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Scooby solves the mystery of th universe? "'Rat's right, Raggy!", 14 March 2015
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Fascinating update of an old series, with nicely stylized contemporary animation stylings, and some real comedy.

In the most recent, most innovative re-casting of the Scooby Do phenomenon, Mystery Incorporated, most of the individual stories remain in the classic mode, but with twists concerning the character development of the gang. We won't get into that, but we will note the twist that series as a whole takes.

The series is actually constructed around what is now known as a 'story arc,' a meta-narrative tying the individual stories together. And here's where things get a little strange: The meta-narrative at last reveals what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon – the Evil Entity – motivating the series as a whole. Most reviewers seem to agree that this is borrowed from the Cthulu mythos originating in the writings of fantasy cult figure, H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, I was never able to wade through Lovecraft's dense and florid prose, so I don't know this, but I do know that Lovecraft's cult is fairly large for a writer unknown beyond the genre readership, and has always included many aspiring young fantasy writers.

It should be noted that, although I think most readers at least initially read Lovecraft as a fantasy/horror writer, and none seems to deny purely fantasy elements to his texts, there does appear to be a kind of science fiction element to the Cthulu mythos; although the Old Ones appear to us as gods, or demonic forces, they are actually rather long lived aliens, possibly from another dimension or a parallel universe.

And, as it so happens, it is revealed in the final scenes concluding the Mystery Incorporated series that the explanation of what the Scooby gang has experienced, and of its final, happy result, is to be found in the 'alternative time-lines' made possible thanks to the contemporary 'multiverse' theory! And who should reveal this, but no less a respected a figure of real-world science fiction than writer Harlan Ellison – yes, himself represented in cartoon form, with his own voice dubbed over it. (Fortunately, he remarks, he himself is such a genius that he has been able to remember all the different time-lines his alternative selves have lived through in their respective universes This willing self-parody is apparently entirely in keeping with his public personality.)

We began with a simple detective mystery, searching for empirical clues, and ended up in the realm of theoretical physics, searching for multiverses. Cartoons have indeed come a long way since 1970....

"Astroboy" (1963)
go go go Astro Boy!, 14 March 2015
10/10

Osamu Tezuka's original Astro Boy manga was an overnight sensation, and by the mid-50s had inspired a live-action television show (very low budget, from what I can tell from the trailer for it I've seen). Then in 1962, Tezuka himself developed this animated cartoon series for television – writing, drawing, even participating in the animation with his staff of six (some of whom went on to become notable figures in the anime industry). Due to budget constraints, the series uses what is known as 'limited animation' with stock backgrounds, stock shots, very limited figure movement, etc. But I admit this actually increases the charm of the series for me; it has a quirky surrealistically mechanical aura in many of the visuals.

It should be noted that animation had been a fascination for Tezuka long before he initiated this series. His father owning a movie projector, Tezuka was, from quite an early age, fascinated with American animated films, primarily those by Walt Disney, although the main influence discernible in the Astro Boy series is that of the Fleischer Brothers. The Astro Boy series could not duplicate the slickness or gloss of the better-budgeted American animated television shows or films of the time, but it does evidence a sophisticated humor and a visual inventiveness well in advance of them. (It should be noted that Tezuka's manga were also always in advance of work being done in American comics of the same era.) Astro Boy was originally designed for Japanese males in their early teens – hence his physical appearance as a twelve-year old boy. The aesthetic psychology at work here is fairly plain. Astro looked like many of the members of his audience, but without physical blemish. However, he still represented the sense of alienation that young people often feel when entering the 'awkward years' of early puberty – he looked human, but he was 'different' – he was a robot.

Nonetheless, there were compensations for this alienation – he was extremely smart, had amazing powers, and always demonstrated a conscience superior to many of the adult humans around him. So he wasn't just different, but his difference marked him as superior. Fortunately for the world, he had no vanity, so never exhibited smug satisfaction with himself. On the contrary, he was always trying to find his way through the world, trying to be both robot and boy in a world where many could accept him as neither.

So there's the initial hook for his young audience, the process of identifying with a like, though superior (in some way) hero.

But that's not the case for adults, is it? well, certainly many of us still secretly long for our childhood after all.

But I think the appeal runs deeper. For one thing, there are those big innocent eyes of his, staring out in wonder at the brave new world of the future. He can express a number of emotions, even negative ones, but the two primary expressions we see in his face (certainly the most memorable) are a fierce determination when in action, and a winning, unambiguous smile – unambiguous because there is not the slightest hint of duplicity or of pretension in it. So Astro Boy is all of a piece – he never seems temperamental or given over to deep doubt, he never holds a grudge or engages in hidden agendas. He says what he means (and frequently takes what humans say all too literally). And of course he is always willing to help others, frequently at the risk of his own existence: he's a true hero. In many ways an ideal human being.

