humor

Bats versus Bolts: The Nineties

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

Here’s a recommendation for you if you like vampire stories (and, since you’re reading this post I’m going to assume that you’re at least on cordial terms with them): Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. The first novel is set in an alternate universe where Dracula succeeded in bringing vampirism to Britain, married Queen Victoria and has become the Prince Consort. The rest of the books detail the history of this alternate Earth where vampires are everywhere with virtually every literary and historical character that Newman could think of nodding their head in at some point or other.

The fourth book in the series, Johnny Alucard, begins in the 1970s where Francis Ford Coppola is in Romania filming a biography of Dracula, who is dead by this point (or is he? Ooooooooooooooh). The whole joke is that the filming of this version of Coppola’s Dracula ends up mirroring the legendary clusterbollocks that was the shooting of Apocalypse Now, complete with storms, the military extras being called away to fight battles, Martin Sheen (Harker) almost dying during a scene and Brando (Dracula) being…well, Brando.

Seriously, somewhere there’s an alternate universe where the dominant life on Earth is sentient gazebos and in that universe Marlon Brando is still an asshole.

The filming of our universe’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Spooky Fun Time Emporium wasn’t nearly as hellish as all that, but it did arise from another legendarily troubled production; Godfather 3. Winona Ryder had been cast by Coppola to play Mary Corleone, but dropped out, leading to Coppola having to cast his daughter Sofia in the role. Ryder was worried that Coppola resented her for that (like the rest of the human race) so she brought him a script for Dracula that she had found as a peace offering. Coppola had been a fan of the book since he was a teenager and was taken with James V. Hart’s screenplay (I don’t know that the “V” stands for vampire, but I also don’t know that it doesn’t stand for that). Filming began in…

“AHEM?”

“Yes?”

“What about me?”

“What ABOUT you?”

Sorry Team Bolts, if it seems like your movie is kind of an afterthought this time around, it’s because your movie is kind of an afterthought this time around. Whereas Dracula was one of the ten highest grossing movies of 1992 worldwide and a veritable icon of nineties cinema, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…well be honest. You’d forgotten it existed, hadn’t ya? If this bout was decided on pop culture legacy alone, Bats would take it in a walk. But is that really fair? Did Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein really deserve to be forgotton? Did Bram Stoker’s Dracula really deserve to be acclaimed? Did you know that they actually had the stones to release a novelisation of the movie and call it “Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen”? All these questions, and more, shall be answered!

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

As a general rule, I don’t watch the “Making Of” features of the movies I review, because:

a) The movie should be able to stand alone as a discrete work without additional media required to appreciate it.

b) I’m hella lazy, y’all.

But after…experiencing the subject of this review, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension, I felt that I might need to read the manual. During the “Making of” there’s a moment where director WD Richter is asked what the movie is about and responds with a deep sigh and a muttered “Oh God…”

It’s that kind of movie.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension is what happens when a lot of very smart, very talented people decide to take twenty million dollars of someone else’s money and have as much fun as it is possible to have legally. This is a cult film. No, scratch that. This is a CULT film, engineered to be so from the atoms making up the film stock upward. You are either in on the joke, or you aren’t. And I have to confess, my first watch through I was very conscious of what I like to call “The Rocky Horror” effect, the sensation that you would really be enjoying the movie you are watching if you weren’t alone and stone cold sober. It’s not a “watch at home alone on a cloudy afternoon” movie. It’s a “crack open a few beers with some rowdy friends” movie. Or possibly a “watch under the influence of hallucinogens and then found a religion” movie.

What’s it about? Oh God.

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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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Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #57: Ralph Breaks the Internet

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So occasionally I will actually watch movies made for grownups and recently Ms Mouse and I saw Rocketman, which I can best describe as “Bohemian Rhapsody but not terrible”. Apart from quality the two movies are scarily similar but then I suppose that’s just the nature of musical bio-pics. They all follow the same pattern: You  start out with our protagonist living in grim, post-war Britain, all cobble-streets, glass milk bottles and tuberculosis. You have the unsupportive parents saying “Yew’ll nevah make nuffin o’ yoself” and then the moment where they decide to rename themselves from Rodney McBorningname to Elvis Stardazzle and then fame, fortune, a sleazy manager played by a Game of Thrones alum, rises, falls, break-ups, breakdowns and a moment where the protagonist’s oldest and dearest friend from childhood reads them the riot act.

