Miyazaki tops himself again…
Friday July 24th 2009, 4:43 pm
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It’s Friday, 4:21 in the afternoon here on the east coast - but as I write (okay, keyboard), Hayao Miyazaki is onstage at the Disney animation panel at the San Diego Comic-con. Perhaps someone in the audience dressed as Astroboy is asking about his new film Ponyo; perhaps he’s answering the question, or perhaps everyone is watching a Ponyo excerpt at this very moment. If they are, they’re probably getting the tingles…
You know the tingles, that feeling running up and down your spine when you experience something awesome. Last month the Disney folks were kind enough to invite me to a preview of Ponyo – and I swear a day and half later the tingles were still with me.

For the first half of the film, the tingles came and went at particularly astonishing moments – a mysterious undersea explorer/scientist, dressed like an old-school Dr. Who, standing inside a huge air bubble on the edge of his flipper-powered submarine, taking stock of the aquatic life swimming past him… a swarm of tiny, not quite fish (with nearly human faces and bodies that look like nightgowns) sneaking out of the sub to peek at the scientist… the ocean turning into enormous waves of gigantic, sentient water-fish, leaping and bounding along the surface – and atop one of them Ponyo herself, gleefully racing in place (even though the ‘fish’ are carrying her along) to keep up with a car on the road alongside the sea…

The images followed one another without let-up: a beautiful, gigantic sea goddess, glowing a rainbow of colors, sweeping along just under the surface… a water-covered world, roads and houses visible beneath its surface, populated by frightening-looking yet benign prehistoric sea creatures… until…  the moments merged together and the tingles continued nonstop for the rest of the film.

Ponyo is the movie’s star, a goldfish who wants to be a human being – but forget about The Little Mermaid. The film is set in contemporary Japan and again Miyazaki’s heroes are young children, realistically presented (the five year-old boy who adopts Ponyo nervously clutches the bottom of his shirt when he’s worried) yet ready to take on adult responsibilities; a handful of elderly, wheelchair-bound women are affectionately rendered with nary a false-teeth-falling-out gag… and (almost) everyone readily accepts the magical realm their world has moved into.

Images of other Miyazaki films echo throughout: like Spirited Away, a forbidding tunnel the boy and the now human Ponyo must pass through; like Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, a hero who shape-shifts depending on the emotions of the moment. (In Ponyo’s not-quite-fish, not-quite-human form she sports a pair of three-toed chicken feet.) There isn’t a frame of CGI in sight; in fact, the film is deliberately designed like a child’s drawing, with flat colors and thick black outlines to barely detailed ships and buildings.

Miyazaki’s not just concern for, but identification with the environment is once again an integral part of the story. (The once-human scientist “had to leave that all behind to serve the Earth.”) Unlike several other Miyazaki films, Ponyo’s rooting in Japanese culture and myth didn’t leave the Miscweant mystified. (Will someone please explain the endings of Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke to me?) Disney asked us not to review the film, so I won’t talk about the well-known stars who provide the English voices or describe its plot in any detail. I’ll just say that after I left the screening I walked 25 blocks home rather than be de-tingled on the subway. I didn’t even feel like turning on the TV for the next 36 hours or so, until the tingles faded away on their own; I wanted to hold onto that magic as long as I could.

A cartoon shows in Brooklyn…
Friday July 24th 2009, 4:09 pm
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If you take the J train over the Williamsburg Bridge, get off at Kosciusko Street and walk a few blocks west, you’ll come to a storefront that looks like it’s home to a going out of business sale, with benches and various other effluvia out on the sidewalk. Inside is a bar and club called “Goodbye Blue Monday” that’s most definitely in business: the place is decorated not unlike Pee-wee’s playhouse or the home of some mad collector of antique TV sets, mountains of action figures and bizarro furniture. (The rocking chair made out of two motorcycle gas tanks was pretty impressive.)

I’m there because way in the back – as a matter of fact out the back door and through a tiny backyard into a huge, high-ceiling shed – Tom Stathes is holding his first Cartoon Carnival

I met Tom at Jerry Beck’s MOCCA [www.moccany.org] screening of Harvey cartoons (You know – Casper, Herman and Katnip, etc) a few weeks earlier and learned about his collection of antique animation. Wanting to see some of it for myself, I’ve travelled to Williamsburg, the latest NYC outer borough outpost of the young, hip and poor.

