Saturday, August 20, 2005

Let's Get One Thing Straight About Tim Burton

The new issue of Entertainment Weekly (the Fall Movie Preview Issue) makes the boastful claim that "if it weren't for Tim Burton, stop motion puppetry (as opposed to Chicken Run-style Claymation) might be altogether, well, dead." In addition to being boastful, it's also absolutely, incredibly wrong.

Let's start with the movie they're talking about, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I'm sick and tired of Tim Burton getting all the credit for this masterpiece of a movie. Tim Burton once wrote and drew a nice little storybook that no one bought, and after he had made millions with Batman, Disney (who published the book and therefore owned the rights to the story) asked Burton, a former animator, to turn it into a movie. Tim Burton, who is not a writer, turned the screenplay duties over to Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family, and The Secret Garden). And since Burton was no longer an animator, directing duties went to Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone). His former producing partner, Denise Di Novi, oversaw much of the production and Tim Burton went off to direct Batman Returns.

So, Burton may have walked onto the set of Nightmare once or twice, but he really had very little to do with the film other than giving over a book he had written in something like 1983 and putting talented people in charge (and giving his name to it, so that the title is far too often written as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). Okay, and the character designs are inherently his. But the lasting quality of the movie, whose cult audience seems to get bigger and bigger every year, is really down to Caroline Thompson and Henry Selick, who actually did the hard work of making the fucking thing.

We also have to mention Danny Elfman, who burned himself out creating an almost constant musical atmosphere, including some absolutely wonderful songs and even singing the role of Jack Skellington. Without Elfman's contribution, the whole film is for shit.

Well, now we have another movie with the unwieldy title Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (which is as good a description of the hideous Helena Bonham Carter as I've ever heard), which Burton is taking all of the credit for. But how much did he have to do with this movie? He's credited as a director, but the real director of the picture is Mike Johnson, who worked on the short-lived series The PJ's. And the characters weren't even designed by Burton, but by Carlos Grangel of DreamWorks, who designed the characters for The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. And the screenplay? Written by John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, um, both Charlie's Angels movies), Pamela Pettler (executive producer of the series Clueless and writer of a Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie), and, of course, the wonderful Caroline Thompson. And I notice Danny Elfman's name in the music credits...

So, how much credit will he be soaking up this time, especially since we know he had to be very busy directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the same time this was being made?

Oh, and as a side note, Chicken Run was not clay-animated, but in fact stop motion puppetry. Aardman Animation has been using stop motion puppets since at the very least the second Wallace & Gromit short, The Wrong Trousers, in 1993. And after The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton and Di Novi produced James and the Giant Peach, directed again by Selick and with wonderful character designs by Lane Smith (author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales). And the movie was considered such a failure that Disney stopped production on Selick's next film, Toots and the Upside Down House, which was already shooting and is now lost.

Burton didn't save shit. I'm tired of hearing that he did.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pleistocene Park

There's a group of enviornmentalists who want to bring lions to America.

Yeah, it's true. Many scientists and conservationists are opposing it, but there is a group out there who thinks that relocating endangered animal species from Africa to American animal reserves will help to stem the tide of species being wiped out. This is, of course, a fairly terrible idea. Bringing foreign animal species to another part of the world can severely damage not only the native economy, but the foreign animals themselves. Doesn't it seem awfully cold on the Great Plains for animals that live closer to the equator? Or am I getting that wrong?

Either way, the argument to the traditional scientific "You'll ruin the American enviornment!" is the insufficient "But, America had large animal species 10,000 years ago!" Yes, in the Pleistocene Era, America was home to mastodons, camela, and smilodons. But that was during the Ice Age, before the arrival of mankind on this continent. But the retreat of the glaciers brought about a rapid extinction of the large mammals, and humans have changed the land an awful lot since then. The proponents of this argument say that relocating large animals here will help repair the damage that humans have done.


Today's issue of Nature should outline this plan in greater detail, but I have a feeling that the science is pretty thin. Of course, moguls like Ted Turner smell the possibility of tourism and are very interested in the idea. But I tend to agree with people like Donald K. Grayson at the University of Washington, who points out: "It is not restoration to introduce animals that were never here. Why introduce Old World camels and lions when there are North American species that could benefit from the same kind of effort?"

Come on, Americans have already opposed the reintroduction of wolves to the Plains, so what kind of support are lions or elephants or giraffes or camels going to get? Even African organizations are opposed. According to Elizabeth Wamba of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya: "Such relocations would affect future tourism opportunities for Africa. The welfare of the animals would have been reduced by transporting and exposing them to different eco-climatic conditions."

