Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bond, James Bond

The James Bond film series is really an interesting phenomenon. Starting in 1962 there have been official James Bond films in theaters. At the time of this writing there are a total of 22 films spanning five decades and five actors. James Bond was created for the cold war, but survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. He’s faced drug runners, megalomaniacs and corrupted businessmen (sometimes all three in one film), and he’s always done with style and panache.

James Bond appeals mostly to men, but there are plenty of women out there who have favorite James Bond films (and usually a favorite actor). His appeal is world wide, and the films have changed with the times embracing fashions and trends (and sometimes dating the films in the process) but always staying true to key elements that keep people coming back.

I became more and more fascinated with the films the more research I did about them. There are entertaining elements to just about all the films and I’ve found that even episodes that I find to be less then stellar, there are always fans of those episodes willing to defend them. I’ll admit it; I’m a fan of the James Bond movies. Sure some are dated, some are lame, but there are some really entertaining films out there.

So I’ll be reviewing the series on this site. So feel free to weigh in on your favorite 007 adventures or the one you love to hate.



Movies Reviewed:
Skyfall - 2012, Daniel Craig
Quantum of Solace - 2008, Daniel Craig
Casino Royale - 2006, Daniel Craig
Die Another Day - 2002, Pierce Brosnan
The World is Not Enough - 1999, Pierce Brosnan
Tomorrow Never Dies - 1997, Pierce Brosnan
Goldeneye - 1995, Pierce Brosnan
Licence to Kill - 1989, Timothy Dalton
The Living Daylights - 1987, Timothy Dalton
For Your Eyes Only - 1981, Roger Moore
The Spy Who Loved Me - 1977, Roger Moore
The Man with the Golden Gun - 1974, Roger Moore
Live and Let Die - 1973, Roger Moore
On Her Majesty's Secret Service - 1969, George Lazenby
You Only Live Twice - 1967 - Sean Connery
Thunderball - 1965 - Sean Connery
Goldfinger - 1964, Sean Connery
From Russia with Love - 1963, Sean Connery
Dr. No - 1962, Sean Connery

Thoughts on the Movies
Poised on the Edge (From Russia With Love)
Jones vs. Bond (Raiders of the Lost Ark and For Your Eyes Only)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

Introduction

When I flipped through my 100 Mystery Classics box set and I saw Charles Laughton was in one, I was intrigued. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past, especially “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Les miserables”.

Was “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” a hidden gem of Laughton’s career, or is it something he’d rather not talk about?

Summary:

A rich American woman is killed in Paris and Inspector Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton) is on the case. He has plenty of suspects to pick from. Was it Joseph Heurtin (Burgess Meredith) the diminutive knife tinkerer? Was it Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) the nephew with the most to gain? Or was it Kirby’s estranged wife Helen (Patricia Roc) or Kirby’s mistress. And then there’s the mysterious Johan Radek (Franchot Tone) a man who seems to keep turning up in relation to the crime. Maigret continues his investigation but begins to feel that the killer may be playing a dangerous game with him.

Good Points:

  • A very good performance by Franchot Tone, and solid performances by the rest of the cast.
  • The murderer is an interesting character.
  • The setting of post war Paris is captured really well.

Bad Points:

  • The overall plot seems to be lack a focal point – who is the protagonist?
  • The movie takes a while to heat up.
  • The murderer is revealed early on, which takes away some of the suspense.

Overall:

When the movie is over you’ll remember two things about it. The photography of post war Paris and the character of Johan Radek. The murder mystery itself is solved early on, but the game between the murderer and Inspector Maigret almost carries the rest of the film – almost. As a whole the movie never comes together. Too many points of view cloud the narrative too much and by the end of the film you wonder what the point really was.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects: 4

Sound Aspects: 3

Acting: 4

Music: 3

Script: 3

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Final Grade: 3

In Depth Review

Color me shocked when I saw that Bergess Meredith not only appeared in the film but that he directed! I didn’t know that Meredith had ever stepped behind the camera, much less directing Charles Laughton. A quick look at IMDB reveals that originally the film was directed by Irving Allen, until Laughton threatened to walk off the set. Meredith stepped in and directed the film with Laughton directing scenes that Meredith was in. If that story is true it does explain some of the issues I have with the film, one that almost works, but misses the bar.

