There’s this documentary called Radio Bikini that came out in the 80s. It’s about an A-bomb test that the United States military pulled shortly after the end of World War II. They blew up a couple of atomic bombs over a bucolic tropical island called Bikini Atoll, and then sent a detachment of soldiers to play around in the irradiated blast zone. The purpose was, purportedly, to observe the effects of the bomb on the environment. The event was heavily advertised, and all the television networks reported on it like kids chattering about their great new toy. Sprinkled between the gung-ho patriotism are interviews with a displaced Bikini native, and one of the soldiers who was sent into the test site. It’s a disturbing true story of blatant, human hubris.
Here’s the movie, in case you’re curious about it.
I first saw Radio Bikini in 1993, in my high school Physics class. I still remember the shock of the conclusion, when the camera pulled back to reveal the effects that fallout had left on the poor veteran. I wasn’t mature enough to really appreciate the film, though, so I watched it again recently. It stung far worse than it did before. Out of curiosity, I looked for reviews about the film that might provide unique perspectives on the material.
That’s when I found this:
Oh dear. So much to talk about.
First off: all movies are emotionally manipulative, okay? If a movie doesn’t make you feel something, than it’s failed as a movie.
Second: There is original material here. The interviews. Was he trying to knock the film for using actual footage to make a point?
Third: The guy says he likes this documentary a lot, but then backpedals and says it’s only enjoyable for “hippies and leftists.” Right, because only left-wingers would appreciate a story about the dangers of nuclear weapons. How much of your spine must you be missing to say something like this? Is this man’s allegiance to his political party so overwhelming that he’s unable to recognize the basic human folly, and the cruelty in this film? Did he forget what species he belongs to? It’s always the same tired deflection: if it’s a movie about something stupid that our nation has done, it’s obviously a media/Hollyweird/libtard hit-job. This dude needs to untangle himself from the Reaganite circle-jerk and look at the world the way that a human being does.
Finally: the credential. By closing with “God Bless America,” the man reveals his brainwashing. He refuses to acknowledge that his precious America once misled its own citizens, condemning them to pain and disfigurement, and he buries his head in its bosom with complete forgiveness. I love my country too, but to dismiss an event like this and only show anger to the people who report it is insane. It’s like getting smacked around the kitchen by your lover, and then getting mad at your friend who calls the cops about it. Then it’s like refusing to press charges, running up and kissing the lover, and saying, “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean it.” What the fuck is wrong with people? What happened to self-respect and responsibility?
Governments are not God, okay? They are not infallible, and they do not deserve blind worship. They are institutions of humanity, and therefore must be flawed. Hell, the Bible is full of stories about flawed rulers. Why doesn’t anybody remember that? If this joker above actually cared about God at all, he’d understand this. Maybe then he’d recognize the awful things that were done to God’s creations in this film, and adjust his viewpoint a little bit.
Well the good news is that nothing like this could ever happen again. It’s not like the government is spying on us, right? Surely if some violation of our civil rights was going on, we wouldn’t blame the person who told us about it, would we? Or do we need another black eye before we stop defending our abusive boyfriend?
It’s some kind of miracle. The return of one beloved 90s Comedy Central series seemed unlikely enough, so two should leave us beatific. Unfortunately, the ravages of the road leave skids and scars too deep and dark to ignore. Still, it’s nice to reconnect with old friends, even if it’s impossible to make eye contact with them.
Back in 1995, the golden days of stand-up comedy, mellow fellow Jonathan Katz developed an unusual animated series about a put-upon psychologist who counseled comedians. In his off time, he joked with his barfly buddies, sparred with his bitchy receptionist, and slowly lost his grip on his underachieving son.
Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist was a work of introverted inspiration, with an easy spirit and a peculiar visual style. Called “Squigglevision,” this computer-drawn technique placed simple, colorful figures against grayscale backgrounds. The characters were presented in static poses, but with three or four slightly different images, so they seemed in a perpetual state of quivering tension. The look was so distinctive that the animation studio, Soup2Nuts, employed it in other series like Home Movies and Science Court as a sort of hallmark.
The audiobook website Audible has released a fifteener — a series of fifteen episodes of fifteen minutes each. I invented the word, shut up — of all-new Dr. Katz episodes. Many of the guest comedians are returning champions, such as Ray Romano, Dom Irrera, and Janeane Garofalo, but there are a few newcomers. Tom Papa and “Weird Al” Yankovic are the ones who caught my attention, since I share their individualist worldview, and I highly recommend their episodes.
As you probably guessed from the website that sells them (and the subtitle “Audio Files”), these are basically radio shows. No animation here. You’re meant to listen to these on the drive to work and imagine. They’re also relatively void of plot, and focus on the therapy sessions (read: comedy bits) of their guests. That’s a great loss, since the clever conversations between Katz and friends were the real heart of the original show.
My absolute favorite scenes were the ones between Katz and his adult child Ben, voiced by Adult Swim superstar H. Jon Benjamin. These scenes were pure gold, as they presented a believable father/son relationship based on love and humor, but strained with the expectations of social responsibility.
Sadly, Ben plays only a minor role in The Audio Files, and he only seems to appear in phone conversations. Considering Benjamin’s busy voice-acting schedule, this might have been due to scheduling difficulties, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. What’s more, age has lied hard on the voices of both actors, and their weakened efforts are a little sad to listen to.
To cover for Ben, we get Erica Rhodes playing the estranged sister of snarky secretary Laura. We get scenes of the two gals reconnecting, but I find their babyish voices grating, and honestly, I prefer not knowing too much about Laura. Her efforts to keep our therapist hero at arm’s length was a major part of her character, and getting in close to her doesn’t feel right.
What’s more, the lack of visuals removes some of the humor of the show, as the animators accompanied the confessional anecdotes with funny imagery. They were especially effective with the jokes of Dom Irrera and Mitch Hedberg, and I miss it.
I realize that picking at this show isn’t quite fair. It’s a generous revival, and I’m grateful that it exists. I’m hoping it continues, so long as it draws its focus away from Laura and Erica, and back towards Ben and Katz. Their chemistry is a treasure, and it belongs in any spotlight it can find.
Clear the roaches outta the pantry and unpin those voodoo dolls; it’s the best horror film of all time!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, I could have written a better Creepshow than these guys…and I did, in fact, try.
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.
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.
So! The New Mystery Science Theater 3000 is here. That longshot, once-in-a-lifetime revival of the best television show in history turned out to be the real deal, unlike some crowd-funded projects involving cans without labels that I could mention. What’s more, we didn’t just get some one-time, big-nostalgia reunion special, we got over fifteen hours of show, rich and fully featured.
And…I don’t like it that much.
Everything a fan could want is here: the puppets, the songs, the chintzy sets. The movies are as pitiful as ever, and the riffs are rapid-fire. This fan, however, is left wanting. I admit that the following are the expected complaints of a crotchety old man who wants everything to stay the same as it ever did, but I’m going to deliver them anyway.
First off, the show feels…I don’t know…rushed. It wants to get straight to business. There’s no acknowledgment of the show’s long hiatus, and the new host, Jonah, seems almost happy to be stranded in space. Whereas the old show took a little time to characterize Joel Robinson as a gentle, fatherly figure, and Mike Nelson as the bullied newbie, I feel like Jonah has no persona to call his own. He just kinda slides into his position and does what’s expected of him. I’d say he’s like a guest on The Muppet Show, but even guests on The Muppet Show occasionally paused to wonder at their surroundings.
I also find it baffling that Gypsy can now talk. Previously, Gypsy had to devote so much of her CPU time to controlling the ship, that she could only speak in a muddled, halting manner. She came off as slow, causing the other bots to tease her, and Joel to give her special treatment and comfort. I thought it was sweet, but I guess today’s attitudes towards autism/ADHD/any other over-diagnosed childhood illness won’t allow it, so the writers decided to play it safe. Now we gots a smart-and-sassy Gypsy…who melds right in with the others and is quickly forgotten.
Crow and Tom Servo are just okay, though their shrill, sibilant voices are difficult to distinguish from one another at times. Neither one of them has really had an opportunity for characterization, either. I haven’t seen a shred of Crow’s masochistic mania, or of Tom’s cultured pompousness. They don’t explain how they got shanghaied from Earth and stuck on the Satellite of Love again; they’re just there, going along for the ride, never questioning, never doubting.
Then there’s the villain. While nobody could replace Trace Beaulieu as the man-about-madness Dr. Clayton Forrester, I think the makers of this show could have done a hell of a lotbetter than Felicia Day. There’s absolutely nothing threatening, silly, or even funny about her, and I feel like her involvement is just another attempt of hers to stick her geek-baiting face into a set where lovelorn nerds will fawn over her.
The only cast member who looks like he belongs is Patton Oswalt, though I feel he’s criminally treated playing a dope like TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Oswalt is an intelligent and thoughtful guy; I almost feel like he should be the host. He’s so good at playing put-upon, sensitive, and optimistic characters that he’d be a natural for it. Some of the best skits on the old show involved Joel teaching the bots about the delicate aspects of human nature, and I just don’t see the happy-go-lucky Jonah pulling this off. Oswalt, on the other hand, could have been great.
I tried to tell myself that the show isn’t really about the characters, it’s about really bad movies, and the really good jokes made at their expense. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t convince myself of this. I think that the relationships between the characters, and the tone established in the host segments, are linked to the atmosphere in the theater. An emptiness in one seeps into the other. The hurried feel of the show makes the riffing weak and mechanical. My dad and I watched the first episode together, and he and I were making better jokes than Jonah and the bots within five minutes. Bear in mind that he and I were students of MST3K; we learned how to make fun of movies from Joel and Mike.
So I watched the new show for hours and hours, scratching my head about why it wasn’t lighting me up. Then, ubiquitous uber-dork Neil Patrick Harris made a cameo, and all became clear: the show’s been hijacked. It’s not the territory of struggling, self-hating comics anymore. Now it’s the land of the Happy Little Internet Elves. It’s all nerdgasms and super-squees. I wouldn’t be surprised if PewDiePie or Jonathan Coulton made appearances. I guess it’s just a product of its time: when you used to watch MST3K, you were smoking on the couch and staring at Comedy Central at two in the morning. Now you’re binging Netflix on your iPhone while working the elliptical at In-Shape. The world shifts as its denizens hold fast.
It’s more evidence that the problem is likely mine. Maybe I’m just griping about the show because it’s different from what it used to be, and I don’t want it to be different from what it used to be. If I can just stick with it, show it a little patience, then maybe I’ll get on board with it. After all, I had a really tough time accepting the changes that the Sci-Fi Channel made to the show back in the 90s. Eventually, however, I came to love Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy, as is evidenced by their cameo on the new season, which overjoyed me, and reminded me of just how much I missed them.
Like its creator, Tales From the Far Side is a misunderstood creature. A lot of people just don’t get Gary Larson, and I don’t think they got this show either. It was one of just two animated specials based on the popular comic strip, and the only one that aired in the United States. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but I think that director Marv Newland, creator of the haunting Black Hula and Bambi Meets Godzilla, pushed things a little too far into Halloween-Town for most audiences. His vision is clear right from the beginning: the score is a cloud of gloomy guitars and eerie er-hus. The camera glides past smoking farm animals and dead people before settling on a reanimated bovine. This queen of the night tells us with an piercing bleat that she’s bringing us somewhere that we might not like to go, and she doesn’t give a damn how we feel about it.
That Newland’s direction is matched with Gary Larson’s off-center perceptions doesn’t aid the accessibility factor. In keeping with the spirit of the strip, the show is a series of disconnected jokes, many of them conceptual, so if you never dug The Far Side, you’re not going to dig this. I once watched this show with a non-fan friend, and the loudest, angriest question to come up was, “So what happened to the cow?” She was frustrated that the show had ditched the Franken-cow from the opening, and had never come back to it. She didn’t understand that The Far Side was never about the traditional, long-term payoff. Larson is foremost an idea man, and in his world, the punchline is in the premise.
We get some throwaway gags lifted straight from the funny pages, like a crow scraping its meal off the street with a spatula, but there are also more elaborate setups. My favorite is the insect airline, where the business class is packed with worker bees, and the in-flight movie is The Fly.
There are also several “role-reversal” scenarios, not unlike Paul Driessen’s The Killing of an Egg, in which arrogant humanity suffers for its transgressions against nature. Presented in the innocent pictures of the comic, this dark theme was leavened. When bolstered by motion and sound, however, it turns downright devilish.
I think it’s terrific, but most critics of the day did not. They admired the slick presentation, but found the material simple and one-note. I’m really not sure what they expected from a show based off a one-panel cartoon. I think Tales From the Far Side is the perfect amplification of the comic strip. Just watching Larson’s dumpy, bell-shaped characters take motion is a lot of fun. The animators clearly had a great time with it: everything bounces and wobbles and wiggles in a delightful fashion that suits the visual style. There’s very little dialogue, which is odd considering that the comic could be quite wordy, but I think it works. Too much speech would soften the show’s concepts, and extract us from the uncomfortable un-reality that we’re meant to be visiting.
Some of the sequences could use a little trimming, and the finale is a big letdown, but I still think that Tales From the Far Side is a marvel. Like A Wish For Wings That Work, it’s a comic strip special whose material simply can’t cater to everyone, but that’s precisely why I love it so.
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:
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, Brazil, would be his greatest struggle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.