sharper and grittier, with minimal to possibly no use of distractingly bloated special effects and CGI. Gore Verbinski’s own Rango (2011) was a totally CG movie, but it looked unlike any other CG family movie. It was smarter, faster, funnier, and the action was actually exciting and thrilling to watch. It even took a lot of chances with how much meta-narrative surrealism a mainstream movie audience could handle.

The classic but grittier western, the hyper stylized western, and the family-friendly western are all fresh in our minds and they’re all great movies. Then comes The Lone Ranger trying to be all three.

Problem number threeJohn Carter and Mad Max.

john carter

1.) Disney already made a big budget flop with John Carter (2012) but didn’t learn anything from it. While I personally feel like John Carter was a far better film, it suffered from stretches of boring bits, an uninteresting and unrelateable protagonist, and unyielding plot convolutions that keep on mounting with little justification and not enough payoff.

2.) Mad Max (1979) is the story of a good and morally conflicted policeman in a dystopic Australia who is beaten down by personal tragedy (the death of his partner, wife, and son) and the relentlessness of the forces of evil (renegade biker gangs) to become the ultimate vigilante. He will be swift, vengeful justice in a world full of corruption and injustice.

mad max

The Lone Ranger is the story of a naive and incompetent district attorney in the wild west who, despite personal tragedy (the grisly murder and heart-consumption of his beloved brother, the kidnapping and possible rape of the woman he loves, and witness to genocide), keeps fighting against justice and actively helps the forces of evil to continue (because of his blind dogmatic faith in due process) until he reluctantly decides to indirectly kill some of the bad guys responsible.

See the difference?

Problem number four: Tone, bad guys, and overstuffed crusts.

1.) This movie truly is tone death. You don’t put fart jokes in Schindler’s List and you don’t put wacky slapstick and cartoon action-adventure next to sick depictions of cannibalism, actual historical genocide, and shameful real-life atrocities. There is a time to shed tears and there is a time to cheer and they do not occur at the same time. The constant tonal shifts make for an uncomfortably awkward cinematic experience where the thrills feel hollow and the horrors feel too flippantly handled.

schindler

3.) The bad guys are boring. There’s a greedy railroad man who kills a tribe of Native Americans to hide silver until he can one day build a railroad back to the silver to become even more rich (bizarre plan). Then there’s a murderous outlaw who eats human flesh for some reason. It’s never really explained and it’s never really convincing or understandable. It just feels gross and inappropriate (especially for a Disney movie). There’s also a cavalry man who might have been a good guy had he not got mixed up with the wrong people. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the far better Mask of Zorro (1998).

zorro

3.) The story is needlessly complex, all over the map, and the action—while occasionally almost fun—is too ridiculous and crammed full of overblown CGI that nothing ever feels grounded enough to be cared about or real enough to be exciting. It’s a flat, joyless experience that insists by simply playing the Lone Ranger theme song at the end, we might be fooled into thinking we are having fun.

Problem number five: The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

1.) I’ll say it. I like Johnny Depp for the most part. He’s even enjoyable in this movie. Maybe the only one who’s actually having any fun. His character doesn’t always work because the writing can’t seem to decide if they want him to be wise, vengeful, or out of his mind. And that he looks like a cartoon character when he’s an old man is really not a good thing. Is his portrayal offensive to Native Americans? I don’t know. Watch Dead Man (1995) after this to cleanse the palate, I guess.

Dead_Man

2.) Armie Hammer is a boring Lone Ranger. Again, I blame the writing and not his performance. Even Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper can’t even make their awful characters work. He’s supposed to be in love with his dead brother’s wife, but it’s awkward, uninteresting, and obvious it’s only in the movie because the movie doesn’t really have any female characters and needs a romance—no matter how hackneyed and insipid.