Tom stands by his Bell and Howell 16mm projector, purchased on eBay and in as good condition as when it bored high school students with boring educational films way back when. While he waits for the room to fill a bit more, I take a look at the 1-sheet, folded-in-half Xeroxed program. It fits in perfectly with the environment, festooned as it is with randomly scattered outline drawings of completely unknown or horribly off-model cartoon characters. Word processors have evidently yet to reach this part of Brooklyn: the list of cartoons on it looks like it came out of the last portable typewriter in New York City, one in dire need of a new ink ribbon and a key realignment.

Tom’s show is marvelous by the way, a mixture of classic toons and ‘what the hell was that?!’ obscurities, enhanced in no small way by the unusual venue: ‘Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid’ comes out of the ink bottle, Koko style and razzes his creator (one of, if the not the very first sound cartoon, from 1929)… a non-cat and mouse Tom and Jerry run a diner where everyone breaks into song at the slightest provocation (the tough guy with a falsetto voice sitting next to the effete dandy who sounds like he’s been gargling with gravel is a nice touch)… a bizarre 1918 toon warns doughboys against going AWOL with seductive party girls… Wimpy swipes the sailor-man’s persona with a convincing disguise and a serenely repeated “I’m Popeye”… endlessly, psychedelically mutating clay geometric figures, the work of Art Clokey when he’s not animating Gumby, Davey or Goliath run rampant to  a jazz score… an amazingly mediocre ‘Organalogue Sing-A-Long’ features a live-action little girl gamboling against drawings of some of the creepiest clowns and circus animals ever seen… and the show wraps up with a silent Felix the Cat cartoon: it’s a meta-moment when the cat screens his homemade movie on a projector not unlike the one Tom has been operating for the last hour or two.

I leave the backyard shed and pass through the club, where the lead singer of ‘Alexcalibur,’ is writhing and dancing in a bare-chested Dyonisian ecstasy. (After his performance he hands out free CD’s, his sweat dripping onto their paper wrappers.)

Tom promises more screenings from his archives, possibly at a more convenient location, but personally I can’t think of a more appropriate setting to watch weird cartoons than in a wonderfully weird Brooklyn bohemian bar.

[If you can’t make it out to Brooklyn, Tom sells DVD’s of his favorite toons; check out farmeralfalfa.tripod.com]

Jonesin’ for a fix…
Monday May 19th 2008, 11:21 pm
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Hey kids! Play the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Drinking Game!

It’s easy! It’s fun! You’ll get boozed out of your mind! Here’s how to play…

1) Every time someone refers to how old Indy looks, have a drink;

This alone will get you off to a smashing – and smashed – start. Shia LaBeouf delivers the best line here: “what are you, 80 or something?” Interestingly, Ford looks in pretty good shape in the action sequences, but noticeably older – wrinkled and white-haired – when he’s teaching his classes.

2) Every time Spielberg references a movie, have a drink;

Shia as Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones is a total gimme, The Atomic Café a bit harder to pick up on, but the bad guys’ car not quite outracing an A-bomb blast comes from an obscure favorite of mine: 1953’s Split Second, directed by Dick Powell.

3) Every time Spielberg references one of his own movies, have two drinks;

Since this whole movie is a rehash of every other IJ film (chasing the bad guys for an artifact of unearthly power), you won’t have a chance to put down the bottle – and you saw the glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant coming a mile away, didn’t you?

4) Every time a plot thread is dropped and never referred to again, have a drink and a chaser;

The commie agents find Indy in the corner malt shop, chase him all over campus – but don’t think of looking for him back in his house after he eludes them?
Or the psychic powers the commie lady seems to have early on in the film?
And then there’s the little matter of the Red Scare witch hunt that gets Indy suspended from his teaching position – and is totally forgotten about by the end of the film. Perhaps a DVD-deleted scene will explain this one.

5) Every time third-world natives are depicted as quaint background extras, have a drink;
i.e., most of the middle third of the film.

6) Every time third-world natives are depicted as bloodthirsty, savage menaces, have two drinks;
Just about the entire last third of the film.

