YouTube Cinema: Transformers the Movie (1986)

May 7, 2009

The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot’s home planet of Cybertron. But, from secret staging grounds on two of Cybertron’s moons the valiant Autobots plan to take back their homeland.

FROM JASON’S ENERGON STOCKPILE — Blah blah blah, Optimus Prime Dies. Youngsters crying. Childhood trauma. Yada yada yada.

There. It’s out of the way. Now let’s get down to some far more interesting aspects of one of the most memorable movies of the 1980s.

Watching Transformers the Movie (again) this week on my 42-inch plasma, I was shocked by how good this 23-year-old ‘toon looks. Each cell is a mash-up of deeply-inked shadow and ambient electric light washing over hard metal, and all of it comes through in the same supra-bright color I remember drinking in as a six-year-old.

The terrestrial backdrops are breathtaking, and even more amazing are the emminently-intricate planetscapes of Cybertron, Junk, Lithone, and Quintessa. This isn’t some minimalist Nicktoon. The depth of detail really is staggering: Each scene is filled with all the ports, exhaust grids, data banks,  gears, axles, and metal plating you’d expect from enormous robuts.

tf07

tf06

tf04

Sure, some of the sequences have a ropey Scooby Doo feel (watch Soundwave carry Megatron’s body away from Autobot City). But there is more anime than Hanna-Barbera here — which makes sense, since Matrix Forever (as it’s called in Japan) was made by Toei Animation.

Toei is the powerhouse studio behind some of the most memorable anime and cartoons of the past three decades: Galaxy Express 999, Sailor Moon, Inhumanoids, Robotix, G.I. Joe, Mazinger Z, Voltron, Dragon Ball, Getter Robo, Fist of the North Star, Captain Harlock.

And through it all, Transformers the Movie is a spectacle of pure size. Everything is huge — not just Cybertron and the planet-sized Unicron, but the size of the cast, the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the assault on the Autobot stronghold, the galaxy-spanning plot and civilizations, Devastator, the shock of the many, many deaths, the impact of Starscream’s demise, and the rise of a new leader to take season three and beyond in a completely different direction.

Who doesn’t want to see a showdown between the Constructicons and the Dinobots?

tf02

And then there are the subtle touches that send us nerds into an orgasmic froth — like when Megatron pulls out his laser sword. Because any Star Wars devotee will know that director Nelson Shin designed the lightsabers for Episode IV: A New Hope.

Speaking of which, one IMDB dweeb really made me smile by drawing character comparisons between Star Wars and Transformers the Movie (of course, they are fairly standard Campbell-ian archetypes):

Hot Rod = Luke Skywalker
Springer = Han Solo
Arcee = Princess Leia
Optimus Prime = Obi-Wan Kenobi
Galvatron = Darth Vader
Unicron = The Emperor with the Death Star as his body
Junkions = Ewoks

All that Arthurian “hero’s journey” nonsense aside, I still think that 1980s cartoons made villains more appealing than the heroes, just like with G.I. Joe.

While the Autobots were chunky, moralistic, painted in prime colors (no pun intended), and slightly boring, the Decepticons were sleeker, all angles, and secondary colors. They also had a far more dynamic range of models — where the Autobots were, well, autos, the Decepticons were tanks, jets, guns, and even motherfucking astrotrains.

tf09 tf01 tf08

The Decepticons also had much more social intrigue, with the morbid comedy of the Starscream vs. Megatron rivalry. None of the Autobots tried to usurp Optimus’ authority, but on the other side there was constant scheming and power-shifts.

Need more of an argument? Let’s consider the worst Autobot: Perceptor.

The robut-cum-microscope was the only Transformer my parents ever allowed me to have, saying he was non-violent and (even worse) educational. He doesn’t shoot. He just talks a lot and sees things from far away. Great power, douche-bot.

He would never have survived as a Decepticon. Megatron would have crushed him under heel for being a useless turd.

Other Autobots go down like punks in the film, taking a single shot to the chest and oozing black smoke from their lifeless corpses. Ironhide, Brawn, Ratchet, and Prowl are decimated in a matter of a 20-second space battle. They barely pull their guns.

The only other real criticism I have is that the 1986 flick suffers from a distinct lack of Megan Fox.

Oh, and that Rodimus Prime is a glorified Winnebago. WTF?!

Advertisements

Midnight showing: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

April 25, 2009

wonka01

FROM JASON’S INDIE THEATER — There are very few movies my wife has the patience to sit through, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is her favorite.

The bright colors, the singing, and her obsession with all things Roald Dahl are enough to overcome the mild ADD that has her wiggling out of her seat during the movies I like. So she was like — and forgive me here — a kid in a candy store last night when the local $3 theater gave a midnight showing of the 1971 “children’s” movie.

The place was packed with the gangly and socially awkward denizens of the nearby Oberlin College, which made the experience fun. Dorm life being what it is, they were keyed in to every drug reference and sexual subtext thrown up on the screen. They sang along at all the right parts. How could we not join in?

They went bananas at all manner of phallic symbols — from the pumping pistons of the Everlasting Gobstopper machine to the ejaculatory tubas in the “car wash” scene (especially when Mrs. Teevee was shot in the face with a big wad of… “bubbles”).

There were huge laughs when Bill said, “You were born to be a Wonka-er,” because it ostensibly sounded similar to “wanker.” Everybody started rolling when 13-year-old Charlie insisted on buyinghis grandfather tobacco.

One loud-mouthed frosh in the front row bellowed, “WRONG!” when Mrs. Teevee identified Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” as Rachmaninoff. But for such a literate crowd, they sure were scratching their heads at the Oscar Wilde or Ogden Nash quotes. One girl didn’t get the Shakespearean origins of, “Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head,” and shouted, “What the hell?!”

And we were all a little uncomfortable together in the dark theater when watching how the on-screen adults acted toward the children. The threat of child molestation has profoundly changed the acceptable ways to touch kids in the past 30 years. When Slugworth (aka Wilkinson) would grab a child from behind and start whispering in his or her ear, it took an insidious tone. And even some comments by Willy seemed wildly unacceptable and inuendo-filled.  It’s easy to see why Johnny Depp took the Michael Jackson interpretation in the 2005 remake.

Next Saturday, the same theater is screening Labyrinth at midnight, with several more as-yet-unnamed cult classics to follow through the summer.

I’m eager to see whether the college kids will arrive at the same conclusions as The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast host Paul Chapman about the film — whether it’s all about a young girl’s escapist repression of childhood sexual abuse.

Won’t that be enlightening?

I’m glad for experiences like these. I mean, I have a 42-inch flatscreen plasma TV at home, so there’s nothing really pressing anymore about going out to the movies… that is, unless they offer something I can’t get at home. At least one cinema owner is trying to foster an actual movie-going experience instead of just collecting an outrageous sum to slap people in cramped seats.

The management didn’t get pissy at the kids for being boistrous. Nobody was upset at the singing, or yelling for anyone to be quiet. It was a communal experience, a kind of group enjoyment typically only available at a ball park. And it’s why I’ll be going back to the Apollo Theatre.

So if you made it this far, here’s a reward:


YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009


Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.


Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.


New obsessesion: Flight of the Conchords

January 29, 2009

FROM JASON’S YOUTUBE — The obsession has lasted three days already.

Good laughs are hard to find these days; once you get past the miserable sea of fart and sex jokes out there, there’s not much left. My single criterion for all sitcoms and comedy acts: They have to be damned clever.

That’s why snarky, off-beat shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock caught my attention, and recently I’ve noticed the same low-fi buzz that surrounded both has encompassed a new act — The Flight of the Conchords. After hearing the show’s title bandied around all the right circles, I decided Tuesday to check out New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk/comedy duo, and I still can’t rip my eyes and ears away from their nerdy pun-and-run musical humor.

The first vid I pulled up on the ol’ YouTube was titled “Mermaids,” and I had no bloody god-damned clue what to make of it. It was a strange dorky brew of uncool nightclub cliches, ukulele, and groan-worthy wordplay. But it all came across as gut-wrenchingly funny:

I had to have more, and the next vid I loaded up was the clincher. After seeing this double punch of philosophically-confused robots and a binary solo, I was a Conchord groupy.

Look no further for proof that comic timing is just as important as any other part of the joke. I mean, “Come on, sucker, lick my battery” wouldn’t have had nearly the same punch except that it was slipped in at just the right time before Bret launched into the Robot Boogie.

Octave-switching can also be especially funny, especially when combined with completely uncomfortable lyrics like:

Well sometimes It gets lonely and I need a woman,
And then I imagine you with some bosoms.

In fact, one time when we were touring
And I was feeling really lonely,
And we were sharing that twin room in the hotel,
I put a wig on you while you were sleeping,
I put a wig on you.
And I just lay there and spooned you.

Yeah, bro-mance is funny.

Of course you don’t even need words if you can summon the pure visual power of a 1980s angry Kevin Bacon musical movie montage, like Bret did. Seriously — who picks Footloose as a target for parody these days?

These hilarious kiwis have translated their stage show into an HBO sitcom, which just launched its second season last month. Now, I really don’t care to order up any premium cable channels, but I am ready topay for the two-disc seasone one set of Flight of the Conchords, which can be found on Amazon.com for just $20 and change.

