Friday, April 14, 2006

Some stand-up comedy and some cartoons are in this week’s DVD column.

Inspector Gadget: The Original Series

One of the signs of success for an animated cartoon is whether or not someone wants to make a live-action version of the property. By that standard, the Inspector Gadget series has been quite successful, as there have been two live-action comedies based on the 1980s television staple.

This four-disc set features the first 22 Inspector Gadget episodes, as well as a short documentary on the genesis of the show. The series started in 1983 and was a huge international success – eventually it was seen in 55 countries and in 24 languages.

Gadget himself never was thoroughly explained – all we knew is that he was a bumbling secret agent with robotic parts who was aided by his niece and her dog. He fought a never-ending fight against Dr. Claw, the leader of an evil secret organization. The show emphasized slapstick over violence and seemed to be an ideal action show for younger children.

With a voice supplied by Don Adams, it was easy for adults to see Gadget as an extension of Adams’ famous Maxwell Smart character. Like Smart, gadget was always unaware just how incompetent he was.

Besides the documentary, the set includes the pilot episode in which Gadget sports a bushy mustache. He dropped the facial hair when MGM threatened to sue. The company thought Gadget looked too close to Inspector Clouseau!

Gadget remains a fun cartoon for the younger crowd even after more than 20 years after his debut.

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Aeon Flux

Generally, when a studio doesn’t schedule advance screenings for critics, the impression is the film embarrasses them and that it’s a dog.

Aeon Flux didn’t have advance screenings and didn’t make a great impression with the critics and theatrical audiences.

Frankly, I’m not sure why. The film is competently made and has a tone and look that is quite commercial.

It’s not the greatest science fiction/action movie ever made, but it certainly isn’t the worst. If you’re into the genre, it’s a diverting way to spend 92 minutes.

Charlize Theron stars in this adaptation of the somewhat inscrutable MTV animated series of over a decade ago. The cartoon series was overly sexual and violent, but this live action version substitutes those elements with plot and characterization in an effort to tell a real story.

Theron is Aeon Flux, a revolutionary trying to end the dictatorial reign of Trevor Goodchild in what is believed to be the last human city on earth. Things, however, are not as they seem, and Goodchild is hiding a very big secret from his people.

Loaded with extra features including five featurettes, the DVD also features a commentary from the star and Oscar-winner herself.

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Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself

Ventriloquist Dunham is a western Massachusetts favorite, having appeared many times at the Comedy Connection at the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee. His first DVD has just been released which is a comedy concert featuring Dunham and, well, Dunham, Dunham, Dunham and Dunham with different voices.

I’m a sucker for this kind of entertainment. Paul Winchell, Edgar Bergen, and Senor Wences were all childhood favorites of mine and Dunham stands up with those stars of yesteryear.

Not only is he a technically proficient performer, he is just plain funny.
I had never caught his act live, but now that I’ve seen him captured on video, I will make sure to see him the next time he is in the area.

The DVD features both a “bleeped” and “unbleeped” versions of the performance as well as outtakes and bonus clips.

If you’ve seen Dunham perform, you’ll want to see this DVD.

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Dave Attell’s Insomniac Tour Uncensored!

I’ve interviewed Dave Attell three times now and I’m a huge fan of his off-kilter, self-deprecating and sometimes very adult humor. Needless to say, I was curious about this DVD which is an uncensored version of a Comedy Central special that aired earlier this year.

The show is basically a comedy concert and has little of the Insomniac elements (interacting with every day people and seeing what’s happening at 3 a.m.) that I enjoy so much.

As a concert goes there are high and lows. Atell is the host and is in great form, but I can’t say the same about some of his fellow comics. Sean Rouse is simply boring and Dane Cook ends his set with a disturbingly dirty tale of adolescent lust. Greg Giraldo is quite good, though.

For the right crowd, this is a fine party DVD. If you have to make a sandwich, do it when Rouse is on.

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Garbage Pail Kids: The Complete Series

In the 1990s I edited and published two nationally distributed magazines on animation. I have seen hundreds of animated productions – movies, theatrical shorts and television series. Seldom have I sat through something so hideous that it just might be the worst animated series ever made for American television.

And until now it was safely in a vault someplace.

Those folks who grew up in the 1980s will remember the Garbage Pail Kids, a card set from Topps that parodied the then popular Cabbage Patch Kids. The cards featured illustrations of disgusting “children” that emphasized mucus, vomit and physical deformity.

Kids loved the grossness of the cards and they have remained in print on and off up to today. Their popularity inspired a 1987 live action movie, which bombed, and this 1989 cartoon series that was commissioned by CBS and never aired.

In true 1980s television animation fashion, there is no set-up for what we are about to watch. Only by inflicting multiple episodes upon yourself do you learn the show is actually a sort of superhero parody with five “normal” kids who are able to become trash heroes and fight crime or adults or someone. It’s not really clear.

The show is repulsive, but obviously the network didn’t want to go as far as the original trading cards did.

Thank goodness.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Hey, cartoons hit the C-barrier!

This is from the ASIFA-Hollywood blog:

Animation Celebrates Its Centenary

"The first examples of animation fascinated and delighted audiences and that appeal has never waned in the past hundred years. Animators continue to explore and develop new technology, but the goal of entertaining an audience hasn't changed very much since the days of J. Stuart Blackton." -Leonard Maltin, Film Historian

The ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive is celebrating Animation's 100th Birthday on April 6th. From its humble beginnings with J. Stuart Blackton's film, "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" first released on April 6th, 1906, animation has gone on to become one of the greatest American creative contributions to the arts, second only to Jazz.

The Director of ASIFA-Hollywood's Animation Archive, Stephen Worth explains, "Although there were many early films that experimented with stop motion and other techniques related to animation, Blackton was the first to create 'drawings that live'... sequential drawings of characters acting and reacting to each other. The word 'animate' literally means 'to give life to'. Blackton gave life to a whole new artform with his pioneering efforts."

James Stuart Blackton was a "Lightning Sketch Artist" in Vaudeville billed as "The Komikal Kartoonist". Inspired by Thomas Edison's recent invention of moving pictures, Blackton teamed with Albert E. Smith to form the first movie studio, Vitagraph Films. Smith and Blackton created what were then called "trick films"... the camera was stopped for a moment while the scene was changed, making objects and people magically appear and disappear; images dissolved from one to another; and shots were double exposed to create ghostly images. In 1900, Blackton experimented with putting his lightning sketch act on film in a movie called "The Enchanted Drawing", but it was in April of 1906 when he made his most important breakthrough. With a trick film titled "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" Blackton created what is widely regarded as the first American animated film.

Now if we could get more classic animation out there on DVD for new generatiosn of fans to appreciate!

Standard disclaimer: These are my words alone.

Friday, April 07, 2006

If you're a comics fan, then put this event on your calendar!

In a medium crowded with vengeance, villains and violence, Williamsburg cartoonist Mark Martin is putting the “comic” back into “comic book.”

Martin will be signing the first edition of his new Runaway Comic from1 to 4 p.m. on April 15 at Modern Myths at 34 Bridge St., Northampton. Runaway Comic has been recently released by Fantagraphics Books, the company that publishes such alternative comics stars such as Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge.

Although no stranger to comic books – he has produced highly acclaimed parodies of Batman, Daredevil and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among other projects – Martin is re-entering the comic book field after a long stint as a freelance cartoonist at Nickelodeon Magazine, Boy’s Life and Disney Adventures Magazine.

Martin’s star is no crime-fighting, angst-ridden superhero, but instead a young frog named Montgomery Wart who possesses an active imagination and a proclivity for trouble. Wart appeared in Tantalizing Stories, a collaboration between Martin and fellow cartoonist Jim Woodring.

The Wart stories are full of artistic detail, slapstick action, playful language – Martin has an ear for dialect – and many pop culture references.

Ask Martin who has influenced his work and there’s a long list: “Bill Elder, George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Marie Severin, Zap, Arcade, Raw, Weirdo, Monty Python, the Usual Gang of Idiots [MAD magazine], Salvador Dali, just about any old children's comic from the ‘40s, just about any old magazine from the 40s, Al Capp, Johnny Hart, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Johnson Smith catalogs, National Lampoon in its hayday, my dad, my Aunt Jane, Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, Friendly Giant, Melvin Monster, Sugar and Spike, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Dalton Trumbo, Fleischer Studios, Disney Studios, on and on and on.”

Martin’s new book also features stories and strips that comment on politics and history as well as his own life. Anyone who has undertaken a major home renovation should appreciate his autobiographical “Hectic Grueling Torture Vision: Summer Remodeling” story.

Another influence is his Southern roots. Although he has made his home in western Massachusetts for over a decade, Martin is a native of Alabama and attentive readers might catch references to everything from Piggly Wiggly supermarkets to comedian Jerry Clower.

Drawing isn’t just a career for Martin – it’s a way of life. Martin has loved cartooning since he was a child.

“I can remember liking comic strips as far back as I can remember. I always loved comics, especially the Sunday Comics of course. I studied them before I could read. My real passion was coloring books. I think I had a pretty impressive collection, and I was an obsessive collector type even back then. I can remember hoarding them and wallowing in them like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin,” he said.

“Drawing, same thing, I remember loving to draw as far back as I can remember,” he added.

Having worked for Kevin Eastman, one half of the creative pair behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomena, Martin has seen what can happen when success strikes, but that isn’t his motivation.

“Money, fame, and glory are nice perks, but I was drawing comics when I had no conscious ambition of actually being a published cartoonist. I always loved art, and I always thought I would try to have some kind of art career, but I did not always think I had what it takes to be a comic artist.

“In fact, I was sure I did not have what it takes the first few times I sat down and seriously tried to actually draw a publishable comic story. The first thing I tried was a Pink Panther comic. The second thing was a Harlan Ellison story. I can't remember the name of the story, but it's the one where a girl purposely bashes her head into a wall at the beginning of the story. If I still had these two laughable attempts at cartooning, I would show them to you, but they are long gone,” he said.

Martin is currently working on the second issue of Runaway Comics as well as writing a daily blog at

Standard disclaimer applies here: There are my words alone.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

It was my privilege last week to take part in a discussion on censorship as part of the programming for the One Book, One Springfield [MA] event sponsored by the City Library.

