Thursday, December 10, 2009

Guilty Pleasure 10: Young Einstein

The summer of 1989 was an incredible year for the movies. Among the films out that year were "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Ghostbusters II," "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," and "When Harry Met Sally." But one studio in particular had a plan for how to rule the summer. That was Warner Brothers. They would dominate the first half of the summer with a little film called "Batman," and that they did. As for the second half of the summer, they looked to an Australian known as Yahoo Serious.

Well, "Young Einstein" didn't exactly set the sort of records the caped crusader did, though it was a moderate success. It is certainly one of the oddest offerings from a major studio during that historic summer.

Yahoo Serious, who was apparently possessed by the same demon of hair care that has long tormented the poor soul known as Carrot Top, plays a fictionalized (to say the least) version of Albert Einstein. Through the course of the film Einstein invents a formula for splitting beer atoms, creates rock n roll and designs the first surf board.

There's nothing really laugh-out-loud funny about the movie, but it's hard not to like. In many ways, the exaggerated behavior of most of the cast, not to mention the physical humor, points to some influence from the days of silent comedies. The level of humor is nowhere near what Chaplin or Keaton could pull off, but it brings a certain innocence that just brings a smile to my face.

I guess the world wasn't completely ready for Yahoo Serious. He's only made a few other films to date and none have had as big a release as this one did. In the years that have passed he's tried some other activities, though, like suing Yahoo for stealing his name. I'll give you one guess how that one turned out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Guilty Pleasure 9: The Legend of Billie Jean

Summer 1986 was when cable TV first came to Wheaton, IL. So the movies that we watched endlessly on cable that summer were the films out in theaters the previous summer...including one of 1985's big bombs, "The Legend of Billie Jean." It's a movie that many people seem to want to forget. According to Wikipedia, it's original VHS video release shortly after the film's brief theatrical run is the only home video release the film has ever had. It has yet to appear on DVD. However, through the magic of Netflix and their "view instantly" feature, Billie Jean can be experienced via the internet. It is definitely one of my guilty pleasures.

It stars Helen Slater (who has already made an appearance in my list of "guilty pleasures" thanks to her role as Supergirl) as a girl who ends up accidentally becoming the most wanted criminal in Corpus Christi, TX. It all starts when her brother, played by Christian Slater (no relation to Helen), gets in a fight with some local jerks which results in his prized scooter being trashed. When Billie Jean tries to collect the money for the repairs from the boy's father...well, he has other things on his mind when it comes to Bille Jean. Long story short, he gets accidentally shot and Billie Jean, her brother, and some friends take it on the lam. Eventually, Billie Jean ends up becoming a sort of celebrity criminal with the public gladly cheering her on.

The story is really pretty silly. These "criminals" hang out in a distinct looking vehicle, in wide open spaces, yet nobody seems to be able to find them. The movie is just plain unbelievable, right down to both Slater's overdoing the Texas twang. The worst part of the movie is the character played by Yeardley Smith, the future voice of Lisa Simpson. She was 21 years old at the time of the film's release, but is playing a part that seems to have been written for an 11 year old.

So what makes the film likable? Well, for one, just like with "Supergirl," Ms. Slater is just irresistible to watch...especially for a 15 year old boy, as I was when I first saw the film. Adolescent hormones aside, and despite the accent issues, she really can draw you into a film. And of course, when you're a teenager, a film about a bunch of your peers taking matters into their own hands has a certain appeal. It's the same reason why a movie like "Home Alone" or the Our Gang shorts have such an appeal with younger kids. It's that built in desire to stick it to the man.

So Billie Jean, it's good to see you pop up on Netflix, it's about time. After all..."fair is fair." (That's a famous quote from the movie...see how I worked that in there...because...see it's...never mind).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Betty Boop's Halloween Party

Betty Boop's Halloween Party
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Available on: YouTube

Maybe I should call this "Cartoon a Month." Oh well, a few weeks late here is a Halloween cartoon staring the one and only Betty Boop! Thanks to YouTube and the fact that Betty Boop resides in the public domain these days, here is the cartoon in it's entirety.

