Saturday, April 25, 2009

Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Max Fleischer and his brother Dave had the honor and challenge of bringing Superman to the silver screen for the very first time. Fleischer’s cartoon studio was known for Popeye and Gulliver’s Travels by the time Paramount came to them asking if they would take on the project. They did and in so doing put on film Superman as much of the world would come to know him. This two-disc DVD set contains all seventeen theatrical shorts from 1941 to 1942.

With a bit of hesitation the brothers accepted the project of animating the Superman comic books. Already a radio hit, the problem was how to make the cartoon move swiftly, remain action packed, and hold the audience’s attention for about nine minutes while making it all seem more realistic than other cartoons of the day. The Fleischer Studio had already perfected the use of rotoscoping (drawing over filmed live action) so making Superman realistic didn’t take long to figure out. Adding to the cartoon appeal were the radio voices of Joan Alexander and Bud Collyer, Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman, as the public had grown to know them. On radio and in the comics Superman was really only able to leap or hop from place to place, thus the line in the opening about being “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Since jumping around would look a bit silly on film, the Fleischers got permission to make Superman fly.

The first short, “Superman” a.k.a. “Mad Scientist,” sets the pattern and flow of the episodes that follow. Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane is sent on a story along with or followed by fellow reporter Clark Kent and winds up in trouble. She will either be taken hostage/prisoner at first or she will “stumble” into the situation because she hides out or sneaks into the best place to get the story. But have no fear as Kent/Superman are nearby and can hear her scream. So in swoops Supes and gets beat around for a bit, saves Lois while trying to curb further destruction by the bad guy, and finally captures the villain, mostly through his super strength and sometimes outsmarting them.

The fun lays in watching the various villains Superman faces and takes on. Not only does he nab mad scientists (“Mad Scientist,” “The Magnetic Telescope”) but foreign threats such as the Japanese and Germans (“The Japoteurs,” “Jungle Drums”) along with crime lords, who impersonate Superman, and organized thieves (“Showdown,” “The Bulleteers”). It gets better as the Man of Steel does battle with giant/supernatural beasts like a thawed out T-Rex, a giant circus gorilla gone crazy, ancient Egyptian mummies brought back to life, and underground-dwelling birdmen (“Artic Giant,” “Terror On The Midway,” “The Mummy Strikes,” “Underground World”). Superman must also deal with the Earth itself, either manipulated by humans or on its own be it stopping an earthquake or redirecting the lava flow of a volcano (“Electric Earthquake,” “Volcano”).

The animation overall is great with vivid colors, and the humans, animals, and all things mechanical move very well and appear very realistic either in main focus or in the background; the landscapes and other scenery also look great. The kicker is the stereotypes of the ‘40s. It’s one thing to have robbers in classic mask and thick, five o’clock shadow but the Japanese are outrageous as they all have buckteeth and talk like Mr. Moto. I mean there’s not much to do about it or cry over; I simply think its funny the way that Hollywood saw these people in that day. I personally am not offended as it’s just a cartoon and the product of a different time, so laugh and get over it. The DVD packaging even states that this collection is intended for the adult collector and is “not” suitable for children. Go figure.

We don’t get to see too many of Superman’s skills other than his X-Ray vision, super strength and new ability to fly; he mostly uses his muscle to clear his way and win the day as he saves the girl, stops destruction, and puts an end to the villains short reign of terror. We do however get to witness Lois Lane fly a plane, drive a train, shoot machine guns, and still end up writing a hell of a story.

The two bonus features are a fascinating further look into the creation of not only the Fleischer shorts but also Superman as a myth throughout time. Both are filled with info on the effect that these cartoons had on the comic and recent cartoon versions. They are two good pieces even if they are a bit short at only about thirteen minutes each. Well worth the time for collectors and fans of all types from the average viewer to the diehard comic books guys to the movies buffs and just plain ol’ geeks.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jim Gaffigan: King Baby

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Jim Gaffigan may be the funniest and yet most invisible comedian around today. Few people I talk to can recognize him by name and he's only vaguely familiar by face. These people will find out about Jim's brilliance in a few years and they'll be the one's trying to tell me that I've got to catch this hilarious comedian. King Baby is a stand-up routine filmed in Austin, Texas. It's a follow-up to the great Beyond The Pale special that gave us the oft-You-Tubed "Hot Pocket" routine.

Jim Gaffigan has an easy style. He balances observational humor with shorter stories. The topics are broad and not going to suffer with age - no political satire here. He spent much of his first special talking in a higher, softer voice that was the voice of a disappointed audience member. He's toned it back in this special and it works even more effectively. The thing that really hits you about halfway through the performance is that it's clean. I had to check the DVD to see if I had the "edited for TV" version, but it clearly stated that it was Not Rated and that "This program is recommended for Mature Audiences". It's refreshing to get through the 71 minute set and realize that it rarely veered off into even PG-13 category and yet it appeals to adults.

Some of the topics include . . .

BOWLING. "For most of us bowling is the activity you do after you've done everything else . . . no one's ever jealous when they heard you went bowling." This section is a great lead off to the act. Jim's able to hit on lots of his strong points - the combination of laziness, nerdiness, and food. The jokes seem a little dated mainly because bowling seems to be an activity that has fallen out of favor with youth today.

ESCALATORS. "How about those people that take the stairs right next to the escalator. 'What are you drunk? This thing is free.'" Once again, Jim hits on our essential laziness. The scenarios are so simple and yet he makes the jokes seem fresh. Much of this act feels right out of a Seinfeld routine - that's a compliment.

CAMPING. "Some places you have to pay to sleep outside . . . that's got to be offensive to the homeless people". Another topic that seems a little dated but Jim makes the topic a riot. The set is highlighted by his jokes on avoiding being eaten by a bear.

BEAN BAG. The best part of this track is actually his take on futons. "It's a couch that turns into a bed. The most disappointing Transformer of all." This track makes me laugh almost as much as any other in the special.

BACON. The topics of futons, bean bags, and beds leads to the anchor section of the special. This long take on bacon is amazing. The fact that he can get so many minutes on the topic is made only funnier by the fact that he keeps mentioning how long he's going on about bacon. And it makes me want to have some bacon. "Wanna know how good bacon is? To improve other food they wrap it in bacon." This track is the one that you'll be talking about for years afterwards. "You know bacon's bad for you when a doughnut is a better choice." He even worms a great religion joke into the middle of the bacon routine.

DEODORANT. One of the few series of jokes that doesn't work well (except for the bacon references). I appreciate him once again trying to work in jokes on everyday items.

DUNKIN' DONUTS. Back to the food humor. This set on cities and their food is hilarious and the one Jim used on many of the talk shows to promote this special. "I don't know how Dunkin' Donuts stays in business - they sell 3000 donuts and they make, what, 30 bucks." Once again, simple jokes that are funny and comfortable.

CATSUP. Next to "Bacon", this is the signature piece of the routine. Once again, it's a simple idea that flows from a couple pieces on fast food. It starts with a bit on catsup packets and moves into a discussion of catsup in general. "What about those people that don't use catsup. What are they called? Al-Queda." This is a great finale.

WAFFLE HOUSE. Like any artist, he finishes with his strongest piece "Catsup" but for his encore, he still has a quick strong piece that will leave you laughing until the next special. I found this one the best structured. Unlike the rapid-fire single-line jokes of the previous bits, this one builds like a narrative with the biggest payoffs at the end. "Here's something you'll never hear in a Waffle House - 'Nice job cleaning up!'" It's a great way to end this routine.

This is a truly fun special. Like the comfort foods that he makes fun of, Jim's style seems so natural. The biggest compliment I can give him is that while all the jokes are new, they seem like something you must have heard before. They're just that easy. It's not that easy to make the mundane an entertaining topic. Pop in the DVD and you'll be hooked.

The disc has a number of specials in addition to over 30 minutes not seen in the Comedy Central special. The "Pale Force" episodes from the Conan O'Brien show are forgettable, as are the "Our Massive Planet" internet episodes. The interviews are interesting because they show Jim just having fun but he never seems to be as comfortable as he is on stage just talking about the things we encounter everyday.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

MARLEY & ME - 3-Disc Bad Dog Edition (Blu-ray)

Written by Senora Bicho

When I saw the first trailer for Marley & Me, I was not aware that it was based on a popular autobiographical book written by John Grogan, who also worked on the screenplay. I thought it looked silly and had no interest in seeing it at all. Once I heard about the book from a friend and some good things about it, I started to change my mind. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are not my favorite actors but I do usually enjoy them, so when the chance to review it came up, I thought it would be a nice break from my usual crime fare.

John (Wilson) and Jennifer (Aniston) Grogan are a young married couple on the rise. They are both journalists but Jennifer is the more successful of the two. After getting settled in their new home, John gets nervous about starting a family. Close friend and womanizer Sebastian (Eric Dane) advises him to get a dog first. John takes the advice and surprises Jennifer with Marley, an adorable Labrador puppy named after Bob Marley. The pup is trouble from the start: he makes a mess of the house, never listens, and is generally out of control. In an attempt to get Marley to behave, the Grogan’s enroll him in obedience school but after he is quickly kicked out they must figure it out on their own. Kathleen Turner makes a brief appearance here as the trainer and I wish it would have been a larger role because she is terrific.

One day John’s boss Arnie (Alan Arkin) offers him a twice-a-week column until he can find a replacement. John is stumped on what to write about and uses his life with Marley as his first subject. Arnie loves it because of its personal touch. John continues along those lines and he gets the column permanently. Now settled in his job and comfortable with life with Jennifer and Marley, John decides it is time to go ahead and start the family. The rest of the movie takes us through the ups of downs of the Grogan family.

The video is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and appears free of any digital issues or manipulation. It has a great picture, especially for a movie that you wouldn’t think would place a high priority on cinematography, but then the cinematographer is Florian Ballhaus, who is following in the footsteps of his talented father Michael Ballhaus. The color scheme uses a lot of bright colors, which is natural to Florida. The fleshtones stay true and consistent throughout.

The audio is presented in DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio does a great job recreating the source, although admittedly there wasn’t a lot for it to do in this drama. The dialogue is clear as it comes out the fronts and while the surround fills in occasional ambiance. For the most part, the subwoofer gets the night off, which eliminates a potential pun.

There are several extras included in the Blu-ray DVD set but calling it a 3-disc set is very deceiving. One disc is a digital copy and one disc is a bonus DVD copy. “Finding Marley” showcases the work of the trainers involved in the making of the movie. “Breaking the Golden Rule” is a featurette that includes interviews with the cast and crew. “On Set with Marley: Dog of all Trades” provides Marley’s the opportunity to talk about the making of the movie. “When Not to Pee” is about one particular scene. “Dog Training Trivia Track” includes tips on dog training that can pop-up during the movie or that can be watched individually through the special features. There are also deleted scenes with director commentary, a gag reel and an informational piece on animal adoption.

Marley & Me is completely forgettable. There is nothing special or original about it; it is exactly what you would expect. The actors fill their roles competently no more no less. If you are looking for a nice family movie with some touching moments, this is for you but I would suggest you rent it, watch it on cable, or buy just the movie. The extras are not worth the cost of the set.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Last House on the Left: Unrated Collector's Edition (1972)

Written by Puño Estupendo

Most people that I discuss horror films with are surprised whenever I say that I'm not a big fan of Wes Craven's movies. I know, I know, he's this big deal legend of horror and all that, but I just don't like his films. I generally think they're either boring or they just don't do anything for me. Sure A Nightmare on Elm Street was awesome when it came out (before it turned into the ridiculous franchise that it did) but I outgrew it. The Scream movies were anything but horror in my opinion because they didn't scare me, and I always thought that the actors and actresses in them treated the movie like they were intentionally slumming in the genre just to be "cool."

In having this conversation many times over the years, I save the most surprising fact until the moment is right. After going round and round about my non-fan status, I drop the bomb by saying "Except for The Last House On The Left; that one is awesome!" Even the most desensitized of people are known to not be able to watch that one. An unflinching tale of rape, torture, murder and revenge, Last House has a disturbing level of true horror that is only topped by the feelings you're left with after the movie has ended.

Two young women run into the wrong group of people while trying to buy some weed before going to a concert. They're abducted and subjected to every sort of nightmare that people fear when they think about that situation happening. The perpetrators of this crime later find themselves in the home of the parents of one of their victims. The parents realize what has happened and (in facing their horror) seek revenge against their guests, unleashing a ferocity all their own.

What you can't sum up in a plotline is how visceral and grotesque the feelings of this film are. Originally released in 1972 and shot with a very grainy, amateurish look and style, this movie hits beats and emotions that I don't believe I've ever seen matched before or since. It's very simple to throw the phrase "disturbing" around when talking horror, but this one earns it. I'm hard pressed to think of a film (other than documentaries) that bring the emotional strength of how repulsive and soul-crushing true violence is.

You are witness to these acts, voyeurishly standing outside them and unable to intervene. Last House holds the camera and stares at the events when your conscience wants you to look away. Maybe it's gratuitous, maybe it's even violence to the point of pornography, but maybe that's it's true lesson. The film seems to possibly have reached this point accidentally in some ways (as explained in the supplementals) but what gives the final product validation for its excesses is that it never glorifies the violence. It's heart-wrenching and brings up feelings that you might not know you had inside you.

Everytime I've seen this movie, my brain is reeling long after it's over. The tagline of "Repeat to's only a movie" may have been used to drum up business when it was released, but it ends up speaking volumes about it overall. Yes, it's only a movie. They're all actors on the screen and what you're seeing is not real. What's real are the emotions that are brought to the surface in the viewer, giving you pause about what you thought your opinion about violence was.

The DVD presents the film in a 1.85.1 widescreen ratio and, though it's cleaned up, still has its original homemade look to it (which I loved). Featuring a commentary track by some of the film's actors and several featurettes, I found that I enjoyed the disc quite a bit. Wes Craven is interviewed (as is producer Sean Cunningham) and explains the events leading up to the filming of Last House and I found that it really did shed a lot of light on this movie. The featurettes with Craven and the actors almost satisfy the conversation you want to have with them after watching the film. It was also nice to see star Davis Hess get some well deserved interview time. His face has become iconic to horrorphiles and I welcomed his chance for some screen time through the interviews.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, this isn't a film for the timid, but I think it has more than earned it's mark in cinematic history and should never be dismissed because of its subject matter. Even though it's not something that warrants repeated viewing over and over again, this is a great disc to have and I'm glad it's out there.