Cool Dark Shit: BLOOD BENDING

I’m an avid fan of the Nickelodeon show “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, but the episode that sealed it for me as one of the coolest damn things I’ve seen in a kids show…is the episode where Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman) learns “blood bending”.  Katara is a water bender, the last of her tribe, and throughout the series she grows and develops her abilities to manipulate and bend water to use it as a weapon.  In the big episode, Katara meets an old woman (voiced by the great Tress MacNeille), a water bender who teaches her different ways of controlling her power by manipulating water to bend out of thin air.  The old woman then teaches her the dark side of her power…blood bending…the ability to control and manipulate people and animals through their blood.  It’s one of the darkest, coolest things I’ve seen in an American animated series, and to temp Katara to go to the dark side was a great bold move on the part of the creators of the show.

Its always great to me to see in a show the shades of grey that come with developing a character.  It makes them powerful, engaging, and gripping to watch as we witness the threat of them falling into darkness.  In a later episode when Katara uses blood bending to enact revenge…well, it officially made her my favorite character in the series.  Every once in awhile I’ll highlight scenes I love in films that go into dark territory. Whether it’s done by heroes or villains, it makes for absolute great storytelling.  For those who haven’t seen it, Avatar is a series worth your time.  It’s one of the coolest animated series I’ve seen in a long time.  

Villain Watch: Silas Barnaby (March of the Wooden Soldiers-1934)

March of the Wooden Soldiers is probably considered one of the best Laurel and Hardy features.  It’s got great songs, terrific characters, and of course Stan and Ollie at their finest.  As a film, it’s one of their strongest in terms of story, and for once in a Laurel and Hardy picture, you actually feel something for the romantic couple, Tom Piper (Felix Knight) and Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry).  But the one character that really makes this film amazing and stands out among the rest is the great villain, Silas Barnaby.

Barnaby is one of Laurel and Hardy’s greatest adversary’s.  The greedy black-hearted old man of ToyLand forces Bo Peep to marry him or have her mother (The old woman in the shoe) thrown out into the streets because he owns the mortgage on her house.  He schemes and plots to do everything in his power to get what he wants in order to ruin the happy couple.  But when Stan and Ollie thwart and humiliate him publicly, later in a scene meant to give children nightmares, Barnaby unleashes the Bogeymen on ToyLand, unleashing his wrath to create chaos and destruction for everyone involved.  He definitely proves in the long run that this is no man to trifle with.

Barnaby has several great moments in this film.  He hisses and cackles his way through his scenes.  It’s hard sharing the scenes I love most without giving it away to those who haven’t seen it.  But some of the more hilarious scenes include Barnaby the pignapper, the marriage of Barnaby and Bo Peep, and one of my favorite scenes, the fight near the end between Barnaby and Tom Piper, which is truly great and over the top.  I never saw this film when I was really young, but I’m pretty certain the Bogeymen unleashed on ToyLand would have given me nightmares.  There are scenes of the Bogeymen breaking into a children’s bedroom which is pretty scary even for a Laurel and Hardy comedy.  It shows how much things have changed from todays films where the studios would hesitate to make a movie too scary for children.

(Left to Right) Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, with Stan and Ollie, and Henry Brandon as Barnaby

Barnaby was played by the great Henry Brandon who was 21 years old (yes, 21!) when he took on his first screen role in March of the Wooden Soldiers.  His great over the top performance really sells this character, who is not only funny but also becomes genuinely scary as the film goes on.  For me as an animator, he’s a great character to study as he makes sweeping over the top gestures.  His face is pliable as he delivers such great facial expressions, making every emotion work times 10.  His back is arched as he moves with his cane as a crotchety old man.  The performance is heightened and theatrical selling the humor and the menace.  And his line delivery just makes me giddy, as he talks like an oily snake waiting to strike.

Henry Brandon must of really had to have proven himself to compete with the already widely popular Laurel and Hardy.  But he does prove himself greatly to be just as engaging and memorable as the boys ever were.  We would never see another character like Barnaby’s today because studios today would probably think that audiences wouldn’t take such an exuberant over the top performance seriously.  Performances like Barnaby’s today would have that character type become satirized, or it would fall into parody so the filmmakers could wink and nudge at the audience that they’re not serious.  Which in some ways is kind of a shame, because it would be interesting to see if somebody could pull off someone like Barnaby today and make him just as memorable, and have him treated with respect to his character.

