Who Framed Roger Rabbit (dir. by Robert Zemeckis)


WhoFramedRogerRabbitPosterI can’t quite remember how I found out about 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Growing up, most of my movie news came from four major sources – Entertainment Tonight, Siskel & Ebert, the occasional movie poster you’d see at a bus stop or cinema. If you were really lucky, the production company would sometimes create a “Behind the Scenes”/”Making of” showcase a little after the movie premiered. If possible, I would read the billing block of a poster to see if I could recognize anyone familiar, Just seeing Amblin Entertainment meant you’d have Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall involved. Nothing new there. I knew Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri from Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future. Movies have had mixes of animation and live action – Bedrooms & Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, etc., but the big buzz here was the film planned to somehow involve both the Disney and Warner Bros. animation studios. It was an alien concept for me, because they couldn’t be more different from each other. Historically, animation on the WB side of things were edgy and almost dared to be even raunchy if they could get away with it. Disney, on the other hand, was pristine and extremely  kid friendly. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse? Daffy Duck vs. Donald Duck, all on the same screen? It was the 1980’s equivalent of asking Marvel (which ironically, is owned by Disney now) and DC (which the WB has owned for decades) to write a single Justice League / Avengers crossover story.

At the time, Steven Spielberg was already well known for blockbusters like the Indiana Jones films and E.T., but did he really have enough clout to bring two major companies together like that? It blew my 13 year old mind and I became completely obsessed.

Around the time Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out, I picked up anything I could find about it. I had Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack, a poster, a stuffed Roger doll, and the video game when it came out. I even read Gary Wolf’s novel. I begged my parents to let me see it, and it was one of the rare times where my Mom took my sis and I to the movies instead of my dad (the major movie buff, who took us to see Robocop twice the year before). I think she went in part to shut me up, and to give herself a break from my nearly 2 year old brother. It remains one of the two best movie related memories I have of her.

In the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, humans and cartoons share the same space in Los Angeles. Cartoons live in Toontown, owned by Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). It’s the story of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins – Hook, Mermaids), a Los Angeles Private Eye with a bit of a grudge against toons. For a quick buck, Valiant is hired by R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern – Firefox, Little Shop of Horrors) to snoop on Acme. Valiant’s work puts him in the path of Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer, Back to the Future Part II), after Eddie takes some racy pictures of Acme playing patty cake with Roger’s wife, Jessica (Kathleen Turner, Romancing the Stone). Roger angrily swears they’re still a happy couple and that Acme somehow coerced her before running off into the night. The next morning, Eddie is informed that the Marvin Acme’s been killed overnight. To make things worse, Acme’s Will is missing, leaving the fate of Toontown up in the air. All of the evidence points to Roger, but Roger asks for Eddie’s assistance in clearing his name. Can Eddie save Roger before Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future) and his pack of weasels get their hands on him?

The production for the film required jumping over a number of hurdles. Zemeckis, himself a cartoon fan, wanted to bring some of the Warner Bros. characters along with Disney characters. Even better, he also wanted to add some of Tex Avery’s classic style to the film. Similar to what he did with Ready Player One, Spielberg negotiated with some of the studios, and while he couldn’t get everyone, he did manage to get Disney, WB and a few others to commit. With this in place, they had to somehow merge animation with live-action in a way that made it look like the cartoons were interacting with their environment.

This would require one really huge magic trick, made up from an assortment of parts.

Since it was around 1986-1987, there really was no CG, yet.. James Cameron made 6 stuntmen in Alien suits look like 600 through the use of Oscar Winning Editing, and the technology that gave us the paradigm shifting dinosaurs of Jurassic Park wouldn’t occur for another 3 or 4 years. For Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the approach was a mix of robotics, puppetry, sleight of hand gadgetry, and a lot of imagination.

The art was handled by Richard Williams and his team, who would go on to win a Special Achievement Oscar for his contribution to the film. They had to draw every cell/frame by hand, on paper and then have them inked. These would then go to Industrial Light & Magic, who would add shadow, highlights and special effects To make things harder, the artists had to work around Zemeckis’ filming style and figure out how to fit the characters into each scene.

