Category Archives: Haruko movie reviewer

How four films — and one TV show — saved animation from the brink of extinction

The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH

I got much of the information for this blog post from the excellent and entertaining “The World History of Animation.” I highly recommend it. It’s a really informative and entertaining read.

Today, animation is a multi-billion dollar world industry via film, television and DVDs. After the mega-successes of Frozen (2014, $1.28 billion worldwide gross), Minions (2015, $1.16 billion gross) and Inside Out (2015, $857 million gross), animation on both the big screen and on television is a thriving mega-billion dollar industry. The industry has never been healthier and more vibrant and creative.

But, believe it or not, for a period in the 1980s, the entire industry nearly collapsed, utterly and totally. Four films — and one television show — helped bring this century-old art form back from the brink of the dead.

Beginning with a somewhat obscure movie:

1) The Secret of NIMH, 1982

I first saw the Secret of NIMH when I was perhaps six or seven. This movie came out in 1982 at the absolute nadir of the animation industry; in the industry, it’s actually known as the “Dark Ages.” It actually flopped at the box office, but slowly became a cult favourite, much like other early ’80s kids’ movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. It’s now considered a deeply beloved classic and I believe one of the most important animated films ever made.

A child has pneumonia in The Secret of NIMH

This was an especially bleak period for animation. Disney was the only major studio putting out animation and its last so-called “classic” animated film was in 1967 with The Jungle Book. Disney’s big golden era was from 1937-1967, but the magic started wearing off, mostly because of increasingly weak scripts and mediocre animation. Disney put out a series of flops and forgettable films such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers and the Fox and the Hound. Hardly Snow White or Dumbo or Pinocchio. After Star Wars and Superman, animation just didn’t “wow” kids anymore.

One of the biggest factors in the disintegration of American animation was Hanna-Barbera. Hanna-Barbera is well-known for creating a lot of famous characters on television, from Fred Flintstone to Huckleberry Hound, Top Cat, Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Scooby Doo, etc. Hanna-Barbera managed to completely dominate the television animation market, mostly with its Saturday morning lineup. Two other studios — Rankin-Bass (ThunderCats) and Filmation (Masters of the Universe) — tried to compete with and mostly copy Hanna-Barbera’s destructive and lazy business model (Rankin-Bass to its credit actually tried to do some decent animation in TV specials, but the studio also put out a lot of lousy Saturday morning fare.). One of the reasons Hanna-Barbera became so influential is that Warner Brothers, which made a lot of classic cartoons and famous characters from the 1930s to the 1960s, completely bowed out of animation in 1969. When Warner Brothers dropped out, that opened the door for Hanna-Barbera to wreak havoc, and boy that awful studio did.

Goober and the Ghost Chasers, one of several annoying Scooby Doo clones put out by Hanna-Barbera.

Hanna-Barbera actually started out in the late 50s and 1960s making decent cartoons and memorable characters people recognise to this day. Probably due mostly to its ridiculous monopoly, Hanna-Barbera cartoons really started to deteriorate around 1970. Basically, the whole point of Hanna-Barbera cartoons was simply to sell sugary cereal — nothing more. The Hanna-Barbera shows became incredibly lazy and derivative — with a total of SIX shows copied DIRECTLY from Scooby Doo– Josie and the Pussycats,  The Funky Phantom, Speed Buggy, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw. Seriously, these six Hanna-Barbera shows are all exactly alike. Dumb, lame, lazy, cookie-cutter copycats of Scooby Doo with fake, annoying teenagers and some annoying goofy animal character, be it a Great Dane or a shark or a talking car, solving the same lame mysteries in every show. Again, quality wasn’t emphasised in the slightest by Hanna-Barbera, the whole point was quantity — and to do it cheaply as possible and to sell Cocoa Puffs and Trix. The cereal companies really powered these shows.

Scripts were tedious, written by committee and repeated from other H-B shows. The animation became lazier, too, featuring static background and static characters simply standing still while their mouths moved. Often times, the same exact backgrounds showed up in a bunch of different Hanna-Barbera shows. The pay and working conditions were terrible. Animators often made less than $20,000 a year. Creativity was completely stifled. The work was dull and repetitive and most animators, especially the good ones, quit in frustration or disgust. Hanna-Barbera was the biggest employer in the animation world for a time and when you combine it with the equally awful work from Filmation, the industry simply collapsed — and dragged Disney down with it.

Disney for some reason likewise lost its creative edge, probably beginning way back after Sleeping Beauty (1959). It had one more big hit with The Jungle Book in 1967, but then Disney fell into the same morass of forgettable work as Hanna-Barbera  began to dominate the industry. Disney severely cut back its animation department in the 1970s and many of those animators ended up at H-B or Filmation.

