Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Easter is coming...

Elke Sommers and the Easter Bunny have been discussing how to ensure an equitable distribution of eggs this year. We look forward to seeing their plan put into action.

Meanwhile, we want to remind everyone that this is also the time of year when the Mitzi Gaynors hatch. Be on the lookout for this natural wonder that's rarely witnessed by human eyes!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Honor Blackman passes away

British actress and author Honor Blackman, best known for her roles as Cathy Gale on the first two seasons of "The Avengers" and Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger", passed away on April 6, 2020, at the age of 94.

Born on August 22, 1925, Blackman began her screen career in 1947, first appearing in historical dramas, but quickly transitioning into mysteries, spy thrillers, and action/adventure pictures. Recognized as one of TV's original ass-kicking women, and an icon of feminism during the 1960s, Blackman purposefully avoided roles that would turn her into a "sex symbol". She stated in interviews that she'd rather play the secretary than the vamp, and that she never viewed herself as particularly sexy.

Blackman's career spanned eight decades and almost every film genre in addition to the action/adventure roles she is best know for--with "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963) and "Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012) being perhaps the most extreme detours for her.

Here's a small gallery of pictures in her memory.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Musical Monday Bonus with Chris Mann

Comedian Chris Mann has done a parody version of "Vogue" to remind us all to be Social Distancing during this global pandemic AND offer some suggestions as to what we can spend our time on! Enjoy... and stay home!

Musical Monday with Fever Ray

Everything from the name of the performer, to the subject of the song, to the scenery in the video seems a reflection of the events currently unfolding around the world. We hope all visitors to Shades of Gray are keeping themselves healthy and safe!

Fever Ray is the stage name of Swedish singer/songwriter Karin Dreijer. She adopted the name Fever Ray when she launched her solo career in 2009, and has performed under it (and released four albums) in the decade since. Or maybe she just did one album solo ("Fever Ray" in 2009, and every thing else has been with her brother as The Knife. I can't tell because this Wikipedia page is such a mess because of the stupid notion that there's no difference between plural and singular pronouns.)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Tom & Jerry destroy the fourth wall

Pencil Mania (1932)
Starring: Margie Hines (various voices)
Directors: John Foster and Geo. Stallings
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

To Tom's amazement (and annoyance), Jerry uses a pencil to alter the reality of their cartoon universe in extreme ways.

"Pencil Mania" starts with Tom painting a portrait of a dancing cow, which is really not that strange an activity for a character who's flirted with mermaids at the bottom of the ocean. It's when Jerry pulls out a pencil and starts creating animations within the animated world, dispelling the 3D illusion of the animated world and revealing it's just flat lines moving at 32 frames a second.

This is one of those films that really needs to be experienced cold, and I can only spoil it by saying too much. In fact, the moment I chose to illustrate this post is a bit of a spoiler in itself--but it's milder than some of the things that precede it.

While an animated character breaking the fourth wall by taking advantage of the fact he exists in a two dimensional world where lines are put down to create an illusion of depth--Felix the Cat did it on a regular basis during the second half of the 1920s-- the extremes to which this idea is taken in "Pencil Mania" keep compounding until the film's finale where the fourth wall isn't just broken, it's completely demolished and the fragments are ground to dust and scattered on the four winds.

"Pencil Mania" is a wild and unpredictable ride from beginning to end. If you enjoy cartoons from the early sound era, surreal humor, or are just in the mood for something a strange and funny, you won't regret watching it from this very post, right here and now.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Jackson Four go to Mt. Olympus

Another Day on Mt. Olympus (2015)
Starring: Rebekah Jackson, Elisabeth Jackson, Bethany Jackson, and Sharon Jackson
Director: Rebekah Jackson
Rating Six of Ten Stars

1920s party girl Arachne (Rebekah Jackson) stumbles through a dimensional portal to Mt. Olympus where she incurs the wrath of the goddess Athena (Elisabeth Jackson).

Back when I was in college, making silent short films was a typical assignment for film students. If YouTube is any judge, it still is (and it appears that some folks make them just for the hell of it--some even attempt to make them look and feel as if they were made during the silent era.

I don't know if "Another Day on Mt. Olympus" was a student project or just something the Jackson Sisters made for fun, but it's one of the more entertaining of such efforts I've come across. In fact, I like the basics here so much that I found myself wishing a little more effort had been put into mimicking the filming techniques and scene framing used during the silent films--but then I told myself to just relax. Whatever motivated the creation of this silent, 1920s-styled retelling of the myth of Athena and Arachne, it's a glee-filled little movie. The Jackson Sisters are having fun making it (so much fun that they can't keep from cracking up during a highly dramatic scene), which makes the film fun to watch... and I shouldn't leach that fun out of it by putting on my critic cap.

I encourage you to take a look at this fun little movie, in the spirit of April Fool's Day. There are far less entertaining ways you could waste eight minutes!

(Okay, so I will bring up one thing that bugs me. Why does Jackson do random fades in the middle of scenes? THAT I don't get...)