7) Every time an action sequence continues eons beyond human endurance, have three drinks;
Good Lord, they could lift that jeep chase/battle through the jungle out of the movie and make it a film unto itself!

8) Every time an eons-long action sequence is immediately followed by another eons-long action sequence, drain the bottle and open the next one;

Not totally exhausted by the end of the chase? Don’t worry, the fistfight while surrounded by zillions of bloodthirsty CGI ants, followed immediately by a group plunge over three waterfalls in rapid succession will do you in. Didn’t this guy ever hear of pacing – giving the audience a chance to catch its breath and look forward to the next big action blow-out?

9) Every time something absolutely inexplicable and/or unbelievable happens – it’s time for a new case;
Which will make you a two-fisted drinker since you’ve been putting it away nonstop since number 3 above. We know this film isn’t supposed to make any particular sense – it’s just Saturday matinee serial fun. Even so, it feels as if Stevie boy is testing us to see how high we can suspend that disbelief.

Try as you might, there’s no doubting the Mighty Spielberg’s command of visual storytelling: the camera placements and moves that make his stories live in three dimensional space; the compositions and lighting that create absolutely emblematic images. Props to him for having Indy mention his late dad (even if Sean’s still around) and ‘Marcus Brody’ (Denholm Elliott, who isn’t) and for acknowledging time is indeed moving on for all of us – action heroes and superstar directors alike.

Still, if only he used his awesome filmmaking skills for good (storytelling with actual characters and emotions), instead of evil (overkill thrill-ride direction, calculated button-pushing and emotional manipulation). But then, he wouldn’t be Steven Spielberg…

BULLETIN: Osamu Tezuka spinning in his grave!
Friday February 15th 2008, 10:00 pm
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Just got this press release in the Email:

“Los Angeles (February 14, 2008) – Timothy Harris is writing the screenplay for Imagi Studios’ upcoming CG-animated feature film Astro Boy, it was jointly announced by Cecil Kramer, Executive VP of Production, and Maryann Garger, producer of Astro Boy. Writer of such box office [s]hits as Space Jam, Kindergarten Cop, Twins and Trading Places, Timothy Harris has been authoring screenplays for almost 30 years…”

Damn. And I was looking forward to this one. Well, it’s being directed by David Bowers, co-director of Flushed Away, so maybe not all hope is lost.

Panda doesn’t pander
Wednesday February 13th 2008, 10:23 am
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My first reaction to Kung Fu Panda was, (bored, Droopy voice), whoopee, here we go again: hopeless slob (Jack Black, who else?) makes good in spite of himself, done with that trademark DreamWorks unattractive angular character design.

Mea culpa, friends. I just saw a lengthy promo reel for the film hosted by Ol’ Bullet-head himself, Jeff (nyah-nyah Michael, I’m still a player, what are you doing these days?) Katzenberg – and I am blown away. This is going to turn into an Anton Ego review (end of Ratatouille Anton that is), but here we go.

This is the most gorgeous cgi film I’ve seen to date, in terms of the world it’s created for itself, surpassing Pixar’s best. There are some backgrounds so otherworldly they look as if they came out of a sci-fi film, while at the same time obviously inspired by Chinese landscape art.

But (as someone once said) you don’t leave a movie humming the scenery. Turns out KFP’s characters are quite pleasing to the eye – nowhere as angular as I first thought – and have more than a bit of emotional depth as well. First off, JBlack’s panda Po isn’t a deluded fool who believes himself a kung-fu master, he’s Kung-fu Guy: a fanboy who knows the intricacies of the art; he might fantasize being a master –

(SPOILER: in what looks to be a way cool opening sequence done in 2D to distinguish it from the rest of the movie – another straw in the wind re the return of 2D)

– but he’s totally aware of his lack of talent to actually participate. It’s a bit of self-awareness that instantly made me twice as sympathetic towards him. The characters were a beautiful blend of human and animal features, as furry – excuse me, ‘anthropomorphic’ characters should be. (Although there’s not much you can do to anthropomorphize a mantis). Dustin Hoffman’s red panda Shifu and Ian McShane’s snow leopard villain Tai Lung blend personality and species perfectly. (And Tigress Angelina Jolie’s ever-so-subtly glowing eyes – way cool…) Tai Lung transcends his stock-villain role via a brief moment of vulnerability and regret, while Shifu and Po enjoy character arcs that take them away from stock-character status as well. (Typecast Jackie Chan as Monkey didn’t have much to say in the promo reel).