And along came Don Bluth and The Secret of NIMH to help save the day. Don Bluth was the lead animator at Disney through much of the ’70s. He quit the company in frustration with its cost-cutting ways and started up his own studio, bringing 11 Disney animators with him. Their first feature film was The Secret of NIMH, a very dark and frightening movie involving a child with pneumonia, animal experimentation, death and torture (Believe it or not, The Secret of NIMH was rated “G.” It was tame by today’s standards, but very grim for a G movie in 1982.) Disney refused to make The Secret of NIMH because of its dark content, but Bluth jumped at the story.

Yes, the Secret of NIMH was rated “G.”

The Secret of NIMH actually lost money at the box office, mostly because United Artists did a terrible job of marketing it. The studio had no confidence in animated films and it wasn’t sure how to handle such a dark kids’ movie. However, Disney executives were blown away by it and it definitely got their attention. They saw that Bluth was a genius and that he and his team knew what they were doing. In some ways, the Secret of NIMH is slightly overrated (the movie is full of plot holes), but the movie to this day has a charm that has stood the test of time. It is a genuine classic that has deservedly gained a big cult following over the decades. It cannot be overstated how influential this little movie was.

Bluth followed this film with An American Tail, Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven, all of which made huge sums of money and scared the bejeesus out of Disney. Disney put out a couple of forgettable movies in the 1980s, called The Black Cauldron (a somewhat dark movie kind of stealing from The Secret of NIMH) and The Great Mouse Detective. Bluth’s movies out-grossed Disney’s … by a bunch. The Black Cauldron (1985), while an interesting attempt by Disney to do something different, had a number of production and script problems and ended up a weird and  pretty charmless ripoff of Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards.” (1976). The Black Cauldron was such a flop critically and financially, Disney nearly shut down its animation department for good.

Bluth was a trailblazer often overlooked today. He made several more movies, but never matched the success he found in the 1980s. He made millions and more importantly in the long run, he woke up a sleeping giant at Disney. Disney roared back with an incredible vengeance in the late 1980s.

2) Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1987

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was Disney’s first huge hit in decades

The period after 1987 became known as “Disney’s Renaissance” or the “Renaissance Era” of animation in general. It is truly remarkable how this studio came back from the dead. Literally. After the the Black Cauldron debacle, Disney chairman Michael Eisner put Walt Disney’s nephew in charge of the animation department (Roy Disney Jr.). Roy Jr. was determined to return the Disney animation studio to its glory days. At the time, Disney was making most of its box office off Touchstone Films. Not only did he arguably save Disney, but he may have saved animation in America.


The first major film made under Roy Disney’s stewardship was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was a half-animation, half-live action film. However, the animation and characters were goofy, funny as heck and were a hit with kids and adults alike. This was the first clue in a long time to studios that adults liked animation, too. The movie was an homage to great cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s and included a lot of animated characters from the past. Hollywood discovered, whether it meant to or not, that people were really nostalgic for those old cartoons. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was both a technical and commercial success. The movie grossed $330 million — a LOT for 1987 — and won three Academy Awards for technical achievement, including an award for best visual effects. Disney was back and was just getting started.

But, first, perhaps one of the most important and influential films ever made.

3) Akira, 1988

Akira … one of the tamer scenes

This is simply put, to this day, 28 years later, one of the most amazing, mind-blowing, genuinely awe-inspiring films ever made. It’s like Japan’s Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey rolled into one.

Akira is a grueling, 130-minute-long monster that completely blew world audiences away. No one had seen anything like it before (and honestly, I’m not sure anyone has seen anything like it since. A lot of 1980s anime is pretty dated, but it’s amazing how well Akira stands up to the test of time.). It became a cult hit in America, despite a very poor original English dub (A vastly superior English dub was added 20 years later, thankfully.). It was also a big hit in Europe.


A bit of background on Japanese animation. While the American animation industry was dying, Japan’s animation industry was rolling right along in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the 1960s, there were hit series such as Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer and Astro Boy. Into the 70s, the hits continued with Lupin III and Captain Harlock.

Famed animator Hiyao Miyazaki had some big hits in Japan with Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, and the Castle in the Sky, but after a cheap and half-hearted cut and English dub of Nausicaa, he refused to have his films released in America for roughly a decade. People in the West didn’t really start seeing his movies until the 1990s.

