Thursday, July 07, 2005


What can I say about the London bombings that even sounds genuine? That I pray people are alright? Sure, it's literally the least you can do to show you care; there's not even any physical effort required. It's a selfish way of satisfying this need people have to look like they care about something so impersonal happening so far off (far from where I sit, at any rate). So I'm not here to say that I support the troops, support our allies, etc.

Besides, I'm not sad. I'm fucking pissed off. I'm pissed off because our unprovoked invasion of Iraq has set us at war with the entire Muslim world. I'm pissed off because during Bill Clinton's presidency, our anti-terrorist measures were so good that the only terrorist attacks we had were from disgruntled Americans and not foreign agitators, but Bush is barely in office and on his first longest vacation in presidential history than nobody's watching the door and the terrorists flood into the airports and kill thousands of Americans. I'm pissed that Bush delayed the counterstrike so long that Osama bin Laden snuck out of Afghanistan before we got there. And I'm pissed that he turned this thing around to attack Iraq rather than a country that actually had terrorists in it. Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction? Well, to be fair, his neighbor and enemy Iran already had them. Why don't we talk about the Iranian support the Iraqi rebels are getting? Or the fact that most of the 9/11 terrorists were in fact Saudi, not Afghani or Iraqi?

I'm pissed because our allies are feeling this violence, too. First Madrid and now London. At least Tony Blair isn't going to cave in to cowardice the way the Spanish did. These tragic attacks were, as always, aimed at the public rather than government locations. And during the G-8 Conference, too, so that terrorism and the war is now pushed to the front of talks, instead of poverty, disease, and the global economy.

We will never get out of this Dark Age in my lifetime. Three children will still die every minute in Africa, simply because they were unlucky enough to be born on a continent just as bloody and war-torn as the Middle East. We continue to support the murderers who sit in power in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but not help the poor of Africa. America, England, Spain, Germany, China, Japan, and France could work together to eliminate poverty and inequity, but they won't. George W. Bush won't even reduce car emissions to cut down on pollution. Why should he be bothered to help Africa?

If you think Darth Dubya has any interest in fighting terrorism, you've been fooled into voting more power into the hands of criminals. The whole point of this war on terrorism is that it cannot be won. It will never be over. We attempt to fight a "nice" war against enemies who are not traditionally organized, who have no national borders, and who are not scared of dying. The only real solution, I hate to say, seems to be to simply kill them all. There is no reason in war. But, hey, as long as you're all terrified, the government can expect your support as they gut the Bill of Rights, give more power to commercial interests, and run the country into the ground. It makes it easier to control--er, protect--you if you just give up all those pesky civil and private rights to Big Brother, doesn't it?

This country doesn't even deserve its freedom anymore. The sheep just want to graze and never look up to see what's going on in the slaughterhouse.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Riding the Hype Storm: A Journey Through EW's Summer Must List

Ah, summer, the time for hype and incessant purchasing. Never ones to claim integrity, Entertainment Weekly (the appropriately-initialed "ew") likes to put out a list every summer that masquerades as a list of things to look forward to, but is basically a missive detailing what you must buy over the next year to be with it.

Well, in honor of this Cavalcade of Crap, I’ve got a few comments on some of their picks. I couldn’t comment on them all because, well, what’s the point?

1. Superman Reborn
Why It’s On the List: This is a long-troubled project, in development since at least 1996, and Bryan Singer is finally bringing it to the screen.
Why It Sucks: Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman is still the perfect superhero movie. Nothing against remakes, especially of such an iconic character who seems to beg for periodic reconfiguration (and I quite loved the recent animated series), but Bryan Singer’s plans sound idiotic. He’s using the John Williams score from Donner’s version, and inserting in clips of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. It’s his way of saying: "I loved Superman, but you know what would be even better–if I directed it." The casting is awful, especially Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane; Bosworth has never once registered as a personality for me, and I think I’ve seen her in something like four movies. Plus it’s got Kevin Spacey, who will no doubt play Lex Luthor the same way he plays every role: as if Jack Lemmon were playing it. And the guy playing Superman is, I’m sorry, too young. The costume, which is suddenly dark blue and maroon, looks ridiculous. And let’s just look at the "epic" directorial style of Mr. Singer: flat, intimate, and claustrophobic, as if all the characters were just sitting and playing chess. This is going to suck worse than Fantastic Four.

