"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

2 Posts from May 2009



The success of comic book superheroes hitting the big screen over the last several years is proving that audiences can't get enough of spandex and mask wearing crime fighters.  Lately, filmmakers have been exploring the darker side of those who posses all manner of super powers.  The Dark Knight, Spiderman, Watchmen, and The X-Men are just a few examples of comic book movies whose protagonists are struggling with psychological trauma and moral dilemmas while saving the world from super freaks.  With all this super Sturm und Drang, it's refreshing to go back to the innocent purity and simple fun of the original Superman theatrical cartoons.  In April 2009, Warner Home Video released, without the fanfare this great cartoon series deserved, MAX FLEISCHER'S SUPERMAN: 1941 -1942, a 2-disc DVD set of all 17 original Superman cartoons.  There have been other DVD releases of these same Superman cartoons, but the video quality of those discs pale in comparison to this brilliant new transfer.

Producer Max Fleischer was an early animation pioneer and Walt Disney's chief rival during the 1930s.  Max's studio was located in New York City, so his cartoons, directed by his brother Dave Fleischer, reflected that Metropolis' dynamics: ethnic humour; largely urban settings; a cynical street sense; adult sensibilities with doses of surrealism.  Fleischer's characters were jazzy, sexy, bizarre and eccentric: Betty Boop, Bimbo, KoKo the Clown and, from Elzie Segar's Thimble Theatre comic strip, Popeye the Sailor.

Walt Disney was from Kansas City and his studio was located in Hollywood.  Walt's cartoons reflected his American Midwest upbringing; rural settings, sunny stories, optimistic themes and barnyard animal characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto the Dog.  During the 1930s, Walt Disney was expanding the art of animation with his successful Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons while Max Fleischer experimented with technical innovations and produced hilarious, edgy cartoons that pushed the limits of the movie industry's infamous Production Code.  At one point in the mid-1930s, a nationwide theatre poll indicated that Popeye was besting Mickey Mouse in popularity.

When Walt Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, broke box-office records in 1937 (it was biggest grossing film of all time until the 1939 release of Gone With The Wind), Fleischer's distributor, Paramount Pictures - who had controlling interest in the Fleischer studio since bailing them out of bankruptcy in the 1920s - insisted Max and Dave jump immediately into feature production. 

Max Fleischer moved his New York operation into a newly designed studio in Miami, Florida - financed by Paramount - and hired hundreds of new employees to make their first animated feature, Gulliver's Travels (1939).  A second animated feature followed, Mr. Bug Goes To Town (1941), but neither of the Fleischer features could match the high degree of artistry and creativity of the Disney features. 

Paramount had one last cartoon card up its sleeve and this one was an ace-in-the-hole, albeit all too briefly for Max and Dave.  Paramount bought the screen rights to "Superman", Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's enormously popular superhero sensation owned by D.C. Comics, and told Max and Dave that the Man-of-Steel was their next project. 

Hand-drawn classical animation is a labour intensive craft; Dave Fleischer knew that successfully transferring the realistic style of the Superman comics into the animated cartoon medium would be a Herculean effort.  In an attempt to get out of this daunting job, Dave quoted Paramount a ridiculous amount of money to produce it.  Much to Dave's surprise, Paramount agreed to the high budget and the Fleischer's were obligated to make Superman fly.

The Fleischer studio succeeded heroically in making the world's first popular superhero movie series (arguably, Popeye could be considered the 20th Century's first true superhero as the mumbling sailor man would save-the-day by munching spinach to trigger his enormous strength) with the release of Superman on 26 September 1941, which earned the Fleischer's an Academy Award nomination.

Max and Dave Fleischer followed up the success of the Man-of-Steel's movie premiere with seven more cartoons with such colourful and exciting titles as The Mechanical Monsters, The Arctic Giant, The Bulleteers, The Magnetic Telescope, Electric Earthquake, Volcano and Terror On The Midway.

My personal favourite Fleischer Superman is called Billion Dollar Limited wherein Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent as Superman must fight a masked gang of thieves from stealing a billion dollars in gold on a runaway train.  Lois Lane, the Daily Planet's other intrepid reporter, is also on the train, firing a machine gun at the rapidly advancing thieves in their supercharged car. 

