Comedy

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

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In 1959, scientist CP Snow gave his highly influential lecture; The Two Cultures where he posited that Western civilization had prioritised literature and the humanities to the point that even the most educated members of society were functionally scientifically illiterate. Snow argued that we needed to spend less time on the arts and more time on mathematics and the hard sciences.

Flashforward to 2019 and, as I write this, the most pressing question in contemporary culture is which of a series of interchangeable slabs of orange bacon some wan from Longford is going to put her leg over first so good news, Mr Snow!

“Excellent, so presumably you are all now well versed in the noble sciences?”

“Feller, fer an egg-head you sure do say some dumb shit.”

The influence of The Two Cultures can be seen in The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s 1961 children’s novel. Originally released to poor sales, it quickly surged on strong reviews and is now considered one of the classics of 20th century children’s literature something something something segue CHUCK JONES!

Okay, when it comes to the question of who was the greatest Looney Tunes director there are no wrong answers as long as that answer is CHUCK JONES! No disrespect to Tex Avery, Friz Freling, Bob McKimson or Bob Clampett (well, a little disprespect to Bob Clampett the credit-hogging cad). Together, these men created some of the greatest, most timeless cartoon characters of all time and also Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe LePew.

But the cartoons by Chuck Jones are just on another level. They’re not only hilarious (though, my God) they are art. They transcend their medium.

But by the late 1960s Jones had left Warner Bros and was working for MGM, trying to salvage the Tom and Jerry series after the studio had rather disastrously experimented with continuing the series with cheap Czech animation.

Yes, that’s what this was referencing.

The Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons were better received but to be perfectly fair Jones’ subtle poised style was always a bad fit for the frenetic Tom and Jerry shorts. I do love his re-designs for the characters though.

But Jones’ last animation for MGM was their adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is also the only feature length animation he ever directed (not counting various Looney Tunes compilation films). This movie was on heavy rotation in the mouse house when I was growing up, and when the grainy VHS tape that we had used to tape it off BBC 2 was lost there was much wailing and gnashing of incisors which is why my brother requested that I review it.

“Yeah. I did. FIVE YEARS AGO.”

Sorry bro. This one was an absolute bear to track down. I’ve been waiting to do this review for so long that all the Trump jokes were originally going to be Tea Party jokes.

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“All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles… to have a precious few of them back.”

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1981’s X-Men storyline Days of Future Past didn’t actually invent the trope of the Bad Future (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol features one and that’s just the oldest one I can think of) but it may honestly be the single most influential use of that trope. Certainly in comics, maybe in general. If you’ve ever read a story where a character travels back in time to prevent a future with a purple sky, ruined buildings and too many damned robots, chances are it was influenced by this one X-Men story by Chris Claremont. It’s also one of the best-regarded X-Men stories in the franchise’s history, right up there with The Dark Phoenix. But whereas TDP is something of a weird digression, bringing in alien space empires and giant cosmic fire birds, Days of Future Past ties neatly into the X-Men’s recurring themes of prejudice (depicting a future where mutants are close to being wiped out) and the dangers of radicalism (Mystique’s assassination of a senator having brought that future about).

I’m not saying parables on racism can’t have giant planet-eating space-birds you understand, I’m just saying it’s a heavier lift.

Honestly, this one story’s impact has been so huge that if you actually go back and read it it can be a little underwhelming because it’s tropes and story beats have been copied so often elsewhere. Plus, the whole thing is wrapped up in one issue! They didn’t stretch it out across two years and have it cross over with every other Marvel title! What even the hell? But nonetheless it’s a story that is an intrinsically important strand in the X-Men’s big shaggy carpet and it was only a matter of time before the movies took a crack it.

The X-Men franchise is probably the most faithful to its source material of any superhero movie series and I don’t really mean that in a good way. Put it like this, Days of Future Past (the movie I mean) uses an incredibly convoluted time-travel plot to retcon away disastrous decisions made by previous creative teams. Just add a couple of Wolverine clones and Magneto revealing that he faked his death by pretending to be another villain who was pretending to be Magneto and you have the MOST X-MEN THING EVER. So at this point in the franchise the X-Men movies had been rescued from their Brett Ratner/Gavin Hood induced nadir and had been returned to their glorious prior status of being “quite good”.  Brian Singer returned to the director’s chair with a mission; to integrate the previous “quite good” X-Men First Class and The Wolverine with his own X-Men movies thus creating one, unified timeline of acceptable quality.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Back in the thirties, they laughed when Walt Disney said that he was going to make a feature length animated film. “Oh, how quaint” the fat studio execs chortled through solid walls of cigar smoke as they sat stewing in their leather-bound rooms “The little cartoon man thinks he can make movies”.