Verdict: Disney’s The Lone Ranger is an exhausting, tone-deaf, mostly boring mess that tries to be a western Pirates of the Caribbean. The writing is sloppy and most of the characters are thin and uninteresting. There’s about 10% of what could have been a really fun and exciting cowboy action movie tucked in the cracks.

wild wild west spider

And I take it back. Wild Wild West at least knows its an asinine cartoon movie with no brain. It might actually be slightly better. At least it’s shorter, has Salma Hayek, and a giant robot spider.

Ultimately I just want to watch the Korean film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) again. Now that was a fun action cowboy movie.

good bad weird

 

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on July 18, 2013.

How to Frame a Cartoon Rabbit

We'll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

We’ll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Does anybody remember back to a time when Robert Zemeckis was making fun movies? Forget his most recent motion-capture fixation (Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol never happened). Now there is only the Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Feels better, don’t it?

Yes, I know. Back to the Future is amazing and Forrest Gump (1994), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Romancing the Stone (1984) were pretty fun, but Roger Rabbit always had a special place in my heart. It was a dark night in some distant relative’s house and I was maybe two or three years old. I was proffered two VHS tapes and was told I could pick the movie. I picked Roger Rabbit because of the funny cartoon on the cover. The other tape was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

The film gave me nightmares for years. Something about the dark and subtly subversive tone and the real life consequences for cartoon hijinks and the “dip” and then the dude getting run over by the steamroller and his eyes bugging out. It was a frightening experience, but I still loved it (much like my memories of The Neverending Story). Today I appreciate it for its clever mix of film noir, cartoon tempo, and snippets of Los Angeles history. Then there’s the special effects. It’s actually amazing how well this movie holds up after over two decades.

Brought to you by "Yummy Cigs." So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Brought to you by “Yummy Cigs.” So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on a novel by Gary K. Wolfe which was an innovative combo-tribute to Dashiell Hammett  and the funny pages. The book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, is almost nothing like the film. The plot is barely comparable and most of the characters are either totally different or nonexistent. The book is a lot of fun though. It reads like a tough, gritty pulp novella with the added whimsy of some creative cartoon mayhem. It’s kind of like if Robert Clampbett rewrote Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (instead of a hard-boiled detective with a prejudice against robots and stuck with one for an important case, it is cartoon characters he holds in contempt). Read the book, but don’t expect to find the movie in it. The film does, however, keep the spirit and feel of the book.

"Work's been kinda slow since cartoons went to color." Saddest line of the movie.

“Work’s been kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” Saddest line of the movie.

The plot of the movie was fairly straightforward. A washed-up detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who used to specialize in ‘toon cases before his brother was killed by a ‘toon, scrounges for work in 1947 Hollywood as a private dick. He is hired by cartoon studio executive R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to spy on his star Roger Rabbit’s (voiced by Charles Fleischer) curvaceous wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). Valiant catches Jessica Rabbit having an extramarital affair—in the form of a clandestine game of patty-cake, but this is serious business for ‘toons—with an eccentric human, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the Gag King. Right after Roger Rabbit is shown the patty-cake pictures he has a tantrum and bolts out of the room, leaving a cute little Roger Rabbit shaped hole in the window. The next morning Marvin Acme turns up murdered (a safe dropped on his head) and Roger is the prime suspect, but when the rabbit shows up at Valiant’s apartment he pleads with the prejudiced flatfoot to take his case and clear his name before the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchman put him to death with the dip (the only way to kill a ‘toon). The rest of the movie follows Valiant uncovering more clues and trying to keep Roger Rabbit out of trouble while also trying to get back with his former girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), and stay a step ahead of Judge Doom and the weasels.

Great Scott.

Great Scott.

The grisly plot of greed, sex, and murder—displayed in a fashion meant to evoke Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, I think—is interesting enough, but the film has more tricks plugged into it. The film’s plot interestingly involves the semi-fictional origins of the real Cloverleaf freeway systems and the death of Southern California’s Red Car trolley line. Another element is the idea of cartoon characters being struggling actors and an oppressed minority in old Hollywood. There’s some serious history and allegory floating in the ether.

