Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cats & Dogs

Year 4, Day 7 - 1/7/12 - Movie #1,007

BEFORE: Still working my way through the talking-pet genre. This wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to watch a lot of commercials during the day that also featured talking animals in them. I suppose it's only natural to want to humanize animals, to think that they can think like us, but it's a seductive and incorrect line of reasoning. I've spent enough time with cats to know that most of the time there's not a lot going on upstairs - we've got a cat who's fascinated with running water lately.

THE PLOT: A look at the top-secret, high-tech espionage war going on between cats and dogs, which their human owners are blissfully unaware of.

AFTER: This is a high-concept piece, and the buy-in is pretty high. I'll agree that the relationship between man and dogs has been around for thousands of years, but this movie also states that cats once enslaved humans, and made them build the Pyramids. Right...

Plus, cats and dogs can talk, and humans can hear and understand them, only they're careful not to talk when humans can see them. Right... And I suppose the toys get up and move around when the kids aren't in the room.

On top of all that, the dogs have a spy-like headquarters, where they train field agents to fight the cats, and vice versa. I suppose the cats are more like the villains in this scenario - imagine that white cat that Blofeld's always petting in the James Bond films, only the CAT is the mastermind, with unlimited resources and an evil plan.

It seems that a scientist is close to a cure for pet allergies, and the dogs want to make sure he succeeds. The cats, however, want to reverse the cure, and make all humans allergic to dogs, so they can take over. Or something like that, the details are fuzzier than the cats themselves.

My basement cat, who sometimes watches films with me, gave this one high marks. He seemed very interested in the lifelike cats, and the barking of the dogs. But I don't think he was really judging the film on the merits of the plot.

As usual, too much slapstick for my taste, but this did come off more like a legitimate action film than a high-concept comedy.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "The Fly"), Elizabeth Perkins (last seen in "Miracle on 34th St."), and the voices of Tobey Maguire (last seen in "The Cider House Rules"), Alec Baldwin (last seen in "It's Complicated"), Joe Pantoliano (last seen in "Bad Boys"), Michael Clarke Duncan (last seen in "The Slammin' Salmon"), Sean Hayes (last seen in "Soul Men"), Jon Lovitz (last seen in "My Stepmother Is an Alien"), and Charlton Heston (last seen in "Soylent Green").

RATING: 4 out of 10 ninjas

Friday, January 6, 2012

Tom and Jerry in Shiver Me Whiskers

Year 4, Day 6 - 1/6/12 - Movie #1,006

BEFORE: It's worth getting in a plug for Turner Classic Movies here, since I just saw their schedule for this year's "31 Days of Oscar" programming, beginning on Feb. 1. Last year's programming was simple genius, with each film linked by a common actor to the film before it AND the film after it. (And to show they were in on the joke, the chain began AND ended with a Kevin Bacon film.) They're still finding new ways to organize the same old films, so I have to give it up to them - this year the 300 Oscar-worthy films are organized by LOCATION - films set in New York, say, will screen on Feb. 11 + 12, and some of the other 46 locations include Greece, the U.K., Austria, Mexico, India, Italy, the Caribbean - and the program wraps up on Feb. 2 with a screening of "Around the World in 80 Days", followed by films set in heaven and outer space.

I'm all set to record a solid 25 films, 18 of which will probably make it to the list, assuming I can get the cable box fixed this weekend so TCM comes in again. I mention this in connection with tonight's pirate-based film since I'm planning to pick up the Errol Flynn films "The Sea Hawk" and "Captain Blood", along with 2 versions of "Mutiny on the Bounty". You can probably find a few dozen films on the list that are must-sees - for me that will likely include "Gandhi", "A Passage to India", "A Room With a View", "All the King's Men", "In the Heat of the Night", "Gone With the Wind", "Kiss of the Spider Woman", "East of Eden", "The Grapes of Wrath", "Inside Daisy Clover", and "A Star Is Born" (1954).

It's encouraging that I've now seen over 50 of the 300 films on their slate, but it also highlights how much further I've got to go.

THE PLOT: (there's a plot?) Oh, yeah, Tom and Jerry find a treasure map.

AFTER: The release date, 2006, tells the tale. Factor in the time needed to develop and animate an hour-long film, and it's clear this was made to cash in on the success of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

But it's essentially nonsense. Yes, even in the cartoon universe there are rules, mostly about when and how often a character can fall down or get blown up, but they're good rules. There's so much stuff here about which pirates only say "Yar!" and which ones have their parrots translate for them, this guy wears a red suit and this guy wears a blue suit (but they're identical cousins, or something) and it's all just so meaningless. It's like blank verse or poetry that doesn't quite rhyme. Or imagine a pirate film whose only frame of reference is other pirate films, just borrowing the trappings and artifices of those stories, while forgetting to tell its OWN story. It would be like a murder mystery that forgets to tell you who did it...