The kung-fu battles are incredibly high-energy and amazingly choreographed – and in the cartoon world, the physically impossible feats are far more believable than they could ever seem in a live-action film. (As long as you can accept a universe of upright, clothes-wearing talking animals that is; then again if you can’t you have no business going to see this movie in the first place.)

Well duck my dogs…
Friday December 28th 2007, 9:20 pm
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Word on the London Street is that “Howard the Duck” and “The Plague Dogs” are due for a UK DVD release:



It just so happens I was in London during its original release there in December 86. The movie’s posters in the tube stations showed him from the back with only the tip of his bill visible, with the slogan “Howard, A new kind of hero.” I guess they didn’t want people figuring out they’d paid to see a duck movie until it was too late.

Someone once said that if you had invested your money in a film about a talking animal with one of the biggest names in Hollywood as executive producer, you would’ve either made a bundle off Roger Rabbit (Spielberg) or lost one with Howard (George Lucas). Interesting that both guys felt like making talking animal movies; perhaps they’re secretly furries…

‘Plague Dogs,’ based on Richard Adams’ follow-up to his mega-successful Watership Down, never got a US theatrical release and only played in NY for a week at a non-commercial theater. Parents be warned: PD is definitely NOT your standard friendly cartoon dog film; its only morphic touch was the animals’ ability to converse with each other. Then there was its downer ending, defiantly tossing aside Adams’ seemingly tacked-on upbeat conclusion. PD is way overdue for a second look, as is Howard’s unbelievably half-assed duck suit - I pity the midget they stuck in it. I wonder if George is considering a Howard Special Edition with a CGI duck replacing that suit…

Enchanted ‘House’?
Saturday December 22nd 2007, 9:26 pm
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Disney is deservedly getting good notices and making some nice money (it will probably crack the $100mm mark this weekend) off ‘Enchanted.’ Everyone agrees that part of the film’s charm – beyond its winning performances and the half 2D/half CGI chipmunk Pip – is how it tweaks the Disney canon, but in the most affectionate manner.

But I have news, people – it’s not like it’s never been done before. In fact, it’s not even like Disney has never done it before.

House of Mouse ran Saturday mornings on ABC from 2001 through ’04. The show’s premise was not unlike the early 1960’s primetime Bugs Bunny Show. For those of you younger than myself and Jerry Beck, in BBS the Oscar®-winning rabbit hosted a stage show featuring the Warner Brothers characters. New wraparound footage wrapped around shorts from the WB vaults (with an occasional newbie created for the show), often bridging directly into them (in far-from-seamless transitions), while providing a narrative to tie the half-hour together.

The camera in BBS never turned around to show the audience, but HOM kicks the premise up a notch: Mickey is the emcee at a nightclub whose audience consists entirely of characters from every and any Disney animation; villains share tables with their antagonists, similar heroes compare notes and a meta time is had by all. The premise did triple duty: it provided a half hour running narrative; it tied together the separate shorts that Mickey introduced to the audience; and it served as a clothesline for any number of throwaway gags based on the characters’ personas. And as in Enchanted, it’s all done with post-modern love and affection for the source material.

The one I caught today had Jiminy Cricket acting as everyone’s conscience, giving the characters advice that would’ve turned their movies into shorts since none of them would’ve gotten into any trouble. (Strangest koan: to Lady and the Tramp: “some folks have puppies;” pan over to Beauty and the Beast: “some folks don’t.”) Another episode had Aladdin’s Iago and Jafar performing a spoken-word version of ‘Bibiddi-Bobiddi-Boo;’ you had to be there…

By the way, the shorts were by and large new, too – produced for the series with only a handful pulled from the Walt Vault. (“Black and White Day” was an excuse to include 1932’s “The Whoopie Party” a Prohibition-era ‘toon with Mickey and Daisy throwing a bash wild enough to bring the cops running – who promptly join in on the fun.) Now that the standard length for a TV short is 11 minutes, it was a real pleasure to see modern animators working within the classical 6-minute template

Who knows, maybe House of Mouse is where Disney got the idea for EnchantedHOM is bouncing around the Toon Disney schedule; TIVO it (or record it on your Betamax if your hardware is as out of date as mine) and judge for yourself.

