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Mission: Impossible: Trial by Fury
(1968)
Episode 24, Season 2

Phelps's Heroes
In 1953, Peter Graves acted in a prison camp movie set for "Stalag 17." 15 years later, in "Trial By Fury," he worked in the Stalag XIII set of "Hogan's Heroes."

Among the convicts and detainees is an informer who must be exposed. The prisoners, led by the tough Klaus (an excellent Paul Winfield), think they have their man and have already beaten him. Their tempers become much worse after a would-be escaper is killed in a truck. By that time, Jim and Barney are "in" but cannot help the innocent man until they see the right evidence. They find themselves with no choice but to participate in psychological torture.

It's up to Cinnamon (as a Red Cross aide) and Rollin (as a guard officer) to find out how the commandant is informed, then sneak the evidence to their inside colleagues. There are a few contrivances and nitpicks (would any real commandant decode a message in the presence of guests he's never seen before?), and the acting is occasionally weak (Bain sometimes seems ahead of her era, performing at the same level as in "Space: 1999" of a decade later), but the episode as a whole is tense fun. Jim's closing line sums it well.

Loco Lobo
(1947)

Loco, not wily
A desert canine tries to catch fast-footed potential prey, and we're not talking about Warner Bros. cartoon star Wile E. Coyote versus Bugs Bunny or Road Runner. "Loco Lobo" starts well, with a clever rod-and-reel gag. Soon, however, story man Cal Howard (who would later work at the Warner's and Lantz studios during their final, waning years) and director Howard Swift let the film's wit succumb to erratic violence. After some guilty laughs when the wolf spanks himself with a cactus, there's not much humor either. A sequence at a deserted Native American village is a lesson in "how" to keep an audience silent (except for the footfalls of people walking out). The final, murderous gag with dueling pistols would have been better if the rabbit's pistol had backfired.

The animation is competent, but not original; the wolf and rabbit look like mediocre Disney imitations. Some good may have come out of this if, as one suspects, the film induced Warner's artists at the Chuck Jones unit to put more thought into their design of Wile E. and the gags they would put him through.

-Tony

12 Angry Men
(1957)

11 answers for "know what I mean?"
"12 Angry Men" is the antithesis of today's blockbusters and blockbuster-wannabes. The successful action movies trim their dialog in favor of chases, fights and stunts. Many films which depend on dialog have a lot of empty chatter.

The twelve actors in Sidney Lumet's jury room face no such emptiness. Every line in the film either contributes to the case (deciding whether or not an accused murderer is guilty) or says something about the speaker. All of the actors make their characters live in verbal and silent moments.

An early example of an actor silently projecting his character comes when E.G. Marshall (Juror #4) ignores a fellow's attempt to hand him a business card. #4 comes across as a person who feels infallible and superior to everyone else whether or not he speaks. His imperfections are sweated out (literally) over the debate that follows; he responds by using his listening and speaking skills better.

Meanwhile, #10 (Ed Begley in the difficult role of humanizing an unrepentant bigot) becomes the angriest juror for a while. He's sociable at first, and he did pay attention during the trial (as is evident when he points out facts to the dissenting #8, played by Henry Fonda). But he contributes little substance to the deliberations. His favorite phrase, "know what I mean?", always comes at the end of a complaint or a bigoted remark. Finally he goes on a rant which antagonizes all of the other jurors (even Lee J. Cobb's seemingly similar #3).

Most of them react by leaving the table. Jack Klugman's slum dweller (#5) goes first. Jack Warden as the "I couldn't care less about the case, let me go to the ball game" #7 slouches in his chair. The only other juror who stays seated is #4, still in the "Guilty" camp but already a changed man, and he utters a devastating counterpoint to the other jurors' silence.

#10 retreats to a corner, too ashamed to return to the table. He may never express his bigotry so openly again, although he will always be closed-minded (books are at hand where he sits, but he doesn't touch them).

