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Archive for the ‘author Bob Clark’ Category

By Bob Clark

Last week I posted my favorite retrospective screenings of 2012, showcasing the kinds of rereleases unique to the New York art-house circuit, along with the occasional wide or touring release that allows audiences of any generation to experience a film in its natural theatrical habitat long after its debut has passed. And though it’s a great experience to go back and devote significant time to gems by the likes of Godard, Miyazaki, Moretti and the like, there is one natural disadvantage it has– it eats up a lot of the rest of the movie-going time you have throughout the year. As a consequence I didn’t see nearly as many late releases as I would’ve liked to last year, and even fewer that I liked enough to actually put on a list like this. Therefore, this is something of a compromised entry, with at least one film that doesn’t belong by any measure of “late release” definition, one that’s questionable, and one that fits but is something of a recycle from the year of its initial release. But who cares? There’s a superflu terrorizing the East Coast and I’ve got to try and get a shot in before heading out to another Godard retrospective screening (screw this new junk anyway), so let’s get to it.

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By Bob Clark

At the end of every cinematic year, there’s always the question of where certain movies fit in the rank and file of top ten listings, and the like. Do you list a film based on the year it was created, the year it was screened in festivals, or the year it received a wide release in your area? This is ignoring of course whether or not it was originally made as a film or a piece of television, or what have you. If you really wanted to have a completely accurate ranking of the best films from any given year, you’d have to wait until long after that year has passed, perhaps towards the end of the decade, and thus give yourself enough time to track down all the late releases and obscure curiosities that aren’t likely to enjoy significant screenings even in the most cosmopolitan markets (that goes double if you’re an anime fan). Last year I thought I managed a pretty tidy compromise in listing my favorite late releases from around the world, mostly foreign-market titles that might’ve played in domestic festivals but didn’t reach major theaters in the New York area until time had passed. But as I put together that list, I realized that I was still ignoring a significant amount of the time I’d been spending in the various moviegoing events both in the city and suburbs. One of the great advantages of living in New York is the dense art-house repertoire output, constantly showing classics both in festivals and year-round, allowing you to see some of the best films out there the way they were meant to be seen, and not hemmed in by the claustrophobic confines of a television screen, or worse.

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By Bob Clark

Celebrity deaths, so the common wisdom of the morbidly curious goes, usually come in threes, and this past Christmas was no exception. We lost two of our best character actors in Jack Klugman and Charles Durning, whose collective contributions to film and television cover a generously wide span of content– everything from hardboiled dramas and lighthearted sitcoms to great American theater and raunchy modern animation. Both of them were lesser-known names than many of their contemporaries, but odds are you’d recognize them by their faces or the parts they played, which isn’t something you could say very easily about the third part of this mortuary trifecta. How many people nowadays know the name Gerry Anderson right off the tip of their tongues? Fewer still would be able to place his face, or even claim to have seen him on television or in a magazine. As a producer, writer and creator on television, he’s much more likely to be known by the works he made rather than any facetime with his audience, and for somebody engaged in creating works of children’s television you’ve got the automatically receding half-life of nostalgia. Unless you grew up withhis programs in their original runs or maybe in reruns, odds are you only know about them if making a concerted effort to track down all the curiosities of quasi-animation and puppet stylings on the big or small screens from the past half century or so. And perhaps the best thing that can be said about Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet is that, for all their flaws, they’re worth the effort.

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by Bob Clark

Of all the early pioneers of animation in Hollywood, perhaps none have gone so unduly forgotten as Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. The crucial part they played in the genesis in many of the first great cartoon characters has been largely overlooked nowadays. Few remember the work they did in the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts alongside Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, and how their designs paved the way for the likes of Mickey Mouse. A few more may remember the role they played in the foundation of Warner Bros.’ landmark animation studios, which would go on to spawn characters including Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. But when modern-day critics recall their collaborations on with the Looney Tune and Merrie Melodies series, it is rarely with the same appreciation that later talents like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones would be granted, men who elevated the art of animation to comedic heights that can stand alongside the works of Mark Twain as first-rate works of American satire.

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RankinBassROTK1

By Bob Clark

The story of how J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings came to be adapted for animation is a strange one that begins from different directions, particularly different directions of American animation. While Rankin/Bass productions, even by then an institution best known for their stop-motion Christmas specials, got things rolling with a Japanese-crafted 1977 take on The Hobbit that got the essentials of the book into a slim 70 odd minutes, the first attempt of the Lord of the Rings tome proper would be begun by notorious rabble-rousing animator Ralph Bakshi. His film, covering about the first half of the trilogy, spanning Fellowship of the Ring to somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers, represented something of a transitional effort for the director, bridging his earlier efforts that concentrated on aggressively adult sex and violence (the R. Crumb adaptation of Fritz the Cat and the urban grime of Heavy Traffic and Coonskin) to increasingly lighter, more adventure-oriented fantasy works (the sci-fi Wizards, the Frank Frazetta inspired Fire and Ice) that would ultimately culminate in his return to television cartooningwith the brief Saturday Morning run of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (which kickstarted the careers of John Kircfalusi and Bruce Timm among others, but only before it was cancelled amid controversy for a cocaine gag).

The sheer range of Bakshi’s career demonstrates the wide attraction that Tolkien’s work can and has had on any number of filmmakers over the years (one wonders if Stanley Kubrick hadn’t decided the books were unfilmable int he 70’s whether he would’ve used those NASA lenses and recycled Napoleon material on Middle Earth instead of Barry Lyndon). In the case of Bakshi and the contrasting animation done on the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, the clash of different styles shows even further the different mixes any creative team can pull off from the same material. While Rankin and Bass’ animation mixes the best of their physical, posture-heavy stop-motion style with the expert hand-drawn artwork and economic pacing of Japanese anime (courtesy of Topcraft, the production house that would soon become Studio Ghibli), Bakshi offers a blend of heavy rotoscope and classic Americana cartooning techniques that is sometimes a surreal match for Tolkien’s text. It’s a style that he would go on to develop in his subsequent fantasy adventure films, which in some ways makes up for the fact that he didn’t get the chance to finish the story he’d started with the second half of The Lord of the Rings. In any case, it only makes the renewal of the Rankin/Bass style that much stronger and stranger when one views 1980’s The Return of the King: A Tale of the Hobbits, officially a sequel to their earlier effort and by now a de-facto climax to an unofficial trilogy.

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RankinBassHobbit1

By Bob Clark

The various television specials produced and directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s represent some of the most distinctive animation in America beyond the works of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM, enough to the point that their immediately recognizable style finds itself imitated on an almost yearly basis during the holiday season. The vast majority of their work follows a hand-crafted style, perhaps most recognized in one of their earliest efforts, the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but with each subsequent production it’s easy to see their range and comfort with the medium growing, each special more ambitious than the next in terms of length, scale and themes. For the most part, however, their work is remembered solely in the realm of stop-motion, which they produced the bulk of their output in, and though that work has provided an invaluable influence on many animators and filmmakers since (even Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox betrays a family resemblance) the pair’s efforts in traditional hand-drawn animation are no less impressive. Seasonal works like the Frosty specials or the Joel Grey-starring ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas remain consistent favorites (South Park would crib a song or two from the latter in one of their holiday episodes), and even later programs like Thundercats have held their own amidst the array of 80’s cartoons kept alive by nostalgia and reboots. But among the works that the pair created outside of stop-motion, the two that probably survive best beyond mere generational hindsight are their Tolkien adaptations, which impress not only as examples of modest, yet adventurous television animation but also as works of fantasy cinema in general.

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By Bob Clark

Over the course of this column, I’ve largely been covering the by now standardized track of comics-to-movies adaptations, usually centering on sequential stories both mainstream and niche that find themselves treated with big budgeted, high-profile motion picture productions, the likes of which audiences have grown increasingly accustomed to since the special-effects assisted advents of the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man features (all three of them by now in some manner of franchise reboot or another). Occasionally we’ve seen different cultural paths in a more or less equivalent vein– Japanese manga like Nausicaa, Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed finding themselves converted to all manner of animated iterations, hand-drawn or otherwise, sometimes with varying levels of direct involvement from the original illustrators who created the initial works in the first place. Less frequently, we’ve even looked at comics subject less to direct adaptations and instead siring off loose inspirations, such as Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan comics or Jodorowsky & Moebius’ The Incal sparking all manner of fires in blockbusters and indie-productions alike. But for the most part, the path from comics to film or television (in the case of the Timm & Dini Batman: The Animated Series) has been a uniform and straightforward one, always headed in the same direction. But if anything, there’s probably more examples of the opposite flow in terms of sheer volume.

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By Bob Clark

There are few movies from my childhood that I find my perspective more changed about than George Seaton’s classic Miracle on 34th Street. That’s not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying it since then, but rather that the way I view it has evolved so much over the years that it’s just as interesting for me to think back on how I used to look at it as it is for me to revisit the film itself. Viewed now, as an adult, it’s still a perfectly charming piece of holiday entertainment– granted, it’s by no means up there with Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the Alastair Sim Scrooge or even any number of animated television specials from the season (nothing beats the Rankin-Bass Rudolph or Good Ol’ Charlie Brown), but nevertheless it’s still a smart, funny piece of Christmastime fairy-tale spinning that greatly benefits from its contemporary setting. Even today, there’s little dated about the 1947 film– sure, Gimbels may have long since gone out of business, but Macy’s still holds its annual balloon-assisted Thanksgiving day parade and fights fierce competition with rival stores for holiday bucks, and plenty of court-cases are still won on pure technicalities or publicity (though nowadays you need bigger help than the U.S. Postal Service).

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By Bob Clark

By now, enough time has gone by for a reasonably definitive answer on the question of Cloud Atlas to develop. Weeks have gone by since its release into theaters and subsequent failure to find purchase amongst audiences who have since moved on to subsequent releases like the new Bond, Tolstoy or Lincoln pictures (curious to think of the Railsplitter as quite the same kind of cinematic trendsetter as spies or Russian romances, but he did just save the republic from vampires, don’t you know). Much was made of this high-profile experiment with multi-narrative, multi-genre and multi-director filmmaking, its subject matters far removed from the typical Hollywood blockbuster and its budget significantly higher than your average art-house fare. That the film has so-far performed so tepidly has suggested among many critics a disappointment with audiences as profound as those with any auteur, especially as the major studios and production houses gear up for an extended period of franchise nesting instincts, a cinematic hibernation that puts both filmgoer and filmmaker to sleep in the face of never-ending sequels, prequels and remakes to boot. At the same time, there’s been just as much skepticism towards the overall merit posed by this film, adapted from a headscratcher novel by a trio of directors whose career highpoints were at least ten years ago or more, and with it a kind of passive-aggressive hostility towards the perceived waste of such capital, creative and otherwise. Is it the fault of audiences for not braving theaters and seeking out something this ambitious and daring, or the filmmakers’ for risking it all on a mediocre product and thus making any future high-concept experiments all the riskier? Or is the assumption that for a high profile film to succeed that its success be as visible as its production– isn’t it possible a cult-hit was the best-case scenario for something like Cloud Atlas all along?

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By Bob Clark

In the past 50 years, there have been about 23 Bond films, give or take the ones not produced by EON. That’s a rate of a movie almost every two years, and each one at a scale and scope that would dwarf most other pretenders to its action adventure mantle. A few other franchises have been as productive, in their shorter span on the cultural horizon– the X-Men film series, launched by Bryan Singer in 2000, has managed a healthy five films so far in the past dozen years, with at least two more currently on the way. Others have been a bit more limited in their output– in 35 years there have been only six Star Wars episodes (versus at least 18 Bond films over an equivalent span), though after Disney’s purchase of the franchise that restrained approach will likely vanish at the drop of a Mickey Mouse eared hat. Plenty more have done whatever they could to milk every last ounce of audience interest in their various flagging series of spectacles, pulling whatever kinds of narrative tricks and gimmicks they could come up with– we’d probably still be seeing Pink Panther movies coming out if it weren’t for Peter Seller’s death, and that still wasn’t enough for 3 different attempts to reboot the series. With all the longest running and longest active franchises there’s inevitably been a sense of diminishing returns both in terms of creativity and general interest– you can almost track the moment the  Star Trek series ran out of steam at the point when even fans stopped calling the movies by their titles and nicknamed them “The One With the Whales” and so forth.

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