Lordy save us from true believers
Saturday December 01st 2007, 9:28 am
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At this moment TCM is blessing Saturday morning viewers who don’t care for cartoons or warmed-over news, with Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958). Last time I’d seen this I was a kid on The Late Show (back when the Late Show meant local movies & not David Letterman cracking wise).

I’d forgotten what a turkey this sucker was, as Joe Cotten invents ‘Power X’ just after the Civil War and uses it to power a moon rocket. (Its design looks swiped from Melies). Haskin did far better work for George Pal (War of the Worlds, anyone? The Power?) not to mention a half dozen episodes of the 1960’s Outer Limits, but it’s stiff city here, with head-on camera set-ups, cheez-o-rama spfx & dialog that sounds like it was cut ‘n pasted straight out of Jules Verne’s century+ old novel.

Biggest insult is the film’s swiping of Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet ‘electronic tonalities’ for wallpaper soundefx. (It must be a sci-fi movie with all those weird sounds, wowsers!) However, biggest surprise is [SPOILER TIME, as if anyone cares about a 50 year old obscure flick] –

urbane George Sanders plays a religious zealot who sabotages the mission because he believes space travel is against God’s will. Let’s go to IMDB-land where we discover that in 1955 Haskin also directed George Pal’s Conquest of Space - where one of the crew sabotages the mission because he believes space travel is against God’s will. Coincidence, eh wot?

Boy, I’d like to see a mainstream film come out today that posits raving a religious fundamentalist as a crazed menace to everyone in his orbit (pun intended.) I mean, Huckabee Hound is running for the GOP nomination on a ‘the bible is literal objective fact’ platform… Oh wait a second - according to the reviews, Darabont/King’s The Mist has exactly such a character running amok. My apologies to you, gentle reader.

“How To” succeed in cartooning
Wednesday October 24th 2007, 1:40 pm
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Snuck into Ron Diamond’s ‘Animation Show of Shows’ at HBO’s NY screening room the other night. (I told security I was Paulie Walnuts, or maybe Paulie’s walnuts, I forget which. Oh, and I understand this blogateria I’m part of is part of Ron’s entertainment empire - love ya’, Mister D!)

A most intriguing assortment of short toons were screened. Some were horribly arty, others artfully heartfelt, but being an old-time Hollywood studio cartoon junkie (if you remember “Meeska, mooska, mouseketeer / mousecartoon time now is here,” welcome to my decrepit demographic), I went completely bonkers over a nouveau/retro Goofy ‘How To’ short from Lassetter’s Burbank boys - ‘How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.’

The formula - hapless but eternally optimistic Goofy makes a complete mess of some endeavor while the plummy narrator tries to put the best light on his ongoing disaster - still works like a charm. Giving him a completely of-the-moment project like performing said hook-up lends itself to innumerable slapstick and script gags, all jammed into the toon at a mile-a-minute, rat-a-tat pace. (My personal favorites: Goofy heading into one of those airplane hangar-sized mega stores called ‘Shiny Things,’ and a ‘universal remote’ that resembles a nuclear missile launch button.)

Film features nods to Walt himself, JL and a quickie peek at a group photo that I suspect may be of the fabled ‘Nine Old Men’ (somebody help me out here). Word on the street (the corner of Dopey Drive and Mickey Mouse Lane, to be exact) is that this short will be playing with ‘Enchanted’ next month. If the feature is 15% as funny as ‘Hook Up,’ I may enjoy it too.

I’m not the only one with a dirty mind…
Monday October 22nd 2007, 11:22 am
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Seems like someone outside the animation world finally picked up on Nala’s “f*** me’ look in “The Lion King:”


Even a friend of mine who’s only a casual animation fan pointed the shot out to me long ago. I’ve been told that on the DVD (which I don’t own myself) commentary track, one of the animators announces ‘I can’t believe they let us get away with that shot.’

