June 20, 2016

Rating Amazon's Six New Kids Pilots

Amazon's new pilot season is back with eight shows

It’s pilot season again for Amazon Studios, and the focus this time is kids’ shows. Of the eight potential series released on June 17, six of them are geared towards children. They also veer towards younger ages with the majority of the pilots. I’ll cover the two adult shows later this week, but today it’s all about the kids. I’ve watched all of the new shows for you along with my kids. It’s interesting to note that five of the six primarily use animation. We’re in different territory than past Amazon shows like Just Add Magic or Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.

I’ve set up a simple rating for each pilot with three options: Binge It, Watch It, or Skip It. None of these pilots were bad; it mostly came down to personal preference. That’s also why I picked the middle option for half of the shows. Kids’ experiences will be different, especially based on their ages and sophistication. It’s also hard to predict how the shows would function as a full series. All episodes but one run about 11 or 12 minutes, so they might not work in a season. Regardless, it was cool to see the types of shows that Amazon considers worth previewing.

Toasty Tales is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Toasty Tales

This mix of animated characters and miniature backgrounds is playful and energetic. Created by Thomas Borowski (Like, Share Die) and Caroline Foley (Rick and Morty), it follows Waffle (Kath Soucie) and her friends Pants (Tom Kenny) and Burger (Michael Croner). They take an epic journey to find the missing ingredient for delicious pancakes.

Toasty Tales is pretty manic for adults but has its moments. It’s hard not to like characters that care so much about pancakes. Plus, any show that ends with a pancake vortex and a monster retrieving its lunchbox can’t lose. This was also my seven-year-old daughter’s favorite show of the six. Verdict: Watch It

JazzDuck is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

JazzDuck

Filled with all types of musical instruments, JazzDuck is designed to charm younger kids. An unseen narrator (Sullivan Jones) talks to the title character as he visits the Big City. After losing his best friend Ball, JazzDuck (Ross Hughes) and his pals search for it to complete the band. The music is the real draw, though it’s on the simpler side. The drum-playing sloth is a nice touch, and there are clever touches. For toddlers interested in music and animals, this show hits the right notes. It’s just a little too thin to really stand out for me. Verdict: Skip It

Little Big Awesome is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Little Big Awesome

Easily the oddest show of the group, Little Big Awesome is a blast of colors and silliness. Director Sung Jin Ahn mixes animation, puppetry, and actual kittens in a surprising combo. When you have a real cat wearing an eye patch and using animated lips, it’s bound to be ridiculous. The story involves Gluko (Fred Tatasciore) and Lennon (James Arnold Taylor) taking an adventure, but it means little.

This is the type of show that adults might watch after a night on the town. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for kids. The creativity is everywhere and even includes a Queen-like musical number. This is a cult favorite waiting to happen. Verdict: Binge It

Morris and the Cow is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Morris and the Cow

It’s hard for me to dislike a show with a talking cow. Morris (Jermaine Fowler) and his cow Florence (Riki Lindhome) visit the rodeo to win a contest and meet their hero Jimmy Ray Royce (Thomas Lennon). Bernard Derriman has directed nine episodes of Bob’s Burgers, and the animation feels very similar. It’s more of a narrative show than the others and might draw some adults. There’s no assault on the senses. When you add in humble clowns and a sad talking bull, it’s a fun mix.

Co-creator Andreas Trolf also created the Nickolodeon show Sanjay and Craig, which includes a young boy and a talking snake. I’m sensing a pattern. This was my seven-year-old daughter’s least favorite pilot, which signals that it might click more with older kids. Verdict: Watch It

The Curious Kitty & Friends is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

The Curious Kitty & Friends

This stop-motion show depicts the curious cat Komaneko (Rebecca Bloom) as she explores the world with her movie camera. I like this animation style and think it serves kids’ shows well. This one is definitely geared towards the younger set. The friendly Yeti (Dee Bradley Baker) is cute with its grunts and other sounds. Making Komaneko a filmmaker also provides a cool touch. Produced in Japan, The Curious Kitty & Friends moves slower but is sweet for preschoolers. Verdict: Watch It

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters

The only live-action series in this crop, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters is a modern remake of a 1973 series. Johnny (Solomon Stewart) and Scotty (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) discover a friendly sea monster trapped on the beach. Don’t let the title fool you; this is definitely a show for kids. The creatures are hardly scary and resemble puppets you might see in the ‘70s. The acting from the kids is also on the blander side, even when you consider the genre.