2. Jessica Alba
Why She’s On the List: Because she was in Sin City, she’s in Fantastic Four, and she’s got another movie coming out which is supposedly going to propel her to stardom, called Into the Blue.
Why She Sucks: Although I’ve come around on the adorability factor of Jessica Alba, she still can’t act. Her biggest claim to fame so far has been starring on Dark Angel, James Cameron’s pedophile-friendly TV ripoff of Battle Angel Alita. Sin City was good, even though she was too afraid to take off her top to play a character who is nude in Frank Miller’s comic book so often that it’s become the iconic image of the series, and anyone could have played her role as long as they were cute enough. Fantastic Four, from the triumphant director of Taxi, looks somehow less serious than the maligned 1993 Roger Corman version (although the makeup for the Thing is more or less the same). And judging from the previews of Into the Blue, although I’m sure Alba can hold her own against Paul Walker (though any monkey could), it looks like the kind of stupid thriller they used to play on CBS at eleven on Saturdays while everyone else was watching Saturday Night Live. It has about as much chance of making her a star as Honey was supposed to have.

3. The Cast of Serenity
Why They’re On the List: Serenity is the movie version of the cancelled Fox series Firefly, and it’s supposed to be amazing that the fans of the show bought enough DVDs to justify a movie (more of that "triumph of the viewer" crap, even though it's just a triumph of commercialism).
Why They Suck: Have you seen the previews for Serenity? It looks like a straight-to-video movie if I ever saw one. It’s directed with the scope of a television show, and the special effects are about the same level. Besides that, Firefly may possibly be the worst SF series since Space: Above and Beyond. Joss Whedon wants to be comedic, but at the same time he takes each one of his shows so fucking seriously that the humor comes across as stilted and smugly self-referential. A Western as an SF epic? Maybe in the 1950s. Now it’s just tired and wheezy.

4. Tom Welling and Maggie Grace
Why They’re On the List: They’re starring in a remake of John Carpenter’s second worst film, The Fog.
Why They Suck: Dude, have any of the recent horror remakes been any good?

5. Bradley Cooper
Why He’s On the List: He’s starring in a highly-anticipated Fox series this fall, Kitchen Confidential, based on the Anthony Bourdain memoir.
Why He Sucks: Okay, remember back in the late nineties when Iron Chef was some weird cult thing that you only heard of because your girlfriend loved in Food Network? Well, then Entertainment Weekly discovered it and it became a thing, and suddenly there were food shows everywhere, and then there were food reality shows like The Restaurant and Hell’s Kitchen. And now, they’re fictionalizing it for a show? Does that mean this love affair with food shows is finally over? And you know what happens to the "highly-anticipated" Fox series? They get cancelled. Quickly. Remember Skin and Girls’ Club? Me neither.

6. Ziyi Zhang
Why She’s On the List: She was just in House of Flying Daggers, and she’s got two movies coming out this year, including the long-awaited Memoirs of a Geisha.
Why She Sucks: Actually, she doesn’t–she’s extremely talented. I just wanted to point out that I was fine when she was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and she was still Zhang Ziyi. The Americanizing of her name just really bugs me, it’s like they’ve already started the homogenization process.

7. James Gandolfini
Why He’s On the List: Because EW is apparently required to talk about The Sopranos four times in every issue.
Why He Sucks: Am I the only guy who doesn’t think the Mafia is funny or interesting? It’s the same joke over and over again. Get over it, guys. And Gandolfini in particular sucks; he has two modes: glower and smile evilly, or be strained when trying to talk. Okay, next audition, please.

8. Cillian Murphy
Why He’s On the List: He’s the villain in Batman Begins and Red Eye.
Why He Sucks: Remember when Paul Bettany was going to be the Next Hugh Grant? Probably not.

9. Coldplay
Why They’re On the List: Their new album, X&Y, is supposed to be pretty good.
Why They Suck: They started off a whole new wave of wuss rock not seen since Rick Astley tried to convince the clubs that he was cool. Thanks to the success of Coldplay’s particular brand of bland, inoffensive, repetitive piano notes, now I have to put up with groups like Keane. Thanks, Chris Martin.

10. Custom Design Shoes
Why They’re On the List: Services like Puma’s Mongolian Shoe, Vans Customs, Converse One, and NikeiD allow you to custom design your own sneakers.
Why They Suck: Because girls defacing their Chucks with nail polish and drawing on your Reeboks with a Sharpie while bored in class is a time-honored school tradition, and just like everything you ever did as a kid, it’s been co-opted by big business and now they’re selling it back to you. It’s another attempt to convince you that your personal identity and your self-worth is completely dependant on you buying shit and participating in the consumerist wheel. Doesn’t anyone have their own personality anymore?

