Not-So-Top Cartoons: Wreck-It Ralph

Something’s gone wrong in Videoland, and it’s not that Sarah Silverman found a way into it.

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I don’t know what to make of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 2012 niche-teaser about a video game villain who just wants to be liked, dammit. Is it a morality tale? Is it an action film? Or is it just empty-headed entertainment that’s about as satisfying as a Sugar Rush?

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I’ll summarize it as best I can: there’s this arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the player guides the friendly Felix up a building to stop the ape-like Wreck-It Ralph from busting up the place. It’s an obvious send-up of Donkey Kong, but this particular Kong is tired of getting tossed off a roof everyday. So, against the advice of his fellow bad guys, Ralph abandons his post and tries heroic deeds in other arcade games, so he can prove that he’s more than just a terrorizing thug.

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Along the way, Ralph is tormented by the violence of modern games, the gooey pitfalls of a saccharine candy-land, and the specter of a former villain who “game-jumped:” the glory hog Turbo, who caused two games to go out of order.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story or the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph presents us with a strangely complex society, with many rules and expectations for its citizens. Like the toons and toys of cartoons past, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game characters exist to please and entertain humans. As such, any individual’s attempt to rise above his or her station is considered disruptive to the community, and is thus met with disapproval. The mantra of Ralph’s support group, Bad-Anon, is, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

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So the message of the film seems to be the stale old platitude of “be happy with whom you are,” but with the tacked-on amendment of, “so long as you remember your place.”

I take issue with this because, in the real world, criminals (or “bad guys”) who reform are to be commended. It takes real effort and work to improve oneself, to recognize the consequences of one’s actions, to learn empathy, to foster positivity. Even if the motivation is self-serving, i.e., to avoid prison or to save money or to raise a family, breaking away from a life of crime is indisputably a good thing, for both the group and the individual.

So is the constant urging for Ralph to stop his pipe dreams of heroism and just get back to breaking things really healthy?

Keep in mind that I only “take issue” with this. I’m not offended by it, and I understand that Ralph’s world has certain requirements in order to function, but the can of worms that this story opens isn’t, and cannot be, fully explored, and that’s frustrating. There are many perspectives and feelings to consider in a topic as complex as this, and a Disney cartoon just isn’t equipped to handle them all. You might say that Ralph’s writers were aiming to raise questions, to encourage its audiences to have lively discussions on the ride home from the theater. When a movie’s height of humor is a sassy little girl spewing doody jokes, however, I highly doubt that it has such lofty artistic goals.

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Anyway, that’s my main beef with this film: the story feels slapped together to line up with its “Roger Rabbit in Videoland” premise. And really, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph is: an updated version of Robert Zemeckis’s masterpiece, only more niche. It references the Golden Age of Video Games, when kids actually played 8-bit games in arcades, it’s got cameos from faces such as Q-Bert, M. Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Clyde, and its original characters are amalgamations of existing Disney fixtures, like Mickey Mouse and The Mad Hatter.

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I actually like that last part. Fix-It Felix Jr., as played by Jack McBrayer, is basically a human Mickey Mouse. He may have been modeled after Mario, but his movements, attitude, and mannerisms are all Mickey’s. Imagine any one of his lines in Wayne Allwine’s voice and you’ll see it, I promise you. I find this idea of a postmodern update to the Mickey persona fascinating.

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(spoiler warning)

Then there’s my favorite character, King Candy, who’s voiced by Ed Wynn…as impersonated by Alan Tudyk. Put a top hat on him and you’re back in Alice’s Wonderland. I actually think the King is more like Judge Doom, in that he’s an ancient, whispered evil in disguise, revealed by accident and assuming a monstrous form.

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Turbo is, of course, a device meant to lead Ralph’s quest to a battle to save all of Videoland, but I guess that’s okay. The real antagonist of this film seems to be the insufferable weight of one’s peers, though I suppose that’s open to interpretation. There are things I like about this movie — the performances of John C. Reilly as Ralph and McBrayer as Felix, the occasionally irreverent tone, the fact that it has no songs — but the rest of Wreck-It Ralph is pretty forgettable. As with most Disney productions, it never goes too far in any direction, for fear of upsetting somebody. So instead we get fizzy, fuzzy harmlessness painted in sweets and sugars, to be ingested for a quick high before seeking out something more filling.

A post-script: yes, the animation is excellent, but that’s to be expected from Disney. Besides, computer-generated animation is so prevalent now, even in freaking live-action films, that its spectacle has become numbing. Had Disney been bold enough to depict Wreck-It Ralph in the pixel-art style of the games it was evoking, it might have earned a real high score from me.

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Top Non-Cartoons: Creepshow

Clear the roaches outta the pantry and unpin those voodoo dolls; it’s the best horror film of all time!

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Well, okay, that’s not true. The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time, but that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite. To me, Warner Bros.’s Creepshow is, and will always be, the scary movie to top all scary movies. It’s not just freaky, it’s funny. It’s not just scary, it’s silly. It’s not just fantastic, it’s fantabulous. It gushes with blood and shakes with shivers, but it knows it’s all in good fun. You can’t afford to take this movie too seriously, as the trash man at the end of the film — a hilarious cameo from makeup artist Tom Savini — reminds us: “IT’S A COMIC BOOK!”

And as you might have guessed, this is precisely why I love it.

