Saturday, December 01, 2007

Masters of Animation: Warner Bros. 1941-1945

Last year, I did a general overview of the Warner Bros. cartoons produced by Leon Schlesinger Studios from 1931 to 1940. I'm still waiting for Warner to release as many of their cartoons on DVD as they can, and then I do plan on doing an "Evaluating Warner Bros." series. Honestly, I'd like to do more studios than just Disney. But that's for later. This is the next segment, trying to keep my series on the History of Animation up to date.

Tex Avery leaves the Schlesinger Studios; he has directed the first two Schlesinger cartoons to be nominated for Oscars: Detouring America and A Wild Hare. Bob Clampett is put in charge of the color unit to replace him, and Norm McCabe is put in charge of the black & white Looney Tunes series. The studio is now being taken seriously by the entertainment industry; the animators and directors have bettered their techniques and can actively compete with Disney, though Schlesinger is nothing like Disney; the cartoons are not as expensive, the animators are not indulged, and the atmosphere is shabby, but relaxed. A number of Disney strikers (including Bill Melendez, future director of the Peanuts cartoons) come to work for Schlesinger; a strike also occurs here, but only lasts for two days. With Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones as the three color directors, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series become virtually indistinguishable and will use all of the same characters. Clampett especially begins to hate having to work with lead animator Bob McKimson, whose style is realistic, but non-experimental. He works as often as he can with Rod Scribner, whose style flourishes. Clampett and Scribner decide to stop exaggerating the characters for gags and do it only to reflect the emotion of the character. It's an important step towards creating a sort of logical bearing to the zaniness and making the characters more believable.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that the director are having a problem finding a character for Bugs Bunny. They all want to use him, but there's nothing to him yet. Freleng pairs Bugs with lighter opponents, while Jones makes him a dry, sly superior to real threats. Clampett's Bugs was better proportioned and had a better design; he improved Bob McKimson's 1940 designs considerably; McKimson had to draw a new model sheet in 1942, then again in 1943. Clampett's Bugs is restrained, more controlled, less zany--but he's also boring, egotistical, and not very interesting. More of a pest than a wit.

Frank Tashlin returns to Schlesinger yet again, this time to replace a departing Norm McCabe, who has joined the Army. Tweety Bird is introduced in A Tale of Two Kitties. Chuck Jones's unit is seen by the others as snobbish and overly-serious about art and discipline. Jones spends money to get his animators to really study animation as art, including life drawing classes. He does several cartoons featuring Inki and the Minah Bird that are very Disney-esque; Jones is still too precious. In Conrad the Sailor, he begins experimenting with more cinematic techniques like match cutting and dissolves, alongside Art Deco backgrounds.

Jones finds his footing with one of the great cartoons, The Dover Boys. A parody of nineteenth century photography and boys' fiction, The Dover Boys is certainly Jones's funniest cartoon to date (and one of funniest ever). It's even narrated by former Disney animator John McLiesh, who would soon return to Disney to narrate the Goofy cartoons. A subversive, parodistic cartoon, Schlesinger doesn't like it; it's a very uncharacteristic cartoon for him, but it's popular with audiences. Perhaps Jones's biggest advance here is in the art of poses; he begins using a strong series of poses, the kind normally eschewed by animators, to reveal the psychological character of his subjects. This was another important step in the audience accepting these characters as believable. Jones works in concert with background painter Eugene Fluery and layout artist John McGrew to develop a strong style and better structure, creating better stories that are more character-based than gag-based. As a result, Jones begins to get some real attention from the art establishment. Still, Schlesinger and the other directors criticize his most daring works, including Wackiki Wabbit, The Unbearable Bear, and The Aristo-Cat.

Finally, all the Looney Tunes are made in color; there are no more black & white cartoons. It is this year that Bob Clampett directs one of the greatest cartoons ever made: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. Not a parody of Snow White so much as a reversal, in a Tin Pan Alley setting with black characters who manage, I think, not to be caricatures. Racial stereotypes were common in Schlesinger cartoons of the time--especially in Friz Freleng's cartoons--but Coal Black seems to transcend stereotyping with a high energy and no real jokes that derive from the stereotypes. In this masterful cartoon, race stereotypes are not reinforced or damned or even commented on in any way; they're completely irrelevant. Clampett wanted to create a black musical, not a racial burlesque. Though he didn't get his wish to include black musicians on the soundtrack (there are two mixed in with Carl Stalling and his orchestra), the voices are by black actors. Clampett even took his animators to an all-black club to study the kind of dancing he wanted in his cartoon. Unfortunately, the NAACP asked that the film be withdrawn; they felt it was offensive to black soldiers. Clampett didn't make this kind of brilliant cartoon again for over a year.

Clampett did direct Falling Hare, a cartoon indicative of the problems he was having with Bugs Bunny. Bob McKimson's realistic animation clashed with the exaggerated styles of some of the other animators. Clampett liked the conflict in styles in the same cartoon, but it did make for hard viewing. Lapses in taste included mistimed gags and phallic imagery; his cartoons could be childish, even sadistic, often unsettling. The man who once used to faint at salty language was now remote, removed, and testing the limits of acceptable behavior. In Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier recounts Bill Melendez's memory of Clampett once coming to a costume party dressed as a penis wrapped in a condom. He thrived on the chaos.

On 1 June, Leon Schlesinger sells his studio directly to Warner Bros. for $700,000. Edward Selzer, head of the Warner Bros. trailer and title department, is put in charge of the newly-renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons Inc. Schlesinger retains 25 percent of the profits from merchandising, but otherwise has no association with his former studio. Frank Tashlin, after directing Stupid Cupid, leaves the studio to direct stop-motion films for John Sutherland. Bob McKimson is promoted to replace Tashlin as a director; with his influence as lead animator gone, Clampett's cartoons become more whole and individual; Scribner is free to carry the cartoons with more confidence. Clampett also helps to define the character of Daffy Duck. He's no longer just a lunatic heckler; he's elongated and expressive, and Mel Blanc has refined Daffy's voice. In The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, released in 1946, Daffy is most definitely sane; his aggression has turned to passion, and his passion is now his undoing. Chuck Jones directs From Hand to Mouse.

