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Cape Fear (1991)
Gem Of A Thriller.
Cape Fear (1991) is Scorsese's most under-appreciated film in this author's opinion, hands down. It's almost never venerated like some of the top-tier works in his oeuvre and while that's not a slight by any means, Cape Fear is hardly among his worst.
I, for one, am all praise for De Niro's outstanding portrayal. He inhabits the character emotionally as well as physically to showcase a powerhouse performance that's easily in his all-time top five, in my opinion. Nolte -- who's pretty damn impressive himself -- selflessly allows the more imposing character Max Cady to be in the saddle. You watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and you see prisoners come out after completing their sentences as shadows of their former selves, bruised and broken by the prison system. But Max Cady is hardly written as your typical low-life criminal... more like a formidable personification of cataclysmic ideas: A larger-than-life figure who quotes literary texts, solves complex arithmetic problems in his head, charms women whenever the situation demands, and bashes the living daylights out of hired crooks even when he's outnumbered. As the tattoos inscribed on his brawny body read, vengeance is his -- the thirst for divine retribution steering his schlep. Samuel Bowden's judgmental, self-righteous ways have come back to haunt him big time.
Against the backdrop of this terrifying nightmare inflicted upon the Bowdens, Scorsese is saying something about the American Dream and its fragile nature. Things were already less than perfect before Max's unwelcome arrival, but they were surely never going to be the same after his exit. Cady menacingly enters the places they frequent, the home they dwell in, the life they once cherished, and in consequence the dark memories they'll be sweeping under the rug long after his departure (pardon the Semantic Syllepsis). Cady's comfortably sprawled-out frame on the compound wall etched against the blaze of a firecracker-lit July Fourth sky drives the point home with splendor and visual acuity. The tragedy is ultimately young Danielle's -- our narrator of these events -- who's forced to let go of her innocence and embrace womanhood against her will.
Who exactly has the final privilege of judgment? Of course, that's assuming it is a privilege and not a crippling burden. Samuel's decision (a judgment call) to withhold the promiscuity report triggers the prime conflict. Should he be commended for listening to his higher voice of conscience, or should he be proscribed for holier-than-thou dereliction? Cady is 100% correct when he reminds Bowden that a lawyer is supposed to ZEALOUSLY represent his client. Scorsese, rather intelligently, is more interested in posing than answering this question. For a brief moment during the powerfully acted mock trial on the boat, Cady's eyes look directly into the camera while presenting his case, as if we, the viewer, are the Judge and he the plaintiff. The Court of Justice awaits our verdict, even though it won't have any bearing on the characters' fates.
I've never seen the original with Robert Mitchum and so have little idea regarding the sweep of its thematic coverage. But a pall of blinding darkness hangs over Scorsese's version -- there's a genuine horror to uncover in its thematic core. It exhibits filmmaking of a high standard, offers spine-chilling thrills, and launches a realistically disconcerting assault on our frangible repose. In hindsight, Cape Fear was an absolute gem of a thriller.
Top Cat (1961)
He's the chief, yes, he's the king, that's true too, but above everything he's the most tip-top Top Cat. It's a crying shame that Hanna-Barbera's understated comedy about a gang of alley-dwelling cats against the backdrop of 1960s Manhattan lasted only a meager thirty episodes. Nevertheless, in its short run "Top Cat" managed to cement its status as an animated classic and left its fans longing for more of TC's shenanigans.
It's slightly difficult to pinpoint what exactly the show is about. You could say it's about TC and his boys' attempts at hustling the naive city folk but that would be giving the story too rigid of a structure. I'd say the best way to put it is, they're up to no good. TC's batch of ne'er-do-wells consists of Benny the Ball, Brain, Choo-Choo, Fancy-Fancy, and Spook. Keeping a close watch on them is Officer Charles Dibble: A well-meaning law enforcer who only wants these anthropomorphic cats to stop engaging in monkey business. But that's too much to ask apparently.
Every character has a role to play but as the title would suggest, it's Top Cat running the show. Brought to life by Arnold Stang's outstandingly good voice acting, he's the smooth-talking, charismatic, well-spoken leader everyone looks up to for a reason. Class and TC always go hand in hand with each other. Watch the closing credits for a memorable demonstration on how to make a trash can feel like the presidential suite of a high-end hotel!