It's not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

It’s not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

One of the things that really helps the film’s reality is the inclusion of cartoon characters from several different studios. Disney, Warner Brothers (Mel Blanc reprising most of his roles), MGM, Max Fleischer, and other animation companies all get in on the act. Betty Boop recalls the glory days before cartoons went to color; Donald and Daffy Duck perform a vaudeville piano act together; Droopy Dog operates a Toon Town elevator; the penguins from Mary Poppins apparently are still waiting tables at the Ink and Paint Club; Dumbo and the brooms from Fantasia are on loan and wander around Maroon Cartoon studios backlot; Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny go parachuting together; Porky Pig and Tinkerbell playfully fight for the last word; the cast of 1932′s Flowers and Trees make appearances, and the cartoon cameos are stacked so high in some scenes its impossible to restrain a cartoon buff’s wide-eyed delight.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

The story has a pleasant film noir type arc. The more Eddie Valiant uncovers the darker the situation becomes. At one point Valiant has to chase a fleeing suspect deep into the chaotic bowels of Toon Town and conquer his fears and face truly hilarious and crazy obstacles. Most of the humor comes from comic irony and the unbalanced laws that govern the ‘toon world and how they conflict with the physics of the human world. It all culminates in a very satisfying conclusion with an ultimate showdown between Valiant and the forces of evil. Very dark, very suspenseful, very funny, very innovative, and very visually pleasing.

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Alan Sylvestri’s score combines zany animated antics with sexy 1940s noir bite. The animation is absolutely superb. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Hook) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) are great to watch and necessarily play their parts totally straight—which is why the cartoon comedy works so well. The period setting not only gets to show off classic cars and old timey wardrobe, but it also casts a thick shadow of history over the fantasy. It feels almost like Middle-earth. This could have been a time that really existed. Maybe our grandparents remember cartoon character walking around the neighborhood. As a kid I believed it, which maybe made the film even darker. What happened to to all the cartoons today?

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Zemeckis’s Back to the Future gets a lot of credit for its fun use of comedy, suspense, and time-travel paradoxes (and it’s a great series, true enough), but with my cartoon bent and fondness for old Hollywood and detective stories I can’t help but be slightly biased toward Roger Rabbit. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is remembered as an enormous critical and box office success and for its incredible mixture of live-action and animated characters. Indeed, Roger Rabbit has never been equaled in this category. The integration is seamless and constantly surprising and impressive.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Anchors Aweigh (1945), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and other features made some great efforts at combining the real world with the cartoon world before Roger Rabbit. And Cool World (1992), Space Jam (1996), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), etc. all attempted after it. None come close to the complexity behind Roger Rabbit. Real chairs move, real shirts are ruffled, real dust is displaced, real glasses are drunk from, real guns and props are carried and manipulated, and real floors feel the weight of cartoon characters. Real people drive animated automobiles, fire cartoon pistols, and are thrown around by cartoon foes. The combination is always pleasing (and a major part of where a lot of the humor comes from). The camera does things never before dreamed of in a film like this. The animation was supervised and directed by the great Richard Williams (of whom I have previously written about in Off The Cobbled Path).

I always really liked the weasel designs.

I always really liked the weasel designs.

The DVD extras feature documentaries on how many of the complex special effects were achieved, and all without the use of computers! Another nice feature on the DVD is the inclusion of all three Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman shorts, Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up (originally played before Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dick Tracy, and A Far Off Place respectively). Decades later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still holds up and stands out. It’s a pleasantly frenetic roller coaster ride through the wild life of cartoon characters and the classic era of Hollywood and it’s a fun detective thriller to boot. There is so much to love and admire about this film. I wish Robert Zemeckis would make another movie like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Rumors of a Roger Rabbit sequel have been thrown around for the past several years. I honestly hope they leave it alone because I doubt they’d be able to capture the magic of the original.

Also, please don’t remake Back to the Future.

"I've sold meself for a couple of dykes." (Mona Lisa)

“I’ve sold meself for a couple of dykes.” (Mona Lisa)

That’s all, folks!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 29, 2010

The Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011