Bob Clampett leaves the studio; Selzer replaces him with Art Davis, a Warner animator and former Screen Gems director (ironically, Clampett will work at Screen Gems as a director). Rod Scribner is assigned to Bob McKimson's unit, where he will be unappreciated, especially after he is hospitalized with tuberculosis and cannot work for three years. Many feel Clampett has been forced out, but there is no evidence of that; his contract was simply up, and he wanted to explore what opportunities were available in television. Davis, McKimson, Freleng and Jones were much more cautious than Clampett in their cartoons; Clampett was never bothered by the possibility of a failed joke or a bad cartoon, and took more risks. For the moment, the Warner Bros. cartoons would see a lull. But things would soon be looking up.


I found these pictures from The Spiderwick Chronicles; I'm still not sure if I'm interested in this movie, but I like the designs of the creatures. Very Brian Froud-ish.

I don't know, is this fantasy thing played out? When The Phantom Menace came out, with news of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to follow, I got excited, because I knew we were going to end up with a lot of cool fantasy movies, the same way we did in the early eighties after the first Star Wars came out. But, of course, that can't last forever; eventually you feel like it's the same thing over and over again. Myself, I'm starting to get tired of seeing variations on the same Terry Gilliam shots over and over. Last year we had the crappy, over-pretentious Eragon; this year The Dark Is Rising (awful, AWFUL trailers) came and went without a trace and The Golden Compass... I don't know, I want to see it, but I'm not exactly excited about it. I'm reading the novel right now and it's... not terrible, but... I don't know, it's kind of a bore. Not very good for a book with talking, fighting, armored polar bears.

I don't know, are youse guys getting sick of so many fantasy movies? Or is it just me?

Friday, November 30, 2007

It's Do Whatever Splotchy Says Day!

My first assignment:


My second assignment:

There's a gal named Carla Gugino,
As hot as a spiced jalapeno;
When her top comes undone,
She's the heat of the sun,
Emenating a non-charged neutrino!

Evaluating Disney: 1945

1945 continued much in the same vein as 1944; there was a certain ennui, a certain workmanlike quality in the majority of the shorts (and, once again, not a single appearance by Mickey Mouse in any of the cartoons). The important difference in this, the final year of World War II, is that Walt lost the financial fallback the war films had provided. His drive for perfectionism had, of course, been making the shorts too expensive to be profitable anyway (Walt spent far more money on his cartoons than any other producer ever did), but now even that outlet was gone. His contracts had been fulfilled. Surprisingly, Walt began to search the market for educational movies, bidding for contracts with companies like Westinghouse and General Motors to make industrial cartoons. Ultimately, though, he lost his enthusiasm for the idea, despite the financial back-up it might have provided. He just didn't like the idea of letting outside influence into his cartoons. Clients would set certain parameters, and he hated that fact. The idea was dropped.

Walt needed something to justify the large staff who worked for him. There had been some turnover during the war years, and now only 6% of the people still working at Disney had participated in the strike. Many of the animators had put those hard feelings aside long ago, but Walt still had problems trusting them. He'd never feel the same about them again; he had been betrayed, and it still hurt.

Still, the shorts continued. They felt more like product than creations, but they continued.

1/15: Tiger Trouble
Goofy. By this point, it seems like Goofy will never be the sweet, simple idiot he began life as. But that's okay, because he's still funny as the subject of narrated adventure cartoons. In this one, Goofy is on safari (his elephant appears to be Dolores from The Big Wash) and hunting tigers. The tiger himself is very funny, and there's a great chase sequence besides some funny narrative jokes. A typically great entry in the Goofy series, with a story by Bill Peet (still spelling his named Peed at this point).

1/26: The Clock Watcher
Donald Duck. Jack King directed this short with Donald working in the gift wrapping department of a store. Donald's the only character in the film, taking orders from his boss's voice through a tube. Donald is, of course, a truly horrible gift wrapper--at one point, he uses a vice to crush a trombone into a French horn so it'll fit inside a box. Hilarious stuff.

This film followed Saludos Amigos as the second feature made up of Latin American shorts; actually, with The Pelican and the Snipe released on its own, there are only two shorts from the trip to South America left in this one: The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito. The rest, including the film's entire second half (spent entirely in Mexico) was created specifically for this film.

Whatever loose structure the film has comes from Donald Duck's birthday; he receives a surprise package in the mail (the original title of this film was Surprise Package) from his Latin American friends. First, he watches a series of films. The Cold-Blooded Penguin is pretty simple: a penguin named Pedro leaves his home in Anarctica for the Galapagos Islands, where it's far warmer. It's charming, but the Sterling Holloway narration wears (his narration tends to wear, I think) and there's not much to it. Walt Kelly was, I think, one of the designers on this short.

The film continues to show us some Rare Birds, which is pretty neat, just to see Disney artists animate some different-looking birds, including the crazy Aracuan, a neat little devil who shows up a couple of times in the first half of the movie, singing his crazy little song and then running off. This is followed by another film, The Flying Gauchito, with a young boy hunting condors in the Andes who finds a flying burro and uses him to win a race. Again, it's kind of nice, and the animation is very good on the gauchito, but it's nothing really special.

Finally, Jose Carioca returns, and there's a lovely animated sequence, Baia. Carioca tells Donald he must go to Baia, Brasil, and a gentle song about the city plays while some excellent animation shows simple scenes like water dropping and sailboats gently moving past Baia. It's wonderful. Donald and Carioca take a wonderful train ride (very well done) to Baia, where they dance while Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) sings "Os Quindines De Yaya." This segment features live actors appearing with Donald and Carioca, something which is fun but not always convincing. For this, the animation was completed first, then back-projected onto a screen. Miranda then performed in front of the screen. This is all a tad bit clumsy and hard to hide; Miranda had to perform fifty feet in front of the screen for the scale to match, and the result doesn't quite mesh. Still, this sequence made Walt think about doing what he had done in the Alice Comedies and combining animation with live action once again. This may have actually excited him more than the package features did. They were simply "meat and potatoes," he said; they were to infuse the studio with cash and keep it solvent.

This segment particularly fell under criticism (and this movie was not well-received by critics); a couple of critics felt that Donald's obviously sexual interest in Ms. Miranda was creepy and bordered on bestiality!

Donald's next present takes us to Mexico and introduces us to the third caballero, a Mexican rooster named Panchito Pistolero (who, like Jose Carioca, needed to be in a lot more Disney cartoons). There's a really neat, trippy, Fantasia-like sequence that heralds his arrival, and then Panchito lead his friends in the title song, "The Three Caballeros." Check out this sequence; animated by Ward Kimball with absolutely no sense of logic whatsoever, this is one of my favorite sequences ever in animation. It has to be seen (for as long as it's up, that is).

Incredible stuff.

Panchito's gift is a pinata; then he teaches Donald about how Christmas is celebrated by children in Mexico, with the song "Los Posados" and some beautiful Mary Blair drawings in still frame. Climbing onto a magical flying serape, Panchito takes Donald and Carioca on a trip through Mexico, including an example of some Mexican dances like the Lilongo, and a stop at Acapulco Beach, where Donald falls madly in lust with some Latina beach bunnies. The combo animation is much stronger in this sequence, with Donald trying to have fun with the ladies before it's "Adios, lindas!" and off to see the romantic skies of Mexico.

Then things get downright weird as Dora Luz, as a giant face in the sky, sings "You Belong to My Heart" and Donald, lovestruck, tries to get close to her. A lot of experimental animation follows in a flurry, as though the duck has had too much Mescal and is hallucinating, juxtaposing the lovely Dora with the interjections of Panchito and Carioca. It gets a little tired, but it's something different. Then Dora appears in a mariachi outfit and sings "Jesusita en Chihuahua" while dancing with cacti. Like I said, downright weird.

The film itself was not the financial success Saludos Amigos was, and the critics savaged it for being incomprehensible, insensible, and at times blatantly cruel. As a result, a planned third Latin American package feature, Cuban Carnival, was scrapped. Seeing it today, The Three Caballeros is an interesting experiment with a few great sequences, but not particularly essential.

Animation Credits:
Director: Harold Young
Production supervisor/animation director: Norm Ferguson
Animation supervisor: John Cutting
Sequence directors: Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts
Animators: Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, Fred Moore, John Lounsbery, Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Hal King, Frank Thomas, Harvey Toombs, Bob Carlson, John Sibley, Bill Justice, Ollie Johnston, Milt Neil, Marvin Woodward, John Patterson

3/16: Dog Watch
Pluto. Pluto is meant to guard a ship at night, but is harrassed by a ginger-haired rat. Quite annoying, actually; it sort of seems to try for a Tex Avery feel, but it's not very good.

3/30: The Eyes Have It
Donald Duck. Bizarre episode with Donald buying hypnotic glasses and using them to make Pluto think he's other animals. All hell breaks loose when the glasses break and Pluto still thinks he's a lion. There are some funny moments, especially with Pluto as a mouse eating cheese.

4/20: African Diary
Goofy. Goofy is still on safari, this time in Africa hunting the black rhinoceros. The narration is funny, and there are some excellent visual puns (the Ivory Coast is made of piano keys). I love the animation on the rhino especially. One of my favorite Goofy cartoons.

6/29: Donald's Crime
Donald Duck. Donald needs money to pay for a date with Daisy (making her first appearance in a very long time here), so he steals it from his nephews' piggy bank. After the date, his conscience gets the better of him, and his imagination runs away with him as he imagines himself as a playboy, a gangster, and a prisoner. There's some good flourishes in here, with Donald's imagination seen literally and interpreted visually; normally, the nephews would find out and just take their revenge. It's interesting to see a little depth to the duck.

7/13: Californy 'er Bust
Goofy. Another short where all the characters are Goofy. And looking at the picture, that should give you some idea as to the stereotypes on display here (this is one of the shorts Disney has buried over the years). Some of the Indian jokes are funny; some are simply tired and lame. In this short, a bunch of pioneers are attacked by Indians. This is the same thing, really, as the old Mickey short Pioneer Days, but played for laughs instead of excitement. Not great, but not terrible.

7/27: Canine Casanova
Pluto. This is the first short featuring Dinah, a dachshund that Pluto tries to woo. She gets captured by the dogcatcher, and he tries to rescue her. Some of this ended up in Lady in the Tramp a decade later. The animation is very good, even if the backgrounds are a little impressionistic. Still, the backgrounds look stylized instead of skimped on. It's a nice short.

8/10: Duck Pimples
Donald Duck. A truly odd short that's uncharacteristic of both Donald Duck and Walt Disney. This is much more like a Warner Brothers short; in fact, it seems inspired by Tex Avery. Donald listens to scary stories on the radio (with narration provided by Doodles Weaver), and gets wrapped up in his own imagination. He's terrorized by a gruff police officer (voiced by Billy Bletcher) who is looking for stolen jewels; the dame who owns them (who seems very inspired by Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood) shows up, too, as well as some other shady characters. Donald is actually quite passive in this one, reacting to the cop instead of losing his temper and doing something. The humor here is harder-edged than usual, really going for punchlines and irreverance. It's odd, but it's a damn great cartoon.

8/24: The Legend of Coyote Rock
Pluto. In this cartoon, Pluto is a sheepdog guarding some cute little lambs from Bent-Tail the Coyote. The animation on the coyote is very good, and there's a nice chase sequence, but otherwise it's a bit of a snooze for me.

9/7: No Sail
Donald Duck and Goofy. This is a real write-off, with Donald and Goofy renting a sailboat and then getting lost at sea. We've seen this all before, and far more clever.

9/21: Hockey Homicide
Goofy. Quite simply one of the funniest cartoons there is, a great companion to How to Play Baseball and How to Play Football. Lots of great narration gags, including the roster in which all the players are named after the animators (the rivals are named after Norm Ferguson and Al Bertino--I wonder if they really didn't get along). Jack Kinney directed with his usual verve and total disregard for logic. The hellzapoppin' finale hilariously uses footage from other Disney shorts, as well as Victory Through Air Power and Pinocchio.

10/26: Cured Duck
Donald Duck. This short has one of the best Donald Duck scenes ever: he gets frustrated trying to open Daisy's window, then snaps and tears her living room apart. Of course, the window is only locked. Daisy tells Donald she won't go out with him again until he conquers his temper, which he does with the help of an "insult machine." The ending is predictable, probably, but it's very funny.

12/7: Canine Patrol
Pluto. As a Coast Guard dog, Pluto tries to keep a newborn turtle out of a restricted area. It's typical of Pluto--being mean to little, cute animals--but the turtle is so damn cute that it's impossible to resist. The humor is gentle, but I liked it.

12/21: Old Sequoia
Donald Duck. Donald is a forest ranger, trying to protect a giant sequoia from two beavers who want to knock it down. The beavers are hilarious; they're precursors to Chip and Dale (right down to the voices), but somehow less obnoxious and less mean. Of course, you know what's going to happen, but Donald puts up a valiant fight. It's a nice short, very well-animated.

War production had come to a close, with only a few last films produced for the Army and Navy: Something You Didn't Eat, Another Chance, Burma Campaign, Dental Health, On to Tokyo, and War Comes to America. And Walt did try his hand at commercial films before deciding he didn't want to devote the same energy to them that he had for the war. He produced The Right Spark Plug in the Right Place for the Electric Auto-Lite Company, Prevention and Control of Distortion in Arc Welding for the Lincoln Electrical Company, The Dawn of Better Living for Westinghouse, Hold Your Horsepower for the Texas Company, and Light Is What You Make It for the National Better Light Better Sight Bureau. Even the old deal with Inter-American Affairs produced a number of films--A Historia de Jose, Jose Come Bien, Cleanliness Brings Health, Insects as Carriers of Disease, Infant Care, The Human Body, What Is Disease? (aka The Unseen Enemy), Tuberculosis, How Disease Travels, and Hookworm--before the third South American picture was scrapped.

Still, 1945 was a troubled year for cash flow, especially with the government contracts gone, the abandonment of the commercial contracts, and the box office failure of The Three Caballeros. In fact, if there hadn't been a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio that year, Disney would've lost money in 1945.

What happened? In his book The Disney Version, Richard Schickel argues that Disney had purposely courted intellectual admiration in the 1930s; that Walt tried consciously to create High Art in a search for approval, and as a result he grew so culturally insecure that he couldn't figure out what audiences wanted to see anymore. Furthermore, Schickel argues that the intellectuals Disney looked towards, such as Deems Taylor or Leopold Stokowski, were populists who pretended to intellectualism and led Disney astray. True or not, it's hard to deny that Disney entertainment by 1945 had become self-consciously middlebrow and eager to please. Any of the complexities of earlier times, even as recent as the greatest cartoons of 1943 (such as Der Fuehrer's Face, Education for Death, and Chicken Little), had been wiped away. Disney had, by now, abandoned all thoughts of making another masterwork like Snow White or Pinocchio or Bambi, and instead embraced mass popular culture.

As Disney put it himself: "We had to start all over again."

For him, the future lay in combination work (live action with animation) and package films.

Morning Question

I'm sitting here watching the morning news on WGN, which I tend to do in the mornings now because there's nothing else on and I like to stay somewhat informed. Plus, I've got an enormous crush on the lady who does the traffic, Erin Mendez. Oh God, do I love Erin Mendez. She's Irish-Mexican, and boy, did she get the best of those worlds.

Anyway, every morning--every single morning--Ms. Mendez reports on at least two to five traffic accidents affecting the commute in the Chicago area. Every freaking day. So this is my question: Exactly how hard is driving a car? Seriously, that's a serious question. Not to be a total dick, but come on: How hard is it to drive a car? Two to five accidents every morning? It's not 1910 and cars are still new and scary and hard to get a handle on. It's 2007 and every single person in America has been around cars their entire lives. And they keep dumbing cars down; you don't even have to shift the damn gears anymore. So what is the frigging problem? How hard is it?

This reminds me of another of my big peeves with people: that so many of them still have no idea how to turn off their cell phones in a movie theater or (thank God the memory is fading) in a college classroom. Once again, it's not like college-aged people have much of a memory of life without cell phones. And people are so goddamn attached to them that they've stopped wearing their watches and have decided it's perfectly acceptable to check the time in the middle of a dark theater by flipping their phones open and shining the light of God in your face. How hard is turning off the cell phone, and how hard is driving a car?

I often wonder if these same people remember to pull their pants down before using the toilet. This is basic stuff, guys.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fabulous Secret Links

There are a lot of links for November. Let's start with the current writers' strike. As a striking writer, Ken Levine has been blogging about it quite a bit: On the Eve of the Strike, Notes from the Picket Line, Strike Report: Day Three, The 12,000 Man March on Pico, Day 5, No One Earns as Much as Burns, Week Two Begins Early, Allow Me to Be the Last to Recommend This (a very enlightening video), The WGA Strike Red Carpet Show, and The Big Hollywood Rally. Meanwhile, Roger Owen Green answers some questions about the strike, and Allen L. has some interesting thoughts about it, too.
* Lee at Quit Your Day Job has done a personal ranking of the Star Trek movies, with some interesting posts about some of the individual movies: First Contact, Nemesis, The Motion Picture, Insurrection, The Final Frontier, Generations, The Voyage Home, and The Search for Spock.
* Ken Levine on the worst TV shows ever.
* Zaius Nation finds the 5,6,7,8's on YouTube.
* Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein reviews Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Sicko; pay special attention to the comments section of the second one, with actual Canadians telling us some truth about healthcare.
* No Smoking in the Skull Cave takes a look at some more overlooked movies: Black Book and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Becca also has up some exquisite Tera Patrick pics and, even better, some more of her own pictures of Evangeline.
* Marius shares some personal memories of queer cinema.
* Ken Levine again, with words about DVD special editions and a holiday movie preview here and here.
* MC has some thoughts on the way Prince is treating his fans right now.
* MWB recounts the, um, pleasures of Starcrash (God, I love Caroline Munro), as well as sharing some of Brigitte Bardot's musical moments and traumatizing us with memories of Fonz and the Happy Days Gang and Rubik, the Amazing Cube.
* You know, JA, I'm starting to believe there's no such thing as gratuitous Daniel Craig.
* Always an interesting list: people who've been banned from Saturday Night Live.
* Mashable reviews NBC Direct. Poorly.
* From Cracked: the 9 Most Racist Disney Characters.
* Hear 2.0 lists the reasons just why the radio industry is fucked.
* RADAR Online notices that critics love Angelina Jolie's boobs and digs up some of the worst movie pitches ever.
* Two more Splotchy reviews: Death Sentence and Halloween.
* I-Mockery has ten things he likes about Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. There's also a new column about Frank Miller's newest Batman story.
* The Onion AV Club has an interview with Crispin Glover.
* The Pop Eye gets all glam rock.
* Postmodern Barney has a neat post about Disney comics and modern fandom.
* Mayerson on Animation hates Beowulf and has a damn good explanation as to why motion capture is NOT animation.
* Jones Town finds the hidden propaganda in a series of children's movies.
* Captain Incredible talks about movie versions of the Wyatt Earp story.
* Fandumb has some horrifying, but funny, action figures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miss Mexico is my favorite. Marius has some posts about the Miss World pageant here, here, here, and here.
* Where does Dr. Monkey find these horrible album covers?
* MC creates the Blogger Burnout Advisory System.
* Splotchy takes a trip to San Diego: part one, part two, and part three.
* Chris on barbers.
* X-Entertainment looks back at some 1985 holiday catalogs.

Heidi Klum loves her breasts as much as I love her breasts. You can appreciate her breasts more at Egotastic, with two posts of pictures from the Victoria's Secret Lingerie Runway Show.
* On Craig's List: To the Girl Who Flashed Me While I Was Driving.
* Postmodern Barney has some thoughts about the right and wrong way to deal with gay characters in fiction.
* Dick Cavett praises Don Imus a little too much, but I agree that the firing was unfair, hypocritical, and censorship.
* Dr. Monkey has a creepy Thanksgiving story and pictures of Square America.
* Layercake has found some of the most digusting food I've ever seen.
* Man vs. Clown! dug up a horrifying McDLT commercial with Jason Alexander from the eighties.
* Captain Incredible visits Rome in two parts.
* The Evil Dictator learns some things about China.
* Splotchy has some awesome pictures of his Christmas tree lights that I want to look at while smoking up and listening to The Pretty Things.
* Germaine Gregarious nominates the right choice for Time's Person of the Year.

Enlarge this picture, it's really something. Time for the political: Dr. Monkey comments on the Pat Robertson Giuliani endorsement, weighs in on the real threat to world peace (hint: it's not Iran), calls Chris Dodd crazy, vows to continue agitating, ruminates on the possiblity of Kucinich choosing Ron Paul as a running mate, and shares a sad, touching story for World AIDS Day.
* TheMom has some thoughts on political correctness.
* Johnny Yen has an excellent post about things getting worse in the Middle East, shares some sadly typical news about a veteran, and has an update about America's most irreponsible judge.
* Splotchy finds an appropriate image to describe capitalism.
* Jess Wundrun points out the hypocrisy of Jimmy Buffett.
* Pissed Off Patricia with a comment on church and state.
* Bad Astronomy has yet another report on why Texas is doomed; this one really pissed me off. Stupid fucking Texas.
* Speaking of Texas, Random Hostile Thoughts has a great idea for how to deal with them and improve the country.
* Dr. Zaius found some hilariously creepy comics for Christians.
* Atheist Revolution deals with the Christian reactions to his posts about the bible.
* The BEAST has a great article about how feminism and religion don't mix.
* Infidel753 uncovers an injustice against our troops, has some good thoughts about stem cells, ruminates on the end of American dominance, and takes an in-depth look at Ron Paul.
* The Republic of Sestakastan has a cautionary comic you have to see.
* The Rude Pundit on the Saudi justice system (and a follow-up), the Gulf Coast, Giuliani's motives, the New York police union's refusal to endorse Giuliani, and the Republican debate.
* Distributorcap proves that Einstein could see the future.
* Randal Grave sees some altruistic charity fucking.
* Joe Bob Briggs has the final word on school prayer.
* Dr. Monkey looks at waterboarding, which IS torture.

And finally, Jess Wundrun has put up the most appropriate literary passage for Christmas 2007.

Riley Ann Sawyers Was Killed for Not Saying Please

Kimberly Trenor and Royce Zeigler, the people responsible for the death of Riley Ann Sawyers. Would you be surprised to find out that the two of them are already blaming each other?

Kimberly Trenor apparently met Riley's father, Robert Sawyers, in high school. In fact, Kimberly's only been out of high school for a year, and was apparently an honor student in 10th grade. Robert and many others have been having trouble believing Kimberly would have anything to do with Riley's death; indeed, some people have described Kimberly as an overprotective mother. So what the hell happened? How does an overprotective mother admit that she helped her online boyfriend (now husband) beat her daughter to death, torture her, and watch as he threw her across the room so hard that she was killed?

There was no evidence of past abuse; apparently, beating her was something new. Small comfort, but at least her whole life wasn't a living hell. Her short, two year lifespan. According to Kimberly, the abuse was happening because Royce demanded Riley be taught a certain amount of discipline he felt she was lacking. He ordered Kimberly to beat a 2 year-old girl for not saying things like "please" and "yes, sir" or "no, sir," and that he didn't believe she was doing it because Riley's behavior wasn't changing. And one day, apparently, Royce stayed home from work to make sure Kimberly was doing it. And that day, he lost control over her lack of discipline and beat her to death. After holding her head underwater, he got so pissed off that he pulled her up by her hair and flung her across the room, and she hit her head so hard on the tile that she died. You know, allegedly. According to Kimberly, this took four to six hours; Royce's attorney, who claims that Royce had nothing to do with any abuse or murder of Riley, wants everyone to know that this abuse wasn't continuous--it was in fits and starts, and Royce simply grew more enraged as his lessons didn't sink in. "There was never an intention to beat Riley to death," he says. I guess that makes everything okay.

But remember, Royce had nothing to do with it. Pick one, guys. Pick the one that's actually true.

Kimberly says she wanted to call an ambulance at one point, but Royce knew they would be arrested if her injuries were seen. Which says to me that he knew he was doing something horrifically wrong, but didn't stop doing it. He thought over-the-counter pain medication was good enough.

Royce's attorney says Kimberly's story isn't believable, although I'm certainly not having a problem believing it. He says her credibility is going to become an issue. He's right in one respect: I can't believe that, once she saw her daughter was in danger and was being beaten by this man, Kimberly Trenor didn't pack up her kid and go back home to Ohio. She saw the abuse, and even if she didn't participate in it, she let it go on by doing nothing about it. So I have absolutely no sympathy for her. She's as bad as he is; she knew this was going on and didn't act to protect her own daughter.

According to her, Royce panicked when he threw the box with Riley into Galveston Causeway because it didn't sink; he apparently cursed himself for not putting holes in the box. Let me ask this question: if he didn't feel bad about this, why did he try to kill himself?

They're being held on $350,000 bond each; he's in protective custody because, if he weren't, he'd already be dead. She's in a medical unit; apparently she's two months pregnant. Isn't that just heartwarming? Because she really deserves to have more kids, right? According to someone else there, Kimberly isn't very well-liked by the other pregnant mothers. Imagine.

In a chilling corollary to this story, the police sketch of "Baby Grace" has shined a light on 15 other missing little blonde girls. What the fuck is so wrong with this world?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week. Special Mostly-Lupe-Velez-Movies Edition.

How much do I love Lupe Velez? She may be over-the-top in her Mexican mannerisms and she may play up her accent, but Jesus, is she adorable. In this movie, Lupita plays a Cuban peanut vendor who falls in love with an American soldier stationed there in the days just before World War I. The love story is sweet, but the last third of the film is predictable Hollywood tragedy. Still, Lupita is wonderful. *** stars.

Lupe Velez stars as a belly dancer who comes to Broadway and lets fame go to her head. Unfortunately, this film is from the point of view of her boyfriend, a carnival barker who becomes her promoter and agent, and who considers her an ungrateful brat. Yeah, it's 1932 in Hollywood here. There's a great song-and-dance number for Lupita, though. And Eugene Pallette is fun, too. Bit of a letdown from director Gregory La Cava. **1/2 stars.

This is the first of Lupe Velez's series of Mexican Spitfire movies. It's pure sitcom here; a milquetoast banker set to marry a society dame falls in love with the rough, infectious, life-loving Mexican showgirl Carmelita Fuentes. Who could blame him? Lupita is absolutely wonderful, and elevates this predictable movie above what it deserves. *** stars.

In this hasty sequel with a very sitcomish plot (most sitcoms are basically based on premises from 1930s movies), Carmelita is offended when her husband asks her to pretend to be his secretary when a big client, Lord Epping, comes for dinner. Carmelita gets her husband's Uncle Matt to impersonate Lord Epping to teach everyone a lesson, and hilarity ensues. *** stars.

This series went on far, far too long, with basically the same events over and over: Carmelita gets angry and threatens to divorce her husband, then there's a mix-up, then Uncle Matt is forced to impersonate Lord Epping for some reason, and then everything wraps up. Lupita is always wonderful, but these movies just go on and on and on. Poor Lupe would be dead a year after the last of these films was released; she committed suicide at the age of 36. Each film gets ** stars, but would get less with most other actresses in the lead.

Great premise; rather lackluster execution. This comedy stars two of the unfunniest actors alive, Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph, as an average Joe and a prostitute who are frozen and wake up in the future. American society has dumbed down so much that they're now the smartest people alive. They team up with the equally unfunny Dax Shepard. There were a couple of decent laughs, but mostly it felt preachy and afraid to really make a savage, witty satire. As a result, it feels arrogant. Like I said, it's a good premise, and maybe a sadly accurate one--that America will just get dumber and dumber as corporations make the rules and everyone that knows how to fix anything gets old and dies. But an entertaining movie, it ain't. ** stars.

Even for what it is, it's pretty bad. Disney throws a remake of both The Shaggy Dog and The Shaggy D.A. into one boring Tim Allen vehicle. And nothing against Tim Allen, who I like, but this is just so badly written (by at least six writers!) that he doesn't have anything to work with. It could've worked as a family comedy (guy gets turned into a sheepdog, finally listens to his family), but they have to add this whole secret business science conspiracy courtroom thing to it that just wears on you. Kristin Davis is very sexy. Tim Allen, with his shirt off, is sucking in his gut now (Becca said: "Look! He's doing the Shatner Suck!"), which is a good metaphor for how self-conscious this movie really is. ** stars.

I've had this on my TiVo since before Halloween; and yes, wags, I saw it because it had Emily Osment from Hannah Montana in it. And she's surprisingly good as a Goth who has to save her brother from a monster she accidentally conjures up on Halloween. The monster effects (by KNB, for gossakes!) are really good, and the movie manages to be something for kids that isn't as thick-headed as a lot of these movies usually are. The parents in these things piss me off now; just explain things to your kids instead of getting frustrated, you dopes! Anyway, I liked it. For what it was, it wasn't bad. *** stars.

A welcome return for Futurama. When email scammers take possession of Planet Express, all hell breaks loose: time travel, Nibblonians, Zapp Brannigan, beheadings, looting, Santa, Kwanzaa Bot, the Hannukah Zombie, nudity, narwhals, romance, death, lasers, the Globetrotters, solid gold Death Stars, and Al Gore. "I'm sciencing as fast I can!" Perfect. **** stars.

Panic in the Street

The first two volumes of the Sesame Street: Old School DVDs carry a warning that the segments many of us grew up on might not be appropriate for today's children. Today's children are, thanks to their overly-cautious parents, total pussies, and "warnings" like this are a big part of the reason why. What's so inappropriate about Sesame Street from the seventies? Well, according to producer Carol-Lynn Parente, it's because Cookie Monster "modeled the wrong behavior." Besides the old saw about how Cookie Monster teaches children to be addicted to cookies, she's specifically referring to the old Monsterpiece Theatre segments, on which Cookie Monster, as Alistair Cookie, used to smoke a pipe. Scandalous! Smoking! He'll be aborting fetuses and voting to support the war next! Thank God kids have been warned about the evils of a fictional blue monster who loves chocolate chips!

Also, Parente says, "We might not be able to create a character like Oscar today." That's just depressing. This is just like the eighties again; in the eighties, cartoon characters who went against the herd or thought for themselves or felt a little grumpy some of the time were seen as somehow wrong and dangerous. Remember those Care Bears? The little Nazis would travel the globe, browbeating people and forcing them to feel a false sense of love and cheer all the time. If anyone was depressed, they were bad people and needed to be forced into conformity. Hell, by the time Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came on, it became preferable to have a personality so indistinguishable from the herd that you could only be told apart by color-coding. No wonder so many kids are on Prozac or Ritalin; their parents learned from children's programming that being a little grouchy or disagreeable is a sign of a serious problem: individualism. The idea that Sesame Street wouldn't create an Oscar the Grouch today is seriously pathetic; especially given today's Elmo-dominated Street, which is so over-cheery it'll give you a damn toothache.

One of the great things about Sesame Street used to be that it promoted learning as something that would make life more bearable. It took place in a ghetto, basically, but the characters found heartwarming pleasure in little things like reading and taking a bath and singing a song. And the characters didn't all have the same personality. They were like the children they were meant to speak to: sometimes they were grouchy like Oscar, or irritated like Bert, or hyper like Ernie, or uncertain like Big Bird, or awkward like Grover, or depressed like Telly, or over-indulgent like Cookie Monster. They embraced all facets of a child's personality and tried to make them well-rounded. Today, it's like the eighties again, and we have overly-concerned producers telling us that a long time ago people were disagreeable and smoked and ate too much, and that those are unforgivable sins on television now. There really was a time when children's programming used to prepare children for life and teach them to be accepting of the behavior of other people. At least, that's how I remember it.

When did it all get so goddamn preachy?

Enjoy this video; now there's some Sesame Street for adults.

Joker Cover

Can't this movie come out now? Come on!

Indiana Jones

Harrison Ford hasn't made a decent movie in 14 years. Steven Spielberg's bloated junk has been depressingly awful for about the same amount of time. And George Lucas is on the mental level of a particularly slow 10 year-old. But these pictures from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got Becca excited for the movie, so I figured someone else might want to see them, too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

TV Report: Scaling Back and One More Word on Heroes

With shows possibly ending their runs due to the writers' strike, I just realized that there are very few TV series that they could take away from me that I could really miss. When this season arrived, I was watching several shows in a week; now I've only got a couple. Still, the only shows that I can not, will not miss are Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, and The Office. Otherwise, anything could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

Of the new shows, I'm really only watching Reaper, which I still think is hilarious, and Kitchen Nightmares, which is kind of fun even though the obviously scripted segments are becoming more and more noticeable (and more over-the-top). I don't regret giving up on Chuck, and I probably won't even bother with it on DVD. I'm still into Beauty and the Geek (come on, Dave and Jasmine!) and I still watch My Name Is Earl, despite the fact that I'm still annoyed by it.

What I have been doing, when I get the chance, is catching up on TV shows on DVD and the internet. I finally, finally got to sit down and watch the first two seasons of Veronica Mars, which is a pretty damn good show, all things considered. It has all of the elements that made me hate Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it just feels somehow more assured to me. It doesn't revel in how smart it thinks it is, like Joss Whedon's work tends to. And I love the relationship between Veronica and her father Keith, which is my favorite part of the show. I can't wait to see the third season at some point. I ended up just buying the first two seasons on DVD; Best Buy had them on sale for $15 apiece. The third season is still fifty bucks. I need to ask for it for Christmas, I think.

You know, I can't believe they hired Kristen Bell to do the voiceover for Gossip Girl. She's a good actress and all, but I really think she sucks at voiceovers; that's one thing they could've changed on Veronica Mars; the faux-hard-boiled narration is a bit ridiculous.

I also got back into the British series Cold Feet. The first series ended off with a cliffhanger that actually pissed me off; turns out the resolution of it pissed me off, too. Fucking Rachel fucking selfish bitch. But I digress. It's a great show, the kind of show that would be played far too histrionically for American TV.

Christ, and what's this about an American version of Father Ted, by the way? I'm not going to be watching that, especially with the very unfunny John Michael Higgins in the lead. What is the point of an American Father Ted? It's not like a network show is going to go out on a limb and make fun of religion.

And Jesus, they're remaking Spaced, too? Fucking stop it! Granted, it's astounding the translation of The Office worked at all, but give it up.