Already Henry Brandon would have given Jim Carrey a run for his money in terms of slick body exaggeration and facial expressions.  He has several great lines: “Big bait catches big rat!”  or in one of my favorite scenes, “A Christmas gift in the middle of July?”  Barnaby truly is one of the great movie villains.  He has many great moments of hilarity, but because of the situations he creates, he comes off as a serious threat to our heroes.  Even for a comedy, it counts just as much if you can wrack up the tension with a real menacing villain in the way.  It makes for a memorable story.  Barnaby is truly one of the greats, and if you’ve never seen March of the Wooden Soldiers, don’t wait till Christmas to check it out.  Watch it for Stan and Ollie, but check it out for Henry Brandon’s  amazing performance.

“We shall meet again my pretty little buttercup, and you will sing to a different tune!  BAH!”

 

REVIEW: Men In Black III (2012) Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld

Well, I guess I was right to put on my skeptic hat for Men in Black III.  The film opens to a promising start as we are introduced to the main villain, Boris the Animal.  He’s a nasty looking guy with a needle shooting parasite-like creature that is a part of him.  While the film doesn’t exactly hit a home run with the gags, it rolls along okay, and watching Josh Brolin emulate Tommy Lee Jones was a real blast.  But once the movie reaches its climactic emotional point, the whole thing falls apart in the most contrived and ridiculously saccharine ending I’ve seen in awhile.  It also doesn’t make a lick of sense.  I’ll highlight the scene in question below with a spoiler warning, but the emotional payoff just ruins what could have been a somewhat interesting and worthwhile story.

The pacing of the film works pretty well, and while I didn’t find the humor to be very chuckle worthy, I thought the story was decent enough to keep me interested.  There are a few good laughs in here (the scene with “Andy Warhol” was pretty funny).  Every once in awhile something would come up that would be fairly amusing.  In terms of the story, aside from the ending I did have some issues with it.  For one thing, I felt J and K were able to get in and out of situations a little too easily.  Even at a point where we think the neuralizer (the gizmo that makes everyone forget what happened) can’t get them out of trouble, an alien friend steps in to easily take care of the problem.  This seems to happen frequently through out the film.

As for Boris the Animal, while he makes for an interesting villain, I never really got a sense of his presence hovering over the plot to create tension.  The attention is mostly focused on the relationship between Agent J and Young Agent K, but I never really felt the looming threat of Agent K’s death being foretold.  It’s brought up every so often, and Boris shows up every once in awhile to terrorize them.  But I never really felt concerned that K was going to die.  This is not the fault of Josh Brolin, who does an amazing job as K.  I think it is a problem caused by the ease in which the duo gets out of situations.  There’s no real threat or concern for what’s going to happen to them.

Boris is also defeated way too easily.  In what should have been a tense standoff between K and Boris, K simply shoots him, vaporizing him instantly.  Ho hum.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT THE END OF THE MOVIE…

The real problem with the film is the scene after the standoff with K and Boris that puts the nail in the coffin for this film.  K and J are breaking into Cape Canaveral with an alien named Griffin who has the ability to predict the future.  It’s 1969, and they have to put an alien artifact on top of the rocket going to the moon.  This artifact has to be launched into space in order for it to work.  Because of their destined paths to seek the truth, Griffin tells J and K they can’t use their neuralizers on the military police who apprehend them.  Instead when they are confronted with an African American military officer, Griffin touches the officer, who sees his future and suddenly decides he wants to help them.  As the two make their way to the rocket, J (Will Smith), asks the officer what he saw.  The officer says something rather obscure but doesn’t have time to explain.  At the very end (which takes place on the beach right near the rocket site) before Boris and K stand off, Boris kills the military officer.    After K kills Boris, a 5 year old African American boy sitting in the car off in the distance on the beach, runs over to K and asks him where his daddy is.  The boy not only turns out to be the military officer’s son, it’s Agent J as a child.  Agent J watches this whole scene from the distance, as K tells the boy his father is dead.  He then uses the neuralizer on him and tells the boy that his father was a hero.

