Weekly Film Log: February 2-8

Whew. Now that the school semester is underway, it’s getting harder and harder for me to keep up with all this writing. Nonetheless, I plan to power on, no matter how many hours of sleep I lose! It does help that my History of Animation class gives me a chance to watch a substantial amount of animated shorts in a 3-hour period. The downside being, of course, that I have to write 10+ reviews on them before the end of the week. And since it’s a Friday afternoon class, I need to do a LOT of planning around that. But it’s not too much of a nuisance.

But anyway! I watched a lot of wonderful stuff this week. And some not so wonderful, but no matter. Read ahead!

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – dir. David Michener, Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, & John Musker

  • Watched on 3 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Conceived during a famous financial slump for Disney animation,The Great Mouse Detective is actually relatively pleasant. It’s essentially a “Sherlock Holmes for kids” story, but also contains some amusing inside jokes that older people – or those more familiar with Holmes’ tales – could find enjoyment in as well. With this film and The Thief and the Cobbler, it’s apparent that Vincent Price is a much better voice actor than he is a physical performer. As iconic as he is, I always saw him more of a figure of camp, but here, he plays his villainous role to absolute perfection. While there are a few instances that dwell on the darker, morbid side of conflict, there’s always a tinge of playful cartoonish humor to bring us back to fun territory. Sure there aren’t quite so many outlandish twists and turns in this one, but the narrative arc ties itself up rather well in a definitely satisfying conclusion. Although I still prefer An American Tale as my choice mouse-movie from ’86, The Great Mouse Detective holsters up a well-deserved reputation though its pleasant artwork, collection of likable characters, and fun, feisty narrative.

Tabloid (2010) – dir. Errol Morris

  • Watched on 3 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

Errol Morris’ Tabloid is one reason (out of many) that I love documentaries. Sure truth is often stranger than fiction… but how confidently are we able to delve into this supposed truth – especially one that is just so bat-shit preposterous? Indeed Morris, through a series of interviews, works on teasing out the details of this truly peculiar story that only gets weirder and weirder. However, by revealing these specifics only through those involved and not interrupting with his own perspective on the ordeal, he keeps the story ambiguous on all levels and, thus, sensational. In essence, the documentary works to highlight the media’s role in spotlighting Ms. McKinney’s controversial life, along with the perplexities in getting deeply involved with a tale such as this. Even the aesthetic detail of the documentary is sensationalized, as great advantage is taken to implement flashy lettering and graphics during the interviews. It’s quite a convicting, compelling documentary and after quite some time of being engrossed in its multiple angles of detail, I cared very little about the “truth-telling” aspect that is commonly seen as inherent to any documentary. It’s simply unique in its every facet.

Stingray Sam (2009) – dir. Cory McAbee

  • Watched on 5 February
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Nearly a year later, I’ve finally gotten around to Cory McAbee’s follow-up to The American Astronaut, one of the most fun films I watched last year. It follows the same broad premise as the first: wacky space western-musical shot in black & white. We get a lot of the same unparalleled absurdity that was in the first. This film gives off the pure sense of being much more quirkier thanAstronaut; I think it’s due to the implementation of a voice-over narration, as well as much more oddly-placed musical numbers and just an overall weird sense of humor. Such songs were indeed earworms, but I didn’t feel as fond of a connection to them this time around. It’s rather impossible to dislike this film at all – it just has this certain amount of charm that makes it nearly impossible to – but in terms of innovation and originality, I couldn’t help but feel a lot of it was a copy-and-paste job from McAbee’s first. Also, I’m doubting the utter necessity of organizing the piece into individual “episodes”; I can’t really see much to gain from such a method besides mere gimmickry. Regardless, Stingray Sam is a really fun time from beginning to end, it’s short length making it a rather fit as a introduction to the mind of McAbee.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – dir. Bruce Beresford

  • Watched on 6 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 4/10

This one didn’t do anything for me. Driving Miss Daisy has a bland premise, bland characters, and a narrative that practically makes zero progress with anything it’s trying to do. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out if it was even trying! Moreover, the subtle problematic tinges come into play with Freeman’s casting as the cliché “loyal black person”, whose sole purpose is to help our Jessica Tandy’s character around, with no explanation of his motives. I would argue that he (as well as Esther Rolle’s character) suffer from a relative lack of character depth and are subjected to demeaning, marginalizing positions – but I think the proper criticism is that no one has depth! And no, suddenly caring about what MLK Jr. has to say doesn’t count as depth. In retrospect, I think the few positive things I could really say about this film is that the actors worked their roles decently and the lighting was particularly lovely in nearly every scene. But in terms of content, Driving Miss Daisy feels completely sloppy and uninspired. How it won Best Picture completely baffles me.

Catwoman (2004) – dir. Pitof

  • Watched on 6 February
  • Format: YouTube rental
  • Rating: 2/10

Since this film goes quite beyond an actual conventional review, here is a list of questions I asked myself while watching Catwoman:

1. Why the CGI crane shots?
2. Why does Halle Berry dress so funny?
3. Is there a single shot in this film that lasts longer than four seconds?
4. What compels her to risk her life to save a damn cat?
5. How does that dude run up eight flights of stairs in 12 seconds?
6. Why doesn’t the movie focus more on the dude’s superhuman speed?
7. Why is Sharon Stone and the other white dude so obnoxiously snooty?
8. Does this movie even know how subtlety works?
9. Were the writers making every conscious effort to make sure this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test?
10. Have the filmmakers actually ever met a gay person in real life?
11. On that note, have the filmmakers ever actually seen a cat in real life?
12. I mean, are they aware that cats don’t actually meow every ten seconds when there isn’t food around?
13. WHYYY?? OH GOD WHY?
14. Why does this film make every single possible effort to foreshadow the heck out of what’s to come?
15. Does this movie even know how subt- oh wait, I already went over that one…
16. Does the editor actually know how to… y’know, edit?
17. Like, I mean in an effective, non-ridiculous kinda way?
18. Where does the water even come from when she’s standing inside that huge water pipe thing?
19. CGI cats? No real cats? Like, ever?
20. Where do they even come from?
21. So we’re just supposed to accept that this cat brings her back to life by breathing into her? Okay…
22. Why does she forget everything the next day? Did she get cat-drunk?
23. Why does the cat lady talk so wispily?
24. This movie really doesn’t know anything about subtlety, considering that she’s presumably gonna spend the next hour acting just like a fucking cat, amiright?
25. What’s the whole point of the “noisy neighbors” scene anyway?
26. Where did that motorcycle come from?
27. Half of these scenes don’t even make sense, why?
28. GOD DAMN IT WHY??
29. In the basketball scene, why does it look like the cameraperson wants to play basketball too?
30. And once again, there’s really no single shot that lasts longer than four seconds, is there?
31. What have I gotten myself into?
32. What’s even the point of the whole makeup thing?
33. As well as the ferris wheel scene; really, what the fuck?
34. Is this movie REALLY going to have us believe that slight differences in handwriting signal intense differences in personality and therefore they couldn’t be the same person??
35. Seriously? No… seriously??
36. What the fuck?
37. Stop this now[?]
38. Oh, and isn’t the general idea of having expensive technological tests to decipher handwriting that is so OBVIOUSLY done by the same person at two different times a bit, y’know… wasteful? And pointless? And dumb?
39. AND WOULDN’T THE SAME GO FOR ANALYZING A WOUND TO SEE IF IT MATCHES A RANDOM GLASS CUP???
40. Are you kidding me?
41. Ugh (not a question).
42. Were all the action sequences filmed with a camera attached to some random fly?
43. And then edited by someone on a serious cocaine binge?
44. How much of this film’s budget was spent on cocaine anyway?
45. And how much was spent on cheap early-00’s CGI?
46. What age group is this film even targeted towards?
47. “Tell me where your husband is, or I’ll ask him myself” – worst line of dialogue ever? (this question has an answer: yes.)
48. Was anyone involved in the making of this even the least bit aware of its sheer badness?
49. Did no one even think to point out the tackiness of Halle Berry’s outfit?
50. Can I have these 90 minutes of my life back?

Once again, the following twelve films were watched on 7 February during my History of Animation class. They were viewed in the Little Coppola Theater at SFSU. The theme for this week was Fleischer Studios. 😉

imgres1) Comin’ Thro’ the Rye (1926) – prod. Max Fleischer & Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 6/10

While Steamboat Willie and other Disney shorts are mistakenly credited for introducing sound to the filmic world, the real pioneers are the Fleischers’ Car-Tunes series of “bouncing ball” sing-a-long shorts, featuring traditional songs and radio standards. These were also some of the first appearances of Ko-Ko the Clown, who would soon become a regular and favorite of the studio’s output of narrative cartoons. I watched this one for class, and while it certainly is rather simple and straight-forward, I could definitely see how this could be fun and entertaining for audiences of the 1920’s. Watch a different Car-Tune here!

2) Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (a.k.a. Little Nemo)  – dir. Winsor McCay

  • Rating: 6/10

This film essentially follows the same essential formula as McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur: in a live-action sequence, a bet is placed on McCay’s ability to animate his characters… and then he animates them. Unfortunately with this one, the characters of the tale don’t do much to move the story along. They have much less of a personality than Gertie and do little more than make repetitive motions and somewhat cool movements and transformations. What makes this one notable, of course, is the use of color, a truly innovative thing at the time. My best guess, however, is that audiences of this short probably had some familiarity with McCay’sLittle Nemo comic strip and, thus, got more enjoyment out of this. It’s cute, but certainly nothing profound. Watch it here!

Out-of-the-inkwell

3) Ko-Ko the Kop (1927) – dir. Max Fleischer & Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 9/10

Some of my favorite classic animation to come from the Fleischers have been their Out of the Inkwell series. Prominently featuring Ko-Ko the Clown and Fitz the dog (who I could presume is an early version of Bimbo), these cartoons have a tendency to be way more ballsy and madcap than their successors. These characters are very self-aware, knowing that they are simply made of ink, and therefore use it to their advantage at doing whatever the hell they want. Ko-Ko the Kop is one of the funniest that I’ve seen, with our two characters demonstrating fast-paced, surreal slapstick at hilarious proportions. Tied by a very, very loose narrative, the duration of this short is almost entirely gag-based, and boy are they funny. There’s also some pretty inventive things going on here as well, as they continue to break as many walls as possible. Simply put, it’s the best kind of Fleischery fun imaginable.

4) Ko-Ko’s Earth Control (1928) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 9/10

Rewatching this for the first time in a couple years – AND on a big screen – was a wonderful treat for me. It’s absurd, nonsensical, and just plain wonderful. While I admit that Ko-Ko the Klown doesn’t have as much personality as some of the more famous Fleischer creations to come, there’s no denying that this film is one of the greatest of his reign. It’s already loony enough with Ko-Ko and Fitz apparently gaining access to a room that controls the world’s weather patterns, with a conveniently-placed “end of the world” lever. But when the level is pulled, the humor is heightened to extreme, morbid proportions as the world’s climate goes berserk. It’s essentially everyone’s worst fears about the apocalypse being turned on its head for laughs, and it’s all so delightful. Watch it here! (epilepsy warning)

Bimbo0004

5) Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 9/10

Bimbo’s Initiation is a downright classic, in every sense of the word – and a personal all-time favorite of mine. While I do think that it isn’t necessary the “most surreal” of the Fleischer animations (whatever that term may entail), it definitely is one of the weirder ones. While these types of cartoons have a tendency to be more gag-driven (rather than driven by narrative), this one has a sort of half-narrative that, nonetheless, remains ambiguous enough to let the weirdness ensue without needless repercussions. And such weirdness it is. The onslaught of surreal imagery available in this one – from spiral staircases, to mysterious doors, to mysterious hooded figures… who are actually dozens of Betty Boops…? – never fails to put a smile on my face. I’ve watched it a good deal of times, and each time is totally worth it. Definitely one for all to see. Watch it here!

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6) Minnie the Moocher (1932) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 7/10

Yet another bonafide classic from the Fleischer troupe. This short film is one of three Betty Boop cartoons that featured the singing voice of Cab Calloway (as well as his dancing, captured by Rotoscope). This one has Calloway singing the titular song, probably the most famous of his repertoire. As much as I undoubtably enjoy this one, I think Snow-White is my personal favorite of the three; at the very least it has the most impressive animation, but Cab singing “St. James Infirmary” is just killer. That’s not to say anything less of Minnie the Moocher, though, which has much of the weird imagery and loosely-drawn narrative that this era of Fleischer animation is known for. It’s funny, dark, and oh-so-bizarre, and while it isn’t the sharpest that the studio has to offer, checking it out is a must. Watch it here!

Chessnuts2

7) Chess-Nuts (1932) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 6/10

To me, this is one of the poorer efforts from the Fleischer studio. I think a lot of the charm from the classic Betty Boop cartoons comes from how gritty and campy they are, and this one felt a bit slick and polished. Not necessarily with its content, but with its less subtle narrative and a greater number of lines being spoken/sung by its characters. It is nice, though, in the way it combines the dull, listlessness of a live-action chess game with the cartoon wackiness that ensues throughout the game. The cool thing about this one is that it demonstrates, through a number of instances, the beautiful naughtiness of Pre-Code animation, particularly with a scene between Betty and the black king that implied bondage (but was also kinda rapey…?). Overall, I’d say this is one of the more forgettable shorts of its kind, but certainly not one to regret watching. Watch it here!

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8) The Candid Candidate (1937) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 4/10

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. While pre-Code Betty Boop was lively, quirky, and fun, post-Code Betty is, well, a boring, drab secretary. Her appearances in The Candid Candidate is also demoted to a supporting character to Grampy who, frankly, is really kinda plain and boring. Even more disheartening is how conventional the storyline to this film has gotten, presumably to rival the more consistent animation of Disney. While there are a couple moments that gave me a good laugh, for the most part, the fun hodgepodge of surrealistic imagery that made me love this cartoons is gone, opting for more conventional, “safer” material. Even separated from the high regard I have for Fleischer animation, this one is just dull and forgettable. Death to Grampy! Watch it here!

9) Let’s Sing With Popeye (1934) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 6/10

There’s not really too much to talk about with this one. It starts off with Popeye singing his theme song, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” as he walks around punching things. Later on, the audience of the film is prompted to sing along through a classic “bouncing ball” routine. This film is notable for being one of the first appearances of Popeye, as well as the first usage of his popular theme song. It’s entertaining while it lasts, but ultimately not quite as long or eventful as a regular Popeye cartoon and, therefore, rather fleeting. Watch it here!

10) Goonland (1938) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 6/10

Even as a kid, I never found Popeye cartoons particularly enjoyable. There are some exceptions – notably the Sindbad the Sailor short, which is just so fun – but for the most part, their uninteresting characters and predictable narrative arcs (Popeye eat spinach, now Popeye strong!) prevented them from really appealing to me all that much. Goonland was pretty cool in the way it slightly deviated from the latter structure, bringing in Popeye’s “Pappy” to consume the almighty spinach and save his son from danger. Nonetheless, the journey toward the climax is rather boring and bland, with the funniest things about it being the few lines muttered under Popeye’s breath. The “goons” themselves are even dull as presumed antagonists, with less personality than the brutish Bluto. Overall, it’s pretty good for a Popeye short, but I can’t see myself willingly watching any more of these anytime soon. Watch it here!

11) Somewhere in Dreamland (1936) – dir. Dave Fleischer

  • Rating: 9/10

During my viewing, I was astound by the sheer poignant beauty of Somewhere in Dreamland, especially knowing that this was something that came out of Fleischer studios. The animation here is more concerned with lush color schemes – lots of blues, pinks, and yellows – and a more complex style of animation to mimic the aesthetic of Disney. Personally, this would rank amongst Peace on Earth as one of the greatest animated shorts to come out of the 1930’s, although it certainly seems to be the more overlooked and under-praised. What I loved about its story – two children in poverty escaping into a lovely paradise in their dreams – is that it managed to be sentimental and full of emotion, without relying on preaching, cloying devices to do so. It’s simply a lovely short with beautiful animation (there’s a carousal scene that’s to die for), and an ending that is just so darn satisfying and heartwarming. Definitely one film that needs to be seen by more animation lovers. Watch it here!

12) Jungle Drums (1943) – dir. Dan Gordon

  • Rating: 5/10

Superman cartoons have never been my preference. Maybe it’s just a general distaste for nearly anything superhero related, but I always found them to be a bit boring. Now that I’ve watched more cartoons as an adult, however, one thing I can appreciate about Dave Fleischer’s first Superman cartoon, and now Jungle Drums, is the animation style, which is considerably sleeker and more realistic than most anything from the past. The creative implementation of light and shadows here is especially impressive. However, the ‘toon itself is still rather boring; even worse, it’s set out to be practically American war propaganda. Sure the idea of a US cartoon placing the Nazis in negative light (Der Fuehrer’s Face, anyone?) is no new thing. But the conflict of this whole short is to rescue Lois from an island inhabited by “savages” who are drawn rather… well, provocatively. Case and point, it’s pretty racist, if in a subtle way. Therefore, I don’t particularly see this being worth anyone’s time – unless you like Superman and superheroes and stuff. Watch it here!

Made in U.S.A. (1966) – dir. Jean-Luc Godard

  • Watched on 8 February
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 5/10

Goodness, Godard is really killing me. There are times where I think he’s an absolute bloody genius, reflected by some of his best films (Pierrot Le FouAlphavilleWeek End). And there are times where I simply just don’t get it; his vision seems certainly well-intentioned, but perhaps not quite so sure of itself. Made in U.S.A. lies in the latter category. While I think that this dismantling of the traditional Bogart-led crime thriller is clever and often kinda funny, for the most part it just feels incredibly misguided and messy. Anna Karina is pretty terrific, but at this point, I’ve just assume that she could basically save any film from oblivion. It’s apparent that Godard is adamant at teasing out the political implications of this anti-story, but with its unorganized proliferation of plot devices, ultimately resulting in… well, not really anything at all, it’s hard for me to take his vision all to seriously here. It’s drab and unconvincing, but hey, at least the colors are pretty.

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