The little cartoon man then proceeded to make Snow Whiteone of the most successful movies of all time. Then, a decade later, Disney announced that he was branching out into live action movies.

“Oh how quaint” the fat studio execs chortled through solid walls of cigar smoke as they sat stewing in their leather-bound rooms “The little animated feature man thinks he can make movies with real people”.

At which point Disney fixed them with a steely glare and said “Okay, just for that? I’m going to own you. All of you. It may take decades but I now dedicate my every waking moment to ensuring that one day, everything you own will belong to me. Every movie you’ve ever made, every studio, every piece of merchandise, every character. You sneeze, I will own the dirty hankie. Every red cent you ever earn will one day BELONG TO WALTER ELIAS DISNEY SO I SWEAR ON THE OLD GODS AND THE NEW.”

And they chortled at that because some motherfuckers never learn, do they?

An important step on Disney’s path to total global conquest were their live action films of the 1950s. These were usually classic tales of derring do from literature dressed up real nice with a few catchy songs. Probably the best remembered film of this era was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on Jules Verne’s staggeringly prophetic novel about how big an impact submarines were going to have on all our lives.

Leagues marked something of a watershed moment for Disney’s live-action fare as it was the first Disney film to get a really top-tier cast with household names like Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason. In fact, even though Disney had already made several fairly successful live action movies at this point, Kirk Douglas needed quite a bit of coaxing, with his part being substantially altered at his request.

“Okay, so Ned Land should be introduced with two hotties on either arm.”

“Fine.”

“And he has to win every fight he’s in!”

“Fine.”

“And everytime he’s not onscreen, everyone should be wandering around going “Where’s Ned? Where’s Ned?”

“Fine.”

“And I want my son to play Ant-Man!”

“That is a WEIRD ask, but okay.”

As director, Walt hired director Richard Fleischer, much to Fleishcer’s surprise as he was the son of Max Fleischer, Disney’s long-time rival.

“Don’t you hate him?”

“Richard my boy, I keep my friends close, my enemies closer and the people my enemies care about in the same building where I work. Under armed guard.”

“Ah. So. Am I a director or a hostage?”

“The job calls for you to fill several roles.”

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

This review was requested by patron Purr Elise. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Hello all you beautiful readers! This is just a quick word to say thanks for your patience, thanks for all your congratulations and an especially big thank you for all your kind words and wishes for the wee Mump-stricken Mini Mouse (it actually turned out to not be mumps, just a viral infection so that was a relief). Anyway, at long last here is the Tintin review.

***

The popularity of Tintin fascinates me like a Victorian lady of mysterious background.

I don’t mean that I’m surprised that the Tintin books are so stupendously popular across the civilized world.

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“The devil you say?”

That’s just a case of the market rewarding good product. Hergé’s Tintin books are visually appealing, well-told adventures with humour that translates very well across cultures. It’s not surprising that they sell well. I mean the popularity of the character Tintin himself fascinates me, because he shouldn’t work as a protagonist. In my Asterix review I called Tintin “one of the most generic characters in all of fiction” and I stand by that. He doesn’t have a single defining trait that you can really hang your hat on. He has the traits a character needs to get reliably in and out of adventures; curiousity, bravery, quick wits and a willingness to help others, and that’s about it. He’s just Adventure Hero in its most pure and undiluted form with no distinct personality or identifying traits. And lest you think I consider him “generic” because he’s a white male, consider that he’s not even all that white or all that male. Although nominally Belgian, if I hadn’t mentioned it would you even know he was? Does he come across as particularly Belgian?

Other than that time he cut a bloody swathe across the Congo, I mean?

Nor is he particularly “male”. You could swap out Tintin for a female character and her dialogue and actions wouldn’t seem jarringly out of place. And then there’s that matter of his orientation. Despite all the fandom speculation about his relationship with Captain Haddock, I’d argue that there’s more textual evidence for Tintin being asexual, (of course, these were originally comics for children published in a conservative Catholic magazine so it’s not like you’d expect to see much of the hard fucking, regardless). Tintin is almost defiantly featureless. Even as a hero he’s distinctly middle-of-the-road. He’s a capable fighter, but he’s no Batman. An able detective, but hardly a Holmes. He’s a crack shot, but he uses a gun so infrequently you might read several books and never know. And then there’s his personal history. Who are his parents? Does he have any siblings? What paper does he, supposedly a journalist, work for?

“You ask a lot of questions, Mouse. People who ask questions often come to sticky ends, I hear.”

