Monthly Archives: October 2009

Jolly Halloween tidings in the Cotton Club style

Here’s an incredible cartoon clip from the Golden Age of animation, perfect for today. It’s from the 1933 Max Fleisher film “Snow White,” starring Betty Boop … and Cab Calloway as a smooth-movin’ clown who turns into a limber ghost.

I know!

Amazingly similar to the Disney version, down to the scat-singing clown. Eerie.

This trippy little segment features Calloway singing “St. James Infirmary Blues” while Boop/Snow is carried in her glass coffin. This animation (credited to Roland Crandall) is the kind of inventive, brain-bending stuff you just don’t find in modern animation, even when they try to pay homage to the Old Days. It’s just fantastic (as is most everything from Fleischer).

In the middle of the tune, the wicked witch transforms Calloway into a fluid-bodied ghost, whose movements were apparently traced from actual footage of Calloway dancing. You can tell.

He's like Halloween Charlie Brown plus Stretch Armstrong.

This is creepy, weird, wonderful, and worth every second of your time. “Snow White” is No. 19 on the “50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals” and it shows. Do you yourself a favor: Click on this link, and have a happy Halloween!

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In which I finally fix what bothers me about ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’

So: I love The Nightmare Before Christmas. I saw the original in the theater, including the theatrical return a couple years ago in 3D. I’ve seen it scads — scads — of times on video, then on DVD (even before I had kids to watch it with). Visually, there’s something new and playful and rewarding to find every time; and of course I’m a Danny Elfman guy from waaay back, so the catchy gothic carols never tire out my ear.

But storywise, something has always bothered me. The story hobbles in circles in the second act, and it has always left me feeling a bit restless. I identified this problem on first viewing, and even though I was able to tamp down my disquiet upon the repeats … man, this problem just won’t stop irritating my craw. And if I had just three things (the ear of director Harry Selick, the trust of screenwriter Caroline Thompson, and a time machine) I have a solution I would offer.

Need a refresher for the story? Here are the major beats you need to know:

1. The hero languishes. The movie opens with the Halloweentown creatures returning from another successful Halloween scarefest. They’re irrationally exuberant. But their leader, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is feeling down in the dumps. He’s in a rut from years of repetition, singing that “he’d give it all up if he only could.”

Doctors are yet to develop Zoloft for monsters.

2. The hero finds reason to carry on. Jack goes on an aimless walkabout, and he comes upon a circle of mystic portals — each one of these doors leads to “holiday lands.” Jack walks through a door shaped like a Christmas tree, and is transported to a North Pole village. He’s invigorated by the jolly fun he finds in this holiday hamlet. “There are people throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads! They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!” he sings.

It's awfully catchy.

3. The hero proselytizes. Jack returns to Halloween town in a snowmobile laden with Christmas-themed items he’s purloined. He calls a town meeting at once to explain to his fellow monsters about presents and Santa and “the special feelings” found in Christmas town. His fellow monsters are excited by his findings, but for different reasons: They think bows and stockings and such are for spreading horror, not joy. (“Now we pick up an oversized sock, and hang it like this on the wall–” “Oh, yes! Does it still have a foot? Let me see. Let me look! Is it rotted and covered in gook?”)

...bunch of philistines.

This scene begins my confusion: What is Jack trying to accomplish? The monsters are certainly excited about the items he’s found, but he’s unhappy still. I believe he’s trying to tell them “There can be more to life than scaring people,” though he never comes out and says this. Instead, he ends his town hall meeting by muttering, “Might as well give them what they want,” and he proceeds to provide a lurid description of “Sandy Claws” as a fearsome king of Christmas who “sets out to slay with his rain gear on.” The crowd eats this part up, but Jack walks away restless.

What does he want here? Why is it important he infect everyone else with his descriptions of Christmas joy?

4. The hero retreats to think. Jack hides away in his lair, where he muses, “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing.” Using the Scientific Method, he begins a series of silly experiments on ornaments and candy canes, trying to … uh, explain joy scientifically, I guess?

As Nog approaches infinity, the limit of Yule is Fruit-Pi.