It's a 74-minute film, and I couldn't manage to stay awake. True, I did run out of Mountain Dew, but still, that should tell you something. Who got the treasure? Who cares? Does it even matter?

I could follow this film up with any of several pirate films on the list, like "Cutthroat Island" or "Muppet Treasure Island", but since I'm waiting on those Errol Flynn films, as well as "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides", to air - I'll continue with the cats + dogs for now. But the films have to get better than this, they just have to.

Starring the voices of Mark Hamill (last heard in "Futurama: Bender's Big Score"), Kathy Najimy (last heard in "Wall-E"), Wallace Shawn (last seen in "All That Jazz"), and Charles Nelson Reilly (in his last role, voicing a parrot).

RATING: 2 out of 10 monkeys

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tom and Jerry: The Magic Ring

Year 4, Day 5 - 1/5/12 - Movie #1,005

BEFORE: Last night's film had a cat and a mouse working together, but let's get back to the classic cartoons, where they're mortal enemies (I think). Last night's film also had the theft of a ring as a plot point, so that worked out rather well.

THE PLOT: Tom is left in charge of a priceless magical ring by his young wizard master. He is then horrified when the ring gets stuck on Jerry's head, who then runs off into the city.

AFTER: Ah, I remember the classic Tom & Jerry cartoons from the 50's, which I enjoyed on TV throughout the 70's. I always noticed, though, when they dropped in one of the newer cartoons, maybe from the late 60's, and they just didn't hold up. The sound was all muted, the characters spoke like they were under water, and the concepts were just far out, like Tom & Jerry on the moon. What the heck were they smoking over at Hanna-Barbera during the late 60's? (Don't tell me, I think I know...)

This hour-long cartoon from 2002 is better than those late 60's shorts, but not by much. And it sure doesn't measure up to the classic 4-minute T&J shorts from the 50's. Introduce the characters, set up the conflict, chase scene, fight scene, owner comes home, wrap it up. Classic scenarios that fit in perfectly with a young boy's (lack of) attention span.

When stretched out to an hour, a Tom & Jerry plot (or lack thereof...) just doesn't hold up. Jerry gets a magic ring stuck on his head. That's it? Then 57 minutes of chase scenes? Are you kidding me? There's no coherent overarching storyline - for example, having to deliver the magic ring across town. It's simplistic, but that would be more of a plot than we actually get here. Other classic characters are introduced more or less at random, and more chase/capture scenes follow, with each character having their own flimsy motivation for obtaining the ring.

And yet, no one truly understands or appreciates the MAGIC-ness of the ring. From what we see, it can do almost anything, mostly transforming characters into other objects, or making them liquid, or making heavy objects appear over their heads. That's a GREAT story device for a cartoon, and yet its potential goes largely untapped here. Why not magic up a great big bone to distract the bulldog chasing you? While you're at it, turn that car into a giant fish for Tom, and wish up some cheese for yourself while you're at it. Nope, no one thinks of stuff like that.

One of my favorite cartoons of all time is Tex Avery's "The Great Poochini". A magician tortures an opera singer by using his magic wand to turn him into a country singer, a singing baby, making TNT appear in his hand, etc. etc. It's a great example of what you can do in a cartoon with magic, and the only limits are the animator's imagination. Unfortunately, they don't show it much on TV any more, since the opera singer gets turned into a stereotypical Chinaman at one point, and also a singer performing in blackface. But those (allegedly) racist depictions are also cultural touchpoints from the 1950's, so I think they should be allowed to air.

NITPICK POINTS #1-4: How did Tom come to be a wizard's cat? It's never explained. If you want to keep a magic ring safe, why give it to your cat? Maybe put it in a safe while you're away. How come the ring doesn't work, doesn't work, doesn't work, then suddenly just works? And why would a mouse even WANT a ring anyway? His fingers are much too small.

To add insult to injury, the lip-sync here is mostly non-existent. The human characters all manage to have something in front of their mouths when they speak, or their faces are in shadow. Yeah, I noticed you people cutting corners. I realize that the old Tom & Jerry cartoons used to just show humans from the lower torso down, but still. Haven't we progressed in the animation industry since then?

Starring the voices of Jeff Bennett, Frank Welker (last heard in "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"), Charlie Schlatter (last seen in "Bright Lights, Big City"), Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, and Billy West (also last heard in "Jimmy Neutron").