Have we learned nothing from what the rabbit, the wild horse, and the cane toad have done to Australia? The author of this proposal, Josh Donlan of Cornell University, at least has the grace to admit that "there are huge and substantial risks and obstacles." And, to be fair, there is some merit in wanting to save African species. But this seems the wrong way to go about the whole thing, and as someone who lives in a Great Plains state, I can live without the fear of African lions on a daily basis, thanks.

One of Animation's Leading Lights Extinguished

Joe Ranft, story editor of Pixar, was killed on Tuesday at the age of 45 when his car ran offroad and fell into the ocean in Mendocino County, California. Ranft got his start at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the eighties, and wrote for the films The Brave Little Toaster, Oliver & Company, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Fantasia 2000. He also supervised storyboards on James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas before making the move to Pixar, where he had a hand in the screenplays for Toy Story (for which he won an Oscar) and A Bug's Life. He continued to edit story and was continued one of the important operators. His voice can be heard as Heimlich in A Bug's Life, Wheezy in Toy Story 2, and Jacques in Finding Nemo.

In a statement released Wednesday, Pixar said "Joe was an important and beloved member of the Pixar family, and his loss is of great sorrow to all of us and to the animation industry as a whole". A Pixar spokesman added, "Joe was a big part of Pixar's soul". Ranft is survived by his wife, Su, and two children, Jordy, 13, and Sophia 9. A memorial service for family, friends and close associates is planned for Sunday in Mill Valley, California. Pixar is planning a memorial for fans at a date to be determined.

Go to Cartoon Brew for lots of links and nice sentiments about one of animation's brightest.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Leaps of Jeppy

My girlfriend and I have something we call "The Jeppy Plot Flaw," and we see it often in movies. It’s coined for a plot device in the terrible movie Sphere, which goes something like this:

In the movie, an otherworldly intelligence makes contact with some researchers at an abandoned undersea lab. It communicates through numbers, and when Dustin Hoffman runs through equations and so on he is able to crack this numerical code and correspond them to letters (I know, a five year-old could do it, but the movie thinks this is a high science). The computer message reads the following: "I AM JERRY. I AM HAPPY." Which leads Dustin Hoffman to attempt to make the audience of retards (I assume they’re the only ones who went to see in the theater) go "oooh" by asking: "What happens if Jerry gets angry?"

Well, later in the movie, our resident smarty-pants realizes that–whoops!–the equation is off, and the message should read: "I AM HARRY. I AM HAPPY." Apparently, the computer is reading the mind of another character or something. "I was off by a letter!" Hoffman wildly proclaims. But what the movie fails to realize is a tragic logical flaw that collapses the entire story under its own weight: because numbers have constant values, "one letter" cannot be off. If the equation is fucked, than the entire message changes. By this scientifish logic, "I AM JERRY. I AM HAPPY" becomes "I EM HARRY. I EM JEPPY."

Hence, the Jeppy Plot Flaw.

Here are some other Jeppy moments from the last 10 years.

The Craft: If the spirit of the witches’s powers is something larger than moralistic concepts of good and evil, why does this same power punish Fairuza Balk for being evil?

Independence Day: So, the aliens also use Windows 95? I guess it’s lucky for humanity they weren’t on a DOS-based system, otherwise the virus could never have been uploaded.

Batman and Robin: Batman has a credit card? Under the name "Batman"? What bank would insure that? Are there special FDIC regulations in place for pseudonymous credit? How does he even rate credit with no name? How can Bruce Wayne not be traced to this credit card? What the fuck?

Shakespeare in Love: Wait, someone English has tobacco plantations in Virginia in 1595? A mean feat, considering Jamestown wasn’t even founded until 1607...

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me: Whatever happened to the second Austin that was called into an existence as the result of the time travel?

Eyes Wide Shut: Explanation, please.

The Matrix: I still don’t buy it that a man could gain power and mastery over the computer environment and become the savior, and then have to spend two more movies learning to use his powers before finally reshaping the Matrix. Does he just like to play in God Mode?

The Sixth Sense: You’re telling me the entire country of filmgoers couldn’t figure out that Bruce Willis was dead? Jesus, he was shot in the movie’s opening scene!

Frequency: How does shooting the killer in the hand in the past solve the crime? And if it did, why is the killer still in the house in the present?

The Patriot: The opening scenes of the movie take place in 1776. The remainder of the movie takes place in 1781. Why haven’t Mel Gibson’s children aged in five years?

Attack of the Clones: Does anyone else have trouble believing that Padme Amidala would still want to marry Anakin Skywalker after he murdered an entire village of men, women, and children?

The Ring: So, whose voice was that on the phone?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: You do know that your car chase is taking place in Venice, and that Venice has no streets, right?