This section is mostly a series of sight gags: teddy bears autopsied, candy canes electrocuted, holly berries crushed under microscopes. The end result is that Jack has an epiphany: Rather than explain Christmas, he’ll just take it over. He will replace Santa and deliver toys himself this year.

6. The rest of the movie happens. No need to belabor the rest of the plot: Halloween takes control of Christmas, and hilarity ensues. It’s a fun series of schemes and gags, ending in a perfectly played resolution — it’s just that middle section that bothers me, so let’s double back on it.

Why? Because it’s confusing. And slow. What does Jack want? Since taking over for Santa is a logical course of this plot, why does it take Jack so long to reach that conclusion? Again, what was he trying to accomplish by holding a town meeting and showing everyone his Yuletide spoils?

If he expected them to repent from scaring and adopt a peaceful outlook on life, he should have said so.

If he wanted them to start their own Christmas tradition in Halloweentown, he should have said that, too — after all the Mayor officially endorses such an idea during the song.

So we have an inconclusive scene in which nothing changes for either the hero or his allies. Instead it just harshes his bliss and furthers his funk.

Follow this ambiguity with a long section of Jack doing experiments … to what end? As the skeleton himself says when he boils an ornament in a beaker: “Interesting reaction. But what does it mean?

This section of restiveness from our hero ends with him suddenly — in mid-song even — deciding he doesn’t need to explain it, or to convince any monster to change his ways, he just needs to put on a Santa suit and do Christmas his own way. Which is what we’ve been waiting for him to do anyway.

So here’s the solution: Swap sections 3 and 4. Here’s how it plays out:

* Jack returns from Halloween town with his sack full of goodies. “Where have you been Jack?” cry his worried followers, but he brushes them off. “On an adventure. No time to explain. I’ve got to a lot to digest. I’ll tell you later.”

* Jack performs his battery of tests on his Christmas specimens. “What is this holiday about?” he mutters. “Why are those elves all so happy?” After exhausting himself, Jack realizes that, just like Halloween, Christmas is about spirits, but these are the spirits of giving and joy. By taking over Christmas, Halloweentown can finally share the feeling that he experienced at the North Pole. “Eureka!” he cries. “This year, Christmas will be ours!”

* Jack calls his town meeting. He shares the beribboned boxes and baubles, which entices but confuses the monsters. They want to make it another holiday of horror, but Jack convinces them that it must be different. It must be jolly!

Of course, we’ll see that a monster’s version of jolly is still far off the mark, but at least we’ll see Jack, the monsters, and the audience in complete agreement of what needs to happen next.

Even if you don’t agree with me, I think we can still find complete and total accord on this incontrovertible fact: The Harlequin Demon is the most insanely awesome invention ever.

His mouth goes all the way around his head. ALL THE WAY. AROUND. HIS. HEAD!

Agreed? Agreed.

Happy Halloween.

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Fall TV: What’s punching my dance card

What I’m watching this fall:

From the Twitter postings of "Community" actress Allison Brie. Aren't they all just so cute?

Community: I’ve already talked about how this show roared off the blocks — and as I predicted, the pilot was so good it made itself a tough act to follow. Subsequent episodes haven’t been as crackling, the humor a bit less zippy and incisive. But even when its jokes don’t split my gut, Community is still funnier than most other comedies. It’s swinging for the fences way more than other sitcoms, and my chief concern (that the selfish, narcissistic, con-artist lawyer would earn some redeeming value) is being addressed bit by bit. He’s still a shallow cad, but you can believe he’s looking for ways to be slightly less so. Whenever I think the jokes are flagging, I remember Chevy Chase’s response to getting an F (“Did you say S?”) and I’m all a-giggle again.

My two favorite characters on this show, played by John Cho and Christine Woods. They're fun to watch, with plenty roiling under their surfaces.