But, first came Akira. Akira woke up Western audiences in both America and Europe to the amazing animation happening in Japan. This gore-soaked, ultra-violent, hard-R, cyberpunk classic  opened up a floodgate of interest in anime worldwide that is thriving to this day. After Akira, Miyazaki was convinced (By John Lasseter from Pixar) to allow his films to be released in America, and his Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were big hits in America, especially on DVD and VHS. Then, Cowboy Bebop became a big hit on American television, followed by Fooly Cooly, Attack on Titan and many others. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which won an Academy Award for best animated film) and Howl’s Moving Castle continued the worldwide success of anime.

Miyazaki’s “My Neighbour Totoro”

Today, anime is an incredibly influential and thriving industry worldwide. An interesting phenomenon about anime is it very heavily borrowed from Western films and animation, but then Western animators and filmmakers started copying anime (American or European cartoons such as Totally Spies, Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, My Little Ponies and even Batman all copied anime techniques). The Matrix is essentially a live-action anime film that borrows heavily from Akira. Two upcoming major motion pictures, The Ghost in the Machine and Attack on Titan, are based on animes. Simply put, anime is a heck of a lot more influential than a lot of people realise. And Akira really drove the genre to new heights.

Speaking of television animation.

4) The Simpsons, 1989    733328f7e9488393ff28bbdfefd03ce20615664280628f73f589d4de66bfb7bc


The Simpsons premiered as its own show in 1989. It’s hard to believe it’s been around for 27 years. And so, so much has grown from the Simpsons. The Simpsons took the formula from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to create prime time adult and kids’ entertainment on television. The Simpsons helped lead to so many other prime-time adult shows such as South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, The Venture Brothers, Metalocalypse, Rick & Morty, Archer, Robot Chicken, etc., etc. It turns out animation was a perfect venue for adult humour, parody, satire and social commentary.

rick and morty
Rick and Morty

Meanwhile, the malevolent Hanna-Barbera studio finally went out of business (Ironically, H-B brands are now owned by Turner Broadcasting, which has produced a number of shows parodying, at times ruthlessly, these awful Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I wondered for years how Turner got away with that before learning Turner now owns H-B.), and Filmation and Rankin-Bass likewise evaporated. What jumped into the vacuum were a bunch of independently produced and syndicated cartoons, which could be made easily and cheaply by a small number of people via computer animation. However, being independent of big studios, with two or three networks dedicated to showing animated series, these cartoons for both kids and adults were and continue to be both funny and creative. There’s simply too many of these shows to name — Home Movies, Doug, SpongeBob Squarepants, The Wild Thornberrys, Adventure Time, Ren and Stimpy, etc., etc. I know I missed a few. The shows are countless. There’s several I’ve never seen. And most of them are quite cute and educational for kids. None of that half-arsed Scooby Doo copycat crap, anymore. The Simpsons helped lead the way for all of this. All of these shows owe The Simpsons a thank you.

And now, the movie that changed an industry for over a quarter-century.

5) The Little Mermaid, 1989

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid was the second all-animation feature put out by Disney after Roy Disney Jr. took over the animation department (the first was The Great Mouse Detective, which did OK financially but is pretty forgettable.). It was considered Disney’s best film in decades and was a smash hit, grossing over $200 million. I don’t think this is Disney’s best film, but it was easily its best one since Jungle Book. One thing interesting about The Little Mermaid is that Disney was definitely paying attention to anime, which still wasn’t really hitting its stride in the West, and copied many anime techniques in this film.

The Little Mermaid reminded Disney that animated movies once made a ton of money for the studio and could again. After The Little Mermaid came other giant smash hits for Disney — The Beauty and the Beast ($400 million gross), Aladdin ($504 million), the Lion King ($968 million). Disney’s big five animated films (including Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid) from 1987 to 1994 grossed a staggering $2.42 billion … and that’s in late 1980s and early 1990s dollars. The studio that had languished for 20 years was now a powerhouse.

The Beauty and the Beast

After The Lion King, Disney purchased Pixar and became an even bigger behemoth. Pixar was a leader in a new art form — computer animation rather than hand-drawn. Today, nearly all American animation is computer animation (even animation that appears to be hand-drawn is actually created on computers today). Even Japan is abandoning hand-drawn animation for less-manpower-intensive computer art, though at a much slower rate. It’s sad to see a century-old art form fade away, but the fact is, computer animation is simply much, much more practical, and computer animation helped drive Hanna-Barbera and Filmation out of the industry. And much of it is gorgeous.

Pixar’s first big hit for Disney was Toy Story in 1995, which grossed $360 million. Meanwhile, Disney continued to put out big, critically acclaimed hits through traditional animation, such as Hercules and Mulan. Pixar showed it wasn’t a one-hit wonder with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Both the computer and hand-drawn units at Pixar and Disney were raking in billions every year from box office and DVD sales and rentals. Disney and Pixar’s formula relied on strong spare-no-expense animation, attention to detail and perhaps most importantly, likable characters and good, well-written and thought-out scripts. Kids liked the movies and parents liked taking their kids to these movies. It’s like people actually figured out after the Death Valley of the 1970s and 1980s, “if we put out a quality product, people will actually pay for it!” So unlike the decades of painfully awful, cheap, charmless drek from Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and even Disney. The art form became both a financial juggernaut and a showcase for artistic talent.

Toy Story was Pixar’s first big hit

While Disney and Pixar were off to the races, Dreamworks Animation actually provided some fairly serious competition. Dreamworks had a number of pretty big hits itself, from Shrek to Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and The Croods. Some of Dreamworks’ movies are good, too, but Dreamworks seems a little more geared as a pure money-making machine, relying a little more heavily on franchises than Pixar and Disney, making multiple sequels to most of its hits. Meanwhile, Universal Animation came out with the adorable Despicable Me and Minions (which grossed $1.1 billion in 2015). Even stop-animation cartoons, long a neglected art form, made a big comeback with hits such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Coraline and Wallace & Gromit.

Frozen grossed an incredible $1.28 billion at the box office

The Renaissance Era is over for animation and has now entered what is considered the Millennium Era. Billion-dollar grossing animated films are not unusual today. In 2015, Western animated films grossed over $3 billion at the box office worldwide. By comparison, Western animated movies in 1985 (not counting reissues) grossed about $80 million total. The industry’s revenues had grown 40-fold in 30 years.

It’s hard to believe this thriving art form was all but dead in the West in the 1980s.

“Redline” — Speed Racer on steroids and the slow, sad death of an amazing art form

Redline 24

“Redline” is one of the most technically amazing and wildest films I’ve ever seen. It is also a mostly unknown film outside of Japan.

Redline took an amazing seven years to make. Why did it take so long? Because it contains more than 100,000 individually hand-drawn cells. That’s 100,000 different paintings done … by hand.

Redline 1That right there explains why hand-drawn animation is a dying art form; Pixar and DreamWorks using computer power can crank out two or three feature films a year. Pixar movies are cute and there’s no questioning the quality of the work done on these computer-animated films. But it’s still kind of sad to see hand-drawn animation slowly fading. It’s nearly gone in the U.S. Even a lot of the animation you see on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon is actually computer animation made to look hand-drawn.Redline 11

Hand-drawn animation is simply hard, grueling, time- and labour-intensive compared to what you can do with computers. Where hand-drawn animation is staying alive is in Japan (and even in Japan computer animation is slowly taking over.).

Which brings us to “Redline.” The work on “Redline” began way back in 2003. The movie was delayed several times and was not released until 2010. (I’ve tried to find out how well it did in Japan, but information about it is limited.). It saw a limited release in the U.S., but has gained a cult following through people renting or buying the DVDs or watching it online.

Redline24It was the first full-length feature film made by Takeshi Koike (the only other thing of his I’ve seen is the opening animation to Samurai Champloo and a segment of “Animatrix” called “World Record.” When I first saw “Redline,” I was immediately reminded of that chapter from Animatrix and figured it had to be the same animator. His style is quite unique and unlike anything else you see in anime.).Redline 12

It is an absolutely visual feast and one the strangest and most unique anime you’ll ever see. Very much like a Hiyao Miyazaki movie, you can watch the film a couple of dozen times and see things you didn’t catch before. An anime technique, which was originally done to save money but became a staple of the anime ethos, is the use of still-frame. Long, still close-ups of characters with little or no movement was done to cut costs to begin with, but it became a source of dramatic tension the anime world.Redline 22

There’s none of that in “Redline.” In virtually every frame, there is a ton of movement, not only from the main characters, but in the background. Constant, non-stop movement both in the forefront and the background is the staple of this film. It’s simply mind-blowing to watch this 105-minute film (and that’s short by Japanese standards) and to think, “my goodness, this is ALL hand-drawn?” It just doesn’t seem possible.Redline 21

“Redline” takes place in an alien world in which racers compete in tricked-out vehicles in no-holds-barred races without rules or boundaries. There are few traditional anime-appearing characters. Most of the characters are odd-looking aliens. The main character, J.P., looks like a rockabilly reject from the 1950s and doesn’t look like anything you would see in most anime (I’ve been told he somewhat resembles a character called Space Dandy, but I’ve never seen that old anime.).Redline 18

The closest any character comes to appearing like a traditional anime is a woman driver named Shonosee McClaren. (Big eyes and of course amply bosomed — there is the almost obligatory nude fanservice scene with Shonosee. You see so much of this is Japanese anime, you just kind of become numb to the inherent sexism there, like why is she the only character we get to see nude. It’s simply part of the ingrained culture of anime and I don’t try to defend it. It’s from Japan and it is what it is.)Redline 15

The film borrows heavily from a number of other anime and even some non-anime films. There are scenes which will make you think of “Speed Racer,” though it’s a massively bulked up version of that ancient anime. Shonosee even drives a car that looks a little bit like the Mach 5 from “Speed Racer.”