The interplay between Dibble and our protagonist constitutes the highlight of each episode. Everything works because the writers rely more on sophisticated dialogue-driven humor typical of wise guys than slapstick comedy. The humor is refreshingly unique in that the appeal runs the gamut from kids to grown-ups. There's something to enjoy for everyone.
The hand-drawn animation work of HB studios looks gorgeous. Squeaky-clean alleyways, high-rise buildings, shiny sidewalks endowed with hydrants, busy intersections, radiant traffic lights, and so on together pervade an evocative atmosphere unique to the hustle and bustle of big cities. The visuals paint a romanticized portrait of urban living in the early '60s. Every frame is well drawn and oozes quality as though Hoagy's Alley were a character in itself.
Watching Top Cat today fills me with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. I mean it as a compliment when I say that there's a time-capsule quality to the experience.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
The Apex Of Animated TV.
Tim Burton's Batman '89 gave us a mouth-watering glimpse of an on-screen Batman adaptation finally done right but that's all it offered: a glimpse. It simply fell short of that pitch darkness the character has always been synonymous with. Enter Batman: The Animated Series.
TAS restores gravitas to the Caped Crusader's mythology in its pristine glory. Darker in tone and ever so poetic in thematic substance, it also observes Gotham City's crime situation with a realistic eye. Guns are fired, crimes happen, people die, and incidents pan out as they probably would in real life. Without the gritty approach it wouldn't have been possible to impart verisimilitude to the material. The subject matter lifted from the comics is treated with reverence, which is what any fan would want.
The animation art harks back to the oneiric mood of the comic-books. Gotham is conceptualized as the kind of brooding crime haven that would've impelled Bruce Wayne to sport the dreaded Cape-and-Cowl. Visual staples of the noir genre are superimposed upon Art Deco-influenced architecture illuminated by a reddish-brown night sky, perfectly realizing a once-great city in a state of total disorder. There's something elegiac about the imagery. An orchestrated soundtrack -- one of the best in animation history in my opinion -- amplifies the on-screen drama to Shakespearean proportions. And not much needs to be said about Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and the rest of the cast who became household names through their award-winning work. Seriously, this show is the paragon of technical perfection.
The writers dig deep into Bruce Wayne's tortured psyche, never hesitant to explore the complexities of his internal conflicts. Understanding the raison d'être of his part righteous, part vengeful nocturnal persona is fascinating to say the least. Batman (an inner demon) supplanted the part of Bruce that died along with his parents. Bruce still blames himself for their untimely death, and his past is a tale of genuine pathos. Batman forced himself out of the depths of Bruce's tormented soul as an answer to that rankling sense of guilt, that frustrating feeling of powerlessness amidst rampant crime, and that haunting question we've all asked ourselves: could I have done more. Maybe it's this duality of the Caped Crusader that gives purpose to the madness of his nemeses. It's a strange dichotomy as Batman wouldn't have existed without the villains, and villains like The Joker wouldn't exist without Batman. No wonder Gotham is an attraction to the insane.
Such beautiful characterization isn't confined to Bruce Wayne alone. Alfred isn't so much the family butler as Master Wayne's spiritual father: a guiding light to his son in times of emotional turmoil. I was impressed with Gordon's portrayal as well. He's depicted as an honest, hard-working cop who craves justice just as much as the Dark Knight does. Wary of Batman's methods but never his intentions, he too understands that a cesspool like Gotham probably needs someone who can circumvent the impotent legal system.
Batman: The Animated Series is a masterpiece; plain and simple. Buy the complete DVD box set as soon as you finish reading this review. :)
Ed, Edd n Eddy (1999)
Why Not Eddy, Ed, n Edd? Because It's More Confusing That Way!
Ed, Edd n Eddy -- Cartoon Network's longest-running original series -- delves into the colorful idiosyncrasies of childhood through an absurdist lens. The principal storyline revolves around a socially excluded threesome and their oft-failed attempts at purchasing scrumptious jawbreakers via swindling the other kids in the cul-de-sac.
Our protagonists, Ed, Edd, and Eddy, are friends with each other for no other reason than the simple fact that nobody else wants to be friends with them. Ed is the village idiot of the group, a dim-witted daydreamer who's on numerous occasions, unfortunately, on the receiving end of his spoiled baby sister's (Sara) wrath. Edd is the intellectual one, the ingenious gadget designer guiding the technical workings of the trio's scams, and the only one who commands some semblance of respect from his peers. Eddy is the self-proclaimed leader who brainstorms these misbegotten plans in the first place. He's hated by pretty much everyone. Together with Kevin, Rolf, Nazz, Jimmy, the Kanker sisters and Plank, they form the complete set of characters on the show.