FlashForward: It would take a lot to shake me off this show, more even than the ’90s software spelling of the title (two words, two capitals, no space; right outta the Adobe playbook). FlashForward is a killer concept — a mass, worldwide blackout perpetrated by mask-wearing weirdos — and the first episode blitzed my senses with hook after delicious hook. That should be enough to ensure my butt is in my seat for this weekly, and so far my butt is fine with this arrangement. But, like Community, subsequent episodes have bogged down, dragging out the mystery with medical drama and political maneuvering and yawwwn. Sometimes I feel I’m watching a prize fight with a one-armed boxer: Fully conscious “walkies” are caught skulking during the blackout? BAM! Repetetive, boring flashforwards? Whiff. Mysterious towers in Somalia? BOOM! Surprisingly flat dialog? Whoosh. FlashForward yearns to be Lost, and it isn’t there yet. Its mysteries are intriguing; with time, I hope, they’ll become irresistible.

Tra! La! La!

Glee: I can admit it. On the list of Worst Things Ever in the Universe, you will not find Glee. I’m late to the party here, because I refused to give Glee the time of day at first. And why should I? As an adult male, I am duty bound to feel my flesh crawl at the sight of another High School Musical or a DeGrassi High reunion. But Glee took a factory-made formula (ragtag outsiders band together through the miracles of music and infectious enthusiasm) and added self-awareness, wit, ribaldry and mysophobia (fear of germs). It shouldn’t work. But it does. Some of the characters are horrible caricatures: the bitchy head cheerleader, the mohawked bully, the clearly-not-right-for-him wife of the protagonist. But the writing rises above the formula, helped by uncanny casting: Jane Lynch as the hilariously vindictive cheer coach, Chris Colfer as a gay kid’s gay kid, and Matthew Morrison as the cool-teacher Glee Club director. His crucial role could have come across as saccharine and Mousketeery, but Morrison plays it so gamely, he’s just plain genuine. The premise is light: In a school where Glee Club used to be popular, one determined former student plans to Welcome Back, Kotter a new club back to prominence. The actors know the campiness inherent in this but they squeeze that awareness like a Florida orange until something sparkly, biting and sweet (but not too sweet) trickles out. I can’t get over how brilliant something this cheesy can be, and I don’t understand how the creators accomplished it. Glee is a tightrope walker back-flipping along a filament I can’t even see. (Plus, if I had any reservations about watching a quasi-musical, high-school rom-com, Joss Whedon has announced he’ll be directing an episode, so now I know it’s cool.)

You'll never be so creeped out by children in matching sweaters.

Torchwood: Children of the Earth: OK, technically this is not a fall 2009 show; it’s the third season of a BBC show I’m watching via Netflix DVDs. This suggestion came to me from amiga Kathryn Achenbach in an e-mail titled: “Have I got five hours of television for you!” Well, that is a difficult dare to ignore, and I almost didn’t need the prompting of the rest of the e-mail, in which Kathryn called it “AWESOME. Like, no-they-didn’t, rip-out-your-heart awesome.” Strong praise indeed.  Torchwood is a spin-off of Doctor Who, and that’s a barrier I’ve never been able to leap. I’ve always found old episodes of DW to be much too hokey to enjoy. Yet Kathryn’s encouragement was too persuasive. I leapt into this 5-episode miniseries with both feet, and here’s my review: Anyone who cares about suspenseful, tight storytelling would be a fool not to tune into this. Aliens bound for earth use the world’s children to broadcast their taunting message: “We are coming … back.” The world freaks out, and Torchwood, Britain’s alien investigation team, finds itself classified a threat rather than an asset. Things get ugly. I’ll admit that, after catching up on the 2005 Doctor Who reboot starring Christopher Eccleston, DW proved to be much better property than I gave it credit for. Very watchable and enjoyable. DW fires a packed blunderbuss of crazy-future sci-fi at the viewer. But where the Doctor reaches for terror and often ends up with a handful of goofy, Torchwood is straight-up Ridley Scott with a Monty Python chaser. Fun, furious, essential viewing, even if you’ve never seen a single episode of either series.

Now I eagerly await the return of V to the airwaves next week. If it doesn’t stink, then life will be complete.

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Harry Potter and the Maddening Movie Logic

Just watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with the boys. After this, my second viewing, I am compelled to speak out. Spoilers ahead, Potter neophytes.

In the Potterverse, a rare wizard may turn himself into an animal at will; such a wizard is called an “animagus.”

When this person transforms from man to beast, he takes his clothes with him. Thus, if you start like so:

Gary Oldman: stone cold scary no matter the character.

… you can abracadabra yourself to look like so:

Walkies!

… without so much as turning out your pockets. Very efficient!

It works in reverse as well. If you skitter about in your fur one moment thusly:

He'd probably get better treatment on the Secret of NIMH set.

… you can pop back to your old two-legged self the next moment without having to dash for your clothes:

I always wondered: Does he look like a rat because he can turn into one? Or was it just a conincidence that a guy with those teeth would get the rat-shifting superpower? Is predestination a distinctly Potterian property?

Poof! Instant suit. No awkward naked scenes for actor Timothy Spall.

And even though I greatly enjoyed Prisoner of Azkaban the book, and found Prisoner of Azkaban the movie to be a jolt of zippy energy to the Potter franchise, and generally think director Alfonso Cuaron is aces, here’s the kind of thing that bugs the snot out of me:

"A-B-C ya later, Potter byotches!"Fails ...... interior ...... logic!

This character is Mousing Out without taking the suit with him. He leaves a big empty pile of duds behind before scampering off in rat form. There’s no good in-story reason why he would not transform with duds (Who couldn’t use a change of clothes and a wallet when he decides to walk on two legs again?) nor is there an in-world rule that could wave this away (e.g., “It takes more time to magic  up the clothes,” or “It requires extra wizardy power to transform polyester into fur.”).

No, the only good reason to do this is because it looks cool to see an emptied suit crumple to the ground. Which is true. This is a swell visual. But it sure makes wizards (and the people who create them) seem like a sloppy bunch.

Meanwhile, in the background of this scene, we can see what a person who changes into an animal without transforming his clothes really is:

"Werewolf?""There wolf.""What hump?"

That’s right, punks. It’s a werewolf. Which makes Scabbers a wererat, doesn’t it? Book it, Potter peeps.

MADDENING ADDENDUM

And another thing.

Cuaron missed a perfect opportunity to really sell a hard-to-buy moment in this film.

Early in the film, Cuaron adds a really nice character moment that’s not in the books. After all the requisite slam-bang plot points from the book are duly acted out in order, he slows us down for just a moment to show Harry and his friends settling into the school year at Hogwarts. They’re behaving like kids — more importantly, behaving like characters we can like and relate to. The camera floats through Harry’s dorm room as he and his friends are goofing about, sampling magical candy that causes lifelike animal sounds to emanate from their pipes:

Dean's got his necktie around his head; we Gryffindors defy your rules, man!

I believe Neville's pose is the dictionary defintion of "chillaxin'."

I am Weasley. Hear me roar.

In a plot-packed Potter movie, it’s rare to have such a jolly, story-free moment for the main characters. All on its own, this is a great addition of the film to the franchise. But Cuaron could have made it an essential scene if he had invoked the playwright’s principle known as “Chekov’s Gun”: If you show the audience a gun in Act One, it had better be fired in Act Three.

So over here in Act Three, the audience is confronted with a werewolf ambling up to a victim (the kind of predictably slow movie amble that gives the hero time to act). How will this victim be saved?

I'm a getchoo!

Brave Hermione, who stands in the distance, puts her hands to her mouth and howls like a wolf, that’s how.

Fancy yodeling there, Swiss Miss.

It sounds like a girl pretending to howl like a wolf. But the werewolf buys it.

I say! That sounds like equally vulnerable prey -- only farther off! I had best pursue it, then!

For whatever reason, though it stands here with a wizard-sized meal waiting within a claw’s reach, it hears this fake howl in the distance and decides, “Ho! I had better follow up on that!”

This asks too much of the audience. It jerked me out the movie, that’s for sure. If only Cuaron had remembered his magical candies from Act One.

Imagine: Hermione pops a candy into her mouth, and hey presto, she belts a real ripping wolf howl. Or a wounded sheep bleat. Or an enraged Godzilla torching Tokyo.Whatever, it could have sounded like something worth pursuing to the exclusion of the sitting duck right in front of him.

How much more satisfying (and believable) would this moment have been?

With all my kvetching, you’d almost think I was a Potter hater, but I’m the furthest thing. It’s only because I’m so invested in the movie that I want scenes like these to work. I want to believe. Alas, the World’s Dumbest Lycanthrope is begging me to blow raspberries, and who am I to deny a werewolf his wishes?

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The Musical Reckoning Cometh: Your favorite tunes vs. your Most Played

Filmmaker Edgar Wright made a fascinating observation in a recent blog post: “If you were asked to come up with your ten favourite songs, I would lay money on it not being exactly the same ten as your most played songs on your iTunes.”

What? Surely not. Granted, not all my favorite tunes are on my iTunes, but still, there must be some correlation, right? So I took the Edgar Wright Challenge and looked at my Most Played list … and was amazed. Not necessarily in a good way.

First a caveat: I tend not to select specific tracks to listen to in iTunes, but to let the DJ function shuffle them for me as I work. Not always, but usually. Also, my numbers look a little low, thanks to a complete hard drive re-install in the last year, and more recent tendency to listen to blip.fm instead of my own iTunes selections. In other words, this is a pretty limited sample size, and possibly statistically insignificant. But it starts to paint a picture. My tastes are hinted at, but not nearly as eclectic and intellectual (read: snooty) as I might have liked.

Responsible for 20 percent of my top 10 most played, apparently.

Responsible for 20 percent of my top 10 most played, apparently.

1. “Send Me On My Way,” Rusted Root. (9 plays) Wow, OK. I love Rusted Root, but this is far from my favorite tune of theirs. I tend to get enough of it after years of frequent re-viewings of Ice Age with the little ones. (Which is a surprisingly durable movie.) Still. Hunh.

2. “Strange Overtones,” David Byrne and Brian Eno (7 plays) Great song. Their collaborative album “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is a masterful “We still got it” statement from Byrne and Eno.

3. “Scherzo No. 3: Presto con fuoco in C-sharp minor, Opus 39” Chopin (played by Emmanuel Ax) (7 plays) I call up these recordings of Ax playing Chopin a lot, but am stunned that the most-played tuned isn’t Scherzo No. 1, which is the world’s most brain-melting display of piano virtuosity. To me, No. 1 is the ultimate creative expression of all time, not just from the mind that conceived it but from the fingers that can play it. (Listen to a recording of Scherzo No. 1 here — it’s not Emmanuel Ax but it’s still blistering.) Of course, No. 3 is no slouch either, and it’s welcome in the top 10.

4. “Rain,” Rusted Root (7 plays) That’s more like it. Not my top Rusted Root favorite (that would be “Food and Creative Love“), but a great example of this band’s eclecticism and wit.

5. “Istanbul,” They Might Be Giants (7 plays) A great song in its own right, and it gets extra play with kids in the house.

6. “Goody Two Shoes,” Adam Ant (6 plays) Whoa. Really? Really? I … I had no idea. I can’t even pin this one on the kids.

7. “Call and Answer,” Barenaked Ladies (6 plays) The entire “Stunt” album gets a lot of replay in my house because lately it’s what Youngest Daughter and I will play when we’re tidying up the house together. “Call and Answer” is probably my favorite song on the album.

8. “Who Needs Sleep?,” Barenaked Ladies (6 plays) Perhaps it gets more repeat play for its thematic relevance in my life.

9. “Make Me,” Famous Tomorrow (6 plays) Ha! Really? This is not a commercially available tune, but an amateur theme song for the soundtrack of an amateur film I only marginally helped make with old amigo Will Carton. (My contribution? Shuttling the youth talent to the set.) “Make Me” is an entry in Joss Whedon’s open casting call for short films to appear on his Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog DVD. In DHSAB, a half-baked villain seeks entry in the Evil League of Evil, so Whedon asked fans to film other villains seeking admittance to the League. Make Me’s application didn’t get selected for the DVD, but thanks to the Internet, it lives on. I don’t know where Will found his guys to do the theme song, but it’s pretty hilarious.