Take Jessica Rabbit’s performance of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, sung by Amy Irving (Carrie, The Fury). At first glance, it seems a really easy shot. Girl steps on the stage, performs and leaves, right? However, there are so many things happening here on an effects level that I still don’t fully understand how they did it after all these years. ILM handled the lighting, from the sparkles in the dress, the use of the handkerchief and the great moment where Jessica blocks the spotlight in her walk from Acme to Valiant. I had to later explain to my mom that the “Wow” I whispered in the theatre during that scene had little or nothing to do with puberty. It was because I hadn’t seen anything like that before with a cartoon, and I’d hate the Academy forever if the movie didn’t win an Oscar for that.

Having cartoons on screen is one thing, but making it feel like they were interacting with people is another. Hoskins was the anchor that tied most of it all together. Having to work with nearly nothing – not even a green screen – and perform the physical actions required of the role was quite a feat compared to what some actors do with the motion capture rooms and digital walls we use today. Near lifesize models of Roger were created to help Hoskins handle some of the physical “grab and move” sequences, and actor Charles Fleischer actually spent time dressed as Roger on set (but off camera, of course) to feed his side of the conversation to Hoskins when filming a scene.

Puppeteers were brought on for moments were toon characters needed to hold objects, such as guns or knives. There is a moment of the movie where you can see one of the holes for the guns that the weasels, but it’s a pretty minute hiccup with all of the great work that was done. For the car sequences with Benny the Cab (also Fleischer), they used a special mini-car with a driver in the back. The car and driver were painted over (still, frame for frame) by the animators.

And ff course, it wouldn’t be a Zemeckis film without Alan Silvestri at the helm, musically speaking. Silvestri’s score for was a mix of detective noir and cartoony antics, which made for a perfect fit for the film. Overall, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of those films I cherished growing up, and it’s almost impossible for me to avoid recommending it.

 

 

Club Paradise (1986, directed by Harold Ramis)


I think I was nine or ten years old when I first saw Club Paradise on HBO.  I remember thinking it was pretty funny.

I recently rewatched Club Paradise and I discovered that ten year old me had terrible taste in movies.

Robin Williams plays Jack Moniker, a Chicago fireman who gets blown out of a building while rescuing a dog.  Living off of his disability payments, he retires to the island of St. Nicholas, which is basically Jamaica but with less weed.  Jack and reggae musician Ernest Reed (Jimmy Cliff) open up their own Club Med-style resort, Club Paradise.  Jack doesn’t know much about the resort business but he does know how to put together a good brochure.  Almost the entire cast of SCTV shows up at Club Paradise, looking for a tropical vacation.  Things quickly go wrong because Jack doesn’t know how to run a resort and there’s also an evil developer (played by Brian Doyle-Murray) who wants Club Paradise to fail so that he can get the land.

Club Paradise has got a huge and impressive cast, the majority of whom probably signed on because they were looking forward to a paid Caribbean vacation.  Peter O’Toole plays the British-appointed governor of St. Nicholas.  Twiggy plays Jack’s girlfriend.  Joanna Cassidy plays a reporter and Adolph Caesar is cast in the role of St. Nicolas’s corrupt prime minister.  Because the film was directed by Harold Ramis, it is full of Ramis’s co-stars from SCTV.  Andrea Martin tries to get her husband to enjoy the islands as much as she’s enjoying them.  Joe Flaherty is the crazed pilot who flies people to the resort.  Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy play two nerdy friends who are both named Barry and who are only interested in scoring weed, getting laid, and working on their tan.  Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy playing nerds?  It’s a shock, I know.

There’s enough funny people in Club Paradise to ensure that there are a few isolated laughs.  Not surprisingly, the movie comes to life whenever Moranis and Levy are onscreen.  (If I had to guess, I imagine they were the reason why ten year-old me liked this movie so much.)  Needless to say, Jimmy Cliff also provides a killer soundtrack.  But Club Paradise ultimately doesn’t work because the script is too disjointed and it feels more like an uneven collection of skits than an actual film.  It’s impossible to tell whether we’re supposed to think of Club Paradise as being the worst resort ever or if we’re supposed to be worried that the bad guys will shut it down.  For a movie like this, you need a strong central presence to hold things together.  Unfortunately, Robin Williams’s style of comedy is too aggressive for the role of Jack.  The role was originally written for Bill Murray and it shows.  Most of Jack’s lines sound like things you would expect Bill Murray to say in his trademark laid back fashion and it is easy to imagine Murray redeeming some of Club Paradise‘s weaker scenes simply by attitude alone.  Instead, Robin Williams is so frantic that you never buy he could be happy living a laid back life on a Caribbean island.  As played by Williams, Jack often comes across as being unreasonably angry at everyone staying at Club Paradise and it’s hard to care whether or not he manages to save his resort or not.

