2012 St Louis International Film Festival

The 21st annual SLIFF has come to an end. There’s a lot of stuff that I would’ve seen if it hadn’t been for conflicts, such as Canadian horror flick The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh, the Danish comedy Klown, Singaporean anime Tatsumi (based on the memoir A Drifting Life), French animations like Zarafa, Le Tableau, and Tales Of The Night, the Thai thriller Headshot, Russian social-commentary Generation P, Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (clocking in at a brisk 270 minutes!), and Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day. Alas, of the 420 films, I attended a mere handful (spanning just two out of 50 countries; I’m cultured!), but I figured I might as well talk about a few of the highlights of what I did get to see.

The Hole 3D
Post-converting non-3D movies into 3D is the worst thing Hollywood is currently doing. Not just because it costs extra money to see the movies, not just because a movie like Jurassic Park will look terrible and make people sick in fake 3D, there’s a more important reason: they take the projectors away from real 3D movies. Joe Dante is one of the greatest movie directors of all time, and the fact that he was unable to find distribution for his new 3D picture, for years, just because it had relatively unknown actors in it, is a travesty. He eventually gave up, releasing it on 2D VOD here (and 3D blu ray in Europe, where I guess more people have 3D TVs, and good taste in movies), but film festivals remain the only legit way to see the movie as intended stateside.

The film is exactly what makes Dante great, a horror movie for kids that doesn’t candy-coat things for the preverbal set. The plot is about a group of kids finding a portal to Hell in their basement, and it doesn’t shy away from mentioning that word, or showing that the kids are in mortal danger, or using really creepy clown puppets. This all would have been fine in the 1980’s, but apparently they really had to fight the censors on this one just to avert an R-rating! Joe Dante was in attendance at SLIFF, so seeing Tim Lucas interview him for an hour after the screening was the highlight of this SLIFF (and probably all of them) for me.
Voted: 5/5

Stand Up Guys
I think that this movie is supposed to be set in St Louis, but was shot in LA; details are a little short at the moment since it’s not getting released until next year. The story follows a pair of ex-mobsters, Val (Al Pacino) and Doc (Christopher Walken). Val has just gotten out of prison after 28 years, and wants to spend the night partying, and Doc plays along… partially because Doc has orders to whack his old friend by morning. An evening of mayhem ensues, during which they spring their old cohort (Alan Arkin) from his retirement home, battle a rape gang, knock over a pharmacy, visit the same prostitute thrice, and more. It was pretty good, though I’m not really into crime capers, though I’m interested to read that the two main actors were originally assigned to each other’s roles. Much like the case with the original Godzilla, it’s odd to imagine what the film would’ve been like if the characters’ parts were flipped, since Pacino as id and Walken as superego works pretty well here.
Voted: 4/5

Fatal Call
Fatal Call is a decent little thriller/mystery shot in the St Louis area. I went to see it (a) to support local arts, and (b) to see Kevin Sorbo shoot people. I was not disappointed on either front. While I wouldn’t recommend actively tracking the picture down, it’s absolutely worth a watch if it happens to scroll by on your television feed. Surprisingly, this was the most packed show I went to (I know the director and cinematographer were present, I imagine that a lot of the rest of the crew and friends were as well), which can lead to a problem for locally-made movies, especially if the audience gasps every time they recognize a location or applauds when their pal is a random extra.
Voted: 3/5

Berserk Golden Age Arc I: Egg of the Supreme Ruler

This new trilogy of Berserk anime movies is incredibly frustrating for me. On one hand, they’re handled well from a storytelling perspective, are occasionally gorgeous to look at, and will potentially bring the franchise to new audiences. On the other hand (deep breath)…. the trilogy is redoing the same storyline as the TV series, which is only the background of the main characters; this should be an aside, a flashback, but not the only focus of the franchise. Characters from the not-backstory (i.e. actual plot) part of the manga are shown as stills during the opening credits, but from everything we’ve heard they don’t show up in the trilogy itself, which is a giant tease. Telling the story this way once is bad enough, but redundantly redoing it really aggravates. If the movies are allowed to progress into further arcs, however, streamlining 26 episodes into 3 well-paced films is a reasonable change. Movies can also afford certain liberties that TV can’t take (they actually animated pubic hair!), and the fact that the third part of the trilogy has been given an 18+ certificate gives me hope that it’ll be completely unrestrained.