Oh, man, and how awful is Torchwood? I love all things Doctor Who, but that Torchwood spin-off is so bad that I can't believe they're giving it a second series. I stopped watching it after three episodes, and I just caught the second to last episode, "Captain Jack Harkness," because I'd heard it gave us some insight into Jack's past. It didn't really, unless you're a continuity slave, and the whole thing was pretty boring, except for the bit at the end with the gay kiss. That was a nice moment. Still, it's just a bad show.

Anyway, speaking of stuff I'm not watching anymore, I wanted to share this with you. Over at this post on The Last Visible Blog, John makes some observations about Lost that yield this observation on Heroes that I was surprised to find myself agreeing with:

"Heroes is apparently a stupid piece of inept shit [...] Kring is a shitmeister and it’s no surprise that he has to actually apologize for the show [...] the level of conception and realization is perfect for the 10 year olds, but the presentation is too adult, so it’s far too simple-minded for the audience that is watching it. Eventually — inevitably — they find it facile and dumb. That’s because there was nothing particularly inventive about it in the first place. They’re just throwing a bunch of derivative shit at the wall and pretending each piece sticks from someone’s perspective."

That all makes sense to me. Not only do I not miss watching Heroes, I don't really care about what happens to any of the characters. I was going to watch it on DVD next year, but now I don't think I'm even going to make the time for that. Why bother? It's not rewarding, and I'm just tired of it. One half-good season, and now... well, why ask for more?

The Health Report: Week 50

Still sick. Coughing like a madman. And it sucks.

One weird thing about this sickness: nothing tastes right anymore. I was worried about falling back into the bad eating habits, but I'm not sure what to do now. I tried to eat McDonald's, and it just tasted nasty and I couldn't finish it. Everything tastes bland and flavorless; not just the McD's, but everything. We had ravioli last night, and I could barely taste anything. I don't know what to eat now, so I've been sticking to a bit of toast or some waffles. Dry waffles are so bland anyway; I usually eat them when I'm sick because I can't stomach the thought of eating anything else. I'm pretty fucking tired of them, but nothing--pizza, burgers, etc--tastes like actual food to me.

I'm a little scared, to be perfectly honest. I don't have enough experience with eating right to know where to go with this. What can I eat that's going to actually taste like anything? Eating seems so pointless right now. Candy looks good, though. Damn it. Been staying away from even looking at it, because it really does look damn tasty.

What is that new vegetable that tastes like Sweet Tarts?

I don't know, I've suddenly got this whole feeling of ennui and pointlessness. Everything seems oddly pointless to me. I don't give a damn about anything. I haven't even taken my blood pressure medicine today because it doesn't seem worth it. I don't know what happens to me that makes me like this, but it's been happening for the last four or five days; I just don't care about shit. Meh. Blah. Guh. Fuck it. Who cares? What's the point?

But at least I've lost some weight in a very unhealthy manner. Whatever. I honestly don't think I give a shit about that.


Riley Ann Sawyers

This is Riley Ann Sawyers. She's 2, and she's dead.

Last month, a fisherman in Galveston Bay found a plastic box with a dead child inside. No one could identify the child, called "Baby Grace," until police sketches showed up and a woman in Ohio, Sheryl Sawyers, thought the girl looked a lot like her granddaughter. Now, Riley's mother and stepfather are in jail; her mother, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, a nineteen year-old, has admitted to torturing and killing her own 2 year-old baby girl.

This is one of the sickest fucking things I've ever heard in my life.

According to court documents being reported on now, Kimberly Trenor from Cleveland met Royce Clyde Zeigler II from Texas online while playing World of Warcraft. Kimberly and little Riley moved to Texas, where Riley was apparently placed in the hands of a man who physically abused her.

Kimberly has attested to the fact that the sweet little girl in this picture was beaten with leather belts. This woman, this creature, helped a man she met online to beat her little girl with belts, and then held her head underwater, and then threw the girl across the room so that her head slammed into a tile floor; they haven't announced the cause of death yet, but Riley's body has three skull fractures. And this was in July; they kept Riley's body in a storage shed for almost two months before putting it in a plastic bin and dumping it into Galveston Bay.

Now, regardless of whether the body of "Baby Grace" is Riley Sawyers, Riley is still dead and it is because of these monsters. Because of people who were supposed to protect her from harm, but instead were the cause of her torment, her suffering, and her death. Zeigler at least tried to kill himself, leaving a note that exonerated Kimberly; but he also had Kimberly float the story that Children's Services had taken Riley away because of sexual abuse allegations, going so far as to forge a document to that effect. This is a man who thinks it's better to be an accused child molestor than someone who killed a 2 year-old girl. As if there's room for relativism here.

So far, these assholes are being charged with injury to a child and tampering with evidence; once the results from the autopsy are in and cause of death is determined, I expect them to be charged with murder. And I hate to say it, but this is the kind of case where I'd have no problem seeing the death penalty administered. Because people who have done something like this, something so awful, something so inhuman, to a child... they don't deserve to live. I sincerely hope that, at the very least, they get put into the general population in prison. Then the situation will take care of itself.

This is the kind of fucked-up thing that makes me wonder what kind of hope there is for the future. As someone who would be happy as hell to have a child, I see what these selfish fucking assholes could have had, and I hate them so much for it. And as someone who lost a sister to cancer... fuck, I want these people to suffer for what they've done. Dennis Miller is wrong about a lot of things, but one thing I agree with him wholeheartedly on is this: "If your life seems so bad that the only way you can make yourself feel better is to hurt a kid, then you've got to kill yourself. Just step into the plate and take one for the team."

Do it. Do it now.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

200,000 Hits As of Yesterday

Time for me to celebrate. Lucy and Michelle deserve to celebrate, too; I'd probably not have gotten that many hits without them!

Song of the Week: "(Nothing But) Flowers"

The last great Talking Heads single.