Billion Dollar Limited is an immensely exciting cartoon.  It is a remarkable example of action filmmaking that relies on dynamic camera angles, fast pacing and clarity of staging.  The overwhelming hurdles that Superman must overcome in this cartoon grow in a logical manner.  The trajectory of the drama and the action mounts with precision and intensity.  Any young, aspiring director interested in making action films (whether it be in animation or live-action) can do no wrong in studying Billion Dollar Limited for its filmmaking precision and dynamism.

All of the Superman cartoons are visually unique.  These 7 to 10 minute action-packed cartoons, filled with impressive animated special effects, are what would now be called "graphic novels" come to life.  Not only is the design and the animation treated with an eye toward realism, the look of the Superman series depends on high-contrast, chiaroscuro lighting.  And there are many shots composed in oblique angles to enhance the energy and the danger generated from the drama.  These visual attributes are common to film noir, a style and type of American crime film that was just starting to appear on movie screens in the early and mid-1940s.  In fact, looking back on the Superman series, one of its ground-breaking aspects is that these cartoons are the first film noir cartoons.  With all of Walt Disney's much deserved recognition for his studio's innovations in character animation at this time in film history, he never produced an urban noir cartoon.

The premises of the Superman cartoons are, more or less, all the same: Superman must overcome human villainy or monsters running amuck.  Since this series was made during America's involvement in World War II, some of the cartoons are about Superman fighting the Japanese and the German enemy axis.

Max and Dave Fleischer released their eighth and final Superman cartoon on 30 August 1942.  Because of mounting studio debt, and the ongoing personal contentions between the brothers, Paramount Pictures took advantage of their controlling interest in the animation studio and fired Max and Dave.  Paramount moved the studio from Miami back to New York City and rechristened it the Famous Studios, continuing to make nine more Superman cartoons (which are all on the new DVD set), as well as more Popeye and many other cartoon shorts.

The MAX FLEISCHER'S SUPERMAN: 1941 -1942, 2-disc DVD set is an absolute must for any animation and movie buff.  Max and Dave Fleischer brought Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's inspired comic book creation to vivid life on the big screen.  These exhilarating cartoons added much to the Superman mythology that would be incorporated into its many incarnations in the years to follow, and they set a new bar for the art of animated storytelling that continues to inspire animators to this day.



Zachary Quinto as Spock; Chris Pine as James T. Kirk

STAR TREK  directed by J.J. Abrams                   Opens Thursday 07 May 2009

Damn the Star Trek legend and full warp speed ahead!  J.J. Abrams, the mind behind the cult T.V. show Lost and the director of Mission Impossible III, recharges the dilithium crystals of Gene Roddenberry's 40-year-old franchise and delivers a spunky, muscular, funny and sexy new Star Trek movie destined to boldly go where no other Trek movies have gone before at the box-office. 

Star Trek (this 2009 movie) is about the long-awaited origin story of how the original main crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together, albeit in a slightly alternate world than the canon first established in the original 1960s television series. 

The movie opens with great ferocity as we witness the attack of a Romulan ship (designed to look like a nasty black squid) on Federation starships.  Captain George Kirk orders his damaged ship abandoned, which includes his pregnant wife who is on the verge of popping out a future space jockey.  In order to save the escaping survivors, Captain George, the sole person left on his starship, engages in a kamikaze run against the enemy ship, but just before collision, his wife gives birth.  In a not very subtle but cute symbolic image of a birth canal, James Tiberius Kirk is delivered when his mother's shuttles blasts through a launch corridor; the baby Kirk is destined for a career in the stars.

After an exciting and compelling opening sequence, that is surprisingly heart-tugging, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and director Abrams, details the rise of Spock (Zachary Qunito) and James Kirk (Chris Pine) - two highly talented, but diametrically opposed personalities - during their early days in Starfleet. 

