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.

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #1: Memories Episode 2 – Stink Bomb

If Rod Serling had made a Warner Bros. cartoon, it probably would have ended up like this.

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While each of the Ultimate Top Cartoons contains at least one quality that I fiercely admire, Stink Bomb has them all

I love the intense animation and timing in Ninja Scroll, but I could do without its adolescent moodiness and badassery, not to mention the excessive, voyeuristic violence that poor Jubei and Kagero have to endure.

I love the characterization, concepts, and set pieces in The Wrong Trousers, but I prefer my cartoons a bit more grown up.

I love the mature, volatile atmosphere in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lends a dangerous, unstable edge to harmless-looking toons, but the story is ultimately disposable and the antagonist embarrassing.

I love the art design and the clever script of The Triplets of Belleville, but I found the final act to be lame and unsatisfying.

Stink Bomb has all of the best qualities from these cartoons, and none of the bad parts. It starts out hip and smart, gets rolling really quickly, and then it fucking catches fire, amusing, startling, and maybe even scaring any witnesses. It is a masterpiece, and if you were to ask me what kind of cartoons I want to make, I’d say “I wanna make Stink Bombs.”

This forty-minute marvel, the top of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, is the middle segment in an anime anthology called Memories, produced by the great Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame.

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I became interested in Memories because of the unique look of its final segment, Cannon Fodder. Its characters are designed to look like cute little toy soldiers, and its a far cry from your typical anime art style, so I was curious about it. After watching it, I realized that the style was only chosen for the sake of dark ironic contrast, and the story beneath it was grim and depressing. A lot of folks love Cannon Fodder for what they call a “powerful anti-war message,” but I found it tiresome, empty, and delivered with too heavy a hand. The animation is really good, though.

As for the first segment, Magnetic Rose…ah, forget it, that one was stupid with a capital “STU.” The animation in it is pretty good, though.

No, the real gem in the film is the unassuming Stink Bomb, the middle child that isn’t out to be dark or disturbing or tear-jerking or award-winning, but simply to be a heap of jeering, sneering, devilish fun.

It’s still okay for cartoons to be fun, isn’t it?

Now, before I start my synopsis, I feel I should mention that I’m a big fan of George Carlin. Have been since age nine. In one of his last HBO specials, Life is Worth Losing, Carlin closes his act with a bit he calls “Coast-to-Coast Emergency.” Here’s the premise in his own words:

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“I’m an interesting guy. I always hope that no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow bigger and bigger, until it’s completely out of control.”

He then proceeds to explain how a busted water main can lead to the transcendental annihilation of the universe.

As morbid as it sounds, I have a similar fascination with disasters, and this may be why I enjoy Stink Bomb so much. It starts with a dumb move made by a hapless nincompoop, and ends in an extinction-level mega-disaster that threatens all life on Earth.

And it’s all this guy’s fault:

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Meet Nobuo Tanaka, a lab technician at Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals. He’s come down with a bad winter cold, and he can’t stop sneezing at his desk.

His co-workers recommend that Nobuo sneak a sample of the new fever medicine Nishibashi is producing. It hasn’t been diluted for sale yet, so it should work great! Just grab one of the blue capsules from the red bottle on Chief Ohmaeda’s desk, they say.

Now, Nobuo is not a very swift man, and when he stops in at the chief’s office (which is unfortunately empty at the time), he makes the obvious mix-up: he takes the red capsule from out of the blue bottle.

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Yeah, it’s a pretty big mistake.

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Nobuo decides to take a nap in the guest room while the drug does its work. Meanwhile, the chief himself bursts into the lab, demanding to know who touched his red pills. His raving, wild-eyed demeanor suggests that something might be wrong. When Nobuo’s buddies say that it was likely Nobuo who poked around in Ohmaeda’s office, the chief freaks out further, and dashes away, presumably to find the culprit.

The techs have little time to ponder this weirdness before a strange smell wafts into the room. The lab rats notice it too. Then there’s a long, lingering shot on a ventilating fan that slowly fades to black.

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CUT TO: Nobuo, as he rises from a revitalizing sleep in the guest room — the following morning. He wanders the building, wondering why nobody woke him. He discovers the answer very shortly: everyone else in the building is dead. Even the lab rats.

Panicked and horrified, Nobuo calls for an ambulance, and then goes to the chief’s office to get some clue of what happened.

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He finds Ohmaeda sprawled before a control panel on the wall, his finger stretched towards a button that he didn’t live long enough to hit. Curious, Nobuo presses the button himself, and the whole building suddenly goes into emergency mode: sirens blare, shutters slam, and a dozen men appear on a giant monitor, ordering “to give this line priority!”

Then, a stern, middle-aged man spots Nobuo on his screen and asks where the hell Ohmaeda is.

This man is Nirasaki, the head of Nishibashi’s medicine development. Once Nobuo informs him of what’s happened, Nirasaki explains that the accident is likely related to a drug being secretly developed for the government. Nirasaki orders Nobuo to bring all samples of the drug, along with its corresponding data, straight to him at Nishibashi headquarters in Tokyo, immediately.

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Nobuo collects the samples and info based on the details Nirasaki provides, and just notices it’s the same red pill that he took the previous evening. Huh! Of course, he only realizes this after his conversation with Nirasaki is over, and he doesn’t think anything of it. He stuffs everything into a briefcase, and begins his trek to Tokyo on a little red bike.

Then a murder of crows falls dead out of the sky and hits him on the head.

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Nobuo loses control and crashes, and that’s when he notices that all the flowers in the valley are suddenly in bloom. Also, there are dead things everywhere. The ambulance and police car he called are both smashed on the sides of the street, as though their drivers simply bit it while at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nirasaki and Mr. Kamata, Nishibashi’s president, are summoned to the JSDF war room to explain “just what the hell is going on” in Kofu Valley. The NHK news is airing warnings about a deadly “stench” in the area, against which respirators and even NBC suits afford no protection.

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A news team in a helicopter spots Nobuo and touches down to rescue him, but even with gas masks on, they all suffocate and perish before they can get within ten yards of him. Nobuo can’t figure out why.

Then a military convoy attempts to pick up and evacuate Nobuo, only to end up dying as well. Nobuo still can’t figure out why.

Nirasaki and Kamata, however, do know why. They explain to the JSDF that the pill Nobuo took was originally designed to protect people against methods of biological warfare, but an unknown reaction in Nobuo’s body has created an unexpected effect. It is now causing him to secrete a sweet-smelling, but lethal gas that asphyxiates any human or animal that breathes it. He has become, in essence, a walking chemical weapon.

Nirasaki adds the unsettling detail that this gas will thicken, and its deadly effects strengthen, as Nobuo eats, changes emotional states, or otherwise undergoes any activity that spurs his metabolism.

An executive decision is swiftly made: GET HIM.

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However, the military, even with its most advanced weaponry, can’t get Nobuo. Their snipers can’t draw a bead on him because the poison in the air makes their eyes water, and the gas has become so thick that it shorts out the computerized targeting systems in their tanks and helicopters. The army literally can no longer shoot straight, so while they accidentally decimate every structure in sight, Nobuo is left scratching his head as to what the hell they’re firing at.

My favorite moment in this sequence occurs when the army knocks out a bridge that Nobuo is riding on. As you can see below, the poor dope survives as though God Himself is guiding him:

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This is one of my favorite shots in all of cartoon-dom, if not my absolute favorite. I fucking love tracking shots like this. Just look at how the pavement judders and crumbles behind Nobuo! Look at how he bounces on his bike as the explosions propel him forward! Look at the flames and sparks and smoke plumes! Look at Nobuo’s face!!! It’s like watching Ichabod Crane riding around Syria! I love it!

Now that Nobuo has pretty much proven himself unstoppable, an emergency evacuation order is issued in Tokyo. Yeah, good luck with that. The highways are instantly hammered, the trains are all clogged, and the airports become a mass of writhing crowds and weeping children.

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Stink Bomb’s director, Tensai Okamura, cleverly intercuts the Tokyo crush with the degrading military situation, in which the all the vehicles have stopped responding and are now completely haywire. They’re firing at anything and everything, causing chain reactions of carnage, and inadvertently destroying themselves.

To quote Mr. Carlin:

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“At this point, it looks like pretty soon, things are gonna start to get out of control.”

It looks as though the only hope for humanity is for the United Nations to raze Japan to the ground, but all is not lost yet. Saunders, an American general who has an investment in Nishibashi’s wonder drug, decides to intervene, and he sends three American soldiers in cutting-edge, air-tight spacesuits to apprehend Nobuo.

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These super-suited soldiers corner Nobuo in a tunnel, and…well, I don’t want to give everything away. I will tell you that Nirasaki gets his briefcase back, but that’s it! You’re just going to have to watch the rest for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, and that’s a fact, Jack.

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So.

Whew.

Wow.

Jeez, man. There just isn’t all that much left to say anymore. This is Stink Bomb. You should go see it. It’s got everything that a Top Cartoon should: great art and animation, funny and scary moments, a delightful soundtrack, stellar voice acting, and a wicked sense of humor. I hope you weren’t waiting for me to pick at its flaws, because the truth is, I just can’t find any.


And thus the list of Ultimate Top Cartoons comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed reading these lengthy reviews because, I tell ya, writing these suckers really took a chunk out of me! Plus, my sinuses are starting to act up, so I think I’ll take one of these red pills over here and have a nap.

Hope to see you in the morning.

‘Night, all!

Top Cartoons: Man’s Best Friend

The Ren & Stimpy Show built its success on its disturbing scenarios and unique direction, so imagine my curiosity when I learned that Nickelodeon banned one of its episodes for “excessive violence.” I just had to see this sucker for myself.

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John Kricfalusi, who directed and co-wrote this cartoon, says it was one of the reasons that Nickelodeon fired him. Without his influence, the Ren & Stimpy Show would go on to slowly disintegrate. Is Man’s Best Friend really that bad? Even for its time (1992), I don’t believe it was.

It stars the terrifying George Liquor (American), who is voiced by the late Michael Pataki. Liquor is a ferociously conservative man ever lost in the fabled glory days of the 40s and 50s. To him, a man is no man without discipline, and when he adopts Ren and Stimpy from the local pet shop, he quickly puts them through a strenuous — and bizarre — training regimen.4073630_l3

My favorite scene is when Liquor teaches his pets to stay off of his couch. “In order to learn discipline,” he says, “you must learn to misbehave.” He frightens the poor animals by telling them that he hates it when his “lower life-forms” sit on his “non-living possessions.” Then, in the next instant, he tells them to do just that!

Confused and afraid, Ren and Stimpy cling to each other desperately, while Liquor commands them to break his rules. Meanwhile, this intense production music is pounding away in the background. I love this music, and I want it. If anyone, anyone knows what this musical theme is called, please tell me. I really want to know.

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The cartoon hits a climax when Liquor dons a ridiculously huge bite suit and orders Stimpy to attack him. Stimpy won’t comply, however, as he cannot bring himself to harm his master. Ren, on the other hand, is thrilled at this opportunity, and he proceeds to whale on Liquor with his “Prize Bludgeoning Oar.”

This is the violent scene that Nickelodeon objected to, but it’s far from uncomfortable. In fact, it’s quite cathartic to see the put-upon chihuahua take revenge on Liquor. There are a couple of graphic shots, but they’re hilariously over-the-top, and most of the beating takes place offscreen. In other words, it’s no worse than anything else the show got away with, so the banning leaves me scratching my head.

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Now, if the network had complained about the undertones of this cartoon, I’d be a little more understanding. Man’s Best Friend is, on paper, a story about child abuse. Liquor’s mixed-up lessons and harsh treatment are tantamount to psychological torture, but in animating this material, Kricfalusi manages to make it funny. Typical gags are forgone, replaced with shockingly tense and wild scenes that viewers can only respond to by laughing. I consider Man’s Best Friend a masterwork, a perfect expression of John K.’s one-of-a-kind style, made legendary by its “too hot for TV” status. He’s never topped it, but I don’t think he really needs to.