Visually there is one thing going for this movie, it was filmed in Paris in 1948 or 1949 – right after World War II ended, and you get the feel the city is still recovering from the recent past. In a way it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s films made right after the war – where everything has a raw feel to it. On top of an interesting travel log of Paris, you get some interesting shots all around and inside the Eiffel Tower. With the tower featured in the title you would hope to see it up close and personal. Well never fear, the climax of the film takes place on the famous landmark, and it is actually pretty effective. The rest of the camera work is pretty standard.

Sound effects and music are functional. Once again, 40’s style music ends up blaring a bit too much in places. I give the score a bit of a pass because it doesn’t’ drown out dialogue or anything. The sound effects are pretty standard as well.

I came for the performances by Laughton and Meredith but it was Tone who surprised me. He captures a bi-polar personality really well. One minute he is taunting the inspector and jeering that he has the upper hand. Next minute he’s afraid for his life, or in an even darker place where he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Tone makes it convincing, even if he does go over the top in places; it seems fitting with the character. He brings an edge to the film, because you believe he is capable of anything at any time. At the same time he does get a bit grating with his holier than thou attitude. But a man like that would get on your nerves, so points for realism!

Laughton seems to be channeling a similar character to the one he used “Witness to the Prosecution” and “Les Miserables”. Not too surprising since both of those characters were guided by law and order, just like his Inspector Maigret is. There are times his stuffy but cunning personality does get a bit abrasive, but it works for the most part. The only downside is that the performance lacks the crackle I’d seen him use before. There are times where Laughton seems tired, and if the stories are true – maybe he was. I also wonder if his take on the character was what the film needed. I almost wish that the role had been a little lower key, more watchful and less blustery.

Meredith is also playing a variant on characters I’ve seen him play before. In this case he’s the sad sack loser who just can’t seem to do anything right. It’s a performance that reminded me of his most famous role from “The Twilight Zone” in “Time Enough at Last”. But by the end of the film, Heurtin has had enough and when he decides to take the law into his hands we get a sense of his desperation and anger.

The rest of the cast does a good job. They are either red herrings, or pieces of the puzzle and most of them perform just fine. I did enjoy the role of the professor who taught Radek and realized that he was unstable. He plays off well with Laughton in his scene.

Actual dialogue in the script isn’t too bad, but sometimes states the obvious or action that we just saw. A bit of trimming would have helped. As to story construction, I’m at a bit of a loss, because if there were directorial problems, I wonder if the script or the directors are to blame for one of the major faults of the film. I’ll mention the issue here, because I wonder if the novel this is based on worked the same way.

The construction of the film is as follows. We meet the nephew and understand he has money problems and a rich aunt. He receives a note telling him that there is a way to take care of the aunt. The aunt is killed and Heurtin is at the scene of the crime, but claims he’s innocent. We see Heurtin in prison and his escape. We then follow the inspector as he tries to catch Heurtin as well as the real killer. The real killer is found but there is no evidence. The rest of the movie has the real killer and the inspector trying to outwit each other. Heurtin is the smoking gun and he comes forward and points the finger at the killer. There’s a big chase. The killer is brought to justice.

This may have worked OK in the book, but for a film the movie switches perspective on us too rapidly. It starts with the nephew, but he is dropped pretty quickly and we settle with Heurtin for a while. Then we’re with the inspector until he meets Radek, and then it seems to switch between the two. This switching ends up changing the type of film we are watching. Is this a mystery? Not really because the killer is revealed about half way through the film. A thriller? Not really because the innocent man, Heurtin, disappears for about a third of the film. Maybe a character study of Radek? Perhaps but the Inspector gets a lot of screen time. Fine then it’s a character study of the inspector. Nope, he doesn’t’ show up till about a third of the way through the film.

Seriously the script is a mess. It really needed a central focus, pick a character to be the main one and follow them. My bet (and my suspicion that the book did this too) would be to use the Inspector as the focus. Start the film with him arriving at the scene of the crime and finding Heurtin. Then follow him as he pieces the crime together and confronts Radek. Then the cat and mouse game between him and Radek would have had a bit more bite. In a way this could have been like a 40’s version of “Seven”, with Laughton taking on the role that Morgan Freeman had and Tone playing John Doe. Instead the messy script never grounds the viewer.