What a Girl Wants: Will everyone shut up for a moment so we can figure this whole thing out?! Okay, Kelly Preston left you because she thought you knew she was pregnant and you wanted her gone. Seventeen years later, you find out you have a daughter in the form of Amanda Bynes. You tell Amanda that you never knew she existed. You call Kelly and tell her that you never knew she had a kid. But through the whole movie they treat you like you just neglected them because you didn’t care? Hey, how about the following sentence: "I’m so sorry, someone must have lied to you, but since we’re together now, let’s make up for lost time?" There, problem solved, movie over, I just saved everyone an hour.

Fahrenheit 9/11: With so much evidence mounted that implies George W. Bush and his criminal gang have deceived us, people voted for him a second time?

The Stepford Wives: Okay, Faith Hill has a malfunction and shorts out, and there’s a remote control that can make her boobs bigger, so obviously she’s a robot, right? And there’s one woman who spits cash out of her mouth like an ATM, so obviously they’re all robots, right? But, then we see a film that says that the Stepford technology implants a woman’s brain with nano-chips that curb their individuality and make them obedient, so obviously they’re women with microchips in their brains, right? But then, seconds later, we see a robotic Nicole Kidman, which implies the women are robots, right? But, at the end of the movie, Matthew Broderick turns off the main computer signal, and all of the microchips short out, and the women return to their normal selves, so obviously they’re women with microchips in their heads. Or, was it the robots?

And then my brain exploded faster than a robot given a logic problem by Captain Kirk.

Revenge of the Sith: Why are Republican forces firing on General Grievous’s ship when they know that the Chancellor’s inside?

And a classic Jeppy from a movie I hate so very much. In Somewhere in Time, the old Jane Seymour gives Christopher Reeve a modern penny. When Christopher Reeve goes back in time to see the young Jane Seymour (through some kind of mentalism), he accidentally pulls the penny out of his pocket, sees it, and returns to the present. Then he goes crazy and dies. So, presumably, this is all on a loop: 50 years ago (or some damn thing), Christopher Reeve went back in time and to see Jane Seymour. Then she found him in the present and gave him the penny back. And then he went back in time. But where did the penny come from originally? Where did the penny come from originally?

And an honorable mention: any cop movie made since the advent of caller ID where the cops are tracing a phone call and they say: "Keep him talking, we need time to trace the call!" Um, not in a world where I can see caller information on the first ring, you don’t.

A Rude Theory

Is it just me, or is Toy Story really about impotence? You start off with a cowboy who is the most popular little man in the bedroom: Woody. But, floppy and old, awkward around his girlfriend (Bo Peep), and shouting in inferiority, the cruelly-named Woody is the ultimate manifestation of sexual inadequacy. But for however long, his primacy goes unquestioned–until, that is, the arrival of the powerful, current, plastic, battery-powered 10-inch Buzz. With only the press of a button, Buzz’s "wings" pop up, erect. Deflated Woody is no match for the big man in the helmet, is he? No, it isn’t until Woody, er, stands up to Sid, the repository of his inner turmoil, and Buzz discovers that he’s "only a toy" and accepts it that things get back to normal in the bedroom.

Now, dispute that.

Oh, as a side note, here’s a question about another classic family film: is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a Christ allegory, or is it really about a boy’s discovery of his own penis and how it makes him feel like an adult?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Runaways

One of the greatest bands ever. From left, Joan Jett, the gorgeous Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford. In front, Sandy West and lead singer Cherie Currie. Posted by Picasa

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

It seems like, these days, every fucking band has a documentary about it. But unlike the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, bands from the seventies remain fascinating, not only because they put out memorable music, but because the time was so much more interesting. Though a great glam/punk/hard rock band, the Runaways were a commercial creation. Kim Fowley, the producer of KISS, among other bands, gathered the girls together and attempted to launch them to stardom, and–according to the documentary–exploited them heavily. The Runaways are unjustly known today as just the girl band where Joan Jett and Lita Ford got their starts, but their music is still great. Vicki Blue, the last girl to join the Runaways, made this documentary, so the girls are all pretty willing to open up about their experiences (except Joan Jett, who I guess refused to be interviewed). It’s interesting to see what they’re still hurt and bitter about, and how their impressions and anecdotes differ (sometimes wildly). And Jackie Fox is still really, really hot. Fascinating stuff; the quality is a little amateurish, but it definitely works for a punk doc. My only major complaint is the music: why only two Runaways songs? Most of it is Suzi Quatro and solo Lita (not that it isn’t awesome stuff), but a little more by the band in question would have been nice. **** stars.

Meh. It was cute, but Joe Dirt was funnier. **1/2 stars.

SHAMPOO (1975)
An interesting movie about sexual politics, but it feels very dated now. Warren Beatty plays a hairdresser who sleeps around–the husbands don’t realize he isn’t gay–and wants to open his own salon. And then he falls in love, which complicates everything. It’s well-acted (especially by Goldie Hawn as the long-suffering girlfriend), but it only goes so far. Shocking in it’s day, I understand. Directed by the great Hal Ashby, who made several better films. *** stars.