The meagre plot has the new Enterprise crew battling a Romulan captain from the future, Nero (Eric Bana), who is causing a whole lot of interstellar bother in his vengeful attacks against Federation planets because he blames the older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) - from Nero's time - for the destruction of his home planet of Romulus. Yes, my dear Trekkies, what we have here is that hoary chestnut, the space-time continuum plot.  The story tells us that Nero and the old Spock traveled through a black hole: this allows the filmmakers to skew the Star Trek canon, thus this film's alternate world (as in all other time-travel stories, trying to figure out the screwy logic of the time deviations in Star Trek will likely implode your brain into a black hole). 

I wouldn't call myself a Trekkie, but I know enough about the original series, and the movies, to have been initially, and intriguingly, thrown-off from what I knew of the Star Trek canon as the plot twists like a wormhole.  Once I comprehended and accepted the story consequences of this plot device, I was swept away by the discovery of how these original star trekkers united.  This is the rare example of a movie that doesn't suffer for its thin storyline, and it's the rare action movie that captivates the imagination because the characters are so engaging; given the film has a 40 year head start on character development certainly doesn't hurt.  The great pleasures of this film are relevant to how familiar you are with the personalities and quirks of Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al. 

As evident in William Shatner's portrayal of the character he originated, Chris Pine nails the sass and swagger that we expect of a twenty-something James T. Kirk.  At first Kirk is nothing but a smart-ass, trouble-making punk who is convinced by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to turn his self-destructive energies, and his father's legacy, into training for a career as a Federation starship captain.  Pine's Kirk is cocky, arrogant, and wily; all of which is eventually tempered by the character's natural intelligence.  Over the course of the movie, we see the buffing of these qualities that will eventually transform Kirk into the steely, cunning and assured captain familiar to the Star Trek audience.  The filmmakers don't shy away from the space-slutty side of Kirk.  His heedless appetite for the ladies - human or extra-terrestrial - is as direct and powerful as photon torpedo.  

Zachary Quinto is Spock.  Not only does Quinto look like a young Leonard Nimoy, he projects the same level of reserve, dignity, detached humour, and superior intelligence of Nimoy's beloved half-Vulcan/half-human character.  Qunito's Spock has not yet fully mastered the control of his emotions.  When psychologically pushed,   repressed feelings threaten to derail the normally unflappable Spock.  What eventually emerges in Quinto's performance is what Nimoy has always - and does again in this film - been in touch with: Spock's inescapable humanity.  

The rest of the actors portraying the Enterprise crew are terrific.  Karl Urban channels DeForest Kelley as the cynical and pragmatic Dr. "Bones" McCoy; John Cho as Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Chekov are solid as the pilots of the starship; and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Run Fatboy Run) is hysterical as the befuddled engineer Montgomery Scott.  As communications officer Uhura, actress Zoe Saldana gives Star Trek its sexy edge.  She drives the Iowa-raised, horn-dog Kirk to distraction.  However, Uhura has the hots for a very different crew member that sure surprised the hell out of me!

Nero the vengeful Romulan is the weakest aspect of the movie.  His story seems almost arbitrary; though its there for what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin, the plot device that simply embroils the characters into a situation so the audience can witness how they deal with one another.  Eric Bana as Nero is serviceable (he comes across as a pissed-off biker), but he can't come within light-years of Ricardo Montalban's planet-chewing fury as the vindictive titular character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982).

Though its story doesn't amount to much (there is at least one deus ex machina moment regarding the introduction of Scottie that conveniently puts a stranded Kirk back into action), director J.J. Abrams wisely focuses on the nascent relationships of the famous Star Trek characters and he deftly blends this all into a well crafted action picture. The visual effects are all topnotch, never overpowering the film, and the dialogue is crisp and witty.   This is the funniest Trek since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

J.J. Abrams's strapping young version of the Star Trek legend exudes energy and giddiness.  I just hope the inevitable sequels will incorporate what is fundamentally missing from this movie that the best of the original series and the films before traversed: thoughtful and philosophical ideas exploring the nature of humanity in the cosmos.  In the meantime, Star Trek of 2009 delivers on its prime directive: pure popcorn entertainment.