One the directors should have caught that, and done their best to streamline the film, either in the editing room or while filming. But your main problem is that two of your actors are also directing. I wonder if neither wanted to lose some of his performance moments even if they didn’t serve the chosen storyline. Technically the film is directed well enough, but the fact that there is little to no impact to the viewer at the end makes me believe that the ball was dropped.

Still it’s not a horrible effort at all. You’ve got some good performances, an interesting character in Radek and some great scenery to look at (although the washed out dingy print I saw didn’t do it justice). It kept me interested for most of the running time. But by the end, I was getting a bit tired of the cat and mouse game. Tone’s performance was fitting, but it also made his character annoying with his gloating and sneering. You know that the Inspector is going to win, and you just wait for that hammer to fall.

I should also mention the very Hitchcockian chase up the national monument climax. Seriously folks, it looks like they were really climbing up the girders of the Eiffel Tower, and I can imagine it was fun to film. Some rear project ruins the effect at times, but for the most part, it looks genuine. It might even top the similar scene featuring Roger Moore and Grace Jones in “A View to a Kill” in 1985. In the end, “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” isn’t a bad little movie - a good bit of entertainment that could have been a little bit more with some more attention to the script.

Check out James Lileks take on the film here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quest of the Delta Knights (1993) - MST3K Review


Summary:

Alas for poor Tee (Corbin Allred), not only was his mother mercilessly slaughtered by Lord Vultare's (David Warner) evil marauders, but he was sold into slavery. Luckily he was picked up by the old beggar Baydool (also David Warner!), who decides to raise him. It quickly becomes apparent that Baydool is no mere beggar, but a member of the secret society - the Delta Knights! Their goal is to find the lost storehouse of Archimedes before the forces of evil do. As happens in these questy type movies, Tee finds himself with a rag tag group of heroes including a young man from the town of Vinci named Leonardo (David Kriegel)?!?!? Will they be able to find the storehouse before Lord Vultare does, or will this be the final "Quest of the Delta Knights"?

Movie Review:

You can see what writer Redge Mahaffey and director James Dodson were attempting with this film. They wanted to make a fun adventure with wit and thrills. They had a fairly large Renaissance faire at their disposal. They were able to lure some solid actors to play supporting roles. They aimed it squarely at the youth market, with the young protagonists, and tried to keep things on the lighter side.
I did like that the heroes are not your typical heroic adventurer types. You've got the old beggar, the scrawny but very intelligent kid, the scrawny but very intelligent teenager, and the perky slave girl. No one is particularly good in a fight, and as Mike and bots point out - this group get's captured a lot. But they all use their brains to get out of the situations. The focuses on trickery and cleverness sets this apart from other low budget fantasies seen on this show like Cave Dwellers or Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell.

You've also got some fun turns by some famous faces. David Warner seems to be having a good time playing duel roles. He's a familiar face from the 80's where he usually ended up laying the villain in films like Tron, Time Bandits and even a couple episodes of Remington Steele. This movie was filmed in 1993, so he was still a few years shy of playing the evil bodyguard in Titanic but had been shot full of holes in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Olivia Hussey shows up as the evil queen, chewing scenery and looking nothing like Juliet in her single scene. Sarah Douglas, another veteran of 80's fantasy flicks (Superman II and Conan the Destroyer) plays a catty noble woman during the slave auction.


But all these good points just don't add up to a good movie. The script is a culprit. The movie can't seem to decide if it's a fantasy or a straight adventure. There's no real magic per se, but Tee can sense when danger is approaching. I can buy the fact that he's a wunderkind of some kind with his ability to quickly learn, but his spidy sense seems a bit out of place. Even the most magical element in the film, the strange war machine of Archimedes, is supposedly based on science (even if it makes magical rainbow sparkles). But I think this type of movie actually could use some magical occurrences or even a few monsters to really make it fun. Instead you get a set of rather mundane villains, and typical booby traps. I think budget restrictions are the real issue here - but it does make the film seem less than the sum of its parts.



The other problem is the very light feel to the film. There is a lot of comedy here, not all of it that successful, and most of it on the pedestrian side. This isn't a spoof, but it's not terribly serious either. The performances reflect this from Olivia Hussey's overblown performance to Warner's not the least bit threatening Lord Vultare. You've got some Star Wars style bickering between Leonardo, Tee and Thena (Brigid Brannagh). And then there’s the over the top comedic performance of Richard Kind as the bumbling scholar Wamhool. It's all in the name of fun, I suppose, but it makes the whole quest endeavor feel not too vital in the least.