The races also reminded me of the pod races from Star Wars I; there’s scenes that harken to the “Road Warrior.” The character of “Funky Boy” a giant, grotesque biological weapon, reminded me of both the mutant Tetsuo in “Akira” and the Giant Warrior of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” The mutant monster that Col. Volton becomes reminded me of the gluttonous No Face from “Spirited Away.”

Redline 7Another character, Old Man Mole reminded me of the six-armed character Kamaji from “Spirited Away” (At this point, I was expected the soot balls from “Spirited Away” to show up.) The floating laser cannons reminded me of the diamond star gates of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There’s a battle scene that reminded me of the big opening battle scene from Star Wars III.

I don’t think all of these reminders were by accident. One could accuse “Redline” of being derivative, but I love homages and “Redline” throws so many homages out there that it doesn’t feel like it’s simply ripping off older films. It just feels like part of the over-the-top, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe to the whole film.

Redline 2“Redline” is not an especially deep or ponderous movie. In the end, it’s simply a silly, weirded-out space race movie, and it’s bloody fun to watch. The fact that this film took seven years to make doesn’t bode well I think for the continuation of hand-drawn animation. The future has arrived and films like “Redline” will become more and more a rarity.

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Redline has been pulled from YouTube for copyright infringement. Here are some AMVs:

Wow, amazing, Bruno Bozzetto stumbled onto my blog post about “Allegro Non Troppo”


I was chuffed beyond belief when earlier this week I discovered that Italian animator/director Bruno Bozzetto had linked on his Facebook wall to a story I posted three years ago about his 1977 movie “Allegro Non Troppo.” He posted the link to our original blog, which we were forced to abandon in January because of issues with WordPress hosting.

The story was about how I saw this movie when I was in a hospital with a really high fever and I couldn’t remember anything about it except for the dinosaur scene, which was done to Ravel’s “Bolero.” It took me nearly 20 years to stumble on this movie again, I had almost completely forgotten about it.

Well, I wrote about this in 2011, and Bruno discovered it. Here is what he wrote on Facebook (with bad Bing translation):

Toccanti parole, scoperte casualmente in un blog, grazie alle quali ti dici che è valsa la pena di vivere..

Which, translated means:

 Touching words, discovered accidentally in a blog, thanks to which you say is worth it to live …:)

Bruno later left a comment on the old blog:

Dear Haruko, your story touched my heart and I’m glad I can thank you directly here for your beautiful words. I hope you can read this post because this means a lot to me !

Here are some of the comments on Facebook, with bad translations:

quanto di buono c’é in noi viene sempre letto dal cuore, da ogni cuore (how much good there is in us is always read from the heart, from every heart:) )

che storia!!!! (that story!!!!)

Capita Che storia! Dovresti davvero contattarla! Ciao (What happens to the story! You really should contact her!)

Che bella storia! Anzi, che bel brano di vita… davvero dà un senso alla vita e a tanto lavoro What a beautiful story! 🙂 (Indeed, what a beautiful life song … really gives a meaning to life and much work:-) )

Una meraviglia di racconto. Un abbraccio (A marvel of story. A hug)

Veramente una soddisfazione che premia una vita! Condivido.. (Truly a satisfaction that rewards a lifetime!)


Anyway, I’m honestly humbled Bruno Bozzetto found my blog post and was touched by it. What a sweet, kind man. I honestly did not realise he was even still alive (he is also younger than I realised –76).

Here is the Dinosaur scene from Allegro Non Troppo, you can’t get it on YouTube (YouTube quickly takes it down):

Allegro Non Troppo


“Rush” and the history of tobacco advertising in racing

Haruko and Chris Hemsworth
Haruko and James Hunt


We were watching Haruko’s new favourite movie, “Rush,” the other night and of course my one track mind got stuck on how James Hunt’s 1976 McClaren was splashed with advertising for Marlboro.

It got me thinking, that 1) Would the constant advertising for Marlboro make Rush an R-rated movie, or does this advertising fall into this vague category of “historical accuracy,” that allows some tobacco use and images in films (Somewhat of a mute question since Rush had enough sex and F-bombs to garner an R-rating anyway, but I did wonder.)

Secondly, I wondered if tobacco companies still advertise through automobile racing?

The short answer is apparently not, though I’m not a NASCAR fan and I wouldn’t have a clue if there’s still a Skoal car out there. But, according to Wikipedia , which had a pretty detailed entry about tobacco advertising and car racing, “tobacco was all but out of North American motorsport by 2013.” Tobacco advertising died out for two reasons — the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement forbid certain kinds of tobacco advertising (this apparently mostly affected IndyCar racing), and a number of countries around the world started forbidding tobacco advertising on cars.

According to Wikipedia, tobacco advertising was last used on vehicles in Formula One in 2008. A number of countries outright forbid tobacco advertising on vehicles. Marlboro still sponsored a Formula One team up until 2011, and while they couldn’t splash “Marlboro” on the car, the car was still painted Marlboro red and white.

Formula One World Championship
James Hunt’s McClaren M23 Marlboro car

Tobacco advertising in car racing used to be HUGE … remember the NASCAR championship was called the Winston Cup for many years … that didn’t stand for Winston, North Carolina, it stood for Winston cigarettes. It began slowly in the late 1960s, and as tobacco advertising was banned on television in the early 70, tobacco companies needed another outlet to advertise their products — so they poured millions of dollars into car racing in the U.S. and around the world. By the mid 70s, tobacco advertising was all over Formula One, Indy Car Racing and NASCAR. Not only were cigarettes advertised at races and on cars, but smokeless tobacco, too like Skoal and RedMan.

Hunt’s Marlboro McClaren was an iconic car in racing history. (As an aside, Hunt was a heavy smoker and died of a heart attack at 45. His use of cocaine may have contributed to his heart attack, as well.). Niki Lauda even drove a Marlboro McClaren after Hunt retired.

One thing that is interesting is there’s been at least two cars that have advertised Nicorette and Blu E-cigs. Products to help people quit smoking are getting into the racing racket.

Haruko’s review of “Rush.”

Rush is a surprisingly good and extremely exciting movie from Ron Howard. It was very surprising to me that this movie didn’t make that much money (only $27 million in the U.S. and $90 million worldwide — some Marvel movies make that much in a weekend) and didn’t garner more Oscar buzz. The movie is really that good and seemed to somehow fly under the radar last year. It’s simply the best car racing movie I’ve ever seen.

I think the movie got overlooked a bit because Ron Howard is still not taken that seriously by film critics. Like Steven Spielberg, he has a reputation for making good (and commercially successful), but not great movies, so I think a lot of film intelligentsia has a hard time giving him his due when he makes a genuinely great film like “Rush.”

Hunt and Lauda
Hunt and Lauda

Rush tells the story of 70s Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda and their rivalry. The movie remains pretty true to life, even copying some of the play-by-play announcers  from the 1970s. The one thing the movie embellished was the relationship between Hunt and Lauda. In the film, they hate each other, but become friends after a horrible accident to Lauda. In real life, they were always friends. Hyper-competitive rivals, but friends nonetheless. They didn’t hate each other, they just hated losing to each other.

What I loved most about this movie is that unlike a lot of movies made today, most of the driving scenes are for real, with real cameras placed strategically on the cars, instead of CGI cars. A couple of the accidents are obviously CGI (like one scene in which a vehicle flips in the air over Lauda’s head), but it’s done so well, it doesn’t look fake. Too many movies today rely on CGI technology, rather than going to the trouble of getting difficult shots. I was blown away by the racing scenes and wished I had seen them in the theatre. Real ’70s vintage cars, real footage, real stunt drivers. The lack of CGI really gives “Rush” a very 1970s feel. I honestly felt like I was watching a 40-year-old movie.

I was also surprised at the language and sex in a Ron Howard film (again, making it feel like a 70s movie, yeah, movies had a lot more sex in the 1970s.). This is very much an R-rated film (perhaps another reason why it didn’t do that great at the box office.)

I really hope this film becomes a cult classic on DVD like a lot of films that kind of got missed at the box office, like Big Lebowski or Apocalypse Now.

Photo gallery:

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Happy Easter — Jesus Christ Superstar (angels with white afros and go go boots!)

Happy Easter — Jesus Christ Superstar, an amazing and controversial rock opera made by an agnostic Canadian (that everyone thinks is Jewish but isn’t)

40 years ago, an amazing film was made deep in the Israeli desert a few months before the Yom Kippur War. I’m blown away at the ties between this opera and Deep Purple, hockey, Walt Disney, Evita Peron and Murray Head!

Jesus Christ Superstar was made by an amazing and underrated Canadian director, Norman Jewison. He has a Jewish sounding name, but he’s actually Episcopalian and has claimed that isn’t a very devout person. In fact, in his large body of films, only one or two really deal with spirituality in any sense.