RATING: 2 out of 10 kennel cages

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stuart Little 2

Year 4, Day 4 - 1/4/12 - Movie #1,004

BEFORE: Yes, I realize this sequel's main character is a mouse. But I couldn't fit this one into my last rodent chain ("Tale of Despereaux", "Alvin & The Chipmunks 2", "G-Force") and the first film had a lot of cats in it, so I'm hoping for more of the same.

THE PLOT: Stuart and Snowbell set out across town to rescue a friend.

AFTER: Honestly, I forget - why does the Little family treat a mouse like their son, and the family cat like a cat? How come they can understand what the mouse is saying, but not the cat? Yet the mouse can understand the cat, and vice versa. I think I'm overthinking it again - or I'm already cracking up from watching all these talking animals.

It's a kids' movie, it's a kids' movie, it's a kids' movie. I know, but I have to keep reminding myself not to hold it to the same logical standards as an adult film. Though this one was pretty entertaining for all ages, it didn't really dumb down the storyline too much, and it kept the slapstick out of the action sequences (mostly...).

If I had any problem with the story, besides the non-logical nature of a mouse going to school, playing soccer, etc., it's that the Little family seems a little too perfect, a bit too lovey-dovey, with their little family catchphrases, and Mr. Little giving his son these very Brady-ish pep talks. For god sakes, that's DR. HOUSE, and he's wearing a sweater, and kissing his wife, and acting all dad-like!

The voice casting is spot on, once again. You might not realize how, well, mousey the voice of Michael J. Fox (last seen in "Teen Wolf") is, until you hear it coming from an actual mouse. OK, a virtual one, but still. And as a bonus you get to see Jonathan Lipnicki around the time when he stopped being cute, so that's probably when Hollywood decided it was done with him. (Yep, just checked IMDB, he was 12 when this was released, and he's now 21.)

That said, I still found this film to be acceptably entertaining. If you have to watch a film with your kid (or someone else's kid) you could do a whole lot worse. There's still the variation on the "quest" theme - mouse has to get across town, then get back home - but they change it up so many times that you might not even notice. The bird love-interest is a great addition to the cast. Another baby in the family? Not so much.

There's a "Stuart Little 3"? Ah, crap...I'm calling a mulligan on that one.

Starring Hugh Laurie (last heard in "Monsters vs. Aliens"), Geena Davis (last seen in "The Fly"), with the voices of Nathan Lane (last seen in "Joe vs. the Volcano"), Melanie Griffith, James Woods (last seen in "John Q"), Steve Zahn (last seen in "Out of Sight"), and a cameo from Brad Garrett (last heard as a dog in "Garfield").

RATING: 7 out of 10 taxicabs

Monday, January 2, 2012

Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties

Year 4, Day 3 - 1/3/12 - Movie #1,003

BEFORE: Back to work today, so I didn't see the new backyard kitty. But my wife was home and fed her. Yes, it's a her, so if she sticks around we'll have to take some precautions against her having kittens.

Problems with my cable boxes continue - my upstairs DVR is having troubling saving recorded shows. It records them, but then can't save them. Rebooting the box helps, but only for a couple of days, then the problem comes back. Which would only be a problem if my job required me to watch TV at home. Oh, wait, it does. Hoping to have the problem fixed on Saturday, if Time Warner Cable shows up to repair it. My fear is that they'll need to swap out the box and I'll lose 5 or 6 episodes of "Chopped".

THE PLOT: Jon Arbuckle travels to the United Kingdom, and he brings his cat, Garfield, along for the trip. A case of mistaken cat identity finds Garfield ruling over a castle, but his reign is soon jeopardized by the nefarious Lord Dargis.

AFTER: Ah, there's nothing that kids like more than titles that riff off of Charles Dickens novels. Though "A Tale of Two Cities" featured a classic case of look-alikes, the plot here mostly rips off "The Prince and the Pauper" - at least, the parts it didn't steal from "The Aristocats". Yes, only three films into the new year, and things are already getting repetitive.

Once again, we've got an older woman who leaves her inheritance to her beloved cat. And once again there's a stuffed-shirt proper Briddish-type villain who needs to dispose of the feline standing in between him and his perceived rightful fortune. And where "The Aristocats" had some random geese and farm dogs, this film also adds ducks, rabbits, pigs, goats, ferrets, a parrot, and I think some kind of musk ox for good measure.

My 3-year old niece and nephew are going through an animal phase, so that tells me about what age level this film was aiming at. But just because you're making a kid's film, you don't have to make a dumb film, or throw in a bunch of random talking animals just as eye candy.