Betty ends up being somewhat of a minor character in this one, but once again she offers a great example of why the Fleischer Studio stood apart from the other animation studios. You just didn't see these kind of gags in other toons. A favorite in this one is where the gorilla runs through the wall...of course he leaves a gorilla-shaped hole, but to have the hole move across the wall and go out the door is just icing on the cake!

On a side note, I wish I had known about Betty's method for hollowing out a pumpkin two weeks ago. I'll have to try that next year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guilty Pleasure 8: Dune

When "Dune" was released at Christmas 1984 I avoided it like the plague. It looked creepy... and it had that new rating, PG-13. I wasn't sure what to make of that. The film was not well received when it was released, in fact Siskel & Ebert declared it the worst film of 1984 on one of their end of the year episodes. I finally checked the film out as an adult, while I agree the film has some major problems, I keep finding myself returning for another look every year or so.

The film is based on Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel. The book is challenging to say the least. It's a complicated mix of sci-fi, religion and politics that leaves many readers scratching their heads while just as many others cheer it's greatness.

In the director's chair was David Lynch. Yes that David Lynch, the man behind such strange creations as "Blue Velvet," and the TV series "Twin Peaks." But "Dune" was only his third film, following his bizarre debut "Eraserhead" and the more mainstream "The Elephant Man." It was certainly his most ambitious project to date. Lynch took on writing the screenplay as well, anyone who has read the book knows that many would prefer the Chinese water torture over such an assignment. Much of the screenplay works well, while other parts, especially the overuse of our being able to hear the characters thoughts, do not.

My suspicions in 1984 were true, the film is is creepy. Imagine that, a creepy David Lynch film (that's sarcasm by the way). In fact, Lynch takes the creepiest elements of Herbert's book and cranks the creep-factor up to 11. For example, the book's main villain, Barron Harkonnen is one of the most vicious and vile villains I've ever encountered in print. In the film he's much worse, played by Kenneth McMillan as a cackling, slobbering mad man covered in disgusting sores.

Certain elements of the film do work really well. I love the opening of the movie in which Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan gives us the back story. It echoes the tone of the book in which each chapter begins with a quote from one of Irulan's many writings on the events depicted. Kyle MacLachlin (a Lynch favorite in his first film) is well cast as Paul Atreides, as is future Law & Order girl Alicia Witt as the scariest 8 year old in the universe, Alia. Best of all is the unique costumes and set design which contribute to setting a distinct tone for each of the three "houses" that figure prominently in the story.

Several different versions of the film have popped up over the years. An "extended edition" clocks in at 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut and thoroughly complicates the already complicated story. Lynch disowned this version of the film which lists "Alan Smithee" as it's director and "Judas Booth" as screenwriter. For that matter, Lynch has pretty much disowned the theatrical version as well. He rarely speaks of the movie and according to Wikipedia he is quoted as having said that he "probably shouldn't have done that picture."

"Dune" is intriguing but flawed and is certainly far from being the worst film of 1984.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Buckaroo Bugs

Buckaroo Bugs
Directed by Robert Clampett
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol 5

There is no mistaking a Bob Clampett cartoon. Everything is taken to the extreme, and "Buckaroo Bugs" is no exception. In this short, Bugs Bunny is cast as the Masked Marauder who has been stealing carrots from an old west town. To catch him, the locals call in Red Hot Ryder, who could be considered an early version of Yosemite Sam. So, Bugs Bunny is actually the villain.

DVD's are great for viewing Clampett cartoons. Being able to freeze frame the images can give you a real appreciation for the various poses used in the animation. This is perhaps best demonstrated in Red Hot Ryder's horse. He's a minor character in the cartoon, but from an animation standpoint he's the highlight. The character combines modern elements along with qualities of a rubber band like character right out of the early days of animation. This one sequence where Red Hot Ryder and the horse jump off the edge of the Grand Canyon is evidence enough. When the horse realizes what he's done, he actually turns back through himself to turn around. It's brilliant animation!