David Arquette provides support as Captain Barnabas, a true believer in sea monsters. This guy is a bit unhinged, which fits Arquette perfectly. It’s really hard to focus on anything but the silly Sigmund, but that is kind of the point. Very little is played straight in this oddball production. It's the only pilot that falls into the half-hour format. You can definitely feel the length. Verdict: Skip It

Anyone can watch all of these pilots on Amazon through this page. After viewing them, you should fill out a survey to help choose which shows become full series. 

June 17, 2016

A Year Without Movies?

The abandoned Paramount Theater
Photo by Steve Snodgrass
Last week, I sat down with my two girls (7 and 3) to watch a Blu-ray copy of Zootopia. I enjoyed the movie and family time, but I had an interesting realization while the credits rolled. Amazingly, this was the first 2016 theatrical release that I’d seen. This was no conscious effort to set aside movies for other pursuits. Somehow an avid film guy and movie blogger had basically missed half of 2016. This article’s title is a bit misleading; I’ve still watched quite a few older movies this year. Even so, I didn’t expect to find myself in this position when the year began. More surprising was this fact: I didn’t feel that bad about missing the latest releases.

2016: Year of the Weird

To provide some background, this has been one of the stranger years of my life. We’ve made three trips to the ER with our daughters for completely separate ailments. Our longtime cat also passed away last week. This isn’t a “woe is me” article, but it does help explain why movies haven’t been so prominent. It’s hard to worry about missing a mindless blockbuster when you’re spending time at the hospital. At times, I’ve felt like a character in the Final Destination series. Whatever we do, there’s always another challenge. Obviously, I don’t believe the end result for those characters is coming here.

A public domain photo of a python
Not the actual snake, but this one is a lot more frightening.
The year’s craziest moment happened about two weeks ago. My older daughter was bitten in the ankle by a copperhead snake. This didn’t happen during a camping trip in the wild. We were just strolling along a paved trail in a park that provides nature for city people. You might spot a deer near the path, but it’s hardly a rough environment. My daughter is great now, but she spent two nights in the hospital after the venomous bite. It was a scary time. There are fewer than 100 reported snake bites in Missouri each year, so this was quite a random occurrence.

Have you ever felt like a dark cloud was hanging over your head? I’m not referring to the targeted rain in The Truman Show. It does sometimes feel like we’re in a similar manufactured environment, however. I’m not a very religious guy, but there do appear to be other forces at work here. This isn’t on the level of Hurley being cursed by the numbers on Lost, thankfully. It’s just a weird sensation when so much happens in a short period of time. It hasn’t been all bad, however. We stayed at a ridiculously nice resort at Disney World in January, and there have been great times along with the challenges. It does relegate pop culture to the background, though.

A Limited Crop

This experience in missing the 2016 releases has made me wonder about a few issues. Have I lost interest in most of what Hollywood is producing? I do plan to see Captain America: Civil War pretty soon, but I don’t view skipping Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or even X-Men: Apocalypse as a big deal. The biggest omission thus far has been Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I’ve heard raves about his new film. I’m sure that good movies are still coming, but it doesn’t feel essential to see them right away. Even with the extenuating circumstances, this trend has existed for more than just this year.

These feelings do induce guilt about not supporting theaters. I don’t believe that home viewings can match the big screen, particularly on streaming services. Even so, the convenience of not setting aside three hours and getting a babysitter is hard to skip. I was once a regular visitor to the theater, so I’m essentially a reason that some venues are struggling. Part of the change is just getting older and losing the need to stay on top of things. I still listen to podcasts and read reviews, but there’s less connection with the super fans. This isn’t a new feeling but has grown this year. I do plan to write more on this site and engage better with the cinema culture. Even so, I’ll probably make only a handful of trips to the theater this year. Whether this is an aberration or the new normal is still in question.