When 12 actors talk in a room for an hour and a half without a moment of tedium, full marks go to all twelve along with writer Reginald Rose and director Sidney Lumet.

-Tony

Mexican Cat Dance
(1963)

One reason why there was no bull market for Warner's cartoons in 1963
When the Warner's cartoon studio was at its best in the 1940s and early 1950s, the animators there turned out shorts which were original, well-crafted, and above all funny. But by the 1960s, its cartoons were seldom better than routine. Gags which had been "done earlier and better" became dominant, and in most cases there was little wit to the stories.

"Mexican Cat Dance" serves notice right away that originality is not its strong point, for it uses footage of El Toro and his human opponent from "Bully for Bugs." During this sequence, the bull's bellows are heard with annoying frequency when the beast is off screen.

The film improves for a while when Sylvester shows up in atypical posture, pawing and snorting like a bull. But the amusement doesn't last long. Once Speedy begins his one-sided duel with Sylvester, the film becomes predictable and unfunny. "Bully for Bugs" lets two wily characters fight each other with the outcome uncertain until the last minute, but "Mexican Cat Dance" presents a sadistic Speedy and hapless Sylvester. Plus dozens of mice whose obnoxious laughter overwhelms one of the film's few virtues -- surprisingly pleasant music from Bill Lava.

A signature gag finds Sylvester chasing Speedy until the mouse opens a door for the cat to crash into. We see Sylvester's pitiful face framed in the wood. It would have been better to fling Sylvester out of the arena and through a market so that the cat could be garlanded with flowers and fruit (the artists still had more than enough talent to make such a sight gag pleasing).

Sylvester does leave the arena at the end -- upside down, plowing the ground while rocket skates on his feet provide thrust. This gag was done earlier and to more audience laughter by Wile E. Coyote. Overall, "Mexican Cat Dance" is an example of director Friz Freleng at his most derivative and least funny nature.

-Tony

Cat Alarm
(1961)

A dam ruse to catch as cats can
This cartoon finds Mighty Mouse on vacation in Miami Beach, looking ready for retirement. This is just as well, for he's in his last theatrical appearance. His constituents in Cheeseville participate in an elaborate "Cat Defense" which is modeled after the real-life Civil Defense system of the Cold War.

Cats who try to break through the fence get electrocuted. Their powerful car gets turned into a mangled, wheezy jalopy when they try to crash through the front gate. Paratroopers end up wrapped in their own 'chutes like mummies. But the cats persevere and find a way to trap the mice -- with Mighty Mouse's help!

The animation is cheap but not bad, thanks to some perspective motions and imaginative sight gags. Larz Bourne's storytelling has enough clever touches to put a decent end to this well-known Terrytoons series.

-Tony

Guided Mouse-Ille
(1967)

Beast and bot wars
This Tom and Jerry cartoon celebrates the Space Age by setting the cat-mouse rivalry in a laboratory on another planet. Tom uses a robot cat against Jerry, who fights back with more than matching violence (at one point he pounds Tom to a fraction of normal height with an electromagnet and hammerhead). A particularly powerful explosion disintegrates the station and everything in it, but the miracle of reincarnation allows T. to resume his pursuit of J. in a primitive mode.

Apart from the too-long electromagnet bit, this episode is brisk and stylish. As in other Chuck Jones productions of the 1960s, the animation is above average for the time and the backgrounds are handsome. The alternate title alludes to the movie drama "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" -- an odd but sophisticated touch. Overall, "Guided Mouse-ille" is the best of Tom and Jerry's 1966-7 outer-space trilogy (which also includes "O-Solar-Meow" and "Advance and Be Mechanized").

-Tony

Injun Trouble
(1969)

A cool way to end an era
The underrated Robert McKimson directed the last batch of Warner's cartoons for release in 1969, providing more of an adult atmosphere than his predecessor Alex Lovy. McKimson even dared to set part of "Injun Trouble" in a topless saloon!