I know I’m missing a few things there, but that’s basically the scene.  It’s ridiculous.  For one thing, there is literally no set up about J and his father.  J makes a joke early in the film that he played catch with a wall because his father was never around.  Because J was neuralized as a child he probably assumed his father abandoned his family.  But whether or not J has father abandonment issues, the joke is all the information we get about his father and the issue never comes up again until the end of the story.  It’s also supposed to be the penultimate scene for K because this was the event in his life that supposedly turned him into a curmudgeon, because he had to lie to a child about his fathers death.  He’s 29 years old at this point in his life.  He’s young, and flawed.  Would anyone put it past him for him to have himself neuralized so he can forget it ever happened?  Yes, there are moral consequences to doing something like that, but if the event changed him that much and put him in that much pain, what’s to stop him from taking the easy way out?  And even if he chose not to, if it started affecting his job, whose to say that somebody at MIB headquarters wouldn’t have neuralized him so he could forget it and move on?  It just doesn’t add up.

As far as coincidence is concerned, because this is the MIB universe, in a cosmic sense its somewhat plausible that K would meet J as a child.  But making the child turn out to be J just makes the scene all the more saccharine and over the top.  I can feel the hands of the filmmakers trying to rip into my emotions, and because of that the scene comes off as being completely manipulative and contrived.

And the last thing is…what is a 5 year old kid doing in a car by himself on beach near a dangerous rocket thats about to launch?  If his father is on duty, why the hell would he leave him out there in a car in the Florida heat by himself?  Where’s the kids mom?  The whole scene logically makes no sense.  It’s really piss poor writing.  This is the penultimate scene in the entire film, and the whole thing just crumbles because of it.

It’s really a shame too.  Despite the movies flaws I was still able to go along with it okay up until the very end.  But the emotional payoff to the story is just phony.  If you really need a reason to see this movie, go check it out for Rick Baker’s fantastic alien and animatronic creations.  Otherwise, this is one you can easily skip.

Fresh Airedale (1945) Dir. Chuck Jones

I wanted to share with you one of my all time favorite Chuck Jones cartoons “Fresh Airedale”. In the 1930’s through to the 60’s, the main cartoon directors at Warner Bros. were expected to make a certain number of Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester cartoons each year.  But once every year the directors we’re allowed to make a cartoon that was strictly their own.  This was done sometimes as a way to encourage the development of new characters for the studio, and a few of those cartoons gave us characters such as Pepe Le Pew and started the Coyote/Roadrunner series.  But there are a few of those one-shot cartoons that have stood the test of the time.  A few of those cartoons include The Dover Boys, Horton Hatches the Egg, Feed The Kitty, and One Froggy Evening (Most of these examples are by Chuck Jones, but there are several great one shots from the other WB directors as well such as Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Robert McKimson.)  Fresh Airdale is one those one shot cartoons and it is a great one at that.

What I love most about this cartoon is its sadistic black humor.  Our main character Shep the dog, who is quite literally a son of a bitch, does everything short of murder to get what he wants.  Even though his master is generous enough to feed him a full on mutton, he still resorts to stealing his masters steak when he’s not looking.  Observing this sideshow is the innocent cat, with whom the master seems to despise with every fiber of his being.  The cat takes the punishment brought on by Shep’s actions, and is thwarted by Shep every time he tries to do the right thing.  The torture of the cat is totally sadistic and hilarious at the same time, and the black irony at the end of the cartoon is just brilliant.