What does this have to do with Ralph Breaks the Internet? Because if the Disney canon was a musical biopic, this movie would be the point in the story where Elvis Stardazzle is slumped over a table in a trashed mansion covered in a thick layer of cocaine and groupie juice, having driven away all the people who ever loved him with his massive ego and unwillingness to see how far he’s gone off the rails.

Guys, I’m not going to toy with you on this. I fucking hate this movie. My brother, the Unscrupulous Mouse, declared this the worst Disney canon movie since Dinosaur and, while I can’t agree, I really want to.  Can I sit here and tell you that animation is worse than Chicken Little? No. Can I tell you that it’s worse directed than Home on the Range? Well…I mean…no. No I can’t do that. What’s wrong with Wreck It Ralph 2 isn’t anything to do with the animation or direction or voice cast but with an attitude of insufferable all-encompassing smugness that sets me little mouse teeth right on edge. Everything from that FUCKING title to the instant datedness of the references to the obnoxious “what you gonna do about it?” reminders of the Disney corporation’s near cultural stranglehold on every nook and cranny of pop culture. I hate it. I hate this. I hate what Disney’s become.

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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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“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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“I’m not going to hurt you, Scott. Unless I have to.”

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“Okay, that’s it. I’m officially done with the Marvel movies.”

‘Uh huh.”

“I mean it. I just don’t care anymore.”

‘Uh huh.”

“I mean, I’ll probably watch Infinity War 2.”

‘Uh huh.”

“And any new Thors.”

‘Uh huh.”

“And Black Panther 2, definitely.”

‘Uh huh.”

“Oh, and I’ll probably check out Captain Marvel.”

‘Uh huh.”

“But other than that, I am DONE.”

“Yikes. Careful hon, going cold turkey is dangerous.”

“Ugh. Curse your sexy irresistible snark and flawless reliability as a narrator.”

Yes, the grim spectre of Marvel Fatigue has reared its skeletal head in the Mouse household, rattling its chains and wailing about lacklustre villains and nondescript movie scores. And while this malignant spirit has claimed my beloved spouse I, thankfully, remain immune.

Or so I thought.

Coming up to this particular review I experienced, for this first time in this series, something in the outer boroughs of dread. The first Ant-Man, was fine but only fine and the closer the time to review Ant-Man and the Wasp crept the more I realised that I just didn’t care and would much rather skip ahead to whatever reader request I should have done like two years ago (I’m trying guys, I’m trying).

So, because I have little to nothing interesting to say about the movie, how ‘bout some comic history? You know you love it.

Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp was the second major female superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early sixties, coming a few years after Sue Storm and a few months before Jean Grey and the Scarlet Witch. And she was, much like her sisters, originally a bit crap. To put it bluntly, the superheroines of this era were drippier than a melting ice-cream who just stepped out of the shower to answer the phone.

Pictured: The time Stan Lee invented millennials.

Jan was first introduced in the pages of Tales to Astonish as the daughter of Vernon Van Dyne, a scientist who once worked with Hank Pym, the world’s Most Generic Man. When Vernon is killed, Jan comes to Hank looking for help and he’s all:

  1. I’m Ant-Man.
  2. I could make you an Ant-Woman. Would you like that Jan? Would you like to be my Ant-Woman?
  3. Vernon would totally have wanted us to bone.

Hank gives her shrinking powers, making her a god among mortals, as well as some nifty little wings and energy blasts and they fight crime as Ant-Man and the Wasp. They also became founding members of the Avengers, with Jan actually being the one who comes with the name for the team. Originally depicted as shallow and flighty the character has been deepened and expanded on by various writers over the years into one of the most respected superheroes in the Marvel universe.

She’s also the only one of the founding Avengers to never have her own solo series. For some reason.

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Flight of Dragons (1982)

Man, you guys do love your animated fantasies from the late seventies/early eighties don’t you? In fact, I’ve now reviewed enough of these things that they’re starting to run together. Which animated fantasy centring on wizards and a war between science and magic with seriously dodgy gender politics is this again? Nit?

“Yessum?”

“I need some kind of filing system.”

“I have waited many long years to hear you say those words. It was worth it.”

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