Except – he's a robot. And that makes all the difference.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Almost certainly a TV pilot, 29 May 2014
6/10

We think of television as beginning in the '50s, but that's simply not true.

This probably played in theaters as filler, but it is almost certainly a pilot for early television. There is no way else to explain the opening wherein the male lead introduces his supporting cast.

There are a number of pilots for unsold TV series still available, including a Sherlock Holmes pilot from the same era. There was even a brief series shot on film along similar lines (I think it was Boston Blackie). In any event, the interesting thing here is that some studios thought they could produce television shows the way they had produced theatrical B-movies. Of course, the broadcast network owners knew better (they knew that TV audiences had a lower "lowest common denominator" than film, and that less money could be spent accordingly).

AS a TV pilot, this is actually not so bad - cheap, quick with an interesting twist at the end. The actors are certainly trying their best, and - for television - it is more than competently made.

Godzilla (2014)
8 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Godzilla's story (now that's entertainment!), 16 May 2014
10/10

Going into this film, I only wanted an entertaining B movie that honored the Toho series I grew up with. And I am completely satisfied with what I got.

Because of the enormous amounts of money spent on genre films these days, many people are under the illusion that 'B movie' is a derogatory designation. That is nonsense. Some of my most beloved films are B movies - wonderful adventure thrillers, action fests, horror stories, westerns, mysteries. Sure there are B movies that excel and leap into 'A list' territory (e.g., "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly"). But there's nothing wrong in making a great B Movie - A lot of films by such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were put together with no greater desire than to entertain a ticket buying audience. That's all a B Movie has to do.

"Godzilla" does that grandly. It IS a B movie; so is Hawks' "El Dorado" or Hitchcock's "Psycho." So it is in good company. And (like all great B movies) it is very entertaining.

Edwards succeeds partly because he has designed the movie to look like a movie. This is not a visual roller-coaster ride. No shaky-cam or MTV editing here. The sometimes quick closure to action moments, like with Godzilla's first meeting with the MUTO, are clearly intended to bring the audience to the edge of their seats demanding more. This did not work for some critics, but it worked for me. I never felt like I was getting less than I wanted.

Also, the pacing was far stronger and more rapid than many reviews had led me to believe. The narrative drive, once one grasps the real narrative, is utterly relentless. And what I mean by that is, the real story here is not about any of the humans. This movie is called "Godzilla," not because he's on screen most of the time (he's not, although we see him far earlier than any of the critics have reported - like in the title sequence) or because he's the 'main' monster (he's not that either, although he plays a much more important role than the others do); but because it's HIS story - it's HIS conflict, and, being THE agent, HE has to resolve it. (The MUTOs are important because they are part of that story, and it is partly their story as well - and they are terrifying, BTW.) Edwards shoots this story slightly off-center, through the eyes of humans trying to cope, only because he has a human audience to play to. (If the audience were all just radioactive lizards, there wouldn't be a human on the screen. But it would still be the same story.)

BTW, all of the critics complaining about the somewhat undeveloped characters here have missed the big boat. Whether consciously or not, Gareth Edwards and his team have achieved a remarkable conceptual construction here, staggering in its simplicity and audacity. They have grafted a ('90s) "Heisei" era Godzilla story (see, e.g.,: "Godzilla and Mothra Battle for Earth") onto a 1950's era Hollywood science fiction film - think "Them!," Pal's "War of the Worlds," or the original "Thing from Another World." As I watched these characters struggle to come to grips with their monster problem and still get on getting a job done, I kept thinking of the scientists and soldiers facing similar problems in '50s American sci-fi movies, responding in similar ways with similarly compressed explanations and suppressed emotions. Edwards makes up for any lack of depth to these characters by keeping the perspective on the monster action as close to humans experiencing it as possible - much the way that the directors of the '50s did. The complaints against Aaron Taylor-Johnson, missing this point, miss the finesse of his performance - he is doing what Edwards wants him to do, standing in as 'Everyman' avatar for the audience (much like James Arness in "Them!"); any stronger performance would have been distracting.

But the main story is of course the monsters'; that also has been missed. The humans are witnessing the culmination of a conflict beginning millions of years ago. Consequently, they are merely annoyances for the monsters who are enacting their ancient struggle for natural resources. This drama is in fact a fluidly unfolding whole, which critics who try to impose a classic '3 act' structure on it fail to see. This film has a prologue, the narrative certainly has connecting episodes, but there are no 'acts' - once in the present day, it just goes.