Animation at it's best when it explores the limits of what the art form is capable of. This cartoon is a great example of that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cartoon a Day: El Terrible Toreador

El Terrible Toreador
Directed by Walt Disney
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - More Silly Symphonies

Many of the early Silly Symphonies cartoons used different cultures as the inspiration for many of the visuals. Not all of these depictions are what we would now consider politically correct, so they are often regulated to the "from the vault" sections of the Walt Disney Treasures releases. "El Terrible Toreador," however, I think was sent to the vault section because the characters drink beer.

Like most Silly Symphonies, there is not much story here. The gags are pretty simple, though you can see a progression taking place here as the sight gags are not repeated over and over as they are in many early cartoons. A few gags seem quite imaginative for this time period, especially when we think the bull and the toreador are fighting but when the smoke clears we see that they are playing patty cake.

The bullfight arena is a classic setting for golden age cartoons. Almost every major character has been a toreador at some point, so it is interesting to see what is probably one of the earliest examples of a bullfight cartoon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Mouse in Manhattan

Mouse in Manhatan
Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Available on: Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Vol. 2

"Mouse in Manhattan" is not your typical Tom and Jerry film. First of all, Tom pretty much just makes a cameo. This one is all about Jerry. He decides he's had enough of country life and decides to head off to the big city. Now you'd think some city alley cat just fills in for Tom for the rest of the picture. While some cats do come in to play briefly, this is not a chase film. This film is mainly about the city as seen through Jerry's eyes.

This scenario leads to some absolutely beautiful background art. Several New York City landmarks are portrayed in some very rich and detailed paintings. There are plenty of good gags, but most of the fun of this cartoon just comes in watching Jerry taking the city in.

It's interesting to note some of the differences in Jerry's appearance in this short. Tom and Jerry have gone through many design changes over the years. In this film, Jerry's nose seems to be a bit more round and bulbous and his whiskers seem longer. He also wears a somewhat dumb expression much of the time, which is not your typical Jerry look.

I'm not sure if this film still runs on TV or not. There are a few moments that would keep it off the Cartoon Network rotation, including a blackface gag and one bizarre moment when it could be interpreted that Jerry is looking up the skirts of some of the ladies of New York. Still this is a great cartoon. Oh and I almost forgot to mention the wonderful music! It is obviously inspired by Gershwin (perfect for the New York setting) and compliments the on screen action beat per beat.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Mexican Boarders

Mexican Boarders
Directed by Friz Freleng & Hawley Pratt
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 4

We've talked before about how Speedy Gonzalez cartoons were left off the Cartoon Network rotation for years, a casualty of political correctness run wild. Yet, it eventually came out that Mexicans didn't see the character as negative, but saw him as a national hero. I sometimes wonder if the true controversial character in the world of Speedy Gonzalez is one who appeared only of those times is today's cartoon. Tonight we experience the one and only Slowpoke Rodriguez.

In this cartoon, Sylvester has barely any energy left to chase the fastest mouse in all Mexico. But when Speedy's cousin Slowpoke comes for a visit, the putty tat is re-energized. Both Speedy and Sylvester are soon overshadowed by the scene stealing Slowpoke.

This cartoon came close to the end of the golden era of cartoons, yet this is a strong cartoon. Slowpoke is a hilarious character, it's a shame he was only used twice. Some might see him as a Mexican stereotype, but really he's simply the opposite of the leading man...a classic comedic situation. Like the slow wolf from some Droopy cartoons, I love the way Slowpoke moves and minimal amount of animation used to bring him to life.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Slingshot 6 7/8

Slingshot 6 7/8
Directed by Walter Lantz
Available on: The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection

It's been awhile since we've done a Woody Woodpecker short. This particular one has a few interesting things to note. First there is not dialogue in the movie except for Woody's signature laugh. Second is that there is no director credited for the film. There is the usual "A Walter Lantz Cartune" credit screen. While Wikipedia credits Lantz for directing (based on his own claim), the Internet Movie Database does not. It's hard to know what to believe.