The Guardian’s columnist ends his piece with “I’ve got to check through Bambi for subliminal porn.” He won’t have to look very hard: the scene where Bambi, Flower and Thumper meet their girlfriends is pretty hot: Thumper starts thumpin’ a mile a minute until he keels over in exhaustion (all she has to do is stroke his ear a bit to start him up again), Flower blushes bright red and stiffens like a board while Faline gives Bambi an unmistakable ‘come hither’ look of her own.
And let’s not even go near the various Disney shorts that focus lovingly on punishment administered to various characters’ backsides - like for instance the spanking machine put to liberal use in one of the 3 Little Pigs shorts…you’re a naughty boy, Walt; naughty, naughty, naughty…

Nickelodeon’s big time Saturday night screw-up
Friday September 28th 2007, 10:16 pm
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Boy, I haven’t seen an on-air boner like this one in a loooong time. For some reason Nick tried to squeeze 3 11-minute SpongeBob episodes into a half hour time slot just now. (Just now being Friday 28 Sept, 9:30pm eastern time.) Interesting how the third episode’s top credits started rolling the same exact time the show’s closing credits began rolling - with  that third episode sitting inside that box where they usually run a promo next to the credits. Not squeezed into the box mind you, but cropped off by it, with just a peekaboo portion visible inside.

It gets better. The closing credits end with the full screen Nickelodeon splat logo/copyright page - which sat there for a verrrry long time while the episode’s audio continued in the background. THEN the episode came back for a minute or so - THEN cut to another closing credits roll, this time with just silence and empty space where that promo usually runs.

Somebody’s fanny is going to get a serious paddling courtesy of Mr. Redstone Monday morning. Please sir, may I have another?

Thursday August 30th 2007, 8:52 am
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Just saw a teaser trailer for the upcoming live-action/cgi Chipmunks feature. Excuse me while I blow my brains out in car…

Is there some way we can get the Geneva Convention to outlaw these god-awful, gag-(not the funny kind)-inducing grotesqueries? Garfield, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed…

They were all Oscar contenders (for Best Pic period, not just Best Animated) compared to this, this - eugggghhhhh, is the best I can describe it. It’s not just that the sole gag in the trailer (an homage to Pink Flamingos?) revolves around Alvin eating one of Theodore’s turds to convince Dave Seville (Jason ‘uh-oh I picked a stinker this time’ Lee) it was only a raisin; (I guess kid movie farts were just a gateway drug to flat-out coprophilia) it’s not just that the ‘munks are life-size in the sense of REAL LIFE-sized chipmunks, thus losing the characters’ kid/adult size relationships and turning them into pettable pets; no, it’s that….

They’re so god-dammed CUTE! CUTE! CUTE! All that exquisitely rendered fur surrounding the CUTEST little button noses and biggest, CUTEST, cloying eyes you’ve ever seen that will make you want to claw your own out. Near the end of his life Chuck Jones was selling newly-drawn art prints of his WB characters; In these versions Bugs et. al. all had these excessively twinkly, winsome facial expressions that replaced their sass and jazz with a completely off-model (as Racketeer Rabbit’s Rocky once said) ‘adorable’ quality that just wasn’t the real deal.

Well, those pictures look like Guernica compared to this rendering of the ‘munks. (Hey the 80’s cartoon version of them was into movie parodies; they could do a take-off on Monk and replace Shaloub with Alvin!) Come 14 December if I can’t find a video of the original 1960’s ‘munks - now that version was shiznit, or as Clyde Crashcup would’ve said, ‘that’s ’shiz’ for shiz and ‘nit’ for niz’ - I will be huddling under my bed, clutching pillows to my head, moaning ‘make it go away mommy, make it go away, please!

Hark, hark, this film’s a lark…
Sunday August 19th 2007, 10:24 am
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Just had the pleasure of watching Tsui Hark’s Black Mask 2: City of Masks, a loony, loopy movie that made me feel (in the best sense of the words) ten years old.

I never saw the original BM which starred Jet Li, but in this one some guy named Andy On (drugs?) takes over as the genetically messed-over superhero. He’s fighting a bunch of grunting wrestlers whose DNA has likewise been altered, giving them bestial powers & uncontrollable metamorphoses into nasty animal hybrids.