And it’s not like Hergé was just bad at characterisation, the stories are filled with memorable and distinct oddballs. So what gives? Why does Tintin have such appeal?

I have a theory. Do you know which character Tintin actually reminds me of more than any other?

Related image

I’d argue that Tintin, like Mario, is less a character in the conventional sense and more like a player avatar, a figure who provides an entry point into the story for the reader and is non-descript enough to allow them to be fully immersed in the adventure. I wouldn’t have thought it would work, but then I’m not the guy who’s sold 200 million copies worldwide so what do I know?

Image result for hergé

“Jacques merde, monsieur.”

Mais oui. Anyway, 200 million Tintin books have been sold worldwide and they’ve been read by people all over the globe, including five or six Americans. One of those Americans was Stephen Spielberg who first became aware of the series when reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark kept comparing Indy to Tintin.

Hergé, luckily enough, was a big Spielberg fan and after his death his widow agreed to give Spielberg the movie rights. A live action version of Tintin went into pre-production in the early eighties, with Jack Nicholson being considered for Captain Haddock. Because it was Hollywood in the eighties and cocaine is a hell of a drug.

That version never got traction and the rights bounced back between Spielberg and the Hergé estate for a few decades until finally Spielberg committed to a CGI motion-capture film with effects work provided by Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop.

The movie finally came out in 2011. Got great reviews. Did excellent box office. And then…

That was kinda it. Call it the Avatar effect, where a movie manages to be a huge success while leaving next to no mark of the cultural landscape. Spielberg’s been talking about completing the trilogy but it’s been eight years now and I don’t think there’s any real interest or appetite for it. Call it the Avatar effect.

“You already used that.”

“It can be two things!”

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Bats versus Bolts: Hammer Time!

This review was requested by patron Mathom. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Has there ever been a studio so wholly identified with a single genre as Hammer? Even though the studio in its day produced comedies, science fiction films and dramas, this English studio is so inextricably linked with its horror output that you’d have a hard time convincing the man on the street that there isn’t, and never has been, a film studio called “Hammer Horror”. You can’t fight alliteration, man.

Nowadays the Hammer canon is beloved as cosy, oh-so-British mid-century film-making. A pleasant, rainy bank holiday afternoon with Granny might easily be spent watching Christopher Lee sucking some poor unfortunate tavern wench’s claret through her jugular. But back in the day, these things were edgy. When The Curse of Frankenstein was released in 1957 critics rended their garments and proclaimed it the harbinger of the end of civilization, a disgusting affront to decency, nothing but violence, cleavage, blood and all kinds of unthinkable depravity by Jove.

Aaaaaaaand the British public responded by ensuring that the movie made its budget back seventy times over.

After that, Hammer’s fate was sealed. Hammer and the horror genre were wedded on the spot and the marriage has, with a few bumps along the way, continued all the way to the present day.

Unlike last time, this bout promises to be a much more closely fought affair, as we have The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee versus Dracula starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both considered to be among the greatest horror films ever made, both featuring absolutely iconic performances. This is going to be a monster mash for the ages.

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Ladyhawke (1985)

Hey everyone, before I introduce you to the wonderful Rutger Haur-blessed world of Ladyhawke, I need to explain why this review is a little on the short side. I don’t discuss my job on this blog because my employer has a fairly, shall we say, broad remit in policing what its staff say about them online and I try to err on the side of caution. That said, I may have hinted over the years that I am…

“A criminal mastermind?”

“Oh for goodness sake, I occupy a MINOR position in the Irish government.”

Currently, work is absolutely crazy owing to the ongoing spectacle of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland going boom boom in its big boy pants. A French minister recently joked that she’d named her cat “Brexit” because it keeps howling to be let out into the garden and then refuses to leave when the door is opened.

I would say that the metaphor is accurate, except that the cat also has a bomb strapped to it and I’m not sure the garden is far enough to be outside the blast radius.

Anyway… 

That’s why this review is a little short. As to why I’m only getting around to reviewing it years after the original request…that’s totally Brexit’s fault too. I swear.

***

Ladyhawke is an eighties fantasy movie with a cult following, he said, redundantly, because every eighties fantasy movie has a cult following. Find me a Wikipedia page for one of the breed that doesn’t include the words “cult following”. Can’t be done.

On dark nights, the adherents of Hawk the Slayer can be heard chanting in the woods, every solistice, the Cult of Krull sacrifices a virgin in a moonlit grove and don’t even get me started on what the Willow fans get up to. But Ladyhawke actually earns its cult status for two reasons:

1)      It was a massive flop on release.

2)      It’s actually quite good.

Now, let me qualify that. It’s good. But it’s eighties as fuck. In fact, take a look at the opening credits for me and imagine that it’s actually the start of a cop show about a hawk police officer busting cocaine cartels in Miami beach.

Image result for tubbs miami vice

“Dammit Ladyhawke! I may be your partner, but you crossed the line back there in that warehouse!”

“Until we take down Espinoza and the Marinos cartel, there IS no line!”

You’ll also notice some pretty high calibre talent in those credits. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Haur of course, Richard Donner who famously directed Superman and Stuart Baird, one of the most respected film editors in Hollywood. But then, he also directed Star Trek Nemesis, so fuck that guy.

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Tales from Earthsea (2006)

This review was requested by patron Purr Elise. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Goro Miyazaki breaks my goddamned heart, you know that?

I feel for the guy, I really do. When faced with having to live up to the legacy of his father, a man who will be remembered as the Michaelangelo of the 21st century, Goro wisely tried to forge his own path in a different field and be his own man. He studies landscaping, becomes a construction consultant and even helped to design the Ghibli museum which he then became the director of. At 34. I mean, this guy has done some amazing things, right? That is a damn impressive resume. More than I’ll ever accomplish, that’s for sure.

And then, he gets called in by his father’s studio to contribute some landscapes for a movie. They take a look at them and say “Hey, these are really good and also your father is basically the God of Animation who walks among us in the form of a man, you should totally direct this movie.”

And suddenly, he’s exactly where he never wanted to be, directing an animated movie where he has to be compared to his father and there is just no way he can win. And, despite bringing the movie in on time and on budget, he will forever be known as the guy who directed Tales From Earthsea, the “bad” studio Ghibli film.

And now, this incredibly accomplished young man is viewed as a failure. A fuckup. Someone defined by not being as good as someone else.

And that is just so unfair to the guy. I mean, I know I dunked pretty hard on From Up On Poppy Hill  but it wasn’t bad. Okay, it was boring and uninteresting and unengaging and I guess that does kinda mean it was bad but, shit, like I could do better?

“No” is the answer to that.

This was the question that was dogging me all through watching Tales From Earthsea. How do I justify giving this movie a bad review when it has better animation and more striking visuals that probably a good 90% of the movies I’ve reviewed on this blog. I wanted to like this one. I really did. I committed a cardinal sin of reviewing in wanting to give this one a pass because of the person who made it and not on a fair assessment of the work. Taken on its own merits, without comparison to the rest of Studio Ghibli’s output, Tales From Earthsea is a beautifully animated work  and a veritable feast for the eyes.

It is also, unfortunately, a pretty terrible movie.

Dude, I’m sorry.

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“Go fuck yourself, pretty boy.”

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Before we get stuck in to today’s review I would like to make a few corrections. I’ve recently started reading the first original run of the X-Men from the sixties thanks to the Marvel app.The Marvel app allows you to read comics from across the company’s seventy year history and I’d recommend it!

If it wasn’t a glitchy piece of garbage.

But regardless, reading these old issues has made me realise that I had made some false assumptions about this period of the X-Men’s history which I’d now like to correct.

Firstly, I claimed that the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run didn’t have any of the Civil Rights allegory that was so central to the franchise later on. I was wrong about that. It’s not nearly as pronounced as it would become but it is definitely there, with the mutants facing fear and prejudice from human beings from fairly early on.

Likewise, I also claimed that the much later decision to make Iceman gay was a blatant retcon that directly contradicted the character’s established history. And while we do definitely see Bobby dating women in these early issues…

Yeah. I can’t exactly say they pulled that out of thin air either.

Lastly, I implied that Professor Xavier was a dangerous lunatic putting minors in mortal peril as part of his deranged scheme to raise his own paramilitary force of super-powered child soldiers.

“Do not question Father, Warren! Or he shall put you in the box of chastisement!”

So let’s look at The Wolverine!

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Star Wars: Clone Wars Volume 1 (2003)

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Okay, let’s get this out of the way. The prequels aren’t bad.

Okay, fine, scratch that.

The prequels are bad.

But they aren’t only bad.

I like to think of it this way; If the Star Wars prequel trilogy was just three bad movies, no more, no less, I wouldn’t know who Kit Fisto is.

It’s this guy.

Much digital ink has been spilt about how George Lucas, once he got the chance to make the prequel trilogy and had the clout to do it without having to listen to a single solitary other human being, revealed himself to be a talentless hack who was lucky enough to have some really talented people to collaborate with the first time around.

That’s not true.

Sorry, scratch that.

That’s not entirely true.