In this short, Woody is in the old west and ends up participating in a shooting contest. The competitors can choose their weapons, so Woody uses a slingshot while his top rival, Buzz Buzzard as an Indian, uses a bow and arrow.

There's nothing wrong with a silent cartoon comedy, but the animation has to really excel. While this short has some good moments, mostly early in the film, many sequences are lacking that extra punch that is needed. Had Buzz and Woody been given some Tex Avery style reaction shots this could've been a much more memorable film.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Blackboard Jumble

Blackboard Jumble
Directed by Michael Lah
Available on: Tex Avery's Droopy - The Complete Theatrical Collection

Droopy is one of my favorite classic animated characters. So it's really strange that I never saw this cartoon until today. It was not a part of the rotation of Droopy shorts that aired on Chicago television as I was growing up. The only reason I can see for it being pulled from TV is one gag involving a confederate flag. But now, thanks to DVD, not only can we see this short but we can also experience it in it's widescreen form.

This Droopy short actually does not feature Droopy. Rather there are three kid versions of Droopy who terrorize a small schoolhouse. The Wolf, voice by the brilliant Daws Butler, is recruited to be their latest teacher.

The voice and animation of the slow-moving, whistling wolf are a perfect combination. I love his strange posture when he walks. The feet lead as the rest of the body seems to move much slower behind. The wolf is the real star of the short. Even though this is not directed by Tex Avery, his influence is still there. Some would say too much so as several gags are lifted straight out of Avery's "The Three Little Pups," which also features Butler's Wolf character. But even with recycled gags, it's still laugh-out-loud funny

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cartoon a Day: To Beep or Not to Beep

To Beep or Not to Beep
Directed by Chuck Jones & Maurice Noble
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 3

Today's cartoon is a late entry in the Road Runner series. The plot is the same as any other film in this series...Coyote chases Road Runner...but the film have a very different feel than earlier films in the series.

Many of the early Road Runner shorts depend on a series of very short gags. As the series progressed, director Chuck Jones started to go for longer gags. Whereas many Road Runner gags would last a few seconds at longest, some of the gags in this film last several minutes. And it is with mixed results.

One gage which involves a giant spring seems way too labored and just doesn't flow well. On the other hand, the catapult sequence is skillfully paced and plays more like a series of short gags with a big payoff at the end.

The early Road Runner films are stronger but this is a worthy entry in the series. It is actually the final Road Runner short directed by it's creator, Chuck Jones.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cartoon a Day: My Favorite Duck

My Favorite Duck
Directed by Chuck Jones
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6

Well it's been a crazy summer. There's been a lot of travel and internet problems at home that has made doing "Cartoon a Day" tough. Plus, the fact that I just got lazy. But with it being September 1, here we go again.

"My Favorite Duck" is the first cartoon to team director Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese. That team would produce some of the greatest cartoons of all time. In this short, Porky Pig is on a camping trip where he is annoyed by Daffy Duck who continues to point out that it is not duck season so you can't harm a duck in any way.

Not all of the gags work, but some are classics. The fishing sequence in which Porky ends up floating on the wrong side of the water is very original as is the ending where the film breaks and Daffy has to describe the end of the film to the audience.

From an animation standpoint, the highlight of the film is some of the unique angles used. There is an obsession with low camera angles here like what you might expect to see in a student film. In this film it works well, especially in the final moments of the film when Daffy's plan has backfired on him.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Songs with a Girls' Name in the Title #17

17. Jolene - Dolly Parton

Waaaaaay back when we looked at Chely Wright's song "Jezebel" (#39) I mentioned that another country lady, Dolly Parton would be putting in an appearance. Well here she is with her classic "Jolene." Whereas Wright's song is about a woman telling a competitor that if she steals her man she's gonna get it, this one is a woman begging Jolene not to steal her man away. Those are some great vocals at work there and some mean guitar work as well.

Songs with a Girls' Name in the Title #18

18. Cecilia - Simon & Garfunkel

Probably one of the most upbeat songs about being dumped. The unique rhythm, which was supposedly achieved by Paul and Arty slapping their legs while someone else banged on a piano bench, points to the African influence Simon would explore on later albums like "Graceland."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Lessons Learned at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame

I'm in Cleveland for a Puppet Ministry Summerfest. Since I had a little extra time this morning I decided to visit the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. It was pretty cool, though there were some disappointments...No photo rule!?!?? How un-rock n roll can you get?

The museum houses a lot of classic instruments and memorabilia such as costumes and stage props. One of the things that was interesting to note about so many of the outfits that rock legends wore in concerts, in videos, and on album covers is that they really don't look all that impressive up close. You can see the flaws. You can see that they're made out of the same junk your wardrobe from Wal-Mart is made of.

The Hot Dog you see above hangs in the loby of the Hall of Fame (which is the only area where photos are allowed), it was used in concert by the band Phish. When you look at it from above you can see inside the bun and I noticed that it's made out of some of the same materials I've seen many a puppet prop made out of.

This all got me thinking that we always hear that those of us in children's ministry and puppet ministry can't compete with what the entertainment industry puts out. Why even try, right? Wrong!! Guess what, they work with the same materials we do. Same scrap fabrics, same goofy looking sequins, same spray paint, same chicken wire. The only difference is that folks like Beyonce and Prince are nuts enough to pay millions for it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Beware of Barnacle Bill

Beware of Barnacle Bill
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Available on: Popeye the Sailor Vol. 1

It's been so long since I've blogged. Doesn't quite seem right to call it "Cartoon a Day" with a such a long absence. What can I say, life gets crazy sometimes. Well, let's give it another go, shall we.

Today we return with a true classic of the early Popeye series, "Beware of Barnacle Bill," sometimes refereed to simply as "Barnacle Bill the Sailor." In this short, Popeye has come to ask Olive to ask him to marry her, but she tells him that she is in love with Barnacle Bill, played by Bluto.

This film is sort of like a mini opera, with the characters singing the song "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" as a bridge between the fights. The Fleischer studio excelled at producing cartoons where music was the centerpiece and this short is a great example of that. The cartoon is not complex, it's just three characters and it all takes place in one room. However, the way the music and the animation work together is superb.

I've got to say, the final gag involving Popeye is a classic. It seems so out of character for him to be cleaning up the mess that he and Bluto caused, but then when he undoes all that work with one door slam it makes perfect sense.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Jessica Simpson Sings for Tony the Tiger?

While getting up-to-date on current events this evening I ran across the following interesting headline over at the Fox News website.

Of course, my simple mind pictured Jessica Simpson singing for the Frosted Flakes pitchman (Tony the Tiger), not her boyfriend Tony Romo and Tiger Woods. And of course, what was the famous cereal loving Tiger's review of her vocal talents? "They're Grrrrreeeeaaat!"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Cartoon a Day: Muscle Beach Tom

Muscle Beach Tom
Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Available on: Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Vol. 2

Welcome to the miracle of Cinemascope! You don't run across many widescreen cartoon shorts, but this is one of them. It's a short I saw hundreds of times on TV as a child, but I never realized that was a pan and scan version.

In this short, Jerry is enjoying a day at the beach when Tom, who is trying to impress a young lady cat, interrupts. Jerry does seek his revenge but ends up being a spectator for most of the film as another cat tries to make the moves on Tom's girl and the two end up doing a fine job of beating each other up with little help from the mouse.

This film really makes great use of the widescreen format and it's wonderful to see the beautiful art work in widescreen. This one is not as over-the-top violent as many Tom and Jerry films, but does display some great pacing from Hanna and Barbera. It moves very smoothly from gag to gag and shows just how well they knew these characters. We associate Hanna Barbera with so many other TV characters now, but back at this time they worked Tom and Jerry exclusively and their expertise with the cat and mouse shows in this short.