11. Melissa Etheridge
Why She’s On the List: She survived cancer.
Why She Sucks: Because surviving cancer (achievement though it is) has nothing to do with pop culture, and her music still blows.

12. Patrick Dempsey
Why He’s On the List: He’s on everyone’s new favorite ER ripoff, Grey’s Anatomy.
Why He Sucks: He’s still Patrick Dempsey.

13. iTunes Celebrity Playlists
Why They’re On the List: Honestly, I have no idea. The item, which treats iTunes as though it were a person (oh, drollery, thy initials be EW!), seems to think Celebrity Playlists are a joke, but goes to the trouble of talking about them.
Why They Suck: Have you bothered to look at them? They are jokes! Ooh, who knew Ciara would be into R&B?

14. Josh Lucas
Why He’s On the List: He’s got three movies coming out this year, including Stealth, this summer’s obligatory ridiculous faux-SF movie that no one will like except dumb people.
Why He Sucks: Dude, he’s Josh Lucas. Were we already done with Matthew McConaughey that we needed to replace him? Because Josh Lucas is, like, the New Coke of McConaugheys.

15. Nicole Kidman
Why She’s On the List: Because when she divorced Tom the Alien Baptist, EW had their editorial staff permanently graft their lips onto Nicole Kidman’s butt.
Why She Sucks: Remember that great film Nicole Kidman was in? No, I don’t, either. Probably because there has yet to be one. Her acting career has been such a joke, and the fact that she stars in what our culture has to be jokingly calling prestige projects and wins an Oscar (apparently they’re just giving these things away now) and is taken seriously as an actor says a lot about how shitty our pop culture is right now. Forty years from now, young guys are going to look at her films and wonder what the fuck we saw in her.

16. Matt Dillon
Why He’s On the List: He’s the villain in Herbie: Fully Loaded.
Why He Sucks: If he were doing well, would he need to be the villain in Herbie: Fully Loaded? Ever since There’s Something About Mary, he’s been ripping off Bruce Campbell’s shtick like there’s no tomorrow. His brother out-acts him on Entourage.

17. System of a Down
Why They’re On the List: They released two albums this year.
Why They Suck: Dude, why does everyone like System of a Down all of a sudden? Ooh, they released two albums. So did Foo Fighters, and you didn’t have to spend an extra eighteen bucks to get both of them. System of a Down has apparently become the poster for this new brand of faux alternative crap rock that is supposed to be all independent and "different." Thanks, but I already have albums by Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd.

18. Fiona Apple
Why She’s On the List: Because everyone’s still pretending they loved her previous exercises in stupid pretentiousness.
Why She Sucks: Because she’s more stupid and pretentious than Jewel, and that’s saying a lot.

19. John Kirhoffer
Why He’s On the List: He produces Survivor.
Why He Sucks: Who watches Survivor anymore?

20. Malcolm X on DVD
Why It’s On the List: I have no idea.
Why It Sucks: Have you seen Malcolm X? It’s about 90 minutes too long, and the third act is tedious.

21. Rachel Bilson
Why She’s On the List: She’s on stupid tastemaking show The OC.
Why She Sucks: Who?

22. Joss Stone
Why She’s On the List: Because white pop culture media is still kissing her ass.
Why She Sucks: Am I the only one who’s sick of her yet? She’s the kind of darling the pop culture media loves: a white chick who can sing a black form of music. Because, you know, people can say they love soul music, but they love it a little better when Dusty Springfield comes along and makes it safe for white people. Go out and buy Aretha Franklin’s albums instead.

23. The Click Five
Why They’re On the List: Because somebody apparently paid EW to hype a band that no one had heard of yet and whose debut album doesn’t come out until August 16.
Why They Suck: You’ve probably heard their debut single, "Just the Girl," on either Radio Disney or the promos for every single show on the WB. They’re already just another media creation, and their song is just the newest in a line of summer singles that get annoying almost instantly (but people in their 40s seem to love them). You can draw a direct line from "King of Wishful Thinking" and "I Wanna Be Rich" in the early nineties, to "Stacy’s Mom," "1985," and "Just the Girl." Snore.

23. Rich Harrison
Why He’s On the List: He’s the new lame in-demand R&B producer (does that mean we can finally get rid of Kanye West?).
Why He Sucks: Here are his three big hits: Beyonce’s "Crazy in Love," Jennifer Lopez’s "Get Right," and Amerie’s "One Thing." Notice anything about those? That’s right–they’re all the same song! Maybe he should change his name to One-Trick Pony.

Tell me again why I pay attention to pop culture?