Quest of the Delta Knights isn't a horrible film. It's just not very good and not as entertaining as it should have been. Maybe more of spoof or a comedy would have worked better. But the fusion of a heavily Star Wars inspired story with Renaissance Faire sensibilities just makes the whole thing fall flat.


Episode Review:

As the final episode of Season 9, you expect something a bit on the special side. Although MST3K never went all out for their season enders, it seems like they crew had something like that in mind. Most of this occurs in the host segments. Things start off with Crow sustaining hail damage, and Mike and Tom working with a back-up Crow. It's pretty funny actually. Then Pearl calls in to check on the pain levels Mike and the bots are experiencing because of the movies. When they claim to be doing fine, she worries and decides to re-evaluate the experiment. So she switches places with Mike! Pearl ends up riffing with the bots for the first movie segment, while Mike hangs out with Brain Guy and Bobo. Pearl actually does a good job in the theater (Mary Jo Pehl is one of the writers after all) and it makes for a fun change. MST3K did this once before in the film Last of the Wild Horses back in the Comedy Central days. It worked well then too.


Mike returns for the rest of the film and the host segments continue making fun of the movie. A quartet of Tom Servo's appears to sing a medieval song about the Delta Knights. Leonardo DaVinci shows up and he's very angry about the way he's portrayed in the film. The fact that DaVinci lives in Queens, New York adds to the fun. The show ends with the present day Delta Knights (who dress like Shriners) giving a pancake breakfast in Castle Forrester. Watch in horror as Bobo drinks syrup right from the bottle.

With the switcheroo playing a bit part in the film riffing you would think that this would make the episode an instant classic. Well, it's good stuff, but it never seems to take off. Maybe it's because Pearl doesn't stay for the whole film, or because Mike is missing from the first segment. Or maybe it's just because the film's odd comedic tone doesn't really lend itself well to riffing. I've noticed this before. If the movie is dead serious it actually makes the riffing better. Comedies, or movies that fancy themselves comedies are harder to riff. Catalina Caper is a perfect example of this. Hobgoblins worked better because the whole movie was so bad, that you can even riff on the so called funny parts. But in this film its tough to make fun of something that might be in on the joke in the first place.


That's not to say that this is a bad episode, it's just not as funny as some of the other fantasy films they've tackled in the past. You gets jokes on Tee's appearance (he looks a lot like one of the boys from the 90's pop group Hansen). You get jokes based on the Ren Faire (many of the writers actually loathe the Ren Faire). You get jokes about having Leonardo DaVinci in the movie. There are jokes based on the horrible disguises that Baydool and Tee adopt. And of course all the cleavage enhancing outfits on the ladies and especially Thena, provide plenty of material.


Two scenes are worth catching in this film. One has Baydool using a chamber pot as a weapon. This leads to all kinds of jokes popping up when you least expect them, especially when David Warner is on the screen. Late in the film our heros are captured by people wearing animal masks and living in a tree villiage (it is never really explained why). During a chase scene one of the villiage/bandits is overdubbed with a voice sounding like Tattoo from Fantasy Island yelling, "I see them! I'm coooooooming". You hear this about three different times. It's such a surreal moment that even Mike and the bots are flabbergasted. It quickly becomes a catchphrase for this episode. If the movie had a few more odd moments like these it might have been a better riff making machine. All in all it's an entertaining package, but one I wish worked a little better than it does.

I give it three dryer lint beards out of five. But if I'm in the mood for it, I'll give it four.

This episode is available on DAP.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Introduction:

Dreamworks animation has been in direct competition with Pixar (and Disney) since they released “Shrek” the same year as “Monsters Inc.”. In that case, “Shrek” won an Oscar and seemed to be the new face of computer animation. Now nearly a decade later, “Shrek” is starting to show it’s age, and “Monsters Inc.” is considered a classic. So Dreamworks shifted their game a bit with “Kung Fu Panda”, but would it be enough to get audiences and critics to stop saying “It’s good, but not as good as anything by Pixar.”