For a while back in the 90’s, it looked like cgi effects were going to wipe out modest little B-movie genre pix, with sci-fi/fantasy films given A-budgets & big name directors. Then PC’s & Macs started making lower-end, lower-priced cgi efx possible. Combine that with Hong Kong style wire work, martial-arts mishegas (choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, who did the same on Kung-Fu Hustle), cleverly chosen ultra-modern architectural backgrounds and snappy, vivid direction (from Hark, helmer of Iron Monkey, a Tarantino fave) and you have a high-energy nutsoid action flick that’s a pleasure top to bottom. The opening credits of multiple silhouetted martial artists going through their paces on a computer screen background get you in the mood right off the bat.

Film takes place in the genetically name ‘B City,’ evidently western, but populated by a idealized mix of accent-free English-speaking Asians (not dubbed, possibly looped?) and white folks. (The production company logos at the top of the film contain names in both English and Chinese characters, with companies and locations from Hong Kong to Australia and (I think it was) Thailand involved in the film.)

The black-masked Black Mask and villains engage in wire-assisted mid-air slug-outs, effortlessly clamber up walls, and morph on-camera into their semi-human forms: when ‘Snake’ goes all the way, his legs don’t fuse together but turn into a pair of wiggly tentacles, and even the hero grows a feline muzzle when he starts losing it. Then throw in an evil super-computer, a lady scientist (Asian) who goes catatonic at a man’s touch and an adolescent white kid shoehorned into the plot for audience identification purposes.

I’ve always appreciated films that make up in sheer enthusiasm for the material what they lack in bucks. Black Mask 2 isn’t cut-rate, but it’s still got an enthusiastic, make-believe feel that lets you participate in it by investing your own imagination, as opposed to mega-budgeted Spielbergian/Michael Bay opuses you’re supposed to passively consume with an ‘oh wow’ on your lips. Put this one in your Netflix cue for a guaranteed night of goofy, popcorn-movie fun.

Find your fantasy
Monday July 02nd 2007, 8:09 pm
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Very interesting contrast last week when I caught back-to-back screenings of a pair of fantasy flicks: Stardust and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

For one, the Stardust screening was deserted - just me, one other person and a friend I brought along. (A tumbling tumbleweed blocked my view of the screen for a while). The Phoenix screening was packed - they had to bring in folding chairs for the overflow, and held the start until some bigshot could make it.

And the movies deserved their respective audiences. Want to see an uninspired, you’ll-leave-the-theater-humming-the(adequate)-special-effects fantasy? Stardust (directed by Matthew Vaughn of Layer Cake) is your film. Everything’s pro-forma, out of the twinkly, twee, Edwardian-British faerie school of literary fantasy, without an ounce of conviction showing anywhere; I’ve had more believable experiences at your average Renaissance Festival.

Now Potter… well I have to admit I’m just wild about Harry. (I’m probably the first guy to ever make that joke.)

Even so, I thought the Order of the Phoenix novel was way overlong and could’ve benefited from some judicious pruning - which is just what director David Yates and scripter Michael Goldenberg have provided in whittling it down to a mere 2:15 or so. (For one, Umbridge’s sadistic punishment of Harry - straight out of Kafka - went on forever in the book & is done away with in one scene in the movie.) Now Potter does have the edge on Stardust with 6 novels in print and 4 movies preceding this one - but even so, Potter’s world of magic feels real and earned. It exists amidst and around our own, just as we sometimes feel there’s something more and special and immense invisible just in front of us.

Stardust? Well, it’s based on a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, judging from the movie, lazily written on a lazy Sunday. There’s this stone wall, see, in the middle of the English countryside, okay? And just on the other side of it is a magic land of enchantment forbidden to mortals. Cool, huh? And if you can get past the 90 year old guy who-looks-harmless-but-is-really-a-kickass-warrior, you can wander into the magic town up a-ways in Magicland. Now everyone in the real world town accepts this matter of factly -but doncha think they’d all be storming that wall to visit this enchanted realm, especially if they could come up with some magic viagra love potion? Evidently the thought never occurred to any of them - or to the filmmakers to come up with a reason why the folks in both realms keep their distance from each other. (Except for the awkward-young-man-who-becomes-a-hero-fella, because if Luke Skywalker can do it, by gum so can he!)