The subject of censorship plays a large part in this year’s featured book, Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction novel is set in a future where books are illegal and, when found, are burned.

Accompanying me on the panel were Daniel Russell, professor of social sciences at Springfield College, Rabbi Robert Sternberg, executive director of the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center and Reven Jajjow Hedo, Fulbright Scholar in translation studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Our moderator was Louis Battalen, director of the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls.

The questions were discussed revolved around our own experiences with censorship and self-censorship and whether or not efforts to institute elements of censorship were inevitable in a free society.

The comments were thought provoking and we probably could have stayed much longer into the night discussing the subject.

The best comments came from Hedo. He is an Iraqi citizen who had a career under the Saddam Hussein regime as a translator, specializing in Arabic and English. He has been studying in this country for the past two years and has not seen his family during that time.

A soft-spoken young man, he recounted a time before the war when a government official, prior to a translation assignment, briefed him and other translators. The official made it clear that the translators had to put the most positive spin they could on what Iraqi citizens were telling a Western inspection team. Fabricating a false statement was not out of the question.

He also said if a group wanted to speak freely about the government, doors and windows would be shut in fear that someone passing by might hear something that could land someone in prison.

He told his stories without dramatic flourishes. These were the facts of life for the people of Iraq. He said that because of his experiences he didn’t know too much about freedom of speech.

On the contrary, I told the audience, I thought he knew more about freedom of speech than any of us.

There are too many nations in which people lose their lives and their liberty simply by expressing what they think. I think many of us understand what this means on an intellectual level, but we can’t actually know what that society is like unless we experience it.

Hedo’s quiet words gave us all much food for thought.

The One Book, One Springfield programming will continue on April 12 with a lecture by Bill Yousman at 7 p.m. in the Community Room of the Central Library. Yousman is the managing director of the media Education Foundation and he will speak on the impact of mass media and media manipulation.

On April 26, there will be another panel discussion on the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act on libraries. It will also be at 7 p.m. in the Central Library’s Community Room.

The One Book, One Springfield program is a great resource for anyone who is interested in civil liberties, the media and our society today.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Three new CDs have made their way to my desk and two are welcomed, while one is fairly inexplicable.

Howard Tate Live
Although I love classic soul music from the 1960s and ‘70s, I have to admit I had never heard of Howard Tate. Tate has a string of hits in the late 1960s that included “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Stop,” and “Get it While You Can.”

He left music in the late 1970s and was re-discovered in 2003 after a life of considerable hard-ship. He was re-united with his former collaborator, producer and writer Jerry Ragovoy, in 2003. The team cut a new album, Rediscovered that year.

This new album was recorded in 2004 at the Tuno Island Music Festival in Denmark. Backed by an eight-piece band, Tate is in fine form as he performs some of his hits from the past as well as new material.

Tate’s music is tinged with both blues and gospel influences and every cut has that big full sound of horns that is so rare to hear today.

If you’re like me and love the rich sincere sound of classic soul, check out Howard Tate Live.

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Have You Heard Jim Croce Live
Jim Croce had a short time at the top of the music world in the 1970s. His three major label albums produced singles that popped up with regularity on the charts. Croce’s biggest hits included “Photographs and Memories,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” “Operator,” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

Croce’s considerable career was cut short in 1973 when at the age of 30 he died in a plane crash while on tour.

It’s tribute to Croce’s working class sound that his albums have stayed in print and that his music is still being heard.

This new album is far more than a re-packaging of greatest. This is a chance for modern audiences to experience a live Jim Croce performance. The 19 tracks were taken primarily from the soundtracks of television shows where Croce played “unplugged” with his collaborator Maury Muehliesen.

Some of the songs include Croce’s introductions that explain his inspirations for the tunes.

This is a great compilation of old favorites.

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The group Devo was part band, part art movement and part pop culture commentary. Anyone who followed music in the 1970s and ‘80s remember at least one Devo song – probably the band’s biggest hit, “Whip It” – as well as their trademark yellow jumpsuits and inverted flower pot hats.

Now Devo member Gerald Casale has produced new versions of classic Devo tunes for the Disney Sound label featured a group of cheer well scrubbed tweens belting out “Peek A Boo,” “Beautiful World,” and, of course, “Whip It.”

The result is perhaps the biggest Devo prank the group has ever pulled off. To create a tween band aimed at selling records to kids to watch the Disney Channel or listen to Radio Disney is pretty typical of the Disney media juggernaut. To have the material come from one of the most non-typical rock band ever is either a huge commercial sell-out or a delicious bit of irony.

What’s next? A Disney version of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention?

This two-disc set has the music on one and music videos and extras on another.

Frankly I don’t know exactly to make of it, but I’m going to have my 11 year-old granddaughter give a listen to it and see what she thinks.

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Standard disclaimer apples: These are my words . Period.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Hello all...back from vacation and my first week back to work and I feel that I've been beat with a ball-pean hammer. Will be back to posting later this weekend.

Standard disclaimer applies: The opinions expressed on this blog are my own. Period.