His body of work is spectacular and deal with everything from racism to corruption to the glorification of violence. Here is a short list of films that he made — The Cincinnati Kid, Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, … And Justice for All, Agnes of God, Moostruck and Other People’s Money. Probably his most famous film came after Jesus Christ Superstar, an extremely controversial indictment of hockey and corporations. It’s not Slap Shot. Can you guess what it is?

Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the stage play, was filmed entirely in the deserts of Israel in Negev, Avdat and the Dead Sea, a few miles from the Egyptian border (though Israel at the time controlled the entire Sinai).

Norman Jewison was an extremely hot director who had hit after hit. His last film had been Fiddler on the Roof, about Jews in Ukraine (further deepening everyone’s conviction Jewison was actually Jewish).

He was not a religious man, but people involved with Fiddler on the Roof asked Jewison to make a film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Jewison at first was reluctant, but after listening to the album, agreed to do it.

Jesus Christ Superstar was the third musical penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Their first play was something no one’s ever heard of (written when Webber was only 17), but their second musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, likewise based on the Bible, was a big hit, and is still in production today. Amazingly, Webber was only 22 when he wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar. Rice was only 25 when he wrote the lyrics.

Of course, everyone knows Webber went on to write Evita!, Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics for Evita!, later wrote the lyrics for Chess (with Murray Head) and then wrote the lyrics for several stage productions based on Disney cartoons (The Lion King, The Beauty and the Beast).

Jesus Christ Superstar was a perfect storm of talent. An astonishingly young and athletic cast and playwrights, being put in the hands of an established Hollywood director at the height of his powers. I don’t know why, I’ve never liked Godspell, but I love this opera. Jewison’s production has some weird quirks in it that are fun — Chromed helmets for the Romans, tanks, tinted glasses for King Herod, and of course, white afro wigs and go go boots for angels.

Stealing the film is the very athletic Carl Anderson, a fantastic singer who had some minor hits in the 70s. However, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar was his biggest role. He returned to the role many times over well into the the early 2000s. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia in 2004.

The play and film are controversial for many reasons, but the biggest reason is its sympathetic treatment of Judas. Judas is portrayed as Christ’s muse, his inner conscience, attempting to steer Christ in the right direction and deeply distraught over the growing cult surrounding him. “You’ve begun to matter more than the words you say,” Judas implores Christ in the opening song, “Heaven on Their Minds.” The cult of Jesus becomes more alarming a few numbers later in “Simon Zealotes” (where the term Zealot comes from), where Simon urges Jesus to lead his followers into war against Rome.

Judas was also controversial because Carl Anderson is black. Why was a black man cast as one of the most evil men in the Bible. Either Tim Rice or Webber supposedly said, “because he gave the best audition.”
Ian Gillan played Christ on stage, and Jewison wanted him for the film. But, Gillan was also the lead singer of Deep Purple and they were in the middle of a worldwide tour, so instead, they turned to Gillan’s understudy, Ted Neeley. Like Anderson, Neeley essentially made his career on Jesus Christ Superstar, returning to the role many times in several revivals.

You might recognize two of the songs from the musical. The overture “Jesus Christ Superstar” is very familiar, and was even used on a TV show for a while about athletes competing in silly games for prize money. The song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was a minor pop hit in the early 70s, and while the context was about loving Christ, it could also be interpreted as someone not knowing how to love in a relationship.

My favourite numbers are Heaven on Their Minds, Simon Zealotes, Jesus Christ Superstar, Damned for All Time, The Temple and Lepers and Gethsemane (Ted Neeley hits some serious high notes here, for a guy who was supposedly an understudy.), where Jesus expresses his doubt and frustration with God.

Jesus Christ Superstar was very successful. It was the eighth-largest grossing movie of 1973 (in today’s dollars and ticket prices, would have made well over $100 million). Jewison made an even more successful movie in 1975. He was disgusted with the violence of hockey (and if you think hockey today is violent, it was really bad in the 70s and 80s), and wrote a science fiction screenplay about a corporate-run orgy of violence, called “Rollerball.” I’ve always thought it was funny that Jewison went from making a movie about Jews in Ukraine to Jesus Christ, to one of the most violent movies ever made at the time, but that’s how incredibly versatile he was.

So, Jesus Christ Superstar.

You don’t have to believe. Just listen to the performances and watch the amazing choreography.

[Poop, I discovered that several weeks ago, several of these videos had been removed from YouTube. They were HQ videos and had been posted by the same person. Perhaps there were some copyright issues. I was able to cobble together videos from most of the various numbers, but the quality varies from video to video now. Oh, well.]