The other factor worth mentioning is the frequent, atrocious use of CGI for the renderings of the characters. This is not just when traditional animation would be prohibitively expensive or complicated; it’s almost arbitrary but jarring every time. I was reminded of how when Gundress first played in theaters it wasn’t finished, so animatics filled in certain scenes to be fixed later, but this Berserk picture plays the inexpressive, Dreamcast-looking polygons interchangeably with the rest of the picture straight-faced. I’m only hard on it because it does have so much potential to truly be great, and these bits make me lament as though animation as an art form is dying.

It’s worth noting that this film festival served as the premiere of Viz’s English language dub of the movie. The festival director didn’t realize this in advance (I asked), but fortunately it was a very competent dub job, even if it was unexpected at a show that usually presents stuff in its native language.
Voted: 4/5

Alter Egos
A smaller-budget spoof of the full-blown comic superhero genre (a spiritual sibling to Doctor Horrible, Mystery Men, or The Specials), Alter Egos takes place at a remote motel in the northeast, where costumed heroes Fridge and C-Thru are transporting a supervillain. Things go awry: Fridge has a breakdown because he thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him with his secret identity, an unstable local cop decides to one-up the heroes that give him an inferiority complex, all while C-Thru gets secret orders from high command, a dangerous combination when a powerful telepath is locked in your bedroom. The movie makes an earnest attempt, though on a smaller scale, to present a world in which superpowers and spandex costumes are commonplace, and on that level I appreciate it a lot more than some of the blockbusters that attempt to camouflage their campy roots in the name of realism. If I had to voice a complaint, it would only be that I want to see more!
Voted: 4/5

Based on a (banned) manga from the 70’s, Asura (it should be romanized as Ashura, but I guess to avoid confusion with another film with the same name they changed it?) is great. It’s a nasty, violent movie about famine and cannibalism during medieval Japan, that publicity material refers to as an “anti-Miyazaki” picture. While unrelenting in its cruelty, it still captures a good deal of pathos, and it actually does have some cute-ish moments that enhance the inevitable tragedy. It’s CGI anime, but that fact doesn’t bother me this time because the movie’s internally consistent and looks good, successfully capturing a watercolor aesthetic. Also, while I rarely discuss the cast in anime movies, this is an exception: Masako Nozawa plays the lead, giving her lungs a workout the likes of which we haven’t seen since Dragonball (dang, can that woman scream!), and legendary VAs Megumi Hayashibara and Kappei Yamaguchi round out the cast.
Voted: 5/5

Comic-con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
Morgan Spurlock’s documentary on San Diego Comic-Con nearly moved me to tears. It’s an excellent portrait of the passion that fans can have for the media that they love, following five groups of attendees (two artists, a cosplay troupe, a toy collector, the Mile High Comics vendors, and a film-fanatic couple) on their journey through the weekend, to see whose dreams will come true. Spurlock narrates this with the most amazing assortment of talking head that’s ever been assembled for fandom: writers, directors, actors, and artists ranging from A-grade to god-tier (I get the feeling that Kevin Smith in particular must have been talking at the camera for at least an hour).

The film has been out for a while now (I almost bought a copy at Toys R Us because it came with a Joss Whedon action figure), but an incentive to see it at this festival was that subject Skip Harvey was there to talk about the production. Apparently, and much to my approval, Spurlock is a true documentarian, and just sat back watching the drama unfold rather than attempting to guide it in a specific direction (as I’ve heard about countless “reality” projects), and the reason why the movie holds interest is that we’re only seeing a few of many subjects that were shadowed before editing. This makes me feel even better about a picture I already greatly respected, so I’d recommend it to anyone, either fans or casuals trying to understand what makes fandom tick.
Voted: 5/5