Absurdist humor works best under situations that completely defy the conventional functioning of causal reasoning. This can be done so by deliberately centering the joke around an implausible, ridiculous, nonsensical, senseless event in such a manner that its final outcome evokes laughter out of bewilderment. The joke subverts our expectations as the punchline comes from a realm different from the one we presume the joke is occurring in (think of a Chuck Norris joke). That's precisely why I believe that the setting of the show is a stroke of genius by Danny Antonucci.
The cul-de-sac, governed by its own forces and rules, is a bizarre land for a plethora of reasons. Aside from the construction site, every location looks and feels the same to the extent that it'd be pretty easy to get lost in this secluded suburbia of spatial anomalies. In fact, without the sporadic trumpet beats keeping the viewer company it would feel like a rather lonely place. For instance, even though their presence is acknowledged, why are the adult characters never visible on-screen? How does everything run like clockwork without their supervision? Why are the characters the only kids living in the area? Does Plank actually come to life every now and then? But of course, to ponder over such questions would be to miss the point of this brilliant show.
The illogical surroundings are purposely designed the way they are so as to equip the characters with their very own peculiarities. Ed's eccentric utterances and gravy puns, the dynamic between Johnny and Plank, Rolf's anecdotes about his former shepherd life, Kevin's obsession with his jock image -- all this wouldn't be as laugh-out-loud funny if not accentuated by the iconic setting. It only makes sense to create an environment that could harbor such uniqueness; one that's as surreal as its inhabitants' imaginations.
Above all else, the show is about the carefree aimlessness of childhood. It's a glorious period, really. Still sheltered from vice, we can live in our very own dream worlds where time is stagnant (or at least feels so). Ed, Edd n Eddy makes me want to revisit those days of heaven and wish they had never ended.
Courage the Cowardly Dog (1999)
Terror In The Land Of Innocence.
I look back on Courage the Cowardly Dog and it's hard to question its uniqueness and boldness. In terms of content and presentation some shows simply have no equal and "Courage" is one of them. Horror comedy per se is a slightly tricky genre; it can be trickier still when catered primarily to a juvenile audience. But all this didn't stifle its creators as they stealthily ventured into thematic territories few of their contemporaries would dare, intermixing horror with comedy, comedy with horror, and every once in a while producing something that's nerve-jangling horror by any standard.
The opening intro sums up the premise quite well so I needn't go too much into the details. Courage is a timid, petrified canine who finds a home in the middle of Nowhere when he's adopted by Muriel to the dismay of her grouchy farmer-husband, Eustace. What follows is a chain of horrifying misadventures as Nowhere is anything but an ordinary town: it's a stygian barren land. Fortitude isn't the absence of fear but taking action despite its presence and Courage demonstrates that time and again in every episode by coming to the rescue of his new owners (even though Eustace abhors him).
Eustace's bumbling personality does allow for moments of comic relief but be warned, this is still a dark, dark show. Infidelity, prostitution, exorcisms, satanic curses etc. hardly qualify as the kind of stuff you'd expect to notice in children's television programming but it's all there -- well disguised, covert, hidden behind opaque curtains but still there. The effective technique of integrating CGI with traditional animation adds considerably to the show's dreamlike, disorientating aura. You, the viewer, become one with CtCD's supernatural landscape which makes for an impossibly engaging viewing experience. The soundtrack does a wonderful job augmenting the tonal sensibility of the story, mirroring the characters' momentary thoughts, (panic, peace, disbelief, awe, horror) and transplanting energy to the ambient scenery. The soundtracks of the episodes "The Great Fusilli", "King Ramses' Curse", and "Windmill Vandals" sound like the sort of music devotees would play while performing macabre rituals before the devil himself. Perhaps the technical adroitness and the mature subtext are the reasons John Dilworth's magnum opus still lingers in my memory deep into adulthood when so many other cartoons have faded into oblivion or simply don't hold up.
On a concluding note, I'd say Courage the Cowardly Dog is a timeless gem. Instructive but never overbearing; chilling but always heart-warming. :)
Ben 10 (2005)
The End Of A Glorious Era.