I love it when a great cartoon can take a turn to the dark side.  It’s of those great metaphors for the individual we see manipulating the love and attention of the public, only to see their true conniving and deceitful ways behind closed doors.  Like a politician in some cases.  Then we know the cruelty and injustice of it all when those people actually get away with it.  This cartoon is absolutely priceless.  Check it out:

 

REVIEW: Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Dir. Wes Anderson

I just got back from seeing Moonrise Kingdom, and I just have to say up front…I think this film may go on my list of absolute favorite movies of all time.  Of all of Wes Anderson movies, this goes down to me as his most hilarious and his most emotionally deep.  But that’s not to put down at all his previous works, which are all hilariously funny and carry a strong emotional weight.  I love Anderson’s films.  He embodies everything that Tim Burton had at one time in his career.  His style of filmmaking never overshadows its message.  Everything from his stylized vision to his dry sense of humor never fails to hit me the right way.  The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox are all terrific movies.  But with Moonrise Kingdom, out of all his films, to me, this to me is his most special.

I may be a little biased here since this is a movie about Boy Scouts, or as they’re called here, Khaki Scouts.  I grew up going through the entire scouting program, from Tiger Cubs at the age of 6 to Eagle Scout at the age of 17.  That was 11 years of my life devoted to scouting and it was some of the best memories I have growing up through my childhood.  So it was hilarious to watch Edward Norton as the overly dedicated Scoutmaster of his troop and some of the hard ass, over the top militaristic training he puts on these young scouts.

The story takes place in 1965 and centers on one of the Khaki scouts, Sam, an emotionally damaged kid whose foster parents had pretty much given up hope in him because of his weird nature.  He escapes into the woods with a girl he’s fallen in love with named Suzy.  But she’s damaged as well as she has sociopathic tendencies and is essentially ignored by her parents (played by Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) who are both lawyers in an empty marriage.  So Sam and Suzy run off, using Sam’s wilderness survival skills as a Khaki scout to survive.  It’s ultimately a doomed romance as Sam is a boy without parents and the threat of being sent to an orphanage, where because of his erratic behavior he may be facing electro-shock therapy.  But it’s really a fight for these two to keep their innocence alive and their hope of escape from the lonely, depressing fate of the adults in their lives.

You would think after reading that description that this movie has a dark tone hanging over it, when in fact it’s surprisingly light.  And I should probably mention again…this movie is hilarious!  It does take a little bit of time to get into it and settle into the world of the film.  But once you get into it, its charm will embrace you.  There are all around great performances by everyone, including Bruce Willis who plays Captain Sharp, the towns police officer.  Willis brings the humor and the sadness to Sharp, who is not only lonely, but struggling in an affair he’s having with Murray’s wife.  Harvey Keitel also makes an appearance as the tough scouting commissioner,  and Tilda Swinton brings some underlying menace as the social worker.

But really it’s all about the two kids, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.  In fact, all the kids in this film are terrific.  Watching the relationship blossom between Suzy and Sam is really wonderful and innocent, as the two have been planning their escape for over a year by corresponding with letters.  And finding out Sam’s escape from his tent, which is straight out The Shawshank Redemption is absolutely hilarious.  It’s amazing to me how Wes Anderson can portray in all of his films such heavily damaged people in such a light comical way, and yet keeping it truthful all the same.  

If you know Wes Anderson’s work, then I don’t have to explain the top quality of the stylistic production design.  The inside of Suzy’s house is almost like looking into a dollhouse.  The compositions of each shot are all masterfully done, and the score by Alexandre Desplat along with the songs by Benjamin Britten really breathe life into this film.

I don’t really have much more to say, and I don’t want to give away too much more.  It’s a perfect, wonderful gem of a film that deserves your attention.  It’s solid all the way through, and nothing is compromised in Wes Anderson’s vision.  This film is truly a work of art, and if you have decide this weekend between this or Men In Black, I can tell right now, Moonrise Kingdom is guaranteed not to disappoint.

A brief tribute: Towed In The Hole (1932)

I want to make an effort to post something on the blog everyday, and while I plan to see Men In Black III and Moonrise Kingdom over the weekend (which I’ll have reviews up for shortly)  I wanted to post a brief tribute to one of my absolute favorite Laurel and Hardy shorts, “Towed In The Hole”.

I’m an avid Laurel and Hardy fan, having seen all of their sound films and most of their features and silent shorts.  Even their weaker shorts have great moments of hilarity.  But the ones that do work all the way through are pitch perfect, from the pacing and comic timing to the gags that build to hilarious conclusions, the energy never lets up for a second.  A lot of the credit was due to Stan Laurel who played a major role in writing the gags for the team.