Club Paradise was a bomb at the box office.  Harry Shearer, who was originally credited with working on the screenplay, hated the movie so much that he requested his name be removed from the credits.  (Instead, credit is given to Edward Roboto.)  As a result of the film’s failure, it would be 7 years before Harold Ramis would get to direct another movie.  Fortunately, that movie was Groundhog Day and this time, Ramis was able to get Bill Murray.

Rebel Days: All-American Murder (1991, directed by Anson Williams)


Artie Logan (Charlie Schlatter) is a wannabe James Dean who keeps getting kicked out of school because he is such a rebel.  His father, a judge, gives Artie one more chance.  Artie can either enroll at Fairfield College or he can go to jail.  Artie chooses Fairfield, where he meets and falls for the beautiful and popular Tally Fuller (Josie Bissett).  However, no sooner does Artie show up for their first date than someone sets Tally on fire and crashes through a window.  Artie is the number one suspect but Detective P.J. Decker (Christopher Walken) still gives him 24 hours to solve the murder and clear his name.  Artie investigates and discovers that Tally was not the innocent, all-American girl that everyone thought she was.  This leads to a nudity-filled flashback that explains why All-American Murder was an HBO mainstay in the 90s.  It also leads to other people being murdered by snakes and hand grenades.

Despite some bloody murders and the presence of Walken and Joanna Cassidy in potentially interesting supporting roles, All-American Murder fails because it asks us to accept Charlie Schlatter as being a charismatic rebel.  When Joanna Cassidy tells him that he’s a “renegade,” not even she sounds like she believes it.  The murder mystery is intriguing but Artie is so obnoxious that you want him to go to prison whether he’s guilty or not.

All-American Murder was directed by Anson Williams, who is best known for playing Potsie on Happy Days.  The Fonz could have framed Ralph Malph for this murder in half the time that it takes Artie to solve it.

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)


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I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell…

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A Movie A Day #17: The Laughing Policeman (1973, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


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San Francisco in the 1970s.  Revolution is in the air.  Hippies are on every street corner.  A man named Gus Niles knows that he’s being tailed by an off-duty cop, Dave Evans.  Gus boards a city bus, knowing that Evans will follow him.  On the bus, an unseen gunman suddenly opens fire with an M3 submachine gun, not only killing both Evans and Gus but six other people as well.  After the bus crashes, the gunman calmly departs.  At first, it is assumed that the massacre was another random mass shooting, like Charles Whitman in Austin or Mark Essex in New Orleans.  But one San Francisco detective is convinced that it wasn’t random at all.

The Laughing Policeman was one of the many police procedurals to be released after the box office success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and, despite the name, it’s also one of the grimmest.  While the complex mystery behind why Evans was following Gus and who killed everyone on the bus is intriguing, The Laughing Policeman‘s main focus is on the often frustrating nitty gritty of the investigation, complete with false leads, uncooperative witnesses, unanswerable questions, and detectives who frequently make stupid mistakes.  The movie’s first fifteen minutes are devoted to the police processing the bus, with Stuart Rosenberg (best known for directing Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) using overlapping dialogue to give the entire scene a documentary feel.  As Detective Jake Martin, Walter Matthau is even more cynical and downbeat than usual while Bruce Dern provides good support as a younger, more volatile detective.  The supporting cast is full of 70s character actors, like Lou Gossett, Anthony Zerbe, Gregory Sierra,and playing perhaps the sleaziest drug dealer ever seen in an American movie, Paul Koslo.

The Laughing Policeman was based on a Swedish novel that took place in Stockholm but, for the movie, Swedish Detective Martin Beck became world-weary Sgt. Jake Martin and Stockholm became San Francisco.  Rosenberg directed the entire film on location, giving The Laughing Policeman the type of realistic feeling that would later be duplicated by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order.  Though it may not be as well-known as either Dirty Harry or The French Connection, The Laughing Policeman is a dark and tough police procedural, an underrated classic of the genre.