The film blends a late 1930s "spot gag" style with contemporary production values and props. Cool Cat journeys across a Wild West-type desert in his dune buggy and lives up to his name while encountering some wacky or tough folks. McKimson didn't have much time or money to spare on this picture, but he did the best he could. His skill makes the film easy to smile at (with occasional hearty laughs) throughout the run of hit-and-miss jokes.

At the end, C.C. cuts his way out of the picture and genially tells the audience to "...cool it now, ya hear?" -- a nice parting message from a talented man.

-Tony

To Beep or Not to Beep
(1963)

An original-sounding cheater
Here is one of three Road Runner shorts whose footage was first used in the two-reel "Adventures of the Road Runner" (1962). The other two, "Roadrunner a Go-Go" and "Zip Zip Hooray," were released in 1965. They feature a verbose Wile E. Coyote and music by Milt Franklyn. "To Beep or Not to Beep" plays more like a typical RR short in which the Coyote utters no sentence. His only vocalization is a long yell of agony which happens after a spiny cactus tree lands on him.

The "Adventures" gags have a whole new soundtrack here, courtesy of musician Bill Lava and editor Treg Brown (who handled the sound effects). Lava's mechanical style works especially well in the wrecking ball and catapult gags, and no other cartoon score from him sounds as robust. The strong director's hand of Chuck Jones is so evident aurally and visually that the film comes across as one of Warner's best post-1960 cartoon shorts.

-Tony

Spaced Out Bunny
(1980)

Spaced-out beats earthbound
Bugs walks on terra firma to start this film and tries to converse with a flower, a rock, a dogwood tree, and a butterfly. All of these attempts fail miserably and groaner jokes ("its bark is worse than its bite," etc.) are the best that Bugs can manage. The early animation of Bugs is awkward and stiff -- not what one expects from Chuck Jones.

Once the Martian arrives, the film improves. Bugs' reaction to the lure ("Wow! Super carrot!") produces the first lively animation. The carrot is laced with a sedative which wears off once Bugs is on Mars. There, he is reunited with the Snowman from "The Abominable Snow Rabbit." More importantly, animator Virgil Ross takes over, providing grace and subtlety to the rabbit-yeti struggle. Watching Bugs turn the Snowman to an ally brings more pleasure than the bunny's earlier standoff with a pugilistic, verbose insect.

Overall, this is a fairly entertaining short for viewers who can be patient over the first minute or two.

-Tony

Roman Legion-Hare
(1955)

Of bluster and pride
This cartoon is a quintessential Friz Freleng short -- well-paced, a bit morbid (a poster reads, "undefeated lions out for first taste of victory"), derivative at times but always entertaining. Yosemite Sam is well cast as a guard captain under the command of Emperor Nero (a Charles Laughton caricature, based on the actor's portrayal of Nero in the 1932 movie "The Sign of the Cross"). Nero learns that his empire has been depleted of lion food and orders Sam to find a victim on pain of being fed to the Coliseum's pride.

Enter Bugs Bunny, who naively presents himself as a potential victim. He seeks safety in the Coliseum ... among the lions! But the first character who gets mauled is Sam ... if he had talked with the Sylvester of "Ain't She Tweet," he would not have used stilts. The Coliseum becomes a metaphorical hurricane and Bugs finds himself in the eye -- the safest part for him. Sam and Nero are at the edge of the eye, the most dangerous part once the lions are loose.

Freleng's skillful direction overcomes his minor vices of recycled gags and occasional animation cutbacks. Some of the animation is very good, as in an early scene with a blustering Nero. Later we see fine shadow work as Bugs and Sam head to their first encounter with Panthera leo and generate further mayhem in the bowels of the stadium. The aural side is first-class: Milt Franklyn's music fits the action perfectly, and Mel Blanc lends a distinctive tone to each character up to Bugs' anachronistic closing line. This cartoon is a good way to eat seven minutes.

-Tony

The Slick Chick
(1962)

Mine your business
Several cartoons in the long-running Foghorn Leghorn series gave the rooster a break from his rivalry with Barnyard Dawg. Of these, "The Slick Chick" was the last, and the least funny ... although one still gets the impression that the film was made by capable people.

Tedd Pierce's story is well-structured, but verbose. Widow Hen (obviously unaware of Foggy's earlier mishaps with other youngsters such as Henery Hawk and Little Egghead) lets Foggy babysit her mischievous son. Foggy scoffs at Mr. Cackle's warning that the boy is incorrigible, but changes his mind after falling from a balloon and striking a land mine. "I still say he's not a bad boy. He's the worst! Worst, that is!"

That's how the cartoon ends, and it's lame. McKimson and Pierce wanted to avoid a spanking-type ending (rather common in older cartoons), but their alternative was flat. The film needed to let Foggy deliver a clever punishment, or show the aftermath of such (picture the kid sitting on a white cushion which turns out to be an ice pack).

-Tony

Mexican Boarders
(1962)

Slow down, live longer.
After making a series of blister-fast duels between Speedy Gonzales ("the fastest mouse in Mexico") and 'El Gato' (Sylvester), director Friz Freleng provided a larger role for Slowpoke Rodriguez (Speedy's slothful but hungry cousin), who he introduced at the end of "Mexicali Schmoes" (1959). Sylvester, who's had enough of getting himself sliced and diced (literally!) while chasing Speedy, is more than happy to make a meal of Speedy's antithesis. Slowpoke, for his part, wants to raid the pantry without protection. This makes for quite a few suspenseful moments, more than you'll find in most other Speedy cartoons.

Too bad Sylvester wasn't in Mexicali -- he would have seen that Slowpoke isn't as helpless as he looks. Slowpoke saves himself by performing as fast an act of hypnotism as has ever been shown in cartoons. Sylvester may have nine lives, but only one mind.

This atypical Speedy cartoon is further boosted by Milt Franklyn's fine music and Tom O'Loughlin's attractive backgrounds.

-Tony

Transylvania 6-5000
(1963)

No 'Scaredy Bunny' here
Over his career as a cartoon director at Warner's, Chuck Jones crafted quite a few eerie cartoons, including a Sylvester-Porky trilogy which began with "Scaredy Cat." Jones never got around to putting the terrified cat and naive pig in a vampire's lair, but let Bugs take that turn instead. Bugs, like Porky in the earlier films, seems to be unaware of the danger he's in. He remains cheerful, and much of the film's humor comes from the way he maintains his aplomb against a shadowy background of coffin-shaped doorways, skull-and-bone carvings, and rotting drapes.

The vampire he faces is not a generic Lugosi/Dracula type. Count Bloodcount is a distinctive character in his own right thanks to voice artist Ben Frommer and a crew of talented animators with Ken Harris foremost among them. Co-director Maurice Noble encouraged layout man Bob Givens and background artist Phil DeGuard to devise scenes which would have had Sylvester wide-eyed and shuddering. Musician William Lava used his ominous style to lend suitable aural touches to this frightfully good cartoon.

-Tony

Mayday
(2005)

Sanitized disaster.
This film may have been less far-fetched than the Nelson DeMille/Thomas Block novel on which it is based, but it lacks the tension which the authors provided so well. Director T.J. Scott is obviously constrained by the network-television format, which allows little blood and no coarse language -- still, he should have let the main characters look increasingly unkempt and sweaty after the accident. Other mistakes include a subplot involving several characters who weren't in the book, and some weakly interpreted villains (Johnson suffers the most; where is his swagger and sardonic humor).

This rates a 5 because the cast members do their best, the effects are good for a TV-movie, and there are a few nice touches (at one point the film refers to a change of terminology between the 1978 and 1997 versions of the novel). It's sad, though, that "Mayday" never got a big-budget blockbuster treatment.