Fat Kid Rules the World
It’s a funny sort of logic: Matthew Lillard is an actor that tends to appear in good projects, therefore there’s a chance he has good creative taste and I should see a movie he directed. Turns out, this was a valid assumption, as Lillard’s directorial debut is astonishing: it’s funny and touching, well-written and expertly performed. The story of a homeless junkie saving an overweight teen from suicide, then blackmailing him about it into joining his punk rock band, operates on a cartoonish level of absurdity, but the film sells it effectively, and the perfectly timed comedic bits, especially the protagonist’s awkward adolescent fantasies, had me laughing throughout, and the script is really smart in never letting any characters get one-dimensional, even if they do behave in over-the-top manners. I’m really looking forward to what Lillard, and the young actors who knocked this movie out of the park, can produce in the future.
Voted: 4/5, though I could have gone to 5.

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Quick Update #2

As with last time, here’re some quick thoughts on stuff that’s out in theaters right now.

Seven Psychopaths
Marty (Colin Farrell, no doubt named for writer/director Martin McDonagh) is struggling against writer’s block to finish a script for a film called Seven Psychopaths. His self-control-challenged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who’s a professional dog kidnapper, and Billy’s partner Hans (Christopher Walken, playing a role other than “Christopher Walken parody”) get Marty into a world of trouble when they inadvertently snatch a pooch from a murderous gangster (Woody Harrelson). This sounds straightforward, however Seven Psychopaths is anything but.

Throughout the movie, there a numerous scenes that could be a part of the narrative of the feature, or could be a part of Marty’s script, and we don’t find out which are which until they’re over. This metatextuality, constantly using the characters within the film to comment on the film itself, is bound to alienate a few, but I loved it, and I’d but this right up there with McDonagh and Farrell’s previous collaboration, In Bruges. It’s relentlessly unpredictable, and all of the plot twists, inserts, and snappy dialogue make it one of the top movies I’ve seen this year.

Wreck-It Ralph
From the trailers, I was expecting a cavalcade of cameos within Wreck-It Ralph, making it a veritable video game equivalent of what Who Framed Roger Rabbit was for cartoons, and that would have been fanservice enough to captivate my interest (heck, I’m watching Aoi Sekai No Chuushin De right now for just that reason, and that show is garbage!). What I didn’t expect was well-developed world design for three wildly different game scenarios, and emotional resonance that’s downright poignant.

The idea of the movie is that Ralph (John C Reilly) is a game villain for a Donkey Kong-ish 30 year-old arcade machine. Much like in Toy Story, these characters come to life when the arcade is closed, and characters from any game can wander through a central hub (a train station) to any of the other games in the arcade. Unsatisfied with his outcast lot in life, Ralph jumps to a first person shooter in an attempt to gain a modicum of personal glory, but in doing so inadvertently winds up entrapped in an über-cute Japanese racing game (they even got AKB48 to do the music). He reluctantly teams up with a glitchy scamp of an NPC (Sarah Silverman), against the wishes of the game’s king (Alan Tudyk), so that she can get player selection screen status and he can get a metal. The uneasy alliance develops into a friendship, but unbeknownst to Ralph, one of the ferocious creatures from the shooting game hitched a ride, and it’s multiplying beneath the candy-coated surface of the racing game.

While there’s definitely an existential and interpersonal narrative going on, the gaming-savvy need not worry about not being provided with enough in-jokes. Easter Eggs abound, from the background graffiti (“Aerith Lives” had me chuckling) to the items characters use (having to declare fruit from Pac-Man in customs), to the copious filler characters passing by in crowd scenes (Hey, look, it’s Sonic! And Frogger! And Cado! And Yuna from DDR! *sensory overload*). I constantly had the urge to freeze-frame and rewind, which is little shock considering that the film’s director mostly worked on Futurama.

Walking into the theater, I was surprised by all of the little kids in the audience; do they even understand the concept of the video game arcade nowadays? The movie would have made a lot more sense when development began (over 15 years ago), but parlors of coin-operated gaming machines are a bit of an anachronism in modern times. Then again, I understood Dial M For Murder when I was six, and I’ve never held a rotary phone in my life.

Also worth noting that there was an excellent little silent animated short before the movie, as well.