Incidentally, The Laughing Policeman was one of the first films for which character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing.  According to Dern’s autobiography, Matthau generously insisted that Dern be credited, with him, above the title.

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Danger Is Their Business: STUNTS (New Line Cinema 1977)


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With the success of films like WHITE LIGHTING, CANNONBALL, DEATH RACE 2000, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (not to mention the continuing fascination with Evel Knenevel), movies revolving around stunts and stuntmen were big box office in the 1970’s. New Line Cinema took note and produced STUNTS, a murder mystery about stuntmen being killed off that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking in addition to a good cast and well-staged action.

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When stuntman Greg Wilson’s hanging from a helicopter gag goes horribly awry, resulting in him plummeting to his death, his brother Glen arrives on the set determined to do the stunt himself and investigate Greg’s demise. Along the way he picks up B.J. Parswell, an attractive reporter doing a story on stuntmen. Glen’s fellow stuntmen start getting picked off one by one in gruesome “accidents”, and he must find the killer before he becomes next.

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This basic variation on “Ten…

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Adventures in Cleaning Out The DVR: A Mother Betrayed (dir by Michael Feifer)


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After I finished up my review of Seeds of Yesterdayit was time to rewatch and review A Mother Betrayed.  Last Sunday, A Mother Betrayed premiered on Lifetime.  I watched it and I had a lot of fun live-tweeting it.  Seriously, it’s a fun movie.

The plot may, at first, sound similar to Dangerous Company but A Mother Betrayed quickly establishes it own nicely berserk identity.  When we first meet Monica (Lynn Collins) and Jonathan (David Paetku), they’re standing on the beach and declaring their love for each other.  Since this is a Lifetime movie, we know that early declarations of undying love will only lead to tragedy.  Sure enough, Monica and Jonathan are soon in a car accident.  Monica, who was pregnant at the time, survives.  Jonathan does not.

Just forward 3 years and Monica is now a single mother who is obsessed with her job (she’s in charge of an architectural firm) and her daughter, Maddy (Ariella and Isabella Nurkovic).  At a party, her assistant, Lisa (Bree Williamson) introduces her to a single man named Kevin (Adam Kaufman).  Within a few minutes of meeting, Monica and Kevin are in love.  Ignoring the concerns of her mother (Joanna Cassidy), Monica marries Kevin.  Kevin adopts Maddy and appears to be both the perfect father and the perfect husband.

But is he!?

Well, the name of the movie is A Mother Betrayed

It turns out that Kevin has plans of his own and Lisa, the perfect assistant, is a part of them.  Of course, what’s interesting is that Maddy is a part of Kevin’s scheme as well.  No, Maddy is not conspiring against her mother.  However, it quickly becomes obvious that Kevin really does love Maddy and he actually is a pretty good father.  He wants to take over Monica’s business because he’s greedy but he wants custody of Maddy because he appears to genuinely love her.  That plot development brings an unexpected amount of depth to this Lifetime movie.

(And other plot development that I, speaking as an administrative assistant who happens to be named Lisa, appreciated was that the movie’s Lisa actually made a pretty good point when she eventually taunted Monica by pointing out that Lisa was doing a better job running the company than Monica ever did.  Up to that point, everything that we had seen in the movie seemed to indicate that Lisa was correct.  Between Kevin’s parenting and Lisa’s efficiency, the villains of A Mother Betrayed were nicely nuanced.)

Much as in Dangerous Company, Monica soon finds herself suffering from terrible headaches, forgetfulness, and even hallucinations.  Kevin arranges for Monica to be committed because, in the tradition of all paranoia thrillers, literally everyone appears to be in on the plot — even the doctors!

However, Monica is not alone!  She starts to see Jonathan.  Is she hallucinating or has his spirit really returned to help her?

A Mother Betrayed was a lot of fun and I recommend it to everyone who wants to watch an enjoyably over-the-top Lifetime melodrama.  The entire cast does a pretty good job, with Adam Kaufman even managing to generate some sympathy for the duplicitous Kevin.  (Seriously, Kevin is so good with Maddy!)

Finally, on a strictly personal note, there’s no way that I couldn’t appreciate a film that features an administrative assistant named Lisa.  Finally, a character to which I could relate!

Seriously though, Lifetime replays their movies constantly.  A Mother Betrayed is one to keep an eye out for.