Which is why the finale is actually quite satisfying. For the real protagonist of the film, with the big fight over, there's no need for a wrap-up - and surely no need for commentary from those pesky little hairless apes, who don't have the slightest clue as to what's really going on in the world they think they dominate.

What more need be said? Like the '50s sci-fi movies it so heartedly evokes, the dialog is sometimes silly and cliché. The photography and design are solid; the music is not at all dull, it is supportive of the visuals without drawing attention to itself (which is a classic '50s era soundtrack composition rule-of-thumb, BTW). The CGI is state of the art (I saw it in 2D and it looked great). And there are a lot of 'Holy Crap!' moments that are truly memorable.

And did it pay homage and honor to the source material, the original series produced by Toho, 28 films over 50 years? Absolutely. The story is very "Heisei" era, and as good a reboot as "Godzilla 2000." For a kaiju eiga junky, this film is seventh heaven. Highly recommended without reserve - and take the kids to see it, preferably at a drive in with lots of popcorn. (That's how I first saw Godzilla - memories are made of such as this.)

Ironclad (2011)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
The real stories are far more interesting (and Ridley Scott would do them better), 8 March 2014
1/10

Why does the terrible re-write of history - especially at the end - matter here? There are a number of wonderful stories surrounding the Siege of Rochester: the Magna Carta, the cruelty of King John (and his occasional brilliance as a general), the story of William Marshal(look him up!), the decade long running battle between John's supporters, the rebels, the French. And there is even a dramatic story involved in the Siege of Rochester.

Unfortunately that's not the story the makers of this film have decided to tell. The real story of Rochester is that those involved were doomed men in a losing cause. Anyone who has seen the Wild Bunch or the German film Stalingrad will know that such a story can make a great action film, or a powerfully dramatic (if depressing) meditation on the futility of collective violence. But the makers of this film don't care about any of that. Indeed, they relish violence - the whole point of this film seems to be to try to find new ways to depict dismemberment. The effort failed; the trouble is, there is no poetry to it, no grace, no art. It is just dismemberment, and we've seen it all before.

The occasional effort to express some comment on religion, or politics, or even just human relationships tends to fall flat. Just for instance, the historical period doesn't offer much - the 'freedom' sought by the rebellious barons meant entirely freedom for them, not 'the people.' That it eventually led to the establishment of the rule of law was virtually accidental.

Finally it has to be said that most of the characters are neither likable nor interesting - especially the defenders of the doomed castle (and that certainly shouldn't be the case!).

The filmmakers seem to be asking, 'can we make a Ridley Scott epic without Ridley Scott (or the resources he has available)?' Apparently not. Scott's best movies have strong stories to tell, strongly told. I lost real interest in this after the first half hour, zipped through to the end to see if they would tell the real story of the Siege. Also apparently not.

I bought this used, cheap, hoping for a decent action film to while away a Saturday afternoon. I had to fast-forward through an awful lot of meaningless posturing. Final judgment: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

9 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Highly polished, strong stories, 4 March 2014
9/10

Sherlock Holmes: There is no doubt the writers and director of this show are engaged in radically redefining the character of Conan Doyle's eccentric 'consulting detective.' But I have followed this series through 4 episodes so far, and I find the effort surprisingly effective. In the general sense, this revision of Holmes is successful because of it basic premise: Watson is an aspiring writer who is working his way to becoming the author of the stories published under the name Conan Doyle that we are all familiar with. Unfortunately, the real Sherlock Holmes that he becomes involved with is unappealingly nerdy and asocial. And the adventures the two share are difficult, violent, and engage the grime of London's underworld, and the corruption of England's most trusted institutions. We can see how Watson might want to simplify, clean up, and romanticize these adventures for marketable publication.

And they are real adventures, have no doubt. The storytelling in this series has been remarkably strong. It's difficult to pull away from any episode once it hooks you at the beginning, which it does very quickly (the series has a very lively pace). Despite the revisions, the series does honor to Doyle's originals.

The design, the direction, the camera work, the acting, are all highly impressive; this is a most polished series of historical genre films. (The one quibble I have is that Holmes makes too much about his glasses, he is too frequently busy with them. A trifle, but occasionally annoying.)

Over all, I find the series fascinating and look forward with great anticipation to the next episode.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.