Evaluating Disney: An Introduction

Sure, it's coming too late, but I started the whole thing on a bit of a lark, and now that I'm apparently going to be spending the rest of my life on it, I wanted to define a set of parameters for the whole enterprise.

First, the purpose of this is to evaluate the history of animation in America, for which Disney animation forms the main line. Walt Disney, of course, was not the first American animator, and some of the influence he had in his early days is debatable. But as the 1950s came to a close, very few animation studios were left, and Disney's was the only one turning out regular features.
But in the 1950s, Disney became more interested in other projects, one of which was live action films. Therefore, this Evaluating Disney series will eventually encompass not only the Disney True Life Adventures and People and Places films, but the live action films as well; from the first one, Treasure Island in 1950, to this summer's films, Herbie: Fully Loaded and Sky High.

There are, however, a few things that will not appear in this series:

1. The You And... series, which were primarily made as 16mm educational films for schools.
2. The I'm No Fool series, which were created along similar lines (but had a really catchy theme song sung by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket).
3. Anything, animated or live action, done for the TV series: Disneyland, Walt Disney's World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney, or whatever you want to call it, there is currently no way to track down these films. Therefore, I'm sticking to (mostly) theatrical releases. Which brings me to...
4. Straight-to-video films. I have no interest in sequels to any of the films that were made while Walt was still alive, and I will not be viewing them (even the theatrical releases such as Return to Neverland). These are cheap cash-ins, and I like to think that Walt would have felt the same way. He hated sequels, too. Movies like The Lion King II or Pocahontas II, however, I've already seen and don't mind discussing.
5. Disney Channel Original Movies. There's only one that I like, anyway (Cadet Kelly, with Hilary Duff).
6. Any television series produced by Disney.
7. Movies based on television series, like Recess: School's Out, Doug's First Movie (which turned out to be the last), and the surprisingly good Teacher's Pet movie. There may end up being some exceptions, but for the most part, I have no interest in these things. That also includes the recent video releases Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time and the other one.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Disney meant to release this as their animated feature in 1993, but lost their nerve and released it through their Touchstone label. I don't consider it a Disney movie, though I do love it.
9. Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures. Life is short enough as it is. I will, however, make it a point to discuss Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which is a huge influence on their current animation.
10. The Hayao Miyazaki films released by Disney. Disney is only distrubiting films by Miyazaki (perhaps the greatest animator of all time) and his Studio Ghibli. I'll be eventually discussing Miyazaki in an upcoming Masters of Animation.
11. Pixar. Same thing; Disney really only distributes those films and takes the credit.

The Masters of Animation series will run concurrently, because focusing only on Disney while discussing the history of animation would be a mistake. Many other greats contributed in numerous ways to the art form, and it is my pleasure to discuss as many of them as I can.

Hope you enjoy this series.

Richard Shickel: I Am So Disappointed In You

I love Richard Schickel's documentaries on film. Although I felt his Scorsese on Scorsese skipped over too many films, Woody Allen: A Life in Film was the definitive (and surprising) record on the great filmmaker's point of view. The Men Who Made the Movies is an excellent series of films. His books are required reading for film buffs, too: for example, his critical study The Disney Version has made quite an antidote to Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. In short, I respect Richard Schickel the way I no longer respect Roger Ebert.

But last night, Turner Classic Movies aired his newest documentary, Watch the Skies, a study of the impact (and meaning) of science fiction films on pop culture in the 1950s. It was slight, I felt, but still pretty interesting (documentaries on science fiction never, ever, ever take the right tack and are always, always too slight and glib, as though the genre deserves no respect). Despite the fact that he only talked to four filmmakers--Spielberg (because God forbid we don't get to know what he thinks of SF), Lucas (quick note to George: War of the Worlds was written in the 1890s, not during World War I), James Cameron, and (for some reason) Ridley Scott. But, since this was only an hour long and only about a specific type of film, I understood. And, surprisingly, Spielberg and Cameron did have some interesting things to say (although, as always, Spielberg can only relate his "deep" insights to how he felt about them).

But the last ten minutes are unforgiveable. The entire ending was basically devoted to showing clips from Spielberg's new The War of the Worlds (actually, this being the 21st century and people no longer able to do anything with the language other than murder it, I'm pretty sure they've dropped the definite article and just left us with War of the Worlds; this always bothers me). And Spielberg, who suffers from the dichotomy of being unbelievably pretentious while also having some deep need to ingratiate himself with the lowest common denominator (which is most of his audience), talks about World War II and the Holocaust and how War of the Worlds is his attempt to capture the American refugee experience and September 11. And I didn't think it was possible, but I want to see War of the Worlds less now than I did a couple of days ago. Spielberg just can't seem to make a film without begging to be liked and respected, and it all comes off so damn offensive.