Wonder Woman Wednesday

It's April 1st, but's it's also a Wonder Woman Wednesday. As we here at Shades of Gray continue counting down the days and hours and minutes until we get to see the new Wonder Woman movie, we're sharing a few drawings from artists having fun with the Amazon Princess!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Popeye was Popeye from the very beginning

Popeye the Sailor (1933)
Starring: William Costello (voice of Popeye), Bonnie Poe (voices of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop), and William Pennell (voice of Bluto)
Director: Dave Fleischer
Rating: Seven of Ten Star

While on shore leave, Popeye the Sailor visits a carnival with his girlfriend, Olive. When he decides to show off by getting on stage to perform with Betty Boop the Hula Dancer, his rival and shipsmate, Bluto, abducts Olive.

Most of the beloved classic cartoon characters go through several stages of development before becoming the ones everyone remembers of loves. Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Bugs Bunny all had manifestations that are almost unrecognizable when put next to their famous incarnations. This, however, is not the case with Popeye, nor his main supporting supporting cast of Olive Oyl and Bluto. From their very first appearance in 1933, the characters, their relationships, and their appearances were pretty much as they would remain for the next 25 years worth of animated shorts.

There are three reasons for this that spring to my mind: First, Popeye was already been a popular  character in S.E. Segar's syndicated newspaper strip "Thimble Theater", so his look was mostly fixed. Secondly, Popeye's supporting cast, such as Bluto and Olive Oyl were already taking shape in the newspaper strip--although Bluto in particular came to life in the cartoons--and Popeye's animated debut was written by his creator, Segar, so the elements that were expanded upon were probably things he already had in mind. Thirdly, Kings Features (and possibly Segar) had final approval on every Popeye cartoon produced by the Fleisher Studios.

As for the specifics of Popeye's animated debut, although he, Olive Oyl, and Bluto are obstensibly guest-stars in a Betty Boop feature, Boop gets second billing behind Popeye and she has what amounts to an extended cameo as a topless hula dancer at a carnival. She's still pivotal to the plot, as Bluto has an opening to abduct Olive Oyl when Popeye engages in the ultimate act of pecocking when he gets on state and hula dances with Betty. The cartoon climaxes with a great variation of the send-up of silent movie melodramas involving a damsel in distress being tied to the railroad tracks, with Bluto tying Olive up with the railroad tracks.

Another interesting aspect of Popeye's debut is the way it puts him and his supporting cast firmly in Betty Boop's world where anthropomorphic animals exist side by side with humans. From Popeye's shipmates, to the majority of those attending the carnival, the minor characters and figures are "funny animals" of the typical Fleisher Studio design. As the "Popeye" series progresses, these beings quickly drop from view, but it's a fun notion to think that Betty Boop and the "funny animals" live on a particular continent, sort of like the Island of Goons from a later Popeye cartoon.

Usually with posts like this, this is the point at which I'd invite you to watch the cartoon being reviewed right here, in this post. However, "Popeye the Sailor" is still under copyright, and its owner, Warner Bros., guards it jealously. I recommend getting the DVD collection containing it, as the set is full of great classic cartoons. (Just be sure to watch them in sittings of two-three at a time, because most of them follow the same plot, and feature Popeye doing his signature stunt of hitting large objects and causing them to break into smaller, different objects, and they can start to seem repetitive, even if they are really quite clever.)

Monday, March 30, 2020

Musical Monday with Avatar

I am not a fan of death metal and its growled, incomprehensible lyrics. Generally, when I comment on songs and performers of the genre, I am usually making fun... and, more often than not, Cookie Monster from "Sesame Street" comes up. However, there's an exception to every rule, and this week's Musical Monday selection--"Hail to the Apocalypse" by Avatar--is just that.

And not just because it seems like a fitting song to feature, what with the Covid-19 virus and mania sweeping the world.

"Hail to the Apocalypse" was the title track off of the Swedish death metal band's 2014 album. Although I still can't understand most of the lyrics, I give the song credit for having a better melody than many entries in this subgenre, as well as a vocalist who seems to have more talent than his work here shows. In addition, the video that comes with it is ideal as a feature on this blog: It attempts to capture the feel of silent movies, and, although not entirely successful, the director does a better job than most. There are also some really nice elements to how it is put together (which I won't comment on, because I think it will ruin their impact for viewers).

Hail the Apocalypse (2014)
Starring: John Alfredsson, Jean Kartal, and Tim Öhrström
Director: Johan Carlén
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Friday, March 27, 2020

Firearms Friday with Barbara Feldon

Actress Barbara Feldon first came to fame while lounging on tigerskin rugs and pitching hair products in a series of popular commercials during the mid-1960s, but her role as Agent 99 on the Mel Brooks-created "Get Smart" television series cemented her stardom.

Feldon starred as Agent 99  in five seasons of the original "Get Smart" from 1965 through 1970, and returned to play the character in the 1989 made-for-television movie "Get Smart, Again" (1989) and finally in a supporting role in a short-lived revival of the series in 1995, 30 years after originating the character. 

Although Agent 99 was the role that has come to define her career, Feldon was an accomplished comedienne who appeared in a wide variety of television and cinematic romps. She retired from acting in 2006.
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