The prequel trilogy sees Lucas’ worst faults as a film-maker on display; a love of cringe-inducing, borderline offensive comic relief, little to no inclination or ability to get believable performances out of his actors and the little matter of being one of the worst dialogists on the Hollywood A List.

But he does have skills, not least a knack for world building and for crafting character arcs that tap into deep, universal themes.

One of the great misconceptions about The Phantom Menace is that it’s boring because it’s about politics, which is like saying that Westerns are boring because they feature gunfights. Politics is one of the most inherently thrilling subjects that fiction can tackle, particularly in times of unrest (Christ, have you looked at the news at any time in the last ten years and thought it was a snoozefest?). The movies themselves may be largely terrible, but the world they conjure, an ancient and increasingly corrupt democracy slowly sliding into fascism against the backdrop of an impossibly vast conflict spanning the galaxy, is incredibly fertile and (if I’m honest) a good bit more interesting than the war between the squeaky clean rebels and the boo-hissable Empire.

The subject of today’s review is an odd beast. Released in 2003 when Attack of the Clones was still steaming on the sidewalk and Revenge of the Sith was just a relatively watchable glint in Lucas’ eye, Star Wars: Clone Wars was a series of shorts released online filling in the adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin set between episodes 2 and 3. The series was overseen by Genndy Tartatovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack and master of having characters do something very, very slowly while a violin chord plays and I’ve looked everywhere for the name of that thing but it doesn’t seem to have a name so whaddyagonnado?

These cartoons were a huge hit, winning awards and critical acclaim and with fans the world over joyously proclaiming them to be the one good thing to come out of the prequels. And then George Lucas came along and said “Nope, none of this is canon. I’m doing a new Clone Wars series. All in CGI. And do you know who’s going to have whole episodes devoted to him? Jar Jar Fuckin’ Binks, that’s who. You’re welcome.”

And the fans were all: “…………………………………………………why do you keep doing this?”

Star Wars: Clone Wars (CW) has a weird relationship with its sister show, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TCW), launched in 2008 under the supervision of Dave Filoni. TCW had a really rough roll out, with Lucas making the truly baffling decision to release the two-hour pilot as a stand-alone movie meaning it would draw inevitable comparisons with the original trilogy. Season 1 rarely rose above the level of competent kiddie fair and the fandom wailed for poor, wronged Genndy. But then, something odd happened. TCW started getting better, and kept at it, expanding on existing characters, introducing new ones and telling some of the best and most compelling stories ever told in this universe. If you saw Solo and were confused as to why Darth Maul seemed in rather rude good health it’s because TCW realised what a waste it was to have killed him off in Phantom Menace and brought him back. After initially meeting only scorn, TCW’s prestige in the fanbase is such that it was actually genuinely difficult for me to research this review because Google kept assuming I was looking for information on the later show.

So CW has gone from critical and fandom darling to almost forgotten afterthought. Which is more deserved? Which show is better? Will I ever find a better way to end an introduction than asking rhetorical questions?

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The Breadwinner (2017)

This review was requested by patron Alex Hu. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Fuck Wikipedia.

I had one hell of an intro lined up for this one. I was going to open with a description of the Book of Kells, and detail how the blue dye illustrating this mediaeval masterpiece of Irish art had to be imported all the way from ancient Afghanistan. I would then tie that into a line from The Breadwinner where the character Nurullah describes how the ancient peoples of Afghanistan traded all over the world. Then  I was going to connect that to how director Nora Twomey’s previous film The Secret of Kells led directly into The Breadwinner, showing how Ireland and Afghanistan have, improbably, been transmitting ideas and beauty between each other for millennia. And how even between two incredibly distant nations there can be bonds of shared history and culture. How we are all, truly, one people.

And then I go to Wikipedia and discover that the theory of the Book of Kells being created with ink from Afghanistan has been debunked so never fucking mind then.

“Don’t know why I bother really.” 

Anyway, this is the third film of current animated hotness Cartoon Saloon. Like their previous two movies, this is an international co-production, this time between Ireland, Canada and Luxembourg.

“I helped!”

“Aw, you sure did.”

Directed by Nora Twomey  and produced by Angelina Jolie, The Breadwinner is based on the novel by the same name by Deborah Ellis. Upon the movie’s release in 2017 it was heralded as an instant classic and became the only non-American film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2017.

Boss Baby was also nominated. Because the Oscars are meaningless nonsense.

But is it really that good? Does it really deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as classics like Boss Baby and Ferdinand (seriously, fuck the Oscars)? Let’s take a look at The Breadwinner or, as I call it, Mulan but Everything is Terrible.

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