Summary:

Po (Jack Black) is a panda with a dream. He wants to be kung-fu master, but he’s actually stuck being the son of a noodle shop owner. However, things look up when a tournament is conducted to find the legendary Dragon Warrior. After a series of mishaps, Po is declared the Dragon Warrior and the only one who can stop the rampage of the deadly Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is convinced that his pupils, the Furious Five, will be the ones to stop Tai Lung, but he finally consents to train Po. Will Po be prepared for the epic battle, or will he find that being a fan boy of Kung Fu isn’t enough to be called the “Kung Fu Panda”?

Good Points:

  • The fight scenes are well animated.
  • The music is perfect for the film.
  • The script avoids reliance on pop-culture references and bodily function gags

Bad Points:

  • The animation style is on the simplistic side, not a lot of detail
  • The violence is Looney Tunes style, making martial arts look a lot less martial
  • The script is predictable.

Overall:

This film surprised me. Dreamworks has given us a very entertaining film that hits all the marks you expect it to. The script contains no surprises, but at the same time it’s fun and has a lot of energy. A solid voice cast and a perfect musical score all contribute to the experience. “Kung Fu Panda” is a good evenings entertainment and also is highly rewatchabe.

Scores (out of 5)

Animation: 4

Sound: 3

Music: 4

Voice Acting: 4

Script: 3

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Overall: 4

In Depth Review

It might sound like I’m hard on Dreamworks and their animation department, and I guess I am. But “Shrek” showed a lot of promise. It was a great beginning and I hoped they would expand from there, but instead they seemed more than willing to continue following the formula they established, wearing it very thin for us serious animation fans out there. I guess now is a good place to clear this up, I’m a serious animation fan. I think the medium of animation offers truly creative directors a chance to explore all kinds of story telling opportunities. It’s a shame it gets relegated to being “just for kids”. The teams at Pixar and Studio Ghibli understand that telling good stories comes first – and then using the story as a springboard for the animation is the next step. Dreamworks seems to focus more on creating sight gags, pop culture references and a few “big” moments. That makes for a nice piece of throw away entertainment, but why not come up with a good story while you’re at it.

That’s what makes “Kung Fu Panda” work better than it’s predecessors. It feels like some time was taken with the script. The basics are nothing new. You’ve got the na├»ve youth who must be trained to take on the deadly master. You’ve got the teacher who doubts his student’s skills, but eventually comes to care for him and believe in him. And then you’ve got the climax where the student realizes that his strengths and faults can help him beat the evil master. He believes in himself and he wins. If you’ve seen the “Karate Kid” then you know the story.

However it’s the little touches to the characters that make things interesting. Po is actually a fan boy of Kung Fu. He knows all kinds of things about it, but doesn’t have the physical skills to actually do any type of martial arts. The way he treats Master Shifu and the Furious Five is exactly how a fan would act when he meets his idols. He’s in awe of them, he wants to learn from them, but at the same time he behaves like it’s a treat for him – not a matter of life and death. Once that hit’s home, Po runs away. He doesn’t believe in himself and his teacher doesn’t either.

Shifu is also given a bit more depth. He’s arrogant, feeling that his Furious Five are the real heroes; he won’t even give Po a second thought. It is this arrogance that created the threat that they are facing. Shifu brought up and trained Tai Lung – and ignored the fact that Tai Lung was turning into an even more arrogant and dangerous warrior. Shifu must learn to open his eyes and see things as they are, not as what he wishes them to be.

It’s these two characters that actually drive the story and pull the viewer into the film. The interaction between Shifu and Po is both entertaining and interesting. It shows that a little care to the story makes a big difference. Building on this solid base you get quite a nice package.

The animation is executed well. It’s got a bit of a simplistic look, but it seems to be modeled off of traditional Chinese woodcuts and paintings. There is a lot of color here, with some scenes popping right off the screen with eye candy. The animation crew really comes through with the action scenes. Character movement is very fluid and matches well with the animals involved. Tigress moves like a cat, as does Tai Lung (a snow leopard). They also put in plenty of crowd pleasing Kung Fu movies and gravity defying magic that wouldn’t seem out of place in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The battles are all very clear so you know exactly where your heroes and villains are, and how the battle is progressing. Added to that are all the typical Kung Fu sound effects that add a bit of heft to the battle scenes. The big action set pieces are impressive, with the high light being Tai Lung’s escape from his prison.