The clip below highlights a few scenes from “Towed in the Hole”, but really you have to go out and find the full short to experience just how brilliant this thing is, and how brilliant these two were as a comedy duo.  The short is about the boys running a moderately successful fish business.  When Stan gets an idea that they should get a fishing boat and get their own fish, Ollie goes along with it, believing he can save money by “cutting out the middle man”.  Of course, whenever Ollie takes Stan’s advice, chaos tends to follow as he endures the nightmarish task of repairing the broken down ship with Stan’s “assistance”.

There are many great Laurel and Hardy shorts out there that I will highlight for future posts, but this is definitely one of their best.  Seek it out and laugh it up.    

Villain Watch: Kurgan (Highlander 1986)

What I love most about the movies is the one thing that can make or break its story…a great villain.  A great, memorable movie villain is hard to come by.  I see so many films every year, where the main threat of the film hardly makes an impact on its viewer.  Many times, they’re just boring and uninspired.  They limp and crawl on the screen, and we can only imagine what greater threats they could have been had the writers discovered their potential.  A great hero is only as good as its villain, and regularly on this blog I want to single out what I consider the most badass, evil scumbags and major sons of bitches who get in our heroes way.  There’s no better way to start than with one I just recently discovered…my new favorite scum lord of the silver screen…Krugan from Highlander.

Krugan is played by the unstoppable Clancy Brown.  Before he made an impact as the nasty Captain Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, it was in Highlander where he played the crazed immortal hellbent on bringing darkness in a world where there can be only one.  There are a lot of things I love about this character.  One of them is how he changes over the different time periods.  We first meet him in early Scotland as a ruthless warlord mercilessly killing people in his path.  The clan he came from was said to toss children in a pit full of maniacal dogs and watch them tear them apart for amusement.  Yeesh.  The one thing that doesn’t change is his maniacal sociopathic nature as he lives for killing throughout the centuries.

Once in present day New York, his demeanor changes into a death street punk, living on the edge in a world where he can’t be killed.  There’s a great scene where he’s kidnapped Macleod’s (Christopher Lambert) girl and takes her on a wild ride through the city, driving into oncoming traffic and causing collisions left and right…all the while where she’s screaming and he’s living dangerously laughing his ass off.  It’s fascinating as we get to watch a guy free to break all rules of society and mocking the rest of the world.  There’s another great scene in the church, putting his feet up on the pews and taunting Macleod.  At the end he takes the hand of a priest and licks it.  It’s a great scene, and it’s so much fun watching Clancy Brown chew up the scenery to make every moment count.

Those little touches are the thing that really sell the character, as we watch this evil scumbag do whatever he wants (no matter how cruel or obscene) and enjoying every moment of it.  That freedom to do what he wants is where I feel the audience was able to identify with and latch onto this character.  Even though we know everything he does with that freedom is horribly wrong, it’s the one thing we love and envy most about this character.  If you had the power of immortality, would you do everything you could to contain it?  Or would the world become your personal playground?  For me, it’s a guilty pleasure getting to watch him create chaos and destruction in his wake, and I’m certain many others share in that love for a guy who can be as bad as he wants with no one to stop him.

It’s these qualities that make Krugan work so well as a villain.  Even though he is essentially merciless and coldblooded, he still has many layers, and many different incarnations that make him into a fully rounded character.  At his core, he’s like a kid without any responsibility or rules.  You can probably only imagine what he was like as a kid, as he probably impaled himself on objects on a regular basis…and all for the fun of it.  The final battle is epic as Macleod has to face someone who is not only 1000 years older, but 10x as powerful because of it.

Clancy Brown has always been one of my favorite actors.  In this role he brings just as much menace as there is humor.  The gravely deep voice is a trademark of his, and while most of his villains are played with straight seriousness, this is one where he was really able to go to town to be as completely maniacal and psychotic as he could.  For those of you who haven’t seen Highlander yet, watch it and see a great character at work.  Krugan is one of the great movie villains, and I’m glad to have finally discovered him after all this time.