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Sitting Ducks (2001)
One of cable and satellite TV's animated bright spots.
In a satellite and cable TV universe where originality is a sure-fire formula for obscurity, "Sitting Ducks" was one of the brightest spots on the Cartoon Network schedule. Now banished indefinitely, it's poised to become a home video classic.
"Sitting Ducks" strikes just the right balance between cuteness for the children and sophistication for grown-ups. The friendship between Bill, an amiable self-assured duck who lives in Ducktown and Aldo, a towering 'gator from neighboring Swampwood is at the heart of the series. And what heart!
Bill and Aldo's friendship begins in an unlikely manner (without divulging too much, one was hoping to eat the other) but grows into a partnership that offers no end of comic possibilities. Aldo, we find out over time, is not just another mindless green duck-eating machine but often displays wisdom, ingenuity and even morality.
The series' setting of Ducktown is populated with an assortment of other feathered folks who are as quirky as Bill and Aldo's friendship, including Dr. Cecil, a general practitioner and aspiring dentist in a burg where not a single citizen has a tooth! To him, Aldo is a godsend, a king-size chance to ply his long unused dental craft.
The cuteness of the series is pierced from time to time by the dangers of alligators and ducks living at each other's doorsteps. Though a truce exists between Swampwood and Ducktown, 'gators regularly plot to make a meal out Ducktown's citizens. In an episode poking fun at reality TV, a duck cameraman is eaten (off-camera) by alligators. In another, Aldo is trying to curb his appetite for duck by wearing duck hormone patches prescribed by Dr. Cecil. The patches give him a hankering for duck fare. When he chomps a fly right out of the air, the insect's dying cry reverberates all the way to the next spoken line. There are also a few instances of potty humor but that's probably what sold the show to Cartoon Network.
Though "Sitting Ducks" has gone dark on cable and satellite TV, it shines brighter than ever on home video.
Press Your Luck (1983)
A game of strategy cleverly disguised as a slot machine
While many will snort "Chance! Nothing but chance!" when asked about the game show "Press Your Luck", the rules of the game turned the big board bonus round into a true exercise in strategy.
To refresh your memory, after the 3 contestants earned spins by answering 4 general knowledge questions, it was time to face the 18-square big board, with its changing prize values, score-zeroing Whammies and flying cursor. In motion, the big board was possibly one of the most hypnotic devices ever created for a game show. The contestants stopped the cursor on one of the squares by mashing an over-sized button (the same button used to buzz in and answer a question to earn 3 spins instead of answering it as a multiple-choice question for 1). It was also customary to chant "No Whammies. . .big bucks. . .no Whammies. . .big bucks" before shouting "STOP!" and hitting the button.
After the contestants earned a few thousand dollars in cash and prizes, strategy came into play. If you're in the lead, do you pass your spins and hope the second-place contender can be wiped off the board? If you're trailing, do you give your spins to the leader, hoping to topple his or her empire? The four-Whammies-and-you're-out rule forced one to make even shrewder decisions. Two players who had Whammied their scores to zero passed their spins to the only one with any prizes, and since she, too, had hit a Whammy, all three were eligible to return to play again.
It isn't until you've experienced the game yourself that the strategy angle really becomes apparent. Short of trying out for "WHAMMY: The All New Press Your Luck" on Game Show Network, you can download a remarkably accurate computer simulation of the original "Press Your Luck" at:
Tastelessly British. . .and proud of it.
And I mean that with all the love and admiration a Yank can have for the Empire.
While many American children's TV shows try to be oh, so hip and oh, so cool, with their pop references and in-jokes, "Foxbusters" cuts right to the bone with bawdy language and sight gags that will never pass Standards and Practices at Cartoon Network, even if they cablecast it at midnight. Remember, this is a series aimed at the 8-years-and-up crowd!
A few prime examples:
Sims (one of the Foxbusters, a hen, in a voice over): "It is spring and the thoughts of young animals turn to love. The sheep are leaping. The goats are doting. And the ducks are getting on rather well."