If you want to read between the lines, there's some stuff here about class struggle, the working farm animals vs. the indoor pet animals, but I suspect I'm overthinking it. This isn't "Animal Farm". On a slightly simpler level, there's the dichotomy between look-alikes Garfield and Prince, the rich cat. Like people, some cats are born of privilege, and others aren't. Perhaps this is on my mind when I compare my spoiled indoor cat to the one living in the backyard.

Of course, since this is a movie, the cats are content to take advantage of their seemingly improved stations - Garfield enjoys the comforts of his new mansion, and Prince enjoys sitting on a hotel couch and watching TV. (They didn't have TV in his castle?) But, eventually (Spoiler alert...) they each long to return to their lives and find a way to switch back, and get slapsticky revenge on the upper-class twit who's so conveniently cruel to animals.

NITPICK POINT: Once again, it's surprisingly easy for Garfield (or Prince) to escape from his owner when necessary. Convenient plot point, or just bad supervision? But whereas that was the WHOLE plot of last night's film, here it's just a small development.

NITPICK POINT #2: Garfield + Odie stash themselves in Jon's luggage to get to the U.K., thus neatly avoiding weeks of quarantine. But no one x-rayed the bags? And they lasted 12-14 hours without food, water, or air?

NITPICK POINT #3: Again, Garfield is supposed to be LAZY. One would think this condition to be heightened after days spent pigging out and living in the lap of luxury. But again, he seems incredibly agile (and very animated...) when the plot calls for it. Still, out of character.

Starring Breckin Meyer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, voice of Bill Murray (all carrying over from last night), plus Billy Connolly (last seen in "The Last Samurai"), Roger Rees (last seen in "The Prestige"), Ian Abercrombie (Mr. Pitt from "Seinfeld"), and the voices of Tim Curry (last seen in "Kinsey"), Bob Hoskins (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), Sharon Osbourne, Jane Leeves (last seen in "Miracle on 34th St."), Rhys Ifans (last seen in "Pirate Radio") and Vinnie Jones (last seen in "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels").

RATING: 5 out of 10 oil paintings


Year 4, Day 2 - 1/2/12 - Movie #1,002

BEFORE: I started watching films about cats, and as if on cue, a new stray kitty has moved into our backyard. We've got two cat houses out back, they're plastic tubs with holes cut in the side, and they're insulated so strays can survive the cold winter. This little tortoise-shell colored cat has taken up residence, which is fine since we haven't seen our last backyard cat, Condoleeza, in quite some time. I'm not sure if this is a boy or girl cat, but either way we might have to catch it and neuter it if it's going to stick around.

THE PLOT: Jon Arbuckle buys a second pet, a dog named Odie. However, Odie is then abducted and it is up to Jon's cat, Garfield, to find and rescue him.

AFTER: This film was bound to live or die based on the casting of Garfield's voice - I remember the old TV specials where Garfield's voice (OK, thought-voice) was done by Lorenzo Music, who was also famous for voicing the unseen doorman, Carlton, on the old "Rhoda" sitcom. They cast Bill Murray (last heard in another animated film, "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), which I think turned out for the best. His voice is very expressive, and at the same time has that sort of sad lilting quality that works well for a lazy cat.

There's a theme very similar to "The Aristocats" - again there is a stuffy, bald villain who seeks to profit from the fate of animals. Tonight it's a TV host who kidnaps the dancing Odie so he can get a regular gig on a national daytime show. And Garfield has to go on the "impossible" quest to the big city to rescue him.

But since this is a movie aimed at kids, there's a lot of slapstick and a very thin plot, and for the most part logic gets thrown out the window. OK, so Garfield can understand English. And he talks, but humans can't hear him - all that's sort of standard for a kid's cartoon. But he also seems to understand complicated mechanical devices, plus there are times when he walks and dances in ways that a cat just can't. I'm trying not to hold a kid's animated film to the same standards as, say, a live-action spy film, but I'm afraid I just can't switch off the analytical part of my adult brain.

NITPICK POINT: So, in a universe where cats and dogs can talk to each other, why isn't Odie able to talk? He proves himself to not be stupid, and other dogs can talk, so what gives?

NITPICK POINT #2: Garfield and Odie are able to enter and leave the house at will. I understand it's important to the plot that Odie runs away and Garfield is able to pursue him, but what kind of irresponsible pet owner allows both of these things to happen? I guess my problem is really with people who install "pet doors", which I don't understand to begin with. If you love your pet, why let him leave the house? And can't all manner of other creatures enter your house through the pet door?