So, basically, the entire thing was an hour-long commercial for War of the Worlds. Way to go, Shickel and TCM. So this is why Watch the Skies didn't air last month, when TCM was showing old science fiction movies (including several mentioned in the film, like Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World). And a documentary on SF movies from the 50s that didn't once mention Invasion of the Body Snatchers or discuss in detail Earth vs. the Flying Saucers? I guess it doesn't really matter, since the Spielberg stuff at the end makes the whole thing look like all science fiction movies were just the lead-in to War of the Worlds. Is that Richard Schickel's point? That all SF movies about alien invasions were simply prelude to Spielberg's newest pretentious, antifeminist statement?

Shame on you, Schickel. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume Spielberg would only talk to you if you showed clips from War of the Worlds and delayed the airing until his movie opened. But why not be the first guy in 25 years to do a documentary on SF that doesn't need to be blessed by the presence of Spielberg? That would truly be unique.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

No Film Week this week, but happy belated Independence Day, y'all! Posted by Picasa

Evaluating Disney: 1934

By 1934, Disney was facing money problems. The cost of an average Mickey Mouse short was $13,500, and despite Mickey's popularity, Disney was only breaking even on that kind of investment. When color was added to the Silly Symphonies, the cost ran up to $27,500 per short--meaning that the series, despite its great technological strides and the fascination of novelty, was actually losing money for Walt. Walt even had a near nervous breakdown from the money woes, and developed a weird obsession with death. Mickey Mouse was incredibly popular, and many fans wanted to see him be nothing but good, writing angry letters whenever he did something mean--which was the Mouse's early nature.

How popular was Mickey Mouse? The marketing blitz had begun in 1930, with a few products and a comic strip from King Features. By 1934, Disney had a staff just to handle licensing deals, and 80 companies (including RCA Victor and General Foods) were selling something in the image of the Mouse. As a sideline, business was great--Disney earned about $300,000 a year on licensing, as opposed to about $22,000 on a short cartoon (and not always that, either). It was around this time that the Ingersoll Watch Company issued the first of their beloved Mickey Mouse watches.Madame Toussaud put Mickey in her wax museum, and Disney became the first filmmaker accepted into the Art Worker's Guild of London. There were 1500 fan clubs devoted to Mickey in America, and more overseas. The Duchess of Alba, descended from Goya's mistress, had her Mickey Mouse doll painted into her first official portrait. Mickey had invaded Europe with his charm, and he was being dubbed into three languages. In France, Michel Souris (or Mickey Sans Culotte) was a popular hit. In Spain, Miguel Ratancito beckoned from the marquee. In Italy, Benito Mussolini himself loved the adventures of Topolino. Mickey was Musse Pigg in Sweden, Mikel Mus in Greece. He began to take over the world, proving appealing in any language. In Japan, he was called Miki Kuchi, and a poll placed him second in popularity to only the emperor himself. Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa professed his love for Mickey, and the Nizam of Hyderabad screened dozens of Mickey Mouse shorts. Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King loved Mickey, and so did President Franklin D. Roosevelt at home, and England's King George V refused to go to the movies unless Mickey Mouse was to precede the main feature. And in 1937, the demand for Michael Maus was so rampant in Germany, that Adolf Hitler--who had banned the Mouse because the cats wore German helmets in The Barnyard Battle--was forced to let him back in the country. Not even Chaplin could do that.

In Africa, it was discovered that some tribes would not accept soap as a gift unless Mickey Mouse was imprinted on it. Other tribes carried images of Mickey to ward off evil spirits. According to Richard Schickel's invaluable book The Disney Version, one traveler reported seeing a Mickey Mouse sticker on a window in one of the most remote places on Earth--Manchuli, the snowy land where the Chinese Eastern Railway meets the Transsiberian Line.

Walt himself was awarded a medal and a scroll by the League of Nations that called Mickey an international symbol of goodwill. In Paris while touring Europe to accept the award, Walt saw that in many European theaters his cartoons were billed above the feature and, in many cases, played without a feature at all. He and his brother Roy had heard of an exhibitor, Willard G. Triest, who had put together a 55-minute program of Disney shorts, which opened to a gala premiere in Stockholm that was attended by the democratic corps. On another night, members of the royal family came. The show was so popular it played for 14 weeks without a main feature of any kind. One night, Triest heard there were some children who had been missing all day from the Japanese embassy--he found them in his theater, sitting through his Disney program for the seventh time that day.

