Movies Till Dawn: More Biographies, Real and Imagined (Cartoons and Music Edition)

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren and Stimpy Story” (2020, Kino Lorber) Detailed discussion and ultimately, deflation of the wildly popular animated television series “The Ren and Stimpy Show” and its once-vaunted, now-scandal-tainted creator, John Kricfalusi. His bizarro vision – a sort of amphetamine-fueled take on the already manic cartoons of Tex Avery and peers – and the stratospheric rise of “R&S” on Nickelodeon (as well as its influence on modern TV animation) are detailed through interviews with staffers and producers, but the takeaway is less celebratory than cautionary: Kricfalusi comes across as another in a long line of Genius Monsters whose ghastly behavior is permitted until it becomes untenable (and unprofitable). The “genius” part of that label falls away when the film addresses his grooming of underage girls; Kricfalusi plays penitent in newer interviews, but though seems unclear that his behavior was across-the-board damaging to everyone involved with the show. Writers/directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood echo the show’s frantic energy with a hopped-up visual aesthetic; it’s a fun party until you actually meet the host. Kino’s DVD includes additional interviews.

The Wind Rises” (2013, Shout! Factory/GKids) Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki capped his long and celebrated career (though he’s since come out of retirement) with this Oscar-nominated historical drama, based on his own manga and inspired by the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the powerful Zero fighter that defined Japan’s air campaign during World War II. Those looking for the gentle fantasy of Miyazaki’s best-known work (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke“) will find a mostly grown-up story here, set between world wars and hinged around the fall and rise of Japan’s industrial and military complexes, but dreams (especially about flight), the temporal nature of beauty and art, and human frailty flow through the film as well. Described by some as the greatest animated film ever made, “Wind” is a unique and moving effort, though not for Miyazaki’s core fan base of younger kids. The Shout! Blu-ray/DVD set includes both the Japanese-language and English-language audio tracks (the latter featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and others, who are interviewed in a separate featurette), as well as feature-length storyboards, and footage from the press conference that announced the film’s completion, all culled from the 2014 Disney Blu-ray; the new element here is a segment from the “10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki” documentary series that focuses on this film.

Young Man with a Horn” (1950, Warner Archives Collection) Neglected kid finds direction and purpose in music, and under the tutlege of black jazz player Juano Hernandez, grows into Kirk Douglas, who, despite his talent, ignores his instrument ad good girl singer Doris Day and pines over “strange girl” Lauren Bacall (read: she’s a closeted lesbian). Semi-sudsy Warner melodrama benefits from its trio of solid leads, who are ably supported by Hoagy Carmichael as Douglas’s sage sideman, and Michael Curtiz‘s polished direction; the script, by blacklist victim Carl Foreman (“High Noon”) and Edmund H. North (“The Day the Earth Stood Still’) has some pungent dialogue (“You’re like one of those carnival joints I used to work in – big flash on the outside, but on the inside, nothing but filth”) but decades of subsequent lesser dramas about Tortured Young Artists may have blunted its moody dissection of the inner turmoil that fuels a great deal of art. Based loosely on the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Biederbecke; that’s Harry James you hear when Douglas plays his instrument. Warner’s Blu-ray, anchored by a 4K restoration of the film, includes a 1952 radio adaptation with Douglas reprising his role, and three Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Thanks to Warner Archives Collection for providing a free Blu-ray for this review.

Le Choc du Futur” (2019, Cleopatra Entertainment) As a tribute to the women who wrote and performed electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s, often without the support or regard of their peers and industry,  “Choc” (or “The Shock of the Future”) is earnest and tech-savvy and features a solid lead in Alma Jodorowsky (granddaughter of Alejandro) as a commercial composer whose interest in the burgeoning electronic music scene in Paris circa 1978 puts her at odds with her male compatriots and bosses. If the arc of the story isn’t particularly novel, the focus – a single day in Jodorowsky’s apartment, where she toils quietly but intensely on developing her own sound amidst a barrage of naysayers and music creeps – is unique and does encapsulate, in its own way, the challenges of summoning a creative spark, as well as the obstacle course laid out for women in any line of work. The soundtrack includes tracks by Suicide, Devo, Throbbing Gristle and Jean-Michel Jarre; Cleopatra’s DVD includes an interview with Collin, among other features.

Where Does a Body End?” (2019, MVD Visual) Laudable attempt to encapsulate the ferocious energy of the band Swans by chronicling its tumultuous history and singer/songwriter Michael Gira, its sole constant since its inception in 1982. Much of the film’s strengths lie in live footage of the band culled from its history; veteran fans will already know about their volcanic stage presence and Gira’s long path from Los Angeles to the No Wave New York scene with Circus Mort before forming Swans, but newcomers and the curious will appreciate director Marco Porsia taking a more detailed route (filming for the doc began in 2010) than the just-the-facts encapsulation focus of many docs. A host of former bandmates and admirers – Jarboe, of course, but also Thor Harris, Thurston Moore, Karen O and Kid Congo Powers – testify to Swans’ epic sweep and transformative powers, though as any fan will note, seeing the band in action is all the testimony that’s needed. The MVD Blu-ray includes the theatrical trailer.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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