My only comment about these scenes and much of the action oriented stuff in general is that it is all of the Loony Tunes variety of violence. In other words, characters can fall off cliffs, get kicked repeatedly in the head or suffer deadly explosions and show up a few seconds later looking virtually unharmed (maybe a little blacked by soot at the most). Now I know this is a family film and I’m not expecting bloody chunks to be flying around the film. But it does make Kung Fu – a fighting and self defense technique – look like a fun series of punches that doesn’t really hurt anyone too much. There is a strange contradiction about characters talking about Tai Lung killing people, when the rest of the film shows Kung Fu battles ending in characters looking a little tired, but not the worse for wear.

In additional there are some very nice animated sequences that provide some lovely visuals. Again, the lack of detail can hurt these scenes (check out some of the beauty shots in Pixar’s “Wall – E” and there is no comparison). But overall these scenes are well executed, especially when Master Oogway (the wise old turtle) ascends into the sky.

Supporting all these scenes is a perfect fit score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. It’s a great combination of Zimmer’s action sound (very modern and very much like the music from “Backdraft” or “Crimson Tide”) and a traditional Asian flavor. There’s a great use of Asian instruments. This combination keeps the action music moving, and supports the quiet moments very well. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing some of the music away from the film and it is a great listen, one that will entertain anyone who enjoyed the scores to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero”.

As I mentioned earlier the script is an improvement over what Dreamworks has worked on earlier. I appreciated the fact that the bodily function humor and pop-culture references were almost non-existent in the film. Much of the humor in the film comes from dialogue and physical humor as Po attempts to train in Kung Fu. This is balanced well with the action and dramatic scenes and makes a nicely balanced screen play. Again, nothing super insightful or powerful, but entertaining.

The actors do a very credible job in their roles. To be honest I was very afraid of Jack Black in the role of Po. But he does a very good job, keeping low key. I forgot it was Black in the part really quickly and accepted Po as the lovable geek that he is. Also of note is Dustin Hoffman as Shifu. His voice is very familiar and a bit distracting, but it carries the emotions needed in the role. He makes Shifu’s arrogance come through, but also reveal his passion for Kung Fu. His transformation by the end of the film is very effective.

The rest of the cast performs the parts, but doesn’t really add to them. This falls mostly because the characters don’t really have much to them. The Furious Five are just foils for Po and Tai Lung. Casting Angelia Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu doesn’t do much other than put a famous name in the roles. Ian McShane does a good job as the villainous Tai Lung. Again, not much depth is given to the character in the script, but McShane is very good at adding the snarl into his dialogue and sound like a bad ass. Randall Duk Kim as Oogway and James Hong as Mr. Ping provide actual Asian accents for Asian characters – what a novelty.

The whole film is executed well. With animation collecting all the elements of the film into one entertaining whole is the challenge and this is done very well in “Kung Fu Panda”. All the parts are executed well and combined into a fun little film. After my first viewing of the film, I was surprised how entertaining it was and enjoyed it quite a bit. But the true test was the repeat viewing. In many cases Dreamworks animated films don’t hold up for a second viewing – but “Kung Fu Panda” did. It was just as fun as I remembered, and think it’s a great step forward for the company. Anyone looking for some Kung Fu fun will be completely entertained with this film.

Animation - Storytelling in another medium

Animation - Storytelling in another medium

Something about animation has captivated me since I was a kid. When other youths were getting too old to watch Saturday morning cartoons and afterschool animated fare, I was still tuning in to catch the adventures of my favorite shows. I ended up renting a wide range of animated films as a kid, seeing literary works told via animation from Japan (I vividly remember an anime version of “Les Miserables”) to a creepy stop motion movie that took the basic plot of The Nutcracker and turned it into a mini –horror film.

Eventually other pursuits and interests came and animation took a back seat (although I never lost a fondness for Ray Harryhausen’s work in the epic fantasy films he worked on). It wasn’t until the mid 90’s when I was drawn into Japanese animation (or anime). Eventually I went from being a fan and turned into a critic. I wrote reviews for Japanese animation for several years, and even though I’m not professionally writing them any more, I still enjoy rewatching many of the series in my collection.