Triest was invited to repeat the show in Paris...which is where Walt Disney saw it, and realized that people would gladly sit through feature-length animation. Provided the quality was there, which was foremost in Walt's mind. Throughout 1934, he began working on a new feature, based on a movie he had loved as a kid: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1/13: The China Shop
A Silly Symphony where nothing much happens. It's the typical Symphony plot: things dance, things sing, an evil thing makes all kinds of trouble and is defeated. How quickly this series developed a tedious routine... That said, some of the animation is extremely well done (Art Babbitt was one of the animators, and Wilfred Jackson directed); the dance scene from The Clock Store is repeated to better effect, and the colors and effects animation are astoundingly good. It may succeed only on technique, but when the technique is this good, does it matter?

1/13: Shanghaied
Around this time, a few changes occured. Mickey himself has been sublty redesigned. Minnie Mouse has, for the first time, a voice that isn't incredibly irritating. And the backgrounds became lighter and less detailed. So, although this cartoon--one of those where Mickey has to rescue Minnie from Pegleg Pete--is fairly well-animated, it also looks less special. The backgrounds are so undetailed that it looks sparse.

2/10: The Grasshopper and the Ants
Certainly the best Disney cartoon of the year, one of their best overall, and the second hit song for Silly Symphonies: "The World Owes Me a Living," sung by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy. Despite being a fun cartoon, there is also an interesting Depression-era thing going on here. The Grasshopper wears a fancy top hat and tails, while the ants have a sort of proletarian work ethic going. When the winter (read Depression) comes, the Grasshopper has wasted everything and the conscientious workers have saved all of their food and weather the storm far better. However, they take in the Grasshopper and allow him to work by playing and singing, implying that art is a valuable contribution to society. Either way you read it, this Wilfred Jackson-directed short is pure enjoyment from start to finish.

2/17: Camping Out
How nice to see Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow again, especially knowing their days are numbered. Walt didn't care for these personality-free supporting characters, not least of which because they were remnants of the circle-and-hose animation style that Disney was trying to eliminate (by 1934, it was seen as quaint at best). Mickey was becoming so good and moral that he needed better foils for his personality; too many people complained when he was a little bastard, the way he used to be. Dave Hand brings a lot of energy to this great short; Mickey, Minnie, Clarabelle, and Horace are camping and run afoul of an entire swarm of really pissed off mosquitos, and the whole short is basically a battle. Lots of fun, lots of laughs.

3/3: Playful Pluto
Wow, Mickey's a dick. All he does through this short is torture Pluto and then get mad at him. For example, he turns the hose on Pluto, but then gets pissed when Pluto mangles the hose and rips the faucet off of the side of the house. When Mickey goes down to the basement to shut off the water, he makes Pluto hold the flashlight in his mouth; when the guage hits Pluto in the face and he swallows the flashlight, Mickey just laughs at him. And the whole thing goes on like that. It's a good short, well-animated by Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, and Art Babbit, and it contains one classic sequence: Pluto stuck to flypaper and trying to get it off of his body. But it's pretty much just Mickey torturing his dog.

3/24: Funny Little Bunnies
This special Easter Silly Symphony might just be the most saccharine cartoon Disney ever produced. It's just a bunch of bunnies making candy for Easter (what some Disney fans call "a conveyer belt cartoon"), and that's about it. They gather paint from the rainbow, for crying out loud. It's just so damn cute, and that's about all it is. After seven minutes of this, I'm ready for Mickey to skip back out and beat the shit out of Pluto some more. And the weird thing is, Funny Little Bunnies continues to be incredibly popular among Disney fans. Weird.

4/14: The Big Bad Wolf
This Silly Symphony is the sequel to last year's massively popular Three Little Pigs, the first Silly Symphony to actually make any money. Walt felt that he was caving in to public demand, and never really cared for the short. This time around, Fiddler Pig and Fifer Pig lead Red Riding Hood through a short cut in the woods, and the Practical Pig has to once again save their hamhocks. And, of course, we get a reprise of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" It's actually not a bad cartoon, though, and the Wolf is much more fun this time around; when Red says "What a big mouth you have," he jumps up and says, "You ain't seen it by half!" and chases her around. Disney's version of the Grimm tale makes it to the screen with all the implied child molestation of the story intact--the red hood a badge of sexual maturity, but also a red flag that inflames nature's sexual predators. Good stuff. It feels like a little bit of an inspiration for Tex Avery, who ramped up the innuendo in his cartoons featuring Wolf and Red.