“The Grey:” Existentialist wolves

The Existentialist Alpha Male

I went in to “The Grey” with my mind made up I was going to hate the movie, but then found it weirdly compelling for its existentialist themes. I knew this would be a highly controversial movie, many environmental groups have railed against the film. I was ready to defend its allegorical message  … then I read an interview with the director Joe Carnahan claiming that his movie accurately depicted wolves, rambling about  some “superpack” in Siberia that slaughters everything in its path. I found another interview in which he defends the wolves as just being metaphors for nature (so it sounds like he is playing both sides.)  It reminded me of Zach Snyder, who gave interviews defending the accuracy of “300.”

I saw the wolves as metaphors for death and the fear of mortality always nipping at all our heels. I certainly didn’t see them as real wolves.

The Grey Alpha
The Grey Alpha

The cleverly done CGI wolves in “The Grey” were far too big (in one scene, the alpha male of the is about the size of a small lion), too black (virtually every wolf in the movie has black fur) far too vicious (killing for revenge and trespassing and playing mind games with their victims) and even psychotic. They didn’t act like real wolves; they didn’t even sound like wolves. Their growls were actually the growls of lions or tigers and their howls were the yippings of hyenas. I much preferred “Two Socks” in “Dances with Wolves.”

♥♥ Two Socks! ♥♥

Many people will say, “it’s just a movie,” yet after Jaws, sharks were slaughtered by the thousands worldwide, in part because of the hysteria created by the film. “300,” helped do its share to create and inflame the narrative that Iranians and Easterners in general are evil, while it was the West and West alone that promoted freedom and justice. (Never mind the fact Spartans owned slaves and raped and murdered in conquest.). In fact, in many ways, “The Grey” reminded me a lot of “300,” — a technically well made movie that nonetheless embraces ignorance. Both movies are essentially fantasies.

Real wolves

I live in the American West, and I can’t buy into the rhetoric that “it’s just a movie.” I wish Carnahan had been a lot more assertive about that in some of his interviews. I live in country where wolves are considered the epitome of pure evil by many people. The stories run rampant in the West from hunters and ranchers of wolves stalking and chasing hunters and killing livestock out of pure malice. These stories have all been proved to be false. There is no evidence of wolves stalking humans and wolves do not kill for no reason. If they kill a sheep and leave it, that’s because they are caching it for later. Live in the West long enough and you will hear, “sooner or later they’re going to kill a baby.”

A very controversial film

Wolves have come to weirdly represent everything wrong in America to some people — the federal government, environmentalists, rules, regulations. Wolves have become a metaphor for an out-of-control government bent on meddling in the lives of locals.

In reality, wolves are just animals. Animals at the top of the food chain that eat to survive. In fact, wolves have killed a grand total of two people in recorded history — two people in the past 150 years (perhaps wolves have killed some Indians before recorded history, but likely, this was very rare, as well.). More people than that die every year in the U.S. from domestic dog attacks.

Back to the film. In “The Grey,” the wolves are not just animals, but devils lurking in the mists and trees, waiting to claim their victims. The movie, filmed in British Columbia, takes place in the Alaskan winter. A motley crew of oil workers returning from a long shift in north Alaska, are plunged into terror after a plane crash. It is a grim, brutal, bleak movie.

One by one, the black devils, patient and efficient, come out of the mists and snow and take another victim. The survivors run, but they can’t hide from death. Each man faces their mortality differently, some stoic, others giving in to panic and then finally acceptance of their fate much like someone dying of cancer, while lead Liam Neeson like many of us, continues to fight and struggle against the inevitability of death because that is all he knows to do.

Death catches up
Death catches up

Two scenes in this movie stuck with me. One was a night scene in which the impossibly huge alpha male makes his first appearance. All you see is a single eye gleaming in the firelight (all CGI), the eye flickers from one survivor to the other, then the wolf retreats into the black. The message is sent. “You have all been noted.”

The other is when Neeson’s will is finally broken near the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, the survivors talk about their faith. Neeson, contemplating suicide earlier in the movie, speaks of his atheism. After watching the rest of the survivors succumb, Neeson finally breaks down and asks God for help, but finds nothing in the grey sky. And finally mutters to himself, “fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

Many of the survivors have reasons to struggle. Families and children back home. So they fight to survive and fend off death. The person who gives up admits he has nothing to live for, he has led an utterly empty life. In the end, we find Neeson has nothing to live for, as well. As he is surrounded by the demons of the snow and they back off and out of the mist enters the giant alpha. Liam Neeson decides to fight to the bitter end, facing death in his way, fighting for the sake of fighting, for the sake of life itself.

Again, powerful metaphor. Powerful allegory. Too bad the poor wolves are picked upon to represent it.