June 13, 2016

Blind Spots Series: The Outlaw Josey Wales

Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales

So much of the Western genre is built on the intense conflict between the forces of civilization and the chaos of the wild. This division epitomizes the disorder facing the country around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Economic and political forces ripped apart the country and set up the conditions for marauders to own the new world. The opening scene of The Outlaw Josey Wales depicts the violent mess of this environment. We first see Josey Wales working the land with his son; it’s an idyllic look at frontier life. In just a few moments, his life completely shatters. The grim reality of this world births the outlaw superhero that everyone wants to destroy. Josey’s refusal to accept the war’s end makes him a threat to the forces of civilization, and the bandits join the fight to capture the huge reward for apprehending him.

Adapted from the 1973 Forrest Carter novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, this film depicts a hellish world. During the opening sequence, the close-ups of crazed killers wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film. Josey is the innocent victim with little chance against the vicious gang. To gain revenge, he must first become one of them. It’s tricky to view a guy who kills so many as a hero. The opening scene’s brutality bonds us with his fight. There’s no doubt that the men who killed his family were monsters. Writers Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman (the film’s original director before Eastwood took over) make sure there are few sympathetic enemies. The exception is Fletcher (John Vernon), Josey’s former leader in the guerrilla Confederate unit. He seems more sympathetic to Josey despite his role in making him an outlaw.

Released in 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales arrived in a country torn apart by Watergate and Vietnam. There are specific enemies in this film, but the real evil is the institution that supports them. In a key early scene, the boss of the evil Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) seems just as corrupt as his underling. He sets up the massacre of Fletcher’s unit without batting an eye. Nastily killing the men with a hidden Gatling gun feels particularly mean. There’s no honor in the way they fall. Josey does meet Union soldiers that seem like regular guys, but they still work for the group that’s hunting him. They have no choice but to follow orders. The bandits that stumble upon Josey and try to kill him are more feral. However, their efforts spring from the rewards offered by the Union leaders.

Sondra Locke as Laura Lee in The Outlaw Josey Wales

It’s difficult to argue with claims that this film is an iconic Western. It contains all of the genre’s signature traits in gorgeous outdoor settings. The cinematography from Bruce Surtees (a regular Eastwood collaborator) creates an interesting clash between beauty and horror. A perfect example is the sequence when marauders try to rape Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). The close-ups shots of their dead eyes are frightening, particularly from her point of view. It lasts for what seems like an eternity and offers a grim look at humanity. What’s striking is the spare beauty of the landscape around this scene. Like much of the movie, it shows the dark side of humanity but within an attractive setting.

There’s less beauty in the nearly deserted towns of the Texas wild. It feels at times that Josey has died and is wandering an infinite hellish landscape. The men he encounters feel like demons from the afterlife. In the final act, Josey does rediscover a sense of community. He falls for Laura, but it’s really about the last residents of the lost town. They journey to the lands of Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and enjoy a brief respite from the chaos. Dancing around the fire and enjoying each other’s company, they establish the foundations for a new society. This brings added weight to the final battle with Terrill’s gang. Josey is fighting for more than revenge against the men who killed his family.

Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

This film is considered a revisionist Western, and it’s a step beyond the more two-dimensional genre films of the early days. The depiction of Native Americans in particular offers more depth. Chief Dan George does the heavy lifting as Lone Watie —a trusted companion for Josey. It’s nearly impossible not to like that guy, and George’s performance is the reason. On the other hand, the depiction of women could use some work. Little Moonlight (Geraldine Kearns) is beaten by her master and then nearly raped in her first scene. Later on, she hooks up with Lone Watie. She’s depicted positively but is quite a thin character. Laura Lee also feels more like a symbol than a fully written person. She steps up to fight the enemy in the end but is mostly around to love Josey.

I’ve seen most of the seminal Westerns but never got around to The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s an interesting movie and was definitely worth checking off my Blind Spots list. I am curious to note just how much Eastwood did once Kaufman left. I hate to give either too much credit for the final product. Kaufman excelled at presenting the desert landscape at Edwards Air Force Base in The Right Stuff. This story feels like his type of work, but it also matches the melancholy Westerns of Eastwood’s career. It particularly connects to Unforgiven, which subverted the violence even further. Regardless, this film comes together well in delivering an engaging story and a worthy genre film. It checks the boxes yet never becomes too predictable. Eastwood also embodies Josey with a quiet grit that fits the loner role. He’s rarely been better on screen, and that says quite a lot.

This is the fifth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd.