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Superior Duck

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 August 2016 01:52 (A review of Superior Duck)

Does anyone remember the 1996 Tom Arnold vehicle Carpool? No, I didn’t think so. Well, another year, another Chuck Jones Looney Tunes short, and at least this one premiered before a family film.


“Superior Duck,” as implied by the title, find Jones returning to Daffy Duck, and his fevered imagination. Here we find Daffy operating under the delusion that he is a superhero, with an amusing cameo from Superman for good measure. The back-and-forth between Daffy and the narrator does go on for a few beats too long, but there’s still some quiet chuckles to be had with it. Even at this late stage in his career, Daffy couldn’t get any respect.


What makes “Superior Duck” stand from the two prior shorts is a background that combines Art Deco curves with a pristine, futuristic angularity, this type of world feels completely like the creation of Jones. The myriad of cameos are quite pleasing, but there’s just something sluggish about “Superior Duck.” The others captured a piece of the manic energy and magic of the originals, and this one feels a bit like a wheel spinning exercise. Still, it’s Chuck Jones bringing Daffy Duck to life, and sometimes that’s good enough.

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Another Froggy Evening

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 August 2016 01:28 (A review of Another Froggy Evening)

In the mid-to-late 90s, Jones released four theatrical shorts, each providing an opportunity for him to work his magic on his most beloved characters. The prior year’s “Chariots of Fur” reunited Wil E. Coyote and the Road Runner in a lovably familiar tale, and 1995’s “Another Froggy Evening” finds Jones resurrecting Michigan J. Frog, his creation from 1955’s “One Froggy Evening.”


Whereas the original followed Michigan J. Frog and the lone sucker who found him, this one travels through time. Michigan continually gets dug up and reburied by the descendants of the same man (picture the original sad sack as a cavemen, Roman citizen, American revolutionary and you’ve got the idea), still refusing to entertain for anyone but him. It moves at an amusing clip, but feels somehow missing a certain spark that radiates from “One Froggy Evening.”


Not to say “Another Froggy Evening” is bad, far from it, it’s absolutely charming and silly. There’s a series of amusing cameos (look for Looney Tunes alumni Pussyfoot and Marvin the Martian, along with Jones himself, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert), the animation is fluid, dynamic and strong, and the jokes are solid. Perhaps it’s the sweaty desperation of the original that’s missing, this one feels more eager to smack your funny bone and leave you elation than the earlier one.


And here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. This premiered before City of Angels, how’s that for tonal contrast?

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Chariots of Fur

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 August 2016 01:05 (A review of Chariots of Fur)

By 1976, Jones had returned to work under Warner Brothers, and reunited with the cast of characters that made his name. These works were primarily TV compilations or in-between segments for films like The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner first came back to prominence under Chuck Jones’ guiding hand in the late 70s/early 80s in a series of shorts for The Electric Company.


In 1994, before Richie Rich no less, Jones and his eternally warring creations returned to the big screen in this short. Perhaps it’s that Jones created these two in 1949 and he knows how they operate best, or maybe it’s the larger budget he had to work with, I can’t say for certain, but this feels more akin to his classic works than anything else. The jokes are rapid-fire, and, more importantly, consistently amusing. Wile E. Coyote getting throw off a cliff by a spring, only for it to pull the boulder down on top of him feels like a gag from one of the 50s shorts, and I mean that as a compliment.


The ludicrous products from ACME, a well-known gag for the Looney Tunes in general but this series in particular, continue here, with increasingly improbable offerings. A roll out highway, lightning bolts in a box, and the standby of a giant mouse trap. The gags pile up on top of each other as we barrel towards the climax, which is perhaps a little underwhelming. It’s forgiven as everything that came before it radiates with mirth, charm, and a naughty grin. 

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Duck Dodgers and the Return to the 24 ½th Century

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 August 2016 12:41 (A review of Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24½th Century)

Originally released in 1980 as part of a Thanksgiving special, Daffy Duck’s Thanks-For-Giving, and soon spun off and reedited as its own short, this marks the first original Daffy Duck and Porky Pig film since 1965. A direct sequel to the wonderful original, “Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century” from 1953, “Duck Dodgers and the Return to the 24 ½th Century” feels like a familiar childhood blanket.


The warm glow of nostalgia perhaps tints your perceptions of the strengths of this one. Entertaining though it may be, it’s missing much of the visual splendor and wit of the original. A few backgrounds retain the same sense of mischief and humor, like the egg-shaped planet’s strange omelet looking trees, and a couple of the jokes still snap with smart-ass verve, like Porky making his face disappear after being told to remove the smile from his face.


If the return of Daffy Duck and Porky Pig to new adventures never quite achieves great status, it at least is a very pleasing bit of fluff. Never tainting the allure and love for the original, this sequel is a solidly built if lesser creation. But after fifteen years off, of course things shouldn’t be expected to flow as easily or smoothly as they once did. 

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The Bear That Wasn't

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 8 August 2016 02:23 (A review of The Bear That Wasn't)

The second non-Tom and Jerry short film, and the last one they ever made, was this adaptation of Frank Tashlin’s book. Tashlin was a former contemporary of Jones’ in the Termite Terrace, but this short was the subject of contention between them. Despite having no real input on the film, Jones demanded that Tashlin be given producer credit in the event of an Oscar win, a nice gesture to be sure. Problem was, Tashlin strongly disliked what Jones had done with his work and wanted his name removed from the credits.


The tension between the two as artists is evident throughout “The Bear That Wasn’t” as Tashlin’s jaundiced worldview produces a series of great gags about corporate culture and identity crisis, but Jones was never that dark in his outlook. It’s an entertaining short, if somehow ultimately leaving behind an odd aftertaste.


The backgrounds and forms tilt strongly towards Jones’ later work in adapting Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories in that they’re less abstract and more representational. Still, Jones can’t stop himself from presenting pieces of the short as strange geometric abstractions, disassociating the bear from his surroundings and helping to solidify the narrative thrust in these moments.


But there’s still something off as a whole with “The Bear That Wasn’t.” The psychology at play here never feels totally committed to. Or perhaps there’s the slightly dated quality to the background music. Or the factory working montage that has an incredibly dated mid-60s swinging song playing underneath. It’s messy, but an entertaining mess. A glimpse at two different artists obsessions and styles merging uneasily with one another to produce something strange and wonderful, sloppy but endearing.

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The Dot and the Line

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 8 August 2016 01:54 (A review of The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics)

After his tenure with Tom and Jerry, a love-it-or-hate-it period in which Chuck Jones was heavily criticized for trying to transform the cat and mouse into Looney Tunes proxies, Jones directed the only two non-Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM. The first was also his lone competitive Oscar win. Other short films he had directed had seized the grand prize, but since he wasn’t listed as a producer he didn’t get his name on the statuette.


The most immediately evident difference between his beloved Looney Tunes work and this strange little short is the sense of complete abstraction at play here. Lacking any recognizably human characters, Jones uses splashes of bright colors and geometric shapes, backgrounds that swirl and constantly change patterns to tell us the emotional journey of a blue line, a pink circle, and a black squiggle. What’s strange about it though is just how easily he manages to pull it off.

“The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics” does feature a heavy-handed narration by Robert Morley, essentially reading large passages of Norton Juster’s original text. Yet the sheer excellence and exuberance of the animation allows us to skip past that and focus our attention on the beauty and strength of the technical skills on display. There’s also a naughty bit of subtext, as the pink circle rolls around with both the black squiggle and the rigid blue line, coupled with the narration detailing the tortured romance, and it all paints a strange picture of erotic geometric sensuality on display. That’s not even taking into account the color-coding on display here, or the sheer lack of subtlety in making the female figure a warm circular object and the male a hard, rigid one. Very cheeky Mr. Jones, very cheeky. 

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Suicide Squad

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 7 August 2016 03:54 (A review of Suicide Squad)

Out of the three entries we have in DC’s cinematic universe, Suicide Squad is the one I enjoy the most. But that praise doesn’t amount to much when you consider how sloppy and frayed the three films are. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are drunk upon painterly compositions that don’t amount to much or service the narrative in any meaningful way. And those narratives are frustrating affairs in which smart themes and story choices are presented in the dumbest possible manner or the absence of humor or joy or wonder in a superhero narrative.


Suicide Squad is something of a minor corrective to those films, but it’s not enough to praise WB and DC for. The hands of studio interference are visible in the way the film feels distinctively like two separate visions awkwardly blended. It has stretches that are highly entertaining, but it mistakenly sticks several characters that belong in a shaggier, smaller scope into an end-of-the-world scenario, sloppy edits, and a noticeable lack of character development. Having read the Suicide Squad comics, I knew who everyone was and what the dynamics with each other were (or where they were heading), but I can’t imagine too many first-comers easily grasping the world we’re occupying.


At least the ensemble is, barring two players, uniformly strong. Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and Jai Courtney are the obvious standouts as Amanda Waller, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and Boomerang. No shock to anyone who has read the comics, as those are the standout and major characters, and it’s a shame that El Diablo (Jay Hernandez, doing well with what little he’s given), Katana (Karen Fukuhara, in a wasted role), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, buried under impressive movie makeup) get lost in the shuffle.


Too many characters to introduce and not enough time to flesh many of them out leads to several players in Suicide Squad to essentially just stand around waiting for the plot to suddenly need them to complete a task. This doesn’t feel like an organic outgrowth of the story, but the story folding in on itself to provide a reason for including the characters.


Yet the plot never finds a successful means of incorporating the Joker, and his presence is a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things. He’s a major player, and an absolute necessity in explaining the origins of Harley Quinn, sequences that are obvious highlights like the homage to the famous Alex Ross painting of them embracing or the two kissing in a vat of chemicals in Ace Chemicals. The movie halts whenever he reemerges aside from these scenes, and Jared Leto’s neurotic, tic-laden performance does no one any favors. Leto’s always been a self-consciously flashy actor, never going beyond the mere surface twitches to get to the heart of a character, and his nervy flourishes here at big distractions.


At least Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress finds the model-actress embracing some kind of kitsch. Granted, Enchantress has been a member of the Squad in the past comics, but her presence would feel more at home in the proposed-but-canceled Justice League Dark film. Delevingne clearly cast less for her still-developing acting talents and more for her history as a model as her character wears a series of outlandish outfits. She’s enjoying herself though, contorting her body like a Ray Harryhausen monster and wearing headdresses with the élan of Maria Montez in Cobra Woman.


There lies a major problem with Suicide Squad, with Enchantress going rogue as a villain with her sights set on remaking the world in her twisted image and insurmountable powers, the stakes feel too outlandish and strangely dull for what is essentially a covert ops team. They need smaller, character-focused stories to shine. More scenes like them hanging out in a bar are needed, and far less of them firing guns at never-ending goopy zombie armies.


Even worse is a soundtrack that feels so on the nose, you’ll wonder if the producers got an iTunes discount for buying them in bulk or something. Amanda Waller is introduced to the sounds of “Sympathy for the Devil,” telegraphing everything you’d need to know about the character in the laziest manner possible. At times these soundtrack choices feel insulting to the audience’s intelligence, as if someone in post-production didn’t trust the audience enough to grasp the story and character motivations. Or the brusque reception to Batman v Superman caused them to pivot too much of the film into something it clearly wasn’t intended to be.


Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I’m not ready to call it a wash with DC films yet. I hold out hope that Wonder Woman will turn out successfully, and Justice League’s Comic-Con footage proved promising. But they seriously need a stronger vision tying it all together, and to drop Snyder already. There’s a much better movie lurking inside of the sloppy, messy, severely compromised version of Suicide Squad we’ve seen. Hopefully David Ayer’s original cut gets a home video release so we could see what might have been.

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You Were Never Lovelier

Posted : 11 months ago on 24 July 2016 07:22 (A review of You Were Never Lovelier)

Plenty of romantic musical comedies are built upon the flimsiest baubles, putting all of their strengths in movie star personas, high-energy choreography, top-notch production values, and a strong score. You Were Never Lovelier is built upon this formula, and it’s an utterly charming and beguiling little song-and-dance show.


It comes the closest to recapturing the megawatt power of earlier Fred Astaire triumphs like Top Hat and Swing Time, replacing the chorus-girl-made-good Ginger Rogers with the romantic-and-erotic Rita Hayworth. They partner together beautifully, giving Astaire a ballroom dancer on his technical level. Yet there’s a tradeoff here, while they meet in perfect synchronicity on the dance floor, their chemistry never quite reaches the swooning romance of Astaire and Rogers.


Astaire still gets plenty of solid work in. His solo, “Audition Dance,” is a comedic and nimble in equal measure as he hoofs across a room, throws himself into a chair and propels it into the corner of the room, and leaps onto a desk. “I’m Old Fashioned,” the romantic centerpiece of the film, is an achingly tender Latin dance in which Astaire plays the secondary role to Hayworth’s more aggressive perusal. It’s a number that’s hard to top, but “The Shorty George” comes close. There’s always a faster partner dance in an Astaire film, and “George” is the virtuoso number in which they challenge each other in fleet footed flirtations. Astaire’s limber and fluid movements are hypnotic to watch, and knowing that he had a partner at his skill-level unlocks some next-level work from him.


Since this is a Columbia feature, that never becomes a hindrance as its clearly a showcase for Hayworth with Astaire merely paying a visit to her home studio. The title alone describes her looks here. Her peaches and cream complexion, luscious hair and erotic body movements are greatly served by a series of knockout costumes. Hayworth’s potent Love Goddess persona reaches an apex in her reprise of “Dearly Beloved,” a solo dance number in her bedroom, clad in a va-va-voom nightgown, that combines a sweet innocence with a pin-up queen’s volcanic sensuality. Hayworth had two primary modes that she excelled in, sultry femme fatale and mischievous musical comedy actress. You Were Never Lovelier is a great vehicle for her immense talents as a high-energy performer.


Drunk on glamour and exotic garnishes (the film in set in Buenos Aires, Xaiver Cugat and His Orchestra play major supporting roles), You Were Never Lovelier is a movie filled with tremendous warmth and laughter. A tasty and gorgeous little trifle, if movies were food this would be a luxurious dessert.

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Pal Joey

Posted : 11 months ago on 22 July 2016 02:59 (A review of Pal Joey)

I have a very large soft spot in my heart for Frank Sinatra. I find his trajectory from teen idol crooner, to movie musical superstar, to well-respected dramatic actor to be an awe-inspiring run of high-quality artistry. Here in Pal Joey all of those various elements, along with Sinatra’s innate streetwise and smart-alecky impeccable cool, into one hell of an entertaining star vehicle.


It’s not just a great showcase for him though, as Rita Hayworth, the Love Goddess, gets one of her last great roles as wealthy widow Vera Simpson. She slowly steals the film from Sinatra, and he knew it too as it’s partly a reason for her top billing. Her singing voice is dubbed outside of the introductions to both her numbers, but she throws herself into the musical and dance sequences with a wild ambition. “Zip” is a charmingly sexy laugh riot, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is a sensual delight that recaptures some of the explosive Gilda magic. It also takes one hell of a woman to smack Sinatra down to size, but Hayworth’s withering line deliveries and clipped purrs does the trick repeatedly.


Shame about Kim Novak’s nothing of a role, though. It’s an ingénue part, a good girl who tames the naughty boy with her virtuous charms. Lord knows Novak’s chilly, sexy, slow-burn take on “My Funny Valentine” is enough to make a sinner repent (even if, much like Hayworth, her voice is dubbed). She tries her best, and she’s sensational in a scene where she comes on to Joey in a drunken stupor, but there’s not much for her to do. She tries her best to keep up, but she’s out-gunned by Sinatra’s natural charisma and Hayworth’s dynamism. I will say this, I adore that touch of lavender they added to her hair. It makes her presence pop that much brighter as it catches the light in certain scenes and gives her hair a shimmer that is either silver or faintly purple.


If the part of womanizing cad Joey feels tailor made for Sinatra’s casual, detached, and sarcastic screen presence in both dramatic and musical sequences, then you should know what a star vehicle is. Loosely reassembled from the Broadway show of the same name, this Pal Joey is definitely prettier and cleaner in presentation and execution. The lurid and salacious acts of the story are implied rather than spelled out, much like the other famous John O’Hara adaptation, BUtterfield 8.


It doesn’t take much mental contortions to fill in the lines, between Joey’s unique lingo and the central love triangle’s transitions of power and affection. Like many movie musicals, Pal Joey is primarily concerned with this love triangle. Joey Evans, an ambitious song-and-dance man, has to keep moving from town to town thanks to being something of a louse. He winds up in San Francisco where he takes a liking to an innocent showgirl (Kim Novak), before becoming the plaything of a wealthy widow (Rita Hayworth), and still burning a candle for Novak’s nice girl. The rest of the story plays out exactly as you think it would, with the Production Code demanded redemption and happily ever after.


Yes, the plot is flimsy. But most movie musicals are if they’re primarily romantic comedies, and this certainly fits that bill. Films like this are best watched as displays of movie star charisma and high-level production values in service of a great songbook. Pal Joey is one hell of a movie based purely on these strengths. It may not outrank MGM’s output during the same era, but for a more modest budget to play with, it holds its own quite nicely. Of course having a score featuring Rodgers and Hart classics like “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “I Could Write a Book,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “My Funny Valentine” most certainly helps.


There’s a ton of color, charm, and urban wit on display in Pal Joey, and it’s one hell of an entertaining way to spend two hours. Maybe not the most essential entry in any of their bodies of work, but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the best second-stringers. That sounds like faint praise, but I really adore this movie. I think it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with films like Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Kiss Me Kate for sheer joyous entertainment.  

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Middle of the Night

Posted : 11 months ago on 22 July 2016 02:18 (A review of Middle of the Night)

To hear Kim Novak tell it, Harry Cohn didn’t want her anywhere near this low-key story of a May-December romance. Cohn didn’t want Novak’s glamorous, icy sex goddess persona compromised by playing a character so vulnerable, damaged, and needy. But Novak was a shrewd mind, and she knew Middle of the Night was one hell of an opportunity for something tougher, meatier.


She was right, of course, just as she had been that Vertigo was a film for the ages despite the indifferent modern reception. Middle of the Night is in the upper echelon of her film work, and Novak frequently names this film as her personal favorite. No wonder, as she plays a character with a large emotional range, utilizing her natural melancholy into a deeply engaging portrait of a brittle woman desperate for love and affection.


Novak’s receptionist finds it in widowed businessman Jerry’s (Fredric March) arms. He bursts with love to give, and no one to accept it. She needs a father-figure, a lover, and someone to help her break her habit of caving in to her ex-husband’s romantic advances. Their romance is unconventional, and met with judgment and scorn by the friends and family members orbiting their lives, but they find an anchor in each other.


At the time of release, March got the bulk of critical praise for his finely tuned performance. No shock that, as March was one of the more dependable actors of his generation, consistently giving complex and rich life to a large variety of characters over his forty-four years in front of the camera. Yet it’s Novak that was a real surprise for me here, sinking her teeth in Paddy Chayefsky’s script like a starving artist instead of an established star persona. Her voice is pitched higher, frequently sounding pinched and struggling to get the words out in a coherent manner. Her body trembles, and her unease in life is palpable in her nervous energy.


Middle of the Night is a small film, but one packing a big emotional punch. Director Delbert Mann, of Marty fame, is well within his wheelhouse here, creates believably cramped apartments, and rumpled working class faces. It helps that aside from Novak and March, Mann populates the cast with character actors like Lee Grant and Martin Balsam, both of them sensational.

If the film has any fault, it’s that it never completely breaks free from its stage origins. So much of the film takes place in interiors and it occasionally dips into filmed stage play territory. This minor problem is forgiven easily between the towering strengths of the naturalistic performances, wonderful dialog, and deep emotional honesty on display. It doesn’t have the critical or popular appraisal of other Novak films, but Middle of the Night deserves a reevaluation. It’s one of the best films in her career.  

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