10. “Anduril,” Howard Shore, “Return of the King” soundtrack (6 plays) OK, sure. It was great music for a great film. But why the song about the sword?  I would have thought that the track with the most replays would have been the one for that tag-team string of mountainous bonfires. Aw yeah, remember that? That was sweet. I think I’ll go listen to it now.

Thanks for the introspection, Edgar Wright. Now get back to finishing  the Scott Pilgrim movie!

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Three-Word Review of “Bottle Shock”

Upside-down “Sideways.”

Captions don’t count:  “Bottle Shock,” like its soul-sister “Sideways,” makes much hay from its “wine is like life” metaphors, but unlike the brilliant older sibling, this movie lacks the kind of crisp finish required to truly please the palate. “Sideways” was about people who love wine; “Bottle Shock” is about wine and the people who love it. The central story, about nascent California wineries making a splash at a blind French tasting, isn’t deep enough to carry the action, so the restless characters must bounce off each other for a while until the heavily telegraphed finale. (Seen the trailer? You’ve seen the movie.) My main objection is not that it’s slow (it is); it’s not that the main characters are thin and sometimes grating (they are); it’s that, in scene after scene, the action revolves around people tasting wine and reacting with wide-eyed wonder and gasps of orgasmic rapture. At one point, I told my wife, “Man, I wish I felt that way about a sip of wine.”  Hell, I’d love to feel that way about anything.

Captions don’t count: “Bottle Shock,” like its soul-sister “Sideways,” makes much hay from its “wine is like life” metaphors, but unlike the brilliant older sibling, this movie lacks the kind of crisp finish required to truly please the palate. “Sideways” was about people who love wine; “Bottle Shock” is about wine and the people who love it -- and wine makes a pretty flat lead actor. The central story, about nascent California wineries making a splash at a blind French tasting, isn’t deep enough to carry the action, so the restless characters must bounce off each other for a while until the heavily telegraphed finale. (Seen the trailer? You’ve seen the movie.) My main objection is not that it’s slow (it is); it’s not that the main characters are thin and sometimes grating (they are); it’s that, in scene after scene, the action revolves around people tasting wine and reacting with wide-eyed wonder and gasps of orgasmic rapture. At one point, I told my wife, “Man, I wish I felt that way about a sip of wine.” Hell, a guy would be lucky to feel that way about *anything.*

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How to desensitize your children to their natural fear of deadly monsters

Some years ago, we added a spookity battery-operated ghoul-thingy to our sparse Halloween display. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was on sale.

The thing is, it had a motion detector that made it shake and laugh maniacally when you walked near. Naturally, we were concerned this might freak out our very young children.

So we staged an introduction, like a couple of adoption agents showing three little children their new father for the first time.

Us: “Kids, look what we bought for Halloween. Ooh, isn’t it spooky looking? But he isn’t spooky, really. He’s nice. He’s funny.”

Kids: Skeptical looks.

Us: “He’s just laughing, see? He must think something is funny!”

Kids: “…”

Us: “He’s just a silly, silly man. Let’s call him … Peter. Yeah, his name is Peter. You’re not scared of Peter, are you?”

Kids: “Heh … Peter? Heh. Hi, Peter.”

It worked. The name Peter totally robbed this disgusting monster of all its menace. Now we have the least scary array of Halloween decorations in our house, from Peter the ghoul to Pat the ghost, and these beasts hold absolutely no sway over our children.

Let us pray the Zombie Apocalypse doesn’t happen in the next decade or my children will probably run willy-nilly into those open and waiting zombie arms.

“I like this one! He’s silly! Let’s call him Steve. Maybe he likes to play … AIGGH! MY BRAIN!”

Youngest Daughter show Peter who's boss. Next we'll be reprogramming her illogical fear of rattlesnakes.

Youngest Daughter shows Peter who's boss. Next we'll be reprogramming her illogical fear of rattlesnakes.

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