Todd (a fox, reading an instant food label): "'Just add hot water.' Now, how are foxes supposed to do that? I can only heat water by passing it through me."
Farmer (talking to the old tractor he's about to retire): "Oh, we were young and full of life then, and neither of us had any problem with leaking fluids."
An online acquaintance from England sent me a CD ROM containing 6 episodes and not a single one could be aired unedited in the USA. The only real hope Americans might have of seeing the series uncut is as a "cult" item in home video. We in the colonies can only hope it happens soon.
Perpetuating ethnic stereotypes to save the planet
Produced by Ted Turner, who flies around the world in private jets and is chauffeured from place to place in limousines with single-digit EPA fuel efficiency figures, "The New Adventures of Captain Planet" carries on the fine tradition of its predecessor, specifically, blaming all of the world's ecological woes on white people living in the Western Hemisphere.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
You alread know how it ends
And yet, you just can't help yourself. Under Robert Wise's direction, this tale of microbiological Armageddon unfolds with such perfectly metered suspense that by the 100th viewing, you STILL find yourself glued to your couch. You HAVE to see how it turns out, even though you already know.
Although the film is well over 20 years old, and the computer equipment at the Wildfire laboratory shows its age, this is a perfect change-of-pace film for any movie monster fan. Heck, you've probably already let your kids see the bloody carnage in "Jurassic Park" anyway.
Instead of the usual radioactive mutated towering apparition that flattens cities and topples skyscrapers, the monster in "The Andromeda Strain" is so tiny, it takes powerful electron microscopes to see it. The average movie monster can only cause damage wherever he can stomp, smash or exhale a blast of fiery breath. Andromeda has the potential to be carried to every corner of the world by the winds, where it could conceivably wipe out all life. Try to top THAT, Godzilla!
The real star of the film is Wildfire itself. A government facility located (we thought) safely away from populated areas, it bristles with everything a microbiologist needs to avert a biological disaster. . .or does it?
Seeking an unprecedented realism, director Robert Wise insisted that everything on the set be real, from the computer terminals (with their quaint light pens) all the way to the electron microscopes. The Wildfire set is every microbiologist's dream come true and it's populated by a quartet of actors!
Since the presence of a big-name star might blunt the impact of this high-tech visual feast, Wise carefully assembled a cast of fine actors who just don't happen to be household names. Without rehashing the characterizations, we'll just say that Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid couldn't possibly have been more perfect for their roles. With a less competent cast, "The Andromeda Strain" could have degenerated into a parody of itself. This is gritty work, saving the world from biological annihilation. It takes real ACTORS, not just pretty-boy movie stars!
Go ahead. Be scared out of your wits by something so tiny, you can't even see it. I dare you to try and get up before it's over.
A fascinating glimpse into a nearly forgotten animated world
A film archivist in Burbank, California named Ken Kramer bought several reels of movie film, paying $50 to the guy who was selling them just to get rid of him and struck pure cinematic gold. Four of the reels contained a series of theatrical cartoons that were thought to have been lost forever. The 9 cartoons had the look and of vintage 1940s Disney with a liberal splash of Looney Tunes lunacy. Each was identified as "A David Hand ANIMALAND Cartoon".
A phone call to Leonard Maltin revealed David Hand to be the same David Hand who was Walt Disney's supervising director of the animated features "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Bambi". After progressing as far as he could in the enforced anonymity of the Disney studios, Hand was lured to England by J. Arthur Rank to establish a similar animation studio on the British Isles. The "Animaland" cartoons were released theatrically in Europe but could never find an American distributor, possibly because of pressure from Hand's former employer, one Walter Elias Disney.
When the Rank Organisation closed Hand's studio, the fate of the "Animaland" cartoons remained a mystery for the past 50 years. Hand returned to the USA and spent most of the rest of his career producing industrial training films. In Europe, 4 "Animaland" cartoons eventually turned up and were released on home video overseas. They were thought to be the ONLY extant specimens.