Robert DeNiro has some laffs as closeted sky pirate queen, I mean king, but he’s slummin’ ‘n hammin’ for all he’s worth. Also, they say they’re pirates but beyond an occasional ‘arrrr’ they’re all actually pussycats, and they seem to make a fairly honest living capturing & bottling lightning up there in the clouds. (Castle in the Sky’s Dola Gang would make short work of them.)
I’m the wrong guy to say, but I suspect if you came to Phoenix cold you’d still be swept away by the macro- and micro-detailing of the film’s world: the vast interior of the Ministry of Magic, all done in shiny black brick - the storeroom of prophecies, shelves filled with glass globes stretching infinitely in every direction - or even the desolate playground and damp concrete highway underpass where the film begins.

Both films feature a heads-on battle of magic energy between 2 characters - it’s been done plenty of times before, but the difference between them is the difference between the films: while the one in Stardust is ordinary, Phoenix’s is truly magical - and oh yeah, scary too. (At one point a fountainful of water rises into the air and becomes a whirling globe of liquid - a special effect that isn’t just real looking, but spookily beautiful and ethereal.)
I’ll shut up soon. But one last thought. Bet I won’t be the last guy to point this out: Hagrid’s gigantic, not-very-bright half-brother Grawp - is he a ringer for Alfred E. Neuman or what?

Separated at Birth 3: Asian-American Adolescent Magic Menace Fighters
Tuesday June 19th 2007, 8:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The contenders:

American Dragon: Jake Long

Disney Channel, premiered January 21, 2005

Main Character: Jake Long, pre-teen descendant of long line of shape-shifting dragons

Supernatural responsibility: Protect New York City from supernatural menaces

Supernatural power: Can turn into a flying dragon

Mentor: Grandfather Luong Lao Shi; can also turn into a dragon

Sibling: annoying 8 year-old sister Haley; can also turn into a dragon

Pet: 600 year-old talking Shar Pei ‘Fu Dog’

and in this corner:

The Life and Times of Juniper Lee

Cartoon Network, premiered May 30, 2005

Main Character: Juniper Lee, pre-teen descendant of family charged with maintaining the balance between the human and spirit worlds

Supernatural responsibility: Protect ‘Orchid Bay City’ (i.e., San Francisco) from supernatural menaces

Supernatural powers: Super strength, speed and agility

Mentor: Grandmother Jasmine

Siblings: annoying 8 year-old brother Ray Ray (also, 14 year-old brother Dennis)

Pet: Monroe – Centuries-old talking pug (speaks with a Scottish accent)

The winnah:

Jake by a (very long) dragon’s neck. Not only did he get on the air first, he can turn into a dragon; how cool is that?

Me conscience is bothering me…

I’m being unfair, Juniper Long and Jake Lee are completely different shows: Monroe has a Scottish accent and Fu Dog doesn’t…

Separated at birth 2: Rodent gourmets
Friday June 15th 2007, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Ratatouille (2007) and Anatole (1956); you be da judge…

Waltzing Matilda (right out the Disney door…)
Thursday June 14th 2007, 9:51 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A former Down Under Disney employee and Friend of the Site relays this bit of gossip:

“… a friend was at a recent studio meeting in Burbank and Ed Catmull was lamenting the closure of the Sydney studio - which is bizarre considering there were no Australians there to hear it and it was nearly 9 months after the fact. Word is the Pixar guys really regret it shutting down - had they come in a little earlier I am sure the studio would still be there now, which is such a shame. It was real waste of exceptional talent. It’s not easy to have a place with over 250 people combining to work at that rate (10 feet per week) and producing such quality - it took 20 years to get to such a position…”

Oscar says ‘goodnight’ to “Waking Life,” etc.
Thursday June 14th 2007, 9:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Interpolate this, asshole (from yesterday’s AWN Headline News):

“… The significance of the change emphasizes the importance of frame-by-frame character animation, and now rules out such films as A SCANNER DARKLY and WAKING LIFE for qualification. According to Jon Bloom, chairman of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch as well as a governor, the branch was concerned that the digital rotoscoping technique utilized in these two features was not crucial enough in shaping the animated performances.”


Translation: ‘Best Animated Feature’ is, now and forever, the official Akademy of Kinema Kiddie Kategory; no druggies or existential misfits need apply…