Johnny Depp should thank the stars every day for getting him out of teen sex comedies like this and into Oscar-nominated, thoughtful films. On the other hand, this is from that wonderful era when Americans liked nudity and didn’t fear it with all of their moral fiber, so there are some wonderful shots of Leslie Easterbrook in see-through outfits and there are tits all over the place. So, that’s nice. ** stars.

A cute British movie that doesn’t know when to stop. After Julie Walter’s husband dies of leukemia, she and her friends (all older, Welsh women) decide to pose for a cheesecake calendar in order to raise money for a nice couch for the cancer ward of their local hospital. It’s a good notion, and there are some very lovely performances (especially the always-wonderful and sexy Helen Mirren, still showing off her breasts into her sixties and I am ever so grateful for it), but the movie falls apart in the third act and becomes very preachy. From quirky comedy to pretentious statement in just under two hours. *** stars.

Who knew Robert Wise could direct a movie this good? And one starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, actors I’m not particularly fond of. This is an intense, gripping drama about office politics and the attempts of an overzealous accountant (one of my favorite actors, Frederic March) to take over a corporation after the death of its CEO. What it boils down to is an argument over business models–should we give the shareholders the maximum short term return on their investment, or should we grow the company through quality and production so that it remains alive? It may come out on the side of one, but fairly acknowledges the good intentions of the other without being angry or condescending. Fascinating stuff, still very relevant today, and extremely well-acted. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. **** stars.

Harrowing, powerful film about the abuses of Irish Catholic girls in Church-run laundries during the 1960s (and based on factual events). It primarily follows four different girls (one of whom is sent to the laundry merely for being a bit flirty) and their experiences as they are beaten, punished, abused, raped, and sexually humiliated by the nuns and the priest who run the place. Let me tell you, I was in tears several times; this movie must be seen. Geraldine McEwan’s performance as the head nun is chilling, especially at times when she’s being congenial and Nurse Ratched-like. You’ll never forget this movie. You might never look at the Church the same way. **** stars.

A nice documentary charting the careers and relationship of Kirk Douglas (one of my personal heroes) and Michael Douglas. Kirk is always fascinating to me, and Michael comes across very warmly, and when the two of them have conversations with one another: to this day, Kirk is still disappointed over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kirk starred in the play on Broadway–he produced it–and when Michael produced the movie, he cast Jack Nicholson in the lead, despite Kirk’s dream to play the role on film). And Michael still wants his father’s approval as much as Kirk wants to be certain that he was a good father. A wonderful film about fathers and sons, and what they do to one another’s lives. **** stars.

Stupid crap about a kid who inherits his father’s porn empire. Always fun to see William Atherton and Lynn Shaye. Ali Landry (yawn) and sexy Patsy Kensit somehow manage to play centerfolds without ever once taking their clothes off. Dumber than the average teen comedy. * star.

I understand there’s a severely cut version of the film, but this one is the original Italian horror film co-written by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi. I’m not going to pretend that I completely understood the story, and it seems to be part of the point. On the spot where Templar Knights slaughtered a village of pagans a thousand years ago, a church was erected. In the modern day, a librarian exhumes the demons trapped beneath, and the rest of the film is mostly hell breaking loose and gory deaths and sex with Satan and so forth. The plot really isn’t important in this kind of film; the style is. And this movie is directed with a lot of style and visual flair (and great Philip Glass music performed by Goblin). Plus, it stars little 12 year-old Asia Argento, who is very cute and already a natural actress. Good role for Hugh Quarshie. Italian women are the best in the world. If you like horror films or supernatural weirdness, don’t skip this film. ***1/2 stars.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oh, Mandy!

A few months ago I commended the pin-up and sketch artist Dean Yeagle to your attention. I'm doing so again for two reasons: first, because he contacted me to say thanks, which is completely flattering to my ego. And second, because I want everyone who likes good art to go and take a look at his free gallery here, which is loaded with a lot of great pictures of his character Mandy, and from which you can order merchandise. I've been in love with his art since I first saw it in the pages of Playboy magazine. It looks like animation caught in mid-motion, and he draws with what my art history professor used to call "a pleasing roundness." Check it out for yourself, it's great stuff.

If you'd like to order some of his stuff from an online service, check out Bud Plant Comic Art; I order from them as often as I can. I've got my copies of Scribblings and Scribblings 2, but there's also a new book, One Mandy Morning, and a Mandy statue that, believe me, I wish I could afford. He's also got a book out that illustrates Robert Frost's comic poem The Cow in Apple Time. And at his gallery, you can get a Mandy poster.

Anyway, check these out. I wouldn't recommend this stuff if I didn't think it was great, and if you love pin-ups, cartoon art, and sexy girls, you'll love Mandy.