The original Ben 10 series is one of the better Cartoon Network shows I can remember from recent years. In fact, its end coincided with the end of a glorious era of adventure-oriented animated shows that were smartly written and could be enjoyed by adults and kids alike. To summarize everything in two sentences, Ben 10 tells the story of a ten-year-old boy whose boring summer vacation with his grandpa and his cousin takes an exciting turn when he -- not quite by sheer luck -- gets his hands on the most powerful device in the universe, The Omnitrix. He now has the dream prize of every narcissistic bad guy out there and that's not a good thing, to put it mildly.
Where to start the praise from? I guess the animation art isn't too bad; it is great, as a matter of fact. The colors aren't too bright but of the right measure, and the scenery in the background always has a realistic feel which befittingly captures the vivid imagination of its talented writers. It's not too conspicuous but that's a good thing. An integral facet of every episode, it can be safely said.
As for the main characters, all of them are likable as well as relatable. Ben reminds the viewer of a more mischievous incarnation of their childhood self: a not-so-typical good-hearted douche bag with a penchant for adventures which at his age is understandable. Max is the perfect blend of a strict but caring grandpa who treasures whatever little time he gets to spend with his grandchildren. The man is dignity and warmth personified. Ben's cousin sister, Gwen, is a little obnoxious (I won't sugarcoat it) but as the show progresses you tend to start acknowledging her complementary role -- accepting her nerdy but interesting ways.
I absolutely love the villains, most of whom are given their own menacing angles and evil motivations. Vilgax, Enoch, Zombozo, Dr. Animo, Kevin -- all made invaluable contributions to the charged, tense atmosphere of the show. Hey, the hero is only as good as the villains he's up against and Ben 10 comprehends this as well as anything.
This review would probably feel incomplete if I didn't give a description of the very thing that's the root of this see-saw battle: the darn watch. The Omnitrix operates by attaching itself to the holder's DNA who can then morph into any available alien of his choice. Each alien has a unique ability, and it's said that the Omnitrix in total control can unleash an army strong enough to conquer the whole universe. Talk about the very definition of a crippling responsibility. The existence of extraterrestrial beings has always been a fascinating subject of discussion for me and maybe that's why I find the concept of Ben 10 engrossing.
Aside from the aspects I've mentioned, the show expertly examines simple but relevant themes of good vs evil, being there for your family, and respecting the perpetual and inexplicable powers of the the earth and the universe. With the advent of technology and the increasing cockiness of the human race, such issues are more important now than ever before. That's exactly why I feel that Ben's (man) judicious use of the powerful Omnitrix (technology) in the show is a truly commendable example to its viewers. The dark themes are presented in a palatable way. For instance, the masterful episode "The Last Laugh" is about confronting your inner fears/demons (do not miss this one, by the way).
Ben 10 also has fantastic voice acting. You can expect nothing but the highest level of quality from Tara Strong and co.
For me at least the Ben 10 series ended with Ben still a kid. The way I see it, the new series with a teenage Ben simply isn't the same; it just isn't. The great action sequences, witty dialog, and clever storytelling are a Ben 10 trademark and Alien Force has none of the exuberance that made Ben 10 awesome in the first place. All good things come to an end, I guess, but at least I'll always have those fond memories in my heart. You rule, Ben!
The Cramp Twins (2001)
A Laugh Riot!!!!
The Cramp Twins is a supremely entertaining show that'll never fail to tickle your funny bone. Set in the fictional town of Soap City, the story is about two brothers in the Cramp family and their day-to-day adventures and experiences.
Although they are twins, Lucien and Wayne share little in common. Lucien is the Nature-loving gentle soul always looking for ways to protect and nurture the swamp, while Wayne is the aggressive angry boy who likes spending time at the junkyard with close friend, Dirty Joe. Their opposite mannerisms often put them on collision course with hilarious results. Voiced by the brilliant Tom Kenny, blue-colored Wayne Cramp really makes this show stand out. His sadistic yet lovable attitude will have you in splits. Despite being averse to Nature, he is successfully able to recycle and re-use various household items on a daily basis. Lucien, however, is into Nature but doesn't possess any of these attributes. And that's all part of the ironic charm that makes The Cramp Twins the wonderful social satire it is. It delightfully examines the abuse inflicted on the environment by greedy corporations and heavy industries.
Overall, the show is well written and voiced by a talented cast. The animation art is easy on the eyes and quite innovative. A must-watch. Kudos to Brian Wood!