The Man with the Iron Fists
Blaxploitation and martial arts are surely the Reese’s cup of cult cinema, so every once in a while a movie such as this one still comes about. Set in amalgamated ancient China, this is the tale of the Blacksmith (RZA, who is a better director than a composer, and a better composer than an actor), running afoul a crime syndicate, getting his arms lopped off, and replacing them with magic metal ones. Well, that’s the title storyline, but in the grand scheme of the film, it could actually be easily removed without losing anything. The core of the story is really about Silver Lion (a show-stealing Byron Mann) usurping the Lion clan and Zen Yi (Rick Yune), the rightful heir, trying to get it back. The big battle goes down at a brothel (where nobody ever removes their clothes, even mid-coitus. Were they hoping for a PG13?) owned by Lucy Liu’s character. Also, Russell Crowe is there, being totally awesome as a drunken, whoring British mercenary, making the best scenes in the flick.

There are a lot of sequences here that have good ideas behind them, but frankly, the martial arts skills of everyone involved simply weren’t up to the standards that they needed to be to make a suitable throwback to Shaw Brothers-style kung fu. The Blacksmith’s scenes made it clear that he’s supposed to be the main character, but he’s simply unimportant to the greater narrative, so having the final battle be him versus a henchman, after the evil commanders have been dispatched, is a letdown, even if he is getting revenge for the henchman (David Bautista plus some CGI metal effects) killing his girlfriend. It’s a fun enough romp, like many Tarantino-produced projects, but not necessarily one to go out of your way for.

Cloud Atlas
With the exception of children’s films, postwar German cinema is plagued with movies about Germany: Das Boot, The Lives Of Others, Downfall, Good Bye Lenin. When I ask Germans for an example of a good recent, non-nationally historic movie, they invariably respond with “Lola Rennt”. And 1998’s Run Lola Run is a great film, but unfortunately Tom Tykwer was never able to rebottle that lightning and instead made movies mediocre (The International) to dreadful (Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer) ever after… until now. Tykwer has teamed up with the Wachowski brothers (who likewise have only one redeemable directorial effort, Speed Racer) to co-direct an adaptation of one of the great unfilmable novels, which they did masterfully.

Cloud Atlas succeeds in that it doesn’t mess around with the brilliant ideas of David Mitchell’s book: it’s still an anthology of six stories set in different time periods. The main character of each timeline leaves behind an art form (a journal, a piece of music, a film, a religion) to inspire the main character in the next era. The stories themselves are intact, but what the movie does differently, perhaps in a way superior to the novel, is that the tales are not all in chronological (and after the halfway point, reverse chronological) order, but instead it cuts from story to story freely, weaving scenes from different time periods together in the ways that are most thematically resonant. Since a lot of the images are repeated from segment to segment (people being deprived of their freedom, people falling from great heights, looking at birthmarks, etc), cutting between creates good juxtaposition and reinforces the rhythmic harmony holding the pieces together.

The other interesting choice that the movie does that the book couldn’t is in the casting: the same actors (in varying levels of prosthetic), make up the cast of each time period, so you have Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, et al. in six or so different roles (even more for Doona Bae, who’s playing clones of herself in one of the stories set in the future). This reinforces the notion that characters from a given time are reincarnating into another, or have precognition of what’s to come. The closest thing I can imagine to it is the way that Tezuka reused character designs in the Phoenix saga; I can only pray that that work is someday adapted with the same tact that was implemented here.

I’ve heard complaints, about it, too. People say it’s too long. People say it’s too confusing. People say they can’t understand dialogue from characters with accents. People say that actors playing characters outside of their own race is offensive. Fear not, though – these complaints come from idiots; the movie is great.

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*Horror Month* Day 31: Bait 3D (2012)

You might recall, back when I was talking about The Mist, that I mentioned that every animal in Australia is deadly. Much like that film, Bait is a movie about a group of people trapped in a grocery store, but in this case menaced by a real animal from that southern continent: great white sharks. You’d think that great white sharks would be one of the predators unlikely to terrorize a supermarket, but that’s just what the sharks want you to think.

The movie begins with a lifeguard losing his friend (that might be pushing it… his fiancé’s brother) to a hilarious cartoon shark attack (cgi is not the movie’s strong suit), and he blames himself, since he was supposed to be the one on duty. A year later, still rapt with guilt, he’s moved on to a life stocking shelves in an apparently subterranean grocery store, and his ex has moved on to some Singaporean dude (entitling the movie to Singapore’s financing, I guess, since it’s listed as a co-production). Destiny will have no part in our protagonist not getting attacked by sharks, so, ala Final Destination, sharks find a way to come to him, even so far offshore, by way of a tsunami. The wave crashes through the store, interrupting a robbery (it’s not even a big grocery store, so I don’t see why the robbers thought it would be an ideal place to hit), blocking one exit with a car and flooding the other. The wave is one of the movie’s best set pieces, actually, and doesn’t hold back on portrayal of carnage that such a tsunami would wreak. Also, I can pretend that this is a sequel to the 1977 Aussie pic The Last Wave.

When the characters come to, they climb up onto the suspiciously wide and sturdy market shelves, only to notice a white shark circling them. From that point forward, it’s a series of escape attempts, each ending disastrously: the Singaporean guy builds a shark suit out of carts and baskets in an (extremely misguided) effort to shut off the store’s power, the manager tries climbing through a ventilation shaft full of crabs (which had me squirming more than any other moment), the robber decides to take a girl hostage to bait the shark with (instead of using the gun to, say, shoot the animal). The plans are foolish and doomed to failure, but I can’t say that they’re any worse than I’d expect real people to come up with under such ludicrous circumstances. The movie’s B plot, meanwhile, involves a smaller group trapped in the parking garage a level down (garages have watertight doors, who knew?), with another shark; it’s there largely so the protagonist can slay two sharks before the credits roll, the latter of which involves firing a taser while swinging upside down from a falling rafter (what sort of training do they give to lifeguards in Australia?).

As expected from a script written by Russell Mulcahy, the movie is a lot of campy fun. Much like in his movie Razorback (about the killer boar), realism of animal behavior is thrown out the window and replaced by malice on the creature’s part, and action sequences are exaggerated to the point of goofy spectacle. The effects range from pretty decent to occasionally Syfy-movie-ish, but I’m sure the 3D aspect is to blame there (I watched in 2D, but it’s easy to recognize when stuff’s being thrown at the camera). Overall, it was a good time (Sharks in a Supermarket could be the new Snakes on a Plane), and I’m quite pleased to conclude horror month with this entry.

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*Horror Month* Day 30: The Burning (1981)

In a Slider-ish parallel dimension, The Burning is considered one of the essential iconic horror movies of the 1980’s, has a dozen sequels, and its villain Cropsy appears on everything from t-shirts to plush dolls. Unfortunately for it, a very similar movie called Friday The 13th Part 2 debuted in theaters the week before, introducing a slasher named Jason Vorhees. Poor Cropsy came close, but was just a few days too late to capture the public’s attention.

It would be easy to dismiss The Burning as cut from the same cloth as Friday The 13th, as both are set around a lakeside summer camp, where a killer stalks counselors or campers that look like they’re 20. But then, you’d have to equally dismiss the Jason franchise as being derivative of Halloween, which retread similar ground as Black Christmas, and then Psycho, so on and so forth. I think the movies are different enough to stand on their own, and, while I haven’t decided myself, I wouldn’t be able to argue with anyone claiming that The Burning is the superior of the two. The Burning spends more time setting up the cast of characters, many of the actors who would go on to great things: Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, and the utterly charismatic Jason Alexander. The result: in Friday The 13th, you’re just waiting for the characters to die, while in The Burning, you’re frequently hoping they don’t. Cropsy’s kills can come at moments just as unexpected, but are also aren’t limited to standard one-by-one stalking sequences: don’t assume the characters are safe just because they’re in a big group!

The effects, from makeup genius Tom Savini (who turned down Friday The 13th Pt 2 in order to work on the movie), are excellent, inventive and gory. It actually wound up illegal in the UK for a while, as part of the Video Nasties list, and was trimmed in the US for a while (as were the Jason movies), but modern home video versions have restored the carnage. The Weinsteins have expressed some interest in remaking it, but this may be one of the few cases where that’s not so bad; the original, after all, was the movie that launched their careers.

Okay, I’m going to go before the fact that Cropsy is a burn victim seeking revenge against children draws out an undue Nightmare On Elm Street comparison.

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*Horror Month* Day 29: Splice (2009)

What is the mark of a great, iconic horror movie? Characters worth caring about is certainly a factor, a reasonable script, invested actors, and competent editing certainly help, but for me, I think the single most critical element is the monster. In a time where invisible ghosts, sadistic hillbillies, and generic zombies dominate the roster of horror movie villains, nothing’s more refreshing than to get a villain wildly different from what’s come before (something that you want to get in action figure form!), and even if no other case could be made, Splice certainly has that much going for it, and that alone would land it a place in any well-rounded horror collection.
(Sometimes I also wonder if a long shelf life is a sign of a great horror movie; Vincenzo Natali first wanted to get this made immediately after Cube back in 1997, and even after it was finished it sat for nearly a year between the premiere and its theatrical release. Honestly, I would have thought Guillermo del Toro’s name, even as a producer, would have more clout!)

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play a couple of mad scientists named Clive and Elsa (get it? I’m a little surprised there wasn’t also a Boris), who apparently get funding for haphazardly combining animal DNA in hopes that one of the abominations that it yields will generate special medicines. The justification for their profession is the movie’s biggest realism hurdle, so once you can accept the ludicrous ineptitude of the geneticists in question, the rest goes down pretty smooth. Anyway, they want to do experiments using DNA from more complicated life forms (i.e. humans, because humans are sooooo much more genetically complex than say, kangaroos… okay, I’ll stop), but the big bad corporate sponsor wants to turn a profit on the creatures that the pair has already created (and evidently gotten bored with). They go ahead anyway, doing the experiment in secret (sparing us awkward scenes of protestors picketing their lab), and soon a beautiful baby fish/chicken/scorpion/girl (an enhanced Delphine Chaneac) comes along. The creature, eventually named Dren (nerds!!! No, it’s not a Farscape callout), matures at a fast pace, learning to spell, draw, wear clothes, fly, the usual toddler stuff. The awkward adolescence gets pretty bad, however, since her rebellious phase involves superhuman strength, and her awakening libido…. let’s just say, yeah, the movie goes there.

There are definitely ethical questions raised (if never fully answered) by the movie, which is why Clive and Elsa, in their repeated crises of conscience, make great tormented mads of the classic variety. I also like that the film at least covers that their boss (David Hewlett, of all of Natali’s movies) chews out his rockstar geneticists for never coming to work. The unabashedness with which the movie approaches uncomfortable subjects (it’s downright Oedipal by the end, and abortion allegory much?), again, is brave, and I applaud it for not holding back (despite what’s been rumored, the alternative international cut of the movie really isn’t that different). Mostly, though, I just really love Dren’s sweet character design.

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*Horror Month* Day 28: King of Thorn (2010)

In recent years, anime features have become increasingly rare, especially those of the horrific, high-concept sci-fi variety that were so bountiful in my youth. King Of Thorn is a throwback to the days of movies like Akira, both in the emphasis on graphic animated violence and in having a labyrinth of a plot that crams six books’ worth of heady material into a mere two hours. This is what a lot of the reviews of the film complain about: too many ideas make it confusing. I find it sort of refreshing, though, that I’ve watched the movie three times and each time brings a deeper understanding of just what the heck’s going on (unlike, say, Donnie Darko, where I knew what the director was trying to do from the first viewing, but just thought he went about it incoherently. I’d say this has genuine depth).

In the future, the Medusa virus (named because the desiccating effect leaves the victims looking like statues) decimates the population of Earth. A small group of the infected are selected for cryogenic preservation, to be woken up when there’s a cure, and tucked away in a remote Scottish castle under the guard of a computer system named ALICE (not Red Queen?) and a religious cult with bio-tech ties; what could go wrong? When the survivors awaken, the world appears to have gone tits-up: their stasis pods are overgrown with thorny vines, and bizarre, monstrous saurians roam the hallways. Saying more would constitute spoilers, but – spoilers- there’s much more to the story than just that. It goes into the origin of the Medusa, which might not be the disease everyone thinks, the creatures, the institution, and the people chosen as suspended animation subjects, with a barrage of twists and turns that might give you whiplash on the first session. Any movie, where on the third time through, I start to question whether a certain incidental character is supposed to even be real, gets marked under “interesting” in my book if nothing else. A lot is foreshadowed, subtly, that also holds up to multiple viewings.

The movie does deviate significantly from the source material, a cause for justifiable confusion and distain from several fans, but alas I’ve yet to actually hunt down copies of the original. Instead, the only complaint that I choose to levy is an aesthetic one, in that the use of CGI models amidst the traditional animation can get quite distracting, and I think it cheapens the entire production whenever a monster, bus, helicopter, or even character appears as a rendering against a hand-drawn universe. The English dub can also be jarring at times, since the international collage of characters demands the actors to use accents that they might not be convincing with. But those are minor quibbles, it’s still well worth a viewing or three.

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*Horror Month* Day 27: Mockingbird Lane (2012)

Feel free to call shenanigans on my considering this a movie; NBC is calling it an “event” while other sources are calling it a TV pilot for a show that currently has no plans of actually getting a series. I just wanted to talk about it, since it’s one of the more exciting things I’ve seen for a while.

Normally, I think the sitcom format suffers whenever a hook is added; the best sitcoms are about ordinary people in a variety of circumstances, and throwing in a twist (e.g. the characters are also aliens/talking babies/cavemen) limits the format more than it helps (there’s a reason why Thanks, a puritanical sitcom set in the 17th century, only went 6 episodes). When riffing on a theme, there’s only a set number of jokes to tell before things get repetitive, which is one of the main reasons I’m surprised by news of Seth MacFarlane reviving the Flintstones (after Flintstones: On The Rocks, where else is there to go?). One of the most famous one-note sitcoms, in my opinion, is The Munsters. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to like about the original series for its time and place in television history (I love the theme song, the set design, the wardrobes, and Grandpa Munster’s spin-off career as a horror host), arguably more so than the concurrent Addams Family sitcom, but it’s still pretty hard to watch a bunch of episodes in a row. The revival in the 80’s however, is just godawful.

Naturally, then, when another Munsters resuscitation was announced, I felt apprehensive. But one name perked up my ears: showrunner Brian Fuller. Fuller is an unrepentantly quirky artisan, and a commercially lukewarm career (Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me were both cancelled ahead of their time; The Amazing Screw-On Head never even got picked up for a series) hasn’t dissuaded his steadfast dedication to funny, morbid material. With Fuller in charge, the odds of this being a cynical cash-grab to play on nostalgia were significantly diminished, and it turns out, based on what NBC aired last night, this could actually have been a pretty entertaining series. (Unlike the other Munsters properties, this does appear to be more of an hour-long single camera drama than a traditional sitcom, so that’s already a plus.)

Jerry O’Connell steps into the role of Herman Munster, in makeup less resembling the Karloff Frankenstein monster than the De Niro one. Actually, all of the designs get an update to more modern standards (appropriate, since the original show was only parodying movies around 20 years old at the time); Grandpa (Eddie Izzard) looks more like Gary Oldman than Bela Lugosi and Eddie (Mason Cook, a quite impressive child actor) no longer resembles the Werewolf Of London, but the werewolf of The Howling. The episode (?) is about Herman and Grandpa clashing about how to deal with Eddie’s emerging monstrosity, the elderly vampire being gleefully eager to introduce the boy to bloodshed while Herman wants to shield him from it. At core, there’s a drama exceeding anything the previous iterations of the franchise ever accomplished, and the characters are more intelligent, more conniving, and in a weird way, more human.

I also appreciate the little details. Lily (Portia de Rossi) lights a candle by blowing on it. Grandpa first appears as a swarm of rats. Herman and Lily (famous for sleeping in the same bed back in 1966) rest separately… him on the bed and her on the ceiling. These touches make for a show that’s fantastically entertaining, and unfortunately, probably too good to live.

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