What really appeals to me about animation is that storytelling is not limited by visuals. Before computer generated images really exploded into the special effects arena, telling a visually amazing story was limited by budgets in most films. But animation allowed the creators to tell whatever story they wanted. This was especially the case for fantasy and science fiction stories.

Animation also has an interesting psychological issue tied to it. Because the images we see in an animated film are not real humans, but representations, they come be symbolic of certain tropes for viewers. There’s an interesting idea where an animated film can be more affecting than one with human actors because the symbols we see resonate at a deeper level. Well I don’t know about that, but it is an interesting idea.

Japanese animation really showed me the wide scope of possibilities in animation. You know of a genre or story type and there has probably been an anime made about it. As mentioned, there have been anime adaptations of works of Western literature. There have been some seriously disturbing and scary horror series created. Mysteries and detective stories are popular, some use human characters in real settings, others use anthropomorphic animals, and some are even set in historical venues. I’ve even seen sports related anime dealing with things as diverse as girl’s baseball teams to boxing. Of course fantasy and science fiction still have the greatest amount of anime devoted to them – and there have been some really popular and effective movies and series created – Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Record of Lodoss War, Full Metal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Princess Mononoke and Vision of Escaflowne to name a few.

On the flip side, American animation has stayed firmly entrenched in creating children and family fare. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s created a bit of a stigma that cartoons are for kids. And while that is true, a solid animated story can be told for anyone. Disney’s early work was interested more in telling a good story that will entertain everyone, than just children. Now we have Pixar creating a wide range of interesting stories and telling them in entertaining ways. Robert Zemekis has even gone into animation because he doesn’t feel as limited by the real world and special effects. His version of Beowulf is an interesting experiment and one that I’d like to see developed further.

All that said, I felt I should give an explanation of why I love animation and why you’ll see quite a few animation reviews on this blog. Some will be anime, but I’ll try to keep things interesting and shake up the mix. There is lots of good stuff to see, and it comes from all over, going beyond painted cells and computer images into stop motion and puppetry.

As usual if you have something you’d like to see my take on, send me an email and I’ll do my best to get it reviewed.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Screaming Skull (1958) - MST3K Review


Summary

This episode starts with a short. It's time for Gumby and his pony pal Pokey too! In "Robot Rumpus" Gumby decides that robots could handle his chores while he enjoys some tasty crackers and milk with Pokey. Well things go horribly wrong when the robots go rogue and start trashing Gumby's house and yard. It's up to our claymation pals to stop the robots before the whole house is obliterated.

The feature film starts with happy newlywed couple Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni Whitlock (Peggy Webber) arriving at Eric’s huge home in the country. Eric introduces his new wife to the creepy gardener Mickey (director Alex Nico) who could be the 1958 version of Torgo from "Manos: The Hands of Fate". Wedded bliss is quickly spoiled when Jenni starts to see skulls everywhere, and hear strange screaming sounds in the night. Is the ghost of Eric's former wife, who died very mysteriously, haunting the home, or is Mickey the gardener up to something? Eric does his best to comfort his new bride, but is he as innocent as he appears? Soon, Jenni is a nervous wreck and begins to question her sanity with each howl of "The Screaming Skull".

Movie Review

As a kid I watched quite a few Gumby shorts. Seeing "Robot Rumpus" actually caused a minor flashback to buried memories I didn't know I had. Creepy when that happens.

Gumby is Gumby. He gets involved in some kind of adventure and then gets out of it. It's simple story telling with some kind of lesson attached. In this case, the lesson is - do your chores right the first time and you won't have to do them again. Ok, so maybe I'm interpreting a bit here. Maybe the lesson is, don't use bizarre toy robots to do your chores or your house will get trashed, your mom will get painted, and your dad will get a wrench thrown threw him.

I find stop motion claymation charming and fun to watch, but to most modern eyes, it's dated and funny looking. Gumby is kinda dumb, or as my wife said - a moron. Pokey stands around and makes faces. And there are weird little moments, like Gumby's dad stealing a fire truck, or the robot head mounted over the garage at the end of the short. In other words, there are lots of things to work with riffing wise. But would I call it bad? No. It's Gumby, you either like it or you don't. But you can't deny that it offers plenty of material work with.