Flash forward to Ken Kramer's incredible find. The 9 cartoons are, to date, the biggest collection from the series. The good news is that David Hand's son, David Hale Hand, agreed to their release on home video in the USA. Since David Hale Hand owns the American rights to his father's work, there are even plans for an animated feature film starring the cast of the "Animaland" cartoons.
Four of the cartoons feature Ginger Nutt, a fiery red squirrel who's easily as cute as Thumper the rabbit from "Bambi" but can be intimidating enough to fend off the 3 forest troublemakers Corny Crow, Dusty Mole and Loopy Hare. Ginger Nutt's love interest is a female squirrel named Hazel. The rest of the cartoons are one-shots with obbligatory production numbers on such species as the cuckoo, the duck-billed platypus, the ostrich, the lion and the house cat.
Anyone who enjoys classic Disney and Warner animation won't be able to stop watching these cartoons. The most fascinating thing about the cartoons is that they offer a glimpse into another cartoon world located somewhere between Disney's unrelenting cuteness and Warner Bros. madness. There's also a sense of sadness over what might have been, had David Hand been able to continue the series. Although they're on the "Just For Kids" home video label, these are still theatrical shorts, just like Disney's "Silly Symphonies" and Warner's "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies".
"Just for Kids"? Cor!
Night of the Lepus (1972)
Remake, anyone? :)
Ok, show of paws, uh, hands. . .With the summer of 1999 bringing us "Lake Placid", a soggy epic about a giant crocodile that tosses back cattle like a kid tosses back animal crackers and "Deep Blue Sea" about giant sharks that toss back actors like a giant crocodile tosses back cattle, can a high-tech, computer-generated-special-effects laden remake of "Night of the Lepus" be far behind?
Mickey Mouse Works (1999)
Well, it "Works". . .sort of
The colors are brilliant, the animation is just a tiny notch below feature quality and the current voice actors are perfect.
So, what's missing from the mix?
Mickey, or more precisely, his personality. The original press releases for "Mickey Mouse Works" promised us a Mickey who's a little bit brash, a touch lazy and bit of a slob, as in the theatrical short "Runaway Brain". Well, for "Mickey Mouse Works" to really work, Mickey needs to show a little more of his darker side. He needs to be more willing to give as good as he gets. He needs to show a little more of his darker side, as he does in a deliciously malicious moment in the short "Symphony Hour" when, as an orchestra conductor, he plants a revolver squarely between Donald Duck's eyes to stop him from walking out of a performance.
If the show survives into a second season with new cartoons, can we please see that personality they promised us for Mickey?
Sociopaths, egomaniacs and hippies.
And we have THEM to thank for all of this.
Your humble author can't help but wonder how Bob Cringely got the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Paul Allen and others in front of the cameras for an honest look inside the slightly twisted minds that begat the personal computer.
At 3 hours in length, "Triumph of the Nerds" isn't just a PBS miniseries. On home video, it becomes an epic. And why shouldn't it be? The personal computer has an impact on our lives equal to that of the light bulb and the automobile. But in the case of the PC, most of the people responsible for its creation and worldwide influence are still alive. These are flesh and blood humans, not fading historical sketches like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
"Triumph of the Nerds" was originally produced as a 20-year retrospective on the personal computer. But the PC will be 25 years old in the year 2000. I can't wait to see Bob Cringely's follow up.
Deliciously decadent black comedy
If the average comedy hurls a cream pie at your face, THIS one grabs a dark chocolate mousse cake and rams the whole thing down your throat!
Kubrick's message seems to be "If we're all going to be blown to smithereens, we might as well go out laughing". Fortunately, the former still hasn't happened but every viewing of this film definitely results in the latter. Yes, there REALLY were military types who are this fanatical, and yes, they REALLY were THAT close to "THE BUTTON". Recent events on the other side of the world have diluted the initial impact of this film, so younger viewers might want to first steep themselves in the history of the Cold War before seeing it.
For the rest of us who lived through it (anyone remember "Duck and Cover" drills?), we can breathe a sigh of relief and laugh heartily at the way we were.