5/19: Gulliver Mickey
You think Mickey was a bastard before? Well, put him in charge of the teeny people of Lilliput and watch him go mad with power. Mickey lands on the island, and all he does is screw with these people, knocking them around and generally annoying them. They attack him, of course, but their little arrows and cannonballs just harmlessly bounce off him; even when they shoot a gigantic arrow up his ass, all he does is laugh at them. Mickey spends most of the cartoon just giggling at these people's attempts to defend themselves, but at the last minute he saves them from a giant spider who is an even bigger dick than he is. Fun stuff.

6/9: The Wise Little Hen
The Donald Duck era begins here. This Silly Symphony, which is a fun adaptation of the story where the little hen can't get anyone to help her plant and harvest her corn, so she eats it all herself, is the first appearance of the duck that would go on to become Disney's most popular character (even the sailor suit is already in place). Interestingly, Walt was certain that Peter Pig would be the popular character to use, but audiences went crazy over Donald. His voice, by Clarence Nash, could only be understood by about half of the audience, so that became a major part of the joke. This is a fun cartoon, too, although it is worth pointing out that this same year Ub Iwerks produced The Little Red Hen, which played better as a story (although it didn't look as slick).

6/16: Mickey's Steam Roller
Dave Hand directed this short, so you know it's got a lot of energy and gags, but it feels dated, even for 1934. It's pretty fun, but it looks and feels like a short from 1930. Mickey drives a steam roller, which gets taken for a wild ride by his mischevious nephews. Those kids are just as much assholes as real kids are, I must say; they even go as far as to stop all of Mickey's attempts to get back aboard and stop the out-of-control steam roller, even if it means hurting him. There's a great chase, though, and I especially liked a fun gag where Mickey tries to stop the steam roller by tying it to a lamppost, only to see every street light by the road come popping off of their moorings. It's a lot of fun, but an odd throwback from a studio trying so hard to be progressive.

7/14: The Flying Mouse
Judging from the comments of fans online, this Dave Hand-directed Silly Symphony is one of the least popular Disney cartoons (and for the record, Hand didn't care much for it, either, and found Walt's humor on this one to be surprisingly sadistic). A mouse saves a butterfly from a spider, the butterfly turns out to be a fairy, and she grants his wish to fly. But she gives him bat wings--he frightens his family, the birds he admires want nothing to do with him, and the bats mock him. He's not happy with his wish until the fairy takes the wings away, his lesson supposedly learned. But what was the lesson? I think it's supposed to be "don't try to be something that you aren't," but it really comes across as "don't try to be something special, because the very thing that makes you unique will make it impossible for you to fit in." A horrible little cartoon.

8/11: Orphan's Benefit
Walt Disney and his animators seem to believe what I have always believed: children are bastards. And in this cartoon, they prove it. This cartoon--which is one of the better of this year--sees Mickey and the gang performing a benefit for, well, orphans. But the gang has changed now. Gone are the old barnyard characters of days past: the fat pig, the old goat, the little dog, that hilarious wiener dog. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow are still around, but they perform their gymnastic routine with Goofy. A new character, Clara Cluck, appears for the first time. Pluto and Minnie appear, of course. And Donald Duck is now in the gang, having made the rare crossover from Silly Symphony to Mickey Mouse. Donald gets the worst of it from those bastard kids, who ruin his every attempt to recite "Little Boy Blue." Already, Donald's fiery temper and his fighting stance are developed, and there's a lot of possibility in both. Donald is my favorite Disney character, and seeing him already fully characterized in his first Mickey cartoon is great. Bert Gillett does some of his best direction.
9/1: Peculiar Penguins
A lot of people felt the Silly Symphonies were arty and pretentious, and this one won't win the case against that opinion. The penguins are cute as they romance about, and of course the boy must save the girl from a heavy. Kind of routine, though well-animated (direction by Wilfred Jackson) and the penguins are very cute.

9/29: Mickey Plays Papa
Ouch. A baby is left on Mickey's doorstep one stormy night, and he and Pluto try to stop the baby from crying. The first half-minute of this cartoon is incredibly well-animated, but things settle down quickly. The rest is just Pluto being about as dumb a bastard as a dog can be, the baby crying, and Mickey being incredibly fucking stupid. It gets old very fast. At one point, Mickey tries to quiet the baby with a Chaplin impression that even the baby finds tiresome (a comment of Chaplin, or on Mickey's increasingly generic and routine capering?). Boring.