-Tony

14 Carrot Rabbit
(1952)

"A darn good arrangement"
Sam discards his usual "Yosemite" and calls himself "Chilkoot," but he's as evil and greedy as ever. He terrorizes and robs a prospector to start the picture, then uses his guns to supervise an assay clerk. Unsatisfied with "a dishonest day's work," he tries to exploit Bugs' gold- finding ability.

Bugs' cool aplomb contrasts well against Sam's hot-headed greed. Bugs stands calmly as Sam digs into trouble, then flees from the Klondike to Kentucky with an armed Sam hot on his heels (a well-mapped chase). The rabbit retains enough stamina for one more 'karat' dance, but Sam is wise by that time. That's not the end of the story, though, as we're treated to a reminder of Sam's greed (which soon gets him arrested). Sam's departure is not entirely comfortable for Bugs (if you trespass on a military reservation, never tell the MP that you're waiting for a streetcar).

This personality clash by story man Warren Foster is directed by Friz Freleng, who arranges his artists masterfully.

-Tony

Freeze Frame
(1979)

Ice cream coyote
The Roadrunner and Coyote are introduced by the same 'freeze frame' method used in the first few shorts of the series. Touches of the 1970s are seen in titles such as "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Roadrunners But Were Afraid to Ask" and "The Acme Whole- Roadrunner Catalog." The sequence in which Wile E. tries to use a snow machine is derivative of the catapult gag in "Adventures of the Road Runner," but is laugh-worthy in its own right (nice touch with the rollers on each snowball). The chase moves to snow country, where Wile E. uses ice skates, jet-propelled skis, sled dogs, a rocking horse and a lasso to no avail. Finally, he tries to drop a giant snowball on his quarry.

This short isn't as well-drawn as the classic Roadrunner cartoons which were released from 1949 to 1964, and some of the animation is too self-conscious. But the old Chuck Jones spirit still prevails, with some funny expressions and clever gags. Toward the end, a rock formation is made to look like an ice cream cone, then Wile E. emerges with a snow beard which makes him look like Santa (without fat).

-Tony

Napoleon Bunny-Part
(1956)

Fixed for blades and laughs
Bugs tunnels his way back in time ... not as far back as he did in Bob McKimson's HARE WE GO (with Christopher Columbus), but he emerges in Europe once again, in Napoleon's headquarters circa 1810. The Emperor's war room becomes the setting for typical Bugs trickery, followed by violent action involving a bayonet (Napoleon utters some interesting cusses while the blade is in his butt). Bugs gets out of trouble for a while by dressing as Josephine and switching on the ballroom jukebox (this is the film's best part, with Virgil Ross animation, sophisticated music titles, and lots of polish by background artist Irv Wyner). But Bugs lets his dress slip; the ensuing chase ends in an execution yard which is dominated by a towering guillotine and lent extra menace by Wyner's twilight graphics. Only Bugs could get away with uttering an old Gillette ad line while peering under the executioner's hood. Additional laughs are provided by the incongruous presence of Muggsy, who is understandably never shown on a seat.

-Tony

One Step Away
(1985)

A minor step
Ron Petrie (Keanu Reeves) is a teenager who has a police record and is a pariah in the apartment block where he lives with his mother. He falls in with a gang whose members are plotting to attack an elderly person, but backs out and returns home to face the justice system. Meanwhile, Ron's mother is behind on her rent and under pressure by a landlord (Sean McCann) who has more lust than scruples.

This well-meaning drama from the National Film Board of Canada is weighted by wooden acting (although Reeves' wood is appropriate and McCann puts some life in his role) and a story which adds nothing fresh to the genre. Ron's encounter with the gang is tense at first, but soon becomes unconvincing. The resolution is especially weak. "One Step Away" is a minor part of Reeves' road to stardom.

-Tony

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