Oh, and if you are reading this, HBO execs, look how great an advertising avenue YouTube is for your product. You’ll be getting money for me because some “pirate” posted your intellectual property for free.


Music Monday: The Gandharvas and The Commodores

December 29, 2008

The Gandharvas — Watching the Girl

I grew up in New York state, right across the St. Lawrence Seaway from Ontario, Canada. So most of my youth was spent listening to Canadian radio, which is required by Big Brother law to broadcast a certain amount of nationalistic propaganda made-in-Canada media content.

Living now in the heartland of America, it’s strange to casually mention any number of Canadian bands — Barstool Prophets, The Tragically Hip, The Gandharvas — and get slackjawed stares in return. A few here and there remember Our Lady Peace, but nobody in Ohio has heard of Econoline Crush or Cowboy Junkies.

So here, American friends. Let me act as an ambassador for my penguin-eating, maple-syrup-snorting, hockey-puck-humping, bomber-hat-and-flannel-wearing cousins in our 51st state to the north. Let me share with you a taste of the boys from London, Ontario, the pride of Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge.

Even in the band’s height (they broke up in 2000, shortly after I headed to college in the Great Lakes Region) they didn’t grab a whole lot of airtime. Watching the Girl seemed to ignite a red-hot fan base for about a month, and then it was gone — which is strange, considering how I always thought its artistic invocation of Norse (Ouroboros) and Greek (Sirens) mythology was extremely attractive.

The Commodores — Lady (You Bring Me Up)

My father is a short, compact, curly-haired white man of German and English decent. If he slapped a yamika on his head, he could easily pass for a rabbi. But that never stopped him from thinking he was black, at least when it came to his LPs.

His vinyl collection (still very much in use to this day, and I am hoping to inherit it) is built around prog rock classics like Styx’s Grand Illusion and, strangely, soul brothers like The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.

When I was little, he would crank up Brick House or Easy and dance around in a pitiful white man’s mockery of rhythm. The memories of that dancing still burn.

But now that I’m quickly approaching 30 and have lived through a full generational cycle of musical styles, a horrible truth is sinking in: My father, though I rail against the idea, had excellent taste. Lady (You Bring Me Up) probably isn’t the coolest song I could have mentioned here, but Dad would be able to tell you it’s got tight composition, a jumpin’ signature bass line, and just the right mix of brass to make it indelibly good, and a more or less permanent fixture on my iPod.


Music Monday: Louis Jordan

December 22, 2008

jordanMore than Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, or Elvis, Louis Jordan (1908-1975) is responsible for rock and roll.

Back in the 1940s, he fused boogie woogie and big band sounds to create “jump blues,” an up-beat kind of bebop that he crafted with both alto sax and his outrageous lyrics.

In a time of barbaric racial divide, Jordan demolished segregation on the charts by hitting the Top 10 on both the white and “colored” lists, selling about four million records. With help from his band, The Tympany Five, he had 54 singles on the charts in the 40s alone. Eighteen of them his number one.

I’m a child of the 80s, and far removed from those old rock-jazz roots. The first I stumbled on Louis Jordan was on hearing a cover of Knock Me a Kiss in 1996’s Swingers (one of the few times I’ve liked Vince Vaughn).

As soon as I heard it, I had to have the song. It took a long time to find it, mainly because YouTube — not even MP3s — didn’t exist at the time. When user-submitted video content started hitting the web, very few Jordan videos were among them, and authentic vids of many of my favorites (Saturday Night Fish Fry, Beans and Corn Bread, Knock Me a Kiss) still can’t be found.

Here are a few that are definitely worth watching:

Beware

Jordan was reportedly married five times, so he purported to know all about the vices of manipulative women. Sure, the song is a little misogynistic. But take it from another married guy — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.

And if you go for a walk, and she listens while you talk / She’s tryin’ to hook you.

If she grabs your hand and says, “darling, you’re such a nice man” / Beware, I’m telling you.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby

I put this in Jordan’s three best songs. It’s simple. It’s short. But it’s got a very catchy melody and a smoky trumpet hook that’s impossible to resist.

Of course, the grammar is loathsome, but if you can forgive Horse with No Name, you can forgive Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.

Caldonia

This song is arguably more about Jordan’s personality than musical merit. It’s wrapped around what we consider today to be a very elementary bass line, but where it shines is in its indictment of the title woman’s faults, and Jordan’s insistence on loving her anyway.

I mentioned he was a little sexist, right? To prove I can be just as bad, I’m going to say the cheesecake on the piano sure had some nice gams.

Knock Me a Kiss

This song is terrific, but I had to cheat to find a version worth posting. This isn’t Louis Jordan’s rendition, but Ina Ray Hutton’s 1943 performance tour to US military installations.