11/3: The Goddess of Spring
Wilfred Jackson turns out the second best Silly Sympony of the year, and only nine months after directing the best Silly Symphony of the year, The Grasshopper and the Ants. This is a retelling of the Persephone and Hades myth, but the animated depiction of Hell is extremely good, as is the depiction of eternal spring. The lyrics are very simplistic, but the operatic singing is heads above anything in the series before. This short was mostly a dry run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs--still three years off--as the animators attempted to draw realistic human movement. The Goddess needs work (her arm movements are rubbery and too loose), and the animators fare better on Hades. But, thanks to the greatness of Disney animation, the cartoon never once feels like an overdone test--it's still a very enjoyable cartoon, and one that is trying to do something new. Excellent colors, as well as some fine use of shadow and a nice sense of drama that builds, unfolds, and climaxes in under ten minutes. Excellent.

11/17: The Dognapper
Minnie's beloved Pekingese Fifi is kidnapped by Pete, and rescued by police officers Mickey and Donald. There are some fun battle scenes in an abandoned saw mill (some great buzzsaw gags), and Donald's cowardice is alternately hilarious and endearing. Although I have some problems with this short--the spare backgrounds, a lack of definition--Dave Hand makes it worthwhile. Side note: Clarence Nash voiced both Mickey and Donald in this cartoon.

12/15: Two-Gun Mickey
Unfortunately, Ben Sharpsteen couldn't bring much energy to this, another "Mickey saves Minnie from Pete" cartoon. I'm already tired of all the gun gags, though there is some good stuff in here. But not a lot.

By the end of the year, Disney looked even more stuck in a rut than in the previous year. Although his popularity showed no signs of slowing, Mickey's adventures were becoming increasingly routine and generic. The Silly Symphonies, for all of their innovation, were becoming self-conscious and stilted. There were many cartoons to love this year, but all the more reason for concern. Walt, of course, had already envisioned the future, and was trying hard to make it happen. But right now, the feeling of treading water is coming off of these cartoons.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

It's Not TV. It's Total Crap.

Yesterday I watched the first four episodes of The Comeback (remember, I'm not only easily bored, I'm also easily distracted). And it turns out that Lisa Kudrow's new faux-reality TV series is not as bad as I've heard: it's far, far worse.

The spectacularly untalented Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish, a faded TV actress who was once on a moderately popular sitcom (it only lasted four seasons, with a chimp added in the last one) and is now making her comeback on a new show. The gimmick of The Comeback is that Valerie is also making a reality series about her comeback called, yes, The Comeback. However, her role in the series is as a Mr. Furley-type stuffy landlady for four young, sexy kids who live on the beach, and as much as she tries to smile for the cameras, there's no hiding the embarrassment and humiliation she's constantly made to feel.

This humiliation is the massive problem with the show. Valerie's character is pathetic, but she's not unlikeable, no matter what the show seems to think. It's not funny to see her humiliated constantly. Getting dogshit stuck in her hair isn't funny, it's pathetic. Watching her fellow cast members treat her in such a cavalier manner that they ditch her when they go to lunch isn't funny, it's sad. And being threatened by one of the writers isn't funny, it's creepy. The long and short of it is this: Valerie is not likeable enough to be engaging, but she's not enough of a sad sack or a bitch that she deserves to be trampled into the dirt week after week.

The tone is the other problem with the show. Creators Kudrow and Michael Patrick King seem to think that they've discovered a secret that no one else has figured out: sitcoms suck. Yeah, duh--your point? Oh, you have none. Well, come back in a year when you have an idea in your pretty little heads, alright?

The Comeback not only seems to hate sitcoms, but also people who watch sitcoms, people who love sitcom actresses, and anyone who would act on a sitcom. I don't know, maybe it's Lisa Kudrow punishing the audience who liked her on Friends (I am not one of those people). The creators have obviously seen The Office and are trying to mimic that tone of funny awkwardness. But they just aren't talented enough to get it--The Comeback is cruel, tedious, and trying. In attempting to skewer the sitcom, Kudrow and King have instead created a sitcom, and one that is every bit as bad as the genre it's ripping off (it also heavily rips off HBO's own Curb Your Enthusiasm, another show which correctly guages the difference between awkward funny and awkward embarrassing).

Everyone associated with The Comeback should be embarrassed at their own creative bankruptcy. Lisa Kudrow, never a particularly talented or engaging actress, at least gets a lot of opportunity to show off her pretty cleavage. None of the other cast members are likeable, interesting, or even register with personality--the young star of the sitcom within the sitcom, Malin Akerman (whose character, Juna, is supposed to be the object of Valerie's All About Eve-like jealousy) seems cast merely for her willingness to show off her nipples as often as possible. But otherwise, this show is bereft of ideas.

To quote Valerie's tedious catchphrase, I don't need to see that.