NITPICK POINT #3: Garfield is supposed to be fat and lazy, that's part of his charm. But he's seen in this film doing all kinds of stunts that would be impossible for the most athletic cat, let alone an overweight one. He does a lot of stuff here that contradicts his nature.

Also, I noticed a lot of "cheats" in the animation - times where complicated action either takes place off-screen, or Garfield is walking through a scene under a box or something - I'm not sure if someone was cutting corners on cost or time, but it's blatantly obvious. There are a few too many in-jokes, too (Garfield pokes fun at merchandising, Garfield stuck to a car window).

Starring Breckin Meyer (last seen in "The Craft"), Jennifer Love Hewitt, Stephen Tobolowsky (last seen in "The Fly"), and the voices of Nick Cannon (last heard in "Monster House"), Alan Cumming, Brad Garrett (last heard in "Jetsons: The Movie"), Debra Messing (last seen in "The Mothman Prophecies"), Richard Kind (last seen in "Stargate"), and Debra Jo Rupp (last seen in "She's Out of My League").

RATING: 3 out of 10 flea collars

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Aristocats

Year 4, Day 1 - 1/1/12 - Movie #1,001

BEFORE: Of course, we don't go out on New Year's Eve, last night the missus and I stayed in and re-watched "Big Night" (the first film we saw together) and then something on VH-1 called "40 Champions of Cute", which was sort of a clip show of internet videos about babies and cute animals. Animals are WAY cuter than babies, by the way. So I'm following that up with a movie about more kittens.

This ties in with this year's dedication - to Merlin, who was my cat for 20 years, and still checked out way too soon. The world's best cat, and I'll gladly defend that point - from the way he'd sleep in my arms, to the way he'd sing "the dinner song" for me. Everybody loved him, including all the staff at the vet's office, and it still feels like one day he's just going to walk out of the closet he liked to sleep in, and hop right back up on the bed. Miss ya, buddy.

With the help of a smooth talking tomcat, a family of Parisian felines set to inherit a fortune from their owner try to make it back home after a jealous butler kidnaps them and leaves them in the country.

AFTER: My mom took me to most of the Disney films when I was a kid, but I think we might have missed this one. I would have been 2 years old at the time this came out, so if I saw it, it didn't register. I know the characters, so I must have read their stories in Disney Comics or something.

Every so often you hear about rich people leaving their fortunes to their pets, most notably Leona Helmsley, and you have to think that means that some people are bound to cash in, provided they're the ones entrusted to care for the lucky dog or cat. But in this film, the butler doesn't see the opportunity, and figures he'll move up the inheritance chain if he can just dispose of the rich lady's cat and kittens. I'm not sure I follow the logic - she might just get another cat, no?

I imagine the Disney marketing department pulling out their hair, trying to figure out how they're going to sell people on a film about killing cats. In fact, it's kind of tough to see where this fits in the Disney pantheon - somehow it's not in the same league as "Bambi" or "Dumbo". I guess they started with the wild animals like deer and elephants, with great dramatic stories, and by the time they worked their way down to cats and dogs, the stories seemed less significant. After the mid-70's, the Disney films weren't all that great ("Black Cauldron", "Oliver & Company", "The Great Mouse Detective") until they pulled out of their dive with "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast".

This film feels like it takes elements of "Lady and the Tramp" (rich dog meets poor dog) and "101 Dalmatians" (evil person tries to kill puppies) and mixes them together, but changes the main characters from dogs to cats.

After the set-up, it's more like "The Incredible Journey", with the cats making their way back to their home in Paris. Which is a simple story, but it still manages to fire off in too many different directions. There's a diversion with a band of jazz-playing cats, but I was bothered by the blatant racism in the portrayal of the Siamese cat. As a matter of fact, the accents in the film are all over the place, with the British geese and a couple of dogs that sound like they're from the southern U.S., despite being named "Napoleon" and "Lafayette". They're in France, shouldn't all the animals sound French?

What's weird is, I just re-watched "The Odd Couple" a few weeks ago, and when I heard the British geese, I thought of the Pigeon Sisters from that film. Well, it turned out to be the voices of those same two actresses, Monica Evans and Carole Shelley! Damn, my voice recognition skills are good! And the Russian cat was voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who very notably voiced Tony the Tiger in ads for many years, and also sang the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in the original Dr. Seuss TV special.

Starring the voices of Phil Harris (last seen in "The Patsy"), Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers (also last seen in "The Patsy"), Pat Buttram (who co-starred with Gabor in "Green Acres"), George Lindsay, Nancy Kulp (yep, was in "The Patsy", but more famous for appearing on "The Beverly Hillbillies").

RATING: 6 out of 10 bowls of creme