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.

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIV – Fury World

Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.

Walk Away:

Incidentally, I think the black rhino just went extinct this year.

Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.

Meh/Misguided:

Terry might be the most comically evil character in cinema history.

OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.

Get it? It’s eating “Jaws”. It’s a metaphor. You know, symbolism? Darn it all, we are clever bastards. …On another note, how many sharks must they go through a day to feed this thing. Great whites can’t be cheap.

I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.

Guilty Pleasures:

“I Love Lucy”? Oh, so your parents were talented. I see, Desi, Jr.

Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

I’m gonna hijack the Declaration of Independence.

Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).

Interestinger and Interestinger:

ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.

God…all the plaid.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.

They’re just reading about the Rachel Dolezal thing.

This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.

Beyond Our Borders:

Me and my shadow…

Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.

Ever see Hogan’s Heroes?

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:

Yup. Looks like traffic court.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial  (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.

The mummy strikes!

Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen Bullitt on a plane, but I liked this better than Bullitt.

A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.

Really, a Tough Call:

That honestly can’t be good for the rabbit.

Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.

Maybe even more enjoyable than The Road Warrior.

Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.

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

One-Armed Man Strikes Back

Spencer Tracy is one of those actors who, no matter what, always manages to remain consistently entertaining, powerful, and strangely understated. Many of his performances were quiet and earnest, yet one might always suspect that there rested a stern bite beneath the surface.

Who couldn't love this face?

Who couldn’t love this face?

His later work in such films as the Scopes Monkey trial courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1960); the phenomenal Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) which chronicled the trials for the Nazis war crimes following World War II; the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in which his white daughter is engaged to a black man (played by Sidney Poitier); and even a wryly comic role as the straight-laced Capt. Culpepper who decides that he might be entitled to more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to name a few are very memorable indeed.

His white hair, craggy face, and gentle, thoughtful timber added much to many films. Not terribly fond of rehearsals, Tracy would read the script once several days before shooting and not look at it again (in order to preserve the freshness). Tracy (much like Frank Sinatra) was also not fond of multiple takes.

This is comfy. I could narrate "How the West was Won" from here right now. Give me the microphone.

This is comfy. I could narrate “How the West was Won” from here right now. Give me the microphone.

Today I wish to highlight what cab be been best categorized as a “minimalist neo-western.” The Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), follows many of the familiar conventions of typical cowboy/western fare, but the added touch of taking place in 1945 gives it a uniquely contemporary flare.  The film is directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and also stars Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), and Walter Brennan (The Pride of the Yankees).

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Bad Day at Black Roc is set in a quiet—too quiet—western town in the middle of nowhere. There are only a few residents and the train never stops there…that is until the mild-mannered John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) shows up one day. Macreedy, a one-armed war veteran, is greeted with hostility and suspicion by all. It seems everything the intelligent and likable Macreedy does just bothers the residents of Black Rock.
Quit bein' a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Quit bein’ a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Macreedy, a simple gentleman with a streak of hopelessness since the loss of his arm, has come to Black Rock with one simple purpose: to give a medal to the man who’s son saved his life in the war. The catch: the man is a Japanese-American named Komoko. Macreedy learns (despite many attempts to chase him out of town) that tough guy, Reno Smith (Ryan), and his racist thugs murdered Komoko. It’s a taut suspense thriller to see if Macreedy can stay alive long enough to catch the next train. Despite being handicapped and an older guy with one arm against a whole town of cowardly thugs out to get him, Macreedy is filled with a new purpose: to avenge Komoko and bring his murderers to justice, but as the Black Rock folks close in and gradually cut off communication and transportation to the outside world, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The few friends he has made in Black Rock are all too conflicted and afraid to help him so Macreedy truly is alone in the wretched desert town. It all culminates into an edge-of-your-seat final showdown (but definitely not your typical western showdown).
We don't take kindly to strangers.

We don’t take kindly to strangers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a satisfying film with great performances and a sharp look. Director John Sturges does fine work. The suspense and feelings of isolation really boost the story into something quite special. A rather humorous and violent exchange between Borgnine and Tracy in a bar is particularly enjoyable. Macreedy’s transformation from a man whose handicap has led him to give up on himself into a man full of righteous indignation and a profound sense of purpose that awakens his will to survive is electrifying. Once again Spencer Tracy gives a very fine performance as the exceedingly polite but resolve-filled John J. Macreedy.

Why don't you just tell me where to sit.

Why don’t you just tell me where to sit.

The film deals with hard issues. Anti-Japanese sentiment felt by many Americans during World War II is manifests in a very unapologetic and ugly way. This movie is really about a viscous hate-crime being avenged. It pulls the carpet out from under the audience even more by having the long arm of justice ironically represented by a one-armed man. I strongly recommend you seek out and watch Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a pleasurable little film with a lot of strong atmosphere, color, and suspense. I love it and I think you will too.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30, 2009.