"Sherlock" (2010)
13 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Doyle's detective or Moffat's super hero?, 4 March 2014
6/10

Sherlock This series is difficult to write about, because it flew so high at the beginning, re imagining Holmes as a troubled but brilliant modern detective and Watson as a haunted but loyal man of action, in episodes promising to be re-interpretations of classic stories in an era of high technology. But it has fallen so low, riddled with the writers' own personal manias, and Steven Moffat's decision to twist his narratives (no longer 'stories' in the conventional sense), to redesign Holmes as a troubled and alienated super-hero wandering aimlessly through visual gimmickry and spectacular effects. The third episode of Season 3 is especially appalling. The moment towards the end when Sherlock shouts "I am not a hero, I am a functioning sociopath!" was so painful, I still can't get it out of my head. That moment surely has nothing to do with the character of Sherlock Holmes, the all-too-human hero (which he most certainly was) created by Conan Doyle, but it defines how Moffat and his team understand *their* character, 'Sherlock,' and perhaps how they understand their audience as well. Given the popularity of this show, apparently many young people do not want exceptional humans capable of resolving difficult problems, they want sick people with friends in high places who can thrash the arrogant and get away with it.

There will certainly be a Season 4, and we can easily predict that it will be on a grand scale visually, and utterly impoverished of any good ideas or decent story telling. Moffat is no longer interested in storytelling, he wants to build a post-modern mythology much we are seeing in the Marvel Comics films.

But Conan Doyle didn't write for comic books (or myth), he assumed an audience of literate, reasoning adults; and the best of the films based on his stories have always assumed the same audience, and delivered proper variants of some of the best stories written in the English language. It's too bad Moffat has chosen a different course.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.

5 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Typical Hollywood TV cop opera, 4 March 2014
4/10

Elementary: The three episodes of this I've managed to catch have been largely unsatisfying and forgettable. The premise of the series could have worked, IF the focus had remained on Holmes, and his personality made more archetypal, an Ubermensch for the new millennium. But the stories are pretty much standard American TV cop fare, interlaced with soap-opera elements involving Holmes' socially retarded interactions with others. I like Lucy Liu, but the Holmes here is just not convincing AS "sherlock Holmes;" he's really some weird variant of Joe Friday with a British accent and a history of drug abuse. A passable time-waster, as most US TV cop shows are, but that also means it is easy to pass up.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot (or believe they cannot) give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Defines bad movie in the post-modern era, 4 March 2014
1/10

A Game of Shadows: In an era when our most popular films are really little more than roller-coaster rides through comic book worlds, can anyone actually make a bad film, with standards so low. Well - you can make this film, I guess. "A Game of Shadows" is truly awful. I admit I even watched it twice, because the first time through I couldn't get any sense of what the story was all about. The second time around, a number of narrative threads did seems to run through the film, eventually tied together (rather arbitrarily) at the end. But I realized that the story (or stories) here merely form a kind of scarecrow on which director Ritchie could hang set-piece action sequences, camera tricks and CGI wizardry, while the actors mugged like children in a bad school play about someone or other they called "Sherlock Holmes," for no other reason than they had heard the name while running around a TV set with an old movie playing on it.

Childishly campy, visually ugly (that mind-numbing slo-mo - stop it!), badly written, and horribly over-acted; of course it made millions. That doesn't stop it from being a bad film.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Bottom of Wilder's Barrell, 30 October 2013
2/10

I am an admirer of many of Billy Wilder's movies - Stalag 17, Days of Wine and Roses, Some Like it Hot - and other wonderful, trend-setting, sophisticated, stylish films. But this film just SUCKS!

It opens well; the title sequence is basically a snapshot of Dean Martin's Las Vegas act of the time, and his twisted turn playing someone who might be himself has an undeniable fascination.

Unfortunately, he is not the male lead of this film - RAY WALSTON is! Walston?! Really?! An able but second string character actor? The supporting player is the leading man? That could be interesting if Walston had been directed against type - but he isn't - he is directed to be a character actor - in a leading role? Really?!

Once Walston appears on screen, the film goes straight to hell. In fact it is hell, a weird kind of wigged-out Nevada version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry - why? To provide a small enough stage to make small characters look large, I guess; doesn't work. These characters are all profoundly unpleasant and two-dimensional; except for Martin, who's rarely on screen.

The film is apparently a remake of an Italian sex-farce, Wife for a Night; that in itself tells me that the whole project started off badly. (And continued - the Walston part was intended for Peter Sellers, who Wilder couldn't deal with, and Wilder himself suffered heart problems.) But the main problem is that Italian comedy is coming from a very different tradition than Wilder's (so clearly related to Lubitsch), so it's really impossible to guess why he tried what he was clearly unsuited for.

Not much to add except the cinematography is good, and the music sucks. (Apparently based on material the Gershwin brothers decided needed reworking... maybe they were right?).

Caused a minor scandal in its day - but it was easy to cause scandals back then. That alone is simply not enough to recommend it.


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