"The Screaming Skull" on the other hand offers very little entertainment value. The plot is nothing new. Most of us have seen the "rich wife is harassed by scheming husband" before, so all the beats in the plot come as no surprise. There are attempts to make Mickey the gardener look suspicious, with him hiding in bushes and saying bizarre things, but any fan of mysteries knows a red herring when they see one. From moment one, Eric is our primary suspect. When you only have five characters in the whole film - well there isn't much hope for mystery.

Maybe Director Alex Nico knew this and decided to play up the suspense of the haunted house angle. This movie contains many, many long scenes of Jenni walking around the house, very slowly and looking frightened. But the result is boredom. Now, let me make this clear, I enjoy a good suspense film. I don't need constant action to keep me entertained. Some of the best horror films I know don't show anything at all, but use careful building of terror to unsettle and disturb the viewer. It can be done, but it takes skill.

The filmmakers didn't have this skill. The movie is limp and lifeless in construction. You cease to care about anyone about five minutes in.

Part of the reason is the characters. Jenni isn't very likable. She seems less nervous and more whiney than anything else. I'm not sure if Weber wasn't clear on how to play the part, or if she was just continuing the character she played in "The Space Children". She generates no sympathy, so her fate doesn't drive the story. John Hudson doesn't do much as Eric either. He comes across like a jerk most of the time, so it's no stretch of the imagination to see him as the scheming husband.

Only Alex Nicol as Mickey provides any entertainment. He does his best to make Mickey appear suspicious, but the performance is silly. Mickey is obviously supposed to be a little slow, but Nicol portrays him as slightly smarter than a rock. I think Gumby could outwit this guy. He's never a threat, never a friend - just has some odd lines and funny gait when he runs.

The neighbors portrayed by Tony Johnson and Russ Conway provide solid turns as the voices of reason and compassion. The script doesn't give them much to work with, and it's almost funny how quickly they go from disbelieving Jenni's ghost stories to believing that Eric is villainous.

The final result is poorly plotted, poorly executed, poorly edited and poorly made movie. The opening sequence offers a free coffin if you die of fright. Don't worry, you'll die of boredom first.

Episode Review

This is another one of those episodes where the short film provides tons of laughs, but the feature can't quite measure up. The Gumby short is hilarious, with Mike and bots going to town on all kinds of things. How come Gumby can wander around without clothes, but his mom wears cloths? Why crackers and milk. Why did the robots run amok. Everything is fair game and it all climaxes with the moment when Gumby uses a construction crane to destroy a robot. Tom Servo and Crow scream in terror and demand to know why they are watching a horror film. This conversation carries over into the host segments.

If only the movie could keep up the momentum. Once again, a painful slog of a film ends up putting our boys to task. They give it a solid go, and they come up with some great stuff for Mickey and the random skull appearances. It's the long scenes of Jenni walking around the house that create huge gaps in riffing. They don't really get cooking again until the climax where Eric ends up being haunted and chased around the property by skulls and ghosts and screaming. If more of this paranormal spazziness had occurred throughout the film, it would have been a gold mine. Instead, this episode ends up working best at its bookend moments.

The host segments are a mixed bag. Things start off with Tom Servo deciding that he's a butterfly. Then Pearl and her crew call up. They are dressed in penguin costumes (?!?!?) and waddling all around, demanding to know why Mike and bots aren't in their penguin costumes. Mike and the bots are at a loss and quickly dress in random animal costumes. Pearl reveals that it was all a poorly planned joke, and she ends up looking like an idiot more than Mike and bots do. The best part is to see crow dressed as a sheep and saying Baaaaa! After the Gumby short, Tom and Crow create their own movie about clay and robot relations. Turns out they are a little angry at Gumby's final solution. Because of the movie's offer of a free coffin, Tom tries to scam one - with silly results. Then Crow pretends to be a screaming skull - and Mike is so terrified he attacks. This results in the funniest host segment. The episode ends with Tom's coffin showing up and Bobo trying to trick Mike and the bots again. He fails and is shrunk down in size. See - it's a real odd mix of segments.

By itself the Gumby short is one of the funniest short subjects they've tackled. I can easily give it five stars out of five. But the feature is so dull that it drags down the score quite a bit. The host segments will make you smile, but nothing really stands out. In the end, I have to say it's a subpar episode. But if you can find the riffing of "Robot Rumpus" online, it's well worth seeking out.

I give it two little green slabs of clay out of five.

This episode is available in DAP.