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From left to right: Stephen King (writer), Tom Savini (makeup artist), and George Romero (film director). Nah, I never heard of them either

Creepshow stands in the pantheon of great horror anthologies, alongside Trilogy of Terror, Black Sabbath, Tales From the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie (though that one only partially qualifies as horror). As the first collaboration between Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero (R.I.P.) and one Stephen King, Creepshow had a hell of a lot going for it. The creators wanted to make it special, something that would stand out from other horror films. They considered some unique concepts for the movie, such as attempting different visual styles for each story, but they settled on a bright, exaggerated look…a look reminiscent of the classic EC horror comics.

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In the early 1950s, William Gaines developed a series of macabre comics that read like Pulp Fiction Illustrated. Some of them were set in the real world, others were completely outlandish, but they were all decidedly adult, and quite graphic for their time. Murder, sex, and monsters spilled across every page, and they often had disturbing, twist endings.

While the material was not intended for children, the EC crew knew that kids would jump at the forbidden fruit anyway, as it dangled so low in comic book stores across the country. To better reach these kids, EC adopted the “host” concept from scary radio shows such as Inner Sanctum or Weird Circle. These gleefully sadistic characters spun terrifying tales, and introduced them with terrifying puns. The most prominent of them was the Cryptkeeper, a slavering old man who was so diddly-darn delighted to scare you that you almost wanted to hug him. He’d later reemerge on the Tales From the Crypt TV series, in a more ghoulish form than before, but with his arsenal of bad puns intact.

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These hosts came off as freakish grandparents, who stole spooky little moments with the kiddies when Mom and Dad weren’t around to stop them, and said kiddies ate it up. Surely, the thrill of an EC comic was not only in reading the foul material contained therein, but in hiding it from one’s God-fearing, suburbanite parents.

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Without fail, Creepshow maintains this tradition. The movie even uses a frame story about a little boy named Billy who’s been caught with the naughty comic. The boy is played by Stephen King’s son Joe, who’s now a horror writer of some note himself, but I digress.

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The wicked father smacks his son across the face and tosses the “horror crap” in the trash as a wild thunderstorm kicks up. The incensed Billy then wishes death on his father and sinks into his horror fantasyland to escape.

That’s when Raoul shows up.

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“Raoul” was Tom Savini’s nickname for the skeletal phantom who appears at Billy’s window. The creature was built from an actual human skeleton imported from India, and it looks terrific. Raoul assumes the role of the Creepshow comic’s “host,” the Creepshow Creep, and he guides us — wordlessly — from one scary vignette to another in a nifty animated form. Thank Rick Catizone for the excellent animated segments, which are smooth and effective in capturing the style of the EC greats like Jack Kamen and Bernie Wrightson.

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He wants his…well, you know

We start off with “Father’s Day,” which is about a wealthy clan called the Granthams, who have made their dough off of the illegal enterprises of their patriarch Nathan. Seven years earlier, Nathan drove his daughter and caretaker Bedelia off the deep end with his demented ramblings, and Bedelia decided to off him with a blow to the head. The weapon: a marble ashtray with a solemn cherub at its head. It’s a prominent prop in this story, but it also appears in all the tales that follow. You’ll need sharp eyes to spot it, but it’s a fun little easter egg for fans.

Anyway, Bedelia has made a tradition out of visiting Dad’s grave on Father’s Day to expunge her guilt and demons, but this year, ol’ Nate strikes back. With a wonderfully rotted and rock-filled throat, he croaks out his unfulfilled desire for the Father’s Day cake he never received, and then he uses his zombie-powers to croak out everyone on his way to get it.

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This guy directed The Kentucky Cycle

Along Nate’s journey, the film’s comic book style is made apparent. Dramatic scenes are soaked in bright reds and blues, patterned scrims glow behind characters’ screeching faces, and shots are framed with colorful panels. You even see comic book-y banners at screen’s edge, showing phrases like MEANWHILE… and LATER…. More important than that, though, is the appearance of a young Ed Harris, and his spectacular dance moves!

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Your author, ladies and gentlemen

The second, and most divisive, of the stories, is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which stars Stephen King himself, in what is basically a one-man comedy show. It’s based on King’s short story Weeds, in which a poor Maine hick and his homestead are overgrown by aggressive alien vegetation. The vile weeds even consume Jordy’s body, sucking the moisture out of him and burrowing into his brain. Any opportunity for serious body horror is blown, however, thanks to effects problems and King’s outrageous acting.

King isn’t entirely to blame for this. Turns out Romero encouraged King to play Jordy like Wile E. Coyote, with huge, bug-eyed faces and goofy hick-talk. What’s more, certain plant/body effects that Savini had in mind, like tendrils sprouting from Jordy’s tongue and fingers, and green contact lenses, didn’t work out for various reasons and had to be cut. Thus, the silliness overwhelms the creepy concept, and “Jordy” ends up a real head-shaker for what it could have been.

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R.I.P.

Now we get to the good stuff. When asked about their favorite of Creepshow’s stories, most viewers choose one of the next two. “Something to Tide You Over” stars funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen playing so hard against type you can hear the smack of it. Danson is a playboy who’s been sleeping with Nielsen’s woman, so Nielsen lures the two lovers into a particularly cruel death-trap.

The plot’s nothing new, not even for King, but the performances make it work. Nielsen’s character, a manipulative dandy fittingly named Richard, is a playful monster that you can’t help but hate. Danson, meanwhile, is an emotional firestorm, blazing with rage, tension, deference, distrust, and outright panic. You can almost see his brain-box smoking as he seeks a way out of his ever-worsening situation.

The ending, while appropriate, is a little too vague for its own good, but the story is well-done overall. It’s Nielsen that grabs you: he hurls himself headfirst into this asshole-role, and he gives it every last ounce that he’s got. If all you see when you look at the man is Frank Drebin of Police Squad!, prepare to have your eyebrows raised.

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Something not of our ken

Now, this next one…ooh, I love this next one. “The Crate” is the longest and most complex of the five stories, and it’s vintage King through and through. It’s based off of King’s short story of the same name, but it’s told in a very different manner.

It stars two Tony-winning pros of theater, Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, as university professors and best buds. They also both have lady problems. Weaver’s character, Dexter, is a widower who’s taken to dating his grad students, while Henry, played by Holbrook, is married to a dragon named Wilma — but you can call her “Billie,” everyone does.

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Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes, together at last

Adrienne Barbeau flushes her sexuality down the toilet to create Billie, and her constant, drunken crassness is so acrid that it’s just plain funny. One of her lines was so foul, in fact, that it had to be rewritten and dubbed over before the movie was released. You can hear the change in the recording quality if you pay close attention. I guess that theatergoers of 1982 just weren’t ready for the word “cunt” yet.

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What would we do without her?

Anyway, Dexter stumbles across a strange crate that’s apparently returned from a hundred-year-old Arctic expedition, and decides to open it up. Now, I know I’m not tipping any cards in saying that whatever’s inside isn’t good, but I still won’t go into detail. I’ll just say that the plot travels to intriguing places, and closes with Dex and Henry in a strange sort of standoff.

The Crate stands out to me because it features a wild scenario, and yet it somehow maintains a grip on reality. Holbrook and Weaver behave in ways that are extreme, and yet completely believable. Dex is pushed so far into fright-world that he wheezes, whistles, and breaks down laughing. Henry is meant to be a henpecked milquetoast, but Holbrook adds an unmistakable anger to the role, so his silence looks less like shame and more like wily, patient calm. He’s waiting for something — something that’s coming up fast. Such dips and rises would be impossible for any but the finest actors, and these two men rise to the challenge with supreme confidence. They’re a joy to watch, and I only wish the movie had more scenes of them together.

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What? You got a problem with Rochas?

The final story, “They’re Creeping Up on You!” doesn’t have the length or depth of the two stories that precede it, but God damn, I can’t imagine a better capper for this film. It’s a gross-out episode that plays on that oh-so-common phobia of big, fat, ugly bugs. Cockroaches, to be specific.

Now, I’ve seen a couple of horror films that stab at nasty cockroach scenes, but none of them work so well as this. I think it’s because the setting and characters — er, character — are so effective.

E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a germaphobic billionaire who’s sequestered himself from humanity in a blinding-white, antiseptic penthouse. His waking life consists of shuffling about, poking at eerie, buzzing devices, and watching his money pile up. His only interactions with other people are over the phone or through a peephole, both of which he handles with gloves. Pratt’s conversations reveal all we need to know about him: he’s misanthropic, he’s unpleasant, he’s a real goat-fucker. The weird thing is — as was the case with Barbeau’s Billie — Pratt’s cruelty is so extreme as to be hilarious. You’d never want to know Mr. Pratt in real life, but on film, he’s enthralling.

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Still, a man this evil is bound to get punished, and Creepshow chooses to punish him not with a mere infestation of cockroaches, but with a full-scale invasion of them.

David Brody and Raymond Mendez, credited as the film’s “Roach Wranglers,” delved into the bat caves of Trinidad to gather over a hundred-thousand roaches for this story. The two men got them past U.S. Customs by stating they were for a Stephen King movie. The shots of the roaches are all quite brief, as Romero explained that the little buggers were natural hiders. He said that you could spill a bundle of roaches all over a white table, and within seconds, it’d be as though they were never there. It wouldn’t matter what surrounded them, either; they’d somehow find spaces to squeeze into and disappear.

It makes you wonder just how hard they had to push to get that finale to work, eh? Heh heh. Oh, it’s something you’ll never forget.

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This is not Joe’s Apartment, fellas

With its devilish kills and saucy spirit, Creepshow is generally beloved amongst horror fans. Just say something like “Meteor shit,” “I want my cake,” or “If you can hold your breath,” and any gore-hound worth his salt will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even George Romero had a soft spot for the film, and spoke publicly about his desire to make another one. A hefty legacy of sequels should have been guaranteed. Strangely, this just didn’t pan out — at least, not in the way that fans hoped it would.

In 1987, low-budget churn-house New World Pictures brought us Creepshow 2, but the movie feels watered-down in comparison to the original. Everyone who made the first film what it was seemed to take a few steps away from this one. The stories are still King’s, but there are only three of them this time, and King didn’t adapt them for the film. George Romero actually penned the script, but he didn’t direct, so the playfulness he worked so hard to inject in the first movie is missing. Director Michael Gornick instead plays it straight: you won’t see any extreme colors, scrims, or page/panel effects here. Composer John Harrison is replaced by Rick Wakeman, who makes a passable effort at an eerie, synthesized score, but the non-synth stuff is bland as bacon. Tom Savini appears in the movie as a different — and less appealing — incarnation of the Creepshow Creep, but he didn’t handle any of the major special effects. The frame story is a fully-animated fable about Billy having a run-in with bullies, but the quality is uneven throughout. I’ll grant that the finale is effective, though, what with all the children screaming for their lives.

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Then there’s Creepshow III, which is completely divorced from the series’s illustrious creators, and is absolute junk. I don’t know how or why the morons behind this film got the rights to the once-proud Creepshow name, but they did it no favors in attempting to revive it. Hell, could have written a better Creepshow than these guys…and I did, in fact, try.

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I called it Creepshow: Fourth Printing. Three of its stories are originals, while the fourth is an adaptation of King’s The Moving Finger. I shared the screenplay with a few friends, and all of them told me they liked “the finger story” the best, which doesn’t say much for my own storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever sell the dang thing. I don’t even know if anybody wants it. It was fun to write, though, and I think it stands as a testament to my love for the first movie.

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And I do love it. I loved it from the first time I watched it…when I was around three or four years old. My parents either had considerable faith in my discernment between fantasy and reality, or else they found the movie so cartoonish and over-the-top that they didn’t think it would affect me. Well, it turns out that it did affect me, in that it taught me how much fun a horror movie can be, and in that it inspired me to eventually write my own. Maybe, after the obligatory rewrites, you’ll get to see my nauseating novellas in the theaters yourselves! Hey, one can always dream, right, kiddies?

Who would be best to animate a cartoon version of Creepshow? I’m not sure such a project is necessary. The movie’s entire purpose is to be a live-action cartoon/comic book. If it had to be done, however, Romero already found the right man to do it. Rick Catizone is the only one who could ever animate Creepshow. His unique style oozes freaky fear, but it’s appealing enough to enthrall children (like myself). Catizone says he was inspired by Ray Harryhausen, which sounds about right. Harryhausen brought some spooky monsters to life, and instilled wonder in imaginative little kids the world round. Now Catizone has done the same. He’s produced animation for many commercials and even kids’ shows, but he also did stop-motion work for Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The dude’s got range, and we need more productions like his.

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Until next time

Top Non-Cartoons: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Sometimes I think that people wish that they lived in a cartoon. Why else would this movie exist?

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a book by infamous self-insert fan-fiction writer/suicide victim Hunter S. Thompson. In it, two dangerously irresponsible people use a journalistic assignment in Vegas as an excuse for a mad bender. Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego), and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo get tanked on beer, barbs, and ether, and then forgo their assignment completely so they can terrorize the gamblers, policemen, and casino slaves they encounter. The two men are remorseless addicts and compulsive liars, and their adventures are mostly irrational and aimless. They trash hotel rooms and skip out on bills. They frighten hitchhikers and move on girls of many ages. Sprinkled amongst the roguery are poetic eulogies for the 1960s counter-culture. I think the purpose of these is to add some thematic weight to the work, but the whole thing remains a racing, meandering mess. I guess it’s fascinating in a James Joyce-ian kind of way, though I’m not much of a Joyce fan. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t live in the book’s time. I don’t know. What did grab me about it, though, were its contrasts in ugliness: the reader must decide whether the heroes’ debauchery is really any worse than sanctioned sociopathy.

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Terry G. was here

Anyway, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film, is the Terry Gilliam interpretation of the work, and while it remains an exercise in discomfort, its presentation is so comical that it often plays like some twisted Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s hard to know what to make of it, but the more I watch it, the more I like it.

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Depp as Duke

The casting is brilliant. Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke with the inebriated sashay he later used for his Jack Sparrow character. He wiggles and wobbles and won’t hold still, and his lines are a stew of unintelligible mumbles. The whole act must look ridiculous to those who haven’t seen or heard the person that Depp’s imitating. Hunter S. Thompson was indeed a hyper man who couldn’t stop talking, gesturing, or thinking, and Depp spent weeks alongside him in order to assume and develop his mannerisms. It’s an excellent impression, but the Duke we see in the film isn’t Thompson in totality. The real Thompson was mischievous, crude, and unpredictable, but Depp is too charismatic to allow these qualities to define him. Whether he means to or not, the actor brings innocence and optimism to every role he takes, from Gilbert Grape to Sweeney Todd, so even Duke, one of the least pleasant characters he’s ever played, oozes sympathy and charm.

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Del Toro as Gonzo

Benicio Del Toro, on the other hand, is not so charming. There’s nothing optimistic or innocent about Dr. Gonzo, a paranoid, fast-tempered menace who tromps about like a massive bull, and then slithers out of sight when he’s most needed. Gonzo has even less control over himself than Duke does, and it’s apparent that he’s far too in touch with his death drive to feel safe around. Gonzo is the Daffy Duck to Duke’s Bugs Bunny: he is an unreliable backstabber, and yet Duke feels some responsibility for him. Duke often has to trick and manipulate Gonzo to keep him out of trouble, since it’s clear that force won’t work on a gun-flashing acid freak.

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The Mint 400

How these two nut-balls attained any level of professional success is a mystery to me, but Duke has been entrusted with the coverage of some dusty, off-road bike race called the Mint 400. Whom he’s writing for is never revealed, but the job itself is a cul-de-sac: a sequence of no consequence meant only to add to the movie’s mural of blazing, manic visuals.

I truly believe that Gilliam was less interested in conveying Thompson’s story — if there is one — than in portraying the outrageous sensory experiences it describes. Much of the movie’s imagery is derived from the book’s grotesque ink drawings, which are rendered in stark, splattery glory by Ralph Steadman. I think Gilliam fell in love with these drawings, and aimed to recreate them as best he could.

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In his DVD commentary, Gilliam said that he wanted a feeling of unease to hang over the movie, so the audience can never quite feel comfortable. His crew colored every scene in garish, mismatched colors, and his camera seems forever trapped on a tilt-a-whirl. Things rarely slow down in this film, and those few moments when Duke and Gonzo slump into their hotel beds provide only fleeting respite. Every inch of this film is chaos, chaos. Rushing chaos, swinging chaos, reeling chaos, screaming chaos, violent chaos. It wiggles and sways like one who obeys every whim of one’s nerves, and the feeling becomes addictive. It makes me wonder: what’s the point of restraint in society? What’s the point of restraining oneself? What’s the point of restraining anything?

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To make a mess of things

Of course, the movie also provides some good arguments in favor of restraint. After seeing this movie, I know that certainly won’t go on a drug binge anytime soon. Sucking down tremendous amounts of acid, coke, and ether might sound like a party (to somebody), but Duke and Gonzo don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. In fact, they seem quite frightened and miserable much of the time. Gilliam claims that he’s never actually used any psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs, but he also says that his drug friends concede that he pretty much nailed the experience here.

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And featuring

Duke and Gonzo somehow avoid any serious consequences for their behavior, but Duke, for one, is unsettled at the depths he sinks to. This makes me wonder: why do people do this? Why do they leap into altered states with such abandon? How is it that reasonably intelligent adults, with jobs and paychecks, choose to approach such powerful experiences with zero respect for them?

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many

And this makes me wonder about altered states in general: do they even have a meaning, or are they just not-so-cheap thrills? Are they little more than quick trips to our own private Disneylands? Opportunities to roll over and succumb while the world turns to a melting cartoon? Why would we take such opportunities? Are we so desperate for distraction that we’ll hurl ourselves into the whirling flush of the mental toilet for nothing but a memory-killing, vomit-inducing kick?

I don’t know the answers. All I do know is that I smoked Salvia a few times, and it took me someplace strange, but it sure as hell didn’t teach me anything.

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many

Fear and Loathing was despised at its Cannes premiere, and despised again by critics. I agree that it can be hard to take. There’s fun to be had on this trip, but it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no clear antagonist, nothing is at stake, and its heroes can be real dick-bags. Still, it makes me wonder, and about no superficial things. Any movie that makes me wonder so much can’t be all bad. I’m not smart or proud enough to purport that I grasp the movie’s meaning, especially since Thompson himself only enjoyed it with half his heart. I do admire it, though. I admire its cynicism, its fearlessness, its coloration, and its relentless, exaggerated motion.

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MANY

I could see an animated version of this film being directed by Ralph Bakshi. The man knows his mature cartoons, and I can see the teeny veins of Heavy Metal pulsing beneath the skin here. Of course, a cartoon would not be nearly as shocking or bewildering as Gilliam’s creation, which works mostly because of its effective disfigurement of real figures.

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cameos

Top Non-Cartoons: Army of Darkness

I must confess: I was kinda leading up to this.

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Let me begin by saying that I don’t like Army of Darkness. In fact, part of me — probably the serious, “artistic” part — hates Army of Darkness. I say this with no small amount of frustration, because I’m the kind of person who should love Army of Darkness. I love cheesy horror. I love irreverent comedy. I love bloody, anarchic, over-the-top violence for its own sake, and I love any movie that goes out of its way to piss people off — especially if those people are the film’s own fans. Why shouldn’t I enjoy Sam Raimi’s beloved cult classic?

Well, it’s probably because the movie is so stupid.

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Here’s the third entry in a series lauded for its original approach to horror, and it gives us some of the clumsiest acting, the dumbest gags, and the most embarrassing stop-motion I’ve ever seen. The first time I caught AoD on cable, I came in at the windmill/mirror scene, and I spent the next ten minutes scratching my head, squinting my eyes, and wondering just how in hell a movie like this could get made. What right-minded studio executive would greenlight such a travesty?

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I mean…look at it. Extreme mugging. Unfunny scenes drawn to their absolute limits. Three Stooges eye pokes with cheap-o skeleton hands. Zombie dolls tossed at actors to simulate fighting. I could forgive the bad effects if the comedy was sharp, but this stuff is so broad I almost feel bad for it. And I don’t buy the whole “it’s shitty on purpose” argument. There’s confidence here, and that makes it all the less pleasant. If I had seen this movie in the theater, I would have walked out of it, even at thirteen years old. It’s awful.

But…it’s growing on me, and oh dear god, it’s growing bigger.

Thanks to the constant references in video games, the continued recommendations of friends, and the recent TV follow-up, I’ve developed a strange fascination with AoD. My revulsion now mingles with a desire to understand, and I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere in that regard. We haven’t yet made friends, but we’re developing a language by which to communicate, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I was just a big old fuddy-duddy about it.

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Army of Darkness is not a horror film. It’s more of a fantasy-action-comedy, and although there is no other movie to fairly compare with it, I can’t help but come back to Spaceballs. The two movies just remind me of each other in certain ways. While Spaceballs had a purpose in sending up Star Wars, however, AoD ricochets about with no real plan at all. If it’s making fun of anything, it’s the expectations of the viewers.

It retains Raimi’s distinctive style, of course, which I actually really love. The first Raimi film I ever saw was Darkman, and even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew there was something special behind that one. That film moved and screamed and ran like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it’s probably the only instance in which a film’s camerawork actually disturbed me. There’s something Ren & Stimpy-esque about the details Raimi wants to show us, and the unique efforts he makes to do so can be unsettling. AoD, however, is not unsettling. Sure, it has one or two intentionally disquieting moments, but you’d better drink them up good because they don’t last long.

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Each of the film’s acts has its own premise and tone: first we have Ash’s bonkers buffoon-out-of-water story, followed by a quest that reaches for scary but then goes full tilt stupid, and then a lengthy siege that’s neither scary or comical, just kinda dry.

The idea of Ash Williams, an angry wiseass teaching medieval Englanders what for, is actually quite appealing. Were I in Ash’s position, I’d be pretty pissed off too. Many of his quotes deserve their fame, especially the “jack and shit” line. The joke of the film is that our “hero” is an arrogant moron, gifted only with the ability to pull miraculous action stunts at will. Thankfully, this is enough to make a movie character likable, because he comes through when he has to. He chops up or blows up every monster he sees, and he always sees them before anyone else can.

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Not that anyone else in the movie is really worth discussing. The titles read “Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness” for a reason, folks: this really is the Ash showcase. His journey for the Necronomicon (the Evil Dead McGuffin) is little more than a series of cartoon scenarios in which Ash bumbles about hurting himself. He bumps his head, burns his bum, and battles a bunch of baby Ashes.

After that, he pretty much sinks into the background as a host of stop-motion skeletons takes the stage. From here it’s nothing but a giant sword-fighting jubilee, plus a few explosions. Without Ash’s character at the forefront, the movie loses a lot of personality, though it tries to make up for it with some goofy puppet gags (as a Jim Henson fan, I do enjoy this). The action has a smidgen of that Raimi style to it, but overall it’s not particularly funny or ground-breaking. Even so, I get a unique sense from the siege sequence that this was not some rote exercise. No, Raimi was chasing something: he aimed to recreate the spooky spectacles of the Ray Harryhausen movies he grew up with, simply because he liked them. As a creative person, my motivations are often similar: I just want to make things that look like the stuff I always loved.

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I can’t begrudge Raimi for taking this opportunity. I read Bruce Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, and the story of making Evil Dead was not a happy one. For the Raimi boys, breaking into the biz demanded suffering, stubbornness, and on-the-spot ingenuity. Army of Darkness was the reward for their travails: a chance to finally have some big fun with a character and mythos that they invented. That I don’t get a lot of its humor isn’t a slight on the film, it’s evidence of a unique personal touch. It may be broad, but it’s no manufactured crowd-pleaser. On the contrary, it is something more precious than that: an unsullied bit of fun made by a small group of guys with earned capital — a movie that owes nothing to anyone. This finally came together for me when I heard Raimi’s last lines of commentary on the AoD Director’s Cut, and felt like a total asshole:

Sam-Raimi.jpg“Our goal was really to make an entertaining picture. That’s
all we want to do: an entertaining movie, that hopefully people would laugh at and get some jumps out of, and we hope that you were entertained.”

Well, shit. How can I, or any creative person, grind my heel on this movie, knowing the pure sentiment that birthed it? Entertainment really is the core of it, after all; any storyteller who aims for a higher goal than that has lost his or her way. Raimi didn’t care about prestige or money; he just wanted to indulge his passion. He made a film that is distinctly his own, proudly left his fingerprints all over it, and found an ironclad fan base in spite of withering odds. That’s more than I can say for myself.

I feel like crap now, so I’m going to change the subject and talk about the TV show.

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Ash vs. Evil Dead is a good show. It does just what it needs to do, which is to update and expand the Evil Dead mythology, while keeping Ash exactly the way we remember him. The loony exuberance of the movies is still present, but it’s checked by a self-aware, 21st-century jadedness, as well as some impressive special effects. You won’t see any dopey puppets bobbling about here, but it’s still leagues away from any Walking Dead grimness, and I thank God for that. Since Raimi doesn’t have his hands on it directly, there’s still a je ne sais quoi missing from it, but it works, and I liked it from the first shot without any reservations.

It is, however, falling into a formula that I’m not sure it can maintain. Since the show is just an excuse for more Bruce, there’s not much room for real tension or plot. Most of the episodes play out like Popeye cartoons; the only differences between them are how the writers keep Ash away from his chainsaw, and for how long. Once the spinach can is opened, the audience gets exactly what it expects: deadites taunting, people crashing into walls, blood spraying on faces, and maybe a one-liner or two. I can’t really complain about this, though. With the horror genre as gray and predictable as it is now, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a refreshing reminder that scary can also be fun. Still, it needs more than nostalgia and attitude to be a truly satisfying experience. If it can’t figure out how to build off its novelty, it may have been better served as a feature film/reunion thing.

Top Non-Cartoons: Innerspace

This may be a bit on-the-nose, what with Innerspace being a Joe Dante film, starring Martin Short, and featuring a cameo by Chuck Jones. Still, I think it deserves recognition as a Non-Cartoon, if only because we just don’t see a lot of movies that are this damn crazy anymore, and certainly not done this well.

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Innerspace came out in 1987, right around the time I was heavy into game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure. I had recently picked up Explorer Destination: Brain at my school’s Book Fair and read it to tatters. I think I learned more about human biology from that silly little book than I did from any science class.

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Anyway, so jazzed was I about adventures in human anatomy that Innerspace grabbed me from its first trailer. It had informed me of the basic plot: a miniaturized pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into the body of an everyman (Short), who seeks the aid of the pilot’s girlfriend (Meg Ryan) to get him out. It sounds like a decent sci-fi setup, even if it’s one that’s been done before. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that when you go into a Joe Dante picture, you never get quite what you expect.

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The film has all the elements of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re all bent into weird angles. Short’s everyman, Jack, is a neurotic mess who has nightmares about grumpy ladies attacking him at his cashier job. Quaid’s heroic pilot, Tuck, is a cocky drunk who smacks himself for a quick psych. When Tuck’s miniaturization experiment is raided by thieves, the lead scientist, Ozzy, escapes by zipping down a highway on a ten-speed. He tries to vanish into the crowd at a mall, but one of the bad guys shoots him with a gun hidden in his prosthetic hand. Ozzy saves Tuck by injecting him into Short’s ass-cheek, and then proceeds to bleed out while surrounded by performers wearing animal costumes.

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As you can see, this movie’s on the edge of Goofytown, and it doesn’t stop at the outskirts. Tuck eventually makes contact with Jack in a series of hilarious and awkward scenes that leave Jack wondering if he’s been possessed. Jack meets Ryan’s character, Lydia, who’s not only Tuck’s girlfriend, but an investigative reporter looking into the aforementioned tech thieves, and promptly falls in love with her. The two work together to trap a fence called The Cowboy (Robert Picardo), an Eastern European who’s about as far from a real cowboy as anyone can be. All the while, Jack has to avoid telling Lydia the truth about Tuck, simply because Tuck’s embarrassed about being so tiny.

Things just keep building like this, taking turn after kooky turn, until Tuck is dueling a cyborg over an ocean of bubbling stomach acid, while Jack and Lydia fly down busy roads in an out-of-control car, battling arms dealers who are the size of children.

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Don’t ask me how it all works. I’m just not that smart. I’m sure the amazing special effects help. The visuals from inside Jack’s body are quite impressive, even by today’s standards. Tuck starts his journey in Jack’s buttocks (the fat cells are really just balloons), and using the bloodstream like a highway, he visits some very real-looking eyes, inner ears, lungs, and heart valves. Using slow motion and clever sound effects, Dante makes the human body into a majestic and scary place.

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More important than the visuals, though, are the performances. Martin Short finds real  sympathy as Jack, even when he goes full screwball. Short can be grating in other films, but I think he’s palatable here because his overacting seems appropriate for the extreme situations he’s put in. He’s also grounded by Tuck, a charming rogue who’s been forced into near-powerlessness. Quaid spends most of the movie scrunched in a blinky, buttony computer console, yet he manages to project great energy. The two actors share nearly no screen time, but they somehow play off each other, with powerful and funny results. Innerspace pulls off many great feats, but making us care about its leads, in the midst of its insane plot, is by far its greatest one.

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There are so many crazy little details and characters that make Innerspace memorable that it’d do no good to try and list them all. The movie is a mural of silliness, painted corner-to-corner with colorful characters and wacky moments. A lot of it is corny, but a lot of it is inspired, and there’s an innocence to its tone and aesthetic that’s missing from comedies today. The more I watch it, the more I lament that we may never see a movie quite like it again.

If Innerspace were to be animated, it’d have to be done by Madhouse, the Japanese studio that brought us the glorious Stink Bomb. That cartoon was another tale of science gone wrong, and it also featured a bit of a dope at its center, so the parallels are there. While I doubt that even their greatest wizards could channel Dante’s sly directing style, I’m sure they could add a voltage to the film that would turn it into something special.

It’d sure be tough to replace that face-changing scene, though. I think animating that part would only make it look worse!

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Top Non-Cartoons: 12 Monkeys

Today, I’d like to write about Non-Cartoons. I’m not sure that the term needs definition. Does it? What do you think?

Well, okay, I’ll do it anyway. A “non-cartoon” is a live-action film which, I feel, was made with the ambitious scope, and the careful physical attention, that I associate with animated films. I’m not talking about superhero or Star Wars films, which are practically cartoons already, nor am I talking about dry, adolescent anime films, which would probably turn out the same if they weren’t animated. No, I’m talking about films that go broad: they’re grand in scope, and they deal with very huge characters. They’re extreme, they’re over the top, and yet their live actors somehow keep them from sailing off into space. They are weird, but they would not work if they weren’t.

In this venture, I feel I must start with 12 Monkeys, a film directed by Terry Gilliam: an animator.

Terry Gilliam is the guy who did the Monty Python cartoons. You know, the goofy paper cut-out stuff that bridged the sketches:

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Terry Gilliam is known for his outlandish, ambitious movies, and the boiling water they throw him into. Studio executives hate his works, which often feature bleak and authoritarian settings, strange, cheap-looking props, and dark, ambiguous endings. His most successful movie, Time Bandits, is a whimsical children’s story. Its cast made it attractive — it features John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Sean Connery — and it has some of the most dazzling imagery that I’ve yet seen in a film. I think Gilliam used that marketability to sneak in his trademark cynicism, but he couldn’t get away with that twice. His next film, Brazilwould be his greatest struggle.

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Brazil is another Top Non-Cartoon, one that I would like to write about later. I bring it up now because it is the unrestrained portrait of Gilliam’s vision. It’s weird, it’s silly, it’s frightening, and it’s funny. Different people could call it fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, art film, and comedy, and they’d all be right. Here’s a movie that’s impossible to categorize, impossible to forget, and, I daresay, impossible to like completely.

12 Monkeys is another one.

This is a time-travel story about a deadly epidemic that’s wiped out eighty percent of the population, and a science team’s efforts to stop it. Forced to live below ground, they send convicts up to the germ-ridden surface to find clues about how everything fell apart. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, has proven himself to be one of their best investigators, so the scientists offer him a full pardon if he’ll go back in time to find the virus’s source.

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The prison facility is a hellhole with joint-crunching cells and terrifying interview rooms. The scientists exchange sentences in a comic fashion, and they observe Cole through a jittering orb of monitors and cameras. Sorry for bringing it up again, but it’s all very Brazil, and all very Gilliam.

The time-travel scheme doesn’t go well. First off, the scientists accidentally send Cole to the wrong year. Second, Cole’s story and violent behavior land him in a mental institution before he can get anywhere. When he explains himself to a panel of therapists, even he seems to realize just how loony it sounds. So he’s trapped, spending his days in a thorazine haze, and his nights reliving a murder he witnessed as a child. Life sucks in a nut house, especially when you think you don’t belong there.

Cole’s foil is a person who’s owned his craziness: one Jeffrey Goines, a string of firecrackers given Oscar-nominated life by Brad Pitt. I fucking love this guy.

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Pitt was chosen for the role in an effort to deflate his “pretty boy” persona, and boy does he succeed. Goines is balls-out wacko. He spews manic monologues. He flips everyone off. His laugh is a dopey croak. He’s that weird kid down the street that your parents didn’t like you hanging out with, and that you weren’t sure you liked hanging out with, but you did it anyway because you were kinda scared to say no to him.

He’s also a ton of fun to watch. Fast-talking and fast-moving, he’s like James Woods on crack. With his wild antics and anti-establishment speeches, he is the original Nolan Joker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In the movie’s best shot, a desperate Cole pushes Goines against a third-story balcony railing, and holds his head over the side. The camera is held above the two, so we can see the frightened onlookers from the floors below. Goines doesn’t react in any rational way: he just cracks up laughing, and thrusts a fuck-you finger in Cole’s face. It’s a total Batman/Joker moment, only without the stupid costumes and makeup. It proves the superfluity of the superhero movie.

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So Goines is a force of nature, but he’s also a red herring, and the movie kinda limps to its finale after Goines leaves the picture. It gets reflective and melancholy when it really needs to get up and get moving. Threads about sanity and the Cassandra complex wrap up long after we’ve lost interest in them, and the romance doesn’t feel believable. The language of time-travel movies is so familiar by now that there’s no surprise to the ending at all (this was likely intentional, but that makes it no less boring). There’s an excellent, chilling moment involving David Morse’s character, but the rest feels low and saggy.

Now this brings me to the TV show.

For some reason, the SyFy channel felt the need to expand 12 Monkeys into a series, one of those things that makes no sense to me. The movie may be flawed, but it got its point across, and serializing it won’t do its slower elements any favors. I call it “The Sopranos Syndrome,” and you see it everywhere now. The Peak TV philosophy seems to go like this: stretch a plot until it’s ready to snap, bloat it with tired themes, provide no answers or resolution until the mad rush of the finale, and boom, you’ve got yourself a success. Even South Park is doing this now, and it drives me nuts.

What’s more, the producers decided to cast Emily Hampshire as the Goines character, and one of the first things she says is, “Look at you; you can’t take your eyes off me!” Ugh.

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Already, this new Goines has told us that she knows she’s hot. Come on. A great character shouldn’t have to fall back on hotness. There is nothing sexy or even sexual about the original Goines, and that a sex symbol plays him underscores that fact. In the movie, Goines is Daffy Duck. In the show, Goines is Catwoman.

This doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying this because of any feminist leanings; I just don’t find the “small, cute, and catlike” look to be especially threatening. There are plenty of women in cinema who’ve done crazy and terrible without any eye candy. Look at Misery. Look at La Femme/Inside. Look at The Ring! Perhaps it’s the nature of our culture, but it does seem like this equation of menace with attractiveness is more common among female villains. Is there any male villain like that? Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, is the only one I can think of.

Anyway, 12 Monkeys is a true Non-Cartoon, not only because of Pitt’s character, but because of the peculiar setting, wild concept, and crooked camerawork. I think its musical score is beautiful too. I believe that animating it wouldn’t damage it, if it was provided the right animator. In this case, that animator is Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. His character designs are freaky and weird, and his settings are eerie and monolithic